The Shadow Artist

shadow artist illoThe Shadow Artist

by Ruth Nestvold

It was a good day for casting shadows.

The Shadow Artist bent slowly in the late afternoon light, stretching one arm high, fingers spread wide, and twisting the other arm just right, so the shadow cast along Seward Avenue became a snake climbing up a tree. Here, just south of the Arctic circle, shortly after summer solstice, he would be able to play with light and shadow for hours, telling stories in the main street of Rolynka, Alaska, nearly all night if he wanted.

“Teuvo Alhainen!”

Ellen Teayoumeak. Everyone else in Rolynka called him Shadow Artist, Shadow for short, but Ellen was the sole taxi driver and, in connection with her airport runs, she also delivered the mail.

He lowered his arms and turned.

She leaned out of her pickup, sans “Taxi” sign this time. “You’ve got mail. Should I drop it off at the Bering Straits Inn, or do you want it now?”

Teuvo sauntered over to her pickup, holding out one boney hand. “Might as well take it, since you’re here.”

Ellen dug around in the canvas bag on the passenger seat next to her and fished out a creamy parchment envelope, the address printed in a faux cursive font, heavy on the curlicues.

The Shadow Artist took one look at the return address.

“Shit,” he said.

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“Aren’t you over her yet?”

Harry Senungetuk, owner and barkeep of the Golden Nugget, poured the Shadow Artist another whiskey. Teuvo was glad the lighting in the bar was so bad; Harry’s garish Hawaiian shirt didn’t hurt his eyes as much that way.

He swirled the whiskey around in the glass to melt the ice cubes a bit. “It hasn’t even been three years.”

“That’s, like, three years, man. You can’t mope after a chick for that long.”

“I’m not moping.”

“Yeah, well, sounds like you need closure, Shadow. Maybe you should go to North Carolina for this wedding, see her given away to another guy.”

Just the thought of it made his insides go cold and the palms of his hands sweat.

And that made him even madder.

Because of Marya, he couldn’t even face the idea of going back home to Chapel Hill. After college, he’d decided to try running down the admittedly ridiculous dream of becoming an actor and headed for New York. She’d kissed him passionately before he got in the beat-up Toyota, had promised to wait for him, or (laughing) follow him when he was rich and famous.

And then she’d broken up with him via e-mail. They’d been neighbors since grad school and lovers since college, and she’d sent him an e-mail.

He’d left the Internet café, feeling hot and cold all over, staring at things without seeing them, life seeming to reduce itself to the late afternoon shadows.

Teuvo had planned his whole life around her. And now his life was nothing more than a shadow of what he’d imagined. He wished he could cast a shadow long enough for her to feel it, long enough to darken her life.

And then he’d pulled on his white gloves and his dark mask and began to create dancing, menacing shadows on the grass of Central Park.

Within an hour, he’d collected almost a hundred dollars.

He’d been so distracted and miserable after she dumped him; he couldn’t memorize parts, couldn’t concentrate on tryouts, couldn’t remember even when they were scheduled to take place. How could failed love screw up a life so much?

He left New York, trying to run away from it, but the memory of her chased him all the way around the world, from Finland to Thailand to Australia.

Eventually he had ended up in Rolynka, nearly as far away from North Carolina as he could get without a visa. Besides, the shadows were longer here than anywhere he’d ever been, and in high summer there were only a few hours a day when he couldn’t cast them.

But they were never long enough to reach Marya.

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The tourist from Greenland showed up two days later. The Shadow Artist heard about him long before he saw him. Seward Peninsula got plenty of tourists, but most of them were from the Lower 48 and Canada, with a fair amount of Germans and a smattering of other Europeans.

But an Eskimo from Greenland visiting Alaska?

The afternoon light was perfect for casting long shadows south-east, and Teuvo was creating convoluted tentacles across an empty lot on the outskirts of town.

“There are ways to cast shadows long enough to darken a life, if you’re willing to work at it.”

The Shadow Artist lowered his arms and turned. A slim, dark-skinned man wearing Dockers and sunglasses stood at the side of the street. If you could call it a street.

“What are you talking about?”

