Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 52
Stories
Silverbird Rising
by Rebecca Birch
The Cenotaph
by Deborah L. Davitt
A Touch of Scarlet
by David Steffen
Cabbage Communion
by Chris Phillips
Orphaned
by James Van Pelt
IGMS Audio
Orphaned by James Van Pelt
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Waiting for Rain
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Bonus Material
Ghost Talkers
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Cabbage Communion
    by Chris Phillips

Cabbage Communion
Artwork by Andres Mossa

The hallowed fields of the Ludlow farm waited a safe distance from McClernand, Kentucky. Clydette Terry, a sixth grader with sad eyes and a tangle of hair, hid her bike and paused at the edge of the long, dark driveway, trying to catch her breath. So far from town, all the roads were dirt stretches barren of anything except for washed out gouges and empty beer cans tossed out by teenage kids, but even drunk kids wouldn't dare to venture to the Ludlow farm.

There was a rumor bleeding through town that if a person traveled far enough up East Cliff Road, they'd run right into the gates of heaven. . . or hell, depending on who you asked. Clydette had no intention of going any further up the road. At night, the profound Kentucky darkness thrummed with sound, a chorus of bullfrogs and crickets all trying for first chair in the orchestral choir of midnight. Now and then, a woman-like scream cut through the insect symphony.

It wasn't human, though. Coyotes had taken up residence in the Bluegrass State and helped themselves to stray cats and all the rabbits they could catch. Clydette wished everything would shut up so she could concentrate as she sneaked down the driveway toward the rows that the locals called their destiny.

The Ludlow Garden, which most people spoke of in whispers if at all, was the place where the dead made their transition from this life to the next. Clydette's mother had been driving the school bus at the time of the accident. That was six days ago. On the seventh, Ludlow would harvest fifteen heads and bring them to town for communion. Clydette would buy herself a miracle before that happened.

Cottonwood branches slapped her face, making her sneeze, while the spiny fingers of hawthorns snagged her clothes, pleading for her to turn back. Clydette pushed through the boughs and tried to control her breathing as she moved along the narrow, rutted drive. In a pinch, David Ludlow might shove a lawnmower pulling a small cart with a body down it, but most of the time he walked where he needed to go, catching a ride from a Christian whenever the preacher wasn't looking.

She emerged into a field backed by a dense wall of foliage. The moonlight reached down from overhead, shading the place in pale blue with a half-shuttered crescent stare. A tiny house, dark as the asphalt through a graveyard, clung to a low rise as if in defiance of the forest. A large section of the field was dedicated to sheep. The animals were silent, but the earthy scent of wool and manure sat heavy in the empty space. Clydette swallowed as she scanned the area for the garden gate, grimacing as the whiff of sheep manure coated her tongue.

Her mama used to say that the hallowed ground was protected by magic. How she knew this, Clydette had no idea, but when knowledge ran scarce, rumors did just fine until experience filled in the gaps.

It turned out, the cabbage patch was an area of twenty square yards surrounded by a stacked fence: long slabs of limestone held together with nothing but a prayer. Clydette frowned, guessing that the cabbage patch was protected from rabbits but not much else. As she stared at the patch of earth, populated by fifteen green heads, she bit her bottom lip. The gate sat at the far side of the square, facing east. Did it have something to do with the sunrise and her mother's rebirth? She shook off the thought and wished she had listened better to her mother's stories. Sunshine didn't matter in the empty darkness.

The gate wasn't locked. Rumor was that only a Ludlow could pass through it, but since Clydette didn't have any of that blood inside her, she didn't want to push her luck. She hooked her leg over the side of the fence, scraping her hands as she hoisted herself into the forbidden garden.

As she crouched down, soft, ashy earth met her palms and sweat broke out across her forehead. She'd never heard a story about anyone attempting what she was about to do, but she didn't care. If her plan worked then she'd pass right through rumor and into legend, a tale worthy of the Bible.

