Illustration for The Closest Thing to Animals

The Closest Thing to Animals

Illustrated by Galen Dara |  Edited by Brian J. White

September 2015

I have a habit of meeting people right before they get famous and don’t need me anymore. I met Rock Morris two weeks before his book came out. I met Cindy Vea when she worked at the bakery. Her hair straggled out of her ponytail and neither of us would have guessed you could even be a full-time blogger. Six months later, I emailed Cindy to remind her about the panel we were putting together for the Conference on Negative Realism. She never wrote back. I met Nadia Barsoum the year before she started growing peppers. She kept saying her knee hurt. We thought it was the fog.

The day I met Hodan Mahmoud, I was home with a cold. I’d been cultivating it for a few days, staying up late, leaving my house with wet hair every morning, and coughing a lot at work to make my throat sore and let people know I was coming down with something, and finally it had paid off. I was lying under blankets, pleasantly woozy, preparing to sleep, really sleep, when I heard something crashing and banging around outside the window. It lasted so long, I got up to see if dogs were in the trash, and there was Hodan digging around in it with a stick.

I pushed up the screen and leaned out. “Hey!”

She looked up. “Hey.”

Hodan always has a vague look, sort of drowsy. She was wearing a green bandana over her hair, and a stained trench coat with the belt tied instead of buckled. I immediately felt embarrassed. I thought she was homeless. I’d never stop a homeless person from going through my trash.

“Hey,” she said, “I know you.”

“Um,” I said, but then I realized she was right: we’d gone to the same college. Now I was even more embarrassed, and also sort of panicked, because you should probably invite an old classmate up for tea, even if she’s turned out homeless.

“I’m sick,” I blurted. “I’m home with the flu.”

“That sucks,” she said. She sounded genuinely sorry. “Am I making too much noise?”

“No, it’s no problem. I mean. Are you — is there something special you’re looking for?”

She didn’t seem flustered. “Not really,” she said. “Just checking.”

Hodan is a great artist. I knew it the minute I stepped in her room. She had a sculpture of the Lolly Whales made out of plastic milk jugs. The Lolly Whale sculpture glowed faintly blue, exactly the way the real Lollies had done on the beach when I went to see them as a kid. There was even a Lolly Whale smell in the room: a gentle, wistful stink. It came from the milk jugs, Hodan told me later. She’d never washed them out properly. That was her genius: she understood that whales are made of milk. She’d put fairy lights inside the jugs to make them glow.

Wow,” I said.

She opened the fridge. “Want a lassi?”

“Sure. Wow.”

We drank canned lassis sitting on the floor in the glow of the Lolly Whales. There was nowhere else to sit. There was a bed, but it was covered with junk: old stuffed toys with their hair worn down, lassi cans, paper bags.

“Where do you sleep?” I asked.

Hodan looked at me sort of blankly. “On the bed.”

Outside her little window the night lights went drip, drip. The red ones are Hodan’s favorites. She told me that later. She says they slide down the sky like luminous cough drops sliding down a throat.

“I love this,” I said.

She didn’t try to pretend she thought I was talking about the lassi. She didn’t even ask me why I was whispering.

“Me too,” she said.

She doesn’t have a big smile, but it’s very warm. You probably know what I mean. You’ve probably seen her picture.

Hodan was born in Minnesota. She moved here when she was twelve. She fell asleep on the plane, and when she woke up she was flying over a crater. No trees at all outside the window, just drifts of something that could have been snow or sand. “At one point,” she told me, “it was the moon.” I think she still feels like she’s living on the moon. I do, too. Things get away from you, like you’re trying to hold on to dust. When Hodan was in eighth grade she said she hated California and her teacher sneered, “It’s better than Somalia.”

We used to get packed snow from Minnesota. Remember that? It was a big deal to get a carton while it was still a little bit frozen. Kids used to stand in line. That was before the lanugo. God, it makes me feel old.

This is a really good world for artists.

