Archive for the ‘Complex Fairy Tales’ Category

Complex Fairy Tales: Conclusion

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

Welcome to Defenestrationism reality: where Angels and Mama Bears eat blueberries, Fairy Godmothers operate an Assistance Bureau, where youthful Trolls have excellent manners, and Bullies run away crying.

And we have a Demon.

 

With its final post last week,

Complex Fairy Tales

has finished it’s publication run.

 

!And what a run it has been!

From the first week we began posting till today, we have received 5,430 hits from 1,006 Unique IPs.

20 stories by 16 authors: many widely published, some published for the first time, here.

 

Finally, most wonderfully, we are pleased to nominate three stories for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.

So massive congratulations to:

Joy by Freya Jackson

the Witch and the Fool by Emily Swaim

and

Song of Cities by Maggie Kast

!BEST OF LUCK!

 

So goodnight, Complex Fairy Tale readers,

and remember us next time.

(we have a demon)

 

 

!What’s New!

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more Fairy Tales? fairytalemagazine.com

 

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Song of Cities

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

by Maggie Kast

For two days and a night the belly of a huge fish had been bloated and pulsing with pain. Now nausea pressed against the back of his throat and he opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He searched for a sheltering cavern, a calm pool where he could rest and nurse his misery. A grotto appeared just ahead and he swam in, then nestled in soft green seaweed, where he tried to succumb to the merciful ebb and flow of the current. Resting, he felt worse. Sharp stabs radiated from his belly to his back. He must have eaten something terrible. Yesterday, it would have to be yesterday. He ate so many things in a day there was no way he could remember them all, and memory often failed him.

He forced himself to think back, to catalogue each action, impression, and bit of nourishment. A deafening wind had blown in the upper world, then rain to rival the liquid density of the lower. He remembered breaking the surface and glimpsing a boat wobbling in a trough between waves five times its height. Then he dove to the tranquil, lower depths and returned to feeding, glad to avoid the clamor and struggle of the world of air. Think: what had he eaten? Creatures large and small had tickled his gullet with their struggles, then subsided into fullness inside. Perhaps there’d been one in particular, not bigger than the others but more angular. Yes, he remembered. He could still feel the small wounds etched in the membrane of his throat as it went down, flailing. He had been too greedy, eating without consideration, and now he was paying the price. He felt something stirring in his gut, and a high, thin wail penetrated his brain. He peered around the shadowy cave in search of the source, but saw nothing. The keening rose and fell, a drawn-out complaint, in time with the pangs in his belly. Spasms now rippled through his entire body, and he abandoned the cave, seeking to escape both pain and voice. Without thought he swam faster and faster, pursued by his belly’s bitterness and the terrifying ululation, for another day and a night. 

As he approached a rocky shore he paused, spent. Great waves of contraction pulsed from his tail past his gills to his mouth, until he vomited a small, dark man onto the shore. Disgusting, but he felt better. As relief relaxed him, he trilled and moaned his gratitude, and nearby fish took up the chorus, their squeals and growls assuring each other that the storm had abated and each could feed freely. The sea was once more a comforting home, and seagrasses rocked them to sleep.

The man sat dripping on a rocky shore, waves of salt water ebbing and flowing just beyond his feet. Harsh sunlight slowly dried his torn clothes, and he smelled of fish. A hated and familiar itch behind his eyes goaded him to get up and go, look and see. Ages had passed since his eyes had first opened to a scattershot blast of light, too bright, that made everything he saw invasive, as though the starving birds of a wintry woods were flying around his head, pecking for seed. He’d tried to run, but images of hunger and suffering left their residue incised on his eyelids, confronting him day and night. He gritted his teeth and asked himself: what sort of childish, resentful god would grip a man’s head and point it at everything wrong in the world?

He strung his weary bones together, stood upright and headed inland. For three days he strode through the streets of a walled and gated city on the banks of a great river, preaching repentance and threatening rains of fire from heaven and floods of mud from hell. Frightened, the king ordered the people to release their slaves and beasts of burden and sit down in sackcloth and ashes. Camels and cows, dogs, cats and rats roamed free and aimless, while everyone went hungry, from the king to the cockroaches.

Cattle stood in the narrow cobblestone alleys, lowing and blocking the way. Camels galloped among the pillars and porticoes of the main thoroughfare, trampling children in the dust. Cats sought shelter from the heat and drops of water in the underground precincts of the temple. Dogs snarled and fought. Rats gathered in the temple where no fires were lit, no tasty bits remained from sacrificial feasts. They prepared a petition, speaking for all the animals.

“We are hungry. We are thirsty,” they said. “How much longer must we starve? The king has discarded his robes and put on sackcloth, but we are not wearers of clothes. The king’s ministers fill their mouths with ashes for bread, but bread is not our food. We fear the madman’s threats, but what shall we repent of? Our masters weep, and we can only pace and scurry, restless and neglected.”

But the fire and the flood never came. Soon the people rose from the ashes, dressed and ate and returned to feeding the animals. Once again the camels felt the crack of the overseer’s whip as they trudged side by side with the slaves. Cats climbed up from the crypts to rub up against naked bodies tangling in cultic praise. Mothers returned to weeping over infants chosen for sacrificial burial beneath the city gates. The temple fires were lit, and rats resumed their collection of leftover scraps.

Fury filled the man’s mouth like wormwood, and he shook his fist at the god who had made him look and see. “First I threaten destruction,” said the man, “and then your relenting rolls in like fog. Why must I always look the fool, my threats as impotent as a whiny child?”

After who knows how many days and nights, towers and battlements replaced the crumbled stone pillars and porticoes, and the city fortified itself with a broad and turgid moat. The slaughter of witches replaced infant sacrifice, and temple prostitution gave way to the sale of indulgences. Once again, the man unfolded stiff limbs and stood on the rocky shore, resigned. His humiliation echoed back and forth through the ages, and his heart felt as old and hard as the rocks. Kneaded into obedience, he walked with a limp, one hand on his back and the other brushing gray hair from his eyes. 

As he approached the plague-ridden city, a parade of pilgrims passed, accompanied by thieves, pimps and pickpockets. People stumbled noisily through alleys and byways, like drunkards in search of home. Spirits of the upper world filled the air with flutter and quaver like gray clouds racing across the moon, while spirits of the lower lurked behind each door and corner.

The man walked into a church at the hour for confessions, where robbers of relics crept around in the dimness, making off with all they could carry. “You’ll be cursed,” he proclaimed, voice loud over whispered transactions. “You have changed so much for the worse. You call yourselves Christians. Your leaders are cynics. Repent or your city will burn.”

A seller of pardons left his wares and approached. “What makes you think you are better than I? Who are you to be threatening fire? As long as we live we are simply poor humans, who can’t tell our right from our left.”

As long as I live, thought the man. That’s my curse. I survived the darkness inside a fish only to face blinding light and the sight of everything wrong in the world. “You don’t see what I see,” he said.

“We each have blind spots.” The pardoner turned to a penitent and offered to sell absolution. The man looked at his hands, right and left equally helpless to repair the rents in the world. This city was clearly as bad as the worst but again, it would surely be spared. His heart sank to his well-worn boots, and he strode out, seeking peace in the woods.

In damp and rain, the man built himself a hut of logs, slim protection against wild boar and wolves that roamed right up to the moat. During the night, a seed sprouted, rootlets reached out and a vine climbed round and round his hut. By morning, a glossy tree with palmate leaves had transformed his bare shelter into a leafy, vaulted arbor. The shiny, purplish-green leaves offered him fruit covered with fuzzy prickles. The man broke the fruit open gently with his thumbs and caught the first drops of sweet juice in his mouth. He dug out three poisonous seeds that looked like ticks, sucked them dry, and put them in his pocket. Then he caressed the satiny, incised lobes and pressed his body against the yielding surface of the trunk. Finally no itch, no need for action. The arbor shaded and consoled him all day, and the knots of his face uncoiled. His cheeks turned pink in the night as he slept curled around the trunk.

The wild boar and the wolves smelled the sickly odor of human, curling from the hut like tendrils of smoke, polluting the green and pristine woods. Sharp teeth bared, the wolves prowled the perimeter of the hut, while the boar rooted under a rotten log and discovered a worm.

“We can’t stand the fetid human smell,” said the boar to the worm. “But you might like it. Come with me. I’ll show you a human nest with succulent green stems and leaves, much richer food than rotten wood.” Trusting and silent, the worm climbed onto the boar’s snout, and the boar charged through the woods, depositing the worm at the edge of the hut.

The worm made its way through the wet undergrowth, up and down grasses ten times its length in height, clinging to the hope of the promised juicy bite and following the stench that emanated from the man. Inside the hut he found a drooping leaf and inched his way up, his underbelly already soothed by the smooth and waxy stem. Arriving at the cozy juncture of the central trunk and its most graceful branch, the worm dissolved in pleasure and began to burrow and eat.

Sap spread around the wound, and the tree weakened, then collapsed to the ground, covering the man. Already the broad leaves were withering. What would shelter him now from the scorching sun, the icy rain? The man’s face lost its blush and tightened until his features were gathered together like a stitched tear. “I’d rather be dead,” he muttered, “than go on living.” He felt in his pocket for the poisonous seeds, then lay down to wrap himself at last in earth. The minute he closed his eyes, images of cities rose, and his limbs twitched with necessity.

Condemned to live, the man climbs up on rocks once more and sits there for a while, drying out. Is there no end to cities? From the looks of the skyline, this one is huge. The man makes his way up the shore and sets out on foot, eyes still clear but shoulders sagging. He strides away from the rising sun and the water and approaches great buildings made of black glass, hulks against blue sky. As he walks by, the glass becomes transparent, revealing internal structure: shafts and stairways. Cars honk. Pounding sounds above where steel girders stretch into the sky, men constructing buildings above the trees.

Soon the streets jostle with shoppers, women wearing high heels, hurrying and bumping against each other. Through a store window he sees mannequins in colorful dresses, a reflection of leafy trees camouflaging them with soft light and shade. Beggars wander in clothes as ragged as his. He stands on a corner and calls out, “You walk by the hungry to shop for fine clothes.” Then, grabbing an arm from which dangles a bag. “For the price of whatever you have in that bag, a person could eat for a week.”

“Leave me alone, crazy man!” The arm jerks and retreats. He looks up with a sigh and measures the distance between the gods of metal overhead and all the hungry people on the ground. He looks at his hands. Right, left, makes no difference. He wonders what he might be missing.

Garbage overflows cans, pouring from alleys onto the public way, and a woman picks through, searching with a stick. Holding her gleanings, she ducks and enters her cardboard shelter, then wraps herself in quilts, gray stuffing leaking out. She lights a small container of Sterno and heats half a T-bone, almost fresh. A skinny cat rubs back and forth along the woman’s haunches, and she pauses to stroke its head. She sings a drifting song about the cat, lining her dwelling with long strands of melody.

The cat wanders away from the woman to the nearby alley, where mice hustle among discarded boxes of food, and dogs worry the lids of garbage cans. She cat eyes a plump mouse, stops slinking, crouches, and lowers her head, her whole being organized to stalk. She pounces, then vanishes with her feast. Birds perch on wires overhead, adding their sharp notes to the sounds of pounding and honking, while their blurry shadows dance over the garbage in the mild, diffused sunlight. Wary of cats, they dive for crumbs, then fly back to safety. A raccoon scuttles by, and all the animals freeze, uncertain what to make of this unfamiliar creature. Finding a fish skeleton, the raccoon pulls it from a pile and drags it off to a dark space behind the cans.

