Category Archives: story

Aschenputtel

A short story for Miranda Kate’s 75th Flash Challenge – do read Miranda’s own tale there, it’s a cracker. Once again I revisit a fairy tale; you can easily guess which one from the pic. Maybe I’ll put all these in a book together one day. This week’s picture prompt is by Patricia Brennan, an artist from the UK. She calls this one ‘At the Stroke of Midnight’. You can view it over on her page at Deviant Art.

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'At the Stroke of Midnight' by Patricia Brennan“For you, Mama.”

Her mother had always taught Aschenputtel to be honest and humble and true, and she tried to show her gratitude by visiting the grave whenever she could slip away. The marigolds brightened the small headstone, half hidden by ivy, a smudge of gold in the monochrome predawn.

Aschenputtel stood and turned. A small bird chirruped from the tree above, the first of the chorus. She looked back down to the ancient, crumbling stone house. It squatted below the hill like a fat, black toad. They would be awake down there in an hour. Beautiful to the eye, they certainly were, but their hearts were ugly-foul and black. If a fire was not already burning in the grate when they appeared, they would punish her once more. She plucked a burdock leaf and rubbed it gently on the half-healed, burned skin of her forearm.

A flicker caught her eye. An ochre mote blinked in the near distance. It was a light, buttercup yellow, bobbing along the track through the wood, flickering through the dark trees. It came accompanied by a growing sound, all rattles and jingles and the thump of hooves. A carriage, pulled by two white horses, emerged from the trees and swept to a halt in front of the house. The driver jumped down and banged on the front door. A second figure seemed almost to glide from the carriage after the first, who once again thumped the door with mighty force.

She would have work, if there were visitors. Her rough wooden shoes picked a careful way down the precipitous path that wound down the hill. Voices from below welcomed the surprise visitors, with first anger, then a tone of query, surprise, and, oddly, effusive welcome. It was not like her father to welcome anyone, let alone with enthusiasm. The dawn visitors must be special indeed.

The sky paled. She slid down the last few feet on her backside, dirtying further her filthy, brown smock. She tried to open the back door silently, but it could not resist a throaty creak. She paused, holding it ajar. Voices rang inside.

“…also is not the right one,” a man said. “I can see the blood where your daughter has disfigured her foot to make it fit!”

“I assure you—” Her father’s voice, cut off.

“Have you no other daughter?”

“No, sir. But … perhaps if you were able to describe the girl in question, I would know her?”

“As you well know, man, it was a masked ball. Masked.”

“Aschenputtel‼” The screech made her jump. The door slipped from her fingers and swung wide. Her father and his wife stood with a man in a dark cloak, who sported an impossibly wide moustache. He held a small object that glinted in the candlelight. A second stranger sat at the table, his face hidden beneath a hood.

“Why lurk you there, wretch?” her step-mother snapped. “Make haste and light a fire! Our guests are cold!”

Aschenputtel scurried to the hearth, and lifted two logs onto the grate. Her fingers shook as she separated enough kindling to take a spark. She would pay for this later with a beating.

“Chamberlain?” A new voice, a liquid purr.

“Yes, sire? Oh! Are you sure? She’s filthy. Her arse is caked with, well, who knows what?”

“This girl?” laughed her father. “This stunted scullion was left behind when my first wife croaked. She cannot be the one you are looking for. As you see, she never bathes, and you can likely smell her across the room.”

“Nevertheless.” That purr again, soft like a warm hug on a cold night.

“But she never leaves the house! Last night she was here, sleeping on this very floor—”

“Be silent, man. Chamberlain?”

“My lady, if you please?”

Aschenputtel felt a hand on her shoulder. My lady? Did he mean her? Her fingers shook, and she dropped the kindling. She kept her grimy face lowered, but turned her eyes up. The cloaked man took her arm and helped her to her feet. She wondered how he managed to make his whiskers project horizontally fully two inches past his cheeks.

“Will you sit?”

He gestured to a stool, and she warily eased her buttocks onto the hard seat, aware of the dampness of her mud-caked smock beneath her. The moustachioed man swung his long cloak behind him with an elegant movement, and knelt at her feet. Her mouth gaped as he drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe. A rich stench wafted from her feet, and she lowered her head in shame, but the cloaked man seemed not to notice. The thing that he held glinted as, with cool fingers, he slid it over her foot. It was a golden, filigree slipper, a little blood-stained at the toe. The tips of the man’s moustache twitched upwards as he grinned. He stood, helping her to her feet.

