"The sky swam": A wild new story by World Fantasy Award-winning author Margo Lanagan

Margo Lanagan's beautiful, unsettling works have been finalists for the Shirley Jackson Award, and have won multiple World Fantasy Awards. Now she has a new story collection, called Cracklescape, from Twelfth Planet Press. We're thrilled to bring you an exclusive look at one of the stories, "Isles of the Sun."

Here are more details about Cracklescape:

A presence haunts an old dresser in an inner-city share house. Shining sun-people lure children from their carefree beachside lives. Sheela-na-gigs colonise a middle-aged man's outer and inner worlds. And a girl with a heavy conscience seeks relief in exile on the Treeless Plain.

These stories from four-time World Fantasy Award winner Margo Lanagan are all set in Australia, a myth-soaked landscape both stubbornly inscrutable and crisscrossed by interlopers' dreamings. Explore four littoral and liminal worlds, a-crackle with fears and possibilities.

Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan is Volume 7 in the Twelve Planets series. The Twelve Planets are twelve boutique collections by some of Australia's finest short story writers. Varied across genre and style, each collection will offer four short stories and a unique glimpse into worlds fashioned by some of our favourite storytellers.

And here's the story...

Isles of the Sun

by Margo Lanagan

Elric

I lay on my front in the dune-fort, making rifle noises in my cheek, mowing enemies off the few housetops I could see. It was getting late; sunbeams cut low and yellow through the battle-smoke that blew onto the beach from the waves. Todd and Harley had gone home for their dinner, and I'd have to go for mine any minute. I just had this bit of the story to play out.

They slid from the sun-blades like paper pushed out of a printer. I stopped firing. On the beach and among the dunes, they shook themselves into three dimensions — not that they were fat. They were tall and thin and golden — like pharaohs, I thought.

I nodded around at them; I'd never seen them before, but they'd always been there, hadn't they? It was like the time Mum showed me the workings in her great-grandpa's watch. I'd always known there must be something behind any watch-face making the hands go around, but so much machinery, just for that? So tiny, so worked-out, nudging and spinning back there on and on? So precious, with the different metals, with actual jewels doing part of the job? Time must be more valuable than I'd thought, if someone had invented such a thing to measure it.

But these people — they were people, right? — they did more than move time along. We'd worked together, them and me. When I'd wished hard for things I hadn't got, it had been them, at the end, who said in my head, Oh well. That's just the way it is this time. When I'd been angry at Mum and Dad for forbidding things or for making me sit to do my homework, these were the ones, when I gave up the fight, who sent away the anger and made me calm. I'd thought it was just me being sensible, and bad feelings only lasting so long, but all along it had been these people, doing the work that they do.

I stood up. When they saw me they would recognise me, the way I recognised them. They wouldn't mind my torn T-shirt, grubby boardshorts, thongs — they might not even notice. I was hungry, and embarrassed that I'd played all day while they'd smoothed things, calmed things — not just little kids' tempers but mobs' rages, grown-ups' griefs, madnesses that might kill people if they were let loose. I looked to the nearest pharaoh — who could have been a boy or girl pharaoh, I couldn't tell.

'I want to be noble like you,' I said to her/him. 'Wherever you live, I want to live there too, and do that stuff.' I felt hollow with hunger, and that was a good thing — it made me more like them already. They had face-like things, and nearly-bodies, but that was only politeness, to give me something to talk to. In relation to the whole of them, the bit that I could see was like their tiniest toenail, or a hair on the back of their neck that they never even knew they had.

'You must prepare yourself,' they said, 'if you're to fly.'

Oh yes, there was the flying too, I remembered, and I started to get excited then. How could I not do this, if there was going to be flying?

*

'Hey, El, what's your hurry?' Shell-Anne shouted from her porch.

I skidded stopped. 'Dinner,' I said, but it wasn't dinner at all. I was so happy, it leaked into my voice.

Shell tipped off the porch and ran across to me at the fence. 'Must be a fancy dinner,' she said grinning.