“I think you know. You have intuition, but no training. You’ve recognized the power of shadows, but you don’t know how to manipulate them.” While the stranger’s English was excellent, he had a very faint accent, a way of pronouncing each word precisely, something a native speaker would never do.

“Are you the tourist from Greenland?”

The man lifted the sunglasses to prop them on the top of his head. “You could say so, yes.”

“What’s your name?”

The stranger smiled. “Call me Kusuinek. Would you prefer I call you Teuvo or Shadow?”

The Shadow Artist blinked. Kusuinek must have been talking to Ellen.

“Shadow is fine.” He’d left Teuvo behind when Marya had left him—or rather, taken away the option of returning.

“Well then, Shadow, what would you say if I told you there is a way to create a shadow that will reach all the way to North Carolina and make her as miserable as she has made you?”

Talking to Ellen and Harry too.

“You’re pretty nosy, aren’t you?”

Kusuinek shook his head, still smiling. “Nosy? You called me here. I came to help.”

Teuvo began to walk down the street in the direction of the Bering Straits Inn and the little studio apartment he’d been renting for almost a year. “I don’t need your help.”

The stranger caught up and began to walk next to him. “Before you turn me away, answer one question, honestly. Don’t you wish you could cast a shadow across the life of the woman who broke your heart?”

Teuvo kicked at the gravel of the road, sending rocks flying. “Of course I do. What person hasn’t wished that on someone who abused their trust and rejected their love? It’s devastating. It’s natural to want the other person to feel the same kind of devastation.”

“And so you have turned to the power of shadows.”

“It’s a symbol, but it makes me feel better, in a weird way,” he said, shrugging.

“What would you say if I told you I can teach you how to make your shadows more than just a symbol, give them real power?”

The Shadow Artist stopped in his tracks. “This is crazy.”

Kusuinek laughed. “You are a Shadow Artist and you’re telling me what’s crazy?”

The man had a point, and Teuvo didn’t have an answer.

Chuckling, the stranger patted his shoulder in a grandfatherly gesture, even though he had to reach up to do it. “I’ll be staying at the Bering Straits Inn if you want to talk to me about … anything.”

With that, he turned and headed away from Imuruk Street, his shadow crawling up the dilapidated side of a wooden house that had melted the permafrost beneath it and sunk into the ground, while the porch remained on the surface at a skewed angle. Kusuinek’s shadow was jagged as it played across the crazy angles of the deserted building.

Teuvo watched the play of light and dark, wondering about the power of shadows—and strange tourists from Greenland.

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Vicky Askew, the proprietor of the Bering Straits Inn, might be Teuvo’s landlady, but she was also his friend. So, when she looked at him suspiciously after he asked her which room Kusuinek was staying in, it didn’t make much sense to him.

“Why do you want to know?” she asked.

“Hey, Vicky, we drink wine together, we build rafts together, you can’t possibly think I would want to do anything to one of your guests?”

She pursed her ridiculously red lips and tossed her impossibly black hair. “No, but that guy gives me bad vibes.”

The Shadow Artist smiled. Vicky tended to talk as if the Seventies had never ended. “Hey, he invited me to visit him, and I don’t know all that many people from Greenland, you know? Might as well expand my horizons.”

She shrugged reluctantly. “Fourteen.”

Fourteen was in the building next door that Vicky had bought and converted to additional rooms when she had found the hotel booked solid through both summer and the Iditarod. Teuvo climbed the stairs, wondering at his willingness to test Kusuinek’s promise of magic. But then, he had probably been corrupted by living in Rolynka, where the only taxi driver in town was consulted for everything from heartache to headache, and his own landlady attributed her escape from an abusive relationship to a sweater.

It was peer pressure.

The Shadow Artist stood in front of the door for a moment, staring at the one and four nailed into the wood, the four a touch higher than the one.

And then the door opened.

“Ah,” Kusuinek said. “You are here. Was there something you wanted to ask me?”

“I want to learn what you can teach me about shadows,” Teuvo blurted.

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Together they hiked the five blocks past the outskirts of town, heading for a deserted spot near the Rolynka River where they would be undisturbed.