The fifteen victims of the bus crash, all cabbages, lay growing in the ground at her feet. She stepped carefully to the largest one, praying that it was her mother. Clydette leaned closer to the massive spread of the round plant with its outside leaves reaching up to the false light of the moon. For a moment, the glow caught it just right, and her mother's eye stared back, all green and crunchy.

Clydette grinned and began scooping her mother's ashes from the base of the plant. The soil throbbed beneath her hands as if her mother's heart, buried beneath the ground, pulsed in time with the memory of life.

When she could get both hands on the large head, she worked it back and forth, wishing she'd brought a knife. For a moment, she feared that she wouldn't be strong enough to yank the huge hunk of green out of the ground. Beneath her, roots snapped as she leaned back, turning and grunting with the effort.

At last, the garden gave up its hold, and her mother's head of cabbage came loose in a huge clump of green and grit. Clydette fell, crying out as she landed on her back with the plant on top of her. The outer, massive leaves blocked out the moonlight and covered most of her body. Slugs and dirt rained against her skin, but Clydette hugged the plant close and whispered, "I love you."

The door to the small house sitting on its lonely rise slammed shut. Clydette flinched and imagined footsteps running to the garden.

She got to her feet and quickly snapped off the largest outer leaves, praying that she wasn't snapping off her mother's limbs in the process. When the plant was small enough to carry easily, Clydette tossed it over the side of the fence and scrambled after it.

A distant voice, powerful as a crack of thunder, called out, "You there. Stop!"

Clydette didn't. She picked up her mother's head and ran for the trail like the wrath of the Almighty was hot on her heels. Stray branches snagged her arms, and once, she slid on a patch of loose gravel, nearly landing on her mother's head. But Clydette caught herself and made it to her bike before Ludlow could overtake her. With shaking hands, she shoved the cabbage under her shirt and tucked the tail of the fabric into her cutoff jeans as she took off on the bike, wobbling down the road with her belly swollen like she carried a child of leaves and dirt.

Clydette made it home just before one in the morning. The two-bedroom house, little more than walls and a roof, might have been pleasant before she was born, but faded paint and tall weeds along the foundation made it feel abandoned now.

To be safe, she locked her bike in the rusty shed, wincing as the door squeaked shut on screaming hinges. The living room light was on. Not a good sign.

When Clydette opened the front door, her father put down his beer and frowned.

Before he spoke, he glanced at the clock. "Thought you was in bed." Glenn Terry was a man right at home inside a house that needed to be torn down and sold for scrap. His scraggly beard held more hair than his head, and a heap of empty cans filled the room with the sour reek of barley and hops. The television blared some late night rerun the old man had probably seen a dozen times during happier days.

"I had business," Clydette said, heading to the kitchen and placing her mother's head gently into the sink. She washed off as much grit as she could, careful not to get any water inside the peeping eye formed by the warped grooves of cabbage leaves.

"You should be in bed." Glenn paused. "Eleven-year-olds shouldn't be out so late."

"I'm twelve." Clydette went to her bedroom, a closet with a window, and grabbed a shirt that was almost clean. She gently dabbed the excess water from the cabbage. The room was barely big enough for a twin bed, and when her mother had been alive. . . Clydette bit her bottom lip, banishing the thought before tears came.

Footsteps heading toward her room made the entire house shake. Her old man stood in the doorway. "What is. . ." The color left his face, and for a moment his sharp eyes suggested the alcohol had evaporated from his system, shock sobering him up. "Is that--"

"I'm taking her to the preacher tomorrow," Clydette said, wrapping the cabbage in another shirt to keep it safe. She left the eye peeking through so it could see what was going on. "Last Sunday Pastor Bobbie Gene talked about the resurrection and how superstitions keep a person from being reborn. Says it's our fault bad things happen because we didn't have the proper faith. You should've been there." It was her fourth Sunday at the church. Tomorrow she'd take Christian communion for the first time and swear her allegiance to the Almighty. With any luck, her mother would be standing there beside her. "If we do it Ludlow's way then Mama will pass on and be lost forever. If we do it the Christian way, then she'll get brought back just like Lazarus. Born again before lunch."

