THE RAMSHEAD ALGORITHM AND OTHER STORIES, releasing on January 16, 2018, contains my most popular work. One such work is “The Color of Sand,” which first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of F&SF and received the cover illustration. An excerpt of that story is below.
Where the sea, sand, and sky come together and kiss, there once lived a boy named Catch. He lived in a driftwood hut on the edge of the dunes with his mother, so far from the village that they had no neighbors, save for a sandcat.
The sandcat lived in a hole ten feet away, and had not been happy when Catch’s mother had first come there, shamefaced with her baby clutched to her chest, resigned to living in such a place alone. But although the sandcat had said, “I am Bone. This is my dune. You will go away,” Catch’s mother set her mouth, dried her tears, and placed little Catch down in the dunegrass so she could gather driftwood for a shelter. She said her name was Fairday, and that she was staying. She was that sort of woman.
Every morning, when the light licked the tops of the dunes bright gold, Catch and his mother would walk west to the beach, and then north or south along the shore. Every so often, Catch’s mother would swoop to the flat sand and pluck up a fragment of something from the sea wrack. When Catch was small, he copied her and gathered anything; later, beginning to understand, he only gathered pebbles; later still, she showed him what lay in her hand and said, “Like this.”
They were stones, but not stones. They were too translucent. Held up to the light, they shimmered with pinks and oranges and reds, like water beneath the setting sun. Held in the palm, they exuded a soft warmth. Catch even sniffed one once. He lacked the words to describe what he smelled, but he knew what it was not. This was not a thing of the sea.
“Where do the pieces come from?” he finally asked.
Catch was five. His mother’s age was unknown. “Someplace past the ocean,” she said. “Maybe from under it.”
“Are they from another beach?”
“Are they rocks?”
Fairday reached into the pocket of her dress, as though touching them could help her think. “No, Catch. They’re something different. They’re stranger than rocks.”
“Are they jewelry?” Catch asked, when he was seven. “When we go to the Equinox Markets to sell them all and trade—people buy them because they’re pretty?”
Catch’s mother shook her head. “They are very beautiful, but they can’t be cut or polished. So I suppose you could wear them as jewelry, but only if you liked their natural shapes.”
When Catch was ten, he asked, “Are the pieces magic?”
It was three weeks before their trip to the Autumn Market. They were sitting in the hut, listening to the drizzle outside, sorting through baskets and baskets of pieces. Thin, yellow, small, triangular, heavy, shimmering, orange, irregular, smooth, red, thick, square, round, shiny, bright, warm, glowing. Their combined heat made the hut toasty despite the fall chill, and the walls of the ill-made shack rippled with refracted, water-patterned light.
“They’re a mystery,” said Catch’s mother. She sounded almost sad. “One of the great, enduring mysteries of the Langdown Coast. I always saw foreigners buying them in the markets when I was a little girl, and foreigners are buying them still. You’ll almost never see another person around here bothering with them. Whatever else they are, in the end, they’re just souvenirs.”
The neighboring sandcat, with whom they’d long ago forged a comfortable truce, looked up from sniffing a tiny basket of white triangles. “You are wrong,” he said. “Catch’s guess is right.”
Fairday snorted. “Please, Bone.”
“No please.” Bone blinked his big, gold eyes. “Its name is refulgium. It has easy inside. You take out the easy. You make magic. I thought you knew.” His eyes squeezed shut, a sandcat laughing. “Everyone knows.”
“Everyone,” scoffed Fairday.
“Everyone,” Bone repeated. “Wind in her dune. Blood in his dune. Grass in her dune. Cloud in his dune. Crab and Feather and Pebble and Creek in their dunes, and—”
“Yes, fine, everyone,” said Fairday, “but if the pieces—”
“—its name is refulgium—”
“—if refulgium has genuine magic inside, why have I never seen any of the sandcats using it?”
“Silly,” said the sandcat. “I use it right now.”
