This story is provided in text and audio form free of charge to all, regardless of means, age, or geographical location, thanks to my patrons on Patreon. If you like this story and have the means to support its availability for others, please consider becoming a member here, buying the e-book here, or making a one-time donation here. Thank you!
Betty, Butter, Sun
by Monica Byrne
Edited by Hugo Award winner John Klima.
One day, Betty couldn’t stand it anymore. She reached up with her butter knife and cut out a slice of the sun. It trembled like pie filling on the edge of her blade.
She walked back to her cottage, sat down at her kitchen table, spread it on a slice of homemade pumpkin bread, and put it in her mouth. Immediately her lips caught fire. A wave of flame broke over her entire body until she was nothing but a smoldering mummy.
Her neighbor Agatha knocked on the door shortly after, because she’d noticed the sky had gotten a little darker, and she was worried. There was no answer. She went in anyway, because she knew Betty kept cookies in a red jar on the stove. Agatha had already crossed the room and taken a cookie when she noticed, first, a burning smell; and second, her burnt neighbor.
Agatha dropped the cookie at once. Then she felt ashamed and picked it up off the floor and held it in her hand. Then she felt silly. Betty looked dead, so Betty couldn’t see her. Agatha wandered outside, cookie in hand, so that she could think more clearly.
The sky was definitely darker. The other two villagers, Clare and Diane, had come out to the village green to investigate.
Pointing back toward the cottage, Agatha said to them: Betty the Baker is dead.
Diane blinked and said, What happened?
I don’t know, said Agatha, but she looked all burnt.
Well, that explains it, said Clare, folding her arms and looking up at the sun.
They all looked. They could see that the sun’s brilliance was indeed dimmed now, lacking just a sliver on the top edge; so slight, but it ruined the otherwise perfect circle. None of them were tall enough to reach the sun unless they were standing on a box or unless, like Betty, they used a knife.
I think that Betty overreached a bit, said Diane. She was always sticking her spatulas where she wasn’t supposed to.
The villagers stood near each other, but not together. Their cottages waited for them, one on each side of the green. Diane’s was outfitted for her station as Deacon; Clare’s, for her station as Chemist. They all had work to get back to, except Agatha, the Adulteress, who merely floated from cottage to cottage asking the others to do things for her even though she had her own cottage with all its own amenities.
We’ll have to bury her, said Diane. I’ll dig a grave.
Where? said Agatha.
Here, said Diane, pointing down. There’s nowhere else for her to go.
The three villagers stepped back to survey the ground beneath their feet.
I’ll help, said Clare.
So Diane and Clare dug, while Agatha watched on the grass with her cheek on her palm. They dug an arm’s length down and then debated whether it was deep enough. No one had ever died before, so they’d had no need to bury anyone. This was all new.
They decided the grave was deep enough. Then they went into Betty’s cottage. That which had formerly been Betty had not moved from its final position, so they agreed she must be dead. They wrapped up the body in a quilt and carried it out to the grave and dropped it into the grave.
Now, said Diane, I’ll say a few words.
The other two nodded. Diane was a Deacon, so it was only proper.
For Betty, said Diane. She overreached. But she made the best cookies. Ah-men.
Ah-men, said the others.
Then Diane and Clare covered her up with dirt.
Then Agatha said, Will someone please make me lunch?
Diane sighed and said, I will.
So Diane and Agatha went off to Diane’s cottage, and Clare went to her own cottage.
The sun hung where it had always hung, though now it was maimed.
Agatha was the first to notice the pool. It was a puddle of inky black liquid welling up through Betty’s grave.
Agatha fetched Clare. Clare went back to her cottage to pick up her chemistry kit and came back out. She crouched at the edge of the puddle and pulled out various instruments.
What do they measure? asked Agatha.
Opacity and glint, said Clare.
Then Clare plucked some grass and threw it onto the surface of the black water. At once the liquid swallowed it. There was no surface tension. It disappeared just as quickly as though it’d been thrown into a shadow.
Interesting, said Clare.
They called for Diane to join them at the side of the black pool. They threw various things into it. All were swallowed. Agatha wandered off and came back with a little paper boat, hastily made, and set it to float on the surface. But it sank just as quickly as everything else.
I don’t suppose we want to find out how deep it is, said Diane.
Clare retrieved a staff from her cottage. The staff was six feet long. Holding it as high as she could, she dipped it into the pool. It made no ripple as it slid in.
The others held their breath as the staff continued to drop, as Clare lowered it, calmly, hand over hand. It was already deeper than the grave they’d dug.
That’s enough, said Diane. Draw it out again.
So Clare stopped and tried to pull it out. But then she cried out.
It won’t come, she said.
What do you mean, it won’t come?
It’s stuck, she said. She yanked up on the staff to demonstrate. It didn’t budge.
