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Letter from the Editors
Aleksandra Hill, Kanika Agrawal, Rowan Morrison, Zhui Ning Chang, Isabella Kestermann, and Sachiko Ragosta

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Coming soon: excerpt of Liar, Dreamer, Thief and an interview with its author, Maria Dong!

Interview with Naseem Jamnia
Questions by Aleksandra Hill

Excerpt: The Bruising of Qilwa
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Previously Published


The Ballad of the Octopus

By Simo Srinivas | | Simo Srinivas
Edited by Aleksandra Hill || Narrated by Sunny Osahn || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
Blood, implied death, implied animal death
1350 words

I lost my eighth arm in the usual way. A man took it, and I was lucky to escape with my life. Afterward, this man enchanted my arm until it was charred and blackened. Afterward, unintimidated by its pugilistic contraction, he cut my arm into pieces and ate it, and through that process, I became him and he me and yes. And yes: I began to dream of the drylands.

They are not so dry.

It rains there. The air is wet, and the people have water in their bodies.

And they are musicians.

• • •

In the dry places, music is made with air and vibration. With tools. The sea-witch’s sitar, for instance, is made of wood and metal and bone, a death pile, like the dryland carcasses that wash ashore and are torn apart and rearranged by gulls who think they’re artists.

Music in the waterlands is the shoaling of fish and the light that sparkles over their synchronized bodies. Music is the undulation of kelp, the dance of the flounder, the tumbling of sand like glass in the sunlit shallows. It is movement, and my eyes are built for it, to notice it and to track it, which is why I find the sea-witch in her true form so hypnotically gorgeous: those swimmerets, those claws, those antennae and flagella in constant shivering motion.

The man who ate my arm was a musician in the waterlands way. His body was his instrument.

He fascinated me. His nights became my dreams, and I followed him everywhere. I saw how gracefully he moved with his two legs and his two arms. I heard the music of the movements of the men he kissed. Their bodies and limbs entwined: two became one, four became eight, and this writhing man-octopus also exuded salt.

He was a maestro.

• • •

One night, my musician came to the sea-witch, which means I came to her, too. She was beautiful whenever she left the water and beautiful whenever she came back—and we don’t have to dwell on the in-between, the grotesque, the peeling of shell from flesh. On land, she used her fingers to play sitar and that’s how my musician found her, seated on the seawall in her dryland body, her two legs crossed, her two arms strumming her instrument. Hair grew thick and black from her head and the strength of her eyes was dulled, the sea-witch who underwater could see one trillion colors. But some aspects of her other self remained as she tapped her toes lightly against the crusted rock to keep the beat.

The melody was not unlike the ebb and flow of the tides.

He approached her on his knees. His flesh was soft, and my soft flesh ached for it. The rock scraped his skin, and I groaned in my sleep.

“I’ve been cursed,” my musician said, “by an octopus.”

• • •

Accompanied by the sea-witch’s sitar, the curse-story took the form of a dryland ballad.

I listened closely, my three hearts beating.

“The octopus,” my musician sang, “is as large as a man. It is noble and handsome and scarred as though from battle. Every night, it wraps its arms around me and squeezes me tight. And when it squeezes me, the air begins to burn, and my eyes fill with the color blue. My lungs burst and slits open in my neck like gills.

“When it squeezes me, I begin to drown on dry land.

“I begin to disdain my lovers. I begin to think I would be happier in the sea.”

The sea-witch turned to my musician and moved her mouth.

Fear overtook me. I woke up with my three hearts pumping, my body already jetting over the seabed.

• • •

I swam to the place I had seen them last, sea-witch and musician. To Kumarinatu, which land-dwellers sing of in awed voices. Kumarinatu: the lost land, the lost kingdom, the lost continent. Divers come in search of relics, signs of a drier past, but we who live here know the truth. It’s just a beautiful and dangerous piece of sand, where the water is so clear and thin you have to come in disguise or risk death from above.

It’s where I lost my arm to a man in a boat.

Where all of this began.

This time, I came as my best impression of a sunken boulder. The sea-witch’s apprentices mocked me as I arrived, all those lovely little witches-in-training, shimmering and snickering. There is no net that can hold them, no marauding beak that can pinch them from the water; they are too small and nimble. They don’t think much of me, of my bulky physique.

“Oh!” they chorused, tittering. “What an ugly stone!”

I spat ink at them, chased them, sent a thousand of them tumbling with a swipe of my fourth arm.

Still laughing, they schooled like smelt. There were millions of them there, billions, all of them drumming the ink and the sand. Within seconds, the water grew dark and cloudy.

Into the murk, the sea-witch appeared, dragging a man.

• • •

She had resumed her dryland form. I recoiled from her roving feet, those ten toes as mobile and determined as clam-tongues. In one hand she held her sitar; in the other, my musician. Both of them she held by the neck.

“Liminality is for witches,” the sea-witch said. “Choose.”

Submerged, wreathed in dryland hair that billowed underwater like kelp, the sea-witch looked at me and made the movement that had frightened me in my dream. In the drylands, they call it a smile, an overture of friendship. But there was nothing friendly in the sea-witch’s gesture.

“He thought the choice was his,” she said. “But it was your arm that was taken. Your arm, your dreams, your decision.”

The musician’s last breaths were spuming from him, from his nose and mouth and eyes. My decision. His doom. 

“The partnered dance or the solo,” the sea-witch said. “The harsh melodies of land or the sweet music of endless water. Will you leave your beloved home behind or drown your darling in the sea? Song or severance, sing or flee, save him or swallow him—what will it be?”

Fear held me in silence. The silence of both worlds: I could neither speak nor signal. I watched the yellow cloth on her dryland body hardening into an amber shell. Her fingers and toes split and split again. Her carapace shrank. Her sitar fell to the sand.

My musician fell, too.

• • •

Long ago, our myths tell us, there were no dry places in this world until witches raised them from the sea. Those lands sat devoid of life until those same witches took pity on a fish and helped it crawl to shore. From that fish evolved humankind.

It wasn’t an irrevocable choice. Years later, the whales and the dolphins gave up their legs and returned to the water.

The important thing is choice.

The fish who doesn’t choose land suffocates.

The man who doesn’t choose water drowns.

• • •

I jetted toward my musician, slicing my flesh on the strings of the sea-witch’s sitar. Blood and ink bubbled into the water. The force of my propulsion stopped my central heart, but I flew onward.

I wrapped my arms around my musician and heaved him into the shallows. I thrust my arms into his mouth to open it. His throat was full of water and foam and then it was full of me.

The sea-witch and her apprentices wove around us in spirals, in forms wet and dry, trampling one another as they danced. The dead and the dying were crushed into sand. The living continued to spin. The music of their flickering swimmerets and stamping feet surrounded us. The sea-witch scuttled over the neck of her sitar and every pluck of her claws against its strings was a pluck at our sinews. Our bodies began to vibrate, to sing, and the vibrations began to blur together.

Seven limbs tangled around four.

Two became one.

Choose, the sea-witch told me.

What choice did I have?

When the tide recedes, we will be entwined.

Simo Srinivas still dreams of the day they stood in Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India and gazed out to sea. A child of immigrants from Chennai and Penang, Simo now lives in Colorado with their spouse and two senior, standard-issue tabby cats, far away from the malign influence of sea-witches. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Archive of the Odd, Decoded Pride, Deathcap & Hemlock, and Punk Noir Magazine.
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