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Readings in the Slantwise Sciences

A jeweled and tinted image captures the Veil Nebula. It’s a portion of the doughnut-shaped Cygnus Loop, whose wings have been fanning outward, dusting the night with icing sugar, since the explosion several thousand years ago.

The Crab Nebula surrounds a superdense star like a baritone’s ring.

In the shaved gardens of the Home for the Advanced, a number of aged pensioners, wearing aprons to protect their clothes, emit material expelled from dying stars.

The Egg Nebula, tucked into a basket lined with corals, glows three thousand light-years away from earth.

Light from our own galaxy is the freshest and most vibrant. It was used to create these stunning celestial images.


Operating far beyond its intended life span, the Elder Crystal is still showing us deep space.
In 1790 the Hidden Order of International Alchemists fashioned a crystal designed to peer deep into the universe. I was then a student among the mists of Oaken College, so recently arrived I didn’t yet know how to wear my keys. I am pleased to have donated three hairs from my head and one from each breast to the arcane labors of my worthy professors. The crystal, successfully projected beyond the distortions of air and light, was expected to last, at best, for a decade.
      Thirty years later, the Elder Crystal continues to entrance. I have become its primary guardian. I wear, in summer, a crimson jacket with intricate loops for my many keys, and in winter an ermine cape that strokes the ground. The crystal has helped alchemists answer some of our most pression questions, from How old is time? (13.8 billion years old) to Is darkness visible? (yes, with intolerable clarity). In 1795 my lamented colleague Theo von der Weide had an idea of brilliant audacity and tragic import: what if we directed all the powers of the Elder Crystal toward an apparently dark spot in the sky? That yielded the magical discovery that even where the human eye sees nothing, thousands of astral carnivals exist. Theo, of his own will, gave so much blood to this endeavor that nothing was left of him in the end but a drop of milk.
     “One of the Elder Crystal’s lasting achievements,” declared our illustrious patroness, the Princess Madgalene von Kuddelmuddel-Mirabellenkernen, upon the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary, “will be how it showed the public the wonders of the universe.” She is quite right. Village children now discourse easily upon planetary nebulae; even the sheep have a knowing look. Next year, the Hidden Order will craft a second, more sensitive crystal; I stand, therefore, on the brink of a well-earned retirement, and look forward to the day when, drinking the drop of milk I have kept in a flask, I will grasp, in a breath, both infinite space and one lost body, softer than periwinkles.

(Branded Content for the Department of Culture and Tourism—Broken Thorn)
The juxtaposition of the natural world and the effects of witchcraft sets the
scene for memorable encounters in the mountain capital.

Traditional sleighs (known locally as flims) on the fresh snow of Perpendicular Boulevard form a striking contrast against the latticework of the High Keep.

Day gives way to night above the endless expanse of the Blasted Quarter.

A Thornian lady in a native surplice strolls through the Cave of Lights.
Remote, ensorcelled, and always surprising, Broken Thorn is a city of contrasts,
where diverse elements are united by a common dependence on magic.