"It ain't right." Glenn clutched the doorframe as if the entire house were about to get swept up in a tornado and the only thing keeping him grounded was the plywood under his fingertips. "This is my house and my family. I say it ain't right. This ain't how things are done."

"And buses don't skid off bridges when there's no ice." Clydette glared at her father, daring him to say something else. "Things are changing around here, and I aim to make sure Mama gets reborn the Christian way."

Glenn's eyes darted from Clydette to the cabbage as if his thoughts were getting misplaced in drunken patterns of thought. "We need to eat her. Save her. It's what she would have wanted. If we don't, her soul will get lost. . ."

Clydette stood and planted her fists on her hips. She did her best to sound like her mother. "Glenn Terry. This is what's happening. We ain't some backwater hicks anymore. This is the modern age where miracles happen. Tomorrow, I'm going to fetch us one. Get back to your shows and leave me to it." She pointed toward the living room with a sharp, steady finger. The part of her that was still a little girl expected him to shout back, but when he didn't, a rush of responsibility settled on her shoulders, as if she and he had somehow traded roles. It was bad enough to lose her mother; she wasn't sure she could parent her own father.

Glenn's face turned tail-light red, probably torn between being a father and sinking back into a bottle. But in moments, the cracks started to form across his resolve. The bus accident had rippled through McClernand, distorting how people saw themselves. Most days, as she walked through the school dodging tear-stained faces, Clydette felt like she had wandered into someone else's nightmare.

The day it happened, the principal had taken her out of line before the assembly and told her about the accident; told her to take a week or two away from school. When she asked him if he thought it would bring her mother back, his face turned purple as a plum. She returned to her friends before the man could think of anything more than a stammer.

In the end, her father let out a long breath and finished off his beer, crunching the empty can in his fist. He stared at the bundle of cabbage as if he were trying to think of something, anything to change Clydette's mind. Instead, he shook his head and said, "Good night. To the both of you." As he walked away, Clydette could hear his sniffles between the canned laugh tracks from the television.

Clydette set her alarm and woke up early to beat the Christians to Sunday service. She would be first in line for a miracle, and she didn't want to deal with people ogling over her mother's head. She slipped on her best dress, pastel purple with tiny daisies, and spent five whole minutes combing the knots out of her hair. It was an important day, and she wanted to look her best.

Her father snored from the couch. He hadn't slept in the master bedroom since it had happened, and Clydette hoped that tonight the old man might get some good sleep after a much-needed reunion.

Outside, the morning air was thick as a drink of water. Sunlight cast an optimistic orange glow along the tops of the familiar houses that lined the street. At first, she didn't notice the figure sitting on a beat up blue cooler on the other side of the sidewalk, but when he stood, the gangly man seemed to suck the light right out of the world.

David Ludlow.

His eyes were baggy, as if he hadn't slept, and his hands were stained red from palms to fingertips, probably from the lamb's blood he always used in his salvation recipe.

Clydette swallowed and clutched the grocery bag with her mother's head a little tighter. The cabbage was still wrapped in a shirt, and the bag was to hide it from prying eyes, people who thought they knew best. Ludlow's presence told her that she might as well have walked outside with the sacred plant balanced on the top of her head for the whole world to see.

The man approached her with slow steps, heavy as dropped sledgehammers. Clydette glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could make a run for it.

Before she mustered the courage to turn away, Ludlow said, "Don't run off again."

"She's my mother." Clydette held the bag behind her back, keeping herself between Ludlow and the cabbage.

"I know." He stopped about ten feet from her, holding his red palms up like he was trying to talk sense into a frothing dog. "But this ain't how people pass on. Give her to me so I can bring her back. . . back to the ones who loved her."

"I loved her, and I have her." Clydette did her best to keep herself from shouting and waking up the neighborhood.

"A person don't belong to a person. We all have friends. As we all grow, our roots reach deep, entwining with one another. She needs given back so we can all understand."

"Understand what? You're talking riddles." Clydette might not be able to wrap her head around everything Pastor Bobbie Gene said, but at least she spoke plainly. People ignored the Bible, and people died. Miracles happened, and sometimes the dead came back. Simple. "I'm going to church. Excuse me, Mr. Ludlow."

