Change In the Wind

The amulet glowed violet. The planets and stars on my pointed hat swirled until they became a single comet chasing its own tail. The required words fell to the ground next to the ramekins of herbs that powered this spell. A giggle resounded in the room, bouncing off rafters, pinging down corridors toward the far reaches of the castle.

And then, outside, the animals rose into the air.

The sound was a rhythmic whooshing at first, like servants sweeping the courtyard outside a bedroom window, but it grew in intensity. Let them arrive on their own time. Let them enjoy the view of the trees from above and stretch their new wings as far as they could. Soldiers as important as these needed to gain confidence; they needed to experiment with weapons and find talents on their own.

Through the window, the first of them dotted the charcoal sky. What is the opposite of a shooting star? That was them. They wobbled in the night, some drooped, some soared. But they all heard the calling and joined their brothers and sisters in flight, and their growls thickened the air like fog.

In the valley, lights came on in the village. The miners and lumberman surely grumbled about the noise interrupting their precious sleep. There was work to be done in the morning, of course. Forests to raze; minerals to harvest. The terrible ways men occupied themselves these days. They would see in the morning, however, that tonight’s commotion was only the beginning.

In an hour’s time, hundreds of dark comets loomed above the town. Those that the spell affected early were accomplished flyers by now. It’s amazing what creatures can adapt to when they have no choice. They flew higher to spiral in down-draughts, swerving past the newest of the airborn.

The first of them finally alighted on the sill of the largest window of the castle. She was beautiful: thick white fur, coal black eyes lit with interest, the delicate mushroom of her nose. Her front paws bent in front of her awaiting instruction and her wings were two columns standing behind her like balustrades.

The wind carried a voice from the village through the window in that moment as if to announce her arrival.

“Bears with wings!”

More specimens flew into the room. They arrived in a myriad of colors—golden, tawny, roan, black. Each with intelligence glinting in their eyes. They did not greet each other; they just found their own space, sat, and patiently waited. Well, that’s not exactly true. Having never been in a human dwelling before, a few poked at the curtains and candelabras. One tried to guzzle wine from a decanter on the table.

When the rafters were full and there was no space left to sit on the floor, I showed them four drawings. The first was of a group of red flying bears picking up rocks and plugging up the mouths of mines. The second was of gray bears stealing cows and pigs from farmyards and placing them safely in open fields. In the third, the bears dumped the red water from the streams and rivers near the butcheries onto the town, and in the fourth, the bears lived happily on the earth and in the sky with humans to fetch their berries and honey.

The bears nodded, wings aflutter, and with a hurricane wind, they were gone.

The amulet, still in hand, beamed emerald instead of violet. There was nothing to do now but clean and wait for a better world.


First draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

Underground Monsters

Darren dared me to do it. We were sitting on the porch—Mom didn’t want us to go out into the yard until we knew what had happened—eating apples and talking about the holes.

We’d just gotten up and walked outside to put our bikes away like our Mom had asked when we noticed. Overnight, every single tree had been replaced by a hole in the ground. A perfect pile of leaves circled each hole. Not just in our yard but as far as we could see. The day before, there had been a forest—like a real one with a name—that blocked our view. But we could see everything now. The town, the lake, the school. Not to mention the blinking walls of our neighbors’ houses. I imagined them blushing from the sudden exposure.

“You think it was a machine?” I asked him.

He scanned the horizon. “An army of ’em.”

“No. Couldn’t be. We’d have woke up. Well, you and Mom would have for sure.”

“Maybe the government has developed stealth tractors.”

Shivers jangled my spine. I’d never thought of stealth tractors before. What else was the government doing that I’d never thought of?

“Naw.” I shrugged off my fear. “It was a monster. A picky one who doesn’t like roughage. And they’re going to find it and ask it to spit the trees back out.” I didn’t know who “they” were. I hoped Darren wouldn’t notice.

“That makes no sense, Arnold. We’d have heard breathing or crunching or footsteps or something”

“Makes as much sense as an army of tractors.”

Darren stuck his tongue out at that. He finished his apple and spit the seeds at me. I ran from him and sat on the stairs. A few minutes later, Darren sat next to me. First, we watched the stick figures of neighbors come out of their houses and survey what had happened. Then we watched the birds, frantically gathering on the ground or flying from the eaves of one house to another. I got scared again thinking about what was all missing.

“Gotta be a monster. It ate up all the squirrels and chipmunks, too,” I told Darren.

“All right, smartie. If it’s a monster, it’ll be hungry again, won’t it?”

“Not for a while, I think.”

“Well, but it will, and we’re gonna need to feed it or it will eat our houses, too.”

“Never thought of that.”

“So you gotta distract it by moving these chairs out into the yard.” He pointed to the four Adirondacks sitting back up on the porch. “I dare you.”