I’m not an artist. I mean, I am a little bit of an artist. You are, too. Don’t you secretly think you could write a book someday? Are you into embroidery, or making jewelry from bottle-tops and shells? The kind of artist that just calls themselves “artistic.” At my job we used to have a plan for you called Unlocking the Artist Within. Cindy Vea developed it almost right after I got her a job at the company. It seemed like she’d only worked there for two weeks before she was quitting, and blogging, and suing, and famous, and not my friend anymore.

I loved having Cindy as my friend. She wore white shoes that cut her around the ankles. She always had bandaids there. Her look was totally hungry. “That one’s starving,” Marco, my boss, said on Cindy’s first day at work. Approvingly, of course. He didn’t know the half of it.

Cindy and I used to stay up late. We’d sit on my bed and eat day-old bread from the bakery where she worked, her wolf-face harsh in the light of my reading lamp. We said “we” a lot. We criticized everybody at both our jobs. Cindy had phrases. That’s her gift, I think, the thing that made her famous. Lots of those phrases are on her blog, “Get what you wish for.” “You can have safety or passion — your choice.” The phrases I remember from our late-night talks are dumber, but also more intimate somehow, like “Never use lip balm, it’s addictive.”

After I met Hodan, I went on for the first time. It gave me a little pang to see Cindy’s face on the screen. A professional photo, perfectly lit, her head tilted to one side. Her jaw looked smaller. I wondered if she was still wearing the shoes.

I clicked on the link called “Putting It Out There.” The new page unrolled like a carpet. It had the same fine print at the top, decorated with something like tiny feathers: “This blog is the sole property of Cindy Vea.” I guess she didn’t want anyone to forget she’d sued the company and won.

“Whatever, Cindy,” I told the screen.

I scrolled down the Helpful Tips. My idea, of course, was to Put Hodan’s artwork Out There. “Find your community,” Cindy advised. “Can’t afford to rent a space? Team up with a friend. Be their opening act.”

That’s me, I thought. The opening act.

Except I never take off on my own, the way you’re supposed to, according to Cindy’s blog. “An opening act is like a baby bird. At a certain stage, it’ll leave the nest.” I imagined Cindy typing this in her room on the eighteenth floor. The elevator was broken; that’s why we always hung out at my place. I imagined Cindy there, even though I’m sure she’s got a better place now. I could hear her long, firm fingers tap and see her long, firm jaw in the light from the screen. I saw her get an alert from me: “hey! about that conference…” She tucked her hair behind her ear in her quick impatient way and clicked Ignore. She was wearing the gray sweater with the yellow patch on one shoulder. I was with her the day she bought it. “Ugh!” I said out loud. “Stop thinking like this!” I closed the tab and opened a new email.

Hey Nadia! Omg it’s been ages. How are you? Good, I hope! I’m ok, just dealing with Marco’s bad breath and worse manners, haha. Anyway look I’m writing because I saw you’re doing a fundraiser thing (which is awesome!) and I was wondering if you’d like to involve an artist? I have this friend Hodan (Somali like me!) who does AMAZING stuff, really timely and innovative — for example, sculptures of extinct animals from upcycled trash! I think you’d love it, and it could help raise awareness about environmental issues at your gig. Anyway, let me know!



At work, I was developing a project called Finding Your Center. Marco’s idea, not mine. Still, I’d had to sign all the new paperwork: the pages of terms and conditions to make sure I didn’t go off and start my own blog with the same name, as Cindy — or, as Marco called her, The Razor — had done. Marco had taken to hanging around my desk, fuming. He cracked his knuckles like the bad guy in an old movie. “That bitch,” he’d say. When he wasn’t growling and swearing he’d lean over me and, in an oniony whisper, ask me for Cindy’s number.

After work I went on walks with Hodan. She pushed a baby carriage. By the time night fell, it would be full of trash. “Nice one,” she’d say, if I found something rare, like a child’s rubber bracelet. She was never in a hurry: she could frown at an empty chip bag for fifteen minutes. She was never the one to say we should go home, either, but when I suggested we stop for dinner she was always ready to go. It seemed to me like she’d found her center. “Have you always been like this?” I asked. “So calm like this?”