For a moment, she expected the man to reach out and snatch the bag away. He was twice her size, and if he wanted to, he could pry it out of her grip. Instead, he put his hands in the pockets of his overalls and said, "There ain't much time. The rest are ready and waiting. Today is the first Sunday of the month. She won't keep until next."

"You stay away from me," Clydette said, spitting the words out. "If I see you again I'll get the sheriff on you for hassling little girls." She doubted anyone in the town would lift a hand against Ludlow, anyone except Pastor Bobbie Gene, but lately anger had been slipping out of her mouth easier than an exhale.

She turned her back on him and headed toward the church.

The town of McClernand didn't have a stoplight, but they had been lucky enough to get the main street paved when the state came through with trucks and government money. A school had been part of the bargain, along with a library that rented more video tapes than books. Once in a while, Clydette checked out a book with her tape just in case the movie wasn't any good.

Most of the houses were too old and run down to be called nice, but here and there fresh paint stood out where some distant, dead family member had left someone in town an inheritance. A few houses kept up perennial Christmas lights, while each one held a cross of some kind nailed to the front door in case God came down to do a headcount. But the signs of the old ways were there too: Wreaths woven of thorns and dried lilacs encircling the crosses on the doors; smooth creek stones sitting in flower beds to keep beetles away; oak trees with circles of tar and ash ringing the trunks to keep evil spirits trapped inside. If you knew what to look for it was clear people were eager to snatch a hold of either religion to hedge their bets.

The Methodist church stood above the rest of the town in location, height, and condition. It perched on a hill overlooking its congregation with a white steeple that jutted up to the heavens like the tip of a needle ready to sew together all the loose ends of faith. A well-made parsonage built of bricks and white trim sat next to the church, like a tiny castle above everyone else. A month ago, Clydette would have called the preacher stuck-up just like her kids, but when she heard about the miracles all that changed. Why shouldn't a lady with magic at her fingertips have the nicest house?

Clydette wiped the dirt off her shoes against the grass, not wanting to get the welcome mat dirty. Pastor Bobbie Gene stuck her head outside before Clydette could ring the doorbell.

"What are you doing there?" Pastor Bobbie Gene, who wasn't a local by birth, was a heavyset woman with hard eyes. She always seemed to have brimstone burning behind her glasses. Clydette guessed it was because the woman saw sin and salvation everywhere she looked. Every few years the Methodists would send McClernand another preacher, a sort of exchange program. The previous pastors had been hands off, but Bobbie Gene was determined to get her hands nice and dirty so she could wash the sin clean.

"I need a miracle," Clydette said, stepping back onto the little path that led to the church parking lot. The fact that the woman didn't have holly bushes planted at either end spoke to her trust in the Christian faith.  

"Don't we all," Pastor Bobbie Gene said with a warm grin. "It's a bit early yet." She nodded toward the church. "But it's unlocked. You can find a seat up front if you want."

"Is that where the most miracles happen?" Clydette had stolen a Bible last week, but none of it was very helpful about the nuts and bolts of miracles. She had even checked the library in town, but they didn't have any tapes or books on miracles.

"Miracles are all around us," the pastor said, holding her palms to the sky as if a miracle might strike her at any moment. But then she sat down on the front steps leading up to her house and let loose with a long sigh. "Look. This town's been through a lot this past week. And it's in need of healing and acceptance." She shook her head and for a moment, her eyes glazed with unshed tears. "Especially you and those who share your loss." Pastor Bobbie Gene stared at Clydette for a long moment as if trying to see inside her soul. "I've been doing this for a while, and times like this either drive people away or bring them closer together. I'm glad it's brought us closer." She smiled.

Clydette inched closer. "Glad enough to give me a miracle?" She held the sack behind her, clutching the plastic handle until her knuckles turned white.