We eyed each other for a moment before I took the dare. I was thinking Mom usually wants us in the yard instead of playing video games so she couldn’t get too mad at me. While I was pushing the second chair down the stairs, Darren went inside to watch the news. It didn’t take long for me to move them, heavy as they were. When I was done, I joined Darren on the couch. Trees were gone everywhere. The newscasters were interviewing scientists who all had their theories, some blaming corporations, others blaming environmentalists, but it was clear it was all filler. They knew as much as we did. Our phone rang constantly: neighbors calling to compare notes.

The chairs stayed in the yard, untouched. I’d check them through the front windows every hour or so. I couldn’t rescue them because Mom grounded me for putting them out there in the first place. She still wouldn’t let us out of the house; everyone was afraid the ground was diseased. And Darren wouldn’t rescue them because he said they proved he was the smarter brother.

On the morning of the fourth day, I saw that the chairs had been stacked on top of each other, that the legs of one were growing into the armrests of another. Branches bushy with leaves had sprouted from the planks. Seedlings in their casings shaped like music notes dangled in the breeze. We ran inside to tell Mom. Darren made a point to tell her that moving the chairs was his idea. But she didn’t ground him.

By the end of the day, chairs, dressers, desks, and ottomans decorated every front yard in town. People had even pre-stacked them, though Mom told them we hadn’t done it that way and it had still worked.

Photo by Mikes Photos from Pexels

Early draft.

Merope

I had imagined pinks and vermillions, an impossible sunset contained within an industrial warehouse. I had heard the chitter of squirrels and felt spring breezes. But when I awoke to a thump, felt the vibrations through the floor of my Nomad cell, and saw the most beautiful open door I had ever seen, I knew I wasn’t hallucinating.

The forklift carrying my cell headed toward the receiving door of the warehouse. We passed dozens of other people like me, locked inside 5-foot by 5-foot boxes with clear walls called Nomads. All of them were shielding their eyes with their hands from the bright light, watching me. It wasn’t strange that a worker would be moving one of the inmates to another part of the facility.

It was the open door that was strange.

As we approached it, the forklift slowed. The light became so strong I had to cover my eyes, too, but soon I felt warmth on my clothes, my hair. The forklift set me down on a hard surface, and then nothing happened.

Little by little, my vision grew accustomed to the daylight. The worker had dumped my Nomad in the middle of an asphalt patch. I sat there for some time. I did not mind the waiting; it had been so long since I’d seen the Sun.

At dusk, my Nomad expanded. The ceiling raised, and the walls backed away until it had grown to the size of a conventional living room. The wall closest to the warehouse turned a bright cobalt blue and a pristine white couch inflated from a panel in the floor. Pin light eyes dilated in the ceiling. I didn’t believe that the Nomad’s new dimensions were for my own comfort.

A golf cart approached. I recognized its passenger as the Nomad salesman who had captured me. The ends of his mustache curled malevolently and his gilded cloak shone in the fading light. Clasps secured around my ankles before the driver opened the door to the Nomad. I decided not to try to escape yet; I would have one shot, and the two men blocking the only escape meant this wasn’t it.

“You are in the presence of Grun Dolbry, prisoner. Only speak when spoken to.”

And then the salesman was inside. He smelled of pine and of a pomade that reminded me of my grandfather. The driver shut the door behind him.

Dolbry’s eyes leered at me before he spoke. “Prisoner,” he sat on the couch directly opposite me. “Your family has paid for your release.”

A rush of relief flooded me, but I did not show it.

“That’s cause for celebration, yes?” He bent his arm and spoke into a gadget that looked like a watch: “Two cod fillets, green beans with almonds, and a Cabernet. Is that suitable?” His gaze hitched on to my lips.

“I was hoping for steak.”

“Sorry, but that’s not on the menu. Beef shortage because of the drought out East, you know.”

Of course I didn’t know.

A dining table and chairs rose between us, and the man immediately moved to sit. The clasps pulled my ankles forward. The smell of the fresh food made me stumble. I struggled not to faint at my hunger.

“Please sit. I am very pleased to be dining with you tonight. You have made me quite a bit of money.” He cut his fish into pieces, then brought one to his mouth. I tried to ignore the noises he made as he chewed, but the sounds nauseated me. My food remained untouched.

“Of course, where there is a bee, there is a hive,” he smiled, smacked, clicked, glopped. “Carry on with your supper, prisoner. It will be a while before you’ve another. Are you not hungry?”

“You’re not freeing me,” I declared to my plate, then, remembering my plan of escape, I took a large bite of fish. Transfiguration required energy.

“Ah, you’ve discovered your appetite. You women change your mind too quickly.”

