by Timothy DeLizza

july 2016 story of the month

Zehra woke to the sound of Manny coughing in the bathroom. Ice had frosted the window completely. Snowy wind rattled the window frame. She tried to determine what time it was by the amount of sunlight.

The embers of last night's fire glowed faintly. She added fresh wood and blew gently until they came back to life. She added fresh snow to the kettle, feeling too cold and groggy to go out to the pump. She tried to let the fire warm her big toe, which had felt frozen for years. It didn't work. Breakfast was smoked salmon. She pulled the skin aside and left it for Manny, who was emerging from the toilet.

The kettle whistled and she poured hot water for each of them. He sat across from her, taking the salmon skin from her plate with his bare hands. His fingers were callused, and blackened dried blood showed through the nails. The silver in his hair matched the snow.

"You'll do the fishing," he said. "I'll do the smoking."

Zehra considered fighting the old fight. Some days she won, but he was weaker on those mornings and so had less will to fight. Fishing was easy, but tedious. Smoking the fish destroyed your lungs. Both needed to be done.

Zehra put on all of her layers slowly, grimacing as she pulled on items that had not completely dried from the day before.

She stepped outside and walked past Refugio Sur's nineteen other ice shanties to open the gate to the fishing machine yard. A voice over the loudspeaker repeated in English, Spanish and Urdu: "When equipment breaks, there will be no more parts." Flagpoles with strands of what had been flags flew. Only the Pakistani flag was still recognizable, its white sickle moon faded and smoke-stained on its dark green field.

The recording was put in place back when the administrators feared that careless operation of the fishing machines would create food insecurity. In fact, while hundreds of fishing machines had once operated on the planet, a handful was now sufficient to supply the few remaining towns. Zehra and Manny were the only people living in the ice-fishing outpost, but they hadn't been able to figure out a way to turn the speaker off. Zehra still noticed the recording first thing each morning, but it quickly blended into the sounds of the wind.

Zehra walked past Refugio Sur's remaining fishing machines. The Juggernaut earned its name when it broke through the dirty snow near Glacier Sur. Aubrey had two prominent silhouettes of Audrey Hepburn on each side.

Finally she reached Buzdil, which was Urdu for "goat-hearted" and "cowardly." Buzdil retracted its nets and gears at the slightest resistance, whether brushing against Copper River debris or salt-sharks. Buzdil stuck as a name not just because of its sensitivity, but for the sounds the machine made when the rusted parts creaked and returned to its shell. It sounded like a poorly-tuned version of what an organist might play in a silent movie as the troops retreated: tones of disorganization and dark comedy. It sounded like loss.

Like all of the fishing machines, Buzdil resembled a spider with giant augers for feet. These legs hovered in the air, inert, while the machine rolled across the ice using the tank-like chained treads on its belly. Zehra sat in the cockpit on the body. The vibrations of the movement hurt her back. The cockpit's original cushioning had worn away long before she ever used it and the blankets she brought provided little protection against the seat's metal.

Zehra drove Buzdil out to find the day's spot. Recent holes marked the ice like a pox in uneven stages of healing. The prior day's holes would be frozen over by now, and at any rate, new locations were required because salt-sharks would pick up on any fishing pattern and charge the nets. The salt-sharks were so intelligent that when the original settlers attempted to seed modified salmon from Earth into the subglacial ocean, the salt-sharks treated the seed locations like buffets. The first few batches failed until the entry points were randomized.

When the vehicle stopped, the augers drilled eight sizable holes in the ice, then injected mechanized nets with a phtww sound as a cannon shot one at a time into each hole. The sound always gave Zehra a secret satisfaction. As the whole process was automated, Zehra only needed to decide on a location, watch the catch count, and sometimes recall the nets if a snowstorm became too heavy, or if the holes needed to be re-drilled because they started to ice over. The main skill was a high tolerance for cold.

She looked out at the luminescent blue glow of the Glacier Sur in the far distance and hoped she'd see some of the peaks avalanche. When nothing changed, she wondered if she could convince Manny to fiddle for a while in the evening while she read. When there were more fishing families living in the outpost, they used to gather in the cantina most nights. Now the only reliable time Manny played was when the fishmongers visited to collect the catch and Manny wanted to make sure they were in a festive and generous mood. For all the mockery the name implied, Zehra preferred Buzdil. Some other early operators had given up on it in frustration, but she felt its hair-trigger cautiousness was the reason it still worked. She also hated how the most machines frequently caught salt-sharks needlessly. The creature's briny-textured skin reminded Zehra more of underwater elephants than sharks. They had large, toothless, impractical-looking snouts they used to feed by sucking in small fish that hid in the many icy crevices under the ice. The salt-sharks also had the kind intelligent eyes of elephants, and when they squirmed in the net she saw a silent pleading for a merciful killing. She always obliged quickly because they were too smart and too strong to toss back into the water safely. The fishing machines were blunt instruments that could only catch, not release.

Around midday, she sorted through the catch bin with her gloves, sifting through bits of bluish ice and seaweed for a pregnant fish. When she found one, she cut its belly open and ate the roe while the mother's tail shook, still trying to escape. Zehra considered, not for the first time, that this world was inhospitable to mothers of any kind. After she ate some salmon flesh and the fish stopped shaking, Zehra threw the remains of the no-longer-pregnant fish back into the catch bin and wiped the blood off her gloves as best she could.

