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The Moonlight Muse
The dust swamp roiled before Nahar, silver powder swirling with lifelike intensity. She prepared herself, chose her paints, touched the canvas with her brush, and then stopped. How could she portray such raw power?
Movement at the far edge of the swamp, visible even through layers of thick plexiglass—a glimmering blue iguana chasing its prey. Bioluminescent tentacles thrashed as it darted under the warning signs ringing the sunken swamp. Nahar couldn’t see the prey but guessed it was one of the silvery hares native to Epsilon’s rocky terrain. The iguana, however, had invaded the moon settlement. A few dozen accidentally stowed away on a cargo ship from Epsilon’s twin moon, Zeta, a decade ago. As the only carnivores on Epsilon, their population had exploded, and the local herbivores had only recently learned this new species was an existential threat.
The glowing sapphire speck dashed for the center of the swamp. As the iguana gained ground, the silver dust shifted violently, enveloping it. The iguana’s anguished cry shattered the silence, and the speck winked out.
Nahar frowned. Attempting to capture the dueling savagery and elegance of the swamp was an exercise in futility. Hours spent powdering mushrooms to make her paints, painstakingly threading and restoring the bristles of her paintbrush, and camping out on her little artist’s stool, alone, watching the swamp, to end with nothing but malformed blotches on canvasses destined to compost in the dirt.
Her colors felt dull. Her brush felt meek. And whenever she moved towards her easel, the frigid fingers of indecision gripped her, freezing her in place.
“Damn this.” She grumbled as she rose, dusting off her patchwork smock. She packed the brushes into a handwoven waist-pack and snuck the canvas under her arm. The problem was, the Dust Swamp was over there, and she was over here, perched on a stool behind sixteen layers of reinforced plexiglass and a dozen signs that cautioned against moving closer. Nobody knew why the swamp attacked, but everyone knew it could swallow a person whole. The viewing dome would keep her safe.
And safety would suffocate her.
How could she paint the Dust Swamp when she couldn’t even see it? Any marks she made on her canvas were lies, pretty lies daubed in purples and blues, but still lies. An approximation of an approximation.
Safety be damned. She needed to get closer. She needed to be inside the swamp, to feel the brunt of its wildness instead of cowering in fear.
Day and night meant little when Epsilon’s twin hung eternally against a backdrop of pure darkness, but it was late enough that Nahar was alone in the observation station. Not that anybody would have stopped her anyway: Freedom of movement was a founding tenet of Epsilon, an inviolable right. The signs didn’t even prohibit her from entering the swamp, they just strongly suggested that she shouldn’t.
Ten minutes and a dozen digital waivers later, Nahar exited the observation deck and breathed the chilly night air. The scent of the swamp pervaded Epsilon, but it was strongest here, right at the edge. The air carried a tendril of damp sand, not overpowering but insistent. Breathing in some more, Nahar could pick out an undercurrent of fungal growth, the strong herbal smell of toadstools and moss. Back home in the central settlement, spices and perfumes masked the earthy spray. But the central settlement was hours away. Here the swamp reigned supreme, brashly announcing its presence.
Outside the observation deck, the swamp looked like it was drinking in the moonlight, bending and refracting it as the specks of shining dust floated on the air. Under the obsidian cloak of the night sky, the swamp was awash with the silver light of Zeta as the pale disc watched over its twin. The dunes of the swamp melted and reformed, like candle wax reshaping. The air shimmered and glistened, and Nahar clutched her canvas a little tighter.
Goddess, she hoped she had enough silver paint.
She edged closer, and closer, until the particles of swamp dust danced just a few feet away from her. A final wooden sign urged caution, but the effort was half-hearted, printed in faded letters used to being ignored. Anyone who made it this far had already proved that mere words wouldn’t impede them.
The ground changed underfoot. The crackling of dry grass softened into the rustle of fine dust. Nahar’s fibrous boots nearly sank into the swamp before she found purchase. She was bigger than an iguana, so maybe the swamp would leave her alone. Gingerly, one step in front of the other, she proceeded towards the center. So far, so good.
The observation center turned the swamp into a subject, a scientific curiosity best looked at from a distance. Here, standing on a mound of fine, gray dust, Nahar could see that the swamp was alive. A mild breeze made particles dance in the glimmering light, millions of motes that fluttered to a melody only they could hear. Her footsteps sank stark against the smooth, untarnished surface, accompanied only by the jagged claw prints of the iguanas and the padded paw prints of hares. Here and there she saw white bones and scraps of blue scales.
Power thrummed under her feet. Nahar’s tentative steps turned bolder as she moved with greater surety. The dust conformed to her movements, practically leading her. She didn’t know where she was going, but she trusted the gentle pull and push of the swamp, feeling intoxicated by its natural magnetism.
White trees dotted the nearby landscape, birds flitting in and out of their branches. The chilly air swirled around her, dust obscuring her view of the distance. Not that seeing where she was going was imperative. Nahar had no illusions of control. As the swamp guided her, the shimmering in the distance grew closer. At first, she’d thought it was an illusion, or a result of the oddly refracting lunar light, but no. Each step brought her closer, until she stood one pace away. The swamp paused its push and pull, leaving the last step for her.
A curtain of shimmering light, like a veil over the very fabric of reality, lay before her. What lay beyond? She didn’t have to know. She could simply leave the mystery alone. Certainly, she had accomplished the motives of her art, hadn’t she? She’d seen enough of the swamp now, enough to capture something close to its true nature.
