A quirky collection of short sci-fi stories for fans of Kij Johnson and Kelly Link
Assimilation is founded on surrender and being broken; this collection of short stories features people who have assimilated, but are actively trying to reclaim their lives. There is a concert pianist who defies death by uploading his soul into his piano. There is the person who draws his mother’s ghost out of the bullet hole in the wall near where she was executed. Another character has a horn growing out of the center of his forehead—punishment for an affair. But he is too weak to end it, too much in love to be moral. Another story recounts a panda breeder looking for tips. And then there’s a border patrol agent trying to figure out how to process undocumented visitors from another galaxy. Poignant by way of funny, and philosophical by way of grotesque, Hernandez’s stories are prayers for self-sovereignty.
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Carlos Hernandez is the author of more than 30 works of fiction, poetry, prose, and drama. He is an associate professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he teaches English courses at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and is a member of the doctoral faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is a coauthor of Abecedarium and is a game designer, currently serving as lead writer on Meriwether, a computer role playing game (CRPG) about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He lives in Queens.
Read an Excerpt
The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria
By Carlos Hernandez
Rosarium PublishingCopyright © 2016 Carlos Hernandez
All rights reserved.
The Aphotic Ghost
Sometimes when a body dies in Everest's Death Zone, it doesn't come down. Too difficult, too much risk for the living. Thing is, it's so cold up there, bodies don't rot. They get buried by snow periodically, but the terrific winds of the South Col reliably reveal them: blue, petrified, horned by icicles, still in their climbing gear, always forever ascending. They scandalize the Westerners who paid good money to climb Everest and who don't especially want to be reminded of how deadly the journey can be. But then their Sherpas usher them past the garden of corpses and, weather permitting, to the top of the world.
I am a Westerner, and I paid good money to climb Everest. But the summit wasn't my goal. I was going to get my son Lazaro off of that mountain, dead or alive.
Lazaro's mother, Dolores Thomaston, taught twelfth-grade biology at the same school where I taught AP World History: Bush High, right on the Texas-Mexico border. Lazaro was born of a dalliance between us almost three decades ago.
Dolores had an Australian ebullience and a black sense of humor and a seeming immunity to neurosis that made her irresistible to me. She could have been 25 or 55, and I never found out which. She'd made a splash in the scientific world a few years before coming to Bush with a paper she co-authored on a deep-sea jellyfish that, interestingly, was immortal. After it reproduced, it returned to a pre-sexual polyp state through a process called cell transdifferentiation, and then become an adult again, and then a polyp, and so on. The layman's version is this: age meant nothing to that jelly. It only died if something killed it.
Dolores and I spent the summer together. I really believed we were on our way to getting married. That's why I wasn't worried when she started talking children. In fact, I was surprised to discover how much the idea of children tickled me. I had no idea how much I wanted to be a father until she put the prospect before me. I'd spent all of my adult life contemplating history, and now, suddenly, I was awash with dreams of the future.
She asked me what I would name the child, so I told her: "Brumhilda."
"Be serious," she said.
"Yeah? So what if it's a boy?"
I kissed her, the first of many that night. And then I said, "Lazaro."
Dolores didn't just leave me. She vanished right after we consummated our relationship. She left a note on her pillow that I promptly set fire to in a skillet before reading, then spent the next two decades wishing I hadn't.
I didn't know she had died during childbirth, that she had opted for an ocean water-birth. Ocean-birthing. Of all the crazy trends. She never left the water.
I found all of this out from a young man named Lazaro Thomaston when he came to meet me. He was 21, already a man. By then I'd missed my chance to be his father.
An hour since I'd learned I'd been a father for 21 years, Lazaro sat on the couch with me, showing me his portfolio. He worked as an underwater photographer and videographer. "It's second nature to me, being in the water," he said. "Really it's the ocean that raised me."
"Looks like the ocean did a pretty good job," I said.
He specialized in ultra-deep dives, descents into the bathyal region, which is the topmost stratum of the ocean's aphotic zone: lightless, crushing, utterly hostile. There he had recorded a score of species new to science; he'd made his reputation before he could take a legal drink. His images were haunting and minimalist, the engulfing darkness defied only by the weak bioluminescence of the sea life and, of course, him. Off-camera, he shined like a sun, illumining the depths like the first day of creation.