'I met these guys,' I said. 'I think they were guys, anyway.' Were they all men? Mum's sharp voice said in my head. Because if not, don't call them that.

Anyway, I poured it all out to Shell-Anne, and 'Yeah?' she said, and 'Yeah?' and she didn't laugh at me. I infected her, I think, or put a spell on her, that she could believe me. 'To fly?' she said, and the decision happened in her just the way it'd happened in me — I saw it. Her hand jumped to her chin with the excitement.

'They live in these places called the Isles,' I said.

'The Isles.' She smiled. Her house behind her was boxy and ordinary just like ours, walls to keep out the wind and the weather and the wonderfulness of everything.

'And they don't do boats. They don't have even actually any sea.'

She nodded. 'Of course not.'

'We'll make a plan,' I said. 'Anyone you think might want to come.'

Shell? Shell? her mum called from inside.

Shell backed across the lawn, still smiling, still nodding. 'I'll call you.'

*

They were men and women both, but I couldn't tell which was which. Each one shifted on her- or himself, and they rustled one against the other, and that was their talking; it came together and made their voice. Lead yourself there with a rhythm, they said. Beat out your steps.

Stamp my way there? I said, showing them. My dirty thonged feet made hardly any sound in the dune-bottom.

They cocked their tall heads and moved doubtfully.

*

'You've hardly touched your dinner.' I'd left two chops and half a mountain of mashed potato. Mum blinked and looked at me. 'Did you have a feed at someone else's place?' She had chop and spud on her fork, some peas pressed into the mash. She was working through her own meal, keeping the talk going in between mouthfuls. From years of eating and talking, she was stuck here to the ground. She'd never fly. Hadn't she ever wanted to?

I shrugged. 'Just not hungry.' My stomach got ready to whinge. I slid my legs to one side, put both hands on the table. 'Can I watch TV? May I, I mean?'

'I guess,' she said unhappily. 'Take a chop in with you?'

'Nah, thanks.' I didn't even want it. Just those peas would be enough, keeping me going without slowing me, stodging me.

I put myself in the corner of the couch. I felt as if I should wedge myself in there so as not to float away. I turned up the TV's yabber to cover any tummy-noises — I didn't exactly watch, even with the picture filling all the view and the sound at my ears. The people dashed about and quarrelled, trapped in the box, trapped in the world, busy, ignoring, unable to imagine. I sat very still and shone to myself, feeling like Christmas Eve.

Dad came out to park himself in his armchair for the night. I put the remote on his chair-arm. 'When you used to be a folkie,' I said, 'remember that drum you played?'

'What about it?' He flicked channels, gave one a chance to prove itself, flicked on. Then he looked at me. ''S called a bodhran.'

'That's right, a bow-rawn. Where is it?'

He made a face. 'Top o' the wardrobe somewhere.'

'Can I have a go of it?'

'Sure.' He flicked onward again, saw me watching him. 'Oh, you mean now?'

But he got up and fetched it, and its beater like a little pair of dumbbells. He showed me a few things — I could see him remembering the old days, when he'd been thinner and had more hair; I could feel sun-lightness working in his playing, surprising him how complicatedly his hands could remember. 'Coupla basics,' he showed me, 'and more or less you build everything else up from that, different ways.' He gave it up to me, not really wanting to; he fixed the way I held it, watched my first tries. 'You could be a good little player. Got good rhythm.'

'Takes after you,' said Mum in the doorway, drying a plate. They were both a bit interested — and a bit sad, from the drum and the memories, and the big heavy meal inside them.

'You've gotta keep it up for a whole song, though,' Dad said. 'I used to play along to tapes to get my hand in. Ha, tapes — remember those?' He grinned at Mum.

'Dark Ages,' she said.

'See if I can dig some out for you. Not now, though.' And Dad's eyes went to the TV and his hand to the remote. He settled back into his chair, and Mum went away.

