Chestnut Wish

“If the chestnut were a button she could have pushed to end the world — or at least undo a hundred years of evolution — she would have pushed that button.”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Typerwriter Emergencies, December 2017

Olea started screaming first, whiskers quivering with rage.  She was an otter and should have enjoyed tumbling and playing all day.  But she was also an adult, and Shaun was a toddler.  No force on Earth or in space could keep pace with a toddler otter — except for another toddler otter, but Shaun was a rare litter of one.  No sibling playmates.

All Olea wanted was to flop down, drape her long spine over the couch, and watch some TV show with fast-talking cats and dogs in suits throwing quips at each other.  But as soon as she grabbed the remote, Shaun pointed at the TV and chirped in his high-pitched squeak, “Cho-bolos!” over and over — whatever that meant.  Why couldn’t the doggarned kid learn to speak?  Humans hadn’t uplifted otters a hundred years ago so they could chirp nonsense words.  Language.  It was the whole point of being uplifted. Continue reading “Chestnut Wish”


“I feel my heart swell with love for her like a balloon swelling into the tip of a knife.”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Apex, February 2015

I stare out over my pregnant belly, feeling awkward.  Feeling irritable.  “Why wouldn’t I want to know?”

“Some parents don’t want to know,” Dr. Anders says.  “And we respect that.”

“It’s right there on your clipboard, right?” I point to the clipboard, and he holds it infinitesimally closer to his chest.  As if he’s hiding the results from me. Continue reading “Foreknowledge”

The Snake’s Song: Chapter One

by Mary E. Lowd

Excerpt from The Snake’s Song: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel, published by ShadowSpinners Press, March 2018

The snake sang.

The snake sang and mice knew better than to listen.

Mice and rats and songbirds and frogs — none of them listened to snakes.  Songbirds and frogs sang their own songs; mice and rats told stories.  None of them listened to snakes.

And neither did squirrels.

But one day, a gray squirrel named Witch-Hazel stopped to listen to a soft hissing carried on the wind, a susurrus coming from a tunnel, hidden beneath a bush.  With melancholy sighs and mesmerizing murmurs, the hissing voice sang a song of days gone by, days long ago when the earth and sky and underground were bound together with a river that flowed in endless, looping circles; tree branches embraced the heavens, and tree roots held the depths in their woody arms; and all the creatures of Earth could make a pilgrimage into the sky to meet the All-Being who had created every animal.

“What happened?” Witch-Hazel chittered, her voice small and filled with wonder.  She had never heard any story or song like this one before.  Squirrel stories were about storing nuts for the winter, finding buried treasure that you’d forgotten, and squabbles over who got to live in the best branches.  They were small.  This song was the size of the entire world.

From the darkness under the leafy boughs of the bush, the whispering song answered:  “The world cracked.”

Witch-Hazel chittered in alarm, as if the world were cracking now beneath her fuzzy feet.  Her bushy tail quivered, and she felt the need to dart up a tree and hide in the highest branch.  But she didn’t follow her instinct.  The story had her hypnotized, and she barely flinched when she saw the twin pools of gold resolve in the dark of the bush.

Snake eyes.  Staring at her.  Unblinking.

“The world cracked, and we are all shattered fragments, a poor broken reflection of the All-Being who created us.”

“Tell me about the All-Being,” Witch-Hazel asked breathlessly.

“The All-Being is why birds can fly, fish breathe water, beavers are builders, and bees can turn pollen into honey.  Each of them reflects the glory of the All-Being.”

Witch-Hazel wondered how she reflected the All-Being’s glory.  “How about squirrels?” she asked.

The golden pools withdrew, deeper into the leafy darkness of the bush, and the hissing voice drew in a sharp breath.  “Squirrels can find lost treasure.”

Witch-Hazel was disappointed.  She remembered with shame the shining trove of chestnuts she’d buried last autumn.  She’d searched for them all winter, digging under every tree root that bumped out of the ground just-so, but none of them had been the right root on the right tree.  Her sisters and brothers had shared their troves with her, keeping her fed through the bitter cold months.

Witch-Hazel was not good at finding things.

“I’m a poor reflection of the All-Being then,” Witch-Hazel said, grabbing her bushy tail and grooming it for comfort.

“Maybe you’re not good at finding things that don’t matter,” the voice hissed.