She took out her book to read. Their books didn't smell like books any longer. They smelled of smoke and had spots of blood and scale on them. Manny preferred books about earth simply because the character's unaware assumption that warmth was everywhere made him feel warm. She preferred books about machines and engineering—she even once read Buzdil's grossly outdated instruction manual and was amused to learn its warranty had expired before she was born. In addition, Zehra was obsessed with salmon and salt-sharks—their lifecycle, salmon's history of being selected as the fish to be introduced and modified to survive to the new planet. Salmon were semelparous fish, meaning they gave birth only once, then died. Salt sharks live-birthed children that they would need to look after and protect the bodies of for years. She considered their relative braveness and decided, in the end, that life cycles were life cycles.

When she came back to the equipment yard with the catch in Buzdil's belly, she looked around trying to understand what was different. She still asked herself this as the catch unloaded into the locker next to the smoker.

As she approached her shanty she heard Manny playing the fiddle and smiled.

"What's different?" she asked, opening the door while removing her wet overcoat.

"The loudspeaker's silent," Manny said. He lowered his fiddle and the bowstring. "The boy found a way to turn it off. He found the right cord to cut."

A young woman and a young man sat on their couch. They were drinking hot water and holding hands. Three empty plates of winter squash soup were in front of them. Their skin was chapped and rough from exposure to the high wind and cold. Their socks hung by the fire and his blistered feet relaxed on the table. The man leaned over, whispering to the woman, who giggled.

"Who are they?"

"Qasim. And um—"

"Mariposa," Mariposa said.

"Mariposa," Manny repeated.

"Qasim. Mariposa," Zehra said. "I'm Zehra. Why are you here?"

"Zehra," Manny said. "They want to apprentice."


"Zehra, I want to show you, in the other room. Keep your voice down."

Zehra pulled her husband out of earshot of the couple. "Look at them. They barely made it here. And you know you can't trust them, I don't care who they say they are. They need to be gone as soon it's safe outside. Daylight. First thing. And don't go giving them— don't give them much."

"Zehra," Manny said. "Listen to them."

"No. You listen. You remember last year."

"Keep your voice down, please," Manny said softly. "That boy was different."

"No, you listen," she repeated. "You're soft."

A wail came from the next room. Zehra gripped Manny's arm so that her nails dug into him. She gave him and then the couple a horrified look. "You brought a baby?"

The young couple stood. "We're sorry, we'll get her." Mariposa went to the next room while Qasim stood between Zehra and the room with the child, as though Zehra might hurt her.

"Zehra!" He turned to Mariposa. "Forgive her."

She looked at the couple again, her mind recalculating their threat level. She turned away, so as not to reveal anything else. "I'm sorry," Zehra said.

Mariposa came out with the child. "Her name's Nazish, after her grandmother," Mariposa said over the baby's cries.

"Is she okay?" Zehra asked. Nazish's lips were badly chapped, but her cheeks were rosy through her olive complexion. "I have some salmon fat that might help with her lips."

"She's fine. I try to feed her and then I check her diaper and then I give up. She doesn't know why she's crying."

"We're big admirers of yours," Qasim said. "Staying here. Monitoring the catch. Some people in the villages say we should give up on the machines and catch things using primitive tools we can make with our hands. But I think—"

"Weren't you scared? When you had her? That she would be blind or those things you hear about deformities. To bring her into . . ." Zehra said. She pointed out the window. "What if one of you got injured during the trip? What if Nazish got sick? What if–"

"People from your generation always talk about how things were so much better. I just remember this and it seems good enough. Normal enough. Here."

Unasked, Nazish, now quiet, was placed into Zehra's hands. Nazish felt real and soft Zehra's arms. Something instinctual beat like a bass drum in Zehra's heart.

* * *

"Oh are they already trying for another on our couch?" Zehra said as she slipped into the covers. "I hope they remember to keep the fire going so I finally can wear something dry."

"We'll put them in another shanty tomorrow," Manny said. "One out of earshot."

"I can't believe they had a child. And brought her here."

"It could work. Maybe. We'd be able to switch shifts. Or double production."

The sounds in the other room died off abruptly.

"Dry wood, fast fire," Manny said.

Zehra smacked his shoulder.

"What? They probably didn't have many chances during the trip here. They're young."

Zehra smacked his shoulder again then leaned her head against it.

Manny turned away as he did when he was ready to sleep. She watched the moon, then his chest moving up and down. She let her arm hover over his shoulder. The room had already become cold from the night and the increasing coldness in her fingers gave her the boldness to shake him. "Manny. Manny."

"I'm still awake."

"Manny, listen, maybe we learned too much from Buzdil about how to survive. We became too cautious. You're right, now that they're here, maybe we can switch shifts. If there's going to be a baby, then one of us needs to look after her anyway. Manny, if they stay—that thing we wanted— what about that?"

Manny turned and looked at her for a time, then swallowed and closed his eyes. "Can you still?" he asked. "It might be too late."

"When I was younger I'd bleed for five days a month. Now it's two or three. If it's not soon, maybe not. So it would need to be soon. We'll see if they stay. If they stay a few months that means they'll maybe stay a long time."

"Maybe. Maybe we'll know in less time even. When they've been an hour in the smokehouse tomorrow. Hell, if they haven't stolen everything when we wake up in the morning, that'll be proof enough of something."

"I can't believe they climbed all the way up here. With a baby."

"I can't believe the boy found a way to turn off that damn loudspeaker." Manny sighed and the sigh turned into a cough. "We can try if you want to. We can try."

BIO: Timothy DeLizza was raised in Brooklyn, NY and currently resides in Washington, DC. He was most recently published in the Summer 2016 issue of Your Impossible Voice. A complete list of his prior and forthcoming publications may be found here: http://www.timothy-delizza.com/list-of-works/