I took the drum out to the closed-in verandah and sat on one of the beds there. Sleep out under the stars and the moon, they'd said to me. Let them do their work, of lightening you. I should sleep out here, I thought, drumming away, trying to keep the beat steady. The stars and moon can lighten me through the screens, I'm sure. I should swap beds now, a bit early, so that it's the usual thing for me to come out here by Saturday night.

I practised and practised, trying not to beat too fast, imagining myself walking up the Anvil road, steady, lightened, ready to meet them again.

*

You have to get height, they said. You have to get air.

Like a tree? I said. Like the carport roof?

There was a lag while they tried to understand me. Oh no, that won't do.

Anvil Rock, the cliffs there? It was the only high place around.

They looked into their knowledge; they were puzzled, thinking about something so small. But then they crowded back: Yes. That amount of air should bear you up, your size.

*

Each time I told someone, it went the way it had gone with Shell-Anne. I felt myself grow more golden as I told. I shone on them, and they picked up the shine and nodded and smiled along with me, and asked about the plan. I told Todd and Harley, and Alfie Stone. I could have told a whole bunch more if it had been summer holidays.

Once they knew, they had to tell it themselves, to all the people they knew who weren't too old and stuck. Aunty Luce and Uncle Theo came to stay, and I'd thought I might tell Damon, but he was suddenly tall and big-shouldered and stubbly round the chin, and it turned out he had a girlfriend back in the city. She'd hold him to the ground, for sure. What a pity he'd missed this chance.

Sometimes I ran into kids that Shell-Anne or someone else had told. 'Sunday morning,' they'd say.

'Early, though,' I'd say back. 'Before sparrow-fart.'

And they'd laugh. 'That's early.'

'In the dark. Don't be late.'

*

I felt floaty from not eating much, only fruit and vegetables that would let the light through. I ran about with Todd and Harley — we couldn't seem to stop running, from the excitement. We couldn't play the games we'd always played, forts and guns and stalking each other — we could only hurl ourselves along the beach, or kick a ball around, or nearly-fly on our bikes, out to pointless places and back again. We bodyboarded a lot; that was quite like flying too, even if gravity kept us in the sea, and waves sometimes crushed us deeper down into it.

'If we get to miss anything, I reckon I'll miss this,' said Harley, dropping his board, throwing himself in the sunny sand.

'We'll be too busy,' said Todd. 'We'll be running the world, mate. Fixing stuff. Fixing everything, bit by little bit.'

Harley turned over, his wetsuit glittering with stuck-on sand. We all put our faces up to the sun, as if we were drinking from it, or rinsing ourselves off with the light.

*

Shell-Anne rang me, told me about the kids' camp in the dunes, out past the rubbish tip. 'Not everyone can come, though.'

'I can't. But I'm okay, in the sleepout.'

'Alfie can't come; you'll have to go past his place in the morning.' Her breath in my ear held me down, in spite of my shrunken stomach. If I were to kiss her and mean the kiss like that, like Damon and his girlfriend, I'd be stuck on the ground like a crashed kite.

'That's no problem,' I said. 'Or anyone else. If they can't meet us out on the Anvil road, tell me and I'll swing by their house.'

'Hey, it'll be Sunday morning,' she said. 'Everyone'll be sleeping in. You'll have to just tap your drum very lightly — '

'Sure.' I heard Mum come in the back door with the washing basket. 'You just let me know.' And I hung up the phone super-quietly and hurried away to my room.

*

Saturday night I kissed Mum and Dad goodnight, and Luce and Theo, and punched Damon on the arm and let him punch me back. I went out to the sleepout and lay down. Damon wouldn't come out for a while; he was watching some crime show with them. I lay and listened to the serious talk among the detectives, the stings of warning music, the meaningful pauses, and it was all little hammers onto Damon and the others, onto me out here, and the kisses and the punch were clumps of heaviness in me, like bruises.

The stars and the moon shone in through the screens, and I willed their light to melt away the bruises, the weights. I sent myself back to the afternoon in the dunes, tried to remember the pharaohs' nearly-faces, the way their costumes whispered and their bodies and their voices all together, tried to fire it up again, the glow they'd given me.

