She faced the beast and the pale, distracted haze left her eyes. Her gaze was as shockingly clear as the beast’s first terrible pounce.

Her clothes grew spikes and her fingernails became claws. Her teeth lengthened into knife-like fangs. There was no fear—only a faint, hungry smile. Nothing would stand between her and the place that called her.

The beast was so purely beast it had no capacity for fear. It only enlarged its attack to face the scissoring devil that heaved toward it. As they neared each other and the thrill of the battle consumed them, pungent steam rose from their sweat.

The beast’s face filled her entire vision, making it hard to remember why she was there at all. But it was also its face that reminded her, because in it was smug confidence that the place she yearned for did not exist, mockery—mockery!—that she should desire such a foolish thing, and at the same time, loud laughter that she should dare believe that of all beings, she was allowed to enter.

She, grown old and furrowed in her petulant, dream-clouded wait by the sea. She, a thief and a whore. She, destitute and homeless, ignorant, ungroomed, crowned and tattooed by years of crawling on her hands and knees looking for a thing she could not even remember.

Its face sparkled with contempt at the fantastic idea that she could possibly know or understand what lay beyond, and it was this that raised the sharpest and most dangerous of her spiked hackles.

She took one fierce breath, and her right hand shot forward. She grabbed hold of the folds on its gray, festering forehead. With a second breath, she pulled down hard, ripping all the skin from its leering face. The monster screamed and slashed, but it had lost the advantages of shock and surprise. With a hard jab of her knee, she had it on the ground and tore it to pieces.

It never stopped slashing. Her skin was in bleeding shreds. Summoning what was left of its life, it pulled itself up, more ghastly and terrifying in its faceless fury, and a great wind began. As if the monster was sucking into it the elemental forces of the earth, air and heat, a hurricane of wind and debris spiraled around it and into its mouth, chest and genitals.

She did not wait to see what all this was for, grabbed the creature’s throat, and squeezed.

In that moment, the beast exploded—a mine blast that split the ground, leaving her covered in fine dust and smelling of rotting flesh.

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The Butterfly Wars

The bloody battles spread to three different worlds and leveled entire continents. Not one of Butterfly’s own friends survived. He saw each of them die over the course of the first eight years.

Though it’s been a very long stretch of time since, his idle moments still seep memories of wandering empty, ruined streets. He never knew what became of his mother.

What ended the war was not any treaty, but the cold. It put an end to summer and harvest so quickly, there was no time to adapt. The sky dimmed over the course of two-and-a-half vicious seasons. What could not flee—in ships, on celestial currents, through hastily conjured splices in time—froze and died. If any of the few surviving refugees ever found each other, that story is untold.

For his part, Butterfly had been fortunate to find a current that was steady enough and threw himself onto it. Glancing up a last time at the withering sky, he may have been the only witness to a tiny, but very bright, white flash—a single ragged lightning bolt that let fly two little embers. They flared, spun and vanished as the gentle pull of gravitational eddies drew Butterfly away.

Glancing up a last time at the withering sky, he may have been the only witness to a tiny, but very bright, white flash—a single ragged lightning bolt that let fly two little embers.

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She put the caterpillar to her mouth. It entered willingly, and she swallowed it whole.

Almost immediately, her skin began to change. Dark specks appeared, and subtle seams like cracks in ice, as if those were the places her skin was stitched together.

She became luminous, not because her skin had begun to glow, but because it had become translucent. So had her clothes, which he now realized had not been clothes at all, but really folded, frilled and patterned skin. Inside, there were no bones, but fiery, cloud-like and many-colored forms that throbbed and swirled. And piercing through those clouds were stars. The more he looked, the more he saw.

Inside, there were no bones, but fiery, cloud-like and many-colored forms that throbbed and swirled. And piercing through those clouds were stars.

Her eyes remained the same, and she watched him watch her. The nebulae curled violently inside her, exploding, forming incandescent tendrils which soared like fireworks and then faded to black collapsing arms and twinkling embers. She seemed both helplessly trapped and coolly amused.

Then, her eyes were gone, her skin vanished completely,
and the stars were all that was left.

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The policeman quickly began to wonder whether his companions could even be trusted as guides. Though this world was faintly familiar, with wide panoramas and tiny details he knew he’d seen in nature magazines, it mostly wasn’t.

To keep calm, he’d remind himself this must be a dream. Hadn’t it begun as one? The flood, the impossible, majestic ride over mountains to the coast, and to this troubled, troubling woman?

But it was too hot. He was too angry, too hungry. The hunger alone should have woken him. So he’d begin to panic again, question the sense of following a bizarrely dressed, unkempt woman and an elephant—an elephant!—across this open plain away from

The Little Stone Arrives, illustration by Penina S. FingerFrom what?

From the place he thought of as his landing spot.

She had pulled him into the sea, whirled him around, and he’d come out there, in a forest clearing by a pond. There must be some reason to have begun there and the farther it receded behind him, the more anxious he became.

He stopped at the next rise and let them gain some distance. She was the reason he was here. What would happen to him alone?

If he turned back, would they notice or care? The woman’s hand now rested on the elephant’s side as they made their way over low, scrubby hills. They never once looked back.

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Did I fall?

It’s got a desperate pulse.
It’s beating furiously.
It’s hard and cold and pale.
It’s horrible.
It’s so horrible, it’s beautiful.

Did I fall? - study for The Sixth One, Penina S. Finger

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Sunrise, Autumn Equinox

The sun reached out to the tiny stone as if he had arms, and fed it to himself as if he had a mouth. He felt restored almost instantly, and the stone, of its own accord, made its way from his mouth to his heart.

The stone found what it knew (though the Sun didn’t know) was there: an empty pocket the exact same size and shape as itself. It slipped easily into the space, fit perfectly, and in that moment, it was as if the Sun had eyes, which opened.