My mind focused on barbs, beaks, and wings; I didn’t hear another word he said to me, but I continued eating. Eventually, the man set his napkin down on his plate and walked to the door, and when he finally opened it I felt the feathers prick up on my skin and the clasps slip free of my legs. I was aloft and out the door before the man could react.

The night was as dark as the inside of that warehouse, but I was a dove flying above the tallest oaks. On my way to see my sisters.

Very very early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

The Clockwork Creature

When Robert released the wind-up key, a high, thin whirr filled the laboratory. The silver gears inside the creature’s walnut-sized thorax set into motion its legs—eight jointed levers about two inches long—and pips of steam released from its palpus. Those attached to the front of its thorax reached and those in back pushed across his drafting table.

The clockwork creature’s lunge reminded him of a windy day on Lake Michigan: the red stripes of bathing suits, the yellow of lemon ice, the blue of his little brother’s body floating in the water. Robert and his brothers had noticed him all at once. They breaststroked to where Cecil’s nine-year-old body bobbed and worked together to keep Cecil’s face above water as they dragged him toward safety. Three arms holding, three arms reaching, six legs kicking behind.

Breaking from his daydream, Robert flipped the machine over. An upturned crab. Its rounded chassis wobbled as its legs clawed the air. He watched as its energy slowed and stopped, then he traded his lab coat for a smoking jacket and wandered back into the main house to inquire what meal Mrs. Chambers planned for luncheon.

The thing was still upside down when Robert returned to his laboratory weeks later, but no dust had settled upon it—a rare sign of Mrs. Chambers’s presence. Its arms curled as if to beckon him closer. Turned upright, the creature became a science to him once more, a puzzle to be solved. He found himself humming as he oiled its joints, cleaned the gears with a pipe cleaner, and retightened each screw.

Cecil had also been fastidious. One day Cecil had pulled Robert into father’s study. He had replaced a shelf of Father’s engineering books with a row of empty milk bottles.

“Have you been thirsty?” Robert said with a laugh.

“Look closer,” Cecil whispered. Robert bent down and one of the bottles flashed chartreuse.

“Fireflies?”

Cecil nodded vigorously. “Yes, and Japanese beetles and ash borers and bumblebees. I’m starting a collection.”

His collection.

Robert dropped the screwdriver and before he knew it, he was running through the main house, past his brothers’ laboratories filled with steam-powered printing presses and cannons, and into his father’s study. Freddie and Ambrose popped up at the door asking what had happened. Robert did not answer. He was focused on the bottom-most shelf of milk bottles. Robert pulled a bottle out and saw the specks at the bottom. A low mewl escaped him.

“What in blazes is the matter, Bobby?” Freddie snapped. Ambrose stood silently behind him; the look on his face was granite, except for the caterpillars of his mustache.

Robert held the bottle out to his brothers. “I forgot Cecil’s insects.”

The sun was high on a summer day when Mrs. Chambers entered the laboratory, feather duster in hand. As usual, she began with the sitting area near the fireplace. She was moving Robert’s pipe and writing notebook from a side table when a pair of shoes under the drafting table across the room caught her eye. When the shoes moved, she screamed.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Chambers.”

Mrs. Chambers noticed a smearing of Robert’s words. She spotted several bottles of wine under the table next to him.

“Mister Robert. I’m sorry. I will come back when the room is unoccupied.”

“No!” Robert said. “That is, stay, please.” He crawled out from underneath the table.

Apprehensively, Mrs. Chambers continued to dust. The room was silent, except for his soft humming and an occasional blowing of air into one of his inventions, a small thing with ghastly arms. When she had almost finished her work, Robert spoke again.

“May I show you an invention inspired by our dear Cecil?”

“Of course, sir.”

Robert wound the small contraption, and she watched as it labored across the drafting table like a lame crab. No, that wasn’t the motion. What had she ever seen that moved like that?

“It’s a clockwork spider,” Robert said when he registered the confusion on her face.

“I’ve never seen a spider walk like that, sir. You know best, of course, but shouldn’t the legs be on the sides and not front and back?”

“Of course! Thank you, Mrs. Chambers. It’s not natural. Why hadn’t that occurred to me?”

Mrs. Chambers returned to dusting as Robert began the process of reattaching legs and calibrating them to move side-to-side instead of up and down.

Early draft: constructive criticism welcome.

(photo credit: Pavlofox at pixabay.com)

The Girl Who Glowed

When the bell above the door tinkled, Miguel came out of his reverie long enough to say hello to the girl. She was slouching over the time clock in the corner, one hip against the wall. She didn’t seem to want to work today, which was odd because she was usually bouncy. But there had been a lot of work to do lately. Or maybe she sensed what was coming: he couldn’t keep her on the payroll. It wasn’t her fault; he had no choice. Everyone in town said his flowers were the best, but that didn’t get them in his shop. He regretted not listening to his wife’s suggestion of selling online.