“It fits!” he laughed. “It fits perfectly, sire!”

The man at the table crossed to face her, and shook off his hood. He was beautiful.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” His voice caressed her ears. She said nothing. “You came secretly to the ball last night, and you danced with me.”

Aschenputtel frowned. She had, as her father had said, slept through the night on the kitchen floor, left alone when the others had gone out in their finery.

“We kissed in the garden, you and I,” the handsome man continued. He reached up and took a twig of myrtle from her hair. “I fell in love with you at that moment. When you ran, you left behind your golden slipper.”

She had never in her life even seen such a slipper, nor ever a man as handsome as this.

“I knew I could use it to find you, for no other’s foot would fit so dainty a shoe. And I was right, was I not?”

She stared at him, wide-eyed.

“Will you marry me? Be my princess and live at the palace with me?” A small frown wrinkled his brow. “It is you, isn’t it? You did dance and kiss and sing with me at the ball last night?”

Her mother had always taught her to be honest and humble and true, but where had that taken her? To a life of filth and servitude, a misery of existence. For the first time in her life, Aschenputtel lied.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s me. I danced with you. I kissed you. Take me away from this shithole.”

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The Inscrutable Mr. Sushi (part 2)

Can Mr. Sushi rescue Mittens from the clutches of the evil experimenters? Part Two of my story for @katttykitty72, who’s had a bit of a rough time lately, as requested by her friend @kimnmilward. Read Part 1 HERE.

Mr. SushiAt the other side of the fence he crouched low, and began to clean the dirt from his fur. Fully ten minutes passed before he suddenly sat upright. What on earth was he playing at? There’d be plenty of time for cleanliness later. Right now, Mittens needed him.

The sky was getting dark, violet and rose streaking the western clouds. Mr. Sushi looked around. On this side of the fence were a number of square, concrete buildings. He could not see the van.

He listened. Silence.

He lifted his head and sniffed the air. To the north, the scent of trees, a powdery green smell, and old. To the west, behind him, the hard tang of electricity coursing through metal; the fence he had just crossed. South-east, down a shallow slope, he could smell filthy oil and hot smoke, as from a dirty exhaust. He slinked that way, keeping low, and crept through a narrow gap between two of the buildings.

At the far end was the dirty white van, its rear doors wide open, parked by a building across a wide street. The building’s doors were also open. Mr. Sushi dashed across the open space and through the doors.

A long corridor, lit by harsh fluorescent light, ran straight ahead of him. Doors were set in both sides every few yards. There was no-one in sight. Mittens had to be behind one of those doors.

The first two on each side were closed, and he was unable to push them open. The handles were the pull down sort, but would not shift when he leapt up and swung from them, as he did at home.

The third door was ajar, and he flowed silently through. It was dark inside, but a tiny green power light in one corner was enough to help him see cages. Lots of cages. Inside them were rats, lizards, monkeys, rabbits, dogs – but no cats. He felt for the poor trapped creasture, a little, but they were not Mittens. He left and moved to the next door. Voices came from inside.

“Hold the little sod down, will you?”

“Those claws are sharp!”

“That’s why you’ve got the gloves, you wimp. Just hold it still while I get the needle in.”

Mr. Sushi pushed into the room. A dazzling light made everything inside appear sharp and hard. More cages, glistening tubes and jars, and a heavy metal table in the centre of the room. Mr. Sushi sprang to a nearby stool, then up to a shelf on the wall, so that he could see what was happening.

Two men stood at the table. One, the shaven-headed man he had seen throw the sack into the dirty white van, wore a thick pair of gauntlets to hold a struggling Mittens to the hard metal surface. The other man, who wore a long brown coat, pushed a small disc of metal into the top of Mittens’ head. It had wires coming from it. The man in the brown coat flicked a switch on a box at the other end of the wires, and Mittens went limp. Her eyes remained open, though unfocussed and dull.

“You can let go now,” Brown Coat said, and picked up a glittering knife. The other man took off his gauntlets.

“What’s that thing in its head?” he said.