All around the garbage cans, big rats discover a wealth of grains and rinds, piles of potato peelings, fresh fruits with barely a bite taken out and cheese turning green and cottony with mold. Ants maintain a steady line of march to and from the pile, keeping its edges trim. Flies swarm over the surface and alight to deposit their eggs. The warmth of decay sustains the hatching larvae, which come to life in a sea of nourishment. A small crop of mushrooms springs up in a corner.  Meanwhile, in the depths of the pile, in the custard filling of discarded doughnuts, in leftover pizza’s fragments of sausage; yeasts and fungi and flagellating bacteria sate themselves on the riches of the city and begin to sing.

Their wordless tune vibrates through the pile and fills the air, joining with the quilted cat-woman’s strands of melody, while high heels click counterpoint on the street. The flies add their buzz, and the ants step in time, while the rats scratch a rough punctuation. The cats purr a bass note. Mice squeak coloratura. From out of the depths the song of a fish once relieved of a burden echoes through ages from past to the present, while cats, dogs and camels, spared from a fire, join fungi, flagellates, and one well-fed worm. Diverse voices rise past the trees and the girders, harmonies filling the air to the skies, as each tells a story and all sing the glory of an ageless and merciful god.

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Angels and Blueberries

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

by Tara Campbell

“Why is the sky blue?” you ask.

Well, it all depends on who’s answering. 

If you ask a grown-up, you’ll probably get an answer about light, and how it bounces off air particles, and how certain wavelengths (i.e. colors) get absorbed, and certain colors (i.e. wavelengths) get kicked back out, and those certain colors/wavelengths (i.e. blue) are the ones that you and I can see. 

If you ask a scientist, you’ll likely get an even more confusing but way more convincing version of that answer.

But if you ask a writer, you’ll get a different answer every time.

One answer, for example, lies with the special properties of blue fingerpaint.  Whenever children use blue paint, tiny particles of it dissolve from their hands into the air and color it blue.  Over time the pigment fades, but as long as there is fingerpainting, there will always be blue sky.

Another answer is related to the blue-eyed creatures at the North and South Poles.  They are always looking up into the sky, and the blue of their eyes reflects back for the whole world to see.  You’ve probably never heard of these polar creatures because they know how to hide from satellites and explorers.  The reflection of their eyes is all we’ll ever see of them.

But the answer I think is true right now concerns angels and blueberries. 

You see, blueberries are the angels’ favorite food.  There’s nothing they like more; and berries are healthy, so it’s a happy coincidence.  The only problem is, angels are sloppy eaters, and they eat pretty much all day. Of course they do other things like play the harp and sing and keep little babies from getting into the bleach under the sink. But they still have lots of time to munch on blueberries—they live forever, after all—so little bits of blueberry wind up all over the sky.

Even worse, some angels don’t like the blueberry skins, so they peel each berry before eating it and toss the skins to the side.  This doesn’t make them blatant litterers, mind you—they know they’ll get around to picking up the skins, just not at that very moment.

So as the day goes on, the angels eat more and more berries; and as the sun goes down, its light reflects through the berry pulp and juice, creating wonderful reds and oranges and yellows.  And still the angels eat, and the sky grows darker and darker with blue skins and bits of berry.  The angels keep on munching until, with the exception of little gaps for the moon and stars, no light can get to the Earth at all.  In fact, there’s not even enough room for the moon most of the time, which is why you only see the whole thing once a month.

In the middle of the night God finally has enough, and she tells the angels they have to start cleaning up their mess.  Of course they start right away, but it’s a big mess and it takes a while.  And as they clean, you can see a little bits of light start to penetrate the layer of blueberry waste.  Dawn begins as they wipe and scrub, and daylight breaks when they finally clear away enough blueberries for the sun to shine on the Earth again. 

The one problem is that blueberry skins stain, and the angels can’t scrub the traces away completely.  Some days they do better, and the sky is light blue.  But on very sunny days you can see the full extent of the staining and the sky is a rich, dark blue.  But God isn’t that concerned about the stains.  She actually thinks they’re pretty, and the renters down on the surface don’t mind, and she’s not planning on moving anytime soon, so it’s not like she has to worry about resale value.  What matters to her is that the angels did their best.

Now, you may wonder what would happen if the angels ever got tired of blueberries.  What would happen if they switched to raspberries?  Would the sky eventually wind up purple?  If they started eating bananas, would the yellow peels turn the blue sky green?  Or if they developed a fondness for lemons, would the juice bleach the color out forever?  And if that happened, would your grandchildren ever believe the sky had once been blue? 

Or would they just think you were a silly writer telling stories about angels and blueberries?

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The Bone Nest

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

by Alex Bernstein

Farel, the eight-year-old wolfboy, squat upon the banquet table unceremoniously devouring what was left of a large pheasant, much to the Queen’s distress.  The Grand Hall was an utter mess:  chairs and tables were overturned, the buffet had been routed, and all decorations lay mangled.  The Queen’s horrified guests had left hours ago, and now she stood, fists clenched, staring violently at Farel.

“He should be with the dogs!” she snapped.  “I’ve half a mind to put him there myself!”

“Darling,” started the King, trying to keep a calm demeanor.  “We need to be patient.  We must give him time.”

Zanon – the boy’s elderly instructor – hid behind the King, trembling fearfully. 

“We’ve given him time!” she wailed.  “He’s ruined three parties!  I’ve hardly any friends left!”

“We need to give more,” said the King.

“Why?!”

“You know very well why,” he said.  “Because he is family.”

Your family.  Not mine,” she said.  “He’s barely human!”

The King’s brow furrowed. 

“Hold your tongue!” he snapped.  “The boy is blood and he will be treated as such!”

Farel ate quietly, regarding the bickering couple with bored curiosity.    Zanon stared at him, begging with his eyes for some sort of recognition.  But Farel simply chewed and uttered a high-pitched yowl.

I am blood,” said the Queen, jutting her prominent nose at the King.  “And I’ll be damned if I let this animal ruin one more of my gatherings.”

“This is on you,” she shrieked, turning savagely on Zanon.  “You’re the one charged with making him presentable!

“I – I have tried,” stammered Zanon.  “For months!”

“Well now, you have days,” she said.  “If he’s not fixed within three days he goes to the dogs!    And your entrails will feed them!”

She stormed out of the hallway.  Zanon wobbled, gasping for breath.  The King looked at him, sternly.

“Get hold of yourself,” he said.

“Y-yes, sire,” bowed Zanon, weakly.

The King approached Farel, and leaned down to look at him.  The boy turned away, shyly.

“He’s so much like my brother,” said the King.  “He has his eyes.  But his inability to embrace even a smattering of our customs, our language makes no sense.  He is royal blood!  I don’t care that my brother married a Lupine – or whatever her people were.  I met them!  You met them!  They spoke the language of the kingdom!”

“They did, your highness.”

The King reached out, helplessly, to the old instructor.

“Then why can’t I reach him?”

“I’ve – I’ve employed all my skills, sire – ”

“And what haven’t you tried?!” he asked, knowing full well what the answer was.

Zanon hesitated and then finally said what they’d both been thinking. 

“Magic.”

The ascent to the aerie was treacherous.  Farel and Zanon had climbing since dawn, all the while dodging the terrible winds.  Farel was a poor climber, while Zanon was weighed down by the enormous pack on his back.  Worse still, by noon they’d watched their three-man consort fall to their deaths over the rocky ledges.  But finally they’d reached the summit, The Bone Nest

The Bone Nest was the home of the creature known as the Demon Roc.  The nest itself was an enormous structure built entirely of jagged, bleached white bones:  human, elven, animal, animal hybrid, trollish, and so on.  The Demon Roc was not particular about what breed or nation filled its nest.  And its home was sovereign.

The origins of the Roc were that of myth.  A popular version was that eons ago the Roc had been a wizard or witch transformed into the leviathan shape for a great battle that had ended badly, leaving it eternally in the form of the monster bird.  Now, the Roc regularly soared the countryside terrorizing villages, and capturing travelers and treasures to decorate its nest.  Any adventurer mad enough to trespass the nest, would suffer a quick and horrific demise.

The bones that were the walls climbed ten feet high to the nest’s peak.  Over time, the winds and rain had polished them to a glistening white.  Farel and his instructor descended into its bowels, and Zanon was relieved to find the Roc absent. 

The interior of the nest was putrid and filled with half-eaten forms piled upon one another, not yet picked clean.  Hidden among the corporeal wreckage was the bird’s loot.  Much was purely ornamental – torn bright cloths, lost shields and banners, and gold-plated furniture, all nestled among thousands of coins, jewels, and gems.  And in the far northeast corner of the nest lay three colossal eggs.

Farel squinted at the sky, feeling the fierce wind whip through his fur, while Zanon dug furiously through the detritus, wondering if he’d even find the item he was looking for.  And if he did find it, would he even know what to do with it?  His knowledge of magic was limited.  What he knew from legend was that they could take nothing with them, for to do so meant the bird could find them anywhere.  Any object they found, they’d have to use there, in the nest.  And they’d have precious little time to do so.

Zanon found weapons, jewels – and then, finally, what they’d come so far for: items of power.  He found what must surely have been a Serum of Transformation.  But would it improve Farel’s appearance – or make it worse?  And even if it did make him more presentable, wouldn’t he still retain his difficult, lupine nature?  It was too great a risk.  Zannon discarded it and then found a Cloak of Snow that might hide them.  But it was cumbersome and he knew it would only momentarily fool the bird.  A Transportation Compass he uncovered was likely useful, but he couldn’t quite grasp how to work it and left it among bones.  And then he found exactly what he was looking for: The Crystal Horn

The Crystal Horn was an enchanted ram’s horn formed from a single piece of translucent quartz.   One needed only to blow it loudly enough, and any listener within earshot would gain instant knowledge and complete use of the horn-blower’s primary language. 

And Zanon felt compelled suddenly to conceal the horn in his cloak and find some quick, easy way to escape the nest.  Such a device had surely been in no other hands for decades – perhaps centuries.  And with it he might become the world’s greatest translator.  With this magnificent tool, he could acquire wealth, bring men of any nation together, even end wars.  And then he looked over at his forlorn, shivering wolf-boy, and wondered how he could ever contemplate ending wars, if he couldn’t even help one little Lupine. 

Zanon took the horn and made his way to Farel.  The boy was hunched over watching something.  Zanen knelt down and saw it was the cracked remnant of a scrying mirror.  In the mirror appeared the ravages of a recent war.  Trees were burned and charred, woods demolished, fields decimated.  A thick smoke filled the landscape and everywhere – as far as the eye could see – lay the bodies of dead wolf people.

“Home,” Farel uttered in a low, pained, whispery growl.  It was the first words of the King’s language he’d spoken aloud. 

Zanon leaned close.

“It’s all gone,” said Zanon.  “But – but with this – you’ll have a wonderful new gift – ”

He lifted The Crystal Horn close to Farel’s ear.  But the boy turned on him, suddenly.

“No!” he snarled with a ferociousness that knocked Zanon backwards.  The horn tumbled from Zanon’s hands and shattered instantly against a large, jutting bone.  Zanon’s eyes went wide with panic.  And he reached uselessly for the shards.

“Oh no – no – ” he wailed.  “What have you done?!”

But Farel had returned, morosely, to his mirror.

“Home,” he repeated.

“There is no home, you miscreant!” Zanon shouted.  He took the boy by the shoulders and shook him.  “Don’t you understand?!  We’re all that’s left for you!  We are your home!  And now – ”

But his words were drowned by the deafening roar of murderous, gargantuan wings.  The Demon Roc appeared in the sky, and began to bear down on them. 

“Gods!” gurgled Zanon.

