Sep 302010

Always bring a change of clothes,
just in case.

If the gatekeeper asks for your name,
make him give his first. If you lose yours
you can always use his.

(Just make sure it fits.)

Do not look too closely at the gates.
They may say nothing, in which case
you’ve wasted your eyes
when you could have looked at other things.
Or they may have a warning
in golden letters across the frame…
in which case it’s already too late.

Blood is the most valuable currency.
Spend it wisely, and if possible,
bring extra.

If they tell you not to look behind you,
don’t look behind you.

Every gatekeeper can be bribed.
It may cost you a kiss.
It may cost you your kingdom,
your liver, your firstborn child.
Weigh the costs carefully.
If you can bring a companion
willing to split the price,
so much the better.

You cannot leave by the gate you entered through.
Remember this, and make sure the city
has more than one gate.

Megan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Ideomancer, Goblin Fruit, Clarkesworld, and many other places. She edits the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna.

Image: Suzhou, Youyicun garden in the Lingering Garden苏州留园又一村

 Posted by at 4:25 pm

The Souk of Dreams by Keyan Bowes

 Issue 11 (Sept 2010)  Comments Off on The Souk of Dreams by Keyan Bowes
Sep 302010

The full moon brightens the Dubai desert as Dylan follows Samar up the sand dune, having second thoughts. He has no idea where in the desert they are. He has no idea what to expect at the Souk of Dreams. And having impulsively agreed to come with him, Dylan has no idea if he can trust Samar.

They’d met the week before, on Dylan’s second day in Dubai.

This city wouldn’t have been Dylan’s top choice of places to go, especially with its anti-gay laws. But his dad moved here for a new career opportunity, his college dorm was closed for winter vacation — and travel might help him forget the messy break-up with Jackson.

Armed with guidebook and sunglasses, Dylan had stopped at a Starbucks. The strong sunlight slanted through the glass café front. A few customers sat around at leisure: Arab men in long white dishdashas, an Arab woman cloaked in a black abaya that made her pale face look ethereal, an Asian couple with a kid. He leafed through the guidebook as he sipped his cappuccino. Dubai was Las Vegas-on-sea on crack, with added Arab tradition.

A dark, good-looking guy came in. He looked like he might be Arab, but wore t-shirt and jeans, not traditional garb. Dylan glanced at him, suddenly feeling quite lonely in this strange city, and self-conscious about the shoulder-length red hair he hadn’t wanted to cut just for a couple of weeks. But here it stood out.

The man ordered a coffee and settled at a nearby table. He had eyes the color of old-fashioned toffee, and wavy black hair. Tall and wiry, he looked the antithesis of Jackson’s muscular crew-cut aggressiveness. As Dylan looked up from his book, the man caught his eye, leaned over, and asked, “You here from the US?” He sounded American, but Dylan thought he detected a slight accent. “Me too.”

Dylan gestured toward the other chair. “Come on over.”

“Samar,” said the dark guy, bringing his coffee to Dylan’s table. He pronounced it something like Summer. “Everyone calls me Sam.”

Sam was a college student, too; but his father had moved to Dubai years before and he’d grown up here. He was also back for the winter break. They talked about school for a while. Then, noting the guidebook lying on the table, Sam offered to go sight-seeing. Then they’d met every day, exploring the Gold souk, overflowing with hundreds of tiny shops glistening with gold jewelry; Dubai creek, good for a cruise in the evening breeze; even the bird sanctuary with flamingoes within sight of skyscrapers. Dylan wasn’t sure whether this could be pushed further than friendship. Smarting from the experience with Jackson, he didn’t intend to try.

“Seen enough souks, or still up for one more?” Samar had asked yesterday.

“Depends,” Dylan replied. “The carpet souk was boring –- all those shops with similar Kashmiri and Iranian rugs. The Sharjah one with the antique stores was good. I’d go there again.”

“There’s an even better one –- Souk al-Khwab. The Souk of Dreams.”

“What’s that?” Dylan asked. “Sounds like it sells hash or something.”

“Not in the Emirates,” Samar said. “No, this place is special. And it’s only open one night a month. Tomorrow. Coming?”

“The Souk of Dreams?” he said. Sam was leaning casually against the wall. The way the sun played on his face made him look almost ridiculously handsome. Dylan tried not to stare. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll come.”

Dylan hadn’t expected a Souk to be far outside the city. They joined a tour group, a convoy of vans labeled ‘Dune Adventures’ headed into the desert for an evening of sightseeing. Though each four-wheel drive van seated eight, the only other passengers were a couple and their young son. The boy sat up front by the driver, and his parents behind him. Dylan and Sam had the bench at the very back to themselves.

Outside the city, the desert opened up in miles of sand punctuated with low-growing scrub. The carefully cultivated trees were absent, as were the tall buildings. The convoy stopped, the drivers let some air out of the tires for traction in the sand. Then they turned off into the desert. Dark gold dunes rose high in graceful curves against a vivid blue sky.

Without warning, the van sped up one side of a dune and side-slipped down the other in a natural roller coaster ride. Startled but exhilarated, Dylan was thrown against Sam. The kid next to the driver bounced with glee. “Yeah!” he shouted, “Let’s go faster!” The driver grinned, revved the engine and said, “You want faster?” The other vans in the convoy threw up plumes of sand as they zigzagged over the dunes. Sam steadied Dylan with an arm behind his shoulders.

At dusk, the convoy stopped on a rise. The sun set into the desert haze over the ranges of dunes as a full moon rose. Everyone got out; the drivers for a soda and a smoke, the tourists to take photographs. Dylan and Sam stayed where they were. Dylan was conscious of Sam’s face too close to his, his skin, his scent. Impulsively, he moved even closer. Then, mindful of the proprieties in a conservative land, he pulled away.

Just in time. The passengers piled back into their vans, the drivers started up and in the failing light, made their way past camel pens to the desert camp where the Adventure continued into a campfire picnic with belly-dancers.

Dylan and Sam wandered out of the straw and canvas walls of the camp to a dark spot behind it, to look at the stars, bright as they never were in the city. When Dylan tentatively extended his hand, Sam took it. That was as far as Dylan dared go before the tour guides loudly announced food and shisha water-pipes.

“So when does the tour head to the Souk of Dreams?” asked Dylan. “After dinner?”

“Nah,” said Sam. “Not the tour, just us. We’re ditching them. There’s a guy here who knows the way to the Souk.”

They found the taxi waiting among the Dune Adventure vans. “Here, get on in,” said Sam, holding the car door open. The driver spoke broken English, but Sam switched to another language to discuss directions.

“What d’you tell him?” Dylan asked, “And what language was that? Arabic?”

Sam laughed. “Nah. Urdu. Most taxi drivers here are from Pakistan or India.”

It was an unexpectedly long drive across the desert. Dylan was very conscious both of Sam’s arm lying along the back of the seat, and the growing distance from the city. “How come the souk’s so far away?” Dylan asked. Can’t be much business out here.” He turned in his seat to look behind them. “Strange illusion,” he commented. “Looks like the road’s gone.”

“It’ll be back, don’t you worry,” Sam replied.

When the driver pulled to a stop, Dylan looked around, seeing nothing but sand dunes under the big full moon. The place was totally unfamiliar. He’d known Sam all of five days. What if he had it all wrong? What had Sam planned with the taxi driver in the language he could not understand? Dylan was suddenly nervous. His watch was his 18th birthday Rolex, and he had a decent amount of cash in his jacket’s inside pocket.

“We’ll get out here and walk,” Sam said. “Good you wore sneakers.”

Dylan didn’t know whether he should refuse to move away from the taxi; or whether it was okay to go with Sam. What was this Souk-al-Khwab? He was beginning to regret that he’d told no one where he was going. His US Cellphone didn’t work in Dubai.

If Sam saw him hesitate, he did not acknowledge it. He towered over the open car door, waiting. Embarrassed by his unmanly fears, Dylan got out. Sam handed him a flashlight, even though the moon was bright enough to walk by.

“It’s got a UV bulb. We might see scorpions. They glow in ultraviolet.”

Dylan wasn’t sure whether to believe him. But he followed Sam around the moonlit dune, and then up the next one.

They’re cresting the dune, slipping a little in the sand, when Dylan sees it lying below them: A market, brightly lit, crowded with stalls and booths and rugs spread out displaying goods. Lanterns hang from poles planted in the sand, and each stall has a bright Petromax lamp, throwing a glow over their colorful wares.

A throng of shoppers mills around among the stalls. From the top of the dune, Dylan hears the hiss of the lanterns, the chatter of the merchants calling their wares, people talking and calling and bargaining. The smell of kerosene from the Petromax lamps mingles with the smells of roasting meat and camel dung.

He and Sam clamber and slide down the dune, landing in a little spurt of sand next to one of the stalls. It displays some unfamiliar looking objects. Perhaps some kind of artworks?

“Ah, Samar,” says the merchant, a tall Arab in a white dishdasha and headscarf, “You haven’t been here for many moons! Do you have anything to sell today?”

“Hello, Mahmud. I’m studying in America now. I have something small, we’ll talk later.”

“You have not forgotten the special commission? My client is still interested, very interested.”

Dylan feels a chill. Mahmud is looking directly at him, though he can’t see his eyes in the shadow of his brow and head-cloth.

“This is Dylan,” Sam says. “His father is the big boss at Engstrand Corp.”

“Ah yes. An honored guest.” Mahmud smiles courteously at Dylan, and he stops feeling like something small to sell. “Salaam aleikum.” Peace be on you, the Hello of the Arab world.

As they turn to go, Dylan can’t shake the feeling there’s something strange about Mahmud. His eyes, maybe. What color are they, anyway? He’d only caught a glimpse of them when he turned his head, and it seemed they had no whites.

They walk slowly past the stalls. Dylan hears German and French and languages he can’t recognize. There’s definitely something different about this crowd. They don’t seem quite normal. Some have pointed ears, like elves. He can’t tell if they are really good prosthetics, or an actual body-mod.

But it’s not just the ears. It’s like a freak show or a sci-fi convention. That woman over there, she has short fur all over her face and arms, gleaming silver in the moonlight. The little girl running by has a fake nose, long and curved like an anteater’s. Then the kid starts twitching it.

“Hey, Sam? What place is this, anyway? Who are these people?”

“The Souk-al-Khwab? People come here from all over…not just from the countries on our maps.”

A little girl darts past him, using her stretchable arms to snag things from the stalls, until her mom catches her and lifts her firmly onto her back. She returns the purloined goods, smiling apologetically at the shop-keepers.

“It’s real, right? Not just ordinary people with Teflon implants and tattooed designs. It’s real.”

Sam lays a hand on Dylan’s shoulder. “Like it?”

Dylan turns to him with open excitement. “The Goblin Market!” He’d worried for nothing. This place is amazing, and it’s cool of Sam to share it with him.

“Goblin Market?” Sam doesn’t catch the allusion.

“It’s this poem,” Dylan explains, “and it describes a market like this, with strange creatures selling and buying things.”

“They’re usually friendly people here, but they might mind being called creatures,” Sam says in a low voice.

“Oh, I didn’t mean…” Dylan quickly pulls his gaze away from the elegant man with a giraffe neck swaying through the crowd, and joins Sam at the nearest stall. This carries the ubiquitous blue ‘evil eye’ charms he’s seen in other shops, but as he lifts one up, the blue eye gives a long, slow blink. Surprised, he drops it. It rolls in among the other charms, which all shove back with seeming annoyance, and blink themselves.

“Never mind, never mind,” says the shopkeeper, “They’ll settle down.” Dylan and Sam move on, carefully skirting a small group of tall thin individuals wearing tunics that shimmer in the lights of the souk. They turn in unison to look at him, and chorus “Salaam aleikum.” But their accents are strange, and they mispronounce the second word.

Sam stops Dylan at a display of rugs. “That’s what I want some day,” he says. “A flying carpet.”

Dylan has a dizzy sense of unreality. “What?”

“Ali has some good ones,” Sam says. “The new models, with invisibility screens and climate control.”

“Yo, Sam old man!” says Ali, “When can I sell you a Toyonda Ispahan?”

“When I’m as rich as you, you old bastard!”

“Hey, I’m not the one going to Caltech!”

“Differential equations won’t make me rich.”

“Nope, but your other stuff might. Got any tonight?”

“Small one. Mahmud gets first dibs.”

“If he doesn’t buy, come back here. Any time you’re looking for an agent –- I’m your man. Some serious collectors are interested.”

Dylan looks at Sam, wondering what Ali’s talking about. Sam looks away. “Oh, I make stuff and sell it here sometimes. Pays for college. These guys buy it from me. They sell it to collectors for a bit of a profit.”

“Bit?” says Ali. “Mahmud made 70% on the last sale. I’ll work on a 20% margin. Your Mahmud’s a good businessman.”

“And you? What margin do you make on those carpets?”

“Dude, that’s different. My folks make those things. There’s a lot of technology in them. Continuous improvement over 900 years. You’re buying knowhow, man. Skill. See if you can get anything like it in this souk. Any souk. You’ll be lucky to find one that even gets airborne.”

Ali waves, and five of the rugs hanging on the frame behind him take wing, flap around the sky over the souk in a wide circle, dip over Sam’s head and make him duck, and with a soft whoosh return to their places on the frame. Dylan stares.

“There’s a whole new market waiting for you, Sam. You could be big.”

“Later, Ali,” says Sam. “Another time. See you surfing up in California.”

“Later, bro!”

A nearby booth has rows of shelves lined with bottles and cans labeled in a language Dylan guesses is Arabic but might be something else; and with spools of fancy braids and laces. “Happiness by the pound,” calls the shopkeeper, “Joy by the liter. Confidence by the quart. Misery by the meter.”

“Check out that stall!” Dylan says.

“Shuja’s stuff is overpriced,” says Sam grudgingly, but he follows Dylan.

“I heard that, Samar my friend,” calls Shuja. “My prices may be high, but my quality is the best. Has anyone complained?”

“Those who got the misery?”

“Without misery, there can be no happiness. Without tears, no laughter. The world is full of opposites. Will you buy some joy?” Shuja asks. He takes down a gleaming glass canister, embossed with unfamiliar designs Dylan finds a little unsettling. They seem to writhe under his gaze.

“Here, take a look,” says Shuja. “Just a sniff.”

He opens the container. It’s full of a fine oily liquid that almost glows in the light on his counter. Using a long-handled spoon with a tiny mother-of-pearl bowl, he dips out some. “Come nearer,” he urges, “No charge for a sample.”

Dylan looks, wondering if it’s safe to try. With a long suffering air, Sam leans on the counter. Dylan joins him. With a flick of his wrist, Shuja tosses the liquid into the air above them, where it evaporates immediately. All at once, a feeling of intense joy sweeps over Dylan. The brilliance of the night, the wonder of the souk, the marvelous kindness of his companion, they all overwhelm him, bring tears to his eyes.

Sam smiles, and Shuja says, “What a wonder this world is!” Gradually, the intensity of emotion ebbs, but a mellow feeling remains.

Shuja pulls a few threads from a brocade on a spool, and rubs it on his wrist. Immediately his face becomes more stern.

“What did you do?” Dylan asks.

“A businessman cannot afford to spend his business hours consumed with joy,” says Shuja dryly. “That was just the merest thread of misery.”

Sam shrugs. Dylan is still amazed. “How much do you charge for the joy?” he asks. “Can I pay in dirhams?”

He buys a tiny amount, which Shuja packs it in a glass phial with an aerosol top. “Would you care for some love?” he asks, “It’s sold by volume.”

Dylan shakes his head. “Love has to be free,” he says, wondering what Sam’s thinking.

“With my prices, it’s nearly free,” says Shuja. Everyone laughs, and Dylan and Sam move along.

They find themselves in the live animal section. There are camels for sale, and unicorns. Half-fledged canaries and phoenixes and infant dragons that can hardly breathe fire at all. One stall sells eggs, but the 6-packs have pictures of dragons and griffins and creatures Dylan cannot identify. “Guaranteed Fertile” reads a hand-lettered sign.

They wander on, and then Dylan sees them, his favorite mythical animal. “Hippogriffs! Goddam are those really hippogriffs?” The pens hold a small herd of them. A foal, only eight hands high, comes up to the fence and snuffles inquiringly. “Hey baby!” He allows it to sniff at his hand. It nuzzles him with its beak, looking for a treat.

“Look, there’s a feather!” It’s lying inside the foal’s pen, a plume like a long golden leaf. Impulsively, Dylan vaults the fence and grabs it.

“Move back quickly, sir!” says the stall-keeper urgently. But the warning is too late. The young hippogriff’s mother, a mare perhaps nine feet tall, jumps the fence, and hissing fiercely, grabs at Dylan with its beak. It catches only his hair, but he’s trapped.