Witch-Hazel was doubtful.  Those gleaming meaty chestnuts would have made the winter much easier.  They had mattered to her.  Still she wondered what exactly the hissing voice meant.  “What kind of treasure would matter?”

“The Celestial Fragments.”  After those three words, the voice stopped like a sudden cessation of wind, and the stillness that followed was unsettling.

Witch-Hazel had an eerie sense that she’d heard those words before.  She reached deep into her memory, and the phrase recalled a sensation of dry grass, crumpled leaves, and the flavor of mother’s milk.  She’d heard those words when she was a tiny kitten, she realized, tucked safely inside her mother’s nest, still nursing with her littermates.  The Celestial Fragments were part of a fairy tale told to kittens.

“You’ve heard of them?” the snake hissed.  Its voice had lost some of its power.

“Yes,” Witch-Hazel agreed, backing away from the bush, realizing that she’d been falling under a snake’s spell.  “The Sun Shard, the Star Sliver, and the Moon Opal.”  She glanced toward the nearest tree, readying to dart away, but not wanting the snake to suspect she’d escaped its thrall.  So she kept talking, “One grants strength, another endless breath, and the third flight — but they’re nothing more than a fairy story for kittens.”

“Are they?” the snake hissed, withdrawing deeper into the bush, either giving Witch-Hazel space to feel comfortable or preparing to strike.  The gold pools of its eyes disappeared into the mottled darkness of the leaves.  “Strength, flight, and endless breath are traits of the All-Being; they are also the traits you would need to find the All-Being.”

Against her better judgement, Witch-Hazel asked, “Where is the All-Being?”

“High in the sky,” the snake answered.  “Deep in the blue ocean above us that was left behind when the rivers that once encircled the world dried up.”

“Why don’t the birds sing of the All-Being then?” Witch-Hazel asked.  “Surely, they know everything in the sky.”

“They cannot fly high enough,” the snake hissed from the darkness.  “And even if they could, the birds couldn’t breathe up there in the sky-ocean.  It would take the strength of a bear, the wings of a bird, and the endless breath of a fish to reach the All-Being.”  With a final teasing, hissing sigh it said, “The Celestial Fragments are down here.  You could find them.”

Then the snake was gone.

But the ideas it had left in Witch-Hazel’s head were not.  They lingered between her tufted ears.  They wouldn’t go away.  They haunted her, possessing the little squirrel with an enchanting image:  she would find the Celestial Fragments; she would take on their powerful aspects; she would meet the All-Being and look upon the creator of all creation.

Something deep in her soul was soothed by the image of herself staring the All-Being in the eye.  She saw all the aspects of the animals in this world pulled together in one remarkable creature and understood the way that she, herself, fit into the entirety of creation, represented in one being.

Witch-Hazel pictured a creature with one bat wing and one sparrow wing; a green cat eye and a yellow coyote eye; a long rabbit ear and a round mouse ear; a deer antler and an antelope horn; a hoofed foreleg and a webbed paw; a mountain lion’s golden haunches and a squirrel’s silver tail — because no creature on Earth has a tail more beautiful than a squirrel.

The little squirrel stared at the bush until she could almost make out the shape of the All-Being in its mottled leaves as they swayed in a light evening breeze.  The air swept coolly across her own fur, and Witch-Hazel was startled to realize the day was almost over.  She’d spent hours under the snake’s spell.  And she wasn’t sure she’d truly recovered from it.

She didn’t know if she ever would.

That night, Witch-Hazel slept in her poorly made nest of leaves in the crook of a branch in her favorite oak tree.  Her brothers’ and sisters’ nests were warm and cozy at night; they knew how to weave dried grasses, leaves, and twigs together into the walls of a comfortable home.  Somehow, the leaves in Witch-Hazel’s nest never behaved so well — the leaves crumbled, twigs broke, and the whole thing flew apart whenever there was the slightest wind.  She wasn’t very good at being a squirrel.

But she might make a good adventurer.

She wanted to find the Celestial Fragments.

In her nest that night, Witch-Hazel felt the empty space all around her.  The air flowed around her branch like the rivers the snake told her had once encircled the under-earth and sky.  She wanted to travel those rivers.

The next morning, Witch-Hazel made her decision.  Whatever treasures could be found beneath the earth, she intended to find them.  But first, she needed to prepare.