While I was trying, my eyes closed and I floated straight up through sleep into next morning. It was cooler there. It was quiet, almost to nothing: my pulse beat in the pillow; one bird outside tried out its voice; far away the sea crunched at the foot of the Anvil cliffs. I opened my eyes. The stars had slipped in their places; they were fading on a sky that wasn't quite black any more.

Up I got and dressed in two seconds. I picked up the drum and beater. I drank the glass of water by my bed-head — water was no problem; light could get through water. And I would need water, to walk and to drum. Damon didn't move or make a sound, just lay there bristle haired, eyes closed, mouth open.

Out I went, across the lawn to the beach. All the smells were cold and strong — grass, wet seaweed, a bit of gumleaf-breath from the bush behind town. I took off my thongs and tucked them in the back of my boardies' waistband. The sky was full of clouds like flattened cotton balls, grey without the sun. I stepped out onto the cold sand, took the beater out of the drum and tapped the skin very softly. The small sound died straight away with no room around to echo it back. I tapped again; I kept tapping, and fitted my steps to the sound.

*

Jenny

I woke up with a thump — a dream-thump or a real one? I looked at the clock, but it was Sunday, wasn't it, nothing to rush off to? I listened: nothing, no follow-up noises, no one in the bathroom. The darkness lifted a touch towards morning.

I got up and went to the sleepout. Damon lay like a log; Elric's sheet and blanket were thrown back. I went and felt the hollow in the mattress, pleased with myself for thinking like a detective. Yes, there was still a bit of warmth there.

I pushed open the screen door. El's tracks showed dark across the dewy lawn. I took up Damon's hoodie from the bottom of his bed, slipped my feet into his thongs and went out.

Maybe El just came out to enjoy the beauty of this morning? Ha! Nice thought, Jen. But he might have, without thinking it in so many words, mightn't he? I pulled the hoodie on. A currawong fidgeted coldly on the Colorbond fence. I veered with El's dew-tracks, reached the edge of the lawn and peeped around the fence.

He was maybe a hundred metres along the dim grey beach, looking up into the dunes. He was playing Rod's bodhran, though I couldn't hear it under the shush of sea on sand. It was good to see him applying himself to something, but so early? But he'd gone to bed early, it was true. Seriously, there was nothing wrong with this picture. I should leave the boy to his lone-drummer fantasy and go back to bed.

But then another boy skidded down out of the dunes. And another. Bigger boys, in hoodies — my heart jumped, and I braced myself, ready to run up and shout if a whole gang should pounce on my El. But no, there were only the two. El already had his back to them, walking on away, and they followed him peacefully. Whatever this was, they were in it together.

It was so early! Too early even for runners and dog-walkers, plenty of stars still up there among the puffy clouds. I hurried along the rough lawn edges, ready to duck behind a fence or bush if any of the boys glanced back.

They reached the path that led through the dunes to the car park. They turned right, Elric first with his drum, the two boys following, hooded, hands in pockets. Elric seemed quite relaxed — and then the other two lifted their heads and I saw that it was only Todd and Harley, nothing to worry about.

But still, when they disappeared behind the dune, I ran after them. It was silly, I thought, but there was a feeling about them. They meant something; they had intentions. And the thump I'd woken with, it was still with me, the fear from that.

*

Elric

We ducked across town just to go past Alfie's house. Tap, tap, tap, we came towards it, really too softly to wake anybody, but he was watching for us; he sprang off his verandah, and would have started chatting if I hadn't put a finger to my lips. He touched his own mouth apologising, and bounced in with Todd and Harley behind me. We went on through the empty town, in time with the drumbeat but not exactly marching. It was quite cold.

We picked up Sebastian and Maple and Ollie and Frank Stepper along the way, as well as a kid that nobody knew, who was just sitting on his letter-box when we passed, his dad snoring behind him on an old couch on their porch. He didn't ask where we were going, just stared at us as we walked by, stared at the drum. Next we knew he was walking with us, looking around as if he belonged.