When they were past most of the houses, a raven began to circle above, eventually landing on Kusuinek’s shoulder. The Greenlander reached up a hand to absently stroke the black feathers. “It is not shadows themselves you must learn about. You are a Shadow Artist, after all. What you need to learn is our way of understanding time and distance, boundaries and transformation.”

“You’re going to teach me philosophy?”

Kusuinek smiled. “Of a sort. You see, you must get past the traditional European belief that it is not possible to communicate with those separated from us in distance and time—except of course via cell phone.”

“Well, I couldn’t call Marya on a cell if I wanted to—at least not here in Rolynka.”

“You may not be able to call her, but you can touch her life, which is what you desire.”

“Yes.”

The Greenlander nodded, slowly, thoughtfully. “First you must understand how communication through space and time works. Think about a time you saw an old friend you had been separated from for years. Didn’t time disappear?”

Teuvo hadn’t known what to expect from the stranger, but it certainly wasn’t this, a lecture in metaphysics. “Well, yeah.”

They reached a deserted field near the river, and Kusuinek settled cross-legged on the ground, despite the beige Dockers. “Physical distance can be transcended too, with training.”

The Shadow Artist sat down on the tundra next to him, wondering what demon had ridden him when he’d decided to consult this guy. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, but—why are you trying to help me?”

“Oh, there will be a price. There is always a price.”

Teuvo wasn’t sure he liked the way the words were said or the thin-lipped smile that went with them. “What if I can’t pay it?”

“You will. Now, the first thing you must learn is silence, but I do not think that will be hard for you, since you dance with shadows.”

Before Kusuinek could continue with his instruction, a rusty orange pickup pulled up next to the field where they sat.

Ellen clambered down out of the cab. “Teuvo, I need to talk to you.”

Teuvo wondered what could be so important that she had actually come looking for him. “I’m busy. Maybe later?”

She shook her head. “The selfishness drew me here. I had to come. Teuvo, you must stop.”

He rose, facing her. “Selfishness? What do you mean?”

“She means what you are trying to do here,” Kusuinek said, with that smile again.

“You think I’m selfish?” Teuvo said. “What about Marya—breaking it off with me without even confronting me in person? We were together four years, and then I get an e-mail!”

Ellen crossed her arms, which somehow made her seem even wider. She wasn’t tall, but she was large, and there wasn’t anyone in Rolynka who would dare ignore her. “Perhaps a wrong was done you, but if you answer it with a wrong of your own, the bad energy just gets passed on, and it’s harder and harder to stop.”

Angry, he strode over to Ellen, clenching his fists to keep his hands from shaking. He wasn’t even persuaded yet that the Greenlander could help him make his shadows reach North Carolina, but at this moment none of that mattered. Somehow Ellen knew that he wanted Marya to suffer—and she wanted to get in the way of his silly attempt at revenge. It wasn’t fair. All he wanted was a way to work through the emotional baggage he had been carrying around for three years.

Three years.

He was a head taller than the Eskimo woman, but she didn’t flinch. “End it here, Teuvo.”

“No. I have a right to get back at her a little bit. I probably can’t make her miserable for years like she did to me, but if this stranger can teach me how to cast a shadow long enough to reach her, I’m going to do it.”

As he said the words, the anger at Marya was transformed into something resembling victory: maybe if he could do this thing, he could finally be free. He would have his closure.

Ellen gazed steadily into his eyes for a moment. “Okay,” she said, and then returned to her pickup.

He stared after her. “Okay? That’s it, okay?”

When the sound of gravel crunching beneath tires had faded, Kusuinek spoke. “The next thing you need to do is find yourself an amulet.”

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The Piscoya Arctic Trading Post carried some souvenir items that could easily double as amulets. The Shadow Artist skipped the large assortment of billikins, the “Eskimo” good luck charm that wasn’t really Eskimo. Kusuinek hadn’t given him any guidelines as to what the amulet should be, but Teuvo thought an animal would be nice. What would be appropriate?

There, a fox pendant carved of bone ivory. Foxes were creatures of shadow, nocturnal, hunting mostly at night.

Perfect for a Shadow Artist.

The carved animal was cool and smooth beneath his fingers, and he felt himself wanting to stroke it. He turned the little figurine over—and swallowed. There were a lot of tourists in town at the moment and his hat was always full. But still, what he made now had to tide him over at least until the Iditarod, and maybe even all the way until June.