She laughed. “I’m not calm.”

Once we’d sat down and ordered, I said: “You’re calmer than I am.”


“See? Okay. You agree to everything! I wish I could be like that.”

“I don’t agree to everything,” she said. “I hate lots of things. Most things, in fact. Except trash. And light. And food.”

“And me,” I said. I wished she’d said it instead.

She smiled. I know you’ve seen it, but when it’s for you — it’s like being injected with honey.

The tea came. We added milk, sugar, and a dash of pepper to make a drink Hodan called California Shaah.

California Shaah tastes terrible. It’s nothing like real tea. I still drink it, though. It might be a magic potion. It might turn me into something.

“If somebody said to you, I need to find my center, what advice would you give them?” I asked.

“Wow. That’s a terrible idea.”

I went home and called my parents and listened to my mom cry. I always call them when I feel bad, and it always makes me feel worse. They were on vacation in Florida when the quarantine came down. Every year it becomes less likely we’ll ever see each other again.

When the quarantine first went into effect, the tent was black at night, smudging the stars. In the day it was the same as it is now: grayish, like a fuzzy window. The sun lamps helped in the daytime, but at night, they eventually figured out, the extra blackness was making people depressed. I don’t know if it made me depressed. I was in college, and taking a lot of Q, which was popular then. It made you feel a ghostly presence. My ghostly presence used to part my hair and blow on my neck. I found it comforting, so I probably was depressed. The night the lights came on, I went outside with everyone else and looked at the sky. Lights sliding down in different colors, like glittery rain. Everyone clapping and taking pictures. They hadn’t tried to mimic the stars: studies had suggested that would only make people feel worse.

I lay on the floor and watched the lights, trying to avoid the red ones. I was annoyed with Hodan. Pissed off, really. Maybe Finding Your Center was a stupid project, but it might help someone someday, maybe not a great artist like her, but a regular person, someone who was ready to try anything, knitting, diet and exercise programs, meditation, because they lived in a giant bubble and couldn’t visit their parents or anything, and any minute they might catch the lanugo and die. That kind of person might actually be interested in finding their center, not arguing about whether you should think about it or whether it even existed. I fell asleep on the floor and woke up sore, as if I’d been kicked. There was a paper bag with a note on it under my door.

Please forgive me for last night. I’m sorry I upset you. I hope I can offer you the fact that I am not used to being with people, and have it arrive not as an excuse but as a truth. I know that I am often withdrawn. I’m fighting it all the time.

For me it is difficult even to imagine a center. A center seems like something inside, but I picture everything going out. My whole effort over the last few years has been to open, to give, to be in the motion of opening. Maybe I don’t want a center.

Despite the desire to open constantly I have been closed! For example when you asked if I had a partner or dated people. I said “no,” but that was a half-truth. I’m married. My husband is on the other side of the tent. He was on a business trip.

When I found that I was a tent-widow, I was glad in a way that made me feel angry. I walked a lot. I lost two of my jobs. But now I’m glad in a way that just makes me feel blank. I see this as progress. You know how there’s gray in the morning? Soon they’ll turn on the lamps.

Does it ever seem strange that we call it a tent? A tent is supposed to move. Why don’t we just pack up and go?

I wish we’d gotten to know each other in college. I was always too shy to talk to you, even though my parents had told me to make friends with other Somali girls, and of course you and I were the only ones. You were so beautiful (still are!) and you seemed to be everywhere. So different from me. At ease. You didn’t have the immigrant thing. The shit that used to matter! But some things still do. The way you can say with confidence, “Safety or passion — your choice!” I admire that.

My husband and I speak often. We’re considering a divorce. It’s hard to see what counts as safety sometimes, and what counts as passion.

As for “your choice” — that’s one of the ways I want to open out. To give that to others. I love you, abaayo macaan. Talk to me later? Your choice.

I love you, dear sister.