'Ask if he's had any breakfast,' I said to Todd, and he fell back and muttered and the kid shook his head. Good. He was only little, but I didn't want a bellyful of Weetbix bringing him down onto the rocks.

Out along the Anvil road we went. We collected Chrissy and Jess at the end of their driveway, and beyond them was National Park, so no need to keep quiet, so I beat the bodhran a bit more strongly. No one talked. We all wanted to be as light as feathers this morning. The only sound was our thongs and sandals on the road, the little noises of clothing, and the drum. The drumbeat grew louder for a while between the trees, fell away as we went out into the open past the tip, closed in again as the boardwalk led us among the dunes.

When the boards ran out I signalled to the others to stay, and drummed up to a dune-top. The camp was right where Shell-Anne had said it'd be, kids lying all around like someone had spilled a box of them. I stood drumming. I was good on the drum now; I could do a few flourishes that made it less boring, without losing the rhythm. The kids sat up, jumped up, shook off sand, grinned at each other, came running, and I led them back down to the path, drumming all the way.

At the creek we had to stop and help the kids across who were wearing shoes, or who were too little to easily jump to the shopping trolley lying in the water and balance there. Alfie stood up to his knees and handed kids over, and I waited drumming in the long grass on the other side. We were off the proper path now, in this field where we weren't supposed to go, but which had lots of secret tracks through it, trodden by kids playing hidey.

We crossed the field. It was a bit of work getting through the high grass, and we all strung out in a long line. By the time we fell out onto the mown bit at the bottom of the Anvil, the cloud-puffs were all pink-edged across the sky. No one else was on the slope; no one walked their dogs here this early on a Sunday. There was just us and the run-up to those clouds.

Everyone gathered behind me. I kept on with the straight stepping-beat I'd used to lead them through the grasses. We waited for the slower kids to catch up and get their breath. No one whispered a word — no one wanted to muck this up. All our faces were pink from the cloud light; we waited for the rosiness to turn into something more peachy. Seagulls coasted across and around, as if they were organising the colour change, pulling thin, thin curtains of pinkness off the gold.

I knew — we all knew — the moment when it came. I took a big breath and beat the drum twice as fast, twice as hard. Against the slope, with the sea blanked out behind the Anvil, it was so loud it made my hair prickle. It didn't matter now. No one could hear us; no one could stop us.

The light at the top brightened and warmed. No, we won't have wings, I'd told everyone. The whole air will be like a wing.

I shouted and threw the beater on the ground. I frisbee'd the drum away over their heads, back into the grass field. The kids hooted and yelled. We could all feel it, how it was okay now to make noise — nothing could weigh us down any more.

I took off up the slope. They followed; some of them overtook me. Our feet were the beaters now, and the Anvil was the drum, and there was no rhythm, no heartbeat, just noise that didn't stop. Up we ran, jumping over the lumps and hummocks, the grass and dogshit and a drink can — it didn't matter; it was all golden up there, all ready; we were leaving this behind.

We ran right up to the top. The sun on the horizon threw out its beams like open arms; the sea was golden foil farther out, fluffs of golden foam here below us. I jumped from the tufty cliff-edge, from my last heavy-body step into the air, and other kids jumped with me, and the warm wind took and carried us up. We pushed ourselves out into the open, passing from cushion to cushion. The sun-people crowded all the air, not bothering to shrink and costume themselves. They were so many, and beating so fast, that all I could see was a golden blur, darker where the Isles loomed in the distance. I spread my arms and glided; around me kids swooped and tilted, shouted and laughed. We breast-stroked on, kicking away from the ordinary world, our faces to the wind and the sun.

*

Jenny

When they did that, when they ran off the edge, all the air huffed out of me. I stared at the empty cliff top, not breathing, wanting to die of not breathing. The sky swam.

Then I was on my knees, gasping and honking. Grass appeared out of the mottle of my nearly fainting. I looked up, but the cliff-edge was empty, a dark, uneven, weedy border against the brilliant clouds.

