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The Very Fabric

by Kat Howard

The beach was covered in starfish. Pink ones, a color Viola Black had not known starfish came in until she had agreed to help her brother count them.

“Didn’t you tell me the scientific name for these was asteroids?” she asked.

“Hmm?” Benjamin looked up, wiped his hands on his jeans. “Oh, right. Asteroidia. Starfish are in class Asteroidia.”

“When we were growing up, I always thought you’d wind up being an astronomer. I loved the stories you told me about the stars.”

Benjamin turned back to the shoreline. “Help me finish this count, and I’ll tell you another. Over a beer.”

The sun was setting by the time Benjamin sank down onto the rock next to Viola and plucked the bottle out of the cooler at her feet. “Thanks for the help with the scut work.”

“We don’t get to hang out enough any more, what with you off being the big research scientist.” Viola leaned against her brother, dropped her head on his shoulder. “I’m really proud of you, you know.”

Night crashed down on them, darker than shadow. The sound of rending metal filled the air.

Viola looked up. “Oh my God, the sky.” It was obscene—the tear, the absence in the midst of the stars.

Benjamin laughed. “How much have you had to drink?”

Viola couldn’t look away from the ugliness of the wounded night, nor from the horrors that moved just behind it. “How can you not see?”

“Not see what?”

Viola turned to look at her brother, and something she could not name burst from the tear in the sky. A clawed thing, not quite a hand for all it had five fingers, reached through Benjamin’s chest. He dropped to the beach, and Viola screamed for help.

Perhaps she only imagined the sound of laughter beneath the sirens’ wail. Beneath her own sobs.

#

A voice on the wind: “It has begun.”

A man in a suit the color of mourning stopped walking, and adjusted a silver needle, threaded through the fabric of his tie. “What is rent…”

“…must be mended. By the Needle.”

“And by the Stitch.”

#

Viola listened to the dirt patter like rain onto Benjamin’s coffin. The cause of death had been listed as a heart attack.

When she thought about it, Viola supposed what happened had been a kind of a heart attack. It was the truth, in a Jesuitical sort of way.

Viola turned away so that none of the other mourners could see her smile. Benjamin would have laughed, if he had heard her say that. She could hear the roaring delight of his laughter even now. Her hand went to her mouth as she choked on her memory.

“I am so very sorry for your loss.”

Viola didn’t recognize the voice. She didn’t recognize the man, either, a dark-haired collection of angles, held together by a good suit. The sun glinted off a pin in his tie—no, not a pin, Viola thought. A needle. A tie tack in the shape of a needle, long and sharp.

“Thank you,” she said. “How did you know my brother?”

“I didn’t. But I know how he died. The truth of it.”

“It was,” Viola pulled her jacket closer to her body as she spoke, “a heart attack.”

“It was not. It was a terror that ripped open the sky, and ripped into your brother. You saw it happen, just as you have seen the sky tear itself open every night after.

“I have seen it myself.”

Viola had to swallow hard before she could answer, gulp back the incredible relief that she was not the only one to carry the burden of truth, that there was someone else who had seen what she had seen. “You’re right. That’s it, exactly.

“How can I stop it?”

“That’s a complicated answer. Come back here, tonight,” said the man in the suit. “Just before sunset. I will explain what I can.”

#

The wind plucked the leaves from the trees as Rafe Owens watched Viola walk out of the graveyard. It carried a voice to him: “What is rent…

“…must be mended. The sister witnessed, and I believe she will help.”

“You know what must be done if she will not.”

“I do.

“By the Needle.”

“And the Stitch.”

The wind fell away, into the lengthening shadows. Rafe counted the heartbeats that remained until the setting of the sun.

#

The sky had shaded to lavender when Viola returned to the cemetery. She saw the man from the funeral, standing at the end of Benjamin’s grave. A human memorial.

Seeing him there, as strange as it was, was also reassuring. She had seen what she had seen. The problem was real, and the man at her brother’s grave was a solution.

“You will,” he said, “need this.”

In his hand was a thin silver needle.

“No hello, no explanation. Just a needle?”

“Take it, please. The sun has almost set.”

She turned to the setting sun, and held out her hand.

The weight of the needle was as nothing. Not enough, she thought. Not nearly enough to mend a tear in the very fabric of the world.

She felt the man move closer to her, but did not look at him. Her eyes did not move from the sky before her, and what it contained.

“I will hold the sky while you look at me.”

A muscle flickered along Viola’s jaw, but her eyes remained fixed. If she looked away, if she did not pin the fears and terrors with her gaze, they could escape. Do to someone else what they had done to Benjamin.

“This is not my first day on the job, Miss Black. I will hold the sky.”

Viola turned her head towards the man standing at her shoulder. In his right hand he held a thin sliver needle, the twin of her own.

He stabbed the needle into the pad of his left index finger, gathered the bead of blood on its point. Viola watched as the blood slid down the needle, then flowed out into the air, forming a thin thread.