Immediately, there’s an uproar. Everyone nearby comes closer. The merchant who owns the hippogriffs run in. “Sultana! Back! Back!” he shouts, advancing and waving a cape, but Sultana is not listening. Instead, she hisses louder, and turns her head to look at the gathering crowd, giving Dylan’s hair a painful yank each time. The merchant makes another ineffectual pass at Sultana, irritating the animal further. One strike of that beak could open his skull and spill his brains.

“Cut off his hair,” suggests somebody from the crowd, “Bring a sharp knife.”

“No, no, don’t do that!” shouts Samar, and he pushes past the crowd, runs around to the other side of the hippogriff pens, and whistles. Distracted by the crowd, the big female doesn’t respond. But the foal does. Bored with its mother’s preoccupation with its erstwhile friend, it canters over to where Sam’s standing. Keeping an eye on Sultana, he reaches out and pats the baby. “You’re a cute little chap!” he says loudly.

Perceiving a new threat to her child, Sultana drops Dylan’s hair, and wheels around to roar. Sam instantly backs off, while friendly hands pull Dylan out of reach.

“Why do you keep such a mare, Babu?” the next stallholder asks indignantly. “Who knows what will she do next?”

“What can I do? Everyone knows that female hippogriffs cannot be truly tamed. But I could not bring the foal without her.”

Dylan’s trembling a little from the shock, but he hides it. “Hey, thanks, dude,” he says. “You saved my scalp.”

Sam gives Dylan’s deep red locks an appreciative look. “Worth saving,” he says.

After that episode, they decide to leave, but Sam needs to settle some business first. They head back to Mahmud’s stall.

“Here it is,” says Sam, and draws from his pocket an exquisite tangle of gold wires. As he holds it, it fluffs up into a maze that dazzles the eye as it tries to follow the gleam on individual threads. At the center is a miniature garden. Dylan can’t tell if it consists of actual little models of trees and flowers and fountains, or if it’s an image of some sort. It looks very real.

“It needs — a touch of life,” Sam says to Dylan. “Activate it, dude!”

“What do you mean?” asks Dylan.

“Push your finger into the center,” Sam says, “and wait for a count of ten.”

Dylan does. A tingle runs through his finger, but he waits for ten seconds to withdraw it.

In the center of the tangle, in the garden, is a tiny simulacrum of himself. As he watches, it moves in unison with him.

“What is it?” he asks.

“A wire sculpture, centered on an image field. Once it’s inside the power-perimeter of the souk, any living thing can activate the image-grabbing program. Now it will exist as long as you exist.”

“Does it do everything I do?”

“Within limits. When you’re very close, within its range. Otherwise, the movements are pretty random, but bounded by plausibility.”

“I’d prefer it didn’t do things like pissing. Or worse!”

“Not likely. Unless you do it in the garden.” As he speaks, the figure sprawls on the grass. A bottle appears in one hand, a book in the other. The miniature swigs its drink and settles down to read. Without looking, Dylan knows it’s drinking a pale ale. Sam carefully sets the object on the counter, where it sparkles in the artificial light of the Petromax.

“Brilliant!” says Mahmud, behind them. “My client will be pleased.”

Dylan’s finding it creepy, this living model of him being sold to an unknown stranger. But caught off guard, he doesn’t quite know how to put that into words without pissing Sam off. Before he can protest, the transaction is over, and he and Sam are scrambling up the dune. The eastern sky is beginning to pale just a little. In the shadows on the other side, they pause to catch their breath.

“Dude. Hope you don’t mind my using you for a model,” Sam says. “You’re just perfect for it, with that hair. The minute I saw you I needed you in that sculpture. It’s my best ever piece.” He leans in, as though for a kiss. But Dylan doesn’t want to, any more.

“Is that… thing… connected to me somehow?” he asks Sam.

“How d’you mean?”

“Has it stolen a piece of my soul?” Even as he says it, he feels silly, superstitious, like tribal people who believe that photographs stole your soul. In his head, he can hear his ex-boyfriend Jackson’s contemptuous tones: Don’t be such a retard!

“Doubt it,” Sam says slowly.

Dylan hears the unvoiced retard anyway. He really wants to leave. They slide down the dune, go back to the taxi. The driver is asleep in the back seat. Sam thumps on the door. Sleepily, the man emerges and stretches.

Sam opens the car door, but then doesn’t move. “Get on in. I forgot something. Back in a few.”

“Okay.” There seems to be nothing else to say. So that’s what the whole friendship had been about –- getting an exotic redheaded guy into the power-perimeter of the Souk for Samar’s artwork. He’s been played. Dylan supposes he should be grateful he hasn’t been robbed or kidnapped, that it wasn’t that kind of a set-up, but he’s not. A sense of betrayal washes over him as he waits in the dark

The driver, realizing they’re not leaving immediately, walks some distance away and lights a cigarette.

After an age, Sam returns, carrying something. He hands it to Dylan as he gets in the car. “This is for you,” he says. Dylan removes the soft cloth cover. It’s the sculpture. He looks at Sam questioningly.

“Just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t part with it, except to you. Wanted you to have it.”

“Bet Mahmud was not pleased, ” Dylan says, not saying what he really means, not wanting to admit that he’d been profoundly shaken.

“Nah, he wasn’t. But I’ll do another for his client. Maybe a phoenix.” He leans over and gives Dylan a hug. A gesture safer than a kiss. Is the driver watching?

“Say, do you have to go home tonight?” Sam asks. “I have the keys to a friend’s apartment. He’s away this week.”

Dylan holds the sculpture carefully, thinking about risk, about Sam, about Dubai. A shining path seems to open up in front of them as the taxi drives back across the sand.

He leans over to Sam. “Sure,” he says. “I’ll come.”

Keyan Bowes‘ work has been accepted by a number of publications, including Strange Horizons, Expanded Horizons, and Ruthless Peoples Magazine. She is a graduate of the 2007 Clarion Workshop in San Diego. One of her stories was made into a prize-winning short film.

Image: Romantic view of the old souk in Darnah, Libya, December 1981, photographer unknown.

 Posted by at 4:25 pm

Bonfire and Pearls by Mari Ness

 Issue 11 (Sept 2010)  Comments Off on Bonfire and Pearls by Mari Ness
Sep 302010

One night a year, she comes to them as a seal, shimmering over the waves. As she hauls out onto the rocky shore, she raises her muzzle to give a cry, a cry that some say sounds like a barking dog, and others a sobbing violin, a crying child, a shrieking wind.

It is the signal for the bonfire, the harps, the drums. They move rapidly, almost dancing in their haste, dragging out tables and rich coverings and chairs, pulling on their best shirts and gowns, hauling the hired musicians from their beds. They load the tables with the finest food the village can afford. This finest is something, indeed, for a poor village and outsiders marvel at the delicacies this town somehow provides, the excellence of the musicians and the entertainment. Even in desperate years, where the sea has yielded few fish, and the land nothing at all, the tables groan with the food piled there by half-starved hands, and jugglers and fire-eaters and musicians stand ready.

The seal watches this with unblinking eyes, until the tables are laden and the fire is blazing. At this, she cries out again, sliding from her pelt, allowing it to fall to the ground. They rush to bring her clothing as she stands in the dust, radiant, lovely. She dresses herself without words.

And then she dances.

They do not have words for this dance; they do not try to have words. They only watch as she dances in and out of the fire, until she cries out a third time. This is their signal: they rush to join her, to leap over and around the flames, to dance, to eat. To laugh.

They leave her pelt on the sands, shimmering in the firelight. They have seldom told tales of what has happened to those who have touched or taken that pelt: of the girl who wrapped it around her shoulders and drowned in the sea; of the man who hoped to win the dancer for his wife, but who died with his mouth and eyes caked with salt; of empty nets and barren fields and a maiden crouched beneath a mortal roof. They have tales of what might happen, and what cannot happen, if she does not dance. They have a mound of unburied bones.

They say nothing in the morning as she shimmers into her pelt, and slides into the sea. They say nothing when, inevitably, they find that one or two people are…missing. A little girl one year, a grown man the next. Or a widow with a young son, the weaver renowned for his skill.

And they say little when they find the pearls, bright and glimmering upon the sands.

They could, they know, use these pearls for many things: foods, medicines, comfort for the family with the missing child, the vanished father, new roofs for their homes, warm blankets against the winter’s chill, when the silence presses against them. They could, they know, throw the pearls back into the sea.

They hold the pearls for the summer months, for the merchants that never fail to make their way to this village, so far on the distant edge of a distant sea. And they pay, they pay, for the richest foods, the headiest wines, the best of musicians, the most luxurious of gowns, all for that one night when she comes. For the one night a year they know they will laugh.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, near a shallow lake infested by alligators. Her work has previously appeared in numerous print and online publications, including Fantasy Magazine and Shine: The Anthology of Optimistic Science Fiction.  She keeps a disorganized blog at

Image: Lewes Bonfire Night. Andrew Dunn, 2005. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

 Posted by at 4:25 pm

Up In Smoke by Nicky Drayden

 Issue 11 (Sept 2010)  Comments Off on Up In Smoke by Nicky Drayden
Sep 302010

“Evan, you’ll give your brother nightmares,” Mama rasps. Slumped in her vinyl chair, she barely has energy to scold me for smoking in her kitchen.

Dewey beats his chubby hands on the tray of his highchair, pulverizing steamed carrots. Yeah, he’s still on solids. The brat can’t talk yet either, but he idolizes how I can dissipate into thin air, dine on a gentle breeze, look for love in a storm cloud, then slip under tattered weather-stripping and into bed before Mama ever suspects.

I grow smoky tendrils behind Mama’s back like giant bunny ears. Dewey laughs, spitting up carrot mash, and for a brief second his arms become gray wisps reaching towards me. Mama sighs and pats him on the back, too many sleepless nights to notice.

Smoking this young, Mama’s gonna be pissed. But for now it’ll be me and Dewey’s little secret.

Tonight we’ll seep through a cracked window in his nursery and I’ll teach him to surf the auroras, hitch a ride on the doldrums, and court mischief ’til we hit the stratosphere. Cloud chicks dig babies, I hear. I might like being a big brother after all.

Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who has made the recent life decision that she’d rather spend her time working with prose than code. Her recent publications include Necrotic Tissue and Space Squid, with forthcoming work in Space and Time Magazine and Shimmer Magazine. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. You can see more of her work at

Image: A small portion of the Veil Nebula as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, showing smoke-like wisps. The original photo was taken by the HST WFPC2 instrument in November 1997 with an exposure time of 7400 seconds. This version was released on October 10 2000.

 Posted by at 4:25 pm

Each Night Without a Moon by Scott Christopher Lucas

 Issue 11 (Sept 2010)  Comments Off on Each Night Without a Moon by Scott Christopher Lucas
Sep 302010

She said she wanted it about a gargoyle. A flying, scaly monster that breathed fire that came out at night and roared as loud as the lawnmower. And there should be a girl her age who learns magic so she can save everyone from it. She should have horses but the horses didn’t have to do anything in the story there just should be horses.

It started with Daddy telling it just like that: it was summertime in a kingdom that was beset by an evil gargoyle who struck once a month on each night without a moon, swooping down from the sky on wings ike a bat during the night’s darkest hour to blow its fiery breath over the farms and hamlets, destroying everything in its path (but not the horse farms, Ella’s Mommy amended; oh of course not the horse farms her father agreed). In one of those simple straw villages there lived a little girl named (pause) Ello. The name gave Ella a giggle. Ello lived with her Mommy and Daddy, but both of them were badly hurt in one of the beast’s attacks, leaving Ello to take care of the horses on her own. She spent all her days working in the horse fields, all her nights helping her injured parents (that means hurt, Mommy explained). Not playing at all? No not at all. What about bees? There aren’t any bees there. Did she have to wear sunscreen? Let Daddy finish, Ella’s mother said, it’s late. Something in Mommy’s pocket buzzed, but Ella’s father pretended he didn’t hear it even though you could tell he did.

She didn’t know it, but as the little girl worked in the hot sun, a faerie who lived in the woods on the edge of the farm watched her, and felt bad for her. You can answer it, Daddy said without looking at Ella’s mother, but she gave him a look like he had written his 3’s backwards on his homework for the hundredth time. Come on Daddy, Ella prodded, and her mother said go ahead so he did. The faerie from the woods asked Ello why she worked all day by herself, and she told the faerie about the gargoyle and her parents and how she wished she was as magic as the monster so she could chase him away and everyone could be happy, but there was no one as strong as the gargoyle.

Is this going to end soon? Mommy was fidgety, probably she had to go potty. Let him finish! Ella said, but her father said Mommy was right, it was late, he’d have to finish the story tomorrow. The last part he said before both parents gave her a kiss goodnight was that the faerie told the little girl there was one person as strong as the gargoyle, one who lived in a small clearing in the middle of the darkest, densest part of the woods: the Faerie King.

When they left the room it was very quiet, as it had been all day. Some nights when her parents left her bedroom and walked down the carpeted steps to the main floor she could hear them talking, saying things about what they did at work or what would be on television that night, uninteresting things that weren’t worth straining to listen to. But for a few weeks, there was just quiet.

Ella closed her eyes and surrounded herself with a fantastic kingdom, one where she’d have horses and commune with faeries on the edge of a dark wood. As she was falling asleep, she heard an engine start outside, but to her it became the distant roar of a gargoyle descending on some neighboring hamlet, one that she’d be off to battle soon.

A hand shook her awake the next morning. It was her mother, who had sleepy eyes. Before Ella had even got out of bed, she asked if she could hear more of the story.

What? oh from last night, not right now you have to get ready for school. If Ella knew any swear words she would have used one then, but as it was she said Spinach! — it was the worst word she knew. Mother and daughter both plodded downstairs, where father was pouring a cup of coffee and didn’t look up to greet them. Ella’s Mommy hurried through the morning routine, and as she brushed Ella’s hair into a pony tail, her fast hands caught a tangle that brought tears to the child’s eyes. Fine! Mommy yelled as she spiked the brush into the ground, if you can’t even get your hair brushed without crying you’re getting it all cut off. She stood up and saw Ella’s father watching, and walked past him fast without looking at him. Mommy, Ella started to say, but her Daddy stopped her. Here, I’ll get it, he said, and retrieved the brush. Can we finish the story tonight? she asked as he detangled the knot. The bedtime story, sure, he said, if I’m home on time. I may have to work late.

He did have to work late, later than Ella’s bedtime. She had been with her mother all day after school, but played mostly by herself. Her mom gave her the obligatory That’s great when Ella finished a picture from a unicorn coloring book, and had tied Ella’s shoes for her with two knots apiece when Ella wanted to go on the swingset in the backyard, but most of the time her mother just sat somewhere quietly, sometimes opening her phone and pushing some buttons on it but not ever really looking at anything.

Want to go to Nana and Papa’s this weekend? she asked out of the blue as she tucked Ella into bed. Ella nodded emphatically, Nana and Papa’s house meant lots of snacking and a completely different array of toys than she had at home. Okay, her mother said, sleep good, and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. Ella recoiled. Mommy the story!

Ella’s mother’s eyes were pinkish, she might have caught conjunctivitis, a pair of kids in Ella’s class got conjunctivitis and had to get eye drops. So the faerie was going to help her fight the dragon? No, Mommy, it was a gargoyle and Ello just found out about the Faerie King in the woods, Ella explained, and leaned eagerly forward.

You’ll have to wait for Daddy, I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

The child frowned, then asked when he would be back. Ella’s mother seemed as annoyed as when Ella dripped melted popsicle juice on the carpet after she had promised to be careful with it in the living room. I don’t know her mom said, when he wants to be. Ella lowered her head to the pillow and hoped she wouldn’t get conjunctivitis because she hated getting drops when they went to the eye doctor.

It was quiet again that night except for more buzzing sounds and quiet talk downstairs, either the TV or Mommy on her phone, until much later, very late, when Ella woke up to the sound of the garage door opening. The attached garage was right under the upstairs bedrooms, and when it opened, especially in the quiet of the night, it rumbled and roared like the whole house was a living, groaning beast. Ella stirred and lifted her head. Across the hall, she saw the light from her Mommy and Daddy’s bedroom turn off.

He must have been very sleepy from being at work so late, because the next morning he barely had his eyes open enough to see. Have fun last night, Ella’s mommy asked him, except it sounded more like she was saying it then asking. He said something back but whatever it was didn’t compete with SpongeBob, so Ella didn’t hear much of the conversation, it sounded like they were mad at time, it came up a lot like what time it was last night and who needed some time away and not another time. The next thing she heard was a hurried Bye Ella Love You from her Mommy, and her father said Bye back, but her mom was already out the door.

He was back home at normal time after work that day. He sat down at the dinner table and before he could ask how school was, Ella asked for another part of the story. You don’t want to save it for bedtime? he asked, but Ella said no, just a little bit now please? (the long E of please was strung out for several seconds). Did Ello find the Faerie King?