Pastor Bobbie Gene put a hand to her mouth and shook her head as if she'd realized something was wrong. "Miracles don't work like that," she said in a slow, firm voice. "It's not up to me." She let out a long breath as if she didn't know where to begin. "I've never seen a town so out of touch." Pastor Bobbie Gene scowled, and for a moment Clydette thought she caught sight of the brimstone behind the woman's eyes, but quick as a thought the expression was gone. Compassion took its place. "But it's not your fault or the town's. The man who was here before me should have seen to that." She scowled. "Traditions have a place, but not when they give people false hope."

Clydette placed the bag on the ground and took out the head of cabbage. Already the edges were wilting. Her hands trembled as she spoke. "Please. I'll come to church every Sunday. Just bring her back. I found her so you could miracle her!"

"Give that here." Pastor Bobbie Gene stood, shaking her head.

"And you'll bring her back?" Clydette held her breath, waiting for God to smile down on her and say that everything would be okay.

Instead, the pastor spoke as if she were in the middle of a sermon. "Your mother is in heaven. Sitting at God's table. She can't come back to us." Pastor Bobbie Gene stood for a long moment before rubbing her face as if she'd just woken up. "I know what you're all planning before the service today. And it isn't part of the Bible. So I can't condone it." She reached for the cabbage. "The only way to save yourself and this town is to let these superstitions go and pray for the souls of the departed. They died in ignorance. And I sincerely hope God will forgive them for that." She didn't sound hopeful.

Clydette clutched the cabbage to her chest, backing away.

"I didn't write the good book," the pastor said, "but I've spent my life studying it. Many times it has provided me with comfort. I wish you'd let it do the same. The first step towards grief is saying goodbye."

The woman reached again for the cabbage, but Clydette stepped away and was running down the long driveway as the pastor called after her to come back. The town flew by in a blur of hopeless dreams. When she was out of breath, she collapsed next to a large oak tree, ringed in black, on the banks of Moccasin Creek, a place where she used to catch crawdads with her mother. Why did Christians teach people about miracles if you couldn't hold it in your hand?

As she clutched her mother's cabbage to her chest, staring into the unblinking green eye, the day everything changed came back: Sitting in class when they called an assembly; being taken aside before it started; listening to the principal march out raspy words that would change her life forever; the feeling of numbness like her body was being pressed into its own private winter; knowing--

A man coughed from the other side of the creek.

Clydette started and wiped her face with her sleeve.

Ludlow stood there, holding his beat-up cooler like he was on his way to a picnic. "People will be gathering for the service by now. It's time." He nodded to her mother's head.

As Clydette held the cabbage to her chest, she wished her mother would come back. She didn't care if it was a miracle or magic. If she believed what the preacher said then her mother's fate was out of her hands, but so many people went all in for God like he was a sure thing paying out triple. Could they all be wrong? Giving Ludlow the cabbage would mean no resurrection. . . ever. Clydette swallowed, trying to think of what her mother might do.

She started into the unblinking green eye that held all the memories of love trapped inside. For a moment, the ocular shape seemed to be a trick of the light, like her mind was trying to connect dots that weren't there. Clydette blinked, shaking her head. Not believing in anything was worse than being wrong.

"You can help her," Clydette said, holding out the wilting cabbage. "But I get to help you."

"You sure about that?" he said. "The blood of the lamb doesn't wash off."

"I said I'm helping. That's that." She wasn't sure what he meant, but it didn't matter.

Ludlow waded the creek and placed the cooler next to her. When he opened it, a whiff of copper and cabbage spilled out. The bottom of the cooler was filled with about five inches of blood. Tiny chunks of plants, the remainders of all the victims, bobbed in the thick mixture. With a gentle hand, Ludlow took a silver knife and sliced into her mother's head.

For a second, Clydette thought she heard a scream, and even though she hadn't been there the image of icy water rushed into her mind. She gulped for air until she realized it surrounded her. Everything was fine. To be safe, she asked, "Was that. . ."

"The pain." Ludlow nodded. "We take it into ourselves to set them free."

He cut the head into tiny bits, adding them to the children floating in the brine below. Their bodies transformed into inner cores of pale green with darker bits of outer leaves giving contrast to the palette.

"Mix it with your hands," he said reverently.