Regretfully, he put the pendant back on the shelf. Perhaps he could find a couple of owl feathers or something—that would make a perfectly good amulet.

Before he could turn and leave the store, Rita Piscoya was at his elbow. “Is there something I can help you with, Shadow?”

He shook his head. “I was just looking.”

Rita chuckled. “At this old stuff? It’s been sitting around forever—I’ve been meaning to mark it down. Anything in particular?”

The Shadow Artist picked up the fox again. The proprietor took it out of his hand and turned it over, pulling a thin felt marker out of her cargo pants. After crossing out the price on the bottom, she wrote in an amount less than half the original. “That any better?”

“A lot.”

“I can throw a leather thong in with it if you’d like.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“No problem.” She smiled, carrying the little bone fox to the counter. “Those are the tourist prices anyway.”

“So that means I’m no longer a tourist?”

Rita dug a long strip of leather out of a drawer and rang up the price of the pendant. “Hey, anyone who has lived through a winter here is no longer a tourist.”

Teuvo left Piscoya Arctic Trading Post with his amulet, surprised at Rita’s generosity. For some reason, after Ellen drove away from his first lesson with Kusuinek, he’d been almost sure she would start telling tales about him to the whole town.

But here was Rita Piscoya helping him to his amulet.

He threaded the leather thong through the hole behind the fox’s ears, tied the two ends together, and draped his own personal piece of magic around his neck.

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On one of those eternal sub-arctic evenings, Teuvo was practicing silence on a field of tundra outside of Rolynka as Kusuinek had instructed him. It was well after midnight, on a weekday, and there were no longer any sounds coming from the town, despite the fact that it was still light.

Teuvo lay on the ground, feeling the earth beneath and the sky above, breathing in and out evenly, the smooth figure of his amulet clutched in his right hand. It was a strangely perfect moment; he was at one with everything around him.

Tundra doesn’t exactly rustle, consisting mostly of moss, lichen and dwarf shrubs, but despite the lack of leaves there was some kind of new, faint sound against the earth that made him turn his head.

And there she was, an arctic fox in her summer coat of blue-gray and brown, her front paws on a nearby rock as she peered at him carefully. Her kits, in varying shades from dark gray to white, hung back but didn’t make the impression of being careful. While not approaching him, they weren’t still, bounding behind their mother, butting her side, licking her cheek.

He stared at the arctic foxes in wonder and knew that he was ready.

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The Shadow Artist stood on an incline outside of Rolynka, the highest point within walking distance of the town, breathing deeply and evenly as Kusuinek instructed him.

“Feel every breath, Shadow. Feel the pulse of your life, of all the life around you, the grass and tundra growing beneath your feet, the salmon in the river to the west, the arctic fox you chose as your talisman—and that chose you.”

Kusuinek had a lovely sing-song voice in a pleasant, mid-Atlantic accent, lulling Shadow into a place very close to what he had found when the fox and her kits found him.

“Now stretch your arms high. Take all that life everywhere around you and become as tall as you can be.”

It was what in other parts of the world would be deepest night, but the sun had just come up after dipping below the edge of the earth, and now it was skirting the horizon. Teuvo’s shadow reached out across the landscape, extending so far he could no longer see where it ended.

“Now you must imagine the person you want your shadow to touch,” the Greenlander said. “It is not enough to just call up a picture. Make her real, here, now, real enough to touch and smell and taste. Concentrate. You have to know that this woman is close enough for you to cast your shadow upon her.”

Jeans and silk, the skin beneath even softer and smoother to his touch than the material. Smells he would never forget, faintly of apples and cream near her nipples, a more leathery sweetness where the skin was golden brown from the North Carolina sun. Dark brown hair beneath his hands, reddish glints in some lights, blue-black in others. Sharp, dramatic features, long, well-defined nose, high cheekbones, pointed chin, ears too pronounced to be beautiful. A face he loved, still.

A face with a faint resemblance to a fox.

The Shadow Artist dropped his arms and turned. “She’s like my talisman!”

“Shadow, you must concentrate!”