Bright white bands of heat passed across his skin in radiant currents, weaving and looping over and around its broiling, ancient eddies. Years fell away and he became like a young child star. The universe was new, wondrous and adoring.

This time, however, that love was profoundly humbling. Awed, warmed, honored, he heard what had been the ceaseless noise and chatter congeal into a deep, exquisite note. And rising from that perfect note, a hush. From deep within that hush swelled another note, just as sweet, and from that, another absolute hush.

The progression continued, a rhythm emerged, and the sun wept and sang for joy.

The Elephant Nebula

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Still no name for her

She inhabits every image.
She is here right now—I can feel her.
She’s the nervous flutter,
the blur in the picture,
the pressure on the sides,
the dangerous weight above every family photo.

She is the yearn
and the choice to yearn.
Outlaw, outlier,
invisible, homeless.

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Wandering, waiting

I am a stranger here, a poor fit for this place. But I’ve been here so long, I’ve found a kind of peace with that. I’ve even been known to flaunt it a little, this strangeness.

photo study for The Sixth - 0252

photo study for The Sixth - 0280

I have a lot of experience with being lost, and with leaving. This is why, ultimately, I’m indifferent to you.

photo study for The Sixth - 0262

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How long did I fall?

How long did I fall? Illustration by Penina S. Finger

How far?

This was not an abyss, which has sides and which, however deep or wide apart, still would have seemed to hold me inside itself. Here, there were no sides, nothing to suggest I may ever, ever be pressed against by anything.

The stars were icy splinters. Their cold, pointed beams seemed to heave me farther, faster. Billowing desolation screamed and wailed, unfolded itself again and again, and tore away everything I ever thought I was. The farther I fell, the more it tore away, and the pain drove me mad.

I was sick with vertigo, and so alone, I could feel nothing else—not fear, not love, not rage.

Twice, I sensed vague eddies, gravitational tugs suggesting there was something else aside from me, but these quickly fell away. As they faded, I guessed they were nothing more than awkward echoes of my own yearn, now long past.

I tumbled through the agonizing nothingness. I tore through time.

And then, as if the universe had hurled a rock directly at my face, I slammed into a world. Had I been any less withered and frozen, the impact would have destroyed me. Instead, I bounced. I flew right back up into the thinnest, weakest reaches of its pull and fell again, bounced up again, not quite so high, and fell again.

This time, I struck an angled stone and arced, my leaps lower and lower until at last I came to rest. I was held now, and slowly, this hold relaxed itself around me. I sank gently into a little muddy shore by a pool. The Little Stone Arrives, illustration by Penina S. FingerSunshine, warm rains and ever-shifting shadows both calmed and confused me.

Still empty of all feelings but one, I lay in the soft mud, pulled time close to me like a pillow, and began to dream.

I dreamt about the sea. I dreamt about a butterfly.

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The night sky over the savannah sparkled with a dense carpet of stars. Across them, a small, black shadow darted furiously, and traced a blazing path of startling constellations.

It was a little owl, under moonlight the color of a late savannah dusk. Seen from below against the backdrop of stars it was blackest black, a hurtling blot of deep, deep nothingness.

Owl Constellation, by Penina

It seemed to ricochet against the stars, it darted so frantically, and with each sudden turn there was a flash of light.


The owl had begun its hunt at dusk and spotted its first prey—a Caterpillar—in the waning daylight. But what ought to have been an easy catch had gone badly. The sluggish looking worm had a defensive trick. As soon as the array of tiny spots on her back sensed the owl’s breath, she spasmed into a tight curl and then jerked straight. The force launched her up, and should have tossed her out of danger. Instead, she landed on the owl’s back.

Owls, even small ones, are not prone to panic, but they can become fiercely and increasingly determined. At first, the owl simply beat its wings, hovering just above the undergrowth. When that failed, it heaved itself high into the darkening sky.

The caterpillar seemed to have an iron grasp. She did slip—twice, but both times caught a new pincer-full of feathers before she could fall.

Now the owl began to truly wheel and soar, plummeting and abruptly rising, turning and suddenly changing course in its attempts to shake away the unwelcome passenger. Each time the owl snapped to a new direction, it wrenched the caterpillar taut and fired every bioluminescent phosphor she possessed. She possessed thousands.

Flash –

flash, flash –

To anyone watching from below (though no one was), it would have looked like distant celestial explosions.

Nothing spins in the air quite like a plump, velvety worm. She held on as her body plunged and sheared. She was curled, whipped into a taut line (flash), twisted serpentine, whipped straight again (flash). The world was a blinding blur of hard white stars and pungent blue-gray feathers.

The night deepened, the stars brightened. For a bug’s eternity, there was only the soft foom of owl wings and silent flashes of light.


Caterpillar’s escape trick had taken a huge amount of energy. Each burst of light took more. Stunned and dizzy, she simply clung, barely understanding what she clung to. The same fierce impulse that had driven her to arch and spring now compelled her to hold on tight.

Finally, she did begin to ache and wonder. She began to long for rest.

By good fortune, so did the bird. Utterly exhausted and hungrier than ever, it coasted with a wobble to the bare, but dewy savannah floor.

Its final lurch and sudden stillness were all the signal the caterpillar needed. She released her grip. Her tired body had frozen into a curl and she fell with a faint patter.

The owl wanted nothing to do with her now, and stood resting for as long as it dared. There was the faintest shush of dry earth as a snake began to uncoil, but the bird was gone as soon as it had breath to spare.

Caterpillar took much longer to recover, but her paralysis hid her until the sun began to rise. Refreshed by a new layer of dew, she rolled to her feet and hurried off in search of shelter and food.

Stars, by Penina


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