Before their astonished eyes, Bone’s throat contorted and bobbed. He opened his mouth, unrolled his long tongue, and gagged. A smooth, pebble-sized red piece, like a drop of solidified blood, clattered into a basket.
When he spoke next, his speech was nothing but the chirps of an ordinary cat.
Fairday put a hand to her mouth.
But Catch, being Catch, plunged his hand into their basket of smooth, pebble-sized red pieces, cried, “I want to try!” and swallowed one up.
Fairday screamed. Bone snapped up his own piece and backed to the doorway, his ruff rising.
“Nothing’s happening,” Catch said. But then he bumped his head upon the ceiling, and noticed how small his mother and neighbor looked.
The hut shrank. Catch knelt down. The hut shrank further, and Catch’s broad shoulders lifted the roof up and away. When he finally stood, startled and naked in the cold drizzle, the top of the hut’s walls scarcely reached his hips.
Fairday screamed again. Instead of running away, she ran forth and clutched her child’s leg. She was, you mustn’t forget, that sort of woman. “Bone! Where are you, you mangy liar!”
Bone poked his head from his hole. “I am not a liar. You are a human without a throat-pouch. Only a stomach. You swallowed it anyway. Where else did you think it would go?”
“What do we do?”
“Nothing,” said Bone. “Wait until the refulgium comes out.” To Catch, he said, “Do not eat until it does. Or you will grow even bigger.”
“Can we undo it?” asked Fairday. “How do we undo it?”
But Bone pulled his head back inside his hole.
Catch wrapped his arms about himself. He shivered. “Mama, I’m cold.”
“You should have thought of that before you swallowed it and split your clothes!” said Fairday, but when Catch’s enormous face pinched with guilt, she was immediately sorry. “Hush now. Hush.”
Catch hung his head. “I’ll be okay. I’ll go to Blood. He’ll know what to do.”
Blood lived in a hole five dunes over. He was old, his tawny fur and bobtail spotted with a white so bright, it shimmered. He had always been content to tolerate the two newcomers. They had never made trouble.
“I am Catch,” Catch called into Blood’s hole. “I will ask you a question about the pieces you… the refulgium that everyone swallows.”
Blood was sleeping. “Go away.”
Fairday’s voice interrupted. “My baby ate one.”
“He grew big.”
“Of course he did.” To himself, Blood grumbled, “Ate a red one. What did she expect?”
“How do I make him small again?”
“Please! It’s cold. We can’t fit into our house anymore.”
Catch’s voice cut in. “I am big now,” he called into the hole. “Big enough to crush when I don’t mean to. When I climb up the dunes to look for birds’ eggs, I could crush everyone’s houses.”
Blood reluctantly uncurled and crawled up from his hole. Blinking in the drizzle, he regarded the outsiders. “Yes,” he agreed, gauging Catch’s new height and the size of his feet. “You can make great crushings.”
“Now will you help us?” Fairday begged.
“You must eat a black refulgium,” said Blood to Catch. “Red makes precision. So if a one wants to make speech, she swallows a red one into her throat-pouch, to make precise words. And if she eats it when she is a child, and there is food inside of her, it makes the food precise and her growing precise. So she grows big.” His eyes pinched shut in laughter. “Would you like to try?” he asked Fairday. “You are an adult. So if you eat a red one, you will only grow very, very fat.”
“A black piece!” said Fairday. “There are no black pieces!”
“Black makes undoing,” continued Blood, unperturbed. “It undoes the other colors. You know none of this? Only color is what matters. Color and size. Richer color makes more power, and bigger size makes the refulgium last longer. When the red piece comes out of you, Catch, it will be smaller. You used some of it to grow big. You see?”
“Yes,” said Catch, still shivering. His goosebumps prickled under a sheen of cold rain. “Please. Where can I find a black piece?”
“The beach, silly,” said Blood. “But black is very rare. I only found it twice. And a dead one named Seedpod found it once.”