His head darted, searching for any kind of usable cover.  Farel, with naïve spunk, stood on tiny haunches, grit his fangs, and howled at the ominous bird.  Zanon grabbed Farel under one arm and lumbered across the nest, while the boy continued to mew and spit.  A broken half-limb tripped Zanon, and he and Farel fell.  Calcified fragments and spurs stabbed into Zanon’s arms and legs, wounding him, and he lay crumpled and bleeding as the Roc plunged towards them.  Climbing atop Zanon, Farel barked and growled, and the bird swooped back into a high arc, shrieking the shriek of a predator teasing its prey.

Zanon, lurching in pain, got to his feet, grabbed Farel, and carried him quickly to the top edge of the bony wall.  The bird came down.  With his remaining strength, Zanon removed the bulk weighing down his pack: a large, fresh boar’s carcass.  With all his might, he heaved the meat over the side of the nest.  Overcome by its insatiable hunger, the Roc dove after the carcass engulfing it in a single bite, then flapped its wings to regain altitude.  But a strange thing happened.  Instead of flying, the bird suddenly lost all strength, and with a look of terror, plummeted to the earth below.

Zanon and Farel watched, gasping, as the mammoth bird fell.  Farel looked at Zanon, perplexed. 

“And that’s what a pig filled to the brim with shot will do to you,” said Zanon.  ”But Gods know whether or not he’s finished, so we’d best get clear of here.”

They camped deep in the woods that night, miles from the aerie and half a day’s walk back to the castle.  They sat near a large fire, the boy quietly chewing on the remains of a hare.  The old teacher stared into the flame, nursing his wounds and miserably contemplating the reaction of the King and Queen to their failure.

And then, suddenly, he noticed the boy nuzzling up next to him, as if seeking warmth, and comfort.  He turned and the boy looked deeply, solemnly into his eyes.

“Home?” said the boy, simply.

“It’s gone,” said Zanon.  “I’m so sorry.  I wish I could bring you back to them.  But I can’t.”

“Home,” said Farel again.  And he butted gently against Zanon, and made the closest thing he could to a fanged smiled.

Zanon looked at him and understood.

“I – learn,” growled Farel, quietly.

And Zanon took him under his arm.

“Yes,” he said, comfortingly.  “Yes, you will.”

And they slept peacefully in the warmth of the fire.

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The Witch and the Fool

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

by Emily Swaim

You’re a fool.

I know it the moment I take you out of your mother. Most infants on this island know what I’m pulling them into. They fight every inch, then screech when I’ve won. But you don’t make a sound. Instead you wear a cross-eyed grin, like getting born is something to be happy about.

“This one’s a farmer,” I tell your pa. He doesn’t listen. He’s a clerk, and his pa is a clerk. He thinks it’s natural you should be too.

There is nothing natural about being a clerk. You are a child of the Earth. Your arithmetic is game on a spit. Your poetry is deer musk in the wind. You have no use for words.

Your parents don’t understand. They think you are lazy. They bribe you with honey cakes, threaten you with belts. Nothing works.

I cannot cure you, no matter how sweetly you beg. There are lines even witches should not cross. Instead I tell you to go west. Buy seeds. Work the land. But you don’t believe me. You say you can’t make it on your own. 

So you do not grow into a man. After your parents die, you live on the kindness of neighbors. The baker gives you treats, your cousin mends your clothes, and I let you sleep in my cellar. You spend your free time watching clouds. It is a simple but happy life. 

I assume you are happy. That is my mistake.

It is the winter festival, a time of dancing and drunkenness. You have failed the first labor but mastered the second. It is midnight, and you are sprawled on my porch like a dog. I refuse your proffered cup of your backwashed cider. You ask why I live on Apple Island if I hate the taste of its fruit. 

“In case Zora comes down from the mountain,” I tell you.

You don’t recognize the name.  Of course you don’t – she left the village before you were born. Before your parents were born too. I am the only one who remembers my sister.

She was stunning. Not beautiful – beauty can be resisted. Her charm was more dangerous. What she asked for, the village gave. What she said, they believed. I told them this was witch’s work, but they didn’t care. She was a flower and I was a weed. 

I broke her spell, but even after her true face was revealed, the villagers loved her. So I chased her out of town. The villagers mourned the loss of their princess, but they didn’t get involved. They knew better than to interfere in witches’ feuds.

Zora escaped to Lovers’ Peak and had her golems build her a fortress. She lives there to this day. Her face looks young, but her soul is older than mine. I’m sure she will die first.

That night, Zora takes ahold of your dreams. You ask your neighbors about her, and they each tell you a different lie. She is lovely. She is kind. She is lonely.

“Is it true,” you ask me one misty afternoon, “that your sister will marry any man who can make her happy?”

“She’s said as much. But it’s an impossible quest. Her heart is like your mind.” I tap you on the head. “Empty.”

“But would she marry that man?”

I realize you are in love. Love! With a witch whose only virtue is a beauty you’ve never seen. 

“Don’t go courting such a woman,” I tell you. “If the earth won’t take her, she’s not worth having.”

You don’t listen. When the last frost thaws, you leave. Your cousin gives you a map. The baker packs your bags with bread, and the priest gives you his blessing. Your boots leave a trail of crushed grass, a brush stroke on the mountain. I do not wake until you are gone.

Scoundrels. Miscreants. Selfish wretches. Sending a lamb into a lion’s den.

I cannot follow you. My bones are too brittle for such a climb. But a witch has other tricks. I grab my seer’s bowl and fill it with moonwater. Dip my face inside. My mind floats up the mountainside. I find you near the top.

Her castle is gaudier than I remember. Its walls are a mosaic of pearl bricks. The windows are lined with gold, and the towers are tipped with diamonds. A tasteless display, especially for a witch.

But you aren’t admiring the castle. You are wandering the edges of her lawn, smelling her garden.

It is a good garden, I will give you that. Zora has every flower in the world up here. You pluck yourself a fire lily, and I can smell it with you, a deep, spicy aroma that makes your nose tingle.

Take the flower and leave, fool. I can grow you a garden back home. 

You can’t hear me, so you don’t listen. You keep picking flowers. I dip my hands into the bowl. I tell the rainclouds to fly your way. Perhaps a cold shower will wash some sense in your ears.

You finish your bouquet and knock on the castle door. I urge the clouds on, but the winds are too slow to save you. Zora appears.

She is ugly to me. Her skin is waxy and her hair hangs like a spider’s web. The only human part of her is the muddied hazel in her eyes.

You kneel before Zora and compare her to the moon. Then you hand her your flowers, the same flowers you picked from her garden. She hands the bouquet back. “Go home, boy. I have no use for the love of a peasant.”

Yes. Come home.  She has plenty of servants. She doesn’t need you.

You are dejected but smile anyway. “As you wish, milady. May I take a flower to remember you by?”

“A flower?” She is intrigued. “Which of these flowers reminds you of me?”

You pick a sprig of tea olive – a puny plant with wisps of white flowers. “This one. It smells like a summer morning.”

I expect her to punish you for your insolence. Instead she takes the sprig. “Does it now?”

“You disagree?”

“I wouldn’t know. My sense of smell was stolen years ago.”

“How horrible! If your nose doesn’t work, please take mine!”

You poor, precious fool. Where else but a witch’s castle would such a gift make sense?

She agrees to trade your nose for her flower. She takes you through the garden and makes you describe the scent of each blossom. Your descriptions are more poetry than fact, but she doesn’t know that.

She places her finger on your nose. She recites her spell in the old tongue. I know the words, but I cannot stop her. I can only watch and suffer with you.

She takes the smell of your mother first. Then parchment, wet grass, and cinnamon. Everything you ever smelled flows out of your nose and into her finger. The smells pour faster and faster. Your nose is close to bursting. Then she stops chanting, and your nose is dead.

Zora sniffs the tea olive. “You were right. It smells like morning.” She hands the flower to you. Of course you can’t enjoy it now. What a cruel woman.

She takes you on a second walk through the garden. She sniffs every flower, making sure she’s gotten all the right smells. You overlook her selfishness, admiring the flowers’ colors and the chirping of the birds. You think yourself lucky, which is all the more infuriating.

You are almost done with your tour. She is about release you when my clouds, those stupid clouds, roll over the peaks. They dump their icy rain over the garden. Zora, witch she may be, has enough manners to invite you inside.

She takes you into her dining room. Red velvet lines the walls, and a large window overlooks the garden. She sits at the table – you sit at a tea tray.

Her servants come in with dinner. They’re eight feet tall, shaped more like trolls than men. Their bodies are a shell of rocks that clack as they move.

My clouds spit out some lightning. Pay attention, fool. Look between the cracks of that one’s shell. You can see the fire of the demon inside. 

You can see it. I feel you looking. But your eyes are distracted by the tray set before you. Her servants have prepared a swordfish. I can tell from the sweet tang of the sauce- it’s the best meal you’ve ever had.

“This tuna is delicious, milady.”

“Is that right?” She dabs her lips with a napkin. “That’s a relief. It’s been a while since I’ve served a guest. I wasn’t sure my servants remembered how to cook.”

You notice Zora has nothing but a bowl of broth before her. She takes a sip, and her sleeves fall down. Her wrists bulge, and you can see a web of veins under her paper-thin skin. She has not enjoyed a full meal in a while.

“You don’t eat their food?”

“My taste was stolen as well.”

I didn’t steal her sense of taste. It broke when I erased her spell.

“How awful!”

“Meals are often a chore,” she admits. “But drinking tea with company has been…pleasant.”

“Then you should do it more often.”

She sets down her spoon. “Exactly what are you proposing?”

Now, of all times, you become shy. “Milady, is it true you will marry any man who can bring you happiness?”

She smirks. “I will admit, boy, you are amusing. But you’ll need more than a nose to buy my kingdom.”

You finish your dinner. “I am told that a good meal can often lift one’s spirits.”

“If you wish to try, I won’t stop you.”

No fool. Don’t do it.

You kneel before her. She places her finger on your tongue. The tastes wash through you, from the sweetest honey to my bitterest medicine. She recognizes that last taste, a remedy I make for fevers. She stares but says nothing. 

The servants bring in cake. It is delicious, I’m sure, all cream and chocolate. But I won’t let her have it. I throw a stroke of lightning outside her window. Thunder shakes the room. The servants flinch. The cake plops on the carpet.

I’ve scared her now. Zora asks if you called the lightning. You shake your head – you hate storms. She asks if you apprentice to anyone. You tell her you run errands for the baker. Your innocence puts her at ease. You beg her to have the servants make another cake. But Zora is no longer hungry. She asks if you would like to dance instead.

You can say no. It’s not too late to escape.

But of course you say yes. She takes you into a large, round dome. Colors sift through the walls like a rainbow through clouds. Her golem monstrosities play timid melodies on their violins. She takes you onto the dance floor, spinning you around like a top. Watch your feet, fool, she moves quickly.

You watch your reflection in the floor. The marble reflects every grain of dust on your face. You feel nervous for all the wrong reasons.

“Have my looks become so dull in the last hour that you’d rather gaze on the floor than me?”

“No milady. I was simply admiring the way the floor catches the light. It’s like we’re dancing across a rainbow in the night sky.”

“Does it now?” Zora asks. “I wouldn’t know. I cannot see colors.”

The two of you dance across the floor’s abyss. For once you keep your mouth shut.

“Boy, I would like to see colors.”

“But milady, without my eyes, I won’t be able to behold your beautiful face.”

“Didn’t you want to be my king?”

“With all my heart!”

“Then shouldn’t you be grateful for this chance to give me happiness?”

Don’t be grateful. Be afraid.

You kneel. She touches your eyes and chants. Pictures of your life pour out your eyes, faster and faster until they’re a storm of images. Put the colors to memory, fool. I won’t be able to get them back for you.