Her father glanced up at her mother, who was putting things into a duffel bag. He took a small bite of his dinner, and said that Ello did go into the woods to find the Faerie King. She walked along a path all the way until it ended, it was as deep as she’d ever gone into the woods before. But she kept going, even though the woods got thicker and darker with each step. All day she walked through the woods, and into the night, too — it was too dark to tell what time it was, the only ways she knew how long she had been walking were the growing hunger in her stomach and pain in her legs. Pain, honey — it means hurt, Mommy explained as she took a little bite of food. Her knees and ankles creaked and muck from the forest earth covered her sandals and oozed between her toes to fill the thousand tiny scratches that marked her feet. She walked forward until she couldn’t walk anymore, and her body went limp in the briar. It’s thorns, her mother said. She knows that from Briar Rose she meant what’s limp, Daddy explained. When you can’t move anymore and are all floppy, Mommy said, like sleeping. That was the only thing that they said to each other that night, Ella remembered, before each threw away the remaining portions of their dinners, which went mostly uneaten. It was pork chops, and Ella thought it was good.

After dinner, her mother took her outside to the swingset while her father rested on the couch. When it started to get dark, Ella’s mother said it was time to go inside, and Ella asked if she finally could hear more of the story. Go in and ask Daddy, if he’ll get up, her mother answered. Ella ran inside and jumped on her father’s abdomen — it was her favorite way of waking him — and asked him to take her to bed. He started to say he’d never seen her so excited for bed before and looked at Ella’s Mommy, but she was typing on her phone so he stopped. Sure he said come on let’s go.

Is she going to be OK? Ella asked. Her father looked scared for a second but then relaxed and said oh you mean Ello? Yes. When she opened her eyes she was lying in a clearing enclosed by a circular wall of tangled tree limbs. She was on a carpet of leaves, covered with a blanket of moss; her wounds were treated with a sticky sap. Wounds? Cuts and things, things that hurt. The faerie that she had met at the edge of the woods was there with her too, she had found Ello and brought her to the clearing. Before them stood a man with butterfly wings whose skin was covered with ivy and lichens. Mommy came into the room then, saying it was time to say goodnight. Please let Daddy finish, Ella begged, but her father told her no it’s late, we’ll do more later. At least tell me who the ivy man is, and Ella’s father said the faerie next to Ello told her Yes child, that is our abbé, the Faerie King. He kissed her on the forehead and left the room and her mother came in and kissed her goodnight, too. As her mother was pulling away Ella held on to her and said I thought the pork chops were good.

In the middle of the night Ella woke up sweating, she had already taken off her thin blanket and sheet but was still hot. She called for help, and a moment later her father staggered in and she asked if she could sleep like a boy. Sleep like a boy? he asked. She said she was hot and wanted to know if she could take her shirt off. Her dad said fine, and started to leave the room, then stopped. He turned and said Ella honey, why do you think boys sleep like that? I don’t sleep like that. Ella wasn’t sure what to say. Then her dad said don’t worry I’m not mad, I just wondered why you thought boys slept with their shirts off. Where did you see a boy sleeping with his shirt off, on TV? You can tell me. Yes, she said with a shy smile, I saw one on TV. Her dad left the room to go to bed again but looked awake.

Are we going to have to get eye drops? Ella asked her mother the next morning. Her mom’s eyes were pinker than before, and Ella was scared. Your eyes are fine, her mother replied.

After school the two left for Nana and Papa’s house with the duffel bag her mom had packed. It was hot, but the best kind of hot, Slip-n-Slide hot. Did you bring my goggles Ella asked her mom (she loved the Slip-n-Slide but hated when water splashed in her eyes). Yes I did. Is Daddy going to meet us after work? she asked. No he’s not, Daddy’s staying home, Ella’s mother said.

Are you crying Mommy?

Yes sweetie.

Why are you crying?

I don’t know. Mommy’s just a little sad.

Ella petted her mom’s hair from her booster chair in the back seat. She never petted her mother before but it worked when their dog would shake at the vet.

Nana and Papa were both excited to see their granddaughter and greeted her with big hugs. It felt good, bigger and happier than any hug she’d had in a while. Fuller. She spent the day playing, zipping down the Slip-n-Slide, her Papa even took her to a playground up the road. Her mother was on the porch most of the day, by herself, it looked like her conjunctivitis was really bad that day. Every so often Nana or Papa would go outside to talk to her, but after a few minutes she’d send them away. In the afternoon one of the neighbor kids came over to play as she often did when Ella came to visit. Every time Ella went on the porch her mother shakily said I love you. Twice she added, no matter what.

When bedtime came, after giving kisses and goodnights to Nana and Papa, Ella’s mother placed her in bed (Nana and Papa had converted her mother’s old bedroom into Ella’s room when she visited, complete with a bed that had a headboard like a castle). Her mother saw that Ella was crying. What’s wrong honey? she asked. I’m sad you’re sad, Ella said. And I really want to hear more of the story. Ella’s mother said wait one minute and left the room.

In a beat she was back with a sheet of paper printed from Nana and Papa’s computer. Daddy sent this today because he knew you’d want to hear it, it’s the next part of the story. Ella sniffled back her tears and smiled brightly. Her mother read:

You sought me here, young wizard, and I shall take you as my student, the Faerie King said to Ello. Ask me what you wish about magic, I will tell you the answers you seek.

Abbé, when will I learn to be as powerful as you, so that I might destroy the daemon? Ello asked. The Faerie King looked hard at the little girl.

When your heart is clear of darkness, young wizard, for it is darkness that created the gargoyle. The Faerie King then set her about her chores.

He told her she needed to first tend to all the needs of the forest, pulling every dead branch from every tree, so new ones might grow there. Even the biggest ones? she asked. Especially those, the Faerie King said, they need it the most. Ello knew it would take days, but she wanted so badly to destroy the monster that she worked as hard as she could. Just as she did during her long walk through the woods when she felt too tired to take another step, she pushed herself to keep going, and pulled them all down, every one. Her back and shoulders ached and she wanted to stop and lie down on the ground and sleep, but when she thought about stopping she pictured the gargoyle burning another town, and it renewed her fire. Once she was finished, she returned to the Faerie King.

And then what? Ello said. And then you went to bed, her mother replied. Sleep good she whispered with a kiss, I love you. No matter what.

They stayed the next night at Nana and Papa’s too, but Ella’s Daddy didn’t send any more of the story, or her Mommy didn’t look. She begged her mother to let them go back home, she missed her stuffed animals and was tired of the Slip-n-Slide and the park and wanted to be on her own swingset. It had only been two days, and it was fun, but it was enough — for reasons that she didn’t really understand Ella said they had to go back home, they needed to. But they didn’t, and Ella went to bed that night restless, storyless. It was getting dark outside and Ella was drifting to sleep when she saw beams of light through her window, piercing the inky night. They were headlights, she could hear a car pulling up to the house.

In a few minutes there were voices outside, familiar but strange, like when people do impressions of presidents on TV. They were loud and mad, yelling what they wanted to say but the words didn’t match, like they were strangers and each one was having a different mad conversation with someone over the phone. One said you’re crazy and the other said you’re scaring me, and one said just let’s go in and talk and the other said I can’t do this anymore, and it got louder and madder and faster. When the car engine was on again Ella looked out the window, and saw an ivy covered man with butterfly wings come cascading down from outside to land on the bed next to her. Don’t worry he said. I want it to stop she said. It won’t go on forever he said. Outside, the car was pulling out of the driveway and the roar of the engine covered up what the yelling strangers were saying. A man hung on the side of the car as it backed up, holding on through the opened window. Can’t you make them stop use your power and help them Ella screamed to the empty room.

She woke up late the next day and was confused, she didn’t remember what was dream and what was real. She had forgotten that she was still at Nana and Papa’s, and waking up to the strange surroundings startled her, for a moment she had no idea where she was except it wasn’t in her room like it should’ve been.

Her mother was not awake yet even though the sun was up and hot and high. Ella went to her room and climbed on the bed and told her it was morning time. Her mother lifted her head slowly, her breath was bad but Ella didn’t tell her that. Are we going home today? Ella asked. I don’t think so. Ella started to cry.

Nana and Papa did what they could to cheer up Ella that day, they took her to a place that had an arcade and putt-putt and go-carts, but she was unwaveringly grumpy. In the big box where you jump around in the balls she knocked down another kid who was smaller than her. She wanted to jump on his head, up and down over and over, but she didn’t, she just knocked him down and he started to whimper and cry and that made Ella even madder. Her Nana and Papa tried everything to make her happy: snow cones, elephant ears, cotton candy. The end result was that she was still mad, but also very very energetic.

When they got home and had dinner (Papa was good at grilling, Ella loved the hot dog he cooked her but her mom hardly ate), Ella demanded more of the story. When her mother hesitated, Ella became so angry she growled. She was past sad now; now she was pissed off. She told her mom to at least call her dad so he could tell it over the phone, but she said she didn’t know if she could do that, come on let’s get your teeth brushed.

While she was brushing her teeth she heard her Mommy’s phone buzz and almost choked on the toothpaste yelling maybe it’s Daddy! but it wasn’t Daddy, it was Mommy’s friend from work, and Ella wanted to kill him. Him and the people from Daddy’s work that kept him away too late past her bedtime, and everybody, even Nana and Papa, everyone in the whole world minus three. It might have been that her mother sensed that, because she started typing into her phone and before Ella had finished rinsing it buzzed again, this time with a message from her father. Her mother read:

When she returned to the Faerie King, Ello asked, Abbé, when will I learn to fly, so that I might meet the daemon in battle?

When your spirit is lighter than the breeze, young wizard, the Faerie King said, and sent her about her chores.

There was quiet then. Ella’s Mommy typed a little more, and a moment letter, the phone buzzed again, and she read:

Now Ello had to gather up all the lightning bugs in the forest, every single one, and usher them all in a lightning bug herd to the clearing in the forest to create light for the Faerie King. Ello was good at catching lightning bugs (I am too) (I know you are) and within two nights she had brought them all to the clearing.

Quiet again. It was late, Ella’s Mommy said as she typed into the phone. Please let me stay up and hear more I’ll do anything, Ella pleaded. The phone buzzed and her Mommy read the note and smiled. Her eyes still looked a little wet but she was really smiling. Okay a little more Ella’s Mommy said, and typed. Ella waited smiling with her mother for the phone to buzz again. When it did, her mother read:

When she returned to the Faerie King, Ello asked, Abbé, when will I learn to feel no pain, so that I might resist the daemon’s fire?

When your resolve is stronger than steel, young wizard, the Faerie King answered, and set her about her chores. Resolve? Let’s just say heart, Ella’s mother said. More typing, another buzz.

This time Ello had to collect dew from the morning mist and use it to fill a jug that she could take to all the forest denizens — good god denizens how old do you think she is? Mommy asked the phone, then typed something, when it buzzed again she laughed. The squirrels and opossums and forest animals, Ella’s mother said, and added I think we should ask what happens next.

Ella knew it was super late but bounced with elation. Yes yes yes let’s do more.

The phone buzzed again. When Ello had finished watering the forest denizens, she returned to the Faerie King.

Abbé, when will I learn to master fire, so that I might match the daemon’s power?

When your passion grows hotter than the sun, young wizard, the Faerie King answered, and set her about her chores.

Passion? Love, strong feeling, her Mommy said. Love she said again. She couldn’t say it enough. Love. Love.

Let’s stay up all night Mommy!

Tell you what.

Ella’s mother left the room and this time Ella tried to hear everything she said, but she was talking quietly and it was hard to hear. Still, quiet was better than too loud. After a short time her mother came back to the room, and read:

And on the next night without a moon, then did the young wizard take flight to do battle with the gargoyle. Really? Ella asked. Really. Taking everything she learned from the Faerie King and the forest, she flew into the dark sky and followed the sound of the roars. When she found the gargoyle, it was hovering — like, floating — over another small straw hamlet, and it raised its dark eyes to Ello.

And then?

Then, we have to wait a little bit. Is Daddy sending another note? Ella asked. Not exactly.

In a few moments, there were headlights outside again, an engine drew near and turned off. Ella’s mother rose and went to the front door, and Ella couldn’t hear any words, but a few minutes later both Ella’s mother and her father walked into the room. Together. They each sat on the castle bed and Ella’s Daddy said I missed you.

I missed you, she answered.

Ella noticed how they still weren’t able to really look at each other. They’d glance up and then back down. They could look at Ella and the floor and that was it, like at Ella’s last birthday party when she tried to get her friends from softball to play together with the neighbor kid from Nana and Papa’s, but they didn’t really play with each other except as far as they all played with Ella at the same time.

So I guess you’re ready for the rest of the story, her Daddy said. Oh — yes! Ella had forgotten.

In a flurry, Ello dove towards the gargoyle, who swiped at her with its claws and covered her with his fiery breath. But Ella’s flesh (that’s skin) was proof against the fire and hardened against the claws, and her body swirled without weight through the air. She used her own fire, fire she had learned to grow inside of herself, and bathed the gargoyle in it, and the monster howled in pain. (I hate baths too.) She tore at the beast with all her strength and it fell like a blazing meteor down, far down to the ground.

And when the smoke from the battle took flight on the winds, Ello landed and stood over the gargoyle’s crumbled form. It’s scales were wrenched asunder — apart, that means apart — and beneath them the profane (nevermind) beast had a familiar face.

Abbé…? the young wizard started.

Your wish is met, young wizard, he said weakly. You have become as powerful as me. Your will to destroy me has made you mighty. And with that, the Faerie King Gargoyle breathed its last damp, mossy breath.

It was then that the young wizard tasted the fire on her breath and felt how hard her flesh had grown with scales, covering her body to the shoulder where her two leathery wings had sprouted. She had won; she had won. But there was still rage in her like hunger. So once again she took flight, soaring over the kingdom, feeling strong in the black moonless sky, and she started spreading fire all over the kingdom below. Feeling that the sun would rise soon, she dove into the forest and took her perch on a moss-covered stone in a clearing in the deepest, darkest part of the wood, and awaited a pupil. The End.

Ella didn’t look satisfied. I wanted a happier ending she said.

Ella’s mother looked her father for a long time. Me too she said. She paused. But it might be too late now.

No he said back to both of them, we can still change it.

Wait, Ella interjected. I changed my mind. A happy ending isn’t what I want.

Her parents both looked at her very seriously, like they needed her help. Why her mother asked; Why her father repeated.

Because, it’s still an ending, she said quietly, and added So then what happened? Make sure there’s horses.

Scott Christopher Lucas is a father, writer, and web designer, usually in that order. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, US.

Image: Paper Moon, vintage postcard. Public domain.

 Posted by at 4:25 pm
Sep 302010

One black dragon soaring overhead represents the new beginning, the slate wiped clean. A good time to change careers or dissolve a partnership. Chances of conception are high.

Three or more green dragons playing, diving, darting, nipping at each other’s tails, suggest indecision and frustration. Your lover is not satisfied. Your team will not win the pennant. Stay away from pickled foods.

If you see a one-eyed dragon, look carefully. If the socket is scarred over, your friends are not what they seem. If the eye is marbled white, do not throw yourself against obstacles: creep beneath, or go around. If the lid is closed and there is no scar, the dragon may only be winking. Your project will be a great success, or go down in glorious ruin.

If a dragon speaks to you, never again will you divine by wing and claw. Turn away forevermore, and learn to read the silent cards. Or listen till you understand, and find a new future in the flicker and hiss of your own flames.

Rachel Manija Brown has sold poetry to Mythic Delirium, Star*Line, Abyss and Apex, and Goblin Fruit, and short stories to Strange Horizons, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Cabinet des Fées. Her memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: an American Misfit in India was published by Rodale, and her manga-style graphic novels Spy Goddess and The 9-Lives were published by Tokyopop. She also writes for television, and recently sold an animated sf series, Game World, to the Jim Henson Company, in collaboration with Sherwood Smith.

Image: Japanese dragon, colour engraving on wood, Chinese school, 19th Century.

 Posted by at 4:25 pm
Sep 302010

Dot glanced over at the wall of snow globes, looking for a sign. She could feel a blessing coming on. Surely today was the day.

Sunlight leaked around the edges of a plastic curtain hanging over the kitchen sink. The faded daisies gave the double-wide a muted cheer. Dot, squinting in the dingy light, leaned across the kitchen counter and adjusted her mirror. Just a touch more sparkly pink on the eyelids. She leaned back and admired. “Dot, my girl, you are one hot momma.” Pushing away, she gave her wings a buzz and lifted off the kitchen stool and into the living room.

She floated over the maroon carpet, past a series of frames that hung on the wood paneling above the lime green sofa. Her “kiddies”. The first was an oil painting of a princess in pink satin trimmed in ermine, her conical hat tipped with a spray of chiffon. As Dot buzzed past the paintings, the hats became flatter and cluttered, then disappeared altogether. The gowns became tighter, richer, looser, simpler. In the last image, a formal photograph, a young woman in a frilly teal dress with padded shoulders smiled out with worried eyes, her blonde hair pouffed up in the front, long and silky in the back.