There’s a special kind of silence among the impenetrable snows of the Blasted Quarter, the 250,000-square-mile wasteland that surrounds the city of Broken Thorn. Known locally as The Emperor’s Shroud, this mesmerizing wilderness of frost rises and falls as far as the eye can see. Here, where the experiments of the original wizard explorers wrecked the landscape, scarring it with craters and tossing up towers of ice, there is little to disturb the peace, save the occasional shadow of one of the local Praying Owls across the snow.
     Yet just over 120 miles away, the enchanted metropolis of Broken Thorn, capital of the Confederation of Sorcerer Fiefdoms, rises on its obsidian crags, home to some of the most extraordinary architecture on the planet. Domes and cupolas swell toward the stars, while a series of catacombs hosts a bustling market district underground. In these tunnels, where flickering torches lit by magic baffle the gaze, an intoxicating sap is purveyed in glass thimbles. The natural world and the charmed environment exist side by side in beautiful symbiosis, as roaring blizzards and devastating avalanches spurred by wayward spells encircle the ever-deepening city.
     Carved into courts and porticoes by the inventiveness of enchanters, this patchwork of urban endeavor provides a sparkling setting for intrigue, seduction, and crime. During this reporter’s stay at the Evermore Hotel, one of the guests was killed by a poisoned letter that evaporated her bone marrow.
     Formidable forts, palaces, and resplendent temples dedicated to the greater and lesser demons chronicle the history of this wind-lashed domain. This reporter was granted a rare interview with the Grosse Châtelaine—an interview that, unfortunately, we were later forbidden to print. We can only report, therefore, that the carpet of the High Keep is darker than rubies, that the great lady is as lovely as she is powerful, and that we were permitted, in a gesture of Thornian hospitality, to sip the cream of an owl soufflé from her curved fingernail.
     Outside her picture window, formed of a single massive quartz, convicted felons were freezing to death on the battlements. The Grosse Châtelaine honored us with a tour of her private museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of human kidneys. In this city, a history of witchcraft stretching back to Edwin the Eviscerator coexists with stylish contemporary settings. Elegant Thornians in the traditional surplice of human hair stroll through markets brimming with products from the farthest reaches of the world. The music of the pflen—a hollow instrument initially invented for the purpose of causing madness in one’s enemies—echoes harmlessly from the terrace of the Evermore, where couples dance in the mist flung up by the Opulent Chasm.
     Visitors to the city often note that these paradoxical elements—tradition and modernity, nature and artifice—give Broken Thorn added depth and character, somehow complementing rather than contradicting each other. This reporter, however, cannot say that the journey from the Keep back to the Evermore was particularly comfortable, or that our sentiments ran to appreciation for the streets that twinkled outside the window of our hired flim. Having sunk embarrassingly into sleep at the Châtelaine’s table (was it the fermented resin? the owl soufflé? the fingernail?)—a sleep that the Châtelaine, with the grace of the noblest of ladies, accustomed to the weakness of her subjects, immediately forgave—we continued to suffer from lethargy, a depression of the spirits, which, truth be told, continues to this day. This feeling of enervation was accompanied by increasing lower back pain. Snow whirled dazzlingly along the lighted streets. Arriving at the hotel, we were mortified and dismayed to find that something had seeped from our person, staining the seat.
     The colorful collage of Broken Thorn never fails to captivate visitors, forming a backdrop for surprising encounters and unexpected experiences. What could be more astonishing than to find, upon turning one’s back to the mirror, a leaky bandage across one’s lumbar region? As of this writing, the scar is scarcely perceptible: a faded souvenir of the icy capital of witchcraft, where, among the near vertical streets, in the brimstone odor of necromancy, active adventures and near escapes await.


The fair folk are disappearing at alarming rates.
That could be disastrous for the planet.

Pale hair adorns the winter coat of the Sodden Blue Empress, last seen in the dunes around San Francisco nearly eighty years ago.

A lantern of green silk collects an abundance of night-flying fairies at a field station in the Ecuadorian Amazon. At less remote sites, light traps show steep drops in fairies—as do car windshields.

Along the Moselle River in Germany, Siggi Herbst, head researcher at the Elemental Society of Zauberfeld, carries a sample bottle from a malaise trap. He is wearing his malaise trousers and malaise jacket. His hair mourns on the wind.