I staggered up and forward. My foot slid on something — the beater for Rod's bodhran. I picked it up, slowly, swallowing sickness. It was true, then, what I'd seen. It was real, here in my palm. I gripped it hard to stop my hand shaking, and looked behind me. The drum lay pillowed in the grasses, its blank face to the sky.

I'd fetch that later. Pressing the beater to my heart, I creaked up the slope. My eyes had made a mistake of shock or hope — in the moment before the kids were gone, I had thought I saw them wafted up. The wind could be that strong, I told myself. It could lift whole children — they were only little — it could lower them to the harmless, splashy sea.

I needed to be at the cliff edge to see that it had, though — and I needed, just as badly, never to reach it. Maybe while I walked I would wake up into an ordinary day, an early-morning stroll alone on the Anvil. I'd have dreamed what I saw from some brain injury; I'd have brought it on with the exercise, or just my age. My legs ached and were heavy; my lungs dragged and pushed and my heart banged in the breaths; all my upper body hurt, I held it so stiff. Up and up I toiled, and the sky showed more of itself and more, tizzied up with fancy cloud, a big joke brightening and brightening as my life — our lives, all the town's — crashed dark around me. Why would Elric have done this to his lovely self, to Rodney and me? How did he talk all those other kids into it, that crowd of them?

I jerked my head away from the thought. I fixed my whole mind on the ground in front of me: a kicked pile of dry dog-droppings, an old muesli-bar wrapper trodden into the grass. The land's edge trundled down ahead, the sun as cruel as a trumpet blast over the top.

I stopped a few steps short of the edge. Those must be birds out there against the clouds — different-sized, different-species birds flocking together. I was mad if I saw them as anything else. I was mad to see children floating there, diving, waving to each other; my mind must be broken with fright and sorrow to create that out of a flock of seagulls. My ears were full of gull cries, not children's high voices, calling, whooping —

One of them kicked his feet as if swimming, kicked his red rubber thong off. It fell and fell a sickeningly long way to the sea. It made a white spot there, and floated. I didn't want to lose sight of it, but I made myself tear my sights away, back up to the kids swimming, flying, against the sun-dazzle.

I couldn't afford to blink or to let tears come. I couldn't waste a second. My chest was packed tight with stones that it hurt to breathe around. I watched until the children were specks, until the sun burnt the specks from my eyes. I searched either side of the sun, searched the sky all over. But nothing moved, only gulls and terns, and a distant plane drawing a slow white line on the blue between the higher clouds, and the sea crawling and shining.

I went down on all fours. Numbed, dumb, I pushed my face out over the brink into the cold upwind. Nothing lay on the huge rocks piled below me but crusts and stripes of white bird-poo. Pale golden water pushed among them, all frills and froth. Beyond the rocks, kelp breathed and slithered in the waves; no holes marked it; no child was cradled there.

I looked and looked. 'They're not there,' I told myself, told the people who would ask me over and over. I squinted at the sun and the shining clouds. 'They're not there. They're not dead,' I said to the fading clouds, to the never-tiring swish of the sea.

But I had seen them go; I'd seen them run, jump — I gagged and sank back on my heels, put my face in my hands on the ground, the drum beater digging into my temple and jaw. I breathed, concentrated on breathing steadily, as if that mattered. If he wasn't smashed below me, might Elric not come back? If he'd flown away, why shouldn't he turn, and fly home again? Who was to say he hadn't already turned back? I lifted my head and searched the empty sky again. Who was to say he wasn't already gliding home to me?

The sun-prints melted from my eyes, into the darkening sea. I hunted for the red rubber thong that had fallen from the other boy, and found it, sole-up and rocking on the water. Wavelet by wavelet it washed closer, on its way to being caught in the kelp or lodged and lost among the rocks. I should get Rod into the tinny, send him out here to fetch it. I could sit on this cliff top, guide him to it on the mobile. It was the only hard evidence I'd have, after all, for my wild story. It was the only hope I'd be able to offer anyone.