“The world is so beautiful,” she murmurs. “I had forgotten.”

Your eyes burn. The world is a patchwork of grey blurs. You can’t tell where the wall ends and Zora begins.

“Have I made you happy, milady?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

Her soft hands pull you up. She guides your hands around her waist. The music starts up again. She still expects you to dance?

My poor fool, you try your best. But your feet move out of time, and you can’t tell where to turn. You inevitably step on her toes. Zora hisses in pain. “Perhaps you are done dancing for the night.”

“Perhaps.” You are too humiliated to ask for a second chance.

She leads you to the front door. The rain falls down in thundering sheets.  To you, it’s nothing more than a shimmering wall of grey. You hold out your hand – it feels like dipping your arm in ice.

“Milady, could I at least stay until the rain stops?”

She slips the tea olive into your shirt. “Come back another time. I’ll let you try again.”

A servant grabs an umbrella. It takes you by the arm and leads you out of the garden. You can barely walk without slipping. Zora glides beside you, admiring the greens and blues of my storm clouds.

I can’t save you, but I can hurt her. If I focus my energies, time it just right…Now.

I throw a piece of lightning her way. It almost hits, but the golem throws itself in front of her. The world turns white, and the demon inside screams. The impact throws you and Zora into the mud.

Zora is unharmed. You are scratched up, but you’ll live. The golem has been charred into a statue. The demon is gone, freed from its cage.

Zora carries you inside and slams the door. “Was that lighting your attempt to intimidate me?”

“That flash was lightning?”

She throws you against the wall. “Did I not give you your flower? Invite you into my castle? I gave you everything we agreed upon and more. You don’t have any right to be angry.”

“Why would I be angry?”

“Don’t play games with me, boy. That strike was aimed.”

“Milady, I’m blind.”

“If you love your senses so much, why did you give them away?”

“Because I love you more.”

Your eyes are clouded over from her spell. She leans closer, though I’m not sure what she’s seeing-

“Ariella.”

Me. She sees me. 

I let the thunder roll. If I’ve been discovered, then I might as well make a show of it. Let her know you’re under my protection.

“I change my mind, boy. You should wait out the storm here.”

You are confused but happy, like a puppy that’s gotten a treat for piddling on the floor. “Really?”

She nods. “You’ll spend the night in my old room.”

She leads you up a long flight of stairs. At the top is bedroom full of lace and dust. She sits you down on a large feather bed.  You look up at her. Your eyes have recovered enough to see the curl of her mouth.

“Milady…you’re smiling.”

“Yes.”

“Does that mean I’ve made you happy?”

She sits next to you. “As happy as a witch can get without a heart.”

Her words chill your bones. You laugh and pretend to misunderstand. “What do you mean, without a heart?”

“I mean what I mean.” Zora pats you dry with a blanket. “Didn’t I explain this to you in the garden?”

“You have no use for love.” You stand up. Stumble towards the door.

Zora realizes her mistake. “But I am happy.” Her breath flutters against your ear. “Happy enough to reconsider your marriage offer.”

“I can’t marry you.”

“If I can turn stones into servants, I can make a peasant king.”

You back away.  She grabs your hand.  “Did you not hear me, boy? I said I’d make you king. You can rule, have all the riches in the world.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

She pauses. “What else could you possibly want?”

“Your love.”

Your words strike her dumb. I don’t blame her. Witches look under the surface of words. We skim our conversations for motives and machinations. But she has not lived with humans for many years. She has forgotten how simple you all can be.

“You won’t marry me unless I love you back.”

“Staying here would be too painful otherwise.” You open the door. “I should go back home.”

Yes. Come home. There will be no pain here, I promise.

Zora slams the door shut. “Give me your heart.”

“What?”

“A heart’s an organ like all the others. Give it to me and I’ll be able to love you back.”

She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Zora hates me, true, but she would never take on something so cumbersome.

“But milady, if you take my heart, I won’t be able to love you back.”

“I won’t mind.” She smiles – gods I hate that smile. “It’s your choice: would you rather love or be loved?”

That’s not a choice, it’s a trap. Come home, fool. You can have both with me.

You kneel. “Will you marry me?”

“In the morning, boy. First I need your gift.”

I won’t allow it. I know you love her. I know it’s your choice. I don’t care.

I roll up a spear of lightning and hurl it. The floor shudders. You fall at her feet.

“Milady, what was that?”

She lifts you up. “You should lie down. I need you still for this.”

My clouds throw more lightning bolts. Zora guides you across the trembling floor and into the bed. My strikes bounce off the bricks, crackling to the ground below.

Zora peels off your shirt. She places an ice-cold finger in the notch of your sternum. “This spell will be different from the others.”

The walls are too thick for me to reach you.

“I’m going to need you to relax.”

You have to save yourself, fool.

“Empty your mind.”

You have to run, now.

“And think of the happiest thought you know.”

May the gods raze the world- the first thing you think of is me.

#

My spell breaks. How could it not? There’s nothing left of you to hold onto.

I do not wake for many hours. When I open my eyes, it is late, much too late. I hear cheering outside. Something’s wrong.

The afternoon sun blazes down. I see you in the village square, surrounded by your now-adoring neighbors. Your crown is too big for your head.

Your eyes glaze over the crowd. They don’t see me. They don’t see much of anything. Your mouth stretches into a rictus grin. It chills me because it fails to scare anyone else.

Zora stands beside you, waving to the crowd. She strokes your shoulder and frowns when you ignore her. Her love is as true as yours was – desperate and shallow.

She stands tall. Her eyes meet mine, and she grins. She’s won. 

I turn to the woods and start walking. I do not say goodbye. I do not collect my things. I am a gray, wasted woman, and I have finally grown weary of this island of fools.

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ONE-EYED GIRL and the limping man

Monday, May 16th, 2016

Paul-Newell Reaves

More than once, Gloria forgot she could fly.  You see, she was born with one eye, meaning she couldn’t perceive distance.  Sometimes, she would forget how far she was from the ground, and would fly away.

The first time, she forgot she could fly ‘cause the big kids picked on her.  Her father took off his glasses and cautioned her, don’t let them make you feel bad, just cause you have only one eye.  You’re my special one-eyed girl.  Sometimes dads just don’t get it.  But she stopped flying, anyway.  She stopped for so long she forgot how.

Forgetting is like that.  Something that otherwise perfectly exists on it’s own accord, just doesn’t exist for whomever forgets it.

DANGNABIT— Gloria’s dad cursed, and scratched his bald head.  Another overdue parking ticket.  I must be losing my memory entirely!

Gloria didn’t think so.  Her dad was old, but not that old, not old-old.

Now, Gloria, in a few years you’ll be old enough to drive, and you will park in illegal places, and you will get tickets, but you’re my special girl, and you may park wherever you please.  But always pay your parking ticket in 30 days, or else you’ll have to pay twice as much, because the fines will double!  30 days, or else, double the fines!

Whatever, dad.  She didn’t want to drive or get tickets or pay fines.  That’s when she decided to investigate.

Her dad always parked by the curb in front of their building, so she staked-out his parking spot.  She staked-out, and she staked-out.  She really didn’t have anything better to do, anyway. Until, suddenly, a tough-looking lady marched up to their car.  Gloria looked up at the building, but her dad, he was watching the game, which meant not a good time to talk to him until after his nap.  The tough looking lady left the ticket on the windshield, and hustled-off.

Then she noticed something.  Behind the lady came walking a man who disrupted her plane of vision.  It startled her to see this man walk.  She must have forgotten, or worse, been made to forget.  He very carefully placed his left foot forward, then pitched his shoulders to that side before swiftly moving his right foot forward.  He limped to their car and took the ticket away. 

Cool Hand Luke strikes again, he cried aloud.

Gloria forgot how far she was from the ground and hovered a few feet off the ground, the better to see.

You scared me, you silly flying girl.  Go away, shoo, shoo.

Gloria did not like that kind of talk at all.  NO, she shrieked, you’re the one who scared me.  You go away.

The man spread his teeth in a grimace of pain…

I am sorry I scared you, silly girl.

I’m not silly!

You are very silly, indeed, to be so easily scared.

And that’s how Gloria solved the mystery of the overdue parking tickets.  She decided she would rather swim than fly, and won a silver medal in butterfly crawl at the Olympics.

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the Troll Child

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

by Edward Ahern

“Hate toasted cheese! Hate French fries! Hate you!”

Her parents cringed from across the restaurant table as Charlene grabbed her full plate and started to throw it. Charlie grabbed his daughter’s plate just as it went airborne, French fries sprayed out onto the adjacent table where a tall, fat man sat.

“Charlene don’t do this again, please!” Charlie’s wife Charlize (they thought the similar names were cute) blushed in embarrassment. “You’re eight years old, darling. You need to behave.”

“Hate you. You’re a bad mommy!”

“Charlene you can’t say that, she’s your mother.”

“Hate you too. Hate! Hate!” Charlene started pounding the table with her fork and spoon, then whacked her glass of chocolate milk, cracking it open. Brown milk spilled off the table and into Charlize’s lap.

Charlie bellowed, “You’re no child of mine. If you can’t behave I’ll get a different daughter!”

“I don’t care!”

“Do you really mean that?” The question came from the next table. Charlie felt the veins pressing out from his forehead as he turned to look at the man. What he’d glimpsed as fat was muscular bulk, perhaps 300 pounds worth. Charlie hated that the man was teasing him, and almost yelled. “Yes I mean it!”

“Good. You can call me Brumbulbarch if you wish. And you, maam, would you like a replacement?”

Charlize sat without speaking, chocolate milk dripping from her slacks. An abortive smile wrinkled her lips, as if she wasn’t getting the joke. “Sometimes I feel that way,” she said, and then lowered her eyelids.

“Okay, it’s done. Look at your new child.”

The sudden silence pulled their attention over to their daughter. But their red faced screamer was gone. The swarthy child across the table from them holding a fork and spoon was sturdily constructed, with coarse black hair that seemed to be growing down her cheeks.

“What- where’s our daughter?” Charlie yelped.

“Oh, she’s good and gone, but you’ll get her back in a month. Meanwhile you can enjoy my daughter’s company: she’s always obedient and usually terse.”

Charlize was crying. “Charlie, get her back!”

Charlie jumped up and leaned over the table into the man’s face. “Give me our Charlene back!” Or else!”

The large man idly picked up French fires with fingers thick as hot dogs. “Choke off that testosterone, Charlie, you’re not built for a fight. And if you call the cops they’ll discover that the kid across from you has your blood type and DNA, and put you in an observation ward. Here, give these napkins to your wife, she needs them. Good that chocolate milk washes out in cold water.”

“How? …What’s happening here?”

About thirty restaurant patrons were staring at them.  Charlie and Charlize quieted down as Brumbulbarch continued. “Listen up, both of you. You get a month’s sabbatical from a brat. Have you heard of changelings? No matter, you’ve got one now.

“Your new Charlene eats meat, lots of it, preferably raw. Doesn’t really matter what species, but I wouldn’t give her a taste for human flesh. She’ll want to chew and crack bones to suck the marrow out, preferably uncooked.  She’s apt to regurgitate her food, but don’t worry, she’ll reswallow it and you can clean up the carpet with a little vinegar.

“Your task is to acclimate her to the human niceties–fast food, cable television, scheduled play time with kids she doesn’t like-just screw her up like you have your own child.”

“You’re crazy. If you don’t give me back our child right now I will call the police!”