It was icy cold to the touch, and as her fingers floated across the slippery texture of wet plants and thick blood, peace settled over her. The pain was still there, sharp and somehow hollow, but there was another thing that needed to be done.

She walked with Ludlow to where the people were gathering for church. Nobody had gone inside yet. They were waiting. It was a mix of Christians and nonbelievers who'd never set foot inside a church before, but for this moment, they shared a common goal.

Pastor Bobbie Gene slouched against the double doors, as if she had tried reasoning with the congregation and failed. If she could have shoved them all inside the sanctuary, Clydette guessed the pastor would have done it in a heartbeat. But to Pastor Bobbie Gene, who didn't know any better, a cabbage was just a cabbage. Instead, the preacher stood curiously silent as if waiting for a miracle she didn't think would ever happen.

Some of the people lined up in their Sunday best while others wore sweatpants that needed a washing two days ago. As they approached with somber expressions, nobody spoke. When each person reached the front of the line, Clydette placed a clump of cabbage bits into their mouth. Lamb's blood ran down her arm, dripping from her elbow. Most people wept as they chewed. Tears gave them glassy eyes as their faces turned pink and blotchy.

Toward the end of the line, her father stood, rubbing the back of his neck as if unsure what to say or how to act.

Clydette spoke before he opened his mouth, "I'm sorry, Daddy. I shouldn't have. . ." She didn't know how to finish and guessed nothing she said would matter. Before she could think of the wrong word, her father knelt, and Clydette placed a bloody wad of green inside his mouth. He chewed. Swallowed. And cried.

She repeated the process until everyone congregating in front of the church had a belly full of cabbage with the blood of the lamb staining their lips like wine. Most people wept. Some went home to grieve in private. A surprising number found their way inside the church where Pastor Bobbie Gene welcomed them with somber nods. Clydette wondered why so many people were crying. If they had any sense, they'd be angry at God for what He had done.

Before long, it was just Clydette and Ludlow standing by the cooler while Pastor Bobbie Gene still watched from the steps of church. Clydette thought the pastor might come over and partake of the ceremony, but she didn't, of course. Instead, the pastor gestured at the holy building with a quizzical expression on her face, as if waiting for Clydette to come inside.

Ludlow leaned down and whispered in Clydette's ear, "Your turn now."

Clydette went dizzy at the implication. The concept hit her like a punch to the gut that twisted itself into a knot. It was her turn to say goodbye. She had wanted a miracle, but God didn't dole those out like he did justice. The wicked were punished in the long run with damnation, but the righteous who needed help on this Earth were left alone to deal with their pain.

Clydette knelt and reached into the cooler with a trembling hand. She placed a crunchy flake of crimson cabbage on her tongue and chewed. Blood, water, and cabbage filled her mouth. She cringed at the metallic tang and thought of her mother and all the children from school that she would never see again. They were gone.

But the living were still around. For a second, Clydette didn't feel so alone. The tears wouldn't come, not yet, but they were there. . . waiting for something.

For the first time, Clydette accepted the fact that her mother was gone. The world tilted, and her breathing came in gulps as if the air around her were too thin. In a rush, the agony of the bus crash came to her, but with each chew of cabbage, it became less and less. Ludlow put a hand on her shoulder until the world came back into a sharp focus, full of the memory and pain Clydette guessed would never fully go away.

Pastor Bobbie Gene still stood on the church steps with an expression somewhere between a frown and concern.

Clydette swallowed the blood and body of the departed. More pain rushed into her. She accepted it. Accepted her mother's death. Accepted and swallowed again. Ludlow squeezed her shoulder and took the cooler back toward his farm with long, tired strides. Clydette watched him go as the tears slowly came, torn between following him or returning to the loneliness of her room to grieve in privacy. In the end, she didn't want to be alone, so she turned toward the church and its backward superstitions, where miracles where imaginary.

Pastor Bobbie Gene greeted her with a relieved smile and held open the sanctuary door. Clydette wiped her eyes and nodded to the preacher. The woman had good intentions, but Clydette decided that she would teach the woman how the world really worked.


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