Opposite them, a bookshelf held dozens of snow globes, her traveling globes. Most showed scenes from all over the world. Big Ben, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower from Paris, France, as well as the Eiffel Tower from nearby Paris, Texas, which looked the same but with a cowboy hat on top.

But the globe on the highest shelf, that was special. That was the one Dot kept glancing at. It hadn’t lit up in no telling how many years. But today was the ball–what did they call it? The prom. It was always them dances. That’s when they passed her along. Surely today was the day.

Dot set herself down by the closet, next to her favorite easy chair. She grabbed a wand off the patchy arm. Lately she favored a collapsible steel rod mounted with a foil star. She pointed it at a boxy TV set that had a matching rod cocked out to one side. “Nope, nope! Ain’t gonna do it.” She pulled back the wand and set her resolve. Instead, she dug into the seat cushion and found the remote.

After flipping past some news channels, she settled on a talk show. Two young ladies were screaming at each other with some fellow sitting in the middle looking like a dog after a good whupping.

Bending over with a grunt, she tied her white tennis shoes. Whether she walked or flew, a lady needed sensible shoes. Besides, they went well with her white jeans. She pulled her favorite sweatshirt over her head. Folding her crisp dragonfly wings flat, she tugged the shirt down so that the slits in back lined up just right. One at a time, she pushed just so with her shoulder blades until each wing popped out. With all four through, she gave her wings a buzz. They might look like veiny cellophane but they were as tough as old Dot herself.

She straightened her shirt. A cotton-candy pink, it read “You touch-a my wings…” on the front. And on the back, “I touch-a your face” with a little fist under it. The letters were trimmed with silver glitter accented with purple plastic gems that she’d put on with a glue gun. She turned, hands on her hips. The jeans were tight around the butt and her boobs sagged almost to her belly (bras didn’t go well with wings), but overall the old gal looked pretty good.

She buzzed back to her makeup table on the kitchen counter, flipping channels behind her back to a rerun of “Rockford Files.” She snapped star-shaped silver buttons onto her ear lobes, then touched up her pink lipstick and rouge. Given all the deep wrinkles, it was like dressing an old goose in a new bonnet, but it made her feel good. With bejeweled fingers, she picked and teased her white hair into a round pouf before laying down a coat of Aqua Net to fix it in place. She leaned forward to admire her handiwork, squinted, then put on a pair of owl-like bifocals. “Perfect.”

Glancing at the globe, she tamped a pack of menthols on the counter. She lifted out of the chair and flew to the bookshelf. As she did, she dropped the pack’s plastic wrap on the floor and tugged on a cig with her teeth.

She’d been saving up her magic for weeks. No little charms of any kind–no heating up her coffee, no stretching the waist on her nice orange pantsuit, which surely must’ve shrunk. Not even a twinkle to fetch more sherry. She’d been dry as a bone for a week now. And proud of it.

Dangling the cigarette between her pastel pink lips, she stuffed her fingers into a front pocket to dig out a Bic lighter. She shielded her hair with the back of her hand and lit the cigarette, exhaling a smoky, satisfied sigh.

Dot looked over her beautiful domes. One showed a thick jungle. She picked it up, leaving a perfectly round clean spot in the dust. As she wiped off the surface, it began to swirl, lit from within by a subtle blue glow. A flock of parrots tumbled through the trees. She smiled and set it back down. The one next to it showed a double-wide trailer, much like hers. When she wiped off the plastic, a flurry of garden gnomes scattered through the gel inside the dome as the trailer began to glow.

She picked through her globes, giving each one a long overdue dusting. Lovelies, all of them. Wards of her kin, or some special folk she liked to look in on every once in awhile. But only one was hers and hers alone.

She floated up to the top shelf, careful not to smash her ‘do on the ceiling. The lone dome up there was already pristine, its shelf wiped clean. She picked it up anyway and gave it a little shake. Rose petals flew up to encase a palatial estate. When they settled, she saw a thin woman wearing a tight sleeveless top that showed off tan arms, frozen in mid-jog on a treadmill. Her mouth was open and a little gadget in her ear glowed with a blue dot, like someone stuck a Slim Jim up in there and got after it with a glue gun.

She shook her head and put the globe back. Eloise. Always running. All that yard outside and she’d rather run in place, like a gerbil in a wheel. Dot wondered if the woman even remembered her. Surely today. Maybe when she tired out.

Dot smiled wistfully as she floated over to her easy chair, leaving a trail of menthol. Settling into the worn out cushion, she picked up a sweaty glass of sweet tea. She glanced back at her globes one more time. Tapping her ashes into a coffee cup from Excalibur Hotel, she turned to the TV and settled in for the day.

By late afternoon, she’d stopped checking her globes. Just another empty day after all. She sipped her tea and took a long drag on her cig, blowing a stream of smoke out the corner of her mouth so it wouldn’t block the TV. Some little starlet on Oprah was smiling too much and talking about a movie where she got to show off her body.

She raised the remote to change the channel. But just then the 8-track crackled. A thin voice came through the speakers. “Godmother, godmother, please hear my cry. I’m in need of you now, as fast as you’ll fly… oh wait, I gotta take this call.” Eloise! Dot looked at the globes. The top one was glowing blue. Not the red of an emergency, but good enough for her. She was needed!

Dot sprang into action. She stubbed out her cigarette on the scarred coffee table. Lifting herself off of the sofa in a blur of buzzing wings, she floated to the kitchen, grabbed her wand and handbag, zipped to the card table, touched up her lipstick, then flew to the bookshelf.

She grabbed the top globe and gave it a shake. The petals swirled, then settled. The estate was replaced with a bedroom done up in lace and pink satin. Eloise clutched her necklace in both hands. It was off her neck! A 17-year-old girl sat on the edge of an enormous bed, huddled over an elaborate lavender dress. One of the sleeves of the dress dangled, obviously torn. The girl was frozen in mid-wail. “Oh, my poor dear,” said Dot.

Focusing on the globe, she sank into the scene, pushing into the plastic bubble like a finger into jello. With a pop, she found herself floating in a corner of the room, looking down at the girl. Her wings buzzed furiously. She slipped the globe into her handbag.

“You look like you need some help, girl,” said Dot.

Eloise looked at her and grinned. The girl looked up, face streaming with mascara. In an instant, her pain turned to annoyance. “Who the hell are you?”

“Glory! Hasn’t your mother told you nothin’?

Eloise touched the girl’s shoulder. “Brittany, sweetie. I want you to meet someone very, very special. This is Dot, your Fairy Godmother.” Dot floated down to the lush ivory carpet and landed with her hands spread out daintily, wand clutched in the fingertips of her right hand.

Brittany scanned Dot from her tennis shoes to her white poof. Dot recognized that look. It was the same as the one those ladies from the auxiliary used. The snooty ones with the sharp noses and shoulder pads. Dot swallowed and gave her a sweet smile, tugging down her sweatshirt with her free hand. “You have got to be kidding me,” said Brittany.

“Nope. I’m real! Flesh and bone and wings. And good looks, of course.” She lifted off her feet and gave a little swirl for effect.

The girl blanched. “Phew! What is that smell? Is that menthol?”

“Oh, sorry.” Dot spared a flick of the wand, bathing the room in the scent of roses.

Eloise glanced from Dot to her daughter with an awkward smile. “Brittany, I’ve been waiting for a long time to do this.” Dot felt her heart leap. It beat faster than the wings on her back. With an air of grand ceremony, Eloise unclasped her necklace and fastened it around Brittany’s neck.

Brittany lifted the pink diamond heartstone dangling on the thin platinum chain. “I can’t wear this,” she said.

“What?” asked Eloise.

“Are you kidding? It doesn’t go with this dress. It doesn’t go with anything I have.”

Eloise grabbed the gemstone. “Sweetie, this is a real diamond! Do you have any idea how much this is worth?”

Dot floated back a bit. This wasn’t going at all like she expected.

Brittany took another look at the gem, angling it in the light. “Fine,” she said. “But I can’t wear it with this dress.”

Dot raised her wand. “Oh that’s all right, girl. I can fix up that dress and change the color to boot. Anything you want.”

The girl sneered at Dot’s shoes and pulled the dress toward her. “Like hell you will. What do you know about chiffon?”

“Brittany!” said Eloise. “What’s gotten into you? Let her fix the dress!”

“Ohmigod, mom! This is like the biggest night of my life. Trevor’s taking us to Mt. Tam after the prom. Everybody’s going. I can’t go looking like I got puked out of a trailer park! Besides, I already texted Usha.” They heard a gong through a speaker in the ceiling. “Oh! There she is.”

She dumped the dress on the floor and ran to an intercom built into the wall. An older woman’s voice crackled through. “Usha Rama –”

“Let her up,” she said.

“Now wait a second,” said Eloise. “When did you have time to text her? I came in right when you started your hissy fit.”

“It was so not a hissy fit,” said Brittany. Somehow she looked petulant and guilty all at once.

The door burst open. A girl Brittany’s age charged in and screamed at the dress. Brittany screamed with her. Dot held her hands over her ears. They sounded like tea kettles.

“Ohmigod, Brittany!” said Usha. “Your dress!” Usha wore a slinky black dress with thin shoulder straps and a hem that made Dot think surely the rest of it was in that garment bag she carried. “Don’t worry, girl, Usha’s here with backup.” She threw the garment bag on the bed and unzipped it.

When Brittany pulled out a tiny black number identical to Usha’s, they both started screaming again. Eloise stared at the dress in shock. “Oh, hell no,” she said. “You are not wearing a hoochi dress to the prom. No way.”

“Oh, mom. Come on! I look like a reject from the 80s in that thing.”

“Do you have any idea how much that ‘thing’ cost me? I’m not going to have my daughter looking like a ho. No offense, Usha.”

Usha crossed her legs and grinned. “None taken.” Dot looked down and turned beet red. From her vantage point she could tell the girl had forgotten more than pants. She floated backwards, hugging her arms over her chest.

“Oh my god, Oosh,” said Brittany. “You totally saved my ass!”

Eloise rolled her eyes. “Spare me,” she said. “You really think I didn’t try that crap with my own mother? You ripped that dress on purpose.”


Brittany glanced up at Dot, as if embarrassed by her presence. Trying to sound cheerful, Dot said, “Don’t worry. Your friend can’t see me.” She fluttered back up to the ceiling.

As mother and daughter argued, Dot watched the carpet. She patted her hair into place and tugged on her pretty sweatshirt. Nodding with a sad half-smile, she pulled the globe out of her handbag. It showed a gleaming silver double-wide trailer on a small plot sprinkled with fairy lawn ornaments. Pushing her owl glasses up her nose, she stared into the globe.

Dot knew she should’ve stayed home. But after Brittany and what-all, the double-wide was just too small, too empty. Too dark. She just had to get out amongst ’em.

And now she regretted it. She could tell the other ladies were talking. They clumped together, looking at her and whispering, their sequined gowns hanging off their bones like drapes off a hanger. She wondered how they avoided slicing each other with those noses or tangling up their wiry black bouffants.

She hated coming to the Godmother’s Auxiliary. If it wasn’t for the casseroles, she wouldn’t come at all. She was leaned across the buffet table, head propped in her hand. With an idle flick, she zapped a styrofoam plate and a ham and noodle casserole. They both sprouted arms and legs and began to do-si-do, joining some red plastic cups and clear forks in a square dance.

“Dorothea Winifred! What’re you wastin’ your blessins on the cutlery for! I declare.”

A squat woman with curly blond ringlets floated over to the table. Her wand, a slender ivory rod topped with a pearl-white orb, was tucked between her ample breasts. Both hands held cups of punch. Copious amounts of off-white chiffon and tulle rustled as she buzzed over on transparent wings.

“Well what else are they good for, Pearl,” said Dot. She flicked her wand at a vegetable tray, which sprouted legs and skittered across the table, dropping broccoli florets like poop.

“Oh, now.” Pearl set the cups down and pulled up a folding chair. Sitting next to her, she put an arm around Dot. “The other ladies is talkin’, you know.”

“Well excuse me but I just don’t give a dadgum.”

“What’s wrong, Dot. This ain’t like you. D’joo get a call today?” Dot nodded. “I’m guessin’ it didn’t go so well.”

In reply, Dot zapped the potato salad. It gathered itself up in a ball and jumped out of its dish, then rolled itself across the table and into a row of Dr. Pepper cans like a mushy bowling ball. Instead of knocking over the cans, it fell apart in a lumpy white mess. A cluster of ladies glanced back with pinched lips and whispered.

“Now see,” said Pearl. “You done wasted all your magics.” She reached over and gently took Dot’s wand. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut you off, Dot. You ain’t gonna be no good to no one in this state.”

“Well I ain’t anyway, now am I.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I got passed along today.”

Pearl gasped. Dot grabbed one of the square dancing forks and scooped some potato salad off the table. The fork’s little legs kicked as she ate. “I just don’t understand it, Pearl. All I ever wanted was to help my kiddies. That’s all.”

“Aw honey…” Pearl rubbed her back, careful not to touch the wings.

“I been sittin’ in that trailer every day for, I don’t know how long. Waitin’ for the big day. The wonder, the pageantry.” She tried to scoop up another bite, but the fork twisted away and ran off down the table. “I guess they just don’t need me no more.”

Pearl reared back. “What’s all this! That ain’t the Dot I know.”

They heard the clack-clack-clack of hard heels on the floor. “Aunt Dot! Aunt Dot!” A little girl ran up to Dot. She wore a frilly white taffeta and tulle dress with a pink silk bow in front. On her head she wore a crown that looked suspiciously like a molar. Waving a wand made of rolled up purple construction paper, she did a pirouette. “Lookatme! I’m gonna be a tooth fairy, just like my mamaw!” On her back, she’d sprouted two tiny wings, like those of a giant fly.

“Oh there’s my grandbaby.” Pearl scooped her up to give her a kiss, then set her back on the floor. “Ain’t they just the cutest things? Just grew out last week. They’s her first pair.”

“Ain’t you precious!” said Dot. “Can you use those things yet?”

The girl nodded and grinned, showing off a gaping hole where her front teeth used to be. Making little fists, she gave her wings a buzz. They were just strong enough to lift her heels off the floor and pitch her forward. She fell face first into a cloud of tulle. Picking herself up, she straightened her crown, wiped her nose on an arm, and ran off, clacking across the floor with a raised wand.

Dot watched her, smiling. As the girl disappeared, Dot’s gaze drifted down to her hands. “Pearl, you’re a lucky woman. You know that?”

Pearl watched her, opening and closing her mouth. Finally, she reached down and hugged Dot close. “Dot, you don’t need young ‘uns to make your mark. You mean the world to more people than you can imagine. And you are loved by all of them. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Dot looked up. Pearl smiled warmly at her friend. Chuckling, Dot grabbed Pearl’s fingers and shook them in silent gratitude.

“C’mon,” said Pearl, helping Dot to her feet. “Let’s get you home.”

Dot sank into her chair. It was late. The moon had risen over the trailer park. She set her wand on the nightstand and poured a glass of sherry. Lighting a menthol, she pointed the remote at the TV and brought up static. A few channels later she settled on an infomercial. They were showing off a blender to a bunch of friends who laughed and slapped each other on the back when one of them made guacamole.

After a few minutes, she couldn’t take it anymore. She had to have one of them blenders. She flicked her wand at the phone across the room but it only lurched slightly. “Dadgummit,” she said. “Dry as a bone.” She rose out of the chair, shoving the wand into her back pocket.

Halfway across the room, she saw it. Brittany’s globe held a small storm of rose petals.

It was glowing red.

Gasping, she shot to the bookcase and snatched up the globe. When the petals cleared, she saw a two-lane mountain road, bordered by a cliff. Someone in a black dress was clinging to an outcropping several feet below the edge of the cliff.

In a heartbeat, Dot was through. She popped into the sky and shot down toward the girl. The tea kettle scream pierced the air as Brittany hugged the cliff face.

“You hold on, Brittany!” shouted Dot. She snatched her wand out of her pocket and flicked it at a nearby branch. The branch shuddered and lay still. She tried again. Nothing. “Shit!”

Shoving the wand back in a pocket, she circled the girl. “Hang on! For glory’s sake, hang on!”

The girl spoke in sobs. “Trevor tried to…he tried to…I got out…was dark…I didn’t see…Help me! Oh God, help me!” She screamed.

Dot buzzed over the road, looking for something, anything. In the faint glow of the moonlight, she could see a scrape at the edge of the cliff beside the road. That must’ve been where the girl slipped. She’d fallen about six feet and hit an outcropping, then grabbed the edge of that on the way over. In the dark, Dot couldn’t even see the bottom of the drop-off. She put a hand to her mouth when she saw how close the girl had come.