"These are incredible," I said. "You must he half fish."
"Got that from Mom," he said. And turned the page.
* * *
Rather than take a leave of absence from work to climb Everest, I retired early. Lost some money that way, but I had more than enough money to get to the summit, get back, and bury my son. After that, the future would take care of itself. Or go fuck itself. Either way.
I was old to climb the world's tallest mountain, but not as old as some. The ascent from the Southeast ridge is by mountaineering standards fairly straightforward, especially with today's technology. If you died it was because you were reckless, or bad weather surprised you, or your body gave out and you probably should never have attempted it in the first place.
I was in reasonably good shape, but I needed work — strength-training, flexibility, cardio cardio cardio. And yoga: 60 years old, and I'd never learned to breathe. Guess it was time.
I learned to slow my heart. I learned efficiency, repose, elegance of movement. I learned to require less of everything: food, water, air, joy, meaning. I learned to sit.
I bought more gear than I could possibly use in ten ascents, watched every mountaineering video I could find, moved for a season to Colorado where I took a course on mountain climbing specifically geared toward seniors.
I finished top of the class. My instructor said he'd never seen anyone of any age so motivated. But he also said mountain climbing's supposed to be fun. Why so grim? Why was I going to climb Everest if not to have one of the greatest experiences of my life?
I told him my son was lost on Everest and that I was going to find him, but of course it'd been months and I hadn't heard any good news, so he was dead. But I'd be damned if I was going to let my son's body pose for eternity like a movie prop in Everest's death zone so that overprivileged jetsetters could get an extra thrill off of him. I was climbing to claim my son's body — if I could find him, if I could pickaxe his remains free from the mountainside — and bring him home.
But yeah, asshole, I'll try to have a grand old time all the way up.
Lazaro and I had five good years together, during which time he told me almost nothing about his life prior to our reconnecting. I didn't take it personally. He wanted to sever himself from his childhood the way a lizard drops its tail to escape a predator. Whatever his past was, Lazaro wanted nothing to do with it.
I didn't pry. I figured he would tell me when he was ready.
But he never became ready. Instead, he anchored his life to the present, to me. And that happened to be more or less exactly what I wanted. I couldn't go back and be the father he'd never had growing up, but as consolation prizes go, this was the next best thing.
I'm a historian. I should have known better. Histories never stay severed. Like the tail of a lizard, they grow back.
There was exactly one guide who would attempt something as stupid as trying to descend Everest with a dead body in tow. He had a Nepalese name but a British accent. To dumb-ass tourists like me he went by Roger.
His main suggestion was that we needed as many Sherpas as I could afford to help search for Lazaro. I could sell all of my extra mountaineering equipment at Base Camp to the rich and underprepared. There's where I'd get top dollar.
"I was hoping it'd just be you and me," I told him. "I don't really want a lot of people around."
He sighed. "Imagine a needle in a haystack," he said. "Now douse the haystack with water, and stick it in an industrial freezer until it's a solid hump of ice. Now remove all the oxygen from the freezer. Now put fifty kilos of equipment on your back. Now go get that needle."
Point taken. But what would I tell all those Sherpas? How could I instruct them what to look for without them thinking I was crazy?
But truly, what frightened me more was the prospect that they'd actually believe me. The Sherpa brand of Buddhism is animist enough that, when I told them what they were looking for, they might accept it as true. Accept it, and then get the fuck off Everest.
I was leaving for Lukla in four days. My equipment had already left. It was too soon for adrenaline but too late to think of anything else. I sat in my living room and didn't read and didn't watch TV and didn't turn on the lights. My own little bathyal region.
Doorbell. I had ordered a pizza. I opened the door and it was Dolores.
She was 25 now, if that; there was nothing 55 about her. She was dressed for a Texas May: naked as the law allowed. Her body was muscled and sleek, like a gazelle's. Her hair was a corona. And that smile. That tilt of the head.
"Oh my," she said. "It's so good to see you, Enrique."
She was so composed. She was waiting for me to digest what I was seeing. But there was mischief there too, that evil sense of humor, even at a time like this. It really was her.