So Witch-Hazel dug up the only stash she could find — a clutch of black walnuts that she’d stolen from a brother and hidden in a crocus bed only a week before; then she dug up the crocus bulbs and the bulbs of a few early tulips.  They were easy to find, pointed to by their tender green shoots.  Witch-Hazel packed the bulbs and walnuts in a knapsack along with a blue winter coat her mother had crocheted and a few leaves from one of her namesake bushes — witch-hazel leaves were a useful medicine.  Then she swiped a flask of pear cider from her biggest sister’s nest — her sister wouldn’t mind — and stuffed that in the knapsack too.

Finally, Witch-Hazel left a note in her own nest for her sisters and brothers, in case they came looking for her:  “Gone adventuring.  Don’t worry.  — Witch-Hazel”

They wouldn’t come looking.  They wouldn’t worry.  They’d simply be glad she’d stopped mooching off of their winter stores and asking to squeeze into their nests on the coldest nights.  Still, just in case, she left the note.  It was what her mother would want her to do.

With serious doubts regarding her own sanity, Witch-Hazel slung the knapsack over her back and headed for the snake’s bush.  In all likelihood, there was nothing beneath the bush but the snake’s den.  And the snake.  Possibly a hungry snake.

Witch-Hazel needed to arm herself.

The little squirrel skittered through the grove of oak and elm trees, making her way toward the sprawling firethorn bush.  In the autumn, the emerald bush would burst forth with brilliant red berries.  The berries were bitter and always hurt Witch-Hazel’s stomach, but they were plentiful.  Better than a hungry night.  Right now, though, the firethorn bush was covered in sprays of white flowers.  And thorns.

Witch-Hazel broke off two long thorns and tucked them into a woven-grass belt she wore.  Now she was armed with wooden swords longer and sharper than the snake’s fangs.  The swords made her feel safe.  Although she knew it was sheer craziness to enter a snake’s den, she also felt it would be crazy to continue living her quiet life of petty frustrations, hiding nuts and losing them, when there was a chance she could discover the lost Celestial Fragments beneath the Earth.

Witch-Hazel made it to the snake’s bush and entered the leafy darkness with both firethorns drawn.  Her paws quivered, and her tail twitched nervously.  Yet she felt like the Sun Shard, Star Sliver, and Moon Opal were calling to her.  She could hear them singing her name, begging for her to find them.

Witch-Hazel squeezed into the small round hole under the bush.  She’d never entered a snake’s lair before.  To her knowledge, no squirrel ever had.  Once she was inside, the hole opened up into a passage large enough for her to walk upright.  She kept her firethorns in front of her.

* * *

To read more, pick up a copy of The Snake’s Song: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel, available now from Amazon and the Kindle store.

Welcome to the Arboretum, Little Robot

“GY-30 froze, intoxicated and entranced by the sight of verdant emerald grass, buzzing insects and tiny avians, bountiful bushes heavy with brightly colored fruit, and trees with willowy trunks and draping leaves.”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, June 2018

GY-30 extended his wheels from his mechanical feet and rocked back and forth, passing the time.  He was waiting for Chirri, the felinoid who employed him, to finish her business in the wholesale outlet.  She was a baker and would probably need him to carry a couple hundred pounds of Aldebaran sugar and Procyon flour back to her bakery in the merchant quarter.  GY-30 was a small robot — only knee-high to Chirri, without his extendo-legs deployed — but very strong. Continue reading “Welcome to the Arboretum, Little Robot”

Not All Dogs

“Pete, on the other paw, drew a shockingly good caricature of his mother behind bars, reaching towards a cartoon version of himself.” (Art by Elaine Lowd)

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Dissident Signals, July 2018

Lucky was a good dog.  He’d been a good dog all his life.

So why was he standing in an office supply store, watching his three adopted kittens run wild, while trying to figure out how to make protest signs for a rally to free his tabby cat wife from prison? Continue reading “Not All Dogs”


“Whimpering on the snow-covered ground, Darkfoot expected the moose’s giant hooves to trample him.”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Untied Shoelaces of the Mind, Issue #9, May 2014

A shadow of antlers stretched ominously over the snow.  Darkfoot crouched behind a fallen log.  White flakes tickled his muzzle, but he dared not shake them off.  With its long legs, the moose could easily outrun a young wolf like him.  Or kick him in the skull.

