In these stories seers and vagabonds, addicts and gardeners succeed and sometimes fail at creating new kinds of community against apocalyptic backdrops. They build gardens in the ruins, transport seeds and songs from one world to another and from dreams to waking life. Where do you plant a seed someone gave you in a dream? How do you build a world more free of trauma when it’s all you’ve ever known? Sometimes the seed you wake up holding in your hand is the seed of a new world.
“Ursula Pflug’s stories are the kind you want to carry around with you for those days when it feels like you’re living in a strange and incomprehensible world; her stories will make you feel less alone. They are wondrous and unique little creatures that desire nothing more than to play fetch with your weirdest dreams. They are wild inventions built of words and sentences that dig into your psyche and send back reports about all you never knew of the world. They are sly and joyous, scary and entrancing, profound, unsettling, amusing, and utterly—perfectly!—unique.”
—Matthew Cheney, Hudson Prize winning author of Blood: Stories
“Ursula Pflug has to be one of the best short story writers I’ve ever read. There is no place to enter or leave an Ursula Pflug story that is not a portal to dark wonder. First you go in and find transformed worlds; then, when you come out with new vision, your own world changes as you observe it. Enter, and I promise you will be changed.”
—Candas Jane Dorsey, author of Black Wine and The Adventures of Isabel
“An extraordinary collection of magical stories that will wrap you in a timeless embrace and carry you away. Ursula Pflug’s wonderfully gentle and ultimately wise insights will break your heart, bring you hope, and encourage you to seek out the enchanted portals of creativity and love that you might otherwise have missed.”
—Lisa de Nikolits, author of Rotten Peaches and The Occult Persuasion and the Anarchist’s Solution
ABOUT AFTER THE FIRES:
“Ursula Pflug’s incendiary, surreal short fiction immerses the reader in a unique world. The effect is like nothing I’ve felt from reading any other writer’s fiction. Pflug manages to find the extraordinary and the epiphanal in reality, and bring out the reality of her fantastical settings. She’s a true original and this collection is Pflug at her best. A first-rate talent who should be more widely known.
—Jeff VanderMeer, NYT bestselling author of the Southern Reach Trilogy
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I don’t know how it is I came to have no parents and no name. I hear this is a place you can come, if you lookin’ for a name.
I have nothing. But I have had nothing before, and now I am glad to be free of it.
It is in the city. There are five of us, or maybe ten or thirty. The building is an empty one, gutted by fire. We have been sleeping on the floors, on found mattresses. I sprayed them all with a can of bug juice I bought. I do not like fleas or bedbugs.
Since I came here, last week, I have been planting flowers. I dig the earth out of the central courtyard. An empty yard. Probably it is full of lead, but eventually that too will be washed away by rain. The rain is cleaner now.
When I came, there was no one here. Now there are sometimes ten, sometimes twenty of us.
I have planted sunflowers in the yard. Their big heads turn, slowly, throughout the day.
I make window boxes out of some panelling ripped out of a wall. In them I plant geraniums, herbs, and tomatoes. The seeds are seeds I brought from the West. The soil is not good, this soil dug out of the yard. It is not really a yard.
One day I wake up and there are chickens in it. Where did the chickens come from? It doesn’t matter. They lay eggs, and they will be good to eat, when winter comes.
I gather the chicken dung and dilute it with water, and carefully pour it into the pots of plants. The tomatoes are doing fine. When someone new comes, I make them eat tomatoes.
“Vitamin C,” I say. They look at me strange, their eyes wide and dark, blank as stones.
“Eat your tomatoes,” I say.
They are young, most of them. They are young and frightened and ready to fight, and yet their mouths are all open, as though they were expecting something wonderful to come out of nowhere, to fly in.
They gather from the edges of the burnt city, hearing.
What do they hear?
That there is a place, a place you can come.
My sadness is that I am alone, that I am older than everyone here, that I must look after them all. They play with each other, giggling and combing one another’s hair.
They are like children, really. They run up and down the halls of the building, delighted, discovering things. Exploring. They like to rearrange, to take things apart and rearrange them. I remember I did that too. It is necessary, if they are to learn. Why we are here and not somewhere else.