“And how was school?” he asked, making her jump. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. Could you start this morning by putting away the shipment?” He pointed to several loosely wrapped bundles lying by the door. The longing he saw in her glance at the packages made his stomach drop. How could he fire someone who loved this place?

Elena nodded, then slipped off her backpack and jacket and set them on the floor. A reminder of how young she still was. He watched as she traded leather gloves for plastic purple ones.

He’d seen her around town before he’d hired her. She walked home from school alone like an automaton, hair pinned back the exact same way, inscrutable look on her face, but when she entered his store she usually came alive. And she was so tidy. Her clothes beamed with cleanliness. He would miss her in the shop, the promise of her confidence with the plants, her little rituals. Maybe he should explain the situation to her and ask if she’d consider becoming a volunteer?

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “It’s good that you’re so neat—I’ve never seen a sixteen year old so fastidious—but just once I’d like to see you walk in with mud on your jeans or something.”

She peered over the work table at him, then she finished bringing the shipment over to the work table.

Who was this strange girl who worked for him? Talking a mile a minute one day and barely making a sound the next.

“You’re quiet today. Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” she said with a grimace on her face. A flash of annoyance? “Guess that biology final has me stressed.”

“You’ll do fine,” Miguel said. He returned to his spreadsheet, willing the numbers to show him how to keep his only employee. It wasn’t possible. Maybe she would agree to work unpaid. Miguel stood from his desk and stretched a moment. Then he walked to where Elena was busy unpacking the wedding order at the work table.

He was surprised to see she had taken off a plastic glove. He had never seen her hands before; they were pink, youthful. Her nails were meticulously filed and shaped, but were free of nail polish. He could swear he saw golden threads coming from her fingertips and into the leaves of the snapdragons. The flowers seemed to stretch and brighten with her touch. The flowers’ bells were pulsing though they were lying flat on the table still. Their color turned from pale pink to fuchsia to magenta. New buds were stacking themselves on the tops of each stem.

“Holy shit,” he found himself saying, and Elena jumped. Her foot connected with her backpack, and she threw her arms out. The moment Miguel caught hold of her arm he felt electricity pulsing through his body. He felt his hair and fingernails grow. His vision blurred when he looked straight ahead but the lines of the cornices around the room were crisp in his periphery.

“Holy shit.” He whipped off his glasses. “Clear as day.”

Miguel and Elena studied each other—both unsure of what to say without sounding crazy— and then Elena picked up the calla lilies and held them out to him. He watched as the supple tails of their single petals drooped lower and more elegantly. She ran to the refrigerated case next. As she touched each plant, he saw a golden aura around the girl. It reminded him of a night long ago, back when he had started dating Marisol, his wife. They had gone to a festival in a municipal park. Three thousand people holding sky lanterns above their faces. The girl glowed like all three thousand of those people at once. She didn’t know it but she had just saved her job.

Writing for YeahWrite. Click the badge above for more fantastic fiction and poetry.

The Language of Thunderstorms

A crowd gathered on the crumbling pavement of the town square. The Leader stood quite still in its center, her unusual silence commanding our attention. Eventually even the men tilling the fields nearby set down their plows and stepped over rows of freshly planted seeds to hear her proclamation.

The Leader held a curiously stretched oval, like an egg made long by the captive hatchling inside. A thin silver rod protruded out of the oval’s side.

“My family,” she boomed, and the breeze played with the hollyhock blooms wreathed throughout her curly brown hair. “Brother Nielwin”—she acknowledged me with a slight nod—“discovered this artifact from deep within the waste mines. Our foremothers called it a ‘radio.’” She offered the crowd a rare smile with her words, then she turned a knob and the thing began to crackle and moan.

Some men leaning against the ruins of a brick wall covered their ears with their chapped hands. Others whispered of wickedness. A child sitting at the Leader’s bathed and oiled feet reached toward the object.

“What do we hear, dear Leader?”

The Leader’s voice dropped from full to half-mast. “That is the sound of our future, my child.”

“Our future sounds like a storm rolling in,” the girl replied, and the Leader stooped to let her touch the wailing gray thing.

The Sponsor

AFTER THE “ALL CLEAR” SIREN echoed through the streets of the town, Zsofia and Piri emerged from a shelter and continued their walk home from work. Piri steered them a different way—down a street Zsofia usually avoided. They found themselves marooned between porches of makeshift halfway homes filled with men and women eagerly smoking. They were soldiers recovering from battles with the Ambassador’s armies. Each of them wore gold headbands, the rebel force’s insignia. The color—of scrum, of corn, of pride—symbolized the reasons for the war. Zsofia felt eyes search her as she passed. Could they tell her secret? Could they see she was not one of them?