Try lowering it down again, said Diane.
Clare did. And it continued its descent, smooth as ever.
Let go, said Diane.
Clare did. The staff was swallowed by the pool.
Everyone took a step back.
Where does it lead? said Agatha.
No one answered her.
The villagers looked up at the sun and then down at the pool. They didn’t look at each other. They adjourned for dinner in their separate cottages. Neither Clare nor Diane would take Agatha in this time, so she sat at her own kitchen table and remained hungry.
A bit later, Agatha noticed that Betty’s empty cottage was inhabited again. She tried to remain circumspect in her walks back and forth across the village green, but finally, her curiosity got the best of her, and she made her way to the cottage doorway.
Hello, she said to the woman unpacking a box on the kitchen table.
Hello, said the woman.
What’s your name?
I’m Elizabeth, she said. She extended her hand and Agatha shook it.
What do you do? said Agatha.
I’m an Economist.
That’s good, said Agatha. Clare is a Chemist, so you’ll get on well together.
Elizabeth the Economist shrugged and continued to unpack.
Aren’t you going to ask what I do? said Agatha.
I wasn’t going to, said Elizabeth. But I guess you want to tell me.
Yes, said Agatha. I’m the Adulteress.
Oh dear, said Elizabeth.
Can you make me lunch today?
Elizabeth laughed, but it was not a friendly laugh. If I have leftovers, she said, I’ll leave them out.
Okay. Thank you, said Agatha. And she went back out onto the village green.
Agatha sat by the edge of the pool and watched as it continued to grow. She had no reflection in it. Nothing did—not even the sun.
Also, she’d begun to notice forms at the edge of the village green. At first she thought she must be seeing things, and blinked and shook her head. But they were still there. They coalesced in the periphery of her vision, then dissipated as soon as she looked at them head-on. No one else had noticed them; or if they did, they hadn’t said so. They were too busy with their work. But Agatha just spent every day pacing the village green. She had time to look, time to notice.
The sun continued to hang in the sky, same place as always. Agatha looked up at it. She thought it looked like a nibbled cookie. Just a little, from the edge, with a clean cleavage plane.
And then she missed Betty’s cookies.
She missed them so much she actually got up and snuck into Elizabeth’s cottage when she wasn’t there. She rummaged through the recipes that Elizabeth hadn’t yet thrown away. She found dozens of cookie recipes. She pulled out her favorite—cranberry chocolate chip—and took it to her own cottage and started pulling out bowls and cookie sheets and measuring cups. She’d tried to cook before, but it always went badly. This time, though, she felt different—like she really might be able to do it without anyone’s help. She followed the recipe as precisely as she could. When the dough was ready, she thumbed buttery lumps of it onto the cookie sheets and put them in the oven. Then she set her timer and waited at the kitchen table.
There was still ten minutes to go when the oven started smoking. She pulled it open and smoke poured out of it. When the smoke cleared away, she saw that each of the cookies had burnt to small, charred lumps. She sank back into her chair. She looked away from the oven. She wandered out of her cottage and sat by the black pool again and cried.
After she wiped away the last of her tears, she looked up at the sun. Looking at it made her feel both better and worse at the same time. It distracted her. If she stared long enough, she could start to see what looked like a gold tadpole and a silver tadpole chasing each other, endlessly, in a circle. She could never quite tell whether the tadpoles were moving of their own accord, or whether they were an artifact of her eye. Either way, they seemed to swim in a rhythmic pulse, each so close to touching its front to the other’s back, but never quite. Never quite!
Agatha looked down. She drew up her legs and put her head in her arms and spent a long while in the darkness of her lap, blinking her eyes until the afterimage of the tadpoles was gone. Then, through a crack of light under her elbow, she again saw shadowy figures coalescing at the edge of her vision. She went very still. This time, she didn’t try to look at them straight on. She let them remain in her peripheral vision. She could only see their legs, but it seemed that the figures did not see her. They were streaming past her, on both sides, in both directions, and passing each other too.
Agatha made a decision.
Clare and Diane and Elizabeth were spending more and more time in their own cottages, and Agatha was spending more and more time by the pool, right under the sun. When she was sure she wouldn’t be seen, she set down a mixing bowl from her kitchen, stood on top of it, and reached up toward the sun with her butter knife.
She was surprised how soft the sun was—not like a cookie at all, but easily sliced like a ball of butter, except that each slice glowed bright like lava and immediately hardened upon contact with the air. She dared not touch the slivers. She shook them off her knife and dropped them into the black pool. Like with the staff and everything else, the slivers dropped into the pool and disappeared, as if it were a pool of air.
She only carved out little slices, one at a time, so that the others wouldn’t notice. It had to be gradual. She told herself she’d stop as soon as she could see the shadowy figures as much as she wanted to. When the sky had gotten infinitesimally darker, she stepped down off her mixing bowl and tried to see out of the corner of her eyes. The figures were indeed still there, and beginning to coalesce into real matter, with distinct outlines instead of dancing fuzzy ones. She could make out heads and arms and feet.