“Do something! Please!”

“Hang on!”

Dot buzzed back and forth along the cliff. Nothing. No tree. No scraps. Nothing she could use. She tossed her globe onto the side of the road, useless for now.

Dot pushed up her sleeves. She dove into the abyss, then looped up and over, coming up from beneath the girl. Grabbing Brittany around the waist, she beat her wings furiously. Brittany relaxed her grip slightly. One hand slipped off. “No! Don’t let go! Hold on!”

“Can’t you carry me?” shouted the girl, sobbing.

“Darlin’, I can barely keep my own big ass in the air. Now _grab that ledge!_ Dot pushed upward, willing the girl toward the road. She felt a sting at the base of her wings. She’d never pushed herself like this and she wasn’t in the best shape to begin with.

Brittany clutched at the rock with fingers bent like claws. Dot could feel the girl’s back tighten.

“Pull yourself up, girl! You can do it! I know you can!”

Brittany cried and relaxed, barely keeping her grip.

Dot began to panic. She should’ve been there sooner. She’d never been late to a call. Looking at the abyss behind her, Dot made up her mind then and there. If the girl let go, they were both going down.

In a calm voice, she leaned toward Brittany’s ear and said, “Listen to me. I been watching you your whole life, girl. I watched over your momma and her momma before that. And I know you come from strong stock.”

She grunted, pushing upward. Her wings felt like they were going to fall off. “Now just focus. And put some back into it. You can pull yourself up.”

“Don’t let go. Please.”

“I ain’t lettin’ go. Now pull.”

She felt something shift in the girl. Dot felt Brittany’s muscles tense, felt a surge of strength that held for a moment, then released. “I can’t,” said Brittany.

“You’re doing great. Just try again.” Dot wanted to cry, her wing muscles burned so bad.

Brittany tensed again. “There you go,” said Dot. “Now pull. I gotcha.”

Slowly, they lifted higher. The girl hugged the outcropping with both arms.

“You gotta do this, darlin’. Now take a deep breath and pull.” Dot pressed her head against the girl’s back and squeezed even harder. The intense buzz of her wings almost drowned out the girl’s pounding heartbeat. With a grunt that turned into a growl, Brittany began to pull herself up.

Inch by inch, they lifted higher. “That’s it,” she whispered. “That’s my girl.” Dot could feel her trembling. “Almost there.” Brittany’s growl rose into a bloody scream. Pulling herself up to her shoulders, she found a hold closer to the wall.

“That’s it. That’s it,” said Dot. She could feel some of the weight lessen.

Boosted by Dot, Brittany threw her other arm forward and found a crack Dot couldn’t even see. The girl’s chest and stomach scraped across the rocks as she pulled herself over.

Brittany’s waist cleared the edge of the outcropping. She lifted a knee over the edge. “That’s it! Climb on up,” shouted Dot.

“There’s not enough room!”

“There’s room. Just hug the wall. And watch those feet.”

The girl pushed with her leg, supported by Dot, and brought her other foot up. Dot held onto her as she stood. She stepped forward and hugged the face of the cliff with about a foot’s clearance behind her. Crying, she said, “I’m so scared. Please don’t leave me.”

“I’m right here, girl. Don’t you worry.” Slowly, she eased up, keeping one hand pressed against the girl’s back. “Now just stay put.” She let go.

“No, don’t go!” shrieked Brittany.

“It’s ok, it’s ok. I’ll be right back.” Massaging her wing muscles with one hand, Dot zipped over the cliff and scraped together dried leaves and grass into a pile. She felt for wind. Fortunately, the night was still. Scooping up the pile, she flew to the middle of the road and formed a small mound.

She fished into her pockets, her fingers getting stuck on her rings. “Glory!” she said, yanking the rings off. She pulled out her Bic and lit the pile of leaves.

Diving over the cliff, she joined Brittany. “Wh-what are you doing?” asked the girl.

“Welp, no one can see me but you. And no one can hear you if they’re truckin’ along past you, now can they?” She hovered next to the girl and smiled.

Brittany looked at her with glistening eyes. Her makeup was smeared, her hair in wild tufts around her head. She wiped her nose and sniffed. “I-I never asked your name.”

“All my friends call me Dot.”

The girl sniffed again. “Thank you, Dot.” She sobbed. “Thank you so much.”

“Oh, now. It’s what godmothers is for.” Dot put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. Pressing close to the wall, Brittany turned and put out her arms. Dot flew into her hug. The girl shuddered, gripping Dot in a tight embrace.

“I am so, so sorry,” said Brittany through her tears.

“Hush now. Shhh.” Dot patted her on the back.

Above them, a car screeched to a stop, and a face peered over the cliff’s edge. “Ohmigod! Brittany! What are you doing!”

“Claire! You’ve got to help me. Call 911! Please!”

As Brittany stretched her arms across the cliff face again, Dot drifted back and wiggled her fingers in parting. She snatched up her globe, then soared into the sky. Brittany watched her the whole way.

Justin Whitney recently returned to Texas after a 10-year stint in San Francisco, California, where he consorted with fae of all kind. He brought a bit of that magic with him to the small town where he now lives with his black cat. As a mediator between the magical and the mundane, he writes redneck fantasy, in which mystical beings make a home in rural East Texas.

Image: Paper Moon, vintage postcard, public domain.

 Posted by at 4:24 pm
Sep 302010

Imagine vivisection
at cellular level.
Live extraction or
structural change induced
by heat. Acid.
Or some base applied
as biochemistry
or magic dictates —
turning what is without harm
to poison. There is
a reason to do it.
There is.

The dog loved to run.
His blood carried messages
from generations of canids
traveling in packs through snow-clad woods.
Now, he’s obedient
and slowly circles the drive
to do his business.

Her husband leafed out yearly —
green-blushed, boreal.
A Merlin held in the branches
of old growth. Some believe
the druid’s prison was oak
or hawthorn or dark-hearted conifer.
Others, that the entrapment was stone.
They are all wrong.
Such things were of his nature,
and no jail.
Instead, the witch took him
away. Denatured him.

They are all still breathing:
wolf-dog, druid, witch.
But when she looks at the profile
of the man in bed beside her,
she abjures reason.
She remembers instead
the wild she loved
when she took possession.
She counts what’s in her heart —
that glacial penitentiary — now
sliding to its terminal moraine.

Sabrina Vourvoulias was born in Bangkok, Thailand—the daughter of a Guatemalan-Mexican artist and an American businessman—but grew up in Guatemala. She moved to the United States when she was 15 and studied fiction at Sarah Lawrence College (in Bronxville, N.Y.) with Allan Gurganus, and poetry with Jane Shore and John Skoyles. Her poems have been published in Graham House Review (11 and 13), the We’Moon 2000 calendar, and the May 2010 edition of Scheherezade’s Bequest. Most of her publication credits and writing awards have been for her work as staff writer and editor of small local newspapers in New York State and Pennsylvania. She lives in Glenmoore, Pa. with her husband and daughter.

Image: The Beguiling of Merlin, Edward Burne Jones, 1874.

 Posted by at 4:24 pm
Sep 302010

I was made to work hard while my laggard mother sat idle. I cleaned the flues of soot, washed the chamber pot, scrubbed the floors and plucked the hairs off her chin–and all before the sun came up every morning! That is a lot of work for a lazy girl like me.

I dreamed of being a Squire’s wife, with dresses of velvet and wool to wear like the fine ladies that brought the flax to spin. But it seemed like a silly dream for a peasant girl. What Squire will marry a peasant?

Feeling sorry for myself, I wept and wept and my cries were heard right throughout the village.

“Aye, there cries the bone lazy daughter of the sow!” Tina, the village gossip cried out for the streets to hear while she washed whores’ stained sheets.

I usually found Tina’s gossip spat out as she spun that wooden peg dolly entertaining; it made it easier to get a day’s work done when you had stories to stop and listen to. This time, though, I was annoyed because the story was about me.

I was just about to crane my neck out the window and hurl insults at Tina and tell her to shut up when I noticed Mistress Anna Furba, the local Squire’s mother, passing by on her return from the King’s estate. She adored Tina’s gossip and paid in gold coins for every tale told. Re-telling Tina’s tales made Mistress Furba popular in the boring courts of the King where women longed to be entertained with stories embellished from a banal truth. I was about to scream out that if she was going to be telling my story, then I wanted some of that gold but decided to listen first.

The gentle lady strode up to Tina and picked her skirts up so that the hem of her dress stayed dry and said, “Tina, why does the bone lazy daughter of the viperous sow cry?”

“How much will you pay me for such a tale?” Her arms were elbow high in soapy water and her face red from vigorous scrubbing.

“A gold coin.”

Tina offered the lady a wet, soapy hand and Mistress Furba put the coin on her outstretched wrinkled palm. Tina shoved it into the recesses of her bosom and answered something I didn’t expect. “The Viperous Sow’s daughter is not bone lazy at all.”

Mistress Furba sighed. “Give me the gold coin back if this is all you can give me.” She plunged her hands down the abyss that was Tina’s cleavage but the washerwoman leaned back, clutching her chest.

“Not so fast,” Tina said, “Clorinda is a good girl and cannot stop spinning flax. She spins and spins, day in and out, to the point that she does no other chores. Her mother, being a poor woman like myself, does not have enough flax to provide her so she beats her to stop. Like a mad frenzy, it is. Can you not hear the girl weeping?”

I took the cue and wept louder; maybe Mistress Furba would reward me if she thought I was a hard-working girl beaten by her mother. I shrieked, “Please stop, Mother! Stop! I cannot help the way I am.”

Now my mother had not heard the conversation between Tina and the gentle lady but she did hear me and thought I was admitting to my lazy ways. She came to my room holding the reed brush and said, “Aye, you cannot–but a few more beatings will change your way of thinking.” I strained to hear the rest of the conversation while guarding my head with hands and howling as loudly as I could.

“Is this true?” The lady asked. “I have much flax that needs spinning and could do with someone to finish this work and bring in some extra money.”

Mother stopped to catch her breath and I rushed to the window to lean out and watch Tina and Mistress Furba. She had the most beautiful dress of green velvet trimmed with white fur–it made me forget about my stinging skin and aching back. Now to have a fine dress like that!

Even though my mother had stopped beating me, I kept howling and crying and saw Mistress Furba’s face wince at the pained tone of my voice.

Tina sat upright and leaned foward. “This is a true tale, Mistress Furba. Cross my heart and swear to die, in stories are truths…”

“Yes, yes.” Mistress Furba threw another gold coin into the soapy water.

But Mistress Furba didn’t hear the rest of Tina’s rhyme. Chin high, she strode towards the little cottage and rapped at the open front door while I sat wailing. My mother, who hated me crying for no reason, started to beat me again with her reed brush.

“Now you’ve got something to cry about!” My mother said.

“Stop beating that poor girl!” The lady walked through the door without invitation and stood over my mother. I stifled a smile.

My mother looked up in surprise and curtsied, “Oh, Mistress Furba, my daughter is so bone lazy, she–”

“Nonsense! Tina has told me. How she spins and spins and you have not enough flax to keep up. Do not beat her for her hardworking nature; I have plenty of flax that needs spinning.”

“My daughter is lazy! What would you do with her?” My mother had put the broom down, though, willing to listen.

“If she spins it all, as payment, she can marry my son. I would like a hard working daughter-in-law.”

The prospect of marrying me off to the Squire of the village was too good an offer to refuse. My mother leaned closer to Mistress Furba and smiled as sweetly as she could, revealing her fetid gums and missing front tooth.

“What if she cannot spin all the flax?”

Mistress Furba of course hadn’t thought about that. Tina’s tales were truth; well, she wanted them to be and that was enough to make things true. She’d also paid two gold coins to the washerwoman for the story.

She shrugged her shoulders and took the broom from my mother’s hands, “If she cannot spin all the flax, I’ll beat her with that broom of yours and then cut off her head.”

I gulped and my mother pinched me to be silent. I just stared at that green, velvet dress; its beauty was enough to silence me without the pinch.

“Come Clorinda, gather your belongings, we have much work to do. Don’t worry. I have a foot treadle; this will free both hands to guide the thread. Foot treadles have made flax spinning a quicker task indeed.”

“Will I wear nice dresses like yours when I’m wedded?” I asked and fondled her skirt between my fingers. Its velvetiness made me tingle with delight.

My mother pinched my arm tighter and whispered, “Do what she says, and you can repay me for having looked after you, useless girl. See what happens now if you don’t work!”

And I was sent to my fate: to spin or die.

To be wedded or beheaded.

I cried for three days. Locked in a room full of flax, a spinning wheel and treadle, I felt sorry for myself. Time was running out before Mistress Furba would have my head cut off and I wouldn’t get to marry into wealth and wear fine dresses and eat food that made a thin belly round.

The thought of my head rolling off the block for her friends’ entertainment made me wail again and again; my cries were heard far and wide.

“There cries, Clorinda, so lazy she cannot take this opportunity I have given her to spin flax and marry a noble man!” Tina lamented as she washed soiled linen.

And this time, Tina’s laments were heard not by Mistress Furba, but three, lonely, old spinner crones, with no family but each other who lived across the square from Tina. Whir, whir, whir, was the only sound they usually heard because spinners they were. The whirs were drowned out by the sorrow in my wailing.

And as they licked the thread, pressed the pedal and made sure the spindle was full of wound thread, a moment of weakness came over them. They stopped spinning and followed the cries to the back spinning quarters of Mistress Furba’s estate.

“I’m Magdalena and these are my sisters, Mariuccia and Maria. What troubles you, girl?” The three crones asked. Their appearance frightened me: Magdalena with gargantuan lips, Mariuccia with a club foot and Maria with a gigantesque thumb. I huddled into a corner.

Magdalena pressed her face against the window of my work-room. Her flabby lips conjured up images of the lips we hide beneath our skirts.

Then, Mariuccia, hobbled over to join her at the window. “Well, would you rather a small dwarfish looking man came to your aid demanding your firstborn child instead?” She snapped at me.

“It could be arranged!” Maria said and wiped the sweat of her cheek with her extra large thumb that made me look away. Red and erect, it looked like a male appendage.

Mariuccia butted in. “I’ve hobbled quite a distance to get to Mistress Furba’s estate for nothing!”

The three crones began to walk away muttering something about calling a little impish man instead when I yelled out to them, “Don’t go! The Mistress Furba thinks I can spin all this flax in this room in the next three days. If I do, I marry her son and become a Squire’s wife. If I don’t, I’ll be beheaded in this awful dress!” I cried.

I fell to my knees and heaved so that the tears fell.

When I looked up, I saw their expressions softened, Maria with tears in her eyes. I was a young girl with the same fate as their own: spin or die.

“There, there,” Maria said, stroking my face with that big thumb. “Help us climb through the window to help you.”

I kissed her thumb in gratitude. It was difficult squeezing in Mariuccia but I managed to get all three of them into my work room.

“We will spin all your flax, if you acknowledge us as your Aunties from this point on and, at your wedding, have us seated at your table as your guests of honour,” Magdalena said.

“And some regular treats from the larder and a few stolen gold coins every now and then, just like you would if we were real family and one of ours had made a good marriage,” Maria added. “Do you agree?”

I nodded my head. From now on, they would be my family; my mother could stay poor. I crossed my heart with Maria’s large thumb. Kissed Mariuccia’s club foot and Magdalena’s large lips.

The deed was done. They whir, whir, whirred all through the night and spun all the flax into linen.

They saved my life.

I promised them that as my family, we would share the wealth that would come with my wedding.

When Mistress Furba saw all the flax spun into linen, she was delighted and paid Tina five gold coins. True to her word, she had me marry her son (and sent for more flax to be delivered to my room). True to their word, Magdalena, Mariuccia and Maria came to my nuptials as my Aunties. True to my word, my Aunties sat next to me at the wedding celebrations.

“Who are these vile women? My new husband asked me at the reception, shuddering at their appearance as they all took their places next to mine.

“My Aunties.”

My Aunties giggled like maidens. I paused long enough for them to stop before I whispered to him, “Do not embarrass them with your stares, for very good Aunties they have been to me.”

“But Clorinda, how can a maiden as pretty as yourself, having created such fine threads for my mother…how can you be related to such deformed creatures?” He asked, perplexed.

“Hush, please. They are my family!”

Filippo bent his head and whispered in my ear, “I cannot kiss their faces to greet them. I cannot.”

“Then, kiss their hands.”

He kissed Mariuccia and Magdelena’s hand.

As he raised Maria’s from under her silk shawl, he noticed the large red and erect thumb and dropped her hand hastily and kissed her face.

“…Nice to…meet -Aunties,” he said, stumbling over his words.

“Yes, Filippo. We thank you for the fine gifts you have given Clorinda’s relatives,” Maria answered him stroking his face with her large thumb.

My husband tilted his head back, “How –ow, ow, di, did you become so, well, deformed?”