Close, but not close enough. If she left now, she left with a lie and a question that would prick her at every waking moment until she returned.
“Geronimo, I guess.” Nahar steadied her breathing, one hand on the canvas and the other on her pack, and stepped forward.
“Oh good, I thought you’d never get here!” The woman was tall, dressed in a black bodysuit and silver dupatta that looked striking against her brown skin. Thin white lines decorated her face in an intricate pattern of spidery lines and dots. She looked directly at Nahar, but not in surprise. Her expression indicated that she’d just been waiting.
The woman projected an aura so uniquely powerful that, for a second, Nahar forgot the mechanics of speech.
“The name is Sabine, dear.” The lady, Sabine, waved a hand in front of Nahar’s face. “Pupil dilation is normal; eye movement is excellent. You feeling okay?”
“How are you here?” Nahar asked. Not the most eloquent question, but her personality was still rebooting.
“Me too.” Not a brilliant response, but Nahar had suddenly become aware that the woman’s eyes were piercing into her and couldn’t think of anything else. “Walking is good.”
Sabine laughed then, a piercing, echoing peal that washed over Nahar like water. Nahar looked at Sabine, and then at her canvas.
Goddess, she hoped she had enough silver paint.
“About seven years ago. I just felt…exhausted. So tired, all the time.” Sabine nursed a small clay cup of tea, inhaling the rising steam. She had invited Nahar to her home, a small hut within the shimmer. Nahar, no longer able to tell up from down, had accepted. “I left. I thought the swamp would swallow me. I wanted it to.”
Nahar sipped from her own cup, feeling the warm, subtle sweetness of mushrooms and chamomile play on her tongue. “Instead, you found a hut and a farm and settled in?”
“Something like that.” Sabine smiled, the white lines on her face crinkling. “Insane, huh?”
“Not even a little.” Nahar stretched her legs out, feeling the coolness of the spongy floor on her skin. Goosebumps formed on the exposed flesh, and a shiver ran through her spine. “Do you ever get back to central? For market days or festivals?”
“Sometimes. I enjoy looking at the shops.” Sabine got to her feet and gently stroked the glowing fungal walls of her house until the temperature rose. “Boletus caliditas,” she explained. “It heats up if you touch it.”
“Wait…aren’t they normally tiny?” Nahar rummaged in her pack and took out a portable hand warmer: a small plastic bag filled with Boletus Caliditas spores. “This tiny, to be exact?”
“If you harvest them, sure.” Sabine sat back down, a little closer this time. “But this one must have been growing for decades, hidden under the shimmer.”
They luxuriated in the silence and the heat for a while. The inside of the mushroom hut smelled faintly musty, comfortable, like an old library, or the smell of home after a long trip.
“Why didn’t the swamp swallow you?”
Sabine looked at Nahar. Her eyes were pools of black, and Nahar could see her face reflected in them.
“I don’t know. Why didn’t it swallow you?” Sabine shrugged. “It’s picky. Eats a lot of iguanas and no hares. Eats some people, not others. It didn’t eat me, and, thankfully, it didn’t eat you.” Sabine tilted her head. “Now, tell me, what led you into the swamp?”
They spoke into the small hours of the morning, words ebbing and flowing without the need for conscious effort. The spongy floor was soft and imparted a delicate coolness to Nahar’s skin. Soon, without even knowing it, her eyes closed, and she slept, bathed in the moonlight.
Nahar prepared herself. Slow breaths, washing away the indecision that had become a familiar, if unwelcome, companion. Sabine had helped her make fresh supplies, laying the bounty of the swamp at Nahar’s disposal. They had powdered toadstool shavings by moonlight to make pigments. They had scavenged and sharpened iguana spines to make palette knives Together, they had brushed dozens of hares, gathering loose strands of fur to make Nahar’s brushes. The canvas still lay untouched, but this time, Nahar knew the blankness to be temporary.
Sabine sat on an overgrown toadstool in her garden, its midnight blue cap streaked with bioluminescent purple that glowed at frequent intervals. “Which way should I turn? Left? Right?”
“Left, please. A little more.” Nahar propped her canvas and judged the scene.
The sky was a dark violet. A haze of pure, white light descended from Zeta, setting the world before Nahar ablaze. The swamp, drenched in shining moonlight, stretched out behind her, the wind rising and falling, sapphire specks appearing and disappearing between the elegant, slender white tree trunks. Every so often a hare, fur streaked with patches of glittering obsidian and solid white, zipped past, spraying the dust into the air, making the moonbeams dance. The trees bent and waved in the breeze, their creaking echoing through the silence. Specks of glowing dust settled into her paints, imbuing the colors with the unyielding life of the swamp.
Carefully, Nahar chose her paints.
Sabine’s dark hair billowed out behind her, strings of luminescent gray swampweed woven into the fine strands. Dust speckled her shining black boots, giving them an ethereal glow. She wore a sari of gossamer silk and turquoise lace, nearly translucent under the benevolent watch of the twin moon. The thin lines of white paint on her face and shoulders stood in stark contrast to her brown, lunar-kissed skin and infinitely dark eyes.
Nahar’s muse waited.
Nahar touched the canvas with her brush, and this time, she didn’t stop.
Kanishk Tantia (He/Him/His) is a novice author and immigrant. Most of his stories come from his lived experiences as a neurodivergent person and BIPOC, and from his experiences in Computer Science Academia. Kanishk currently lives in Boston, USA but escapes to California whenever the temperature drops below 70F. This is his first accepted story!Find more from Kanishk @t_kanishk or at kanishkt.com