Teuvo stared at the Greenlander, but what he saw were the many years he had known Marya, the way they had grown up together, the way they had become lovers—the way he had left her to pursue a dream of becoming an actor.

Panic clenched his heart. Marya wasn’t responsible for messing up his life; the only person he had to blame for that was himself.

How could he have wanted to cast a shadow on Marya’s life? After he had begun to make her real in his mind’s eye as Kusuinek had instructed, he realized that her pain would be his pain too.

“No! I can’t do this!”

Before Kusuinek could respond, Teuvo was crouching low to the ground to make his shadow as small as possible, running down what counted as a hill in these parts, back to Rolynka, away from magic and memory and love.

Hopefully, he’d broken off the magic in time.

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Teuvo was bone-tired after the long “night,” but he still didn’t sleep well, scraps of nightmares clogging his brain.

He was trying to wake himself up from a horrible dream of the arctic fox squealing in a trap when the phone rang. At first he was grateful for the outside noise.

And then it occurred to him that a call at this time of night couldn’t be good.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Teuvo.” It was his mother. His fear ratcheted up several degrees.

“Hi, Mom. What’s up?”

He could hear her take a deep breath on the other end of the line, all the way on the other end of the continent. “There’s been an accident. Our neighbors—your old friend Marya—” Her voice broke.

“Shit.” Teuvo dropped his forehead into his free hand. He hadn’t stopped casting the shadow soon enough.

“She’s in the hospital.”

No, no, no!”What happened? How serious is it?”

“There was a pile-up on I-40. Marya was lucky, just whiplash and a concussion, but—” His mother drew a deep breath again. “She’s been asking about you, whether you plan to come to the wedding.”

He leaned his head back on the headboard. He could feel the tears seeping from the corners of his eyes to disappear in the hair at his temples. “Thank God she’s okay.”

“They still think they can have the wedding as planned, although she may have to wear a cervical collar.” His mother was silent for a moment. “Do you know if you’ll be coming to the wedding?”

Teuvo wiped the tears out of eyes. “I hadn’t intended to, but now …”

“Then I can tell her you’ll come when I visit her in the hospital tomorrow?”

How was he going to face her? How could he not?

“Yeah, you can tell her.”

They talked for a bit longer, Teuvo doing his best to keep up his end of the conversation.

And then his father was called to the phone too, but luckily he didn’t seem to have much to say.

Good old Dad.

When Teuvo was finally able to hang up he rose slowly, feeling as if the nightmares had accompanied him into his waking state.

How could he have done something like that to Marya? Sure, he’d wished pain on her, but what he’d wanted her to feel was heartbreak, the kind of pain he’d been living with for too many years.

Not a pile-up on I-40 and a scrape with death.

He picked up the amulet on his bed stand and was about to drape it around his neck—a new habit—when he stopped.

What if the shadow he had cast was still working?

He dropped the beautiful carved fox onto the cheap bed stand and hurried out of his rented studio.

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Teuvo found Ellen Teayoumeak a mile out of town in front of the clapboard structure that served Rolynka as an airport.

He leaned his bony forearms on the door of her pickup. “Ellen, I need your help.”

She put down her paperback. “Get in.”

He went around to the passenger side of the cab, pulled open the door, and clambered in. Ellen reached up and took the “Taxi” sign off the roof.

Teuvo shook his head. “Isn’t there a flight due in?”

Ellen turned the key in the ignition and put the truck into gear. “You need help,” she said simply.

As they drove away from the airport, Teuvo told her what had happened.

“Is there any way I can undo what I’ve done?” he asked. He didn’t know what he would do if she said no.

Ellen braked and brought the pickup to a halt. “Are you sure the magic was complete?”

“What do you mean? It must have been—look what happened to Marya.”

“When did her accident happen?”

Teuvo was silent, gazing at the placid Eskimo woman, realizing what her question might imply. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I didn’t ask.”

“Perhaps you should.”

“You’re right, perhaps I should.”

She patted his knee in a motherly way. “You know, Teuvo, sometimes bad luck is just bad luck.”

He heaved a sigh of relief. The guilt was still there, but just the thought that perhaps he had stopped in time gave him a feeling of freedom like he hadn’t known in years.

“How did you know?” he asked.

Ellen shrugged. “I don’t know. But the bad energy of selfishness is gone.”