The trains hadn’t started yet. I ran all the way to her apartment. I leaned on the doorbell, then after a minute I heard her undoing the locks. I started talking before she opened the door. “I wish I could hold on to even one single thing from the past. I’m a tent-orphan, but I wish I could be a tent-widow too. I wish there was more stuff holding me down. Sometimes I think there’s other new diseases out there, besides the lanugo, and maybe I have one.”

We hugged. I held her so tight. She was wearing a T-shirt and her shoulders felt solid and soft. “It’s like I’m made out of string,” I said. I realized that people, with their warm weight, their softness, and their smell, are the closest thing we have to animals now.

I determined to make Hodan Mahmoud famous. It was the great purpose of my life.

And yes, I did think I might become a real artist as well. Sometimes I thought I was changing slightly. I kept a notebook beside my bed and wrote words in it, her hand, the fog, my hand. I felt that Hodan and I would enter the world as artists together, although I was not sure exactly how this would happen. Perhaps I’d write poems about her work. The important thing, I felt, was that we stick together, side by side, finding our way.

Nadia Barsoum came through. She didn’t write to me, but her manager did. I read the email out loud in Hodan’s apartment. “Ms. Barsoum would be happy to allow your client to exhibit her works in the convention center at the Fight the Lanugo event.”

“Your client!” Hodan chuckled through the scarf that covered her mouth. We both wore scarves, because of the fumes. Hodan was varnishing.

She read my eyes. “You don’t look happy.”

“I am happy! It’s just — she could have written to me herself. We used to be really close, you know, before she got sick. We did all this stuff… We’d sneak onto trains. We learned how to knit together. We went dancing at the same place every week. For a year.”

“You knit?”

“Not really.” I shook my head hard and blinked. “Never mind. This is good news!” As I said it I realized it was true. Hodan frowned, not in a rude way, just in the way that meant she was going back into her work. I loved that look. She was varnishing buttons and little chunks of eraser. It was for a piece called Summer of the Swollen Bees. If you’ve seen that one then you know how it gives you all the precise feelings you had the summer it happened: when the big slow bees came drifting over the sea and filled the air like confetti or tiny party balloons before they gave up and died all over. When you walk inside Summer of the Swollen Bees, it’s like entering a fresh and sparkling afternoon where childhood is everywhere magically dying. I watched Hodan work and listened to the whirring of the air cleaner and felt so happy. I honestly didn’t mind that Nadia hadn’t written.

A friend is like armor, I thought. Or like a tent.

The height of happiness was moving things into the convention center. The space was huge and dark. We brought our own lights, because the city wouldn’t turn the lights on in the center unless there was an event in progress. A couple of guys and one girl from the center helped us move all the pieces in on trolleys. They joked and flirted with us. They set up little round tables. The idea was that the visitors would stand at the tables and drink their drinks or whatever, and around them would be the art.

“Hey,” said one of the convention guys. “We should all go to Disneyland.”

Disneyland was what they called this big space at the back of the center. A ramp went steeply down into dark. You got on a trolley, held onto each other, and flew down the ramp with your eyes shut against the crash.

There was actually no crash in Disneyland. You just rode on and on through darkness until you stopped. Your stomach kept going down and down.

So there I was, at the big event. Smart dress, boots, red lipstick. Tilting my head to one side. I was the artist’s friend. People talked to me like I was her manager. I made sure I kept Hodan in view at all times. I didn’t want our relationship to grow thin.

The room filled up. Though I tried not to, I saw Cindy Vea at one of the tables. Of course she was here. She was talking with great animation and gesturing at a piece called Mild. Mild is the one that just hangs there until you want to go to sleep under it. Take that, Cindy, I thought. You’ll never make anything half as good.

The truth is, I was nervous enough to scream.

Some important person went up on the stage and introduced Nadia Barsoum. “If there is a way out of quarantine, ladies and gentlemen, this may be it.” A moment later, Nadia rolled up to the podium. I hadn’t expected the bubble. There was a box on it for her voice and she had to maneuver so that the box faced the microphone. Her voice sounded full of bees. “Hello everyone.” I kept thinking of trains, the way we’d hide in the bathroom and ride to the end of the track.

“Hey,” someone whispered close to my ear.