“Call your mistress for all I care. Once you’ve annoyed the cops you’ll still have my child, and I’ll have yours. Speaking of telephone calls. I’m a troll, not some unfeeling ogre. You can reach me at this number. It’s an untraceable burner phone.. You can call me three times and only three times during the coming month, so save you anguished questions until you’re desperate. I’m disappearing now.”

“Wait! Wait. It–can she speak, is she toilet trained?”

“She’s quite intelligent but laconic. We don’t have toilets, but she squats nimbly and should learn to porcelain poop in one try. Oh, and I’d avoid physical punishment. She’s considerably stronger than you are. Goodbye.”

Without a rustle or puff of wind the large man was gone, leaving behind a table-top construction of French fries that looked much like a bridge.

Charlize studied her husband through her tears.. “Charlie, sweetie, what did he mean by mistress?”

“Ah, just gibberish dear.” He turned to the motionless toddler. “What’s your name, child?”

“Charlene of course. Hungry. Smell burnt meat. Raw better. Burnt okay. Need now, please.”

It was the never-heard “please” that twisted open their sympathy. “Of course dear,” Charlize muttered, and walked over to convince the waitress to give her two raw hamburger patties and two uncooked eggs. While she was gone Charlie studied the child.  Her eyes were slate gray, her thick forearms and legs covered with a light brown down. She wore Charlene’s dress, opened up in various places to accommodate her thicker torso. Her face in a coarser way resembled his.

“Do you know your ABC’s?”

“Charlene reads well, especially like noir.”

“Um, You need to use articles when you talk- “the” and “a.”

“Why? Useless.”

Charlie laughed despite himself. “Being human is about being useless adeptly.”

****

Brumbulbarch carried Charlene into his summer cave, hidden under the base of an abandoned railway trestle. Her bottom rested on his platter sized palm as he carried her through the cave, proudly pointing out the ornate stagnant water pool, the beds of rotting vegetation, and the multi–colored slime molds adorning the walls. “Took me years to get that purple-violet patch to grow right.”

Charlene meanwhile continued to scream, hitting and biting his fingers.  Brumbulbarch smiled. “How I’ve missed the screams of a petulant urchin! Charlene, I don’t want you to hurt your vocal cords, but could you keep up the screeching for another twenty minutes? It brings back such memories.”

“Hate you, mean, ugly man. Ugly! Put me down! Let me go! Ow!” This last because she’d bruised her fist on one of his finger knuckles.

“Ah, yes, nothing like afternoon caterwauling. Could you go up just a few decibels, dear? It would echo more resonantly in the cave.”

“Need to go pee-pee.”

“Sure. The door is barred, so don’t bother to run away. You can squat anywhere other than the stagnant pond- some things in there would try and tear off chunks if you get too close.”

Brumbulbarch tipped his hand, letting Charlene’s feet touch the ground. She screamed even more loudly and ran toward the heavy oaken door. Brumbulbarch smiled, brats were always so predictable. He settled onto his most comfortable flat rock and waited.

Charlene sidled into view an hour and a half later, legs bent to run away again. “I’m hungry,” she muttered.

“And no wonder, you threw away your last meal. My cave is full of gourmet toads and centipedes, not to mention moss and algae.”

“Yuck!  I want a toasted cheese and French fries.”

“Ah, no dear, but there’s well aged hung game in the back corner over there. It’ll smell a bit off, but don’t worry, it’s edible. Just use the carving knife to slice off what you need, and trim away anything green.”

The shrill siren resumed wailing. “I want real food. Give me real food!”

Brumbulbarch smiled dotingly. “How nice it is to have selfish tantrums back in the cave. Pity it doesn’t last long. Nothing here can poison or kill you, although you’ll probably get sick and injured every so often. You’re going to live like a troll for the next month, no better–no worse. We’re big into dark places, ground sleeping, rocks and raw food. I want you to feel free to cry, scream and complain as much as possible. In fact, I encourage it.”

“You fat, ugly man, take me home!”

“You delightfully repugnant child, this is your home. In a week or two I’ll let you out and we can shake down travelers and kill animals for food. Won’t that be fun?”

****

“We have to turn her in to the police, Charlie, and report Charlene’s kidnapping.” Charlize watched the stocky girl fumble with her fork, finally grabbing the raw beef patty with her fingers.

“No, no dear. We have to use utensils when we eat.” To her surprise Charlene obeyed, dropping the patty back on the plate and picking up the fork. “Here, honey, hold the fork like this- and then just cut and stab the meat like this.” Charlene smiled at her as the patty chunk moved into her mouth, her teeth clicking loudly on the tines of the fork. Charlize turned to Charlie. “But maybe we should take her home first so we don’t cause an uproar here in the restaurant?”

On the way home, Charlie snorted,. “I don’t know what the hell happened, but there’s something I need to check before we call the cops.”

Once they’d arrived Charlie rummaged through a desk drawer until he came up with a brown manila envelope that the hospital had given him after his daughter’s birth.

“Ah, Charlene, we’re going to play a game.”

“Like games, but you too weak to play Hurl the Boulder, and too slow for Count the Ants.”

“No, no, not that kind of game. I’m going to put ink on your fingers and toes and we’re going to play Comparison. Take off your shoes and socks, please”

Charlie and Charlize spent ten minutes studying the two sets of finger and foot prints. “Jeez, Charlie, they look to me like they’re the same. How can that be?”

Charlene was looking over their shoulders. “Is me of course. Dad said it would be for the next month. Should I kill something for dinner?’

Charlize sputtered. “Ah no, sweetie we arrange for the food killings outside the house. Your, ah, foster father and I need to talk for about a half hour. I’m going to turn on the television for you. Listen to the way the grownups talk and try and say things the way they do.” She clicked onto channel 13 and huddled with Charlie in the next room .

Charlize came back twenty minutes later. “Mahthah, when are we ssheduled to dine?”

“What! O hell, it’s the BBC news on PBS. Don’t talk with that pommy accent. Here, try this. Letters filled the screen.  ‘IT’S THE PRIZE OF YOUR LIFE!’ Come see us when you think you’ve got it.”

Charlene came out ten minutes later. “WOW! GEE! I’M SO EXCITED TO BE HERE. WHEN DO WE EAT THE ALREADY DEAD STUFF?!”

Charlize sighed. “Okay, that was a mistake as well. Charlene, just use the same words and phrases as Charlie and I do. Can you do that?”

“Of course, mom, I’ve listened to your pronunciation and syntax for over an hour. If you make a mistake, should I correct it?”

****

Brumbulbarch watched Charlene choking on aged pheasant breast. “It’s okay, Charlene, you don’t have to eat the meat off the ground if you vomit. Something will slither in before dawn and gobble it down.”

Charlene sobbed between bites. “I want to go home.”

“And you will, in twenty nine more days. Very, very few young girls get to experience what you have now. For the rest of your life, you’ll be at ease with untamed animals, precarious ravines, wilderness living at its best. And just maybe something else.”

“It’s nasty and dirty. You’re an ugly monster.”

Brumbulbarch smiled. “That’s my girl. Don’t give in to your better instincts too soon. Don’t you feel like screaming some more?”

“You won’t hurt me, will you?” It was almost a statement. Charlene had seen enough of Brumbulbarch’s behavior to sense his gentleness..

“Of course not. Now let’s teach you a few things that will keep you from being bruised or sick. Your kind call these sulphur shelf or chicken fungus, and they’re good to eat.”

Charlene waved her hand as if she were shooing flies. “They’re just mushrooms.”

“Yes they are, but this kind- notice the red veining on the underside- is extraordinarily good for mind and body. You need to memorize how this fungus looks. Tomorrow we’re going into the woods to find more of them for dinner, and if you don’t find them, or find the wrong ones, you won’t find dinner.”

“That’s not fair.”

He smiled again. “Fair isn’t a word we use here. Needed, dangerous, useful, those are our kinds of words.” Brumbulbarch’s disposable phone rang. He keyed it on. “Couldn’t wait even one day, eh?”

“I want to speak to my daughter!”

“Sure, but I’ll be holding the phone. Charlene, it’s your human father.” He keyed the phone into speaker mode.

“Daddy, how could you let this happen to me!?” She started yelling and screaming. “You don’t love me. I hate you! Come get me!…”

Brumbulbarch grinned. “That’s more like it, Charlie. I was afraid she’d wimped out. I’m guessing my daughter is fine, Charlie, and your child is fine too. What else do we need to talk about?”

“Give me my daughter back.”

“She’s nowhere near ready yet.” The phone was switched off speaker, but Charlie could hear the ongoing tantrum in the background.

“If you hurt her…”

“Why would I do that? How is my daughter progressing?’

“She just killed and tore apart two crows in the back yard.”

“That’s my girl. She didn’t tear them apart, she dressed them so you could eat them more easily. Although, she should have found something tastier than crow. Goodbye Charlie. You only have two calls left, use them wisely.”

Brumbulbarch turned to Charlene, who’d gone silent as soon as the phone was switched off. “Molds and fungi have other uses as well. Look closely at the multi-colored cave wall. See how the shimmering quickens in one spot, then another, one shade, then another? Sit on the round rock in front of the wall for the next half hour. Keep your eyes on it, it talks to a part of your brain you’re not yet using.”

“Boring. I won’t do it.”

“Then you sleep next to the pool and fight off the critters.”

“It’s not fair!”

“There you go with that word again.”

****

Days passed quickly. One afternoon Charlie watched as Charlene grabbed the trunk of a large bush with both hands and tore it out of the ground. She knocked the dirt off the plant and tossed it across the back yard onto the compost pile. “Charlene, there’s poison ivy there, use the pitchfork I gave you.

“It’s okay, human dad, I don’t need your weakness-compensating tool. Brute force is often more efficient. I smell several rodents with burrows here. I can trap them, then skin them and hang them in the garage for aging. They would taste much better than your factory produced chicken.”

“Ah, no thanks Charlene. I’m afraid we’re conditioned to like chemically adulterated food. How was school today?”

“The seven hour daily confinement? It’s an illogical process. The students learn to hate learning and the teachers are confined to biased textbooks, often teaching wrong opinions. But you believe it to be necessary, so I’ll abide it.”

“I need to call your father now, and you can reassure him that you’re okay.”

“We’re pretty much indestructible, but I would like to say hello.”

“Brumbulbarch?  Charlene has allergies and sensitivities that can be dangerous. Has she developed any bad symptoms?”

“Yeah, she did get a bit hivey, but she’s over all that now. I spiked her water with termite juices.”

“I’d like to speak to Charlene, please. Charlene? Are you all right?”

“Hello dad. I’m okay. There’s no soap or shampoo here, so I’m pretty grimy, but step-dad tells me it’s healthy. I’ve been eating a lot. Brumbulbarch wants to talk to you again–here he is.”

“Charlie? It’s been three weeks now. Before you put my Charlene on, I just wanted to schedule the exchange of our changelings. A week from today, same diner, same time be okay?”

“Ah. That would be great. Charlene sounds different.”

“She’s coming along. Girl actually ate raw slugs last night. May I speak to my Charlene?”

“Hi dad, did the chartreuse slime mold spore properly?”

“Just fine, sweetie. You’ll be coming back to the cave next Saturday. I hope this hasn’t been too awful for you?”

“Not too bad. Their customs are ridiculous and occasionally despicable, but they’ve been conditioned that way.”

“I know, and it’s good that you do too. Could you put your step-dad back on? Hi Charlie.”

“Brumbulbarch, listen. I’ve been thinking. Our girls will be growing into their awkward years soon. Would it make sense for us to do this again when they become teenagers?”

end

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The Princess and the Dragon

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

by Kati Dlugosz

Long, long ago in a land far, far away lived a princess with hair like strands of gold and eyes like the sea in a kingdom ruled by her father, a great and powerful king. Each day the king sat on his throne and peered down at the glistening marble floors and decorated tapestries, and each day the princess leaned against the frame of her window, gazing out to the forest below.