Agatha was sitting by the pool when Clare came out of her cottage.
Hi Clare, said Agatha. What are you doing?
Experiments, said Clare.
I’m hungry, said Agatha. Will you make me dinner?
Maybe. You expect so much. What are you doing?
Looking. I’m seeing new things.
I can see differently. Different things.
Clare laughed. I don’t see any different things, she said.
Well, you’re not looking for them, said Agatha. That’s why you don’t see them.
Clare suddenly frowned. What I do see, she said, is the sun. Look at it! It’s getting smaller. Doesn’t it seem smaller to you?
No, Agatha lied.
Clare called Diane and Elizabeth out of their cottages.
Doesn’t the sun seem smaller to you? Clare asked them.
It does, now that you say so, said Diane. But how could that happen?
How would I know, asked Clare. I’ve been doing my experiments in my cottage all day.
Well I don’t know, said Diane. I’ve been writing sermons all day.
Nor I, said Elizabeth. I’ve been collecting data.
They turned to look at Agatha.
What have you been doing, Agatha? said Diane.
I tried to bake cookies, said Agatha. They didn’t come out right.
Is that all?
You’re lying. I can tell because I’m a Deacon. What have you been doing, Agatha?
Trying to see, she said.
And taking slices of the sun, she said.
And putting them where?
There, she said, pointing to the black pool.
The other three fell silent. Agatha could feel their stares boring into her skull.
You’re nothing but a burden, Diane said at last.
You expect too much, said Clare.
Stupid girl, said Elizabeth.
Agatha didn’t answer.
The other three stood apart from Agatha. They spoke to each other in low tones. Then they returned to Agatha.
Give me the butter knife, said Diane.
Agatha handed it over.
Diane took it and reached up and sliced off a full third of what was left of the sun, balancing it on the blade. She carried it into her own cottage, walking very slowly. The door closed. Then Clare returned with her own butter knife and carried off another third. Her door closed. Elizabeth took the last third for herself and closed her own cottage door. Each of their kitchen windows glowed with new light.
Agatha stood in the middle of the village green. For the first time, there was no sun overhead. For the first time, there was twilight. The sky was a tawny pinkish color, and beneath it, figures were passing her, on all sides, on all planes, up and down and sideways, distinct and on their way.
Agatha didn’t go back to her cottage. She just stayed by the black pool and watched the figures stream past her. She hadn’t tried to communicate with them, not yet; anyway, they didn’t seem to notice her.
But she had another problem: she was hungry again. Despite the day’s developments, she did the only thing she knew how to do: she went to Clare’s cottage and knocked on the door.
There was no answer.
Agatha feared that she would open the door to find Clare just like she’d found Betty. But when she pushed open the door, she saw Clare sitting on the edge of a chair at her kitchen table, knees drawn up to her chin, looking at her bit of sun, straight on and then sideways, alternating.
Don’t stare too long, said Agatha.
Hush, said Clare. The tadpoles are trying to tell me something.
Trying to tell you what?
They have a language, said Clare. I’m sure of it. I’m working on it.
Agatha saw that Clare’s kitchen table was covered with papers full of diagrams and equations.
That’s great, said Agatha. Are you making food?
What? said Clare.
Food? said Agatha. I’m hungry.
Get your own food, said Clare.
I want your food.
I don’t have food.
But everyone needs food.
I don’t, said Clare. Not anymore.
Agatha watched her a minute more. Maybe Clare wasn’t hungry anymore because she had the sun in her cottage.
Agatha left, still hungry.
She went to Diane’s cottage. She knocked and there was no answer. She let herself in. Diane was not in her kitchen. Agatha went to the cupboards and rummaged through them. There was no food left.
Agatha peered around the corner and saw that Diane was in her bed, napping, beneath her third of the sun, which was stuck to a cast iron pan suspended from the upper corner, like a lantern. Agatha looked away quickly so as not to see the tadpoles.
An idea came into her head. She acted quickly.
She went back to the kitchen and fetched a butter knife and came back into the bedroom and poked it into the sun, like poking a skewer through a sweet potato. Once she had it, she tiptoed out the door and closed it behind her as quietly as she could. She held the sun on the knife away from her at arm’s length and shielded her eyes so that it wouldn’t spoil her new sight. She made her way to the black pool in the middle of the village green.
She was just about to drop the chunk of sun into the black pool when she heard a scream behind her. She turned around. Diane was charging out of her cottage. Agatha cowered, her wrist trembling.
Give it back! screamed Diane.
No! said Agatha. You can’t have it in your cottage—you’ll never want to eat again! We need to eat! I’m hungry!