I turned, and it was Rock Morris.

“Hey,” he murmured with his seductive smile, “I heard you work with the artist?”

“Yes,” I answered frostily.

“That’s great. Could you give her my card? I’m Rock Morris, the writer? Apocalypse Manifesto?”

He was handing me a card. It had a drawing of a man smoking a pipe on it, because Rock Morris is a pretentious ass. He also has animal magnetism, which is basically an allergen. Some people aren’t allergic to it. I am.

“Could you ask her to get in touch? I’d like to write about her for the Times. Maybe even an interview? I don’t know if she does those anymore.”

Then we just stared at each other. On the stage, Nadia talked in her buzzing voice about the future and about death. “I think of myself as a field,” she said. I was staring at Rock Morris, trying to process the meaning of the word “anymore.” He was staring at me the way you stare at a person when you remember you once asked them to suck on a piece of hard candy and pass it into your mouth.

“Holy shit,” he said.

Somebody shushed us.

“Holy shit,” he repeated more quietly. “It’s you! I mean — this is amazing! How are you? And how do you know Hodan Mahmoud?” He was laughing, incredulous. “This is nuts!”

“I go on waiting for winter,” Nadia said.

I went inside Summer of the Swollen Bees. A couple of other people were in there, exclaiming at the beauty of the silvery flecks. One of them was crying. I tried doing some of the breathing exercises I’d written about for Finding Your Center, but soon I gave up and searched Hodan’s name on my phone.

I should probably explain that I never read about the arts. Not even Cindy could make me do that, with her phrase “Know your context!” I hate the way it makes me feel. I’m like the woman in a story I read who swelled up until she burst all over her couch. Inside the woman was a tiny baby girl, curled around her sternum. The baby was waiting to take the woman’s place. My envy is like a hungry baby curled up in my chest, pissed off, impatient for me to swell up and die already.

I looked at all the galleries where Hodan’s work had been displayed and the articles about her and the pictures. In the photographs she looked thinner. I tried to see that she also looked unhappy, as if something were missing from her life, but she just looked like always: half asleep.

I strode through the swollen bees, knocking them aside. Hodan was in a crowd, of course. I pushed through them. “How could you?” I shouted. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Her smile faded. “What?”

“That you’re somebody,” I yelled. I waved at the people, the lights. “That you’ve done all of this before. That you don’t need me.”

Riding the train home I just cried and hated. This is such a good world for artists, but it’s a terrible world for everybody else. It’s terrible to live underneath a quarantine tent with no birds or wind if you can’t find a way to make yourself immortal. What’s the point of this experience if you can’t turn it into something else, some sign? Are you just going to stand there and leak like a broken hourglass? Blurred lights passed in the window and I could see Hodan and Cindy and Nadia Barsoum and even Rock Morris sipping bright drinks with little parasols in them. They were drinking and laughing together and everybody was taking their picture. And I just cried. How carefully I’d read Apocalypse Manifesto! I can still quote whole passages. “Everything must be about something now. There is no room for the inessential.” And he hadn’t even remembered me. The night we met at the Book Club and he told me, so excited, that his own book was coming out soon. His room with the real wood floor, and the kids’ toys and picture books lying around because his sister and nieces got stuck at his place in the quarantine. We tiptoed in so as not to wake them up. “They throw their shit everywhere,” he said. And in the morning there was something wrong with my tights. I yanked them on and crept out while he was asleep because I knew he was disappointed in me and wouldn’t call me back. Hobbling to the train station in my tights like a pair of shackles. By the time I got home my legs were almost dead. Upstairs I realized that I’d taken a pair of his niece’s tights by mistake and I felt the whole meaning of my life in that error. I really did. The whole thing. So strong I could cry about it months later on the train. I was almost at my stop when my phone buzzed in my coat. A text from Nadia Barsoum. “No surprise that u didn’t say hi since u never visited me in the hospital. U really are the worst person.”

I hadn’t done Q in years, but I still had a stash in the medicine cabinet. When I got home that night I lined up the pills on the counter. Every time I started feeling alone, I took another Q. A ghostly presence held my hand for forty-eight hours.