The Elemental Society of Zauberfeld, Germany, on the Rhine River not far from the Dutch border, stores its collections in a former theater. Where Berthe Weingeist, the “Little Inkpot,” once warbled her way deliriously through all seven hours of Mortadella’s Pistachio Reverie, the stage, lobby, and dressing rooms now hold bottles containing the chestnut-colored tracery of fairies preserved in ethanol. In the late 1980s, Siggi Herbst and his colleagues at the society set out to investigate the existence of fairies in Germany. They set up malaise traps, which look like sheets of regret unsteadily propped up on poles of persistent melancholy. The traps caught everything that flew into them: fairies, kobolds, imps, drunk teenagers, helicopters, unfinished novels. Whatever a trap caught ended up in a bottle. Over the course of twenty-five years, Herbst and his group confirmed, the fairy biomass declined by 76 percent.
      Desolation of the theater lit by naked bulbs affixed to music stands. Savage unhappiness of the fairies drowned in bottles. Many of them are pressing their bared teeth against the glass: unbelievably tiny fangs like sharpened grains of sand. When Berthe Weingeist was a child, she once recalled in an interview, clouds of fairies used to rush across the fields on the first of May, devouring everything in their path. She described a pair of her mother’s underclothes inadvertently left on the line before one of these visitations: “Afterward, Mama’s ugly drawers resembled a courtesan’s undergarment of the finest Parisian lace. It was then I understood that art was nothing but transformation.” Giggling, modestly hiding the rippling of her chins behind her fan, she went on to regale the enchanted journalist with the tale of her own victimization by the fair folk in the summer of 1960, when she fell asleep on a pier on Lake Caito after a festive evening and awoke to find herself peppered with miniature bites. “I’d lost six liters of blood,” she said. “I could barely see a thing. I stumbled back to the house and the old caretaker made me a cup of coffee. She rubbed my feet with vinegar, which is a local remedy against fairy possession.” This treatment was largely successful, though a colony of Pearl Fairies survived in the artist’s right armpit, and was later removed at a clinic in Milan.
     Approximately a million fairy species have been named, but millions more have yet to be discovered. Just one family of paranoid sprites, the Implacable Walking Devils, contains something like a hundred thousand species, greater than the number of all known species of fish, reptiles, plastics, mammals, amphibians, aerosols, and birds combined. Fairies are found in all habitats. They breed in the Himalayas, at elevations above eighteen thousand feet, and in caves three thousand feet below the earth’s surface. The Alkali Elf of the Yellowstone hot springs lives at the edges of scalding pools, while the wingless Belgian Snow Dwarf survives the cold by coating its newborn infants in a kind of antifreeze gel. A nymph known as the Creeping Doubt, native to semiarid regions in Africa, shrinks to desiccated flakes in very dry times, entering a form of suspended animation from which it has been observed to recover after more than fifteen years.
     “If they go, we’ll soon follow,” said Siggi Herbst, who possesses the equanimity of a man on the far side of a nightmare. Something about the firmness of his bony, stooping shoulders in the faded T-shirt and the bleak and stoical gaze behind his spectacles inspired me with a desire to offer aid, and I conceived the idea of a benefit concert in the defunct theater. Imagine, I urged him, the largesse that would flow into the coffers of the society, funding decades of future research, if the Little Inkpot herself could be convinced to reprise her performance of Mortadella’s masterpiece among the skeletons of dead fairies! Like most scientists, Herbst has a wild romantic streak. He agreed at once. I still possessed Berthe Weingeist’s address from the card she gave me after that long-ago interview. Rumor confirmed she had never moved but only grown more entrenched in her Käfergasse apartment.
     Fairies perform five crucial functions for our planet, Herbst told me. They provide food for our dreams; they consume the stagnant waste of our inhibitions; they devour the pestilential cares that would otherwise overwhelm us; they pollinate the illusions on which our happiness depends; and they aerate and enrich the sources of our creativity, without which we might as well throw ourselves under a subway train this instant. It was, perhaps, the dire plunge in the fairy population—the very crisis Herbst studies, and so, one might argue, he should have known better—that precipitated the failure of our scheme. The difficulty was not that Berthe Weingeist refused to come. She agreed readily. She arrived at the theater on a sort of litter, upheld by a sweating maid, a nurse, a footman, and two nephews of hers—shifty-eyed rascals who live off her charity in a basement apartment. She had not sung in thirty years. Her eyes were still a pair of marvelous grape-dark jewels. Her team arranged her couch on the stage among the bottles, where the first note rose from her throat with a delicate flexing of its wings, like a Creeping Doubt reviving from its long slumber. The problem was not—oh, it was certainly not—that her gift had declined. Nor was it the size or attitude of the audience, for the hall was packed with admirers of the Little Inkpot, their feet drawn up on their chairs so as not to risk treading on the bottles. Several of these receptacles had inevitably been smashed during the seating process, and the air was a storm of ethereal energies. The Little Inkpot lifted her arm in a gesture so familiar from the past, it caused the audience to break out in torrential applause. She lilted the immortal line, “O barriera insormontabile.” Around her, the shelves and tables stocked with preserved fairy corpses, some nearly as old as her last appearance on this stage, transformed the lights of the theater into an amber essence, which, I realized too late, was a virulent form of concentrated grief. Siggi is right: if the fairies go, we’re done for. We may, with our vast ingenuity, figure out some way to endure the coming disaster, we may find refuge in underground shelters, asteroids, giant rotating space stations, or alien planets yet unknown, but without the elemental spirits of our fields and forests we can only ever survive. We cannot live.
     The audience sobbed. They stumbled out of the theater. Reeling with pangs of loss, unable to endure even a quarter of the promised program, most would demand a refund of their ticket costs. Siggi seemed to be predicting this outcome internally as he watched them depart through the steam that obscured his spectacles. “Not at all, not at all,” he said courteously to Berthe Weingeist,when she stopped singing at last and apologized across the deserted theater. He even acceded to her wish to be carried up to the roof, where she had once celebrated her grand debut with a bumper of champagne. “How beautiful it was,” she recalled, as her entourage set her couch down on the concrete cluttered with broken malaise traps and sundry forgotten instruments. “The lightest rain was falling. It cooled my face. Cracchiolo was still alive then, thin as amatador in his scarlet waistcoat.” Now there was no champagne, only a flask of brandy offered rather abashedly by Siggi. Berthe Weingeist’s nephews sniggered in a corner. Her face, from which I could not tear my gaze, emitted a fragile, quivering light that seemed to come from a dead star. She accepted Siggi’s flask, lit an American cigarette (nothing, it seemed, could dim the potency of those sublime vocal cords), and brushed with one languid, nerveless hand at a pair of nocturnal fays who sought—undaunted, buzzing, ecstatic—to plunge their rapiers in her throat.

With thanks to the May 2020 issue of National Geographic.

“Readings in the Slantwise Sciences” appears in our fall 2022 issue, Conjunctions:79, Onword

Sofia Samatar is the author of five books, most recently the memoir The White Mosque (Catapult). Her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer), won the World Fantasy Award. She lives in Virginia.