Teuvo liked that: not evil, “bad energy of selfishness.”

Although after two seconds he realized the words were just one way of describing evil. And he had been guilty of it. He stared out the window at the monotonous scenery of shrubs and lichen, feeling just as low as the vegetation. What else was the huge specter of evil other than the ultimate selfishness?

He swallowed. That specter had his name on it. “This is the price, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “Demons always demand a price.”

“So Kusuinek was my own personal demon?”

“Sort of.”

Shadow knew Ellen well enough by now to know that was probably the best answer he would ever get. “Where is he now?”

“Gone.” Ellen started up her truck and took a skidding u-turn on the gravel road. “There is one more thing you must do, Teuvo.”

He nodded. “I know. I have to go back to North Carolina.”

“Yes. You’re a smart boy.” Ellen watched the road, her smile small and content. Teuvo let the “boy” pass and watched the blooming tundra with her.

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Teuvo had forgotten how oppressively hot it could be in the Triangle in summer. The setting in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham was absolutely stunning. All around them on the terraces flowers bloomed—but it was not the time or place to be standing in the sun in a borrowed suit. Especially not for someone who had spent the last year just south of the Arctic Circle.

Although when Teuvo glanced around surreptitiously, trails of sweat were winding down the majority of temples.

Luckily, the ceremony was not long. Perhaps it was too hot for the justice of the peace as well, even though he got to stand in the shade.

And then they were all throwing rice and cheering, while Marya and watzizname descended the steps.

Yes, her neck was in a collar, but she looked happier than he could ever remember. It hurt like hell, but it was good too, good to see her, good to see her happy and safe and not darkened by shadow.

Marya and her new husband shook hand after hand but Teuvo hung back, watching in the shade of a magnolia tree. When that part of the ritual was over, the newlyweds led the guests through the gardens to the reception in the Doris Duke Center. It was a relief to be able to go inside and get out of the humid heat.

He and his parents helped themselves to champagne. “A lovely wedding!” his mother gushed.

“Yes,” Teuvo agreed. “But they should have had it two months ago.”

“May is probably booked years in advance,” his father grumbled.

“I’m afraid that’s true, Mr. Alhainen.”

Marya.

“Thank you so much for coming, Teuvo,” she said, laying her hand briefly on his elbow.

“Thank you for the invitation,” he stammered, while his parents slipped away unobtrusively.

“I was so afraid you wouldn’t come—I treated you like shit, I know. But you’re here now, so you must have forgiven me, right?”

Marya gazed up at him with her angular, fox-like face, her smile teetering on the edge of tears, and Teuvo blinked and nodded. He should be asking her forgiveness, and here she was asking for his.

She rubbed her eyes and gave an embarrassed laugh. “If it’s any comfort, the guy I left you for turned out to be an utter ass.”

“Oh, so it wasn’t watzizname?”

Marya laughed again and slugged his arm playfully. “Teuvo!” She stretched out her hand. “Friends again?”

He took it, leaning down to kiss her cheek above the cervical collar. “Friends.”

He doubted if it was true, but at least it was a nice gesture.

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When he got off the plane in Rolynka, it was cloudy and cool.

Not much of a day for casting shadows.

To his surprise, Ellen Teayoumeak was waiting in front of the airport—without the taxi sign on top of her pickup. Teuvo stopped and stared.

The Eskimo woman leaned over and opened the door of the passenger seat. “Get in. Everyone is waiting for you at the Golden Nugget.”

He threw his bags in the back of the truck and climbed in, still not quite knowing what to make of this reception.

Ellen smiled. “Oh, and . . . welcome home.”

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Ruth Nestvold’s short stories have appeared in numerous markets, including Asimov’s, F&SF, Baen’s Universe, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Tiptree, and Sturgeon Awards. In 2007, the Italian translation of her novella “Looking Through Lace” won the “Premio Italia” award for best international work. Her novel Yseult appeared in German translation as Flamme und Harfe with Random House Germany and has since been translated into Dutch and Italian. It is now available as an ebook in the original English. She maintains a web site at  http://www.ruthnestvold.com and blogs at http://ruthnestvold.wordpress.com.

 

 

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