When the last of the presence faded, I went to see Nadia Barsoum in the hospital.

I got there too early for visiting hours and had to sit in the freezing lobby. Everything smelled like a dentist’s chair. A nurse who smelled like a dentist’s chair came and took me into a room to change my clothes. I had to wipe my entire body first with a special kind of wipe. The clothes were pink: “It seemed like you,” the nurse explained. A pink cap buttoned over my brow. The nurse took me up to Nadia’s room where I looked at Nadia through a plastic wall.

Inside, Nadia had a normal room. She had a blue fuzzy carpet, a desk, and an old-fashioned lamp with a yellow bulb. There were books and balls of yarn all over the place. It was the kind of room where you would expect to find a cat. The only cat, however, was Nadia herself. She was in the most advanced stage of the lanugo ever experienced, because, unlike other victims, she had survived. Her long hair grew everywhere. It was shorter on her hands and face; she must have trimmed it.

“Hi Nadia.”

“Hel-_lo_,” she said. “Will wonders never.”

She looked tiny, shrunken in all that hair. She was wearing a purple sweater vest and denim shorts. I tried not to look at her legs.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come before.”

“Oh my God. What are you? Are you a person? Like, ‘Help, my friend is sick, let me run away. Oh wait, no, I need a favor for my other friend! Let’s see, let me call my abandoned friend and ask her! I won’t talk to her though! Because ew!’”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Are you going to start crying? Because that would be awesome. That would be so perfect. Oh my God. I need a camera.”

I swallowed. My eyes were stinging. “Nadia, I am so sorry. It’s just — you were busy. You were so busy all the time. Your appointments and interviews—”

“I was busy being sick! I was busy almost dying! What is wrong with you? Are you actually made of cardboard?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am. I’m made out of cardboard.”

She shook her head. Her knees were red, raw clusters of peppers — anyway, they looked like peppers. I remembered when her legs started aching, and she joked that she had arthritis like an old lady, because it got worse in foggy weather. And then her lanugo started, and she disappeared into the hospital, and my own test for the disease came back negative, and I didn’t even tell her because it seemed like a betrayal, like I should have gone with her into illness and death. And now her knees, the only part of her body not covered with hair, were these bulbous bunches of bright red growth with yellow veins going down. I wanted to ask her if it hurt, and it occurred to me that at this point I had nothing to lose, so I did.

“Nope,” Nadia said. “They give me the most amazing drugs. Like I’m flying right now. You can thank these drugs that I haven’t thrown you out. Seriously, I feel great. Do you still knit? I made this vest. I always do some knitting after my weekly hand-shave.”

My eyes stung again. “I sort of gave it up.”

“Why does that not surprise me? Cardboard.”

Her eyes shone dark and bright underneath the wings of her brows. Her power to make a room seem warmer was absolutely unchanged.

“Nadia, I’m so sorry!”

“BO-RINGGG! Sorry but life is like, really short.”

She took a pile of papers from her desk and shook them in my direction. “Guess what this is? A book. It’s called ‘Lanugo Memoir.’” She put the papers down to make quotation marks in the air with her furry fingers. “In quotes. Everything in my whole memoir is in quotes. Like I say we made ‘sweaters’ out of ‘yarn.’ We had ‘milkshakes’ in the ‘park.’ That’s to show how fake everything is inside the tent. You know? The human ability to make all this amazing fake shit. Fake meat. Fake cheese. They way they make fake food that actually goes bad if you leave it out.”

“Like milk,” I said, thinking of Hodan’s Lolly Whales.

“Exactly! It’s to trick us so we don’t run around screaming from horror. But actually we should all be screaming from horror all the time. Except me. I’m real, you know, a real animal, and now also a real plant. And the doctors are pretty sure that Plant-Me is saving Animal-Me. I’m going to put a giant picture of me on the cover. It’ll be like, ‘All of lost Nature concentrated in one young woman!’ Totally grandiose. You better buy a copy.”

“Of course I will.”