I look after the plants and make the children eat them. I hope that none of them will get sick with something I cannot cure. I make them eat garlic and drink tea brewed from nettles and chamomile flowers. So they will be strong, will not get sick. I dream of someone coming over the hill. A man. He will be here soon. He will help me in my work.
I do not mind anymore, being always alone, being lonely. I no longer look for anyone to fall into, to carry me. I make them drink their teas. I make them wash. I watch as they play their secret, whispering games. I do not mind any more. Now I can do this; now I don’t mind not being one of them, but one of the others.
The man coming over the hill. I realize he isn’t coming over the hill, but is one of the ones here. He says his name is Stephen. He is maybe nineteen. He is very strong. I lean out the seeds window, watching him. He is leading the children. Shit in the pit, he says, not in the sunflowers. Wash your hands before you eat. Here, drink this tea. He yells at them sometimes but they do not really mind. As he becomes stronger, I disappear into the shadows. I lurk in the hallways, disappearing. I can, now. Now it isn’t so much responsibility; now someone has grown, like a sunflower … he is almost ready to harvest for seed. Ready to be an adult, come to help me shoulder the weight. I am glad. He does not speak to me, Stephen, but I can hear his voice in my mind, asking questions. I answer, from my room hidden in the dim corridors. Yes, you can do this and this and this.
Yes, the windmill on the roof is good. They will help you. You must make them work, teach them it is important. Energy and power. Their own. At first they won’t believe you, will not understand why, just as you did not understand, thought it was enough just to drift, to be asleep to your own power. Yes, you can do it.
“Will you help?” he asks me in my mind.
“Yes,” I say. “I will.”
Now they can hardly see me anymore. Stephen sees me, but only dimly, like something half forgotten, like a dream. He has already forgotten that I used to be a real person. He has forgotten I used to be flesh and blood like him, that I too suffered, hated to be so alone. I watch him cry, alone, sometimes at night.
“I cannot do it,” he cries, calling out my name. “I cannot do it, I cannot. You must help me. You say you love me, so you must help. You don’t know what it’s like he says, to work so hard for so little. Everything is darkness here, and I cannot see.”
“You can see,” I say. “There is a little light inside you, and if you turn it on, you will see everything, everything.”
He does then, at first tentatively, like an experiment, and then the whole yard is shining, illuminated, and he can see the faces of the children, some sleeping, some waking. They cannot see his light, but they know something has changed. They stir in their sleep, smiling, cuddling one another.
“You aren’t a human being,” he says. “You cannot know how it hurts.”
“Oh?” I say, but my heart hurts for him, for his hurt.
Then he is better again, and happy.
How I love him.
One day I will come back for him, and then we will be together.
At night, when they are all sleeping, I make the rounds of all my window boxes, gathering seeds. Seeds from tomatoes, from echinacea, cucumber, geranium, hyssop, basil. Parsley, garlic. Valerian, bergamot, mint. Sunflowers, zinnia, sweet pea. And of course, the beans and corn.
I dry the seeds on the roof, under the sun.
Then I climb the stairs again, at night. Up up up the stairs, all around the shadowy building, leaving it behind: its weight, its solidity. Each floor I go up, I look at the sleeping faces, bless them all. Each floor I go up, I feel a lightness, a greater freedom.
On the roof there are stars.
One of the stars moves and comes closer. In a great swoop of the mind I am lifted up up up among them. They welcome me, princes of peace. I recognize them all.
We skim over the night, looking for lights. Where we see lights, we hover and send our minds down into their dreams, the sleeping children. They do not know we have been there, but they feel a presence, a kindness, a benevolent intent. We are happy and shining.
Far below I see a girl, walking over a hill. In her knapsack she holds a packet of seeds and a bottle of water. Through the canvas of the knapsack I can see the seeds, the life inside them glowing like light bulbs.
And on another hill, there is a man. He is making something, seeds a new kind of machine. He will put it on the roof, and it will spin light and energy down from the stars.
One day they will be together, and then my work will be complete.