She had never been outside the castle walls, but longed to explore the world that lay beyond them. At night she could not stop her heart from racing when she heard the howls of wolves or the wanderings of the deer. She liked to believe that there were still wonderful, undiscovered creatures in the forests like the fairytales read. 

Although she felt much adoration for the land, the people of the kingdom grew weary in their farming. A place once of plenty, the fields of barley and wheat grew brown and barren, the wells dried up in the village square, and the people became hungry for want of food and security where all seemed lost. But the sturdy, white castle loomed over the kingdom, and the people followed its endless shadow into the throne room where the king sat before them draped in his red capes, his decorated collars, and golden scepter.

“My great and powerful king,” said the peasant clothed in rags. “Another poor harvest has befallen us. We haven’t enough food to feed our families.” The king rapped his fingers against his scepter.

The peasant man continued, wringing his cloth hat between his shaking hands, “By all that is good under your reign, the dragon has returned.” The king scoffed. His booming chortle echoed off the walls of the castle. The princess pressed herself against the stone wall beside the doorframe, out of sight. She placed a hand over her stomach, and felt herself sick at her father’s laughter.

“I provided you with the land, gave you a home for your family, fields for you to grow your crops, and you come to me? You think a dragon could stop me?” barked the king. The peasants stepped back. “You come to me with your failure, and expect pity when I gave you every means for success?” With the rubies and emeralds glittering on his ringed fingers, the king sent the peasants away, back to their fields to toil in the fallow fields. The princess tiptoed back up the stairs, as though it was her father who sent her away instead. 

The princess watched her meat grow cold on her plate that evening at supper while her father feasted through every course. Every so often she glanced up across the long dining table to observe the king.

“Father,” said the princess. The king looked to his sides before looking up, as though he expected a tiny child to be pulling at his sleeves while he was busy.

“Why, you must speak up if you are to address the king,” said her father. The edges of his mouth pulled up in a grin. She pushed her plate away, and folded her hands together in her lap.

“Father, I would like to ask you something,” she said, peering up at him through her eyelashes. The king gestured for her to continue, waving his fork in the air. He pushed the pork into his mouth as she opened hers to speak. “For some time now I have wanted to travel beyond the castle.” The fork clattered to the porcelain, and a high-pitched whine resonated through the air.

“Everything you need is here for you,” said the king. “What more is it that you could want?”

“The castle is wonderful, and you provide more than enough for my comfort and luxury,” hastened the princess.

“Then the subject is done,” said the king. Her brow furrowed.

“But I am not,” responded she. He fell silent. Only the candles lining the wooden table flickered as the wax dripped down. “There is much I would like to see in the world, more than these walls can satisfy. If I can only step outside for a day, I’m sure I would learn countless things.”

The king picked up his fork, and resumed cutting his meat. His narrowed eyes darted to her as the knife sliced through the food. The king chewed thoroughly. He set his silverware upon the tablecloth, and padded his lips with the napkin in his lap.

“I think the time has come for us to choose for you a husband,” declared the king. Bacon fat dripped down the grey strands of his beard.

“A husband?” repeated the princess. A lump formed in her throat. Her stomach dropped.

“Yes,” said he. “Your beauty is at its zenith, and our kingdom will benefit from a royal wedding. And perhaps you will get these silly thoughts unbecoming of a lady of your standing out of that head of yours.” His furrowed brow eased and his smile returned.

“But who is to be my husband?” said she. She had never met anyone outside the castle, and had never known anyone from another land. The knights in her father’s army she had only watched going off and returning from battle. She shivered and dug her fingernails into the palm of her hand.

“A fine hero, a knight or prince who has proven his worth in order to marry you.”

Silence hung in the air. Her hands shook on the table. The king’s fingers twitched, as though searching for the scepter. Taking a deep breath, she asked in as calm a voice as she could muster, “And if I do not wish to wed?”

“Then you will keep your silence until ‘I do,” said the king. The princess deflated in her chair. “The choice is that of the king. You will not waste away the chance to unite kingdoms, to strengthen the throne, nor will you unravel the very fabric of my kingship or your duty.”

Her heart felt as though it had been pierced with the sharpest blade. Her hands wrapped around the edges of the table for stability. 

“A hero will come to win your hand, and you shall be wed!” The king smiled. A piece of meat was trapped between his teeth. The heavy chair screeched against the floor as he stood up and walked over to her. She stood up to meet him, but kept her eyes forward. The gems along his cape glinted in the candlelight. If her heart did not feel so dim, she would have thought them beautiful. He placed his hands on his daughter’s shoulders, and she looked to the carpeted floor. “It is a joyous occasion. You will see in time that the right decision is one that benefits all.” But the princess was not comforted.

  She retired to her bedroom after supper, the ascent up the staircase seeming endless. Drained, she collapsed onto her bed, feathers escaping from the seams of her pillows, and drifting to the floor. She wished she could fashion herself wings from the feathers in her bed. Sleep did not come. She lay awake and watched the stars, as though they could answer her.

Between the layers of consciousness and dreams, the forest shook with the vibrations of a deafening roar. She raised herself from her bed, and hastened to the window. She waited to hear the shrieking cry again, but no sound came. All of night came to a halt. 

She raced back to her bedside, and pulled her comforters and blankets together in a heap. Tying the fabrics together, the princess created a long, luxurious rope. Her fingers fumbled, but she threw the makeshift line over the edge of her window, and fastened it to her bedframe.

Her heart fluttered against her ribcage. She held her breath. Placing one foot on the edge of the stone window and gripping the knots on the blanket, she hoisted herself over the edge. Down the castle wall she crept, until finally descending to the grass. Without looking back, she sneaked to the edge of the forest, and disappeared into the trees.

Dawn stretched across the horizon, and the dew on every leaf and flower evaporated in the pink light. Birds chirped in the treetops and owls returned to their homes for a daytime rest. The princess held the sides of her dress in her hands to unencumber her feet. She had thrown off her slippers sometime in the night, and the grass and nettles on the ground poked at her bare feet. She welcomed the morning, for she had traveled far without direction, deeper and deeper into the woods until the outlines of the castle disappeared.

She ran her hands along a burl on a giant oak tree. The roughness scratched at her skin. Around her grew massive deformed burls on the sides of trees, and knarled roots crawled through the soil. The twisted branches reached upwards to the sky in blackened coils and ridges. She looked up. Sunshine dappled through the green canopies, playful with the shadows of the leaves against the pockets of light in the forest.

The further she walked into the forest, the greater the bramble vines grew, scaling over hedges and blocking pathways. Thorns clung to her dress. Her legs grew weary and her head ached. The sun ascended to high noon. She leaned against trees for support, and rested as the sun descended through the rows of trees. Her fingers toyed with the tears in her dress, the seams fraying the more she pulled at the threads. The darkened eyes of the birch trees followed her every move as she stumbled toward the setting sun.

Through a thicket in the maple trees, she came upon a meadow alive with wildflowers and tall grass. Dim stars appeared in the red sky. With a heavy heart, she fell to the ground and wrapped her knees into her chest. Bats flitted across the sky, bringing nighttime on their pointed wings. She closed her eyes, and longed to sleep.

A distant roar. Her eyes snapped open. Again, the cutting shriek clawed through the air, and she felt the noise circled the field. Looking up, the stars appeared to be shifting, as though the sky was preparing to take flight. She shook as the ground quaked under a giant crash in the center of the meadow. Silence followed. A giant mound of darkness grew larger, and stood as a black frame against the rounded starlit sky.

The dark creature moaned, and the princess scrambled to her feet. She paused, and with a swell of fear and curiosity, hurried to the center of the field. The creature must have heard her stumbling feet, for the body shifted to the side. It rounded to face her, and snarled with long, sharpened teeth. Coming upon the rear, she faltered backward, and her hands flew to cover her dropped jaw. The dragon unfolded his black wings, and it was as though every constellation of the heavens glittered within.

Her hands fell to her side, and she breathed, “A dragon.”

The dragon opened his burning mouth, and said, “A human.”

Both alarmed at not just seeing another, but hearing the other speak, the dragon and the princess stepped closer to bridge the gap between them. The dragon’s massive head was a size twice her body, his scales gleamed like onyx, and spikes protruded from his long neck. He leaned in toward her. They were face to face, close enough for her to touch.

“You are not of the forest,” said he. His breath was warm. “I have not seen one of your kind here, and you do not run in fear.”

“Nor have I,” said she. “You are fearsome, but I have run away from something I fear much more.” He hummed deep in his throat. He tilted his head, a gesture which she assumed meant she could continue. 

“So, you see, Dragon, I have come a very long way, and am searching for a place to call home, as there is no longer a place where I may rest my head,” said the Princess, “nor my heart.” The dragon pressed a cold, black talon to her pink cheek. She saw her reflection in his eyes. She could not believe how gentle the touch of a dragon could be. “I fear I will be pursued once my absence is noticed,” said she. He lowered his head, and his neck stretched out upon the ground before her.

“Then, come, and no harm will befall you.” She climbed upon the dragon’s back, and he raised his wings. He pushed off with a flap of his wings, and flew into the darkness above the trees.

By next morning, after flying for what seemed hours, the dragon and princess arrived at a castle in ruins, secluded among the forest and hills. Ivy and moss scaled the walls, transforming the grey to vivid green. Birds and woodland creatures darted in and out of the crevices in the stone. The entrance to the castle lay in disrepair, the gate charred and blackened.

Lifting the princess with his talons, he helped her balance along his wings as she climbed through the window to the highest tower. She stepped down onto a plush ornate rug, and curtsied to the dragon. He pressed his eye against the opening, and watched her explore the room.

“What is this place?” she asked. She ran her hand along the walls, and found ash on her fingers.

“A place where you will be safe,” he answered. “The humans were driven from here long ago. This edge of the forest they will not reach.”

She padded the bed in the corner, and while the bedframe creaked, the mattress yielded to her weight. Upon opening the warped cupboards and chests she found colorful fabrics and linens, and in others she found plates and teacups with saucers. Upon the shelves sat empty flower pots and plant seeds. She turned to the other side of the room and gasped at the towers and piles of books pressed against the wall.

“A library?” the princess asked. The dragon’s mighty head nodded from outside the tower window. She grabbed an old book from the dusty shelves, and ran her fingers over the title. She did not recognize the runic language, but found the most descriptive illustrations drawn on the pages. On the next shelf, another aged book with descriptions of flowers and plants, and beside that a collection of children stories. Some tomes were charred and burnt, the pages frayed and too fragile to be legible. When the shelves became overcrowded, stacks of books towered to the ceiling or had been placed neatly across desks and chairs. “Can you read, Dragon?”

The dragon folded its wings back, and a gust of spring air whipped through the room. Pages flew and the furniture whined. With a glance at the princess his black eyes lowered.

“I cannot,” the dragon said. “Dragons cannot read the languages of humans. Our understanding is of the skies and land, the trees and earth, not that which one creates from manipulating them.”

The princess loosened her grip on the book. She hung her head, and strands of her golden hair fell before her face. At once she felt guilty.

“You have wonderful books,” she said. His mouth pulled upwards, and revealed his shiny, pointed teeth. “Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine seeing so many, and in the care of a dragon!”

The dragon nodded, and said, “They remain from the humans. Those who escaped took the items that shined, and left what is here.” 

“Shall I read to you?” Her smile seemed to brighten the room, and cast the sun behind the clouds.