Diane reached Agatha and seized her by the arms. They struggled. Agatha fought to keep the knife out of her hands. She wrenched herself away so hard that the force of the motion pushed her back, and she fell, arms wheeling, into the black pool. It swallowed her without a ripple.
Agatha sank through clear liquid, so icy it was hot. Below her she saw a great square table, and benches to each side, and dark forms huddled along them.
She landed on a bench, in the lap of a great feast.
A bowl dropped in front of her. Viscous, jelly-like lava sloshed out and slid down the sides.
Have some, said a voice.
Agatha looked up. Betty was across the table from her, just as they’d buried her. Her blackened skin was peeling off the bone and her nose had burned away to reveal a white trident. Her eyes had burst and melted down her cheeks.
Have some, said Betty again, standing up. She picked up Agatha’s knife and brandished it and a sheet of flame uncurled in its wake. Then she tossed the knife over her shoulder and picked up her own bowl with two charred hands and drank from it. Rivulets of lava coursed down her cheeks, making new tracks, fresh blood sizzling on contact. Agatha could see, through gaps in Betty’s chest, the lava dripping down her throat and pooling in her thorax and oozing out from between her ribs.
Betty slammed down the bowl and said, More.
Agatha was afraid. She began to push herself away from the table, but Betty noticed, and leaned forward.
Have some, said Betty, or the others will see you’re not having some, and they’ll take it from you.
No, said Agatha.
She’s not having any, Agatha heard whispered around the table.
You were always so hungry, asking the rest of us to make you food, hissed Betty. Eat or there’ll be trouble.
No! screamed Agatha.
A body flew across the table and landed in front of her, charred fingers reaching for her bowl. The bowl scudded down the table, sloshing lava. Chaos followed. Bodies piled on top of each other in an attempt to reach the unclaimed bowl. Agatha pushed herself up and away from the bench and stumbled and fell and sat on the floor and watched. The bodies were tearing at each other. A hand went flying and dropped onto the floor. A head rolled down the table, jawless. One guest reached up through the hole in another’s throat and squeezed her brain.
Then the melee came to an end.
The survivors gathered around the pile. They picked through the charred parts. One who was missing an arm found a new one, attached it. Another who’d lost both hands found one of them, and tucked the stump of the other under her armpit. When they vacated the center of the table and went back to their benches, a motley assemblage of body parts was left. The others didn’t look at it, as if embarrassed for it.
More bowls of lava fell from above. They were seized and drunk.
Agatha, forgotten for the moment, watched the pile of body parts draw together as if they were iron filings attracted by a magnet. A form took shape. It did not have the correct number of parts, nor in the right places. It had a leg for an arm and a hand for a leg, and its head was attached only by a single tendon, and so was tilted to one side in a perpetual question.
It made its way down the center of the table. The guests ignored it. It shuddered to a stop in front of Agatha.
Hello, said the head that was tilted to one side.
Hello, said Agatha.
DON’T SPEAK TO HER! Betty bellowed, leaping from her seat. SHE’S NOTHING BUT A BURDEN!
Betty lunged for Agatha. Agatha jumped out of her grasp, and found that she was weightless. She jumped again, and found herself floating upward. She kicked. She accelerated up. The guests had been scrambling for Agatha, but now they descended upon the motley girl in their midst, tearing her up all over again.
Agatha broke the surface of the black pool and clawed for the shore and pulled herself up. She bent over in the grass, coughing up black bile, but the bile turned to mist as soon as it came out of her mouth.
She heard the sounds of a fight and looked up. Clare and Diane and Elizabeth were struggling, bracing against each other with butter knives in hand, clutching at one another’s throats.
Diane must have tried to steal the others’ pieces of sun, thought Agatha.
But then she realized she no longer cared.
Instead, she rolled over and stared up.
There were tiny pinpricks of light in the tawny-pink sky. Agatha thought them very pretty. Her breathing became slower. She closed her eyes and heard, beyond the grunts of the fighting villagers, a papery whispery sound.
Agatha sat up. The shadowy forms were back—more distinct than ever before, almost solid. They were passing through the corners of the village green, diagonally in a great big X-shape. Agatha had no idea where they were going or where they were coming from. What existed beyond the village? They had to be coming from somewhere. Were there other villages? Did those villages have food?
She fell in with them, and began to follow them toward the corner of the green, beyond which she knew not what lay.
As she was leaving, she saw someone else arriving, with luggage. This person arrived at the doorway of the cottage that had been Agatha’s cottage. She looked inside, looked around, took note of the villagers wrestling each other to the ground.
Agatha thought to herself, Maybe her name is Fiona. And maybe she is a Falconer. Or perhaps a Fool.
Yes, she thought. This village could use a Fool.
And Agatha passed out beyond the corner of the green, looking for a meal.
back to Fiction