One soldier, her hair in tangles past her belt, presided over a low table holding the dismantled pieces of a gun. A chamois cloth skittered like a hummingbird from part to part despite the fact that the woman’s hands remained at her sides. She snarled when she caught Zsofia’s eyes.

Zsofia thought of a wolf and shivered, but maintained her bearing. A reflex. After many steps, they turned a corner and Zsofia burst open: “Why did you take us that way?”

“I forgot they lived there now. I’ll make it up to you.” Piri put her arm around Zsofia’s shoulders and handed her a brown box with a wide, red ribbon. “Here. To celebrate your husband’s promotion.” Zsofia stopped walking to open the gift.

Beneath layers of pink crepe paper lay an elegant pair of shears. The lowering sun highlighted its ornamentation. With the blades closed, the ovals at the ends of the handles formed a lowercase g, as if its purpose was solely for pleasing the eye and not for the slicing of hair. Without thought Zsofia told her friend she couldn’t accept such an expensive gift: food and scrum were scarce, and Piri’s tunic hung so loosely on her frame. Everyone in the kingdom starved, except the people living in the Ambassador’s castle.

“It’s nothing. Mother left us an enormous collection. If this pair weren’t with you, it would be at the bottom of a drawer.”

Zsofia cocked her eyebrows at her friend. Piri reassured, “A beach can’t possibly account for every grain of sand.”

“They’re beautiful, thank you, but I only magic with water. What would I do with them?”

“My sister taught me how to cut hair using these…” Piri wiggled her fingers. “It’s easy once you know how. I thought I’d give you lessons every night after work until you’ve got it.” Piri took the shears from Zsofia. “And when we finish with the lessons, I’ll cut your hair, how does that sound?” She opened and closed the blades. Snip, snip, snip. “I’m told all the women of the Ambassador’s court wear their hair short. Shall we practice a bob so you’ll fit in nicely when your husband finally calls you to the castle?”

“I doubt I’ll even see courtesses when I’m there.”

“Yes, but it’s just a matter of time before you spend your days with them. Soon you and Laszlo—with your specialties—will be at the Ambassador’s elbow, I’ve no doubt.”

Zsofia felt a pang of guilt knowing she will leave behind her friend. Piri would never ask for an invitation to the castle, but Zsofia knew she hoped for one. Who wouldn’t wish to escape ration shortages and warning sirens? Zsofia knew that chanters like Piri were unlikely to be accepted within the walls of the castle. The Ambassador favored specialists. Zsofia failed to see why—they were all conjurors. What difference did it make if some spoke words and others willed their magic?

“Did you notice the witch cleaning her gun back there?”

Piri’s steps stuttered on the cobblestone. “Please don’t use that word. Yes. She could benefit from my lessons as well.”

“Do you think she’s heading back to war?”

“Maybe, or maybe she’s just getting married in the morning.” Piri snapped the shears again.

“She was telekinetic—why would she be fighting for the Rebels?

“No, her lips were moving. She’s ordinary, like me,” Piri said, before tugging a coil of Zsofia’s blonde hair. “Ordinary in magicking, that is. I’m extraordinary with shears. You’ll see. When I’m done with you, your sponsor will think you’ve always lived in the castle.”

 

LASZLO’S LETTER ARRIVED A FEW WEEKS LATER. On the morning of her interview for admission into the castle, Zsofia walked many miles in a storm. The rain squelched any excitement or nervousness she felt; it also drenched her fresh haircut. As she approached the massive wall encasing the castle, she strained to make out the crenelated peak of the tower against the sky. Aside from mountains, it was the largest thing she’d ever seen. Guards met her at the bridge; one verified her name, the other carried her baggage into the gatehouse and set it down next to three chickens. From that point on, Zsofia could not say where inside the castle they took her, except that when their journey ended her wait began.

She sat alone in a cavernous room the color of October wheat. An oak desk guarded her, its face marred with a stain. She wondered about it until the sun leapt into the room through several windows widely spaced along the far wall. A beam shone directly on the stain.

Eventually another guard came and asked Zsofia to stand. After she obeyed, he magicked her chair back and to the side of where it had been, and asked her to take it once more. He positioned another chair some distance in front of her. An ornate throne emerged from the shadows and heeled behind the desk. Then the guard with the telekinetic specialty left for a moment and returned with a man dressed in a purple coat. The coat had embroidered eagles the size of drop cakes stacked talon to head down the front. The man’s face was plump and familiar, his shoulders broad and sloping like flying buttresses. Her Laszlo.

She stood to embrace her husband, but the guard barked for her to sit. Laszlo smiled apologetically and then took the chair closest to the desk. Another eagle eyed her from the back of her husband’s coat.