She watched as he shook back his sleeve, reached up, and twitched the torn edges of the sky closer together. “By the Needle, and by the Stitch,” he said.

He pushed the needle through the sky, the thread of blood pulling taut in its wake. “If you would be so good, Miss Black, now would be an excellent time.”

Viola looked back at the sky, its rent edges ragged and bulging. At the horrors, ranged like pieces plucked from nightmares, that had torn the sky in their lust to descend. She plunged her needle into her finger.

As she waited for her blood to thread it, she asked the man who stood shoulder to shoulder with her, “How many nights do we do this?”

“Three. In this instance, three.”

Benjamin would have enjoyed the symbolism, she thought. He liked that kind of thing, said it ordered the world. Had liked. Had said.

“All right then. By the Needle, and by the Stitch.”

When Viola extended her hand to the torn sky, it was there, in her grasp. It felt thicker than she expected it to, and worn, like old wool or velvet. The needle slid through easily, though Viola felt a tugging beneath her skin when she pulled the thread taut.

She sewed anyway. Until her fingers numbed and her shoulders burned. Until dawn painted the sky in gaudy colors, hiding the wounds, and quieting what lay beyond them.

Viola wound her long tangle of black hair into a coil, then slid the needle through. “Again tonight?”

The man slid his needle back through his tie. “Yes.”

“I’ll see you then. Maybe tonight you’ll even tell me your name. And call me Viola.”

“Rafe. My name is Rafe.”

#

The wind shifted, curling in from the east. Rafe spoke into it: “She held.”

“It was only the first night. Things will be bad, and then be unbearable. What was strong may break.”

“She is capable of healing the wound.”

“You must do so, if she will not. By the Needle.”

“And by the Stitch.”

After the wind carried the last of Rafe’s words away from him, it settled and turned to a direction safer and less strange.

#

Viola and Rafe met as sunset began to bleed along the edge of the horizon.

“Tonight will be worse,” Rafe said.

Viola considered asking how tonight could possibly be worse, but decided it didn’t matter. She would do what she had to, no matter how terrible the night.

Instead she asked, “Is that what always happens—the nights become worse after the funeral?”

“There are patterns.” His eyes flicked to the fall of the sun, and measured the length of shadows on the ground.

Viola wondered how many days would pass before the passage of sun and shadow would tick across her skin like a clock.

“Not many. Perhaps not even one more. I would call it second nature, but that is a pale phrase to describe the sensation of knowing to the breath how much longer the sun will light the sky.”

Viola hadn’t thought that she had spoken out loud. She glanced at Rafe. For a moment, it seemed as if his eyes were as bright and sharp as the needle he rolled between his fingers.

She decided there were some answers she did not need.

Shadows crept across her skin, and Viola turned to the sky. “At some point, you are going to explain the rules to me, right?”

“Are you certain that’s what you want?”

The reflex was to say yes, of course, she wouldn’t have asked if she hadn’t wanted to know. To understand the boundaries she stood between, and the rules that would keep her safe there.

The sky shaded further towards darkness, and Viola slid the long silver needle from her hair. There might be rules, but there was no safety. Neither for her, nor for anyone else.

“Yes. I am certain.”

Darkness fell. The sky tore.

Rafe had been right: This night was worse.

#

When dawn broke, Viola’s fingers were blistered. Her shoulders burned and the muscles in her hands ached. She threaded the needle back through her hair. “How do you cope with this?”

“Arnica helps with the pain and the blisters.”

“That wasn’t what I meant.”

“I know, but it’s useful. And it’s an easier place to begin the answer.” Rafe brushed a pile of cracked and faded leaves from the steps of a mausoleum, and sat. Viola sank down next to him. The marble was cool and worn smooth by time.

“There are soft places in the world,” Rafe began. “Places where veils are thin and doors are cracked, where one might step through a mirror as easily as walking through smoke. Sometimes things pass through these places, and we witness wonders and marvels, hear tell of people stolen by fairies, and returned, seven years later, unchanged.

“But there are things not satisfied by the sometime access of the soft places. Things that would see a world made of nightmare, not of wonder. Things that would pluck the hearts from our chests, and take joy in the action.

“So they murder, and it is always someone loved, someone who will be missed and mourned. They use that death, the destruction of that person, the grief and loss left behind, and they tear open a gateway so that they might come through, and remake the world.”

Rafe leaned against the faded marble of the mausoleum steps. He looked, Viola thought, even more ancient than it did. She wondered how many nights he had held back the terrors beyond the sky with only silver and blood and words.

She wondered how many nights she would do the same.

“We are the Night Doctors,” Rafe said. “We heal the spaces between the worlds, and what we do is neither safe nor easy. We cope with the grief and the fear by looking always toward the dawn.”

“You say we like I’m one of you. Like I’ve agreed to this. Do I get a choice, or did I stop being able to choose the moment I saw what murdered my brother?”