She shook her head, smiling. “Well. You actually came up here. That’s something. Do you still hang out with that girl from the bakery?”

“Cindy Vea. No.”

“Good! She came to my thing, you know. Came up to me afterward like ‘Can I interview you for my blog?’”

She still had her talent for mimicry. She could even do Cindy’s jaw. I laughed.

“Seriously! And I was like, what could possibly be in this for me?”

“Her blog’s kind of famous.”

“Look deep into my eyes and ask me if I give a fuck. She’s the worst.”

“I thought I was the worst.”

“You’re a close second.”

Before I left, Nadia told me her mother visited every day. “You’re lucky you missed her! Oh my God! She stands there and prays for hours!” She told me it was weak and insulting to pretend to believe in prayer if you really didn’t. Because she loved her mother, she screamed and threw things during the prayers. “Drone drone drone,” she said. I told her how much I missed Cindy Vea, how I’d been looking forward to the Conference on Negative Realism, how sad I was that now I couldn’t go. “Why don’t you go by yourself?” she said, and I told her I didn’t think people would listen to just me.

“Do you think people want to listen to that awful Cindy person? Are you broken? Why do you love everybody so much?”

I told her I’d written a poem for her.

“Let me hear it.”

“It’s really short.”

“Just let me hear it!”


her hand

the fog

my hand

Once I read that an aluminum ring dropped through a magnetic field will fall more slowly. Maybe if the magnets were strong enough, they could keep it from hitting the ground. Once I read of an old Somali poet who demanded to know why he should stay in the country now that the girls, slender as trees, were gone. I’ve read a lot of other things I could tell you about, but I don’t really think it would help. On my way to Hodan’s place, I picked up a scrap of plastic. I picked up a piece of gum. It was old and hard and I scratched it off the sidewalk and placed it tenderly inside my pocket.

She undid the locks on her door and left the door open, then turned away and got into bed. I went inside and closed the door and fastened the locks. When I turned around she was sitting with a great quilt over her lap, bent over and stitching. It was so beautiful I gasped.

She looked up, her eyes sparkling not with happiness but with tears. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the galleries. I didn’t think it mattered. I never know what matters, to you or to anyone. I’m not good at it. I’m too dumb.”

I took a deep breath. My stomach went down and down. “You’re right. It doesn’t matter,” I said.

It was like peeling off skin and throwing it away. And everyone would see that under the skin you were nothing but cardboard and plastic and string and fake milk, utterly inessential.

I crossed the room, took off my shoes and got under the quilt opposite Hodan. Cans and toys jostled under me. Our feet touched. I squirmed until the random objects around me made a nest. The quilt was huge; I could draw it all the way up to my chin.

“I feel like there’s a magnetic field in here,” I said. “I’m still falling, but more slowly.”

On the quilt there were elephants and bees and whales. There were people fleeing their country and a dead woman by the side of a road and a little boy vomiting in the back of a truck. There were terrible crowded apartments and policemen banging the doors with their guns and a cat in a noose hanging from a mango tree. There were trees and trees and girls as slender as trees lined up to draw water in dusty camps. There were lonely taxi drivers chewing qaat in the snow. There were bats and bleeding lizards and whales expiring on the sand, the brief lovely grotesque menagerie of our childhood. I snuggled down into it. Soon I was lying curled around Hodan’s feet. I drew the quilt over my head and went to sleep.

© 2015 Sofia Samatar

About the author

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, and the short story collection, Tender. She is the recipient of the Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the John W. Campbell Award. Find out more at

About the artist

Galen Dara

Galen Dara likes monsters, mystics, dead things and extremely ripe apricots. She won the 2016 World Fantasy Award for Best Artist and has been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award and the Chesley Award. 

Her clients include Escape Artists inc, Skyscape Publishing, Fantasy Flight Games, Uncanny Magazine, 47North publishing, Fireside Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Tyche Books.

When she’s not making art you can find her at the edge of the Sonoran Desert climbing mountains and hanging out with a friendly conglomerate of humans and animals. You can follower her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @galendara.