If Darkfoot downed a moose alone, though, then his pack would never mock him again.

Giant hooves clomped into view.  Legs like four-year-old elm trees bent and passed before him.  Darkfoot sprang at the moose from behind, aiming for its massive neck.  The moose turned, and its brown-furred head, nearly the size of Darkfoot’s whole body, swung at him.  Knocked him from the air.  Destroyed his plans to prove himself.

Whimpering on the snow-covered ground, Darkfoot expected the moose’s giant hooves to trample him.  Instead, he felt the dull, stabbing pain of a leaf-eater’s teeth on his flank.  Panicked, pained, and confused, Darkfoot lost consciousness.

* * *

He awoke covered in snow, under the dull glow of the winter moon.  His pack mates nosed him gently, rousing him to get up.  He could see the laughter in their eyes.  He’d taken on a full grown moose and lost.  He’d taken on a moose alone.  He was a fool like they’d always thought he was.

Darkfoot tried his paws and found they held his weight, though his side throbbed in pain.  A crescent of tooth marks marred his flank, angry with blood.  He licked his fur clean.  Then, dejected and limping, Darkfoot followed his pack mates home.

* * *

Night after night, Darkfoot stayed home to heal while his friends, his brothers and sisters, went on the hunt.  The pain in his flank ebbed, but the crescent scar remained.  It marked him as separate from the others, a badge of his lunacy.

As the winter moon waned, Darkfoot grew increasingly solitary and strange.  His pack mates brought back food for him from their kills, but he barely ate.

On the night of the new moon, his pack downed a moose.  The flesh tasted wrong on his tongue.  The flavor lingered like guilt over a broken taboo.  From that day on, Darkfoot wouldn’t eat meat at all.  Instead, he munched on the winter berries down by the river and, stranger still, gnawed on the twiggy branches of young oak trees and the fallen needles of pine.  His pack thought he would surely starve.

Darkfoot, however, felt a new strength growing inside him and found new comfort in his solitude.  His legs felt long and powerful; his shoulders broad and heavy; and a sense of majesty filled him at the slightest turning of his head.  His pack saw a mangy, sickly wolf.  Darkfoot knew better.  Darkfoot saw the shadow of what he was becoming stretched across the snow before him.

Darkfoot saw the shadow of antlers.

Elephantine Daydream

“The green vine crackled electrically in the curl of Jeko’s trunk.”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Fantasia Divinity Magazine, July 2017

Jeko stared out the window at the asteroids and curled her elephantine trunk.  She didn’t want to be in class with a bunch of dumb Heffen kids and newly sentient robots.  The Heffen kids acted like stereotypical canine aliens and kept to their packs, and the robots weren’t really kids like her…  They showed up one week super-naive and talking all stilted, like computers, and a few weeks later they were smarter than… well… computers, and they graduated out.

Continue reading “Elephantine Daydream”


by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Fantasia Divinity Magazine, November 2017

“The Baby Exchange,” as the tabloid called it, was a program run by myrmecoidal aliens who drew in naive young mammaloid women, housed them in their commune, and impregnated them with alien fetuses.

Maradia was working on the specs for a free-flying, zero-G maintenance unit when she heard a customer come into her storefront.  She was glad to put the work aside — it was almost entirely a hardware job with barely any creativity to it.  She left the workshop area and entered the storefront to see a tired looking woman with bags under her eyes and a perfect, golden-haired child nestled on her hip.

“You’re back,” Maradia said. Continue reading “Xeno-Nativity”

An Aldebaran Sugar Cookie for Star Shaker

“Chirri wanted to give her hero something, as a kind of thank you. She dug one of the cookies out of her bag; it was star-shaped and glittered with grains of Aldebaran sugar.”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Fantasia Divinity Magazine, May 2017

The asteroid amphitheater rocked with applause as the suspended final note of Star Shaker’s encore vibrated the atmo-bubble over everyone’s heads.  The reptilian pop-star bowed and spotlights shone off of her rainbow-colored scales, making her glitter like the stars all around.