Rafe looked out over the field of stone and monument, watched as the garish pinks and oranges of dawn faded to a more subtle palette. “This should be the point where I say “of course there’s a choice,” and then give you a stirring speech about responsibility and hidden acts of heroism.”

“Or you could ask how I could even want a choice, after those thingsmurdered my brother. After I’ve seen the things I’ve seen. You could ask how I thought I’d ever sleep again, knowing what was out there, and knowing I wasn’t trying to destroy it. That’s what you would do, if this were a movie.”

She and Benjamin had made fun of those speeches in those movies, asking each other how they could ever sleep at night, knowing the horror of Brussels sprouts remained in the kitchen.

It almost didn’t hurt to smile when she remembered that.

Rafe was watching her closely. “But this isn’t a movie.”

“No, this isn’t,” Viola agreed. “And I don’t need an inspirational speech. My choice might have gotten smaller when I saw these things murder my brother, but I still had one. And I made it already.

“See you at sunset.”

Fallen leaves skipped and tumbled in her wake.

#

After the second night, the wind could no longer be trusted. Rafe removed a mirror from his pocket, and breathed across its surface. In answer, words appeared as if written in smoke.

“Third Night. Three is the number of endings, and third time pays for all.”

Rafe spoke carefully, holding the mirror so his breath would frost its surface. “The proper ending shall be made.”

“You know what is required. What is rent…”

“… must be mended.”

The mirror went blank and cold in Rafe’s hand.

#

The wind whipped at Viola’s hair, turning it into tattered black ribbons against the burning heart of the sky. She watched as Rafe picked his way though gravestones and faded flowers, outpacing the lengthening shadows as he walked.

“I cannot help you mend the sky,” he said. “Not tonight.”

“Why?”

“Because what began in blood must end in blood, and it was your brother’s death—his blood—that began this.”

“That was used to begin this.”

“The means does not matter. What was rent must be mended, and the required tool must be used.”

“What if I had never come? If I had refused to help? If I had never even seen?”

“It must be your blood, Viola. No matter how it is shed. No matter which of us sheds it.”

The wind flung clouds across the sun, darkening the sky.

“Go, then. I will do this.”

Rafe did not move.

Viola laughed, the sound as sharp as she was, as sharp as the needle in her hand. “Fine, then. Stay. Bear witness. Make sure I shed enough of my blood. And if at some point you think of a reason why you could not just tell me this was necessary, please share it.”

“You’ll know why, at the end.”

Sunset. And the voices began.

Voice, really. Benjamin’s.

“Viola. Viola, I miss you. I’m not dead, not really, just here behind the sky. They’ll let me come back if you put down the needle and stop.

“We can count starfish together, Viola, and I’ll tell you stories of the stars.”

Viola stabbed the needle into her finger so deep she felt the skitter as it scraped bone.

“Please, Viola. It’s dark here, and cold. Don’t make me have to stay.”

She blinked her eyes, blinked again, clearing them, then watched the thread of her blood, darker than the sky itself, as she stitched.

“Viola, please. You’re killing me.”

She knew the voice was a lie, but she could barely breathe from hearing it.

Then she heard something else. Beneath the lying voice and the howl of the wind, beneath the chaos of the storm and the thunder of her heart, Viola heard another voice.

“By the Needle, and by the Stitch.” Rafe’s voice. Repeating the words, over and over.

Viola set her feet more firmly in the dirt of Benjamin’s grave. The rain had muddied it, and she drew in a breath. She narrowed her world to the throbbing wound in her finger, and the petrichor scent of the air. To Rafe’s voice. To the needle and the stitch, the night and the sky.

These things could not drown out the lie counterfeiting Benjamin’s voice, but they reminded her that she was stronger than the thing that killed him. That she could do this last, this necessary thing in his honor.

Just before dawn, Viola felt the sky change under her hand. The pieces no longer pulsed and fluttered in her grasp, and in the next breath, they were not pieces at all, but unbroken sky, silvering under the first light of dawn.

She closed her eyes, and bound the needle back through her hair. “Was that how it happened for you, too?”

“Close enough. We cannot speak of it, or warn in advance. It is cruel, and I am sorry.”

Viola opened her eyes. “You did what you could. Thank you.”

“The sky does not always speak, but when it does, we all hear the voices of our lost. It becomes endurable, but never easy.”

Viola was exhausted. More so because she knew what she had just endured was a beginning, not an end. But because she knew, she asked, “And tonight? Does this happen again?”

“Perhaps something similar, but not the same. A new pattern begins each time, with each death. The one certain thing is that there will be another death.

“We wait. Then we hear a voice in the wind, or see a message in a mirror. And we do what is necessary to mend the sky.”

Viola stepped out of the dirt of Benjamin’s grave, then laid her bloodstained hand upon it. What was born in blood must be ended in blood. She hoped her brother slept peacefully.

She turned her face toward the dawn.

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