Mariuccia popped a sugared almond in her mouth and said, “I developed my club foot from having to press the foot treadle day in, day out, the life of a spinner is…”

Maria interrupted leaning in close to his face. “And I got this large thumb from making sure the spindle is full of wound thread.” Maria showed off her appendage.

Magdalena reached over to Filippo, dribbling on his shoulder. “My lips, dear nephew, I got them from licking the thread day in, day out…”

“Enough, enough,” he said and wiped at his shoulder in case any of Magdalena’s dribble had reached him.

Then, Filippo, stood up and said, “Wife, you will never spin again. I would rather a lazy wife than an ugly one, and if you spin as much as they do, then perhaps your Aunts serve as a warning to your future.”

I touched the velvet on my beautiful new frock and looked up at him and batted my long lashes at him.

“No. You will never spin again.”

He kissed me on my forehead and walked towards his mother to tell her of my idle future.

I caught Mariuccia’s attention and beckoned for her to follow me outside. She pinched Maria and Magdalena’s arms and they followed her out to the back of the barn where it smelled of dung and hay.

“I will never have to spin again!” I squealed.

“Praise for old wives’ tales!” Mariuccia whispered and threw a pistachio in the air and caught it in her mouth.

Maria chuckled and hit me playfully on the arm.

Then Magdalena pulled out a tambourine and began to sing:

So now we all laugh with very full bellies
And Tina lives happily with many gold pennies
Who would have thought, three crones and a maid
Could outsmart nobility, be so finely paid,
Cross our hearts and hope to die
In Stories lie truths and in truths also lies

That night I danced in my beautiful cream coloured velvet dress, embroidered with gold thread and as I danced with my new husband, I choreographed my future.

I looked over Filippo’s shoulder and winked at my Aunties.

I knew that spinning a yarn saved more women’s lives than spinning flax into linen.

Angela Rega is a belly-dancing high school librarian with a passion for folklore, fairy tales and furry creatures.  A graduate of the Clarion South Workshop, Angie’s short stories have appeared in Straying From the Path:New Tales of Little Red, Belong, Worlds Next Door and Cezanne’s Carrot. In more adventurous days, she lived in Chile, South America teaching English and belly dancing.

Image: The Spinning Wheel, Leon-Augustin L’hermitte (1841-1925).

 Posted by at 4:24 pm
Sep 302010

All of nature is divided on the subject of a loving fool. The arctic swifts and the squirrels that search through the silver skinned birch trees love love and love fools, but the seals love only love and the squid in their homes down deep know nothing of love but are impressed by the antics of fools. There are some owls that do not suffer fools and will tear at the scalp of a loving fool until their hat runs red at the brim; the reindeer are much too practical to give either love or fools a thought. Witches, the ones who live in the places where the ground is always frozen, whose feet, whatever color they may once have been, are the red of an ice bear’s fresh kill and whose hands are the color of a great squid’s ink, they hate fools, love and loving fools most of all.

The Gods, we must assume, love them, for they make so many.

There was one who lived near the haunts of those witches and who loved and was a fool. She was of the old people who lived in the birches and painted orange spots above their eyes, and you will not have ever seen them, for they are long gone, dead for the most, and the rest dissolved into the lines of others so many generations back that no one knows if there still flows some of that blood, and in which vein. The world forgot her old name long before it forgot her people, because that’s the way of the world, and so for now, her name is Love Fool.

Love Fool had a lover who she much desired to marry, a lover who much desired to marry her as well, and maybe that could have been the end of it, but the people who painted orange spots above their eyes don’t work that way. In the big, grey hall where the banners hang, silver-white banners for wisdom and red banners for war, the old ones, the ones who have suffered all the pain a person can and still survive, meet and decide things. For Love Fool they decided on a different spouse, a man who did not love Love Fool, and who resented her for being chosen as his wife. The decision came late, five days before the height of summer when all the weddings are performed in long, double lines. That day, each newlywed from each couple bore a gift for the old ones to the big, grey hall and waited in turn for their blessing.

Love Fool wasted one day in shock and one day in weeping. On the third, she went to her betrothed, but he would not see her. The old folks, they liked gifts, and Love Fool, in her poverty, had no gifts to give, but perhaps the unhappy man they chose to be her husband would be able to buy his freedom and hers. Love fool spoke this to the birch planks that made his door. She would pay back half, she would pay back all, but his threshold was silent.

“Say something, even if you cannot look at me!” Love Fool pounded on the door until her fist was red and her eyes were puffy.

“Even if I could change their minds with gifts, they will remember, and return for more, and more and more. They will remember when I tried to argue with their decisions and never let me join them. I will marry you, if that’s what I must do, and wait, and when I am sitting in the big grey hall, I will know the names of their children’s children and I will squeeze them dry of happiness.”

When Love Fool heard this, she was filled with disgust. She picked up a piece of flint and gouged the warm, yellow wood of her betrothed’s door. Then she fled.

On the fourth day, Love Fool walked the stony road up to the big grey hall and pushed her way under and between the banners to the place where the old ones were taking their meal. They threw bones at her feet. Bones struck her each of the first three times she opened her mouth to speak and silenced her. The fourth time, the bone went off its aim and she spoke.

“I’ve come to beg you, do not marry me tomorrow.”

“What is this?” The old ones looked with one eye each, talked with mouths full and chewing. “Such a shabby coat. Such a shabby little mouse with such a tiny squeak has come to us. Squeak up, little mouse, our ears are hard of hearing.”

“I cannot marry the man you decided me to marry. I love him not, nor does he love me.”

“Where is your betrothed, then, if he objects to this union, shabby coat? Where are his flutes and furs and bracelets and oil?”

“They’re plotting his revenge, the misery of your grandchildren in payment for this marriage.”

The first of the old ones laughed. “You should be grateful we gave you a husband wise enough to keep his counsel.”

The second finished worrying at a bone and threw it at Love Fool’s feet. “He should curse us for fixing him with such a fool. Not even married and already dashed his chances to join our company.”

The third one grinned at her look of horror. “If you’re seeking comfort, find it in the knowledge that no one for whom we choose a shabby spouse such as yourself has any hope of coming here to live in the big grey hall. Your husband’s thoughts of vengeance are neither novel nor unexpected, and they have no hope of bearing fruit.”

The fifth took aim and struck Love Fool on the jaw with a greasy end of bone. “And find comfort in the knowledge that you may yet be a widow ‘ere too long.”

Love Fool pulled up her sleeves, showing the places on her forearms where the leaf-like marks of her lover’s sign were inscribed in ink and pin and ash on skin. “I love another! Please!”

“Oh, how her husband will beat her when he sees those on her wedding night.” The old ones laughed as one and threw their bones and leavings at her, staining Love Fool’s coat.

Love Fool ducked and when she found her hands close to the floor and the laughter raked at her like hailstones, she picked up a bone and threw it back. It struck the second of the old ones, struck the beautiful coat and fell back on the table, leaving a spot behind.

The hall fell silent.

“You little snake, slither in here with empty hand and shabby coat to question what we decide, what we want. You don’t judge us, you can’t question us. We have suffered all the pain a human being can suffer in life. We deserve everything we decide is ours and don’t you dare to tell us no. You have earned nothing, and learned nothing and suffered nothing. You are worth nothing. Begone!”

All the old ones rained cups and plates and dinner knives down on Love Fool, forcing her from the hall. Their guardians chased her with spears down the stony road, past the place where her betrothed lived, past the place where her lover lived, past the place where she lived and out into the forest, pine and spruce and birch. They chased her in the trees for hours, shouting, cursing, and promising to kill her.

Love Fool was a fast runner, and she could run for long; when she heard the last of her pursuers, she was very far from home. When she stopped she cried all the tears her body held into the roots of the silver birch, and then she rose and chose a direction to walk.

It grew dim. So far north in the high summer, the sun was never gone, but it did swell and redden and the air grew chilly. Love Fool’s coat was ripped and torn. She walked and hugged her sides and cursed herself a fool. Her wedding was undone, sure, but how to get her lover? How to even tell her lover the news? The old ones would not forget this, and neither would their guardians. Love Fool stumbled in the scarlet midnight dusk as the forest grew thick and close together. It may seem strange, having seen the worst of Love Fool’s home that she should miss it, but she had seen much better of it, and so she did miss it, and she grew tired from the chase and the tears and humiliation. She did not see the hut at first.

A witch’s hut is like a hound that knows to hunt and track and lure. The hut knew that Love Fool was vulnerable, and so it appeared to her, nestled in a stand of glowering spruces. It was a little dome the color of a bee hive. Smoke rose from a hole in the center of the roof and an orange light pushed at every seam. The door was nothing more than a bear hide across the opening. Love Fool called inside.

A hand reached out, the color of squid ink; nails like blackberry thorns, long as Love Fool’s fingers. It pulled the witch out into the clearing, lanky, tall, long arms and blood red feet. She stood head and shoulders above the dome of her house like a snail before its shell. Love Fool had no strength for running, so she stayed. She trembled, but she stayed. The witch’s coat was like a hell swallow, mostly black with flecks of scarlet, red and blue, just like the stray feathers on those birds that flew into caves and accidently learned to nest in the underworld. It was beautiful, and Love Fool could not help but think, had she a coat like that, the old ones would have given up her lover before they even thought to ask for gifts.

“So, what do you want?”

Love Fool shook her head. “Rest. I am tired from running. May I come in?” Love Fool repented those words an instant later, looking at both house and owner together, but the witch pulled back the hide and gestured her in and so she went.

Inside, the house was spacious, the ceiling high. Love Fool could see the beams but no higher. The fire was great and it howled as it burned, shedding birch leaves, green and gold, to float upward and vanish in the dark. The Witch followed her in.

“Now, what do you really want?”

“I don’t understand what you’re asking.” Love Fool didn’t completely understand, but she had suspicions.

“No one finds a witch unless they hold a desire in their heart that their lips can’t form. So, form it. Tell me what it is so that you and I can begin our enterprise.”

“My lover is–” The witch clamped a squid-ink hand around Love Fool’s mouth.

“Your lover is not the architect of this design. You have no trouble speaking those desires or inscribing them on skin. Try again, and waste not my time.”

Love Fool looked down at her coat, where the stains from the bones still spotted the fabric; the tears from fleeing the guardians. One of those tears reminded her of the gash she left in her former betrothed’s door.

“I want to get them.”

The witch smiled.

“She learns slowly, but needs be taught only once. The old ones? Difficult if you come as you are. A disguise perhaps? Something to gull the shallow, vain old bullies. Do you fancy my coat?” The witch held up the hem and posed. It pulled on her attention.

“If you and I traded garments, you could surely get close to your old ones, and I expect you could pull all sorts of terrible promises from them before they ever remembered your face or recognized your worth.”

Love Fool looked down at her coat, threadbare, stained, and torn.

“You would do that for me? What would you want in return?”

“Only what things you wear and the chance to remind the future mothers of your people to recommend me to their naughty children. That ought to do.”

“Just that?”

The witch nodded, and Love Fool paused for a moment, and then nodded back. She took off her coat. The witch took it up.

“All that which clothes you.”

Love Fool turned her back to the witch and stripped off the rest of her clothing. She looked over her shoulder; the witch had not yet taken off a stitch.

“I thought you had understood what I was asking. Oh, she does learn slowly, doesn’t she?” The witch’s squid ink hand shot out and grabbed Love Fool by the jaw, lifting her, kicking and naked off the ground.

The witch’s other hand flickered and flexed its fingers and while its owner sang, it took Love Fool like a stick and whittled her whistle-clean of skin. And when it was finished the other hand released to the floor a red, wet whistle that only played a single shrill note from wheezing, bubbling lungs. Only then did the witch undress. The wet red thing writhed on the stones, and the witch put aside her coat. She put aside her other garments, one by one, as the wet red thing left bloody prints. When she was naked, the witch tore through her skin from the inside and the wet red thing found enough air for a proper shriek.

Under her skin, there was an animal with the wedge shaped head and the webbed paws of an otter, big and sleek as a tiger, with wet fur that was darker than pitch and caught the light in greasy rainbows.

“The coat is yours, as promised.” The beast’s voice was deeper, colder, further away and genderless. It threw the coat on the wet red thing and nosed its way into Love Fool’s skin. In an eternity, a time so short as to be appalling, the beast had become Love Fool. She looked down on her former occupant.

“You don’t seem to want your coat right now?” she asked. The wet red thing could not answer.

“That’s fair. I will hold it for you in safekeeping until you wish to take it. I will be in your former home making our agreed upon mischief. Come collect it when you are ready.”

They were outside. Without moving, the hut had put them out. Love Fool held the dome of it in her hands and folded and folded it until she could slip it into the pocket of her beautiful coat, and then she turned and walked from the clearing, leaving the wet red thing keening in a bed of spruce needles and birch leaves.

Certain other types of story would stop there. This one doesn’t.

The sky darkened to nearly the dark of night with thunderclouds and the rain fell. Each raindrop was the lash of a whip on the wet red thing’s flesh. Thunder echoed off the trunks of the trees, branches lashed back and forth. The rain washed away the trail of blood that the wet red thing left in a tortured march from where Love Fool and her former self parted. Lightning flickered. The wet red thing fell and screamed, but stood up. Fell again, lay still for a moment and stood again. Dark green plants began to sprout scarlet flowers, black at the core, in the trail that the wet red thing walked.

The wet red thing did not die. When it began to hail, the blood flowed. When the water began to soak into tissues, the tissues started to drown. When the forest floor was flint and every flint a knife, those knives pointed to drive in the worst of each fall. The wet red thing did not die, but walked a weary, tormented path to the stand of birches that Love Fool watered once with tears. The wet red thing stopped there and looked at the trees and the world turned white.

There was a sound, too big, too close to hear. One of the birch trees exploded with the lightning strike, breaking apart near head height. It fell, knocking down a sister in the stand. The wet red thing looked up at the sky and did not die, and did not hurt; somewhere along that trail, the wet red thing suffered all the pain that can be suffered in a lifetime, and looked at the fallen tree with only wonder.

Sheets of silver bark hung from the broken places in the trunk; under that, something green and desperate still flowed and pulsed and reached out for its roots. The wet red thing touched the green beneath the bark and the green grew quieter. Here was the iron taste of earth; the wet red thing felt the calm and realized what needed to be done.

In the rain, in the tossing and lashing of the branches, the fall of leaves, green and gold, the wet red thing stripped the bark off the fallen trees with living green beneath, and fitted it, strip by strip to flesh. Once the green beneath the bark came to understand what the wet red thing was doing it began to slough from the dead trunk and shape itself to the body that put it on.

It took longer than it took the witch to put on Love Fool, but it did not take long; Birch Skin’s hands were fast and her heart had moved past suffering into clarity and purpose alone. She made herself a silver girl skin, seamed at first, awkward, tied in places with pine needles, squelching with water from the soaked tissues beneath, but as she worked, it became as skin and hair sprouted at the scalp and grew in thick and long, red-black like the color of birch twigs.

They say the flesh beneath that silver skin became as hard as wood.

Birch Skin took a sliver of flint and carved the leaf-shapes of her lover’s sign into her forearms and blackened them with the ash from where the lighting struck the tree. She made herself a tunic of birch leaves that grew together, green and gold, and a coat of the leavings of her resurrection; the silver of moonlight, the silver of clouds, the grey of flint, the black of the storm that broke above her.

Birch Skin made her way past Love Fool’s home, open and empty, ransacked by her neighbors the moment her fleeing form was out of sight. She passed the home of her lover, the one she meant to steal back from Love Fool when they met. She passed the home of Love Fool’s intended, the one she was meant to marry once the sun was at its lowest on the night of the solstice; that was still hours off, but not many. She walked up the stony road to the big grey hall and pushed her way around the double line of people, happy and sad who had come to the hall to be married. She pressed aside the silver white and red banners and stood before the old ones, where they were holding audience for Love Fool and her lover. They were half enchanted by her stories and her promise of routes to hidden treasure, and half enchanted by her coat.

They half rose when Birch Skin came before them, but they saw that her coat was the kind of silver that any fish would crow to wear and were still.

“You’re welcome here.” They all nodded. Love Fool narrowed her eyes at the newcomer.

“How can we serve you?”

Birch Skin looked them over. Then she looked to Love Fool, and then to her lover.

“I have much business to discuss today, but I know your time is short, so I will be brief.”

Birch skin turned to Love Fool. “I’ve come for the return of the garments you promised me, coat and all.”

Love Fool narrowed her eyes at Birch Skin, but there was no recognition there. “I’ve never met you. I have no idea what you mean, and I owe you nothing.”

“So you’re saying our deal is forfeit?”

“Of course it’s forfeit! How can it not be when–” It was a slip on the part of the witch inside the skin. They’re always a little careless when their skins are fresh. The cunning comes back with the reddening of the feet and the inking of the hands.