The guard announced the Sponsor. Doors ahead of them parted and a tremendous woman entered, cape aflutter, and took the stately throne. Her long hair was magicked above her head; it lazily swayed with her movements as if she were swimming underwater. Floating opalescent lights spun and flashed from between the tendrils of her hair—it was the work of a very talented specialist, no doubt.

The caped woman addressed her small court. “You are Lazslo, the newly appointed deputy to the Ambassador’s vizier, yes?”

“Yes, Sponsor.” Laszlo’s voice sounded frail. He looked so different; Zsofia panicked that he was not well.

“And this is your wife, Zsofia of Vischla.” The Sponsor kept her gaze on the papers before her.

“Yes.” Her own voice sounded weak. “Yes, Sponsor,” she added, tightening the muscles in her abdomen.

“You, sir, are requesting your wife be brought into the embrace of the Ambassador. You have paid the three million scrum fee and have successfully petitioned the courts. Am I correct?” A flash of emerald light gleamed from her hair.

“You are. Thank you for your consideration, Sponsor.”

“Very well. Let’s begin. To be your sponsor for immigration,” the Sponsor cast her gaze upon Zsofia for the first time. “I must know a little about you. How did the two of you meet?”

“We met when we were young, Sponsor,” Laszlo said. “Before I was brought to the castle I was merely Laszlo, one of the Ambassador’s accountants for the town.”

“Was it always your intention then to bring your wife through when you had permission?”

“We hoped, yes. We are very lucky that it only took three years to garner the Ambassador’s attentions.”

“I see. And you, Zsofia, I notice you are rather thin. Are you ill?”

“No, Sponsor. Our town has been occupied by the rebel forces for many months. We have little there, but what we have we share.”

“When I last saw her she was glowing with health, Sponsor,” Laszlo said. “A few months within the walls will set my darling to rights.” Zsofia did not like the tallow drips she heard in her husband’s voice.

“Being from rebel territory will count against you, I’m afraid. Do you have any specialties with which to bolster your case?” Another flash of light from the Sponsor’s hair, this time amethyst.

“Yes.” Zsofia’s voice held strength. “I am a Water Specialist.”

“Splendid. We are looking for conjurors like you, to purify our wells. Proceed.”

Zsofia bowed her head slightly and showed her palms to the ceiling. Little by little, she summoned the moisture from the oak desk, the window frames, Laszlo’s chair. The droplets scurried across the expanse of the room to gather just inches from her fingertips. She moved them in circles, zigzags, chevrons, and then into an eagle which she made fly over and give her husband a peck. The Sponsor released one shrill cackle.

“Impressive, my dear. And what do you do in your days with the rebels?”

“I spend them at the bogs harvesting water. I spend my nights tutoring children and learning to cut hair.”

“The tutoring is fine, but aiding the enemy is not a good thing to mention in court. A better answer would be that you were finding ways to undermine their plans.” Flashes of amber strobed the room, matching the paint on the walls.

“The rebels were my only source of food, Sponsor, and the water I harvested also quenched the thirsts of my family, my friends.”

“Yes, of course.” The Sponsor picked up a quill. For a long while the only sound in the room was the scratch of its nib on parchment. Yet another guard came in and bowed to whisper in the Sponsor’s ear. Zsofia could not discern words or tone, but after he spoke the Sponsor set her quill down. “Deputy, it seems cutlasses were found among your wife’s things. Unfortunately, your prestigious position and her specialty will not hold against a conviction of treason.”

Zsofia rose and stepped toward the desk. “What are you talking about? I packed no swords.”

“Guard! Bring the weapons here.”

The whispering soldier returned carrying Piri’s beautiful gift broken in two.

“Those are shears. I told you, I’ve been learning to cut hair.”

“Carrying a weapon of any kind into the gates of the castle is illegal and shall not go unpunished.”

“But if I’d had ill intentions, it would be in my apron or strapped to my thigh, wouldn’t it? Please. There must be an office I can appeal to, a line I can stand in. Please, Sponsor, I just want to be with my husband.”

“There is no office; there is no line, Zsofia of Vischla. There is but one door in the gate, and I am it. It is my responsibility to adhere to the laws of the Ambassadorship which you have clearly violated. Guards! Take her to the holding camps. Keep the evidence.”

Laszlo finally stood. “Surely, that’s not necessary, Sponsor. We can… ”

“Do you question my authority, Deputy?” Crimson lights spun wildly above the Sponsor’s head.

Laszlo sat back down.