When I didn't speak, she said, "I told you I'd be back one day. So here I am, love. I'm back."
I didn't respond, and she watched me for a long time not responding. Her face drained of mirth. "In the note?" she said like a question. "You got my note, right?"
"I burned it on the stove," I said.
"Ah." Then she laughed. "Now was that any way to treat me, after what we shared? You wouldn't even read my explanation?"
"Treat you? You left me, Dolores."
"And I explained why in the note, love. It was quite necessary. That's why I left it — so you would understand."
"You're the one who needs to understand. Seeing that Dear John on the pillow, it ... it ruined me, Dolores. Until Lazaro came into my life I was in ruins."
She came close, then hooked her arms around my neck, and I let her. Hers was not the body my body remembered. It fit foreignly against me.
"Have you been working out, love?" she asked, lips puckered puckishly.
"Apparently not as much as you," I said. And then: "Lazaro. I assume you know?"
"That's why I'm here, love. To help you. To save him."
Oh. Oh no. I suddenly felt tired and old. Whatever my own feelings about seeing her again were, I couldn't let her think her son was still alive, not after he'd been missing for months at the top of Everest. "Dolores, I'm not going to try to rescue Lazaro. I'm going to claim his body. Lazaro is dead."
"Dolores, listen —"
"He's not," she interrupted. But her expression was not that of a mother in denial; she looked at me pityingly, her mouth sagging with remorse. "There's so much I need to tell you."
She always could be a little condescending. And that helped me remember my anger. I broke our embrace. "What the hell makes you think I want to talk to you? You left me, Dolores. I thought we were going to get married. You left without a trace."
I could see she was about to remind me again that I had burned her note. But instead she metronomed her head to the other shoulder, smiling ruefully. "Do you hate me?"
"I think I do."
"I can tell you don't."
I sighed. "Maybe not yet. I'm still in shock. But I almost certainly will hate you. So let's talk before the hatred sets in and I refuse to ever speak to you again."
She came close again and hugged me to her and stood on her toes, allowing our breath to mix between our noses like a storm front. "Later, love," she said. "First, let's make up a little."
Lazaro's most recent film, "The Aphotic Ghost," was nominated for an Oscar in short documentary a year ago. It chronicled a new species of jellyfish over 150 cm in diameter, a superpredator by bathepelagaic standards. As it fluttered about the lightless ocean depths, its body took on a vaguely pentangular shape, but with its five points rounded off. It looked almost like an undulating chalk outline, and its blue-white bioluminescence made it positively spectral: thus the name.
Lazaro's footage was gorgeous, unbelievably intimate. Jellyfish usually squirt away from lights and cameras as fast as they can, but the aphotic ghost — enormous, tremulous, poisonous, ethereal — let Lazaro swim along with it and gather images that were not only scientifically priceless but commercially lucrative.
It was me he took to the Academy Awards show. When he won the Oscar, the shot cut to me for three seconds. The caption read "Montenegro's Father." Not Thomaston, but Montenegro. By this point he'd taken my surname.
"Why do you want to climb Everest?" I asked Lazaro.
"I'm always in the water," he said. He went over to the fish tank he'd convinced me to get. It was a saltwater tank two meters in diameter specially made for jellyfish: a Kreisel model with a constant flow of water whisking the jellies around like a washing machine. That's exactly what it looked like: a futuristic upright jellyfish washer.
I looked up from my book. "So now you want to go to the highest point on Earth because ... it's the farthest place from sea level?"
He smiled ruefully. "Something like that."
"Seems to me like the ocean's been good to you."
He turned back to the tank and watched the jellies spin. Sometimes the tank looked to me like a bird's-eye model of the galaxies. Other times it made me sad, these small, nearly mindless creatures being infinitely jetted around a tiny glass container for my viewing pleasure. They had no comprehension of the forces that governed them. They had no idea their lives were in my hands. And who was I to have dominion over anything?
"It has," he said finally. "The ocean has been my whole life. But it's also defined me." And then, a little softer, he added, "Limited me."
"Still, Lazaro, Everest is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. You're an expert when it comes to deep-sea diving. But on a mountain you'll be —"
"— like a fish out of water?" he finished.