“What’s going on?” Love Fool’s lover took her hand and pulled her protectively close. Birch Skin’s mouth smiled, just a little, her heart jumped.

“This isn’t your lover. Look.” Birch Skin pulled back the sleeves of the witch’s coat, showing the marks on Love Fool’s arms, through which black fur poked and the marks Birch Skin had made in her own arms. Love Fool’s lover saw them both.

“Our bargain is forfeit.” Birch Skin took back her garments and thrashed the beast inside the skin up and down the hall with fists as hard as stove wood. The old ones sat paralyzed, and when she turned her eyes back to them, they flinched.

“We’re happy to see you’ve resolved that dispute. Is there… anything else we can do?”

“Yes. I would like to join you.” This caused a moment or two of mumbling, back and forth.

“I don’t think that’s possible. Even though your skin is silver your hair is still black, your face still young, your vigor…” They all looked at the result of Birch Skin’s fight with the beast.

“But I have suffered all the pain a human can, so I am eligible, despite my age.”

“How can we know that?”

Birch Skin reached into a brazier and took a hand full of coals. Then stuffed them into her mouth, chewed and breathed a cloud of sparks over the old ones that singed their hair and burned little holes in their best coats. She then stuck her unblistered and unscarred tongue out to the old ones to view. None could think of a counter argument.

When the couples began to come in for their weddings, Birch Skin sat and asked each couple if they wanted to be with one another. Any couple who both said yes she married; any others she sent away. Each one left with a gift from the old ones’ stores.

At the close of all this, the sun was returning to dominance in the sky and the only ones left were the old ones, mortified and yawning, and Love Fool’s lover, looking thoughtful.

“You were my Love Fool?”

“I was, but I don’t think I could be her again.” She left the Love Fool skin where it fell for the old ones to handle; it didn’t feel like it was hers.

“Would you come with me anyway, out into the forest?” She asked.

“Would you have me come with you?”

Birch Skin stretched out her hand, her lover took it. She turned back to the old ones.

“If you are cruel to anyone in your care, I will have them know to come to the place in the forest where the lightning struck down the trees and make their case. I will come back, then and you will have to make yours.”

The old ones, who had not quite suffered all the pains a human being can suffer, had nothing to say. Birch Skin and her lover left them and walked into the forest with a folded witch’s hut and their coats trimmed with thick, dark fur.

Erik Amundsen is kind of an evil person, but he caucuses with good. He lives with his wife, and some animals in central Connecticut.

Image: Birch, photography by Andreas, made available under a NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

 Posted by at 4:24 pm

The Beauty Beyond by Sarah E. Colona

 Issue 11 (Sept 2010)  Comments Off on The Beauty Beyond by Sarah E. Colona
Sep 302010

I too tire of the blonde trance
Parapets and horse-drawn paths
Upon which our story’s cast
Of flat characters flee to wedded ends

Imagination travels further: it must
Devour cliché as a desert creature
Perhaps a jackal-headed Beast
Guards a blue lotus and not the rose

At present, Sarah Elizabeth Colona finds herself caught between New Jersey and Virginia. You may find her poems in past issues of CdF and Jabberwocky.

Image: Girl with Lotus Leaf, Hong Viet Dung, 2003. (I’ve used this image without permission because I want to draw your attention to the artwork of Hong Viet Dung. If asked to remove it, I will.)

 Posted by at 4:23 pm
Sep 302010

by Daniel A. Rabuzzi

“Movement forms the basis of all values…Mankind is ruled by a longing [Sehnsucht] to free ourselves from earthly bonds, to lift ourselves buoyantly by swimming and flying, free ourselves with propulsive motion [Schwung]. …which triumphs over gravity. Let me wield [schwingen] especially widely the powers that overcome Earth’s hold upon us….”

—Paul Klee, Kunst-Lehre (c. 1920) [trans. Daniel A. Rabuzzi]

”It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing).”

—Duke Ellington & Irving Mills (1931).

Music is a compass and pass-key to Faerie. We keep an ear cocked hoping to catch the notes of “a far distant post-horn across the silent, starlit land” as von Eichendorff put it…sometimes we are fortunate, most times we are not. Still, we persevere, seeking ever the chords to both express and guide our Sehnsucht. The kind of music is irrelevant–any and all kinds can take one beyond the fields we know (music of whatever sort poorly played is, of course, another matter altogether). Many conveyances, the same destination…

For instance, I am transported–as many others are–by Loreena McKennitt, Kate Bush, Enya, Stevie Nicks, Maddy Prior, Annie Haslam, Bjork, P.J. Harvey, Toni Childs, Tori Amos. Elegiac, ethereal, haunting…Titania’s choir summoning the Queen of Elfland out of the hill, calling Hecate down from the moon. With the same effect, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Ellen Kushner sing and Sonya Taaffe as well. Along similar lines: have you seen the S.J. Tucker/Cat Valente video promoting the latter’s novel Palimpsest?

But stronger for me is the spell set by drums, drums and the pulse of the bass. Give me not a Piper but a Drummer at the Gates of Dawn–that’s truly deep magic. Tolkien’s elves sang but Smith of Wootton Major danced with the Queen of Faerie: “…and for a while he knew what it was to have the swiftness and the power and the joy to accompany her. For a while.”

I imagine they danced to rhythms like those in the videos I have selected below: fierce, moody, exuberant, contemplative, restless, insistent. In-breath, out-breath, diastolic, systolic. The stroke of the drumstick, the stroke of the bassist’s hand, is the stroke of the wing as we seek to free ourselves from the grip of Old Earth… “bright the hawk’s flight/on the empty sky” as they chant in Earthsea. Like the flight also of Bede’s sparrow in the mead-hall of the king, a quick but joyous burst of rhythm between two walls of night.

• “We are a part of the rhythm nation.”

• “Funky Kingston!”

• “Come on, vogue/ Let your body move to the music.”

• “You know you’re my saving grace/ I can feel your halo, halo, halo…”

• “I’m singin’ in the rain/ Just singin’ in the rain.”

And so on and so forth, leading us over the weathered stile, down the hidden path, a boreen that opens onto the greensward, upon which drums the drummer smiling… “Come,” she says… and your feet obey…

In no particular order, some personal favorites that lead me (and I hope you) to that place:

Stanley Clarke’s Night School, “The Big Jam.” Two bassists: Clarke plus Flea. Three drummers: Sheila E, Stewart Copeland, Rayford Griffin. A Muscle Shoals-style horn section. Karen Briggs on the violin.

“Certain notes or chords don’t inspire me so much as to what someone does with those notes. That is the core of what we are trying to do as musicians. The notes and the chords are secondary. The spirit and the feeling have to be there in order to make it really pleasurable for someone else.” Stanley Clarke interviewed by Ernest Barteldes, at BMI/MusicWorld (2009).

Herbie Hancock & The Headhunters, “Hang Up Your Hang-Ups.”

“One night on a certain tour in mid-1972 we played a club in Seattle, Washington. It was a Friday night and the club was packed. We were all exhausted…. But we could feel the energy in the air—these people were really into this far out kind of music. They were ready for it. I asked the band to play “Toys,” a song that I’d never called to play, which starts with a bass solo—acoustic bass, which is the softest instrument in the band by its very nature. Un-amplified bass.

So the bassist Buster Williams starts playing this introduction. And what came out of him was something I’d never heard before. And not only had I not heard it from him, I’d never heard it from anybody. It was just pure beauty and ideas and—it was magical. Magical. And people were freaking out, it was so incredible what he was playing.

I let him play for a long time, maybe 10, 15 minutes. He just came up with idea after idea, so full of inspiration. And then I could feel myself waking up just before we really came in with the melody for the song. And I could tell that the whole band woke up, and there was some energy that was generating from Buster. We played the set and it was like magic. When we finished, many people ran up to the front of the stage and reached up their hands to shake ours. Some of them were crying they were so moved by the music. The music was very spiritual, too.” Herbie Hancock, interviewed by Valerie Reiss on (2007).

Cindy Blackman (leader of her own quartet, also drummer for Lenny Kravitz).

“I want to take the drums in music to upper heights; I want to push somewhere else where a new voice is coming. I want to change things around. I want to create.” Cindy Blackman interviewed by Rumeysa Ozel in Today’s Zaman (2007).

Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussein, Giovanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoj, & Jonah Sharp (together, The Global Drum Project).

“…changing spirit into form…” (Hart). “…you feel completely new…that’s magical…” (Hidalgo).

Afro Celt Sound System, featuring Sinead O’Connor, “Release.”

Weather Report, “Nubian Sundance.”
Founded by Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, with Alphonso Johnson on bass, Ishmael Wilburn and Skip Hadden on drums.

“In every culture, there are a handful of really outstanding storytellers. That’s what it is all about—music is nothing else. Music not a bunch of notes and chords. Music is storytelling.” Joe Zawinul interviewed by Anil Prasad, at Innerviews: Music without Borders (1997).

Jan Garbarek & Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, “Raga I.”

“The rhythm is really that’s where it all comes from in the end. So any melody should be shaped by the rhythm. I feel if I have a good rhythm, which I find interesting and comfortable and that flows nicely, a melody will come very easily, you know. …. That’s what triggers my creativity, is to have a good rhythm.” Jan Garbarek, interviewed by ECM Records personnel, posted on (no date, but c. 2005–?).

Angelique Kidjo, Talvin Singh & Nile Rodgers, an impromptu jam on French television.
[I heard Kidjo at Lincoln Center in NYC, and Singh at Summerstage in Central Park, NYC.]

“[‘Lemanja’] is a song that I wrote with Carlinos Brown and dedicate to Lemanja, the goddess of the sea, asking her to join us for the party, bring us her wisdom and her loving. We need that. We never can have enough of that, right? So if she’s our mother, mother of party, mother of love, and mother of peace, it’s time for her to show up because we need that definitely now. Come quick.” Angelique Kidjo, interviewed by Sean Barlow in (2002).

“When I’m playing the tabla I’m playing the poetry of the drums, which is the language – the Sanskrit – but I’m hearing everything and applying notes that fit in. […] … it’s a language and an attitude and a disciplined way of thinking.” Talvin Singh, interviewed by Will Hodgkinson, in The Guardian (2001).

Manu Katche, “Number One.”

Oregon, “1,000 Kilometers.”
[I heard them perform this at Iridium Jazz Club in NYC.]

“…when I was 13. I had a really amazing experience. I was playing some Bach suites, which were originally for violin. They’re complete onto themselves. I had a version of them for clarinet. So, I was just sitting in this beautiful echo-y room, playing these Bach suites, and I kind of had this strange experience that I wasn’t really playing. It just was going, and I was more or less a participant. I was not just sitting there moving my fingers up and down — something sort of came through me, in a way, and I found myself losing self-consciousness and kind of moving into […]. It was a magical experience that I looked forward to repeating when I could.” Paul McCandless of Oregon, interviewed on Digital Interviews (2003).

Anoushkar Shankar & Karsh Kale, “Abyss.”

”…I think that ’letting go’ is the key phrase for being able to trust that when you put your hands on the instrument, something’s going to happen. It could work for a second, and you’ll hit a wrong note the 2nd second, but you just have to trust that you know it and that it’s going to be there without you thinking about it. […] … the second I start to think about it and plan it, maybe I’m back on the earth again. But as long as you’re letting go, you can trust that it’s going to be there.” Shankar interviewed by dimm summer at (2005).

Midival Punditz, featuring Karsh Kale, “Naina Laagey.”

Joshua Redman, Brian Blade, Brad Mehldau, & Christian McBride, “Echoes.”
[I saw Blade and McBridge with Nicholas Payton at Luther College.]

“I start working on a song by myself on guitar, but it doesn’t really gel until I hear the band play it. That’s when I get wrapped up in it emotionally. Writing feeds every other element of my music–my drumming gets better. Also it helps me to play other people’s music. Writing is an abstract concept to me. I can’t say ahead of time I’m going to do it. I have to be ready to feel the inspiration–say an experience is manifesting itself.” Brian Blade, interviewed by Craig Jolley for All About Jazz (2000).

Billy Cobham, “drum solo.”
[I saw Cobham at the Cutting Room in NYC.]

“…if you play softly and intensely, its more likely you will play longer than if you played loudly and intensely. Most importantly it has to have meaning. When you play intensely you play with emotions, when you speak you speak with emotions. So if you play the way you speak, you’re expressing emotion and that translates to the music.” Billy Cobham, interviewed by Jerome Marcus on (n.d., c. 2003?)

Missy Elliot – Annie Lennox, mash-up of “Music Makes You Lose Control” with “Sweet Emotion.”

As Lennox says: “sisters are doing it for themselves.” Aretha, Tina, Chaka, Queen Latifah, Madonna, Pink, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, Janet, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera, Brittany, and Lady Gaga…another Court for Titania…Diana’s huntresses…

Christian Scott, featuring Thomas Pridgen, “Rewind That.”

Paul Motian Quintet, “How Deep is the Ocean?.”

“Sounds turn me on. […] … the sound of the drums, my drums especially… The sound will turn me on to something, which will turn me on to something else, and it’ll grow into something worthwhile. I hope.” Motian interviewed by Paul Olsen in All About Jazz (2006).

Tiit Kikas, “String Theory.”

Will Calhoun, ”Amara.”

Vijay Iyer Trio, “Galang.” [Their version of the M.I.A. song.]

“I listen…for a certain narrativity in the music, a sense that it came to us from somewhere, along some interesting and arduous path—audible traces of an authentic life on earth.” Iyer, “Uncertainty Principles,” in All About Jazz NY (2007).

Branford Marsalis Quartet, “Yes and No.”

Yellowjackets, “Man Facing North.”

“Most of the tunes came out of just improvising. Nothing was written or worked out. Either the drums started or else there was an idea for a riff. We jammed for a while, played back the tapes and then went back and wrote music around the best improvisations. Sometimes when you turn on the tape the most creative things come up.” Saxphonist Marc Russo of the Yellowjackets, interviewed by Kent Zimmerman in The Gavin Report (1988).

McCoy Tyner, “Fly with the Wind.”

“For me, all music is a journey of the soul into new, uncharted territory.” McCoy Tyner, on Journey of the Soul: The McCoy Tyner Discography (n.d.).

Eberhard Weber, “Silent Feet.”
[I saw Weber at Jonathan’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts]

“We [jammed] for half an hour, very beautiful and spontaneous music. Everybody enjoyed it like crazy. After one half hour, it was over, and I thanked the guys and left the stage. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t close their mouths, because it was so beautiful, and they wanted to continue, but I said no. I said, ‘I stopped now, because it was so nice. If we continue, we will start to repeat ourselves.’ We had used all of our spontaneous ideas. That describes me the best. I cannot consider myself to be a typical jazz musician, and I am not classical, I am whatever. I am just a musician, whatever that is.” Eberhard Weber, interviewed by Joe Montague on Jazz Review (n.d., c. 2007).

Avishai Cohen Trio, “Remembering.”

Momo Djender & Rhani Krija, with Klaus Doldinger, “live, untitled.”

Oran Etkin, Lionel Loueke, Makane Kouyate, & Joe Sanders, “live, untitled.”

[I saw Loueke live at the Jazz Standard, NYC].

Duduka de Fonseca Quintet, “Duduka da Fonseca Quintet @ Umbria Jazz Winter.”
[I saw de Fonseca at the Blue Note in NYC].

Steve Lehman Octet, “various.”

Dave Holland Quintet, “Lucky Seven (drum solo).”

David Bryne & Brian Eno, “The Jezebel Spirit.”
[A recently released bootleg version, with different underlying vocals from the version on the 1981 original album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.]

“The idea of making music from an imaginary culture was to give ourselves a set of restrictions and parameters within which to work. Otherwise, we might have just gone on all kinds of creative detours, some of which might have been interesting. But better we confine ourselves to something. Which kind of worked. At least it kept us within bounds for a while…” David Byrne, about the reissue of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in an interview by Chris Dahlen in Pitchfork (2006).

“…the past is a source of melancholy but I like melancholy and have never found it to be the same thing as moroseness or sadness. I’ve always enjoyed being melancholy, perhaps because that mood is very much a feature of the environment where I grew up. It’s a very bleak place and most visitors find it quite miserable. I don’t think it’s miserable but it’s definitely a sort of lost place in a lost time…” Brian Eno, “Voyages in Time & Perception” interview by Kristine McKenna in Musician magazine (1982).

The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter.”
[I saw the Stones in Oslo, Norway.]

A final personal note: the first 50 seconds of “Gimme Shelter” thread the path through the perilous realm, through the snares and veils on the marches of Faerie; the harmonica is the echo of shadows from over the hills; and Merry Clayton’s solo is some of the purest banshee wailing ever heard.

Please let us know what music transports you!