Chirri had loved Star Shaker’s music since she was a little kitten.  Once, she’d even shaved off her fur and drawn little Vs all over her naked skin, hoping they’d make her look like she had scales.  It had looked awful, but she’d been too young to care.  All she knew was that it had made her feel closer to her hero.

Everything felt right when Chirri listened to Star Shaker’s golden throated singing.

The applause died down, and the other fans — all sorts of aliens, from the fuzzy to the feathered, antlered, or scaly like Star Shaker herself — began leaving their seats, heading to the airlocks at the back of the atmo-dome.  But Chirri didn’t want it to be over.  She stayed in her seat, clutching her bag of supplies — snacks, water, vid-com — hoping to catch one more glimpse of Star Shaker.

Of course, it was the fleet of Roboweiler guards who cleared the stage.  It was silly to think Star Shaker would come back out, but Chirri couldn’t let go of the feeling she’d had while watching her hero, dancing so close, singing in the same air — real sound waves from Star Shaker’s silver forked tongue directly to Chirri’s eager pointed ears.

Reluctantly, Chirri stood and started edging her way back through the rows of seats, each pawstep taking her farther away from those perfect moments during the concert.  She sighed, accepting that the magic had melted away, and it was time to return to her normal life.

Then Chirri saw her:  Star Shaker’s scales were simply silver-gray without the stage lights, and she was small — a full head shorter than Chirri.  But it was her.  Alive and real and strutting toward Chirri with a Roboweiler on either side of her.  The Roboweilers’ mechanical red eyes glowed, menacingly.

Chirri stumbled backward, nearly falling over a seat and tangling her hindpaws in her long tail.  When she recovered herself, she could feel that her fur had fluffed out.  There were only a few seconds until Star Shaker would pass her on the way to the airlocks, and there would only be a moment then — but there would be a moment.  What could Chirri say to her hero in a moment?

Chirri remembered the snacks in her bag — she was a baker and had brought some of her signature Aldebaran sugar cookies.  It was stupid… but maybe she could give Starshaker a cookie.  Something she’d made for someone who’d made so much for her…  Because Star Shaker’s music always felt like it was made only for her.  She knew it sounded that way to everyone…  That was Star Shaker’s appeal; she was a reptilian alien, but her heart could have been anything — fuzzy, feathered, photosynthetic — she spoke to them all.

But it didn’t matter.  Chirri wanted to give her hero something, as a kind of thank you.  She dug one of the cookies out of her bag; it was star-shaped and glittered with grains of Aldebaran sugar.  Chirri had made the batch especially for this concert.  She’d been so excited.  And it had been everything she dreamed.

Chirri held out the cookie.  Her eyes locked with her hero’s, and the small reptilian alien said, “What is this felinoid doing here?  I thought you guys cleared this place out.”

The Roboweiler to the right snarled and advanced, probably just to warn Chirri to keep her distance from the pop-star, but its mechanical teeth startled Chirri so much that she tripped all the way over the seat this time.  She landed splayed on the asteroid amphitheater’s floor, ears askew, tail crimped beneath her, and star cookie smashed.

By the time Chirri dusted herself off, Star Shaker and the Roboweilers were well past her.  The moment was gone.  The moment had been horrible.  Chirri relived it — seeing herself over and over again, tripping awkwardly, all dignity lost in front of the one being she most admired.

Chirri’s ears flattened and her whiskers shivered.  She looked down at the crumbles of sugar cookie in her paw.  Maybe she wouldn’t bake that recipe again for a while.

In fact, she didn’t think she would listen to Star Shaker’s music for a while either.  At least, until the memory of this night faded.  Because she needed that moment to go away, and she couldn’t imagine hearing Star Shaker’s voice without thinking about it.

The stars still stretched out all around the asteroid amphitheater, but for Chirri, the world had become much smaller, and nothing sounded right.  At all.

Feral Unicorn

“The snowy whiteness of his fur and the pearlescent shine of his horn bespoke purity, but I could swear the bastard was glaring at me.”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Luna Station Quarterly, December 2015

As I brought the mug of fresh-brewed coffee to my lips, the steaming liquid froze solid.  Startled by the sudden coldness in my hand, I dropped the mug.  The handle broke off when it hit the linoleum floor.  To make matters worse, the magic wore off almost instantly, and the mug-shaped block of coffee-ice promptly melted, puddling on the floor. Continue reading “Feral Unicorn”