Catch sneezed. The rain hung off his nose in tickling drops. Catch’s mother, unable to handle her frustration any longer, shouted, “Then what must we do—find where the pieces come from and demand a black one?”
“Yes,” said Blood, and added, “Your idea is good. If anyone tries to stop you, Catch can crush them.”
Since their hut had no roof, Catch still had no clothes, and they had no better plan than Blood’s, Catch argued that going into town and hiring a boat to hunt for black refulgium was the only course. “With what, you poor, stupid boy?” Fairday said bitterly. “We have no money!”
“No, we don’t,” agreed Catch. “But we have refulgium. And now we know what some of it does. Maybe we can trade.”
So Fairday, who once more set her mouth and dried her tears, combed through the hut’s ruins for refulgium, gathering a little bit here, a little bit there, until her pockets clinked with every step. Catch lowered his hand, she grasped a finger, and they walked to town.
The muddy road was empty on so dreary a day, but dreary days or no, towns are always bustling, so once inside the edges of the village, Catch and his mother came across a lot of startled people. The strangers stared, or made unkind remarks, or laughed. But Catch, being Catch, was determined not to care. He stuck out his monstrous tongue and growled until they paled and stepped back.
“Stop it, Catch!” said Fairday. “You cannot be a sandcat here. Can’t you think before you act? You’re already frightening enough like that. Now come. We must go to the harbor.”
In those days, the wildest, jauntiest, devil-may-care-est seaman was a close-shaven man named Shamus Fleece. He was too beautiful for the sea, the town ladies said; so beautiful that it wasn’t fair that his rich and childless wife should have him all to herself. They tried their best to tempt him to stray, and truth be told, Shamus Fleece was an easily tempted man. As a wave leaves sea wrack behind, so Shamus left a trail of smitten and broken hearts.
Fairday knocked on Shamus’s dock-shack door, knowing this full well. Even so, when Shamus answered and she beheld that wild and beautiful face, still she felt his pull.
“I need to hire you and your crew for a job,” said Fairday.
Shamus’s handsome mouth froze into a brittle, uneasy smile. “Fairday.” His eyes darted left and right. “I thought we agreed. You were never to come here, outside the Equinox Markets.”
“We did agree,” said Fairday, “but there’s been a complication.” She pulled a round, dark red refulgium from her pocket. “Believe me, I’m only here because you’re the best. Listen—I can pay you.”
Shamus slapped her hand. The refulgium bounced upon the dock and into the choppy sea. “Stop it. I don’t want your trinkets, and nobody else does, either. If you don’t leave—”
“Catch,” Fairday called.
Her mammoth child, still naked and shivering, stepped from around the corner of Shamus’s dock-shack.
“If I don’t leave,” said Fairday, “I’ll tell the whole town who sired this new, unnatural monster in their midst. And I am not leaving unless it is on your ship, to go to the places I ask you to take me.”
Shamus looked up at Catch. And up. Blinking in the rain, he was startled to discover that the giant’s face had a familiar beauty in its depths.
“Catch?” he asked, disbelieving.
Catch, being Catch, stared back down with the placid courage of a sandcat. “What is your name, coward?”
Shamus Fleece bellowed out a great, startled laugh. He slapped Catch on the leg. “Saint Meer’s Third Eye, but he’s hot as coals, isn’t he?” To Fairday, he held out a stiff hand. “We have a deal. Be back here at tide-up tomorrow. Until then, I suggest you get some charity at the Temple. They might have a winding sheet that fits him.”
Shamus’s men were spooked by the new job. The woman, her hair wild and dark as tempests, would not speak to them. The boy, so gigantic he wore twin funeral shrouds as a toga, was as fearless as a sandcat. And Shamus Fleece, that great gallivanter of the Langdown Coast, was both cowed by their presence and closemouthed about their destination. He charted the course himself. The navigator, on a night when Shamus grew careless and left his cabin unlocked, took a peek at the charts and logbook, and immediately spread the terrible gossip. They were headed to Final Atoll.