 

ZSOFIA VOLUNTEERS FOR THE WATCH. She started a few months after she arrived in the camp. In the daytime, her job is to inform the guards of daily arrivals and departures. It is a job she enjoys. One of the delivery men sings as he comes over the hill with his wagonful of onions and salt bread. His carefree demeanor has deemed him her favorite, though they’ve never spoken. The other prisoners are kind. They talk of the weather, of their families and their towns—but never of their court hearings. Zsofia has yet to see a prisoner leave the camp. When they found out she cut hair, they had someone smuggle scissors in—Zsofia guessed it was her delivery man. She cuts to busy her hands; she is not permitted to use her specialty. Laszlo sends letters she doesn’t read, she’s sure they’re syrupy with excuses. She doesn’t know that Piri has agreed to stand as a witness in her defense. She thinks of her friend fondly: Piri could not have known the betrayal of her gift.

At night, the camp is different. Her job is only to watch for dangers, although when peasant boys from the town nearby throw rotten plums and crabapples and slurs through the gate, the guards turn their heads. Still, Zsofia prefers the watch at night because that is when new prisoners are brought in. She can’t help studying their silhouettes as they trudge up the hill. She resents her searches for the slope of Laszlo’s shoulders among them, hoping, but not expecting, that he’ll come. Every day is the same.

Until very early one morning, Zsofia is surprised by two small reflections of light a little distance from the gates. They are low to the ground and remain the same width apart. The eyes of a wolf. Despite the safety of her position, Zsofia holds her breath and keeps still as the form creeps closer. A few minutes later, she hears a low growl behind her. Just in time, she sees the same wolf break across the camp yard toward some trash cans. She quietly descends the rampart steps and finds a hiding place near where she thinks the wolf entered the camp. She crouches, waiting for it to return. Waiting for it to reveal its secret. Waiting to follow it under the gate and out into the countryside.

**This was my entry to the NYC Midnight Short Story contest. The prompts they gave me were fantasy as a genre; weight loss as a subject; and a newly wealthy person as a character. The story received an honorable mention. I’ve posted the judges feedback here.

Streetlights

DUSKAT DUSK THEY COME ALIVE. Or rather, I bring them to life. Every night, as I open each of their little hatch doors with the hook at the end of my lighting spar, I imagine them bowing slightly, offering their waxen hearts for me to relight so they may carry on with their duties. If you have walked down President’s Way, then you know their helpful gaze. Of course to them you are no different than the surreys that glide down the broad street like debutantes down a grand staircase. I’ve always admired that of my sentries: their easy way with people. How they give each citizen a gift and allow them to keep it even after the people ignore them and pass into the care of one of their brethren. No jealousy lies between the posts, only slabs of sidewalk. They are as comfortable in their role as the city’s night watchmen as I am in being their keeper.

DUSKSince the very night I finished my schooling years ago, I have walked to the department an hour before twilight, surrendered a plaid coat of one size or another to the gray embrace of a locker, inspected and maintained my spar; and then, when satisfied, lit its wick and walked the streets of my neighborhood nudging my charges awake. My friends call me The Peacock, after the olden bird—long extinct—that, to impress a mate, unfurled a bright tapestry of feathers behind its head. But I am not as proud a man as all that; I only want to do good for my children, my wife, my friends. That is what is important.

DUSKThe other night, about halfway through my rounds, I came across a policeman—a novice, judging by his triangular cap—hunkering at the base of a lamppost near the yawning garage door of the firehouse. The novice seemed very sure of himself for someone so young . . . nimble, determined; I decided to watch him for a while before I approached.

DUSKHe held wire cutters in his left hand, and in his right I saw black wires that led into the post’s casing—you may not know, but those wires feed lecktricks to the bulb atop each of the streetlights. They’re used so infrequently I often forget that they’re there myself. Government workers, like that novice, have lecktrick devices, but they know about as much as I do on the subject of how lecktricks work. Few people are allowed to know about the science nowadays: the sons of the rich, certainly, a few poor young men who stumbled upon a secret of the President’s. In my time as lamplighter, I have only met two workers who’ve learned. One of them told me that in olden years people had many lecktrick machines in their homes, they watched them after supper—although I can’t imagine what a lecktrick would do to keep people’s attentions for too long—they used them in the afternoons to plow the fields, they even had lecktricks to wake them up in the mornings. Just imagine that: a lecktrick that shook you plum out of your bed! Ah, but the novice. . .

DUSKRemembering my duties, I checked the top of the post to verify that no warning box hung over the avenue. None did. That was good; no one would perish because of malfunction. As eerie as I find the boxes’ green, yellow, and red lights when they shine during Superstorms, I know we’d suffer greatly without them.

DUSK“You…novice. What are you doing there?” I said. The shine from the man’s cutters blinked out of sight.