“Yes,” he said. He leaned his black head against the window, his spikes scraping against the stones as he nestled into place. The princess dragged a cushion to the front of the room and, pulling her dress underneath her knees, sat beside the dragon. She opened the book, held it up so the dragon could see the pictures, and began to read. Each word carefully fell from her tongue, and the dragon believed her voice to be that of the sound of blooming flowers.

The princess stayed in the dragon’s tower for many weeks, and delighted in his visitations. When he flew between rolling clouds, she followed the streams of mist leftover from his gigantic wings, and he made swirls of smoke form his nostrils to hear her laugh. At night he roared into the heavens, as his claiming his place among them. She thought the dragon looked like starlight, the way his scales shimmered against the moon. She felt comforted in his presence, and each day he lifted her down with his mighty talons to the ground where they planted a garden.

He observed her gestures and expressions, as he had never been so close to a human, and when she blushed, the dragon chuckled at the color of her cheeks. He planted light pink roses around the tower. Sleeping in her bed, curled beneath quilts, she glowed in the moonlight, and so he planted baby’s breath beside the roses. Upon her wake, calling to him, he returned with bundles of daisies in his jaw. On their walks about the woods, she fashioned crowns of laurel and ivy, and adorned them on his horns.

And upon one of these walks through the forest, the birds stopped chirping in the treetops and a gust of wind ripped through the canopies. The air became stagnant and heavy. The dragon lowered himself to the forest floor, and tucked the princess under his wing. She pressed herself against his body, and felt heat churning in his belly.

“Another walks here,” said he. She listened to the silence, and peered at her surroundings. A twig snapped to her left, and the dragon coiled its neck around to face the sound.

The princess did not see the arrow spiraling through the air except that the dragon’s wings blew a gust of wind so fierce the assailing weapon broke in two. She covered her ears as he reared his head back and roared. A man dressed in shining armor stepped through the trees, and pulled back his bow, readying for another shot.

“Dragon, your destruction has come to an end. I have come to win the princess,” said the knight, “and your head.” The dragon raised himself up, and released a flurry of flames from his mouth, scorching the trees and setting the canopies ablaze. The knight darted to the side, and threw off his helmet. His arrows shot between the trees, and pierced the dragon’s flesh, but his flames never ceased. The dragon’s tail crashed into the trees, and with cracks and whines oaks and elms fell.

The knight pulled forth a glinting silver sword from his case, and brandished it before the dragon. The blade winked in the light from the surrounding flames. He tossed his flowing blonde hair over his broad shoulders, and smirked. The dragon readied himself, smoke billowing from his nostrils. He glared at the knight, and pushed the princess behind him. She held her hands to her chest and the knight clambered forward, sword raised.

“No, wait! Please!” she screamed.

They fought, sword against teeth, armor against flames. She watched in horror as the knight pierced the dragon’s flesh, and blood spurted from between the scales. The flames turned the forest into a realm of heat and horror, and she believed the knight had brought hell upon his blade.

With a blow to his chest, the knight fell to the ground, and the dragon’s talons sliced through the armor. He pressed down against the intruder, the force pushing the breastplate upon his torso, and the pressure forcing the air from his lungs. Fire pulsed from his stomach, up his winding throat, and into his jaw where he held the flames between his teeth. The knight reached for his sword, and coiled his fingers around the handle. As the dragon narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to blow. The princess screamed.

The blade sliced the dragon’s neck, and the chilling roar became a strangled gurgle in his throat. A high-pitched wail rose from the dragon. His legs collapsed under the pressure of his massive body, and he crumbled to the ground. Blood streamed from the wound in his neck, and his eyes darted from the knight, to the empty sky above him, and to the princess. She sprinted forward.

He cried out again as her image faded, and the sound of her voice grew fainter. She knelt before him, embracing his head within her arms. Blood seeped into her white dress. Tears poured down her cheeks, and her voice cracked as she called to him. A lump tightened in her throat. His eyes darkened, and reflected no light. She thought the sound of her broken heart would have been louder in her chest.

  “Permit me, dear princess,” the knight said. He extended his hand toward her. His armor shone in the sunlight, but his figure cast a long shadow over the dragon’s head. “Do not dirty your gown. Come here, take my hand.”

The princess smacked his hand away. She laid her head upon the dragon’s cheek, as though to shield him despite the smallness of her body.

“Please, do not weep. Women are meant to faint at the sight of dragons. Save your tears unless they are for your hero,” said the knight. He slid the sword back into its case. Her hands balled into fists at the sound.

“You monster!” she said, forcing the words from her mouth.

“I, the monster?” the knight chuckled. He held his gauntlet to his breast, and scoffed. “The monster lies before you. Slain, thanks to your hero.” 

Her jaw tightened, and she her hands shook. She raised herself up, and stood shakily to her feet. She straightened her hair, and smoothed the wrinkles in her ruined dress. Facing him, her lip trembled, but she met his gaze. He smiled, and ran his fingers through his hair. He extended a hand to her. She slapped him across the face, and left a streak of red dragon’s blood across his cheek.

The princess felt a flame in her stomach, licking at her insides and billowing smoke into her lungs. She seized the knight’s sword from its case, and with a power she had not believed she had within her, brandished the weapon upwards. The knight shrieked. Before him she stood, her hair wild and her stance tall. Blood dripped down the metal of the blade. He cowered.

While nearly as big as she, she marveled at the lightness of the blade and the power she held in her hands. She sliced through the air to hear the ringing whoosh. The knight fell on his rear, his armor clanging. He whimpered, and pushed himself backwards through the grass.

The princess stepped forward in pursuit. He halted and squeezed his eyes shut as she sliced again. He waited for the ringing, for the blackness and emptiness. He heard sobbing, and opened his eyes again. The princess held the sword with two hands, wielding it fixedly between his eyes. A drop of blood fell from the tip and onto his breastplate. Tears fell from her blue eyes, and her face twisted in agony.

Through her trembling lips, she said, “You will return to the king, and tell him that the dragon has been slain.” The knight only nodded, his eyes darting between the tip of the sword and her watery eyes. “You will say the battle was fierce. That the dragon fought, that he almost triumphed.”

Her grip tightened on the handle of the blade. Her knuckles turned white. Tears poured down her reddened cheeks. She straightened herself, keeping the sword at the threatening angle, and took a deep inhale of breath.

“You will tell the king the dragon is dead,” said she. “But your princess has not been won.” The knight nodded, and stumbled to his feet. He hesitated, as though she would return his sword. Sweat dripped down his temples, and he coughed from the smoke. He backed away, and sprinted away through the trees, his armor clanging in his wake.

The princess inhaled, and let the smoke seep into her lungs. She lowered the sword, hoping it would somehow vanish. It glowed orange reflecting the flames. She dropped the sword to the ground away from the dead body of the dragon. He appeared so much smaller encircled by his own flames.

She turned away, and strode forward through the fire. Closing her eyes, she thought of the dragon flying among the stars, and wished she could gaze upward to see him soaring above her once again. A space hollowed inside of her where she once thought her heart was, but realized it continued to beat paces behind her within the dragon. She walked into the trees.

The End

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The Magical Cup and the Bushy Blue Beast

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

by L.S. Sharrow

Once, a boy named Leo lived in a village on the other side of the big mountain. His Grandma gave him a magical cup before she traveled home over that mountain.

“Leo,“ she said. “You are a pure-hearted boy and this cup is my gift to you. It will fill with water when anyone drinks from it. You will never be thirsty. But, be careful never to take the cup into the forest. The Bushy Blue Beast lives there. He has sharp claws and pointy teeth. He will try to take away your cup.”

“I promise,” Leo said to his Grandma.

One day, after Grandma had traveled over the mountain, Leo’s Mommy and Daddy went off to get food for supper. Before they left, his Mommy said to Leo: “Whatever you do, don’t go into the forest. The Bushy Blue Beast might get you.”

His Daddy added: “Listen to your Mommy, and don’t go into the forest.”

“I won’t,” Leo promised.

After they left, Leo walked back and forth and all around the house. He stepped out onto the front porch, and walked down the stairs. He walked to the edge of the forest, carrying his magical cup–in case he got thirsty. When he reached the forest, he saw a shimmering light in between the trees. He had to go see what was there. He told himself that he would only go a little way in, and then run right out again.

When he got to the place of the shimmering light, it had disappeared. The trees rustled, and something blue flickered further in the forest. What could be the harm of tiptoeing to that rustling, blue-flickering place? He told himself that, even though he was breaking his promise to his Mommy and Daddy and Grandma, it was important to see what was there in the woods. And he would only stay a moment before he returned to the village where he lived.

Leo tiptoed toward the blue flickering light, but when he got there, the air had filled with hot dust. Where had the blue flickering light gone? He turned to run for home, when he saw, at a distance, a huge creature with blue fur all over its body! Leo stood frozen in fear, and choking on the heat and dust. The Bushy Blue Beast coughed and heavy brown dust filled the air! He swung his arms back and forth, walking toward Leo. CLOMP! COMP! COMP! His sharp claws stuck straight out!

Leo ran as fast as he could, holding tight onto his magical cup, past where the blue light had flickered and faded into a cloud of dust, past where the trees had rustled, past where something had shimmered, past the edge of the forest. He ran up the steps of his house and onto his porch, pulled opened the door, ran inside, and slammed and bolted the door shut. He ran into the corner of his bedroom and hid, holding the magical cup close to his chest. Cold water spilled all over him, and the cup filled up again.

The Bushy Blue Beast CLOMP! CLOMP! CLOMPED! out of the forest. He coughed up more dust from his throat. He CLOMP! CLOMP! CLOMPED! through the village, and all the people ran away.

Fiery puffs of smoke and dust shot from his nose and mouth as he CLOMP! CLOMP! CLOMPED! up to the first house, and pounded on the door. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The ground shook. But, no one was home. He growled, and he roared, and the ground shook more.

Leo hid deep under his bed’s covers with his magical cup, and it filled with water and spilled out over his blankets. He felt the heat from the beast against his skin.

The Bushy Blue Beast CLOMP! CLOMP! CLOMPED! up to the next house. He pounded on the door: BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The ground shook even more. But, no one was home there, either. He growled and he roared some more. Fire and acidic clouds of dust shot from his throat, and the sidewalk split open.

Leo scuttled further over the damp bed and under the wet blankets with his magical cup spilling more water.

The Bushy Blue Beast CLOMP! CLOMP! CLOMPED! up to Leo’s front porch and the ground shook even more. He pounded on the door. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The ground shook even more than before, and another long split ripped open the ground, as more fire and acidic clouds of dust shot from his mouth.

Leo shivered, while rivulets of sweat fell from his forehead. He crawled out from under the wet, soggy blankets, slipped off the damp bed, holding his magical cup. He walked with dripping feet right up to the front door, unbolted it, and threw it wide open to the beast.

“Here,” he said, shoving his magical cup at the Bushy Blue Beast.

The Beast grabbed Leo’s cup with his long, sharp claws and swallowed the water down his fiery throat past his pointy teeth.

“Thanks,” he coughed. His blue fur was flecked with bits of soot. The magical cup filled with water again, and again the Bushy Blue Beast drank all the water down. He coughed one last puff of dust, and drank a third cup. Then, he smiled at Leo with his big sharp teeth, and said: “Thank you so much. I was so thirsty! There’s no water where I live on the other side of the forest.”

Leo felt so bad for the Beast that he held his bushy hand in his own. The Beast’s fur tickled his skin, but the Beast was careful not to scratch Leo with his sharp claws. Together they walked into the forest where the Bushy Blue Beast lived with his own family. Leo shared his magical cup with the Mommy Bushy Blue Beast and the Baby Bushy Blue Beast until no one was thirsty anymore. He said they could keep that magical cup because there was plenty of water where he lived and his Grandma would give him another one.

When Leo arrived back at his village, everyone came out of hiding. They cried and they laughed with joy! His Daddy lifted Leo onto his shoulders! From that day forward, he was known to everyone, far and wide, as Leo the Brave.

THE END

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The Girl Who Couldn’t Tell a Lie

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

by Edward Ahern

Once, not so long ago, there lived a girl named Laurel.  Until she was four Laurel grew up like every other girl, learning to walk and learning to talk. Once she could talk Laurel loved to ask questions, and her mother and father and sister and brother and uncles and aunts and grandparents all smiled fondly at Laurel and answered her questions, even when she asked them over and over again.

But one relative was not friendly to Laurel. Actually no one really knew whose relative Hesperata was. Hesperata scared the whole family but she was always invited to birthdays and holidays and sometimes even for Sunday dinner so that she wouldn’t get mad at them.

Laurel asked her grandmother and grandfather about Hesperata. They looked frightened, but finally her grandmother said, “Little Laurel, Hesperata is just a real witch, don’t go near her.”

And when Laurel asked her mother about Hesperata she looked afraid too, but said, ”Hesperata, my darling Laurel, is your father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in-law.” Really though,   no one in the family could say who had been willing to marry Hesperata.

Laurel always saw Hesperata at the food table, where her father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in-law would be stuffing food in her mouth with both hands. Laurel, who was as curious as she was friendly, finally, walked up to Hesperata and began asking questions.

“Aunt Hesperata, you look so skinny, are you well”

Hesperata glared at her but continued chewing.

“Auntie Hes, you’re eating so much, aren’t you afraid you’ll get sick?”

“Silence little brat, don’t make me angry.”

Laurel stepped closer.

“Aunt Hesperata, you smell funny, are you sure you’re not sick?”

Hesperata threw down her food and started waving her arms and chanting, “Haruub Brummel Sucketink Pharallos.” She repeated this three times and touched Laurel on the nose.  “Snotty nosed urchin. So you like asking questions do you? All right then, hear how you’ve been cursed. You’ll answer every question with harsh honesty, and will never tell a lie. Now begone!”

Laurel’s mom pulled her away from Hesperata and told her never to go near the old woman again, but it was too late. From that day onward Laurel could not tell a lie, and answered every question with painful truth.

This was not so terrible when she was four and five, but as Laurel got older she made more and more people mad at her, even her mom and dad.

Once for example, Laurel’s teacher walked up to Laurel in class and asked, “Laurel, did you read the story I assigned you?”

“No, Mrs. Hutchison.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s a boring story and I wanted to watch television.”

“You’re going to stay after school young lady.”

Another time, Cynthia, who wanted to be Laurel’s friend, asked her, “Laurel, do you like my new dress?”

“No Cynthia, I have to tell you it looks like left over spaghetti.”

And when Megan asked her, “My mom braided my hair this morning, isn’t it nice?

Laurel heard herself reply, “No Megan, you’re pretty, but your hair looks like soggy shredded wheat.”

Her mother tried to explain that sometimes it was better to say nothing or to say something kind rather than telling the truth if the truth was hurtful. And Laurel knew this, and wanted to be kind, but every time she opened her mouth out popped an ugly truth..

Poor Laurel. Her mom and dad were often mad at her, her teacher barely talked to her, and she had no friends, not even to say hello to. She would sit in her back yard reading and every now and then would cry because she was lonely and really didn’t want to be hurtful to the people she liked.

And then, one summer afternoon, through her tears, Laurel looked across the meadow next to their house and saw a young girl walking out of the woods and straight toward her. The stranger stepped right into her yard and stopped in front of Laurel.

The two girls were similar but not alike. Laurel’s hair was the color of an ocean beach, but the strange girl’s hair was the color of a wedding ring. Laurel’s eyes were powder blue, but the strange girl’s eyes were leaf green. Other than that they were much of a much.

“Hello Laurel,” said the strange girl,”my name is Lethea and we’re going to be friends.”

Laurel sighed. “Lethea, please go away.  I’ll only tell you something painfully honest, and you’ll just go away hurt and angry.”

Lethea sat on the grass next to Laurel. “Poor Laurel. Aunt Hesperata went too far.”

“Do you know my aunt?”

“Ah. Well. The woman everyone says is your father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in-law? Once we get to be friends I’ll tell you all about her.”

Laurel bit her tongue but the truth fell off it anyway. “No one is my friend. You won’t be either. Just go away.”

But Lethea stayed sitting on the grass next to her. And they talked. No matter what awful, honest things Laurel said in reply to Lethea’s questions, Lethea just smiled and kept talking.

Lethea came back, not every day, but often, walking out of the woods.  She would never tell Laurel where she lived or who her family was, but they told each other everything else. Laurel began smiling again, and she had a very nice smile, with a dimple on each cheek.

Finally, one day as the oak and beech leaves were starting to fall, Lethea told Laurel about  Hesperata.

“She really isn’t.”

“Isn’t what?”

“Your father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in-law.”

“But everyone says so.”

“No, Hesperata just scared your mother’s father-in-law’s sister’s husband into saying that. She hates to cook, and accepts every possible invitation to eat at other people’s houses. She has two other big families that she imposes on. When she can’t gorge herself at other people’s parties she just starves, which is why she is so skinny and bad tempered.”

“How could you know this?”

“Ah. Well. I don’t normally admit this, but Hesperata really is my aunt, the sister of my mother.”

“But Hesperata is an evil, bad smelling witch!”

“And what would that make me?”

Laurel’s tongue lashed out. “You’re another evil witch!”

But Lethea just smiled. “Not all witches are evil Laurel, you have to judge them one by one.

“Now here’s how we’re going to get rid of your problem. At your next party, tell Hesperata that you’re coming to visit her-”

“But I never go near her, let alone talk to her.”

“Why not? You’re already cursed, there’s nothing more Hesperata can do to you. And you’re going to make her undo that curse.”

“No I’m not.”

“Oh yes you are, it’s fated. And here’s how you do it.” Lethea leaned toward Laurel and began whispering.

The next party was for the birthday of Laurel’s mother’s brother’s grandson. Laurel marched right up to Hesperata.

“Auntie Hes, I hope you’re well, although you’re still very skinny, I’m coming to visit you tomorrow.”

“ Get away from me you friendless sniveler or I’ll curse you again!”

“You won’t, you can’t, you can only curse me once. If you’re not there in the afternoon I’ll tell everyone where you live and invite them over for dinner.”

“You’d better stay afraid of me, vermin. Besides, you don’t know where I live.”

“Ah. Well. I’m told you live like a beggar four miles away on Mushroom Lane near Boiling Springs Road, in a dumpy shack that used to be yellow before the paint peeled away.”

Hesperata screamed and stormed out of the house before she even finished devouring her third plate of food from the buffet table. Laurel’s mother ran over.

“Laurel, what happened? Please tell me you didn’t make Hesperata mad again- did you?”

Her mother tried not to ask Laurel many questions, but she was so excited and worried that she forgot. And Laurel answered with her usual tartness. “Mom don’t ask the obvious. Of course I made her mad. That’s why she ran out screaming.”

“But she’ll hurt you somehow!”

“Ah. Well. This time I don’t think so.”

That next afternoon, right after lunch, Laurel rode her bicycle to the grocery store, and then over to Hesperata’s house.  And a pretty horrible house it was. Some of the window panes were cracked and broken, the lawn was all bare dirt and weeds, and the dried out house wood looked gray under the peeled off yellow paint.

Laurel was afraid, for skinny as she was Hesperata was still a lot bigger than she. But she remembered what Lethea had told her. “Aunt Hesperata is in a trap. You’re already cursed, so she can’t curse you again. Just tell her what I’m telling you.”

She pushed the door bell button, but it was broken, so she clanked on the door knocker, softly at first, and then louder and louder. “Auntie Hesperata, you stubborn old woman, I know you’re not gone, open up or I’ll keep knocking.”

Hesperata was not heard, and so Laurel knocked even harder.  “Áunt Hesperata! Aunt Hesperata!”

And from behind the door came a scream, “Leave now Laurel before I lay another curse on you.”

But Laurel knew better.  “You can’t curse me again you crone. Let me in and remove the curse or I’m going to invite every one of your neighbors over for a visit.”

“So what, small slug, I’ll just shoo them away.”

“Ah. Well. Then I’ll tell everyone in my family that you’re not really my father’s grandmother’s niece’s  cousin in-law, and I’ll tell the Abbots that you’re not their grandmother’s nephew’s  third cousin’s adopted step child, and I’ll tell the Weatherlys that you’re not their  father-in-law’s great uncle’s sister’s cousin by marriage. And you’ll never have another free meal!”

Hesperata screamed shrilly. “Evil child, how could you know this?”

Hesperata had  asked a question, and Laurel was obliged to rasp out an honest answer. “You gnarly old woman your real family has fingered you.”

Hesperata kept screaming, for she feared the loss of her food.

“Aunt Hesperata, let me in, and I’ll heop you to keep getting free meals.”

“No! No! Never.”

“Ah. Well.” Laurel reached inside her back pack. “Auntie Hes I brought a honey ham with me. Let me in and you can eat it while we talk.”

It had been over a week since Hesperata had dined at other people’s dinners, and she was horribly hungry. “A whole ham?”

“All six pounds of it, honey flecked and fatty, you glutton.”

Her hunger overwhelmed her anger and Hesperata opened the door. Laurel looked around.

There were old newspapers and magazines laying on tables and chairs and the floor. Dust kitties had billowed into tom cats. Cob webs had been knit onto cob webs.

“Aunt Hesperata, your house is a mess.”

“Just hand me the ham girl.”

Hesperata grabbed the ham by its hock, pulled off the plastic and began to gnaw.

Laurel dumped several magazines off a lounge chair and sat down.“Aunt Hesperata, here’s what will happen. You will remove my curse right now.  I will never tell my family or the Abbots or the Weatherlys that you are no kin at all. If you don’t cure me of the curse, remember that I have to tell the truth, and sooner or later will rat you out. But if you do remove the curse I’ll come over with another ham whenever you get really hungry.”

While Laurel was talking Hesperata had chewed her way through over half of the ham. Less hungry, she was in a better mood.

“Ah. Well. Laurel. Perhaps I went too far.” She walked up to Laurel, switching the ham from her right to her left hand, and began waving her arms and chanting.

“Pharallos, Sucketink, Brummel, Haruub

She said this three times and touched Laurel’s nose with the greasy fingers of her right hand.

“Your curse should be cancelled. Is it?”

Laurel waited for her tongue to unroll barbed wire, but instead only said, ”I think so Hesperata. Should I still call you aunt?”

“Yes child. But remember that I’m still going to be nasty and mean and hungry. It’s harder for old people to change.”

Laurel rode her bike home. Her mother saw her.”Where have you been Laurel?”

“Riding my bike.” Both Laurel and her mother shivered. Laurel because she had just told a lie, although a little one. Her mother because Laurel had not said anything hurtful in answering her. They both started crying, and then stopped and smiled at each other.

At first Laurel was afraid to say much, but slowly her silence changed to shy answers and then to smiling talk. Lethea still came to visit her from time to time, but never when Megan and Cynthia were playing at the house. Hesperata was still invited to everyone’s birthdays and holidays and weddings, and Laurel made sure that Hesperata’s plate was always overflowing with food.

She would often apologize to strangers for Hesperata’s bad manners, saying that her father’s grandmother’s niece’s cousin in law was having a hard time and asking for their understanding.  Hesperata would sometimes overhear Laurel saying this and would wink at her. It was, after all, only a small lie.

end

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