 Posted by at 4:21 pm
Sep 302010

I love faeries. I grew up reading all about them, believing in them, dreaming about them. I collected all the drawings, books, and winged figurines I could, I gobbled up lore like forbidden faerie food, I made wings out of poster board and glitter. I could rattle off bits of trivia like how the use of iron kept away unwanted visitors, that the fey inability to lie didn’t preclude trickery, and that a brownie accepted gifts of food in return for cleaning a house. When things got bad, I told myself I was fey. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that it even occurred to me there might be faeries outside Western Europe–specifically, outside the Victorian take on the Celtic and British traditions.

As a child of South Asian descent, I had my own library of Amar Chitra Katha, comics that highlighted the key points of Indian epics like the Mahabharata, that retold the successes of the Mughal court advisor Birbal, that spoke of armies of talking monkeys and bears. I’d heard all about Shesha Naga and raakshasas, bhoots and apsaras, but during my high school years in a tiny Midwestern American farm town where diversity meant growing soybeans instead of corn, I never made the connection. When I read young adult novels, I didn’t wonder why all the heroines were blond and blue-eyed with skin like cream, so why would I look anywhere else for faeries? The stories of my heritage had no place in the world I lived in; it was easy to forget them, tucked neatly in their own dusty trunk at the back of my mind. I wanted to blend in with the kids around me. I wanted to like the things “Americans” liked. There was no room for anything that made me different, not when I yearned so very, very much to belong.

After I started college, I found more and more people who looked like me, and the questions I’d pushed aside poked me hard in the chest. Where were we in the books I loved? American culture talked about the great Roman and Greek myths, but what about my own? I began exploring my Hindu heritage much more deeply, learning about goddesses and mantras and considering my own identity. During my search for related art, I even managed to find a few Victorian-style faeries with brown skin, and I felt vindicated. There, see? Wasn’t that easy enough?

Then on a trip to the library in 2002, I came across Holly Black’s young adult novel Tithe. I wasn’t impressed at first, because the gritty world and the slippery fey she presented completely contradicted the image of the sweet little flower faerie I’d always held dear. But the novel wouldn’t let me go, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I’d enjoyed its intrigue and plotting and even its folklore. No, especially its folklore–once I got over my initial discomfort, the richness of it drove me to research, research, research. “Browning” Victorianized Celtic faeries just wasn’t enough anymore.

If Celtic faeries were, in fact, much closer to Tithe’s portrayal of them than I’d believed, what else was I missing? Where were the fey from the rest of the world? Where were the ones in my own cultural backyard, for that matter? What were they like, and why didn’t I see them represented in YA books–or any books at all in the North American market?

Okay, I decided, I’d write the novel I wanted to read, the one that used Indian faeries the way Holly Black had used Western European ones. But with no easy to access to books on Hindu or Buddhist folklore, where was I supposed to start? It wasn’t like being able to walk into a chain bookstore and find shelves and shelves on sprites, pixies, and goblins. There were almost no compendia available, and I didn’t know what I was looking for, anyway. I could search online for “Indian faeries,” but would it really help me expand my vocabulary of Indian folklore terms?

So much of folklore is tied up with family, with oral tradition. It didn’t take long to see a simple Internet search wasn’t going to compensate for not having my grandmother and great-grandmother nearby to pass down the stories. At best, my search engine turned up more of the brown-skinned Victorian faeries. Hoping for more, I approached my mother, who described the pari, a Persian loanword for “faerie” or “angel.” For years, I thought this was the Indian faerie, this tiny borrowed creature, and I even found a Lata Mangeshkar song about one.

Eventually I learned the pari wasn’t native to South Asia, either. Another dead end! I combed through everything I knew until I happened onto a story about nagas, half-snake, half-human creatures. Then it hit me. These were the Indian fey I’d been seeking, the ones I’d known all my life from different tales. Magical, living by rules of their own, tricksy–in short, fey. Had I been unconsciously refusing to acknowledge them by expecting them to fit the mold of Western European faeries? By referring to them as “faeries,” a Western term?

I asked myself what it meant to be fey. Some things spanned all cultures and traditions: the allure of being something both more and less than human; being magical by nature, a creature that transcended mortal limitations; freedom from human rules except by choice; and possibly most tempting of all, the unspoken, glittering promise of something better, something more than this miserable, flesh-bound existence. The fey could be shapeshifters, like nagas and werewolves, half-and-half creatures, slipping between worlds and hiding among us as they pleased. They often possessed unearthly physical beauty, in the case of Seelie court queens and apsaras, or great ugliness, as manifested in vetaals and harpies. Like their appearance, their art was larger than life, exaggerated. Whether a gandharva or an elfin harpist, there was no such thing as average.

So where else could I find this phenomenon in Indian folklore? Having exhausted my own resources, I turned to my partner, an academic well versed in ancient Indian texts. He told me about Buddhist dakinis and gave me a scarlet wall hanging featuring one of these protective warrior spirits. Next, after some fumbling for keywords on my part, Wikipedia yielded up vetaals and apsaras. Vetaals hung upside on trees and haunted cremation grounds. Drawings of a vetaal illustrated an English translation of the Vetaal Panchavimshati and showed its backward hands and feet. Apsaras lived in the god Indra’s heavenly realm of Svargalok, and one famous one was painted leaving her lover. From there, I learned gandharvas were the consorts of the apsaras, both of whom lived in the heavenly realm, and the enemies of the nagas, who slithered around on terra firma.

At this point, a scholar friend of mine suggested a book on Indian demonology, which offered wonderful details but had no pictures. That left me still hungry, hungry to see the fey that reflect me, to have a visual feast of them, to be able to surround myself with their stories. The few pictures on the Internet only made my mouth water more. Even the Japanese kitsune or the Russian vodyanoy have become familiar to Westerners, so we have an idea of how they look. It’s so frustrating, to be able to babble about phookas and nixies, but the mention of naginis gets a blank expression followed by, “Oh, Voldemort’s snake thing in Harry Potter!” A pishaach? A yaksha? Forget it. It’s even more irritating when I myself don’t know.

I did see illustrations of Indian mythical creatures in a Dungeons and Dragons compendium of monsters, but unfortunately, D&D appropriated them in a very colonial and disrespectful manner. In fact, I’ve observed that a lot, that “Othering” of anything from the East. It’s disheartening, to say the least–especially when people unfamiliar with the culture assume that D&D is the source material, and its depiction of the fey is how they are. What wouldn’t I give for a full-color, lavishly illustrated, researched bestiary?

After more searching, I managed to assemble a database of information. How accurate any of it is, I couldn’t say. (Of course, details of folklore vary from teller to teller, making “accurate” relative at best.) At last I discovered a book on nagas, dating back to the colonial period, and I read the Vetaal Panchavimshati and the story of the apsara mentioned above. Even with that foundation, the idea that I still don’t know what I don’t know is daunting. Trying to piece that together is like solving a faerie riddle.

It’s common knowledge here in the West that faerie currency is just leaves glamoured to look like dollars, but who knew that burning turmeric held a bhoot at bay? I didn’t. All I could say was that bhoots must have terrible hair, since my mother used to accused me of looking like one after I’d played hard and gotten my hair tangled. Another bit of folk wisdom: to attract a naga, one should build a house of precious metals and jewels and set it near a body of water. Lovely as that is, I can’t take for granted my audience will know it, because even I didn’t. If I want to bring Indian mythology into North American fiction, I can’t fall back on pop cultural knowledge; instead, there’s so much I have to explain.

Our folklore is a reflection of us, of our fears, of our desires. The nagini who holds the cup of divine nectar–we could read her as the symbol of the hope for immortality. The fanged raakshasa who drinks blood? Our own dog-eat-dog capitalistic mentality. Or maybe they’re both just monsters, plain and simple. But either way, we miss out when we limit ourselves as to which stories from what cultures are relevant. It says a lot about how we see the people within our society. Why do we only know some tales? Why not become familiar with all stories and thus with all people?

As I polish the latest draft of the novel with those Indian fey, I’ve still barely scratched the surface of the folklore, my folklore. I’ve named many beings in this essay, but I can’t say I know them well, or even at all. My search has been a scavenger hunt, uncovering one clue at a time while possibly stumbling right past the very thing I seek. I wonder sometimes where the gaps in my knowledge lie, and if I can ever find them. I wonder if what I do know will mean something to someone else, someone who’s waiting for that book with brown characters and brown fey. Someone who’s waiting for more.

I hope it will.

If people let her, Shveta Thakrar would eat books for dinner. Since they won’t, she settles for writing Indian-themed fantasy. Drawing on her heritage, her experience growing up with two cultures, and her M.A. in German Literature, she likes to explore the magic that is just out of sight as well as that which stands right in front of our faces. Other things that interest her include feminism, cultural and racial notions of beauty, and how language influences how we think. Shveta is currently working on a YA novel featuring Indian fey, bleeding thumbs, and family secrets, all in Philadelphia. Read her blog at

(Image: Nagini by Sarah Jane Harlow, 2010)

 Posted by at 4:20 pm

Who Fears Death

 Reviews  Comments Off on Who Fears Death
Sep 242010

Who Fears Death
By Nnedi Okorafor
DAW, 387 pp., hardcover, $24.95, June 2010
ISBN 9780756406172
Reviewed by Jason Erik Lundberg

[Disclaimer: I consider Nnedi Okorafor a friend. Though we have never met in person, our online friendship is one I value most. Our daughters both have the same given name, albeit for different reasons, because Nnedi convinced me how awesome a name it is. I have two cardinal rules as a reviewer: 1) I don’t review books that I don’t like; why waste the time and energy? and 2) I no longer review books by friends; in the past, this practice has presented a conflict of interest and could taint an otherwise sound book review. However, in the case of Who Fears Death, I am more than happy to break Rule #2, as the novel in question is perhaps one of the best and most important books of the year; naturally, your mileage may vary.]

Nnedi Okorafor has made a name for herself writing award-winning young adult novels that vividly explore African characters in magical locales. Who Fears Death is Okorafor’s first foray into adult fiction, and while it continues her exploration of the personal effects that powerful magic can have on the lives of her protagonists, it also adds heightened social commentary and life-and-death stakes which infuse the narrative with compelling suspense. Once picked up, Who Fears Death is very difficult to put down.

Onyesonwu, whose name literally means “Who Fears Death?” is our protagonist; she lives in an unnamed post-apocalyptic African country where magic (or juju) is possible, albeit feared by most people. She is an Ewu, a child of rape, and the victim of a policy of humiliation and familial destruction by the ruling Nuru upon the minority Okeke. As such, she is an outcast to both ethnicities, marked by the very color of her skin. But as Onyesonwu grows up, she discovers a natural affinity for magical forces that she is keen to control. Able to call owls to her with a song, or to transform into a vulture and take flight, Onyesonwu is unnerved by her magical abilities while at the same time reveling in them.

After living as nomads in the desert during Onyesonwu’s childhood, she and her mother settle down in a small town called Jwahir that is populated by Okeke people. It is not an easy life, as Onyesonwu’s presence is an everyday reminder of the oppression and cruelty of the Nuru rulers, who have not yet paid a visit to Jwahir, but could at any time. She lives an isolating life, befriending a local blacksmith who later becomes her stepfather, a man who seems to be the only one in the town willing to look past her skin color. However, it is not until she meets Mwita, another Ewu, that she feels a true connection with another human being; it is also through Mwita that Onyesonwu begins to understand and control the juju that flows in her veins.

All of this is told to us the readers in the form of a confessional. Onyesonwu narrates her story to an unknown recipient for an unknown reason; we do not know why (at least, not until about halfway through the novel), but we are told that it is vital for her to relay this tale before it is too late. This urgency, and a sense of impending threat, help to propel the story forward, even during the slower sections.

Much has been made of the harsh subject matter that Onyesonwu and her loved ones face throughout the novel. Okorafor does not shy away from weaponized rape, female genital cutting, ethnic genocide, institutionalized racism, and the never-ending cruelty that human beings inflict upon one another. Her keen observations and clean prose render these topics horrific and fascinating at once; the reader is compelled to continue, even through atrocious events. It is as if Okorafor is telling us that though we may be squeamish, we cannot look away, and her telling, through Onyesonwu’s narration, reminds us that these monstrous practices are taking place right now, at this very moment, and have been for years.

But Okorafor introduces ambiguity as well. Onyesonwu’s Okeke mother is raped by Daib, a powerful Nuru sorcerer wishing for a son to rule by his side. The product of this act is Onyesonwu herself, a complex and fully-realized character who grows into a confident and strong young woman, drawing on the wisdom of her mother. Ritual clitoridectomy makes it difficult to impossible for women to experience sexual pleasure through orgasm, yet Onyesonwu willingly goes through the process (here euphemistically referred to as the Eleventh Year Rite) in order to conform to Jwahir’s values, to prevent further dishonor to her mother and stepfather, and to bond with the other three girls going through the ceremony. No clear distinctions between “good” and “bad” here.

But these subjects never overwhelm Okorafor’s true focus: Onyesonwu herself. Though heavy themes prevail, they do not predominate; Who Fears Death is not A Book About Weaponized Rape or A Book About Clitoridectomy or A Book About Ethnic Cleansing. Instead, the reader is always keenly aware of Onyesonwu’s narrative. Her growth through adolescence and young adulthood mirror the increasing power of her abilities and burgeoning relationship with Mwita. The study of Onyesonwu’s character always takes center stage.

And what a character it is. Forced to socially fend for herself, Onyesonwu learns at a young age techniques to defend against prejudice and bullying. It helps that she grows up tall, but she is at heart a survivor, and her inner strength is one of the many things that makes her so compelling. It is also what allows her to begin fine-tuning and controlling her magical gifts, with Mwita’s help; although at one point, Onyesonwu has gone beyond what Mwita can teach her, and he introduces her to his master, Aro, one of Jwahir’s elders and its resident sorcerer. Her apprenticeship to Aro opens her eyes fully to the realm of magic, but at a price (juju always comes with a cost in this novel): to become fully initiated, she must see her own death and experience it along with her future self. Suddenly, the urgency of Onyesonwu’s telling becomes clear.

Onyesonwu also learns that she is a key figure in a prophecy to rewrite the sacred book that governs the lives of many Nuru and Okeke, and to put an end to the genocide. To do this, it becomes evident that she will need to face her biological father, Daib, who is leading the Nuru charge against the Okeke all across the Seven Rivers Kingdom, and who has been a malevolent presence in Onyesonwu’s dreams since her Eleventh Year Rite. She must travel across a hostile landscape in order to reach him, and success is far from certain. Though she is accompanied by Mwita and her rite-sisters (Luyu, Diti, and Binta), the path is treacherous and death a likelihood.

At the beginning of this review, I stated that Who Fears Death is one of the most important books of the year, and much of this has to do with the social issues that Okorafor explores in frank detail. But this also includes the fact that Okorafor does so within an African setting and with African characters, both of which have been greatly under-represented within the field of speculative fiction. More important yet is that these stories come from a talented author with obvious ties to Nigeria; Okorafor’s heritage does not automatically entitle her to mention (her clear and beautiful writing does that all on its own), but it does provide an authentic voice and removes any whiff of exoticism from the narrative. (It should also be stated that the Seven Rivers Kingdom is modeled on Sudan rather than Nigeria.)

I could go on, but further analysis could be detrimental to the process of discovering the book for oneself. (One scene in particular came incredibly close to bringing me to tears of joy, but I prefer to keep that secret.) I hope that this novel will become the catalyst that opens the floodgates of speculative fiction by African writers, and to ensure that these particular voices will be heard in a variety of futures. In Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor has created a challenging and unforgettable tale of discovery, redemption, and inevitability, and a protagonist memorable for both her suffering and her strength. Onyesonwu’s story deserves to be heard and passed on to all those who will listen.

 Posted by at 6:40 pm

Daniel A. Rabuzzi’s The Choir Boats

 Our Grim(m)oire  Comments Off on Daniel A. Rabuzzi’s The Choir Boats
Jul 262010

Daniel A. Rabuzzi, who first graced our pages in September 2008 with Four and Twenty and again in March 2009 with Before St. George Came, saw the release of his fantasy novel The Choir Boats in 2009. Published by ChiZine Publications, The Choir Boats was selected by January Magazine as a Top Ten Young Adult Novel for 2009. 

The Choir Boats explores issues of race, gender, sin, and salvation, and includes a mysterious letter, knuckledogs, carkodrillos, smilax root, goat stew, and one very fierce golden cat. Reviewers describe it as “Gulliver’s Travels crossed with The Golden Compass and a dollop of Pride and Prejudice,”  and “a muscular, Napoleonic-era fantasy that, like Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series, will appeal to both adult and young adult readers.” 

For just a few more days, The Choir Boats is available as a free download from Wowio, where it was selected as their July Book of the Month. This special edition of the novel includes bonus illustrations by Deborah A. Mills.  It’s also DRM-free, so it can be read on any device compatible with PDFs, and shared with friends just like a regular book. There is no excuse to miss this spectacular read!

 Posted by at 9:17 am