DUSK“Hello, Uncle Jessop, hello.” It was Fowler, my niece’s husband. He had shaved his dark beard into a V since I last saw him; its point pinched his chin, its arms slashed across both cheeks. It stretched and shrunk as he spoke, “I was wondering when you’d be about. I saw a rat scurry into this post. I was looking for it just now. I felt it necessary to make sure nothing was severed inside. Since I know this is your route, I wanted to tell you.” He pulled out his police-issued selfone and tapped the face of it, apparently to report the damage to his sheriff. I knelt at the foot of the post. Fowler offered me more excuses, but his words floated above my bare scalp.

DUSKNothing was cut, but the insulation around the wires was indeed nibbled away. The shreds were not the fine dust I am used to seeing whenever rats have made work of the wires—it was coarser, like the size of sleet that falls in May during Alninyo years. I looked up after I asked him about his wire cutters, sensing that my words had not found any ears.

DUSKI was right; my nephew was gone.

 

This story is very much inspired by Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous novel All the Light We Cannot See. I highly recommend it. Also, this is my practice writing genre stories for the upcoming NYCMidnight short fiction contest.

The Meaning Behind a Green Velvet Suit (Crannog Part 2)

My revisions to the original part 2 post from earlier this week. Sorry to inundate you all with this story, but I do feel I’m onto something and I’m excited by it.

As always, respectful constructive criticism is welcome. Part 1 can be read here.
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Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com
Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com

Uncle Jarlath paused with a smirk on his face allowing me to absorb what he’d said. Algae? How could algae turn my breath to spinning orbs? How could algae wrap around my body and float me around the park?

We stared at each other. The first thing I noticed was a clarity to his mannerisms. His expressions weren’t smearing across his face, each new emotion was crisp; he was sober. His velvet emerald suit was impeccably fitted to his thin frame. He looked like a dapper frog. His black hair, usually greasy from forgetfulness, was trimmed neatly around his ears, and the deep crinkles around his eyes were less pronounced somehow. I looked to his hands: cuticles trimmed and fingernails gleaming. Has he been to a spa?

His smile widened, but his lavender eyes shifted to my left as he continued, “I just woke up one morning and discovered that I could make water turn red simply by imagining Rhodophyta in my mind. Then I found if I pictured the algae in the water multiplying and joining together, I could make the mixture solid and strong. Strong enough, say, to carry a boy around a park. If I pictured each individual alga releasing its oxygen— as it’s wont to do, you know — I found I could make water float in mid-air.”

I don’t believe you, was my only response, but I wasn’t about to say it out loud. So another silence passed between us.

“Smile, my boy,” he said with a pat to my shoulder. “You are the esteemed nephew of a Necessary. Provided the Commission accepts me, of course. We will find out in a week’s time.” The Necessary were the Emperor’s league of magicians. Anyone possessing inexplicable powers—the ability to predict the future, for instance— were required to identify themselves to the government. The Emperor realized early on in his reign that magicians posed a threat to him. He started the Commission to keep track of these threats, to coddle them, and to occupy them with matters of state. That way they wouldn’t instead concoct plant to usurp his power. That’s what I thought, at least. I’m sure my uncle would provide another, more self-important explanation of their purpose.

“I’m sorry, Uncle. It’s incredible news, really. It’s just that I hope it doesn’t mean you’ll be moving back to the city and leaving me here alone in this house,” I said. There is nothing I want more.

“I’m not that sort of Necessary. I cannot tell you what they will do with me after I show them my powers. I merely want to resume my duty in serving the Emperor again the best way I know how.”

And with that statement I began to suspect what my uncle was up to.

# # # #

Years ago, my uncle awoke in a canopied bed. He’d sip his tea out on a prim balcony overlooking the Palisades, the granite cliffs that protect the Emperor’s grounds. His servant dressed him head-to-toe in bronzine, a caramelized orange silk created especially for the uniform of the Emperor’s chief engineer— a prestigious role. It’s purpose was to provide water for the City, and less consequentially for the Emperor, the rest of the Kingdom. Since pollution tainted most other bodies of water, the population relied on several hydrofactories in the Boglands to supply fresh water. They were the Boglands only source of income. The factories filtered the algae out of our water to make it potable.  A system of aqueducts designed by my uncle carried the fresh water throughout the Kingdom.

As a man with status, Jarlath seemed kind and gracious. He’d call meetings to discuss how he could further help the people of the Kingdom. But I suspect it was an act. He pretended to care about things in order to maintain his title and dignity. He’d all but forgotten his dreary childhood in the gauche bogs. A single miscalculation with the aperture size of a pump several years ago resulted in his catastrophic loss in status. The fickle Emperor refused to listen to my uncle’s pleas to keep his job. Unemployed and shocked, Jarlath sought refuge in our house. He was wallowed in the bedroom down the hall from mine since. I believe he has shaken his self-pity and concocted a scheme to return to his station as the Emperor’s aide. The suit, the sobriety, the reappearance of his self-worth: it all fit.

I just had to find a way to prove it.