No mistaking his tone; he was dead-set. So I smiled and turned back to my book and simply said, "Something like that."
Dolores stayed the night. We made love. Because I couldn't keep up with her, she kindly slowed for me.
After, she asked me to be patient. She said Lazaro was alive, but when she told me how she knew, I wouldn't believe her. But she'd find a way to explain so I would believe, and then I would save Lazaro. I didn't know what she was talking about, but my mind was aswim, awash, adrift. I let myself be overwhelmed by her. We entangled ourselves in each other and fell asleep.
When I woke I found she had disentangled herself. A note on the pillow said, "Read before burning." When I opened it, however, there was just a single word. "Bathroom."
One of Lazaro's video cameras was pointed at the bathtub. Taped to it was a note that read, "View before burning. Full explanation!"
The tub was full. Next to it was the freezer's icemaker bucket, emptied, and a box of Instant Ocean, which is what I used to salinate the jellytank water. It was empty too.
In the tub, its blue-white glow refracting through the ice, filling and emptying like a lung, was a fully mature aphotic ghost.
I climbed Everest. More honest: Roger and the Sherpas climbed Everest and hoisted me behind them. They might as well have carried me up on a palanquin for all the effort I expended.
The search began the day after we arrived at the South Col. The weather was cooperating for now, and forecasts were good. If we were lucky we might get two days.
The cold had sunk an inch down into my body, anesthetizing me, preventing both hope and despair. It was the only reason I could function, this close to knowing. If I failed to find Lazaro, I could try again someday. But if I succeeded, he would be alive or dead. The wave would collapse. I would eject him from his superposition and either bring him back to life, or reify his death.
We searched half a day. I saw many bodies, none of them Lazaro. I wondered briefly if I shouldn't make it the work of the rest of my life to bring the dead down and present them back to their families. But let's see if I could succeed on my own mission first.
Roger, with a Rumpelstilskin-like prescience, knew not to pry, but the Sherpas couldn't comprehend that I couldn't care less about the stark and ominous wonders Everest offered. So, thinking I was like every other tourist, they kept trying to show me the sights. Two of them were dying to show me the most curious ice formation they'd ever seen.
I perked up. Ice formation? I followed.
It had appeared out of the ground last season, they said. They exhumed it out of the recent snow for me to see. It was the size of a sleeping dog and looked something like hand-blown Italian glass, impossibly whorling and curling into itself, a hyaline nautilus relentlessly tearing sunlight into rainbows. Deep in its center there seemed to be a dark nucleus, and strange, ciliated veins circuited throughout its interior. Climbing gear radiated from it like an explosion.
"Roger!" I yelled.
Roger came. "We need the cooler," I said.
He spoke to the Sherpas and they brought the coffin-sized cooler I had had specially made. It borrowed from ice-cream maker technology, had liquid nitrogen lining the metal interior. After I delicately placed the ice formation inside of it, I found I could just close the lid. "Tell them to help me pack it with snow," I said. Soon every Sherpa who could fit around the cooler was dumping snow and ice into it. When it was full I padlocked the lid.
I was weeping, but no one could tell because everyone's eyes cry this high up, and anyway tears freeze before they fall. I took several hits from my oxygen tank, then said, "Roger, this is futile. I'll have to reconcile myself to the fact that Everest will be my son's final resting place. We'll have to abandon the search. Gather the men."
I could see he knew there was more to the story. But all he said to me was, "Right." Then he told the Sherpas what I said. A few of them looked at me incredulously — the search had hardly begun, and now I was content to leave with just an ice-souvenir? — but the more experienced among them simply started packing up. Americans were generally regarded as the best tippers in the world, even when an Everest ascent failed. Tolerating their strange ways was a small price to pay.
* * *
It was my fourth date with Imelda. She was a year older than me. She didn't dye her hair and was a retired librarian and said if I ever caught her playing Bingo I had her permission to kill her on the spot.
Excerpted from The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez. Copyright © 2016 Carlos Hernandez. Excerpted by permission of Rosarium Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction by Jeffrey Ford,
The Aphotic Ghost,
The International Studbook of the Giant Panda,
The Macrobe Conservation Project,
More Than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give,
Bone of My Bone,
The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory,
Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op. 66,
The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria,