CdF

Jan 312011
 

Legends from Fairyland
Harriet Parr, writing as Holme Lee
Reviewed by Elwin Cotman

Some people speak of books as treasures. I find this to be true. Reading a book offers a door into the author’s imagination. The better the writer, the better the journey. This kind of bond between writer and reader is certainly something to cherish. However, every once in a while you find a book that literally feels like a treasure. Something about the age of the book, the prose, the design that no one uses anymore. One such book, to me, is Holme Lee’s Legends from Fairyland, a long-forgotten classic, one of the great fairy tales of the last two hundred years.

If any place on Earth screams “You will find treasures here!”, it is a second-hand book shop. The dusty smell, the shelves packed from floor to light fixtures with fraying tomes, the idea that the intrepid reader could unearth a priceless antique. The historicity of the books themselves; the library cards in the back from the early 20th century; the Christmas or birthday notes in the frontispiece, the gift-giver and receiver probably long dead. Just walking into such a store makes me feel like an archaeologist.

One such place, for me, was in Eastland Mall. Pittsburghers will know this place: the dead mall in North Versailles, now torn down and replaced with an ugly cement slab behind a fence. Even when I was a kid, the mall was in its death-throes. It had the weekend Superflea where you could drown in pop culture. There was the driving school on one side, a few scattered shops, a rotting movie theatre in the corner of the parking lot, bubblegum machines with stale gumballs hard as concrete. Needless to say, a place like this had its own magical qualities. I had fun exploring the abandoned office space, parting plastic sheets to drift from room to empty room. Whenever we visited the Superflea, my father also took me to the single room book shop. It felt appropriate: a store of myths, right next to the cultural blender of the Superflea, in a dying temple of commerce.

In the bookstore, I discovered the Knights of the Round Table and the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Old-style children’s editions, printed on glossy paper, with color plates of Merlin getting tricked by Nimue or the Forty Thieves hiding in oil baskets. In this place of wonder, I found Holme Lee’s Fairyland.

The child I was must have thought I’d unearthed an actual manuscript about, or from, a fairy civilization. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. There was no way, in looking at this book, I could have avoided Neverending Story–type fantasies. Fairies filled every available space. Elves and cherubs crowded the full-page drawings, observing the main action from branches and flowers. Sprites flew, danced and strutted through the margins. They clung to the vines along the initial letters. There was not an inch of paper that a fairy didn’t claim as their own, looking at the text as if reading the story themselves. No human could have made this, I must have thought. It had to be a gift from the sidhe.

What I in fact held was the 1988 Crescent Books hardcover edition of Legends from Fairyland, written by Holme Lee, copiously illustrated by Reginald and Horace Knowles. Even as an adult, the book held an air of mystery for me because, until recently, I could find so little information on the creators. Who is Holme Lee? Who is Effie H. Freemantle, who wrote the introduction and the short fairytale at the back titled “The Green Shoes”? Was Freemantle like “S. Morganstern” from The Princess Bride, a fictional editor created to add spice to the story? Is Freemantle a real person, or another facet of Lee?

“Holme Lee” was undeniably not a real person, being the pseudonym of Harriet Parr (1828-1900), a Victorian-era English writer. At the height of her success during the late 1800s she authored serials, short stories and hymns. She published pieces in Household Words and All the Year Round, and her stories were mostly drawing room dramas, which must have met the approval of the journals’ editor: Charles Dickens. Parr collaborated with Dickens on a number of his Christmas stories. Parr wrote Legends from Fairyland in 1860, and followed it with short stories about the explorer character Tuflongbo (who was apparently born in an apple core and traveled among the ogres). Fairyland proved so popular that subsequent stories of hers had “From the author of Legends from Fairyland” on the title page. In her time, Parr was best remembered for writing a biography on Joan of Arc. Despite being a pioneering female in a male-dominated industry, Parr’s work has evidently fallen into obscurity.

Reginald and Horace Knowles were early 20th century children’s illustrators. They made their illustrations for the 1908 edition of Fairyland, published by the J.B. Lippincott Company, and it is now impossible to imagine the book without their contribution. Their Art Nouvelle and Romantic-inspired work also appeared in Norse Fairy Tales, Old World Love-Stories and Peeps into Fairyland. There has been a recent resurgence of interest in their work, particularly in the business of greeting cards.

Freemantle was a real person, and could not have been Parr, since the edition she forwarded came out eight years after Parr’s death. It is almost impossible to find information on her. I do know that her intro to Fairyland is more twee than anything in the actual book, and the inclusion of her own story suggests coattail-riding was alive and well in 1908.

But what of the book itself?

The book is part star-crossed lovers story, part morality play, part quest, part ethnography of a land that never existed. The fairyland in reference is Sheneland, which is located somewhere on the edge of the human world (or the Country under the Sun) and always on the edge of Shadowland. Sheneland is very much a magical realm. This is a place where old moons are cut up to create stars, where fairy royalty travel in ships made from seashells while their retainers ride on bumblebees. This is a land where stealing eggs from robins’ nests is punishable by law, and coming between true love is punishable by death. Sheneland has its own history, geography (but don’t trust too much to maps), customs and laws. All of which makes sense, in a fairy tale way. People from the Country under the Sun can interact with fairies, but rarely do; Sheneland seems to exist in that unreachable realm of imagination and mystery. The book should be studied, if only as an early example of fantasy world-building.

Fairyland begins, as a story like this must, with all of Sheneland preparing for Prince Glee and Princess Trill’s upcoming marriage. The novel proceeds through various plots by Trill’s evil Aunt Spite to break up the lovers. This includes kidnapping Trill and imprisoning her in Castle Craft, spreading slander about Glee’s fidelity, and whisking Trill to the Land of the Giants. Many characters get caught up in the events. Not just fairies, but talking dogs, ghosts, and the insect-like people of the Aplepivi.

In fact, Fairyland has an extensive cast. There is the gallant Prince Glee and his true love Trill, who sings like a nightingale; Aunt Spite, whose claims of nobility are undermined by her evil nature; the blustery Tippet and his immature friend Wink, who spend their days gossiping in the shade of a toadstool; the Royal Society of Wiseacres, who make it their business to be curmudgeonly; Mischief, Spite’s unpredictable and treacherous daughter; the benevolent Fairy Queen; Worry, the head dog in Fairy Queen’s kennels; Professors Prize, Holiday, Treat and Jolly, the teachers every fairy child wants; Professors Birch, Twig, Cane and Ferule, the teachers they do not want; Tuflongbo, the loquacious but kind-hearted explorer; the Wicked Fairy of the Tree with Many Tendrils; Story, the Court Moralist; Old Woman, who takes the shine off dewdrops to spin gowns for the fairy ball. Obviously, Parr is dealing with broad characterizations. The majority of characters bear names that reflect their personalities, each in their own way demonstrating good and bad behavior to the novel’s young readers. Not only does Parr understand the way these tropes work, but she effectively weaves these many symbolic representations into an epic narrative.

The people of Sheneland seem to occupy their days with masquerades, weddings, spreading mischief and going on holiday. They are fairies, and making merry is what they do. However, like all good fairy tales, there is a real element of danger. Giants, unethical mask sellers, and the continued machinations of Aunt Spite all threaten harm. It is implied that, even though the fair folk are long-lived, they, too, must ultimately make the journey to Shadowland.

It is worth noting that, for all her symbolic nature, Aunt Spite is a well-rounded villainess. Possessed by an obsessive need to destroy her niece’s happiness, she jeopardizes her own safety time and again. It is implied that she was once welcome at Elfin Court, but a change in monarchs caused her to be a pariah. Everything she does stems from her deep-rooted need to feel accepted by the fairy aristocracy, something that will never happen for someone like her, leading her down an endless cycle of wicked stepmother schemes. Spite is a complex, even sympathetic villain, the kind rarely seen in children’s literature of that time.

Parr understands the essence of fairies: they are not just tiny people with wings, but symbolic of everything that is unknown and unexplainable. After all, narwhals were once thought to be mermaids, and giant lizards were once dragons. The language of mythology is the language of the obscure. Parr realizes this, and thus there is an air of mystery to her fairy world. This is illustrated in the chapter about the Solemn Festival of Midsummer’s Eve. Parr describes the moonlit procession of Elfin Court to the Enchanted Bower:

Torches are carried before them by the Gnomes who work in the Mines, to light the path which winds, and turns, and twists, through a bewildering labyrinth for miles and miles. The procession is made in perfect silence, and all the way as the fairies go they pluck flowers, weeds, herbs and branches; never pausing, never stooping, never speaking, and never looking either to the right hand or to the left. As they pass into the Enchanted Bower they cast them all down into one heap by the door, and then range themselves mutely around the garlanded walls, while Fairy Queen takes her seat on the Golden Throne in the midst.

All is so still that the chirp of the insects which wake by night in Elfinwood is heard like a chorus of music, mingled with the chiming of blue-bells and lily-bells in the moist and shadow places. Suddenly the inner gates of the Enchanted Bower open; and a cold breath blows softly through; then there is a sound as of trailing robes over crisp leaves in autumn, and then appears a misty figure whose face is covered with a veil. She moves like a shadow, diffusing all around her a chill air, and takes her place beside the heap of flowers, weeds, herbs and branches, which the fairies gathered by the way and flung down in a heap at the entrance of the Enchanted Bower.

As she comes forth, the Moon rises and the Stars twinkle out one by one; and just as the Fairy Bells chime midnight all Elfinwood echoes to the rush and hurry of light feet, –not fairy feet, but feet of maidens from the Country under the Sun, who, on Midsummer Eve, come out to Sheneland, to inquire of the Veiled Shadow of the Future what their fate shall be; and on this night, once in a year, she draws their lot, and shows it to them by the emblem of some flower, weed, herb or branch, which she lifts from the heap at her feet, and gives into their hands.

Though all of Elfin Court attends, none of them seem to know exactly what the Veiled Shadow of the Future is. They also do not question their role in this ritual, a solemn diversion from their normally joyful lives. They respect the Veiled Shadow of the Future, and perhaps even fear her. It is evident that the Shadow is neither good nor evil, but represents the capriciousness of fate. She is also connected to the earth, using plants for her fortune-telling. This is one of few points in the narrative where humans interact with fairies. Most of them receive fortunes that leave them in despair, so that maybe they would rather they did not know. Magic, with all of its unknowable qualities, is potentially devastating to humans. Nothing is explained, nothing is rationalized. Like the fairies, the Veiled Shadow of the Future simply is. Parr is working at the height of her lyrical skills, the paragraph-long sentences and repeated phrases looping upon themselves until the words hypnotize. In this passage, she hints at forces greater than the fairies, which humans could not possibly comprehend.

Parr’s overall writing style is witty and unpretentious; words in all capital letters and multiple exclamation points make an appearance. She makes liberal use of puns and sarcastic asides. Using simple, lyrical prose she conjures up scenes of fairies emerging from the lilies and moss to laugh at the foolish maid Idle; Tuflongbo leaping across an ocean in three strides; Giant Slouchback trotting along at three hundred and sixty-five miles an hour. It is this mix of minimalism and lyricism that perfectly captures a fairy tale feel. It also provides for subtle world-building. Characters are mentioned in passing before they appear in the narrative, and she drops hints of history to add depth to the world.

Most noteworthy is that Parr writes in colors. There are silver rays in dew, wild white roses, black puppies, ugly yellow smoke, pearl and pink sailing vessels, green fern dresses, the golden gates of the Sun Pavilion, the blue jerkins and scarlet stockings of Fairy Queen’s four-and-twenty page boys. Parr mines from the entire rainbow to detail her story, and it livens up the proceedings even when the plot is not moving forward.

The structure of the story is unique in that the main narrative does not go into effect until halfway through. A large section of the book is dedicated to world-building, done through the story’s chief device: the telling of legends.

Storytelling and Fairy Culture

A major drawing point of the novel is its stories. The book is stuffed full of them. Not just legends, but stories in general, anecdotes about weddings and tales of heroic deeds. As with our own society, tales are an intrinsic part of Sheneland culture. However, this culture is unique in that their legends are literally history. They are interspersed throughout the novel, utilized in different ways. There is “The Ugliest Cat in All Sheneland,” used as a moral to naughty young fairies. There is the State Traveler Tuflongbo’s journey to the end of the world, and his travels among the Aplepivi, narrated as a rousing tale by the explorer himself. The haunting tale of “The Enclosed Garden on the Borders of Sheneland Where the Sun Never Shines” is told as a warning to Aunt Spite. Towards the end, the story moves into Pilgrim’s Progress territory with “From Sheneland to Shadowland.” This is a book that often gets wonderfully sidetracked, giving the reader a clear picture of Sheneland. Only now that I am older do I see the significance of some of these tales.

It is telling that Story, the Court Moralist, has a major role in the book, even if he does not have much screentime. Parr’s book is a traditional fairy tale in that a major theme is imparting values to youth. Story tells two of the legends in the novel, and both are used as warnings to bad fairies. The first is “The Ugliest Cat in All Sheneland,” a singularly violent tale in the Brothers Grimm tradition. In it, a boy named Cruel tortures animals and kills six innocent puppies in brutal ways. In turn, Elf Transformation changes him into the Ugliest Cat in All Sheneland, and he receives a karmic comeuppance. His behavior is punished, while the good children who tried to help the puppies are rewarded.

Story relates this legend in court, as a warning to the egg-snatching fairies Prig, Pickle and Slumph. His tale basically marks their last chance, and any subsequent wrongdoing will result in harsh punishment. In fairy society, as in ours, the judicial system is based off of traditional ideas of right and wrong. The inclusion of the legend as a part of the judicial and rehabilitation process shows how intrinsic storytelling is to Sheneland. In their world, the storyteller is a powerful figure, and when he speaks the entire court goes silent. This is keeping in mind that he is not telling myth, but history, and fairies know that they could receive such a punishment for immoral behavior. As the teller, Story is charged with not just safeguarding Sheneland’s history, but the values of the society.

Later in the book, Story again acts as moral compass. Aunt Spite sneaks into Elfin Court wearing a mask. The tale he tells her is even darker than his previous one. “The Enclosed Garden on the Border of Sheneland” opens with the image of a solitary woman wasting away in a garden of sickly fruit, surrounded on all sides by high walls, repeating “It is all my own. It is all my own.” The storyteller then relates how she came to have her garden, stealing the inheritance from her sisters and building walls to keep people off her land. Parr’s language in this passage evokes a feeling of dread and despair. The image of the emaciated woman slowly wasting in her garden is the stuff of childhood nightmare.

On one hand, Parr is using the language of Tragedy to warn children against greed and avarice. On the other hand, the character of Story is doing the same with Aunt Spite, fulfilling his role in elfin society. His presence, like that of a priest, is chiefly benevolent. It is implied he knows Spite’s true identity, but he is trying to warn her for her own good. Story has an important part in the novel’s climax, securing the final victory over Aunt Spite. Without revealing too much, it can be said that Story’s intervention has to do with the revelation of truth. Thus, it is not only the desire of the storyteller, but his duty, to bring the story to a resolution. Per his status in fairy society, it is only proper that he be the one to reveal the final truth.

Tuflongbo’s adventures among the Aplepivi has a wonderful child-like logic to it. In his story, the End of the World is a giant brick wall. He climbs over this, to the place where fairies cut up old moons to make stars, and a rambling series of events follows. Parr has fun playing with the fantastical nature of her setting: these thoroughly impossible events are portrayed as great sociological insights for the academics of Sheneland. Tuflongbo’s adventures are as innocent and fun as the other legends are dreary. It is interesting to note how revered Tuflongbo is at Elfin Court, with a rank equal to Story’s. He has been appointed by the Queen herself to travel to distant lands. In this realm, whimsy is important enough to receive government mandate.

Parr offers a great deal of variety in her legends and, as a reader, I had to marvel at the diversity of her fairy stories. “The Ugliest Cat” is a Brothers Grimm tale; “The Enclosed Garden” is a Tragedy; Tuflongbo’s tale is adventure. “From Sheneland to Shadowland” is something else entirely.

It occurs after the main plot of Fairyland goes into effect. Prince Glee and Tuflongbo go on a Quest to rescue Princess Trill. Naturally, they face many obstacles, and have certain magical talismans to help them along their way. Glee and Tuflongbo are trapped by Giants and put into a well, to be baked into a pie later on. Through a crack in the wall, they have a vision of Mannikin Hope. Another prisoner tells of Hope’s journey from Sheneland to Shadowland.

It is at this point where Parr ramps up the metaphysical nature of her world. There is an element of Hans Christian Andersen in the way she delves into universal themes. Mannikin Hope starts out as a little boy in the Chief City of Sheneland, who is taken in by a kindly Cobbler during a harsh winter. Before the Cobbler goes to sleep, for his work is done, he gives Mannikin shoes for his journey. From there, Mannikin takes the road from Sheneland to Shadowland, where his family now dwells. His journey begins in the morning and ends at night. He sees all manner of people on the road, meeting companions along the way. Mannikin does not always make the right choice in companions; for instance, he leaves Love on the roadside but travels with the unreliable Self-Help. In order to complete the journey, he must leave behind all his worldly possessions. Once in Shadowland, Mannikin is sent back into the world as Hope, lighting the dark places.

To an adult reader, the implications of the tale are obvious. Where Parr excels is the way she wraps her story in metaphor, using a succession of symbols to present life’s journey in a way children would understand. The lessons she offers are not easy, either. Mannikin’s journey gives much food for thought about the nature of Sheneland. For instance, he and the Cobbler are apparently not fairies. This does not matter; Sheneland is place where the metaphorical is made literal. Mannikin and all the people he encounters are abstracts, so they do not have to literally be elfin. Why does Mannikin have to journey to Shadowland when the Cobbler can just die? Because this is a world where logic is dictated by the story, not the other way around. Through this legend, Parr establishes Sheneland as not just a home for a specific mythological creature, but as a true liminal space: a living, breathing nexus of stories, ideas and life lessons, with no true borders between them. Mannikin Hope begins his journey as a person, and is reborn as a symbol. This is the magic of Sheneland. Mannikin’s story ties back to the main one when he gives hope to Prince Glee in his darkest hour.

Of course, all ends well for the heroes. Goodness is rewarded, villains are punished and love conquers all. What is left is the feeling that many fantasy novels strive for, but few achieve. I feel like I have been to Sheneland. I have followed these people, experiencing their world.

I do not know why Fairyland fell into obscurity, or why there is so little discourse on Parr as a writer. As far as conceiving secondary worlds, she was ahead of her time. George McDonald and J.M. Barrie had yet to conceive their own fairylands. Andrew Lang had yet to compile his “coloured” books which renewed interest in fairies. So why the lack of acclaim? Why is Fairyland no longer read to children? Why wasn’t it adapted into a BBC cartoon? Why hasn’t it received a gorgeous annotated edition? The fault may lie in that, like many of Dickens’ collaborators, Parr simply disappeared into his shadow. Hopefully, time will find a renewed interest in her body of work.

In case you can’t tell, I am not remotely impartial about this book. It is a treasure. A gem that I will carry with me, always, on my own journey from Sheneland to Shadowland.


Elwin Cotman is the author of The Jack Daniels Sessions EP, a collection of fantasy stories published by Six Gallery Press. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English Writing, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing at Mills College. In addition to his collection, he has been published in The Front Weekly, The Fairfield Review, Outsider Ink, The Dirty Napkin, and Cyberpunk Apocalypse. He is currently writing a novella for self-publication next year.

 Posted by at 4:38 pm

The 12th issue of Scheherezade’s Bequest

 Our Grim(m)oire  Comments Off on The 12th issue of Scheherezade’s Bequest
Jan 312011
 

The 12th issue of Scheherezade’s Bequest is online! Scholars say that one of the qualities of a fairy tale is its sense of wonder, that thing the reader feels when they realise that here, in this story, anything at all might happen. As you read the stories and poems we’ve collected for this issue, we think you’ll experience just that. From the love imbued in a simple hat, to the terror of a contraption known only as ‘the beast’, through locked doors and across marble threshing floors, you’ll know that in these tales, magic happens, and you’ll wonder, just like we did, if it might one day happen to you.

We’re pleased to welcome new authors as well as those returning, and we’re especially pleased by something that appeared in a different ‘zine which ties in nicely to one of the stories appearing here. When you read the introduction to Christine Lucas’ On Marble Threshing Floors, you’re going to want to know more about that wonderful song. Fortunately, there is more to be had. Read Athena Andreadis’ A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards, published in the first issue of Stone Telling, a new webzine of diverse, speculative poetry edited by Rose Lemberg. Athena has a story appearing in issue 12, too. Though the Moon Be Still as Bright is a timeless, placeless tale of love left behind.

As for Cabinet des Fées, once again things are changing around here. We want to alleviate some of the confusion concerning this website and its assorted offerings, so from now on each issue of Scheherezade’s Bequest will be kept separate from our other content, meaning that this is the last time you’ll see media reviews going live with our fiction issue. We also won’t be posting as many images within each issue, but each issue will have a cover that can easily be shared online. The cover for this issue is a close-up from Frederic Edwin Church’s The Ruins at Sunion, Greece (pronounced as Sounion), circa 1869.

We are also changing our reading periods for Scheherezade’s Bequest, so please be sure to check our updated submission guidelines. When we do reopen to submissions, we’ll be using a new submission system. You’ll be able to track your submissions and we’ll be able to keep better track of them. We are very excited about this new system, and we can’t thank Neil Clarke (of Clarkesworld Magazine) enough for sharing it with us.

We would also like to welcome Andrea Janes as our new contributing blogger. Andrea will be covering the intersection between fairy tales and film, and we can’t wait to read her reviews. Film is an underrepresented area on Cabinet des Fées (as in not represented at all), and we’re grateful that that’s about to change. Thank you, Andrea!

And speaking of contributors, Elwin Cotman has provided a very valuable addition to our website — a review of the classic Legends from Fairyland, including numerous scanned images from the book itself. He asks some important questions about why this particular book seems to have been overshadowed by the works of Lang and Barrie, and presents a happily biased look at what could be considered Harriet Parr’s masterwork.

As ever, we appreciate those of you who spend time reading CdF, and we hope our changes make it easier for you to enjoy our offerings.

 Posted by at 1:52 pm

In the Luck Factory by Lorraine Schein

 Issue 12 (January 2011)  Comments Off on In the Luck Factory by Lorraine Schein
Jan 312011
 

In the Luck Factory
by Lorraine Schein

1. Fortuna’s eco-correct, green canvas cornucopia spills perfect black dots onto conveyor belts of naked red ladybugs.

2. The elephant-god forges silver horseshoes, flings one with his trunk to test on Buddha’s head—

3. Clank. Around Gautama’s neck! He grins, and spins his karmic wheel.

4. The dolphins and fu bats sit together in the cafeteria. It is not an easy friendship, squeaking in different languages. The scarab sits alone, munching old four-leaf clovers.

5. Hamsas hand-jewel their palms, fire themselves, zap the slimy evil eye crawling towards you on fly’s legs. They beckon you through turquoise synchronicity-doors to corridors of pulsing radiances.

6. Outside, the white cat pads along, bell ringing. Forepaw raised, she beckons the moon.

7. Meow. The moon is a smiling white cat.


Lorraine Schein is a New York poet and writer. Recent work will appear in Strange Horizons, Hotel Amerika, Witches & Pagans and New Letters. The Futurist’s Mistress, her poetry book, is available from Mayapple Press. She also has a story in the fantasy anthology, Alice Redux.

 Posted by at 12:25 pm
Jan 312011
 

The King Must Have a Son
by David Pilling

It is a fact acknowledged nowhere else that the Tudors, who supplied England with five of her nastiest monarchs, had fairy blood in their veins. Their elfin features and delight in cruelty may have provided a clue, but physical abnormality and viciousness were common traits in royal families and caused little comment.

One who became aware of his fairy ancestry (though he preferred to refer to them by their ancient Irish name of ‘Sidhe’) was the founder of the dynasty, Henry Tudor.

During his long years of enforced exile in Brittany the young Henry was both penniless and friendless, so he looked for help in the unlikeliest of places. On the trail of a rumour written on a scrap of paper and handed to him by a noseless beggar, Henry discovered a certain ancient book buried deep in the vault of a monastery.

The book was titled, simply, Lore, in faded gold lettering on the cover, and the anonymous author had scraped together a hotchpotch of genealogies, folk tales, spells and histories of the Sidhe.

Inside Henry discovered a story that his own grandfather, Owen Tudor, was but five generations descended from a Sidhe lord who had taken a fancy to a Welsh dairy maid and raped her on a riverbank. When Owen was captured and beheaded after the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, his head was daily washed and lamented over by that same Sidhe (for these creatures are immortal) in the guise of a mad old woman.

Intrigued, Henry found a mirror and peered at his own face. Hook-nosed, narrow-eyed and with a mean little mouth, he was nobody’s idea of a looker. Henry cared little for that and compared his profile to some rough sketches of various Sidhe lords and ladies in the book. There were definite similarities.

Other men might have been struck by a sense of wonder on discovering their relationship to creatures of folk myth, but Henry’s mind was all cogs and wheels. He set about trying to think of a way of using his distant relatives to his own advantage.

He absently turned a few more crackling pages, and there, scrawled below yet another genealogy, were the words of a charm. Written in some ancient proto-Gaelic dialect, the charm was a couple of verses long and if spoken (according to scribbled notes by the author) would summon a Sidhe to the aid of the speaker.

A note of caution sounded inside Henry’s head, for the book was littered with warnings of the Sidhe’s cruelty and capriciousness and how their help never came without a price. Dismissing his doubts, he discreetly sneaked out of the monastery with the book hidden in his knapsack.

Forward a few years to 22nd August, 1485, and a day of reckoning for Henry Tudor. By now he had managed to scrape together a rag-tag army of French mercenaries, English exiles and Welsh enthusiasts who fondly imagined him to be the second coming of Arthur.

Henry landed his men on the coast of Wales and marched them under his red dragon banner to Bosworth Field in the heart of England. Waiting for him there was the White Boar of York, King Richard III, and his much larger army.

Richard had lied and murdered his way onto the throne and wasn’t about to allow some Welsh upstart to knock him off it. As battle was joined he looked over the heads of the swirling melee and spied Henry Tudor sitting under his banner a little way from the field, nervously watching the butchery with just a few bodyguards for protection.

Call Richard many things — call him child-killer, murderous usurper and incestuous villain — but never call him coward. Resolved to wipe out the Tudor himself, he donned his golden crown, hefted his lance and shouted the order to charge.

Trumpets blasted, the war-yell went up and the blood-soaked grass of Ambien Hill quaked beneath the thunder of hooves. A tide of horseflesh and glittering steel poured down the slope with Richard, a slight figure in gilded armour, at its head.

Henry took one look at the death sweeping towards him and was hard put not to soil himself. Every instinct screamed at him to throw away his useless sword and ride, ride away as fast as possible to the coast and take ship back to Brittany and find a bed to hide under and never, ever set foot in bloody England again.

But that wouldn’t do. He had come to win a throne and knew he must achieve it or die. Little eyes wide with terror, heart threatening to pound through his chest, Henry somehow managed to stand his ground while his bodyguards bravely formed up in front of him.

First to die was Sir William Brandon, Henry’s standard bearer and a big man made massive by his armour. This armoured colossus put himself in the way of the king and received the royal lance in his chest, bursting his steel shell and the soft essentials inside.

Brandon groaned and toppled from his saddle and the rest of Henry’s bodyguard were scattered like chaff by the hammer’s impact of Richard’s charge. The White Boar was almost in striking distance of the cowering Dragon.

Babbling scared and only a few feet from death, Henry resorted to the Sidhe charm. The alien words dribbled from his ashen lips, mangled in pronunciation and rendered almost incoherent by terror.

Somewhere in the ether a very old and cunning Sidhe named Finvarra heard Henry’s plea and smiled.

To the north of the battlefield was another army led by a gentleman named Lord Stanley. Both Richard and Henry had summoned him to fight for them at Bosworth, but Stanley had sensibly decided to wait and watch before joining in on the winning side.

Finvarra snapped his long white fingers and a wraith popped into existence next to Stanley. Invisible to men, which was just as well since it was hairy and horrible of aspect, the wraith whispered urgently into the nobleman’s ear.

Rescue the Tudor, it gibbered. Richard’s a bore and a psycho and if you save this new guy’s bacon he’ll be in your debt forever. Just think — you could milk the little upstart until his udders squeak!

The prospect of money spurred Stanley into action, as it generally did, and he barked out his orders. For the Tudor, he shouted, and his men echoed the cry.

Hopelessly outnumbered and taken by surprise, Richard’s men stood no chance as Stanley’s knights and men-at-arms broke over them. One by one they were speared, battered, pulled from their saddles and hacked to death. Among the last to die was the White Boar himself, ankle-deep in mire as he laid about him with his axe and screamed ‘Treason! Treason!’

No one remembers the man who eventually felled Richard, and that’s because it was no man but the wraith. The horrid creature wrapped its slimy invisible length round Richard’s neck and dragged sharp claws across his throat. The last Plantagenet king of England choked and fell on his face, to be bashed into unrecognizable mush by whooping Welsh halberdiers.

His crown rolled away under a thorn bush and, after the killing had ended, was picked up, given a quick wipe and placed on the head of a mightily relieved Henry Tudor, now King Henry VII.

Henry VII reigned twenty-four years and died a prematurely aged fifty-two, his hair white, his teeth few, poor and blackish and his body ravaged by gout and arthritis. His hair had good reason to be white, for as king he had to endure endless rebellions and one pretender after another with curious names like Lambert Warbeck, Perkin Firkin and Timothy Simnel striving to topple him from his unsteady throne.

Bosworth Field was the first and last time that Henry summoned Finvarra, but once a Sidhe is summoned it is difficult to get rid of. Finvarra amused himself by shaping golems out of mud, breathing life into them and sending them forth to trouble Henry’s England. Every one of the pretenders who raised armies against the Tudor was a Sidhe golem, and after they were killed in battle or executed their bodies dissolved back into the mud from which they came.

Henry little suspected that Finvarra was responsible for the wars that wracked his kingdom and hid the book of Lore in his treasury. He intended to pass it on to his son and heir, Prince Arthur, until that fragile boy succumbed to the sweating sickness. This left Arthur’s younger brother, another Henry, to inherit the royal baubles and the book.

Henry VII died in 1509, shriveled by illness and hated for his avarice, and was succeeded by a Greek god. At eighteen Henry VIII was athletic, talented, lean, handsome, golden-haired, charming, brave and altogether insufferable. The Sidhe blood shined through in his almost unnatural physical beauty, vaunting intelligence and artistic gifts, but it was not to last.

The boy was, after all, mostly human, and human youth is finite. As the years passed Henry’s monstrous appetite steadily weighed down his body, and his failure to beget a male heir injected a worm of decay into his brilliant mind.

At the age of forty-five, already on the third of his famous six wives and still without a son, Henry resorted to desperate measures. At the dead of night one chill winter evening he stole down to his own treasury, alone and clad in hood and cloak, and dug out the book of Lore.

His father’s last words to Henry, apart from reminding him to feed the cat, had revealed the location and import of the book. Henry had never touched it, since he was a devout Christian and abhorred the use of magic, but now he decided that needs must. Moving with a surprisingly light tread for such a big man, he crept back to the royal apartments and started to read.

Before long he found the page containing the charm. After only a brief hesitation and a muttered apology to the image of Christ hanging on his bedroom wall, Henry closed the book, sat back and recited the words.

The chamber seemed to shimmer for a moment and Henry felt an odd sense of dislocation, as though his entire body had experienced a tremendous hiccup. When his vision cleared a door had appeared in one wall of his chamber. The door was narrow, painted white and decorated with odd carvings of foliage and hunting scenes.

Closer inspection revealed Sidhe huntsmen mounted on winged horses chasing after human prey. The wild hunt coursed through tangled thorny woods and desolate valleys.

Even Henry could not stomach the details of the kill picked out in crimson paint. He averted his eyes and pushed the door open.

Beyond lay not the tapestried corridors of his private apartments but a dark stone passage leading to a flight of steps. Swallowing his fear, the eighth Henry ventured into the passage and up the steps. The white door quietly swung shut behind him.

Things passed him in the shadows as he made his way up the steep wide steps. He cared not to look too closely at them and thanked God for the dark. They, bug-eyed goblins, gibbering wraiths, triple-horned bogeymen and other grubby creatures of the deep, were not shy about staring at him. On another day they might have tormented the human trespassing in their realm, pinching and chewing his flesh or carrying him away to be boiled in a pot, but their master had ordered them to leave this one alone. He was invited.

After what seemed like an eternity of steps, Henry arrived at another white door. This one had a silken bell pull hanging next to its beautifully carved frame. Puffing and perspiring, no longer the trim athlete of yore, Henry gave the cord a grateful yank.

A silvery tinkling noise echoed beyond the door and with a smooth click the door slid open. Henry mopped his streaming face with his handkerchief, adjusted his doublet and stepped through.

Since he existed in a place as disconnected to the normal rules of space and time as ours is chained to them, Finvarra could please himself in his choice of surroundings. The heavens, the earthly realm and the underworld were his playgrounds, but he could not deny his fascination with humanity.

‘For an advanced breed of ape, they have the most glorious taste in waistcoats’ was a favourite quote of his on the rare occasions he spoke to another of his kind. Save when they are hunting someone, the Sidhe are not a sociable race.

On the occasion of Henry’s visit, Finvarra was favoring the late nineteenth century. Fancying himself as a dissolute English gentleman of that era, his private chambers were decked out much like 221B Baker Street.

The Sidhe sat in an extremely comfortable armchair amid a chaos of leather-bound books, stuffed animals, tobacco ash and stained Persian rugs. Puffing contentedly on a pipe and reading an undated edition of The Times, he wore light purple pyjamas, dark purple slippers and a black and purple dressing gown. The effect should have been hideous, but Finvarra could look elegant wearing a Hessian sack.

Henry VIII stumbled into this picture of bohemian decadence looking like a refugee from a Renaissance fair. All his royal arrogance and pomposity vanished, and he approached the Sidhe’s chair in much the same way as lowly supplicants approached his throne back in the human world. He may have been a king, a brute and a bully, but he was also a man of his time and lived in mortal terror of the supernatural.

‘Oh Sidhe’ Henry mumbled, going stiffly down on one knee ‘mighty Sidhe, I crave a boon.’

Finvarra removed his pipe, leaned back in his armchair and smiled down at the sweating fat man with amused contempt.

‘Fat man, you will call me Lord’ he said, his voice at once bland and musical, mild as milk and soft as honey. ‘And do not use words like boon. We are not in your own vile period. You want a favour from me, is that it?’

Henry nodded mutely. Finvarra stretched out one elegantly slippered foot and prodded the kneeling king’s forehead.

‘Well?’ he drawled impatiently, ‘what is it? Bear in mind that there will be a price. I am not a charity.’

‘Lord, I crave a son to carry on my line,’ Henry begged.

‘Lord, how you crave a son,’ Finvarra mocked. ‘You have plenty of little girls, one or two bastard boys, but no little he-Tudor to be King after you and wear the golden hat. What a shame.’

‘But my line will die with me,’ Henry cried, ‘and with no heir, England will descend into another civil war.’

The Sidhe sniffed and brushed a speck of tobacco from his sleeve. ‘None of my concern, I’m sure,’ he remarked.

‘I’ll give you anything.’

‘Though you might live to regret such a promise?’

‘Anything!’

Finvarra nodded. ‘Very well,’ he said ‘then in exchange for a healthy son, I want your wife.’

Henry looked at him in dismay, his jowls drooping. ‘Give you my wife?’ he stammered ‘But I love her. She’s the best one yet.’

‘Yes. Jane Seymour. Henry VIII really loves her, which means she may last until Christmas. Give her to me.’

Henry stubbornly shook his head.

Fanfare shrugged. ‘Then one of your daughters will have to succeed you.’ he said ‘Maybe that might turn out for the best.’

Henry contemplated the notion of England ruled by one of his two legitimate daughters, holy pug-faced Mary or pale shrewish Elizabeth, and made up his mind.

‘All right,’ he conceded ‘all right. You can have Jane. But not until I have the boy.’

Fanfare took a contented puff on his pipe. ‘We have a bargain.’

Henry was allowed to return to his own world, and a few weeks later it was announced that Queen Jane was pregnant. The news rippled throughout England and was greeted with a modicum of restrained joy, for by now the people were used to royal pregnancies and had little reason to be confident about the results. Stillborn little boys and healthy little girls was the pattern so far, and neither Katherine of Aragon nor Anne Boleyn (Henry’s first two wives) had proved able to break it.

Jane would be different. The king confidently asserted this to his ministers and courtiers, knowing as they didn’t that he had called upon other help besides God. As for the queen, poor girl, she mistook Henry’s confidence as evidence of his love and trust in her.

All the while, as the months passed and Jane’s belly swelled, Finvarra watched from his otherworldly haunt. The Tudor era and its superstitions amused him, as did the high level of plague, ignorance and disease. A better time, he thought, when humans lived in fear and eschewed science.

On the other hand, everyone stank and their taste in clothes was rotten. Finvarra quickly got bored and shifted forward to the day Jane gave birth.

Out came a healthy boy, as the Sidhe had promised, but the effort of producing him broke his mother. Jane nearly died during the birth and fell sick immediately after.

For two weeks she lay in agonies. Terrified by his wife’s screams echoing through Hampton Court Palace, Henry begged Finvarra to take her.

‘Release her from her misery and us from ours!’ he cried one night, shaking his fist at the part of his bedroom wall where the magical door to Finvarra’s chambers had appeared. But he didn’t dare to open the book of Lore again, or speak the charm.

Finvarra heard Henry’s plea and relented. He sighed, knocked out his pipe, stood up and drew the curtains of his Victorian-themed living room.

Outside his window was no Victorian street scene but the swirling breadth of the universe, speckled with millions of stars. The Sidhe derived their power from that endless cosmic deep. Finvarra gazed into eternity, stretched his arms wide and spoke words of magic.

Capricious in every sense, he was occasionally capable of pity towards those who deserved it. He could do nothing to save Jane Seymour, but with a wave of his hand he dissolved her agony. Her life dissolved with it.

A rent opened in the fabric of the universe, briefly flooding its darkness with golden light. Finvarra looked away as Jane Seymour’s soul was received into it. Unlike humans, the immortal Sidhe have no souls and cannot bear to look into the afterlife.

Henry’s longed-for son was named Edward and within a few years had grown into a healthy, if pale and precocious, little prince.

The same could not be said for his father, whose health declined drastically as his son grew. During a tournament a splinter from a broken lance lodged in his leg, where it festered and irritated his ulcers. Unable to exercise anymore but still afflicted with a gargantuan appetite, Henry’s already large body swelled and swelled.

By 1547, the last year of his life, Henry was a swollen mass of waxen flesh and running sores. Incapable of supporting his own bulk, he had to be carried everywhere in a sedan chair. Sick in mind as well as body, the trials and pressures of kingship and his own physical helplessness transformed him into a vicious psychotic.

Henry’s only comfort was his son. When the time came for the king to die, paralyzed and speechless and crammed into an opulent deathbed, he gasped his last in the knowledge that he had, at least, succeeded in leaving a male to carry on the Tudor dynasty.

Soon after the crowning of the new king, Edward VI, Finvarra’s magic began to wear off. Like youth and chocolate, magic was finite and every spell eventually faded away. Nor does magic come from nothing. Finvarra had provided Henry VIII with a son, but the child was not simply willed into being. The Sidhe had plucked Edward from a farm.

When he was sixteen Edward started to cough. At first it was a tickle in his throat, nothing more, but the tickle refused to go away. Within weeks the king was officially ill and confined to his sickbed, his slender body wracked by endless bouts of increasingly savage coughing.

The coughing would not stop, though the young king was endlessly purged and bled and prayed over by his doctors. Nothing worked. Edward coughed and coughed and coughed, with a servant permanently at his bedside to wipe flecks of bloody phlegm from his chin.

One cool summer evening, with Edward unable to speak and the doctors having given him up for dead, the coughing changed in tone. It became deeper, shorter, more like a grunt. All of a sudden the king’s body started to shrink.

Within a few seconds, much to the horror and bafflement of his valets and attendants, Edward had disappeared. Instead a small shape could be seen scurrying back and forth under the bedclothes.

One of the servants dared to twitch back the sheets and a piglet emerged. With a squeal it shot between the servant’s legs and rushed off down the corridor.

Somewhere in the great beyond, Finvarra stretched out in his armchair and grinned.


David Pilling currently works in the Library and Archive at the Tate Gallery in London. Previous jobs have included stints at The Royal Opera House and The School of Oriental and African Studies. He has been writing fiction and non-fiction on a freelance basis for the past three years, and many of his non-fiction articles have appeared in various regional and national UK publications. His fiction is inspired by his love of historical and science fiction and authors such as George McDonald Fraser, George R.R.Martin and Bernard Cornwell.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm

Bluebeard Contented by B. Gordon

 Issue 12 (January 2011)  Comments Off on Bluebeard Contented by B. Gordon
Jan 312011
 

Bluebeard Contented
by B. Gordon

After the debacle of his latest marriage–never again would he wed a woman with brothers–Bluebeard fled the country. The duplicity of his wife had wounded his spirit worse than the swords of her brothers had wounded his body: no sooner out of his sight than she had taken the golden key and unlocked his forbidden chamber, discovered the fate of his other disobedient wives. Discovered but escaped it: his flesh butchered, not hers.

Unjust Fate! No, he said to himself as he combed out his curling beard to hide the red welt of scar across his throat. No more families. No more sisters peeking and prying, sending for their brothers. Most particularly, no more succumbing to sparkling eyes and a lively glance. Obedience was what he wanted. A downward gaze, a meek answer. But he must have a wife. A man cannot live alone.

His investments and acquaintances in the spice trade were many and diverse, so he had no great difficulty establishing himself under the name Ottavius Blaubart. His man of business found him a house in a formerly fashionable district become merely respectable. “A quarter where neighbours do not peer from behind curtains,” said the estate agent, unlocking the barred doors. “You need do no more than nod and wish a good morning.”

“The kitchen, if you please,” Bluebeard said. “And attics.”

The agent drew his mouth up in a pinched smile. “Your lady wife will be pleased with the kitchens.” He pushed through the green baize door and gestured to the sturdy chopping block, the strong hooks above the hearth.

“I am not at present married.”

To reach the attic, they climbed a steep narrow stair. Bluebeard had to crouch to open the low door. He pictured a too-curious wife, burdened by her great ring of keys, hunched furtively at the latch, trying one, another, and at last the little golden key, forbidden–

“Sir? Will you be engaging servants?”

He started, and knocked his head against a ceiling beam. “Tell me, are these walls thick? I have no wish to be disturbed by the chatter of underlings.”

The agent eyed the room, knocked on the scuffed panelling and bare floorboards. “The walls, certainly. The floor, well, should your servants prove quarrelsome, some noise might penetrate it.”

“It is good of you to be honest. When I come to hire, perhaps you can recommend to me a reputable agency.”

The agent inclined his head, understanding that money might flow in more directions than one, and a ready pocket might receive its due.

Thus Ottavius Blaubart entered society, not for the first time. His fine clothes and air of mystery, even of secret sorrow, caused him to be sought after, and families with more daughters than wealth were eager to scrape acquaintance. Yet again and again he was disappointed. The young ladies were not content to listen and admire. When he paused, they questioned him, asked where he had come from, was it not true he had been married before? How sad to have loved and lost!

He frowned and turned from them, saying curtly that he did not care to speak of the matter. When he looked back, they were whispering behind fans, casting sidelong glances at him from behind lace edgings or spread feathers.

“From women’s tongues comes all manner of ills,” he observed as he sat at the card-table.

“Come now,” said a sleek-haired cavalry officer. “Only if one attends to their words. Consider it the sweet calling of birds and it makes a pretty noise.”

Bluebeard shook his head. “Could I only have a wife quiet and obedient!”

“Go among peasants if you wish a placid mare for the plough. Here you’ll find only high-bred carriage-horses.”

“I have a mind,” he said heavily, “to do as you suggest.”

The officer laid his card down and drew another, sighing. “I pity the wench, dragged from the pigeons and barnyard fowl and cast bewildered among the peacocks and popinjays of society.”

Alone, Bluebeard thought with satisfaction. Without her gossips or her sisters. No one to chatter to. No one to teach her to question her husband.

The next day he ordered his coach and coachman, and went into the country. At each inn he gave due attention to the maidservants, but found them sly and ever-watchful for the chance of a coin. He attended village dances and fairs, and found the merchants’ daughters no better than those he had left, only clumsier with their fans and more inclined to laugh and squeal.

He had been nearly a month on the road when the wheel came off his carriage on a rutted farm-track, and he was forced to wait while his coachman made repairs. A stammering farmer led him to the best parlour, apologising that it had been neglected since his wife’s death, “But still the best chamber we have, master.”

A young woman brought him tea on a lacquered tray. As he heaped glossy clots of cream onto steaming, floury scones, she poured tea into a porcelain cup.

“Only one cup?” Bluebeard asked. “Will you not drink with me?”

She kept her eyes on her hands and the tasks they accomplished. “Begging your pardon, master, ‘twouldn’t be fitting.”

Under the loose smock her form was straight and buxom. He too watched her hands, callused but not ill-shaped, moving deftly. “Are you the daughter of the house?”

She did not look up, but the cheek he could see flushed pink. “That I am, master.”

“And your name?”

“Eva, master.”

“Will you look at me, Eva? Come, I am no ogre.”

Eva lifted her face to him. No great beauty, with hair straw-yellow and eyes pale blue, but a country girl’s fresh complexion. Dress her well and he’d not be ashamed to bear her on his arm in the ballroom.

“Send your father to me, Eva.”

The farmer twisted his cloth cap in his hands, and answered like a schoolboy. No, he had no sons, none but the one daughter. Yes, it was no easy life, for him or for her. Did any young man court her? No, she was a good quiet lass and knew her duty. Aye, had he money enough he’d dower her, and buy a new heifer and an ox for the plough, but what use wishing for gold to fall from the sky?

So it was settled between them, that Ottavius Blaubart would take Eva to the city as his wife, and settle a sufficient sum on her father to compensate for the loss of her labour.

Bluebeard handed his bride up into the carriage, and his coachman tossed her shabby trunk and single hatbox into the boot. As the carriage lurched out of the farmyard, he asked, “How did you come to be named Eva, my dear?”

“I don’t know, master.”

“You may call me husband, or Ottavius, as you prefer. You are named after the mother of us all, Adam’s Eve, whose sin shut us out of Paradise. What sin was that, Eva?”

She looked at her husband, blinking slowly. “Disobedience?”

“Not only that, but curiosity. Women are like cats, prying and peering into everything, most especially that which is forbidden. Keep from that sin, Eva, and you and I will be content, and you will have all you wish for.”

“I must keep from prying and peering,” she said, choosing her words as if she picked over fruit at the market. “And you will be pleased with me.”

“But if you disobey me, my anger will be both just and terrible. Do you understand?”

“Aye, master.” She rolled thoughts about for most of a mile, and at last offered: “My father whipped me proper, but never had to but once for each fault.”

Blaubart smiled in the midst of his beard. “I trust you shall never need to endure my punishment, my dear.” Idly he pictured this wife, her hair streaming about her shoulders, her pink face wet with tears, as she, like her predecessors, pled for mercy. But he would not be forced to that. This time he had chosen with care.

When they reached the house, she was too weary with travel and strangeness to do more than gaze wonderingly at the staircase, carpets, paintings and mirrors that Bluebeard had installed. He brought her to the bedchamber.

“You must do without a lady’s-maid this first night, my dear. I shall perform the offices myself, hey?”

She stood on the fine Turkish carpet, stiff as a china doll while he undressed her. “Never had a maid, master.”

“Husband,” he chided. “Husband is more than master. More even than father.”

“Husband,” she echoed, as he turned the covers back and arranged her on the bed, her peach-flushed skin smoother than the linen sheets.

She said no more, not even a question when she saw the terrible scars on his chest and throat, made by the sabres of his last wife’s brothers. She made only a sharp intake of breath as her maidenhead was lost. Bluebeard noted, before he lost himself in her flesh, that he must look for blood on the sheet, for women were deceivers who cried without hurt.

In the morning she woke before him, as a wife ought, washed and dressed herself, then waited at the bedside for his instructions. He kissed her cheek fondly. “This house will be yours to care for, my dear. All upstairs and downstairs, and you shall keep the keys. Here is the ring. But mark you, this little golden key?”

Eva nodded, taking the great ring in both hands like a door-knocker.

“The door to that key you must never open. If you open it, my anger will be beyond anything you have known.”

That fortnight all the talk of the town was of Ottavius Blaubart, how the mysterious spicer had been felled by Cupid’s arrow, plucking a fair flower from a country meadow when all the town’s carefully tended gardens lay open to him. He carried Eva to milliners, to dressmakers, to the dancing-master and tutors of every sort. The knocker fairly wore a hole in the door with the queue of visitors to see the country innocent who had succeeded where citified wiles failed.

As weeks ran into months, he watched his wife’s doings, attentive as a cat to scratchings behind the wainscot. Every night he asked her for the ring of keys, and every night the little golden key shone blameless. Would her head be turned by admiration, would she be tempted to extravagance at card-table or milliners, would she fall to gossiping and at last be tempted to curiosity about him?

“Does it please you, my dear, to be the cynosure of all eyes?” It had pleased him to tease his wives with words they did not know, but the pastime was spoilt by Eva’s simplicity, for she did not pretend to comprehension she did not have, only turned his question over for meaning on the underside.

“To be stared at? I’d as soon stay quiet at home, but I’ll go out as it pleases you, husband.” More thought passed behind her blue eyes. “These folk who’ve entertained us, oughtn’t we to feed them? ‘Twas turnabout so, in the country.”

“And how would you entertain them?” he asked, entranced as if his horse had ventured its opinion on the road best taken.

“Feed them well. The kitchen’s grand. And let them talk all they’ve a wish. That’s what they like best.”

This peasant shrewdness made him laugh aloud. “Some hired musicians, to relieve those who would rather attend to instruments than voices. But who shall prepare this feast?”

“Who but I, master?”

Bluebeard nodded. He had chosen well at last. But doubt slid under his complacency: did she scheme for excuse to explore throughout the house, under guise of housewifely duty?

While Eva ordered in joints of meat and barrels of apples, Bluebeard made the house ready for guests–and for disobedient wives if need arose. All the windows he had cleaned and puttied, and the little attic window covered with iron gridwork. The panelling was given fresh paint, and the attic walls strengthened until no sound could be heard from outside. With his own hands he screwed strong hooks in the beams. The low narrow door was locked, and every evening the golden key was unmarked and virginal on the ring Eva kept.

The long table filled with guests, and the musicians sawed diligently at fiddles and puffed into flutes. Eva, pink with kitchen heat and pleasure, received the compliments of their guests.

“Oh, my dear Madame Blaubart, pray show us around the house!” cried one of the unmarried girls. “None of us have been further than the front parlour, and we are agog to know what improvements have been made!”

Eva looked at him, and he could see no guilt in her eyes as yet. “Better my husband show you. He knows all that’s been done. I don’t trouble myself with that.”

“No, no, my dear,” Bluebeard said genially. “You are the mistress of the house and keep the keys. Display your realm.” He sat with the other gentlemen, giving the ladies time to gain the stairway, then followed, within earshot but always a corner behind the rustling, exclaiming throng of women.

Eva’s voice, clear as a thrush’s song, came to him. “These keys are to the great wardrobes, where the furniture is kept; these to the strongboxes for gold and silver plate; this the master-key to our apartments–”

“Oh, let us see your dressing-chamber,” said one, but another asked, “What is this pretty little key?” Bluebeard stood in the dim corridor, and stroked his beard.

“That is the key to my husband’s closet,” Eva said, unhesitating. “And that door I may not open. Come, I will show you the wall-hangings of silk, in my small parlour.”

“But what does he keep in his closet?” asked the second lady. “What secrets does he keep from you?”

Bluebeard craned his neck and took a step forward, unknowing.

“Well, and how could I know that,” Eva asked, the town polish fading from her accent, “when they’re his secrets?”

“But aren’t you curious?”

“No more than he’s curious how I manage my kitchen. I shouldn’t thank him to come poking and inquiring when I’m spicing a pastry or boiling preserves.”

And though he followed all through the house, Eva was not tempted to speculate. He could detect no duplicity in her answers, no dawning curiosity, only perhaps boredom, or disappointment that her guests did not share her passion for a well-fitted kitchen and well-stocked larder.

“Are you content, wife?” he asked her in their bed. He had taken her more roughly than was his practice, but she had made no more sound than she ever had after that first night. “Shall we entertain again?”

“As you please, husband.” She added, ruminating, “That piped pastry turned out a fair treat. ‘Tis a pity they’re all so pleased with the talk coming out of their mouths they don’t hardly notice the food that goes in.”

Indeed, Eva fed him well. She delighted in finding the freshest fruits and meats at the market, and soon knew every stall-owner by name. Within weeks, she learnt the scent and virtues of every spice and rare herb he dealt in, and how they were best employed. With the generous allowance he made her, she bought books on cookery and puzzled through, sounding out words. Sometimes he would hear her suddenly fluent as she disagreed with the printed text. “And pep-per till it be … e-en-og? Enough? Nay, never pepper, not with the onions, ‘twouldn’t go near so well as cumin–”

Every night, the golden key shone blameless. Eva did not chatter, neither inquiring into his affairs nor speaking of her own pursuits unless he asked. She received visitors, repaid calls, and went each day for a dutiful ride in the park if the weather was fine, but her heart was in the kitchen. A faraway look on his wife’s face meant she was planning a menu, not scheming how to evade his eye.

Bluebeard could not explain the restlessness that gripped him. He went by candle-light to the little locked door. Sometimes he opened it, and walked inside, careful of the low beams and their gleaming hooks. With his eyes closed, he could picture the limp heavy shapes of his wives, swaying with the slow weight of churchbells. The sick-sweet smell of blood was missing, and the thick stickiness of blood on the floor. He stretched out his arm in the dark space, and felt nothing, no silks stiff with the last leavings of the body, no tumbling fall of hair. His wives had all had long hair.

He became short with Eva, and that too she bore incuriously. “Leave your cookery,” he ordered. “Invite the Misses V– and Miss L– for tea,” naming here the most inquisitive of his wife’s acquaintance. The Misses V– and L– came, devoured little cakes and the reputations of their friends, but Eva cared only for their opinion of the cakes. The closet remained inviolate for all their teasing.

He played the complacent husband and thrust her into company with handsome fortune-hunters, dashing cavalry officers, and hopeful poets. She listened patiently to their compliments, boasts and sonnets, but when Bluebeard asked what they had spoken of, she answered, “Oh, he rattled on, but nothing worth attending to. Did you care for the calves’ livers, husband? I’d like to ask their cook what spices she added to the sauce.”

It is because I am present, he thought. She knows my punishment would be swift, and she does not believe herself clever enough to deceive me. But if I were not here, matters would be otherwise. So it had proven before.

He laid the foundations of his plan. From time to time he groaned, or paced, and held his hand to his head. Eva asked whether his dinner disagreed with him, and if he would not like a glass of ginger wine to settle his stomach.

“No,” he said, nettled. “My business affairs go poorly. You would not understand.”

“Likely I wouldn’t,” she said agreeably. One of the stall-owners had shown her how to crochet, and when her husband wished her company, she brought trailing yarn along and slipped the silver hook in and out through patterns.

“It may be necessary for me to leave, and see to matters myself.”

Eva nodded. “My father said the best manure for a field is the owner’s boots.” She finished a row and brought it into the whole. “I’ll make you up a hamper so you needn’t eat at inns unless you please.”

“Before I leave, we must have a house-party. I will give you a list who must be invited, to cement my position in the town.” Her incuriousness would play to his benefit. She would not question what use the husbands of notorious gossips or the fathers of inquisitive maidens would be to him. She would accept, as always. “We will entertain them for a night and a day.”

“As you wish.” Her soft mouth firmed in determination. “They shan’t go away hungry, that I promise.”

Invitations went out, provisions come in. Practiced, Eva took much into her own hands, save only the writing of invitations, which Bluebeard gave to his private secretary. Musicians and servers were engaged, menus planned and altered.

“The house must be swept, top to bottom. You may hire women to assist you,” he said, and added, “Be sure none open my private closet.” She would see that little door every day, he thought, pleasure uncoiling in his heart. How it must tease at her, to have that one only closed. How it would work on her, day after day. He watched her, feeling a smile twitch at his lips, sure the little lines between her brows came from striving not to think of key and lock. For he knew the more it was stifled, the greater desire grew.

The night before the house-party Bluebeard woke to find himself standing on bare floorboards before the little door, hands and feet chilled in the night air. Alarm jolted him, to think he had given himself away, that Eva had followed. But stairs and hallway were empty. If his somnambulism had woken her, he consoled himself, it would be but one more test she was put to, wondering what called him from his bed. When he slipped again into his bedchamber, she was there, snoring softly. To warm himself, he woke her and had use of her. She did not question his cold hands or wakefulness, only submitted as always.

The day of the house-party, Bluebeard’s secretary brought him the letter he had prepared. “I am called away suddenly,” he told Eva. “Those matters of business of which I spoke, they have gone badly awry and I must see to them. But you cannot disappoint our friends. Explain to them I will return as soon as I may, and that they should make merry, eat well, play games and divert themselves. And you also, do not be all sobriety but match their high spirits and forget your cares.”

“As you wish, husband.” As she lifted up her face for his curly-bearded kiss, the ring of keys jangled at her waist.

“Ah,” he said. “I remember I have a small gift to console you for my absence.” From a pocket he took his egg, a pretty ivory thing scarcely bigger than his thumb-joint, his oldest and surest talisman. “Carry this with you always, and keep it from harm and dirt, and I will be pleased. But let it be cracked or stained, and my wrath will be terrible.”

The first guests were arriving, so Eva only nodded and hurried to greet them.

Bluebeard crept back into the house while his wife was busy at the front door. He slipped upstairs, carrying his shoes for silence, though the clamour of the door-knocker and guests’ voices smothered any noise. Then up the narrow stairs to where the low door stood just ajar, ready for him to slip in and wait in his closet, his lair. For surely this night his wife would fail, would show herself unworthy of his trust.

Through the little gap, he followed the course of the party. They dined early, to the clinking of silverware and the watery music of a harp. Women’s exclamations shrilled over the rumble of men’s laughter. He imagined every step: the dishes removed, the port brought to the table, the younger folk crying for some sport that would allow them to steal an embrace unobserved, a child’s game turned to needs a child did not know.

“Hide and go seek!” came the call at last, and Bluebeard’s heart surged. He waited within arm’s-reach of the door, breath coming quick as a lover’s.

Feet clattered from room to room, squeals and laughs springing up to Bluebeard where he waited. He cared nothing for them. Eva was coming, his destined bride, coming to complete their pact. “My punishment will be just and terrible,” he whispered. “As I promised.”

Eva’s footstep sounded on the stairs: he could not mistake it. His hand twisted in the blue curls of his beard. The knives lay ready on the table.

“Here now,” said Bluebeard’s wife, her country accent unguarded. “How’s this door come to be ajar? Good fortune I’ve come first.”

Beside Bluebeard’s ear, the door snicked shut. Eva turned the little golden key firmly in the lock, withdrew it, and walked away. So thick were the walls he could not hear her firm footsteps departing, or any sound from the guests.

After some hours he understood that neither could they hear him. After a day he understood that kitchen knives did little harm to oak door or brick walls. Much later he understood that he had at last found an obedient wife.

Eva tucked the little egg in her bodice to free her hands for cooking. Warmed by bosom and kitchen, the egg hatched at last, revealing a damp chick, pale blue down speckled with red. She kept it in a wicker cage, and it sang cheerily while she baked and brewed.


B. Gordon works at an academic library on Vancouver Island and her long-time hobby is historic re-creation. Her short fiction has been published in Coyote Wild and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and she recently won the Rannu Fund Prize for Fiction.

 Posted by at 12:23 pm
Jan 312011
 

Sunshine and Apples
by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma

Once there was a husband and wife who were simple people, born of the soil. Their cottage smelled of fresh baked bread infused with the fragrance of rich loam and vetiver. Moss grew in the gutters, housing mice who nibbled at the cheese which the wife (a sympathetic soul) left out for them before she went to bed each night.

The couple were happy, and their needs were few. They sang as they worked, and lived from day to day, eking out a living from the land. In time the wife gave birth to a child; a lusty son who cried all night and slept all day, and who latched to the breast with jaws like clamping irons. The man became tired and blamed his wife and son, and arguments grew like weeds from one day to the next, until there was no space between them for talking or laughing.

When the son reached his seventh year, he changed. He slept all night and sang all day, and all should have been peaceful and harmonious. But his father by then had taken a lover – a woman as thin and pale as his wife was round and pink, and the lover liked the cottage and wished to live there.

So out went the wife and child, out into the cold, and they begged from door to door for a shed to lie down in, until a neighbour took pity on them and gave them a corner of his barn. There they lived, sleeping in the sweet, dusty hay, with the lowing of the cows their lullaby.

In the cottage, the lover put the cheese away at night and left the mice to starve. She made extra quilts for the marital bed, as the cold seeped into her bones and held strong there. Each night she seduced the husband with words that pricked his desire for her until it was all he could think of. Each day he rushed through his work, leaving more and more undone in his eagerness to return to his lover in the soft feathered bed where she stayed to keep warm.

When a year had passed the lover wanted a child, but her womb remained as hollow and empty as her heart. She whispered in the man’s ear that, should his son return, she would care for him as if he were her own.

Unable to refuse her anything, off the husband went, searching for his wife and child. When he found them in the barn, curled up beneath the hay, the task of persuading his son to return to the cottage was easy. Despite the wife’s tears and pleas, he left with the son, and she was alone with only the cattle to comfort her.

Triumphant, the lover fed the child with bowls of milk, and crusty bread with cheese. But the milk was cold, where he had become accustomed to the dusky heat of a cow’s body, and the cheese was hard around the edges where it sat for too long in the pantry. He missed the warmth and roundness of his mother, and the woman’s elbows poked at him like sharp sticks when she put her arm around his shoulders.

Back in the barn, the wife carded and spun wool plucked from the hedges where the sheep liked to graze. She dyed the wool with onion skins and chamomile until it was the colour of the sun and smelled of apples. And from the wool she knitted a hat for her son, imbuing each stitch with her love for him. She sewed the seam and crept to the cottage before dawn, to leave the hat beside the closed door.

In the morning the son woke with the first birds. He stretched and yawned, and stepped outside to breathe in the sharp tang of autumn air. When he saw the hat he picked it up and put it on his head. A warmth flowed through him like his mother’s embrace, and even though his father and the lover teased him, he wore the hat night and day and would not take it off.

Before long his vision became sharper than a hawk’s. He could see for miles around. Each tiny insect became finely drawn. The mice in their nests, the birds which were mere specks to his father, the stamens of the autumn flowers, were all outlined in light, and magnified.

As his vision grew keener from day to day he saw the mould on the cheese and bread the lover fed him. He saw the hungry skeleton beneath her skin and the cruel light in her eyes, and he saw his father’s need for her. The cottage smelled of sour milk and spilt dreams. And the more that he noticed, the angrier he became that his mother had been cast out to live in a barn. His words grew hard and hurled themselves like stones upon his father and the lover, lacerating them until all peace was lost.

The lover eyed the woollen hat with baleful glances, certain that it bore the mother’s curse. While the son slept, she crept into his room and stole the hat gently from his head. She boiled water in the cooking pot and placed the hat inside until it shrank to a quarter of its former size. The cottage filled with the fragrance of sunshine and apples as she dried the hat by the fire, then tiptoed in to place it on the pillow beside the sleeping boy’s head.

In the morning the boy wept to find that his hat would not fit. His father took it from him and threw it on the compost heap, then shut his son indoors until he sobbed himself to sleep.

The cool blue sky grew heavy, and dark clouds rolled overhead. Hail fell, sharp as needles on the skin, and lightning split the sky into jagged fragments. The man and his lover huddled by the fire and, when it did not warm them, they took a candle to light their way to bed.

When the man woke he could not see his lover’s pale hair upon the pillow beside him. He drew back the feathered quilt and found that she had shrunk to a quarter of her size, and now resembled a bony little goblin. Her voice was tiny and high-pitched, and grated on his ears as she raged at him. To escape he went to his son’s room, but the boy was gone. He opened the door and squinted outside into the growing darkness.

Where the hat had been cast grew a rose bush with a single yellow bloom. Its roots and branches, spiked with sharp thorns, spread in a circle around the cottage.

To the sound of his wife’s outraged squeaks, the man took his axe from the fireplace and hacked at the wood that held them prisoner. But each cut of the axe released only the fragrance of sunshine and apples, and the wood sprang more branches with each blow until the cottage could no longer be seen by any who chanced to pass.

Back in the barn, the boy leaned into the warm hay, and drank cups of sweet steaming milk, while his mother carded and spun the wool for a new hat for her son.


Lisa Tenzin-Dolma is the author of thirteen non-fiction books, a novel and a screenplay. She has been fascinated by fairy tales and mythology from an early age. To learn more visit her website at http://www.tenzindolma.co.uk.

 Posted by at 12:21 pm

Cinderlad by Robert Borski

 Issue 12 (January 2011)  Comments Off on Cinderlad by Robert Borski
Jan 312011
 

Cinderlad
or
The Ugly Stepbrother’s Revenge
by Robert Borski

Legally, despite what the papers
claim, he’s little more than a houseboy
tasked with a mountain of chores
each and every day; and even though
that morning he spends long hours
in the scullery
up to his elbows in pot water,

he still smells of char and cabbage,
has bootblack on his ears, bits
of straw in his hair, and raging lice
the size of mouse droppings.

And yet oddly enough, when
the young widowed queen, still dressed
in her ball gown of the evening past,
presents herself to the family,
seeking the owner of a left-
behind appurtenance,

and neither of the stalwart
young sons
come close to filling out the
swan-necked, gourd-shaped
device, on a whim (or perhaps
fatigue, since this is the umpteenth
household she and her retinue
have visited), the queen asks:
What about him there?

All present gasp at the ill fit:

no eel, but more like a tentacle,
and no more containable
than a whelk in a thimble.

Why, clearly, your majesty, our
lad here cannot be the one
you seek
, says the burgher’s
wife, feeling faint.

Only after they’re gone, and
the burnt rind of the codpiece
smoulders in the grate,
does she seek to ask of
her husband and sons,

So which of you princes will tend
the fire now?


Robert Borski lives, writes, and toddles toward infirmity in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

 Posted by at 12:20 pm

Frog Prince by Robert Borski

 Issue 12 (January 2011)  Comments Off on Frog Prince by Robert Borski
Jan 312011
 

Frog Prince
by Robert Borski

Perhaps he merely lacks in self-confidence.
Perhaps she will not mind the webbed toes
and jade skin. Perhaps she’s too modern
a girl to believe the old canard about the prop-
agation of warts from a single caress. Perhaps
she prefers her consorts small. To be sure,
glimpsed from his palace of mud, and even
distorted by the gleam at the pond’s lid,
she’s a pretty thing, and in his less than noble
fantasies he imagines her working her tongue
on more than a cloud of gnats. And why not?
He is, for all his tadish insecurities, bog royalty —
a prince among bulls, adept at swimming
against the current, holding his breath deep
beneath the reeds, and croaking the brightest
of arias. So why, despite the possible taint
of miscegenation, would she find him anything
other than desirable? At this late hour, he tries,
but can think of no reason. However: just in case,
at the big moment, his nerve fails, he knows there
are glands in the back of his head that can be
counted on to secrete a mad toxin that will make
even him forget he’s a frog; thus, in a matter of
seconds, self-poisoned, he will propel himself
to the surface, leap into the kiss, and imagine
himself to be six feet tall.


Robert Borski lives, writes, and toddles toward infirmity in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

 Posted by at 12:19 pm

Ambrosia and the Beast by Bruce Woods

 Issue 12 (January 2011)  Comments Off on Ambrosia and the Beast by Bruce Woods
Jan 312011
 

Ambrosia and the Beast
by Bruce Woods

Even the most well-meaning of laws can have unfortunate consequences; and few would argue the intent of legislation designed to feed the needy. In fact, the law itself was probably unnecessary; with so many hungry, throwing away food was more than illegal, it was just bad public relations. This is not to say, however, that the rule was universally popular. Every night, after the last paying customers had departed with their grease-stained packages of guilt and greed, the desperate and the simply opportunistic would gather behind closing fast food franchises, eager for the cold pucks of leftover burgers, cheese cementing them into a single texture, buns and meat indiscriminate; for French fries, shrunken into themselves like corpse fingers; and for the crystallized grit of ersatz milkshakes.

For some of the grill and counter workers at such establishments, it was the final burden in a day’s work that left them exhausted, humiliated, and carrying the stink of signature foodstuffs in their hair and on their clothes and skin. The recipients of these handouts were not grateful, for the most part; usually indifferent in their personal hygiene and bathroom habits; and occasionally (though more often in legend than fact) dangerous.

A law, however, is only as good as its details, and so, at one particular mid-western city outlet of a lackluster and struggling Burrito’n’Bun franchise, newly-promoted manager Bob Robertson (he encouraged his staff to call him Bob-two, or Bob-squared, but a nickname can seldom be conferred, and the things they called him behind his back were more likely to reflect his ill-humor or his weight), decided to see if the letter of the legislation could circumvent its intent.

The franchise owner had, at some optimistic point in the past, obtained a 30-quart commercial mixer from an online used-restaurant equipment outlet. Nicknamed “the Beast” for its hulking chrome-steeled weight as much as for the shark-jawed vegetable slicer that hung above the mixing bowl, the device had perhaps represented a dream of heavier customer volume than any of the Burrito’n’Bun stores had ever achieved, and had lurked ominously in a cluttered closet for years, slowly disappearing beneath the detritus of everyday business.

After a particularly difficult closing (which featured, among other horrors, an erstwhile recipient of leftover charity relieving his bowels both loudly and loosely in the parking lot), Bob ordered the Beast disinterred and readied for duty. The following evening, after the drive-through windows were shut and locked and the stuttering microphone on the order board clicked off, he turned to his assistant manager Su Yeung and, with an air of Trumpian command, pointed to the monstrous machine.

“Put the leftovers in there,” he said. “Mix ‘em up.”

“Everything?” she replied with a weary horror. “Even the fried pies?” Su was older than Bob, as delicate as he was gross. In her early thirties, she was the franchise’s most experienced employee, and had an immigrant’s willingness to work hard and follow orders tempered by the decency of someone who has seen real suffering rather than merely what passed for it in Bob’s world. She probably should have been promoted to manager herself, but her superiors had transferred Robertson in instead, with the casual and cautious discrimination typical of failing businesses.

“Every last scrap,” Bob said, with a fanatic’s gleam in his eye. “I think I’ll call it ‘Ambrosia.’”

There was some grumbling about the extra work, of course, but the chore was a new one, and that gave it some little appeal. How many fast-food workers does it take to assemble an industrial-scale mixer-chopper and bring it to life? The answer, of course, is all of them; confused by Bob’s barked commands of inspired leadership and guided by Su Yeung’s quiet nudges toward efficiency. Through the chopper and into the bowl went burgers and burritos, fried pies and stiffened pizza slices, fish sandwiches and fries. Poured atop them were clotted milkshakes in three flavors, milk past its expiration date, and the scrapings from the plastic condiment containers.

When Bob ordered the mixer activated, its motor initially labored against the mess; but the Beast was made for hard work, and before long the contents of the 30-quart bowl were reduced to a chunky gray slurry, brightened by the confetti of onion and relish. The last part of the job was too good to delegate. Bob himself slopped the horrid gruel into waxed-paper milkshake containers, and then he and his crew doled these out (Su Yeung excusing herself from the distasteful task by volunteering to clean the Beast), to the waiting indigent crowd.

Some actually tried to swallow the mess (only one or two finished, most of even the hungriest among them only managing a few gulps); others ranted, though with the weak and resigned anger of those who are long accustomed to losing. At the end of the night the alleyway behind the place was littered with containers and slick with spillage. Cleaning it up was far more work than serving the needy had ever been, but victory brings new strength to tired muscles, and Bob cheered his troops on with assurances that a line had been crossed, and that there would be far fewer waiting for handouts after the next night’s shift.

He was correct. Only a half dozen were there when the alley door opened again. Over the few days that followed, this handful of the truly desperate steadily diminished, but they never vanished entirely.

In virtually every time and culture, there have been tales of creatures that thrive on the leavings of humans, whether given as gift or demanded in tribute. They have been given many names, from the Lambton Worm to the Fear-Gorta to the ubiquitous brownies and boggarts, and in this Midwestern city at this particular point in history, and taking Its tribute from Bob Robertson’s own Burrito’n’Buns, there was only one.

It (gender being a matter of convenience for such creatures, and perhaps not even discernable in the way we define such things) affected the protective coloration of those It found Itself in company with: thrift-store clothing, by any evidence long unwashed; teeth few and yellow-brown; matted hair; and fingernails dirty and either curved into spatulate talons or torn-short rather than clipped. On the fourth night of the Ambrosia campaign, It stood alone when Bob swung open the back door, accepted Its cup without a word (though there was perhaps a glitter of warning sentience in Its watery blue eyes), choked the horrid slurry down, and shambled off.

Bob was furious, but he had the determination of those new to authority, and knew that a preferred nickname was as near, or as far away, as victory. He was determined to triumph.

When the following night’s slurry was mixed, he ordered it spiced up with the contents of three dozen packets of Burrito’n’Buns trademark “Bunburner” taco sauce. This turned the gray mud to an earthy burgundy, and added a sharpness to its greasy musk.

“You don’t need to do that. It’s just mean,” Su Yeung objected, her accented syllables swooping like butterflies.

Bob was not to be denied nor disobeyed.

“You can do what I say, Yeung, or maybe you’ll end up looking for a job in a ‘happy ending’ massage parlor.”

She backed down, but not without muttering, to the delight of her coworkers in range, “I bet you go there. When you leave the girls laugh. ‘Hard to find it,’ they say, ‘he just too fat.’”

The Burrito’n’Bun offered milkshakes in three sizes (Large, Mega, and Ultra). Knowing there would be only one “customer” waiting for the evening’s Ambrosia, Bob filled a Mega cup (approximately the size of a kitchen blender) with the chunky stew, and—aware that his crew was watching his every moment—carried it out the back door with pomp worthy of a sacramental chalice.

The creature was waiting, silently as always, huddled in Its rags and aromas. It took the container with two hands and raised it to the ruin of Its mouth. Bob stepped back; both to spare himself the stink and to put distance between them should the beggar become angry when the spicy brew bit.
Instead, though, It tipped the cup back, skinny neck convulsing rhythmically as it swallowed. It drained the cup without pausing, crumbled it and let it fall to the pavement, and shuffled off without uttering a sound. From within the door at Bob’s back came a collective gasp.

A glare from the manager sent the crew back to their day’s-end cleanup. Bob kicked the empty container into the darkness that had closed behind his adversary and waddled back inside, still far from a beaten man.

Where spice didn’t work, he theorized, salt might. Before the next tub of Ambrosia was whipped to its final consistency, Bob pulled a 5-pound industrial-sized tub of cooking salt from its shelf and poured until a white volcano rose in the middle of the bowl of gray slush. With a flick of its switch, the Beast ground mightily against this new opponent, and in seconds the mixture showed no sign of its recent violation.

Bob glared at his assembled staffers as if daring one of them to express any reservations about the cruelty of this ploy or, worse yet, doubts about its success. Su Yeung pointedly showed him her back, deliberately busying herself with wiping down counters. He slopped the brew (which, as its level dropped, could be seen to have scoured the inside of the Beast’s stainless steel mixing bowl to a raw shininess) into a Mega cup, large enough to serve as a waste basket in a seldom used room.

When he toed open the back door, he initially thought (with a mixture of triumph and disappointment) that the constant mendicant wasn’t there. In moments, though, Bob’s eyes accustomed themselves to the gathering dark, and he was able to see his nemesis, leaning against the Dumpster like something carelessly discarded there. It stood as the manager faced It, and held out Its hands, with all of the humbleness of a monarch accepting tribute.

Bob handed the Mega cup over, barely able to conceal his anticipation. His excitement was short lived, however, and he stared with something akin to horror as the offering was received, lifted to lips, and once again drained in a single, breath-defying series of swallows. Dropping the cup (its hollow, empty rattle against the parking lot underlining the enormity of the consumption), the creature met Bob’s eyes with Its own before once again slouching into the surrounding night. The manager shuddered despite himself at that contact, and at the hint of rising enmity he perceived in that brief glance.

And then, behind him, from the open doorway and the windows looking out upon the scene of his defeat, his crew began to applaud.

Bob picked up the discarded cup, crumpled it in his hands, and flung it at their noise. It fell short of the building, adding to his humiliation, and he kicked it aside as he stumbled in, stiff-legged with anger.

“You make sure they finish up here, Yeung,” He spoke directly to his assistant manager, but his staff quailed collectively at his voice, full of the terrible threat of a weak man wielding small authority. “And make sure they’re all here on time for once. Tomorrow is going to be a big day.”

Su Yeung nodded, used to his tirades, and set the crew to work, her voice sharp despite her cooing, vowel-rich accent. They were silent and busy as Bob left, locking the door behind him.

In testimony to their fear (or Yeung’s powers of motivation) everyone was already in place when the manager arrived in the morning. He was unaccountably cheery, too, and maintained his façade of bonhomie through the evening rush. There was a sense of imminent catastrophe surrounding his joviality, so rare at the best of times and unlikelier still given the prior evening’s defeat, which grated on Su’s nerves and caused her to be unusually hard on the others as the day wound down.

Acting out of habit, now, they loaded the leftovers into the Beast and whipped them together. When this was done, everyone lingered in place, waiting. It was Su Yeung who finally broke the silence.

“You want something else in it tonight, Bob?” She asked.

He smiled, crossing his arms and rubbing his hands over his meaty biceps.

“Naw,” he said. “Good job you guys. Why don’t you all bail a little early? I can take it from here.

Su hesitated, perhaps sensing the coming disaster and its risks to human life and job security.

“You sure, Bob? I don’t mind staying to help.”

“I got this,” he answered. “I totally got this. You’ll find out all about it in the morning.”

They left, of course, for the most part hurriedly before he could change his mind. Only Yeung hesitated at the door before deciding that repeating her question might constitute insubordination.

When he was sure they were gone, Bob went back to the storage closet that had once been home to the Beast and, after an eager shuffle through the contents of its shelves, uncovered the ingredient he’d been looking for.

He poured the entire bottle of drain cleaner into the mixer’s bowl. Threw the switch, and stepped back involuntarily as the combination began to foam and sputter, burping out fumes that burned the nostril and watered the eye. When it had settled enough to allow him to move closer, Bob pulled the mixing bowl from the Beast’s turntable and, using three fingers of one hand to turn the knob and his knee to pry the door open, carried the burden into the darkness of the back alley.

He set the offering down and backed away. Sure enough, within seconds a shamble separated Itself from the mottled darkness and moved toward the offering, picking the ungainly container up easily. Bob watched, holding in an explosive mixture of horror and glee, as his enemy lifted the thing to Its mouth, prepared to sip, and stopped, letting the full bowl drop with a muted, heavy, slopping clang.

“Yes!” Bob whispered, and then continued, louder. “Yes! I win. You lose! Maybe you want to try the chicken place two blocks down, huh?”

He turned, prepared to seal his triumph with arrogance. Bob was briefly aware of something happening behind him, of space changing to accommodate a different and far larger shape. He felt the claws on his shoulder and looked back. He was fortunate enough to faint before he felt the teeth.

When Su Yeung showed up the following morning (reliably twenty minutes early), she found the place scrubbed clean from top to bottom. Every worn Formica counter glistened; the long-blackened grill gleamed. Even the Beast sat proudly in the center of the kitchen; bowl and blades buffed to pristine cleanliness.

At first she assumed that it was Bob’s work; some late night celebration of victory or washing away of defeat. He hadn’t shown up by the time the rest of the crew arrived, however. By the end of the day she considered it her duty to call the district supervisor for instructions. He, with little time for such trivialities, wearily promoted her to manager.

She informed the crew immediately, taking off her apron as she did so (and showing a flair for appropriate drama).

“First job,” she said, letting them follow her dark eyes to the Beast, “is put that thing away.”

As they set to work, Su slipped out the back door. The alleyway behind the franchise was as spotless as it was inside. She was characteristically thorough, though, and eventually found what she was looking for. It had dried and shrunk in the day’s air, its former plump, wet redness reduced to a shriveled brown thing the size of a mango, but she knew what it was. Su Yeung considered the alternatives, and finally, after glancing around to make sure she was alone, wrapped the heart in her discarded apron and tossed it unceremoniously into the dumper.

“Poor Bob-two,” she muttered, all the prayer that he would get. “At least you finally found something It wouldn’t eat.”

That night the day’s remainders were distributed as before. There was only one beneficiary waiting, but the numbers grew steadily and, by the end of the week, like any ecosystem returning to balance, had reached the precise level needed to efficiently consume every leftover Burrito’n’Bun had to offer.


Bruce Woods is a professional writer/editor with more than 30 years in magazine publishing, having worked as editor of Mother Earth News and Alaska Magazine, among others, and having published both nonfiction and poetry books. Prairie Schooner magazine featured his work in its “Writing from Alaska” issue. His Birdhouse Book, brought out by Sterling/Lark, is still in print and has sold more than 100,000 copies.

 Posted by at 12:18 pm

Mrs. Mud’s brush with Death by Troy Morash

 Issue 12 (January 2011)  Comments Off on Mrs. Mud’s brush with Death by Troy Morash
Jan 312011
 

Mrs. Mud’s brush with Death
by Troy Morash

One day while the sun was beaming with all its might, Mrs. Mud was in her beloved kitchen peeling apples for an apple pie.

After finishing she decided to taste one and because she had such a big mouth she threw it in whole. Naturally after a few seconds she began choking. From the next room her husband could hear the horrible noises she was making and ran into the kitchen. ‘What is it my dear,’ her husband asked. ‘What is wrong my angel?’

Mrs. Mud, always one to speak her mind, was speechless. Her face turned red and bulged beyond twice its prescribed dimensions. Instead she started waving her hands about, stamping her feet and thrashing her eyes about in their sockets. But her husband only had a grade ten education and didn’t understand. This of course made Mrs. Mud very angry but before she could hit her husband over the head, she fell to the floor dead, thoroughly, from head to foot.

It took Mr. Mud a couple minutes to realize what had happened as his beloved wife had never died before. He gently laid her on the table and started to pray to God.

Meanwhile, as there was a war being fought on Earth at that time, Mrs. Mud was made to wait in a very long line-up before the Gates of Heaven. It did not take long for the old woman to lose her patience.

‘What is taking so long!’ she shouted. ‘It’s inhumane to make people wait like this.’

Before long the waiting grew unbearable and she butted her way to the front of the line until she was before Saint Peter.

‘My child are you ready to go to Heaven?’ asked Saint Peter, opening his book to page 84,769,487,376 to look up Mrs. Mud’s doings on Earth.

‘To Heaven? Of course I am. I can always make the apple pie another day.’

‘Apple pie?’ inquired Saint Peter with a serene smile. ‘I am afraid that when you enter Heaven it is forever. You will not be able to make the apple pie.’

‘Oh well, I will just have to make my apple pie in Heaven.’

‘Impossible. There are no apples in Heaven.’

‘What! No apples! In that case I will just run back to Earth and get some. You wait here,’ she said to Saint Peter. And she ran back for a bag of apples.

Before long she returned with a bag of apples.

‘Now I’m ready. I can’t wait to try this pie, I’ve heard it goes well with milk.’

‘But there is no milk in Heaven my child,’ exclaimed Saint Peter.

Mrs. Mud’s eyes bulged, ‘My God! How awful! Then I will just go back and fetch my cow. I will absolutely die if I don’t get my fresh glass of milk first thing in the morning.’

‘But,’ began Saint Peter.

But Mrs. Mud’s budding spirit was off like a tornado. She returned to Earth, nabbed her cow and was back in a flash.

When Mr. Mud saw that his cow had died he became all the more fervent and prayed even harder.

Once she had returned Saint Peter calmly said, ‘You will not need your cow or your milk my child.’

Mrs. Mud stared at the Saint, her eyes glistening with indignation. ‘Now just you listen here young man, I will be the judge of what I need and don’t need. How dare you tell me what I need and don’t need for the rest of eternity. Who do you think you are anyway, God?’

Saint Peter was surprised. He had never encountered such a soul at the front gates before. ‘Of course not,’ he muttered.

‘So you can’t possibly know what I need or don’t need, now can you?’

Saint Peter bowed, ‘So now you are ready?’

‘Yes, and let’s get a hurry on, I haven’t had breakfast yet and it’s making me moody.’

‘In Heaven we have no need for breakfasts or any other food for that matter,’ said Saint Peter.

‘No breakfast! Only fools skip breakfast. You mean you don’t even have eggs?’

‘No, my child.’

Mrs. Mud laughed sarcastically, ‘You must live like starving animals up here. Well it makes no difference to me; all I know is that if I don’t get my three eggs into me by eight o’clock in the morning, I am an absolute fright. If you don’t believe me just go and ask my old man. Wait right here and I will go and get my chickens.’

Then she stopped and looked at the Saint through narrow, biting eyes, ‘You know it’s a sin to have to make an old woman do everything.’

So Mrs. Mud returned to Earth and took her chickens. (When Mr. Mud saw that all his chickens were dead he became all the more determined. ‘This calls for some serious praying!’ And he got down on his knees and prayed so hard that his organs started to sweat.)

‘There,’ said Mrs. Mud, ‘I’ve taken all my chickens so there will be plenty of eggs in Heaven and I don’t mind sharing a few with you, even though you have been quite nasty to me.’

Saint Peter stared at her in amazement. ‘My child with so many things you will not fit through the Gate.’

Mrs. Mud was horrified, ‘What? Well I have never been more offended in my entire life! Are you implying that I’m fat! How dare you,’ she shrieked. ‘I admit I have put on a few pounds but that’s because I’ve been ill recently and had to lay down every half hour. But I’m hardly fat. Anyway it’s hardly any of your business. I will just take up knitting and I will be thin again in no time.’

‘Knitting?’

‘My God, don’t you people know anything? Knitting, you know, making sweaters and scarves from wool for the winter time.’

‘We have no wool in Heaven.’

‘No wool! But you must have sheep!’

Saint Peter shook his head.

‘What! You have no wool? What do you wear than?’

‘We have no need for clothes in Heaven.’

‘What! Why you dirty old man. Why I have never heard of anything more vulgar in my entire life. You must live like barbarians here; walking around naked, it is indecent not to mention bad for one’s health, you can catch a dreadful cold.’

‘In Heaven there is no need for clothing. There is no cold so you will not need any either.’

Mrs. Mud slapped Saint Peter across the face.

‘How dare you suggest that I walk about like a cheap hussy! I have never been so insulted in my entire life. If you don’t start acting like a gentleman and start treating me like a lady, I will tell on you.’

Saint Peter to be sure was shocked. It had been a couple thousand years since a woman had last slapped him. ‘My child–’

‘Don’t you “my child” me. You should be ashamed of yourself: walking around without clothes, skipping breakfast and trying to refuse a poor old woman her humble glass of milk. What kind of place is this?’

Saint Peter tried to grab a hold of Mrs. Mud and push her through the Gates of Heaven. She screamed with all her might, so loud that even her husband back on Earth heard her.

At that moment an angel appeared at the front gates and asked what all the commotion was about.

‘This woman,’ said Saint Peter, ‘is refusing to enter Heaven.’

‘Why you liar!’ cried Mrs. Mud. ‘I never said anything of the sort. This pervert is asking me to undress. Decent women do nothing of the sort. I will enter Heaven only once I have gone back and fetched my sheep.’

‘Madame, please,’ pleaded Saint Peter, ‘there is no need for such language.’

‘You see what I mean? He thinks he is the boss of me,’ shouted Mrs. Mud indignantly. ‘Just let me fetch my sheep.’

‘There will be no need,’ said the angel.

This next part happened without words…

Suddenly Mrs. Mud was alive again, and so were the cow and the chickens. Mr. Mud was overjoyed and over dinner went on about how hard he had been praying. He was certain that it had been all his praying that brought his dear buttercup back to life. ‘It was my prayers and my love for you that brought you back,’ he said.

‘My dear you can be so simple sometimes, it had nothing to do with prayers or love. It was I that brought myself back. It’s easy if you know how to reason with them.’


Troy Morash comes from Canada but has lived and traveled all over the world. He has lived in Romania, Russia and Ukraine where he taught English. His stories have appeared in journals and magazines, including Fables, The Summerset Review, Monkey Bicycle, Eclectica, Bewildering Stories, The Glut, Ken*Again, Yesteryear, Everyday Weirdness and others. He has also translated fables and fairy tales from Chechnya and Romania.
http://troymorash.blogspot.com

 Posted by at 12:17 pm
Jan 312011
 

On Marble Threshing Floors
by Christine Lucas

“. . . and then I saw a barefoot man in splendid garments,
bejeweled like a grouse, lightning in his gaze.
He challenges me to a fight on marble threshing floors,
and whoever wins takes the other’s soul.”

– The death of Digenis Acritas, Byzantine folk song.

The Antioch region, circa 990 AD.

The boy’s hair smelled of fire. He couldn’t be more than twelve years old, the sole survivor of a bandit raid in a nearby farm. Maximu’s hands twisted the hem of her apron so hard her knuckles hurt. Two women wrestled inside her: the Mother and the Amazon, both urging her to hug the boy. The Mother longed to comfort him in her bosom, the Amazon to smell the blood and fire still lingering around him.

Neither woman won. She placed a cup of water on the table in front of the boy, and he emptied it with large gulps. “Do you have a name, boy?”

“It’s Basil, lady.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Wide-eyed, thin as a twig, his skin and clothes stained by mud and smoke, Basil sat at the edge of the chair, as if ready to dart out at the first suspicion of danger.

“Are you certain no one else survived?” Maximu crossed the room to the hearth, where her son Petros sat. The apelates had grown clumsy in recent years. In her youth, they’d never let a farm boy escape with his life. She wouldn’t. Her fingers tingled, missing the hilt of her sword. She looked away to hide the ghosts of her past life. The choice had been made decades ago.

“How many were there?” asked Petros. He sat with his back straight, whetting his sword.

For a fleeting second, her heart clenched. He had grown too tall for his late father’s shirt. She leaned over the hearth to hide her grimace. Taking arms against the apelates: the honorable, brave–foolish–thing to do. But what chance did a farmer, the son of a farmer, stand against their swords and lances, against their greed and battle-lust? The Fates had not graced her with female offspring to carry her arms. Her boy, blessed be his thick head and big heart, had taken after his father.

Basil looked down, his face pale under the muck. “No more than twelve, but I’m not sure. I–I hid in the barn. I barely got out of there alive when they set it on fire.”

Maximu busied herself over the kettle, her knuckles white around the ladle’s handle. There hadn’t been any raids in this region recently, but she had known it wouldn’t last. The emperor’s focus had turned to the North, to the Bulgarians. The bandits of the Orontes valley were the least of his concerns, and the Antioch Guard had lost much strength. She served her son and the starving boy each a steaming bowl of vegetable soup, along with large chunks of yesterday’s bread. The boy wolfed it down.

She watched him eat, while her son picked at his supper, his brow furrowed. The farm Basil had fled from was just one day’s ride west. If the bandits followed the waters of the Orontes, the river would lead them to her home and family. After her nearly fatal injury, she had retired from combat–or so she thought. And now the enemy closed in on them.

Petros pushed his bowl away. “Did they have horses?”

He didn’t even glance at her, but she knew his thoughts: is there time to flee?

Basil shook his head, his mouth stuffed with bread. When he finally swallowed, he said, “Just a couple, as far as I know.” He kept his gaze downwards. “But–but I didn’t take a good look. I ran away as fast as I could.”

Perhaps we should run too.

Under the table, she clenched her fists until her nails cut into her palms. Flee? Only injury had kept her away from battle. Her shield remained unbroken and her honor unblemished.

She raised her head, her blood racing. “Take Basil to the stable, son, and find him a warm spot to rest. Then check on your wife–my grandchild seems determined to arrive early. Then we’ll talk.”

Once alone, Maximu cleared the table, tossed the leftovers in a bucket for the pigs and sat by the hearth, the weight of her forty-seven winters double on her shoulders. Despite what some folktales claimed, she had not died defending the Iron Bridge of the Orontes river, during the siege of Antioch. Nor had she fallen to the blade of their hero frontiersman, the infamous Digenis Acritas, yielding to him her weapons and her virtue.

She rubbed rough skin over the old wound. It had never truly healed, the scar a merciless reminder of that one arrow and the well-placed hit over her collar bone. Had Theodore not found her, she would have bled out in a ditch. He had taken her in, nursed her back to health; and he had loved her in his own, simple way, despite her fiery temperament. By the time she could once again wield a sword, she was already with child.

So she stayed there, in that lowly cottage and the two-room household, her days feeding chickens and pigs, her nights in the arms not of a hero but a common farmer. Each dawn brought guilt, each dusk remorse, her life caught between love and honor. Amazons lived by the sword and died by the sword, under the shield of the Old Ways and not by the blessings of a younger God.

Maximu turned her gaze to the fire, hoping its heat would dry any tear that dared to flow. Theodore’s death still hurt more than any battle wound. The Fates had not graced him with honorable death in combat. He had withered away in a long, delirious fever five winters ago. Dread gripped her heart. Was she destined to perish that way too? Old and feeble, soaked in sweat and urine, her family strangers to her burning mind?

No.

She marched across the room to her bridal chest, under the bed she had shared with her husband; the bed he had died on.

I am Maximu, the Amazon. I will not await Death in a housewife’s apron. When he comes, I’ll meet him in full armor.

She knelt by the chest. Her knees hurt, the years of fieldwork claiming their toll on her bones and joints. She popped the lid open. This bridal chest held no fine embroidery, neither laces nor veils. She took out the reins of fine, polished leather. Her faithful black mare had long died, but she kept them along with her armor, a warm memory of a trusted friend. One by one, she took them all out: her cuirass, her helmet, her scimitar and the xipharion, the tip of her lance. The handle had broken years ago, but she could easily find another. Lastly, she took out her small, round shield and held it up to the light.

Who was this stranger reflected in the shiny metal? Her fingers traced her cheek and nose. The stranger did the same. That was her face–her wrinkles, her graying hair, her tired eyes. Where had her beauty gone, the face that had enamored bandits and frontiersmen, Christians and Saracens? She looked away, her sword arm shaking, her shield arm numb. From every corner of the room, her years laughed at her.

What are you planning, silly crone? Stick to your pots and chickens. Your time has passed. Haven’t you heard how the folk songs go? They sing of how the hero Digenis broke your lance and plucked your virginity. You are dead. So stay dead!

Her shoulders slumped. She almost put the shield away, back into the chest, where it should stay until the end of her days. Then the shadows of the room danced, a whiff of honeysuckle brushed against her face and her weapons spoke with the voices of her fallen kin.

Queen Myrine, blessed be her name, conquered Libya and Gorgon. Penthesilia, blessed be her blood, took arms against Achilles, the greatest of heroes. Will you not stand in their midst? They await you in the Fields of Asphodel, beyond the black waters of Acheron.

Shame burned her face. She clutched the shield to her breast, then propped it against the chest, her hands gentle as if handling a baby. She removed her clothes and tossed her apron into the fire. She donned her old breeches, watching the apron burn. Her fingers tingled, eager to close around the hilt.

She put on her bridal tunica and girded it up to her knees with a thin belt, the white linen soft against her skin. The vamvakion, the leather undergarment worn under the armor, gave her some trouble, now rather narrow around her chest. Her breasts were larger, having fed three children. The breeches wouldn’t button at the waist, her hips and stomach no longer a maiden’s.

She sat on the bed to put her boots on, when the front door opened wide. Her son stood on the threshold, his face pale, his eyes wild. Behind him stood his wife, Helene, supporting her back with one hand, the other protectively over her belly.

“Mother, no!” He stormed into the room and towered over her. “Don’t be foolish! You haven’t handled a sword since long before I was born.” He knelt before her, his trembling hand cupping her right knee. “Even if we wait until dawn, we’ll reach Antioch before noon. Helene’s family will give us shelter. Please, put this ridiculous idea out of your head.”

“You want me to flee?” Her mouth twisted. “Flee from dogs?” She laced her right boot and put on her left, cursing in silence her swollen feet and tight leather.

“Mother, please! Listen to m–”

“No! You will listen to me. Let the boy rest while you gather whatever you wish to salvage. Then take Helene and Basil, go to town, and alert the Guard. I’ll stall the apelates as long as I can.”

“But they’ll ki–”

“A tigress does not cower before a pack of mangy dogs.” She raised her head, released her hair and picked up her comb.

“But–”

Helene walked to her husband and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Leave her. Let her do what she must.” Cold fire burned upon her face, the yearning for a path not taken.

Maximu smiled. The Fates had denied her a female child, but had graced her with a daughter-in-law of the same mind and blood. Her youngest son would be in good hands. She braided her hair in the Amazon fashion, so it wouldn’t hinder her vision or let her opponent grab it in close combat, and stood, stifling a curse. Damned boots were too tight. She put on her cuirass, its weight both burden and release.

Petros stood too. He wouldn’t meet her gaze. She hugged him, the cold iron of her armor between breast and son mocking her last motherly gesture. He didn’t hug her back. He turned and left, his step faltering across the doorstep.

Helene hugged her. “I’ll take care of him,” she whispered in Maximu’s ear.

“I know you will.” Maximu touched the girl’s belly. “Speak well of me.”

Helene smiled. “I’ll name her after you.”

I will not weep. I won’t. Maximu looked away. “Take the donkey. I’ll take the mule. And hurry.”

“We will.” Helene turned and hurried after her husband. Just over the doorstep, she glanced over her shoulder. “May the Virgin steel your sword arm, Maximu . . . Mother.”

At dawn, Maximu reached the banks of the Orontes and took the road west. If the Fates favored her, she’d reach the bridge before the bandits did. If they were indeed heading this way, that was the only safe spot to cross the river. The next pass was over the Iron Bridge, too close to Antioch and the Guard.

She shifted in the saddle; the insides of her thighs were sore, her back ached. Her body had not carried the weight of armor in years. The breastplate crushed her chest and chafed the soft flesh around her armpits. The leather gloves hurt her hands, where the cooking oil had left the skin raw. She clutched the reins tighter. She hadn’t had time to find a proper pole for her lance tip, but the broom handle fit well. It would have to do.

A dog howled nearby. In the distance, a rooster called the sun to rise. Perched on pines and acacias, sparrows and robins gossiped. White patches of chamomile flowers lined the path, and the morning air was crisp and cool against her face. All around her, the signs of a land pregnant with spring mocked her death march.

You envied the hero’s death, silly crone? Digenis fought Death himself on marble threshing floors. And you go to battle riding a mangy mule, armed with a broom? You should have brought your pots and pans along too.

Maximu grunted. Digenis: once her foe, then her ally, a brother in arms in the service of Emperor Nikephoros II. Yes, she had envied his death, the tale of utmost bravery that unfolded in the lines of the folksongs. Death had ambushed Digenis and used a poisoned arrow, according to some versions. Others sang of an epic fight on marble threshing floors, a fight reminiscent of Death’s wrestling with Heracles, another favorite hero of the common folk. But Maximu had heard a different tale from an Arab trader. Digenis had fallen victim to the sweating fever, like her late husband.

She wouldn’t.

When the stone bridge came into view, the sun was still low over the horizon. This bridge was narrow–only one man on horseback could cross it at a time, or two on foot marching abreast. Here she’d make her stand.

Maximu watered her mule and let it graze while she splashed water over her face, its chill welcome against the fire raging within. She paced the length of the bridge a few times, to stretch her limbs, and practiced her sword. More than once it slipped through her fingers, but she did not give up. Her body had to remember her old trade. The bandits would not cross. Metal clanked somewhere ahead. Maximu sheathed her sword and mounted the mule. With lance and shield, she awaited her opponents mid-bridge.

They came from the turn of the road like a pack of wolves, some scarred, some injured. She counted twelve of them. Dirty, ragged, wearing mismatched armor, the bandits wielded an assortment of weapons: Saracen scimitars, Byzantine spathia, the heavy double-edged swords, clubs and short spears. Three were on horseback, the rest on foot. No bows, as far as Maximu saw, breathing easier. Archery required more discipline and talent than that rabble possessed.

Twelve wolflings and one great wolf–their leader came last, riding a pale horse, dressed in a black tunica–no armor. When the first bandit noticed her, his ratty face twisted in shock. Then he pointed and laughed.

Her grip around the lance tightened. She raised her chin, staring down each man in turn. When she spoke, she managed to keep her voice steady.

“Turn back! You have slaughtered and looted enough in these parts.”

More snickering and sneering. At the back, the bandit leader leaned forward on the saddle, not sharing his men’s mirth.

A tall, bulky bandit with a half-healed scar from left ear to chin advanced, hefting his barbed club. “A woman’s voice! Are you crazy, bitch?” He groped his crotch. “Come mount this!” He chuckled, and his comrades cheered.

“I am Maximu, the Amazon.” She pointed her lance at him. “If you value your pathetic life, flee now.”

He opened his mouth to speak, exposing black teeth, but closed it back without one word. Lowering his club, he glanced over his shoulder at his mates and leader. Murmurs rose among the others. Finally, he managed to speak again, his voice slightly faltering this time.

“Maximu? You can’t be her. She’s been dead for years.”

“Set one foot on the bridge and see if I’m dead.”

“I won’t fight a woman.” He spat on the ground. “And a crone at that. Go back to your chickens.”

She raised her chin. “Greater men have crossed swords with me, scum. Turn back!”

“And if I won’t?” He took one tentative step forward.

She spurred her mule. It whinnied, unsure what was required of it. Its nostrils flared, the smell of anger, blood and infected wounds too close for comfort. She spurred it again. Come on!

Nothing.

The scarred bandit advanced with his club high, a wicked grin over his dirty beard. The mule surged forward at the third spur. Maximu lowered her lance, the tip aiming at his ugly face, and braced her back for the impact. She pierced him through his open mouth, cutting his cry short, reducing it to gurgling. The mule reared and she leaned forward, loosing the reins. The bandit blinked, then collapsed. She clenched her jaw and pulled her lance free. Broken teeth and a piece of his tongue scattered beside him.

The mule reared again, and she raised her shield high. “Turn back, or die!”

The bandits exchanged glances, some lowering their weapons, some turning to their leader. He sat still, a thin smile on his pale face, his dark eyes unreadable. He spoke, but Maximu couldn’t hear his soft words over the roar of the Orontes. Still, the breeze carried fragments of his voice over the water, and her heart stirred.

I know him.

Two more bandits advanced. She cleared her mind. One of them brandished a longsword. The other had a scimitar and wore a spiked Saracen helmet. She grinned, more confident now. Her body had remembered. The first man evaded her lance and lunged at her, to pull her down. She kicked his chin and sent him flat on his back. The other raised the longsword with both hands, with the finesse of an anvil. He charged at her, exposing his torso. The lance pierced his stomach, through his leather armor. The sword fell from his hands and he collapsed, clutching the handle, blood spurting out from his mouth.

Maximu struggled to pull the lance free, but the tip stuck in the torn leather armor and dislodged from the broom handle, sheathed in the slain bandit’s gut. She cursed through clenched teeth. The other bandit had recovered from her kick and reached out to her again. The mule reared, and she hit the bandit with the handle with all her strength. The impact of wood against the steel helmet numbed her arm up to her shoulder, but the blow sent the bandit over the railing. She tossed the useless stick into the river and unsheathed her sword.

“Who’s next?”

The haughty edge of her voice quickened her pulse. Her back ached, her muscles throbbed, the gloves cut into her skin, but it felt good. It felt right. Her daily chores back at the farm, the easy, comfortable routine of a sheltered life grew distant in her mind, fragments of dreams forgotten at dawn. She raised her sword.

“Turn back, then! Or die like the dogs you are!”

The leader signaled to a young, barefoot lad, and one of the others, a short, stocky man wielding a club, his left thigh bandaged.

She snorted. Boys and cripples? So be it. If they won’t stand down, they’ll be cut down.

The injured man advanced, while the lad climbed on a boulder close to their leader. Suspicion tingled the edge of her consciousness; something was wrong. But the bandit charged with a cry, reaching for the reins. The mule reared in panic. She leaned forward and squeezed her thighs to remain on the saddle. Something hissed through the air, followed by blinding pain on her forehead. Her grip loosened, and she fell, the impact pushing the air out of her lungs.

A sling. Damned boy has a sling.

She shook her head to clear her vision, the mule’s frantic gallop fading away. Blood trickled into her right eye. She pushed herself up on her knees, but her years betrayed her, the weight of her armor slowing her reflexes. The bandit was faster. The blow against her helmet knocked her back down, her head throbbing. Half-blind from the pain, her fingers searched the ground until they closed around the hilt of her sword. When the bandit raised his club for the killing blow, she thrust the blade upwards into his exposed gut, just below his belt. He grunted, and she rolled over just in time to avoid his dead weight.

Panting, Maximu managed to kneel, sword still in hand. Her shield lay a few paces away. She wiped the blood from her face and glanced ahead. The bandits closed in on her, and she forced herself to stand. Her knees failed to support her; she reached for the railing. Another rock hissed through the air and hit her right leg, just above the knee. Grunting, she fell back down on all fours. When she managed to raise her head, she saw that the bandits had stopped their advance, parting for their leader to pass through.

I know him.

Had she met him in the market a week ago? Clad in black, barefoot, he stepped on the bridge and the air around him rippled. The birds fell silent, the breeze ceased, the roar of the river muffled in his passing. He wielded a sword like hers, and raised it enough to scrape the bridge’s railing with its tip, the screeching sound piercing her ears.

The bridge vanished, and blinding white marble spread around her. She blinked, and the bridge came back, the bandit leader closer now. Those dark eyes, that black beard, trimmed in the noblemen’s fashion, those thin lips. . . He had come to buy eggs and cheese from her, hadn’t he? Asking about her farm, and the farms around the Orontes?

I know him.

He flashed yellow teeth at her. Terror gripped her gut and she shut her eyes, her free hand clutching the dirt. More blood dripped in her eyes, her throbbing head and her years claiming their toll.

She blinked confusion and terror away. When her eyes focused, the bridge had vanished for good. She blinked again and raised her head. She was kneeling in the center of a white marble circle, the breeze cool against her face. Outside the circle, a thin mist covered everything, the outlines of trees hazy in the distance, amidst swirling, whispering shadows.

On marble threshing floors.

She glanced up at the black-clad man, his eyes too dark, his grin too wide to be human.

“Do you yield?” he asked.

“No.” The weight of her armor no longer burdened her, her muscles didn’t ache. She sprang to her feet.

“I expected nothing less, Amazon.”

For half a heartbeat, she closed her eyes, pacing backwards. Santa Penthesilia, steel my shield arm. Santa Myrine, guide my sword.

Across the marble threshing floors, Death awaited.

Maximu raised her sword.


Christine Lucas‘s work has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Murky Depths, Aoife’s Kiss and the Aether Age (forthcoming) and Footprints anthologies from Hadley Rille Books, among other magazines. Her short story “Dominion” is included in Ellen Datlow’s anthology “Tails of Wonder and Imagination”.

(For more information on the Byzantine folk song referenced at the beginning of this story, read Athena Andreadis’ A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards, published in the first issue of Stone Telling, a new webzine of diverse, speculative poetry edited by Rose Lemberg.)

 Posted by at 12:16 pm
Jan 312011
 

Though the Moon Be Still as Bright
by Athena Andreadis

The island was beautiful but stark. What it had been given in loveliness it lacked in means of livelihood. It could only sustain scraggly vines, fava beans, the occasional goat. Even the wells were few. So the islanders ventured onto the beguiling, the unpredictable sea…

Unlike the mainlanders, the islanders counted many women among their seafarers. In fact, they encouraged bondmates to be together on voyages. They felt that long separations were too bitter, and that companions back-to-back were a boon during gales or becalmings. It was best, too, for the young people to see something of the wide world, before cold and lack of nourishing food crippled them and confined them to the land. Those left in the hearths took care of the young and transmitted their wisdom in long tales when storms besieged the ports or when they were seagazing, waiting for returning sails to rise on the horizon.

One spring, when the islanders were repairing and readying the ships for launching, a young mainlander came to the island, a representative of a powerful coalition that was slowly extending its influence over the archipelago. He had been sent to broach the idea of a federation. The islanders, however, having lived so long on bare rock, preferred frugal independence to pampered servitude. But the youth himself was honest, enthusiastic and winsome and so a welcome guest in many hearths.

Soon he started to frequent one hearth that was nurturing a young woman who promised to become an outstanding navigator. Her people were reluctant to encourage the courtship, but the maid, too, had caught fire and would not be gainsaid.

For a brief time, all was as honeyed almonds. Then word came recalling him from his fruitless task and he naturally assumed she would accompany him. But customs in the mainland were different. Women did not go on ships — and she could not imagine her life landlocked. He explained, first tenderly, then with growing irritation, that her dreams had to stop sailing and grow roots. He pointed out that management of his large household would suit her temperament and abilities admirably. She, hearing in his voice tones that were new to her, refused to go. And so, in anger, he departed.

To stave off brooding over her loss, the maid embarked with the first ship to leave, although it was too early in the spring and the winds still treacherous. A moon after her departure, the youth returned, consumed with longing for her. Her hearth took him in and he now eagerly awaited her return, often joining the rest in their seagazing.

High summer came and her ship had not returned. Only fragmented rumors started gathering, of a wreck, of a crew found swaying among seaweed and black coral. Finally, a few survivors, found clinging on spars and oars, told how their navigator, though gifted, did not steer them clear of looming shoals in time…

When the news was confirmed, he initially said nothing. Then he squared his shoulders and stated that he, at least, would never believe she was lost, and that he would go down to the coast and wait for her as long as necessary.

He kept himself separate from the others, since in his land shows of grief were not considered seemly. The islanders, respecting his sorrow, stayed away. Winter herded the ships to harbor and they seagazed no more — whoever had not returned was safe in another port or in the arms of the sea. But he would not take shelter or sustenance. He remained facing north, looking at the sea hurling itself against the rocks, and the salty mist dried on his cheeks. They took to leaving food on the stone against which he was leaning, but they gradually realized that it was touched only by the wind.

Finally, the maid’s mother, controlling her own grief and invoking the privilege of kinship, went down to claim him and comfort him. When she touched his shoulder, she discovered he had turned to stone.

And there he remained, forever seagazing. The islanders kept the custom of leaving small offerings — wild flowers, wax candles, seashells. The pelagic gales eroded the fragile nose and carved runnels on the face. But no matter how hard they blew, they could never extinguish the yearning in the eyes and the lines around the mouth, which kept bravely smiling.


Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. Her work can be found in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Science in My Fiction, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless.

 Posted by at 12:15 pm

Demeter Opens her Spicebox

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Jan 102011
 

What does Demeter have in her box of spices? Is it the cardamom that fills our mouths with a tiny explosion of fragrance? Could it be star anise, or saffron, or thyme? We think she’ll have a little of everything in that box, but at the moment, it is empty! Every author is a “repository of abundance” and it is from that abundance that Demeter’s Spicebox hopes to draw. Think of these as fusion fairy tales, tales written in the spirit of collaboration, familiar tales given a new taste by a new chef.

Cabinet des Fées is pleased to announce the opening of Demeter’s Spicebox, with its own guidelines and a call for submissions for our inaugural issue.

Please be aware that Demeter’s Spicebox (DS) is entirely separate from Scheherezade’s Bequest. DS has its own guidelines and its own email address, so please be sure you are sending your submissions and queries to the right place. And now without further ado: Demeter’s Spicebox is open. Please join us for this story-telling adventure!

 Posted by at 5:29 pm

Glasgow Fairytale

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Nov 162010
 

Welcome to Glasgow, where the only option is to live happily ever after. Glasgow Fairytale, by Alastair D. McIver, is a wild ride through some of the most well-known stories in the fairy tale canon. By the second line I was giggling and by page three I knew I’d struck gold. In fact, this book is so funny that it was almost impossible to write a review. Every time I thought about the story I started laughing. Set in a very extraordinary Glasgow, where magic happens and a King rules by way of the television, the story begins with the appearance of a wee mysterious man in a scene those of us familiar with public transport in major cities will certainly recognize. From there it goes on to make a delightful mockery of almost everything – from media moguls to immigration rules to footballers. No one is safe here.

It is possible that the humour in this book will not be taken as such by an audience unfamiliar with the Glaswegian attitude. More is the pity, because frankly this book provides a hilarious look at reality, transforming the characters from an assortment of fairy tales into people many of us have dealt with in our personal lives (or seen on TV). Here is Rapunzel as an asylum seeker, Prince Charming as a football star, Cinderella as a foster child and the big bad wolf as, of course, the big bad wolf, except now he’s protected by the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights (as are the three little pigs). Jack and Jill, Red Riding Hood, Thumbelina, the Frog Prince, the beanstalk, the magic mirror, an evil King and Rumpelstiltskin are alive and well in Glasgow, although once they’ve finished with it, Glasgow may never be the same again.

Like with all fairy tales, the story defies its placement. These characters could be, and are, found everywhere. And yet this fairy tale is also decidedly Glaswegian. The dialogue is thick with the local accent and the references to football rivalries might be lost on some, but none of this detracts from the story itself. At first it is broken into scenes that flash quickly from one to another, each one building up to that sublime moment when everything and everyone is deftly brought together for that perfect good vs. evil conclusion inherent in all fairy tales. The plot is strong and never failed to hold my attention, and every time I was sure the cast of characters had been set, another one popped up in the mix.

When people say a fairy tale has been turned upside down and inside out, they must mean this fairy tale, this wonderful, outrageous and delightfully subversive collective of lovable, spiteful and despicable characters that make this story unlike any fairy tale you’ve read before. This is a cunning, witty book and one I can’t recommend enough.

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Nov 102010
 

How would you like the opportunity to win an eReader full of fantastic fiction by such wonderful authors as N. K. Jemisin, Nisi Shawl, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Terence Taylor, Ted Chiang, Shweta Narayan, Chesya Burke, Moondancer Drake, Saladin Ahmed, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Amal El-Mohtar and many more? That chance can be yours! The Carl Brandon Society is holding a prize drawing of five loaded eReaders starting on November 5th and ending November 22nd, 2010. The funds raised will benefit the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship, a fund that sends two emerging writers of color to the Clarion writers workshops annually.

Cabinet des Fées fully supports the mission of the Carl Brandon Society, and we can’t think of a better way to show your support than by either donating directly to them via their website, or by entering the drawing. And if you win, you’ll have some wonderful material to read already at your fingertips.

 Posted by at 5:10 pm