“What’s Final Atoll?” Catch asked. With his great height, he’d heard the sailors whispering in the rigging, and only had to turn around to confront their guilty, wind-worn faces.
“It’s the deadliest,” one confessed. “The worst. A man who sails to Final Atoll, them’s the final waters he wets his boards in.”
“Why?” echoed the sailor, baffled. “Because it’s a mess. Rocks and wreckage miles and miles long, one big ring o’ nightmares.”
“The Devil’s Shore,” another put in. “No settin’ foot on it while you’re alive.”
Catch’s stomach knotted with worry. He’d seen the icy politeness with which Shamus treated Mama. Shamus was a bad man—or at least, a man who didn’t care for his employers. “Why are we headed there?”
“Why are we headed there?” the sailor shot back. “You and your mama are chartin’ this wreck, ain’t you?”
In the heart of the night, when Shamus stepped on deck to think an insomniac’s thoughts, Catch, who was too big to sleep belowdecks, rolled over under his sail blanket and caught him. “Why are we sailing to Final Atoll?”
Shamus frowned. The starlight lifted his exquisite face to preternatural heights of beauty. “Who told you we were?”
Shamus sighed and ran his fingers through his lustrous hair. He lowered his voice. “Your mama told me what you’re about—this business with your magic rocks. Well, everything wrecks on Final Atoll, and those beaches are next to inaccessible. I’d bet there are some real finds on it. And plenty of your black… whatever… on its shores. So the plan’s for us to get close enough, put you and your mama in a skiff, and have you make for the beach, where you can gather your special rocks to your heart’s content. And if there are no special rocks to be had there after all, then we can still go ahead and sail to whatever other places your mama had in mind. Eh?”
It sounded like a good plan. And Catch, having grown up with the sandcats, could not recognize a lie. “That’s a really good idea. Thank you, Mr. Fleece.”
Shamus grinned and looked east, to the faraway shore on which the pining town ladies waited. “Don’t mention it.”
They dropped anchor and readied the skiff the night before, stocking it with plenty of supplies. “Your lunk of a boy eats a lot, don’t forget,” said Shamus cheerfully, “and besides, it’s a long row to shore.”
Fairday was unhappy. The beach was a mere smudge. “Can’t we get any closer?”
Shamus pointed to a dark spot in the water. A wave broke there, spraying frothy ocean with a boom. “Not a chance. Only a shallow skiff, with a pair of sharp-eyed people, can make it.”
And he insisted it was so when the time came, when he and his men lowered Fairday and Catch, and only Fairday and Catch, down to the swirling waters. With Catch’s unnatural height and strength, he maneuvered the craft with ease. Fairday kept her eyes on Shamus Fleece’s vessel, face pinched with uncertainty.
“Is something wrong?” Catch asked. He tried a few pulls of the oars and said, “This isn’t bad at all.”
“Let’s pray it stays that way,” said Fairday.
Catch pulled them on. The waters grew choppier, and more than once the skiff banged on sunken stones, throwing Fairday from her seat. The third time it happened, her vision spun from the impact, and for a few moments she couldn’t trust what she saw. It appeared as though Shamus Fleece’s ship had pulled up anchor and was leaving.
But when her vision cleared, she wasn’t wrong.
She ordered Catch to turn the skiff about and pull with all he had. He did, but not even a giant can outrun a fully rigged ship. It was hopeless.
Panting, Catch rested the oars on the gunwale, eyes wide and baffled. Fairday buried her face in her hands and wept. “Stupid,” she sobbed. “So stupid.”
“Don’t cry, Mama,” said Catch, helplessly. “I’ll think of something.”
“Oh, Catch,” cried Fairday. “I’m so sorry.” She pulled her handfuls of refulgium forth. “We only have enough food and water for three days. We have no choice. Something might help, and you’ve tried already—I’ll go next—which do you think I should swallow?”
Read the rest in THE RAMSHEAD ALGORITHM AND OTHER STORIES
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