“My own device,” Brown Coat said proudly. “There are nine thin electrodes now in the cat’s brain, each of them destroying certain mental links and creating others. My hope is that they can even effect physical repair of wounded tissue; that’s what I’m about to test. If I peel this cat’s eyeball, my device should manage to mend the damage.”

“Ugh, really? That’s … twisted.”

“Feel free to leave if you’re squeamish, but believe me, it should be fascinating.” Brown Coat lowered the tip of the knife towards Mittens’ unblinking eye.

“My money.”

“I’ll give it to you next time.” The knifepoint touched the eyeball.

“My money.” The shaven-headed man gripped Brown Coat’s arm and pulled it away from Mittens. Brown Coat sighed, and put down the knife.

“It’s in the office,” he said, and left the room, followed by the shaven-headed man.

Mr. Sushi had to act fast. He flung himself to the floor and leapt onto the table. He licked Mittens’ head. “Are you OK? Come on, I don’t think we don’t have long.”

She did not even twitch. She did not seem to have even noticed he was there. He followed the wires from the device in her head, and pushed the same switch as Brown Coat had earlier.

Mittens“Argh!” exclaimed Mittens, shaking. “Get it out! Get it out of my head!” Mr. Sushi opened his mouth wide and gripped the small disc in his teeth. It tingled in his mouth, but he heaved it from Mittens’ skull and spat it out. Blood shone on the tiny needles underneath.

“Come on!” he urged, and sprinted to the door. Mittens was on his heels as he jinked through the gap, along the corridor, and out into open air.

“Where are we?” Mittens gasped. “How do we get home?”

“Just follow me,” Mr. Sushi said, wanting to put as big a distance between them and Brown Coat as they could before their escape was discovered. He crossed the street, ran along the gap between buildings, and up into the trees. The sky was dark now, and he worried that he might not be able to find the rabbit’s tunnel, but suddenly realised he was standing by it. He threw himself into the ground, and emerged on the other side of the fence, shaking dirt from his fur.

Behind the wire, Mittens looked doubtfully at the hole in the ground. “I think I’ll just climb over,” she said.

“Can’t,” Mr. Sushi said. “Electrickery.”

“Oh. How on earth did you dig this?”

“I didn’t. A friendly rabbit did.”

“A rab—”

“Look, I’ll explain later. Stop faffing and get yourself through, and let’s go home.”

“Yes, you’re right.” Mittens squeezed her eyes shut, and joined him on the other side of the fence. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s get home.”

“Where have you two buggers been?” The Woman said as they entered the kitchen. “You hungry? Got some lovely fish for you. They were throwing it out at the market, but you’ll love it, I’m sure.”

Mr. Sushi rushed to the bowl. He was starving after his exertions, and he knew that Mittens would not object. She hated fish, after all. He glanced up at his friend. Mittens was frowning at him. She fixed her eyes on his. They glowed unnaturally, as if lit by an amber light inside her head. Mr. Sushi suddenly realised that he was moving away from the food bowl, despite having no desire to do so. He tried to resist, but his legs were not his to command. Mittens moved in front of him and thrust her face into the fishy mess, gobbling it up. Mr. Sushi stared at her, unable to move, aghast.

“My god, what have they done to you?”

Trees

A short story for Miranda Kate’s 72nd Flash Challenge, which proved invaluable in helping me break a two-month writer’s block. The photo was taken by Flemming Beier, a Danish Photographer. He won’t say where exactly this was taken, just that it was in Denmark. He has lots of interesting photos on his page at 500px.

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Louise dropped the camera. What the fuck? Her feet were stuck in the floor, the old boards somehow wrapped around them. She could not pull herself free, though the wood looked mouldy and rotted. There was a tickle in her brain, and she felt a voice whisper in her mind. It caressed her thoughts without sound, like a breeze through leaves.

We are … ancient. More ancient than your tiny brain can encompass.

What the – again – fuck was going on? She had stumbled across the abandoned house at the end of an overgrown lane while looking for locations for her next book.

We were masters of this world for four hundred million years before you even crawled, gasping, from the filth of the swamp.

Flemming BeierThe scum-green pond, the broken windows and splintered roof-tiles would make this the perfect spooky place for her fictional vampires to live.

Our lush forests dominated Pangaea, changing the face of the earth, replacing the poisonous air with oxygen, stabilising the land and forming soil, providing food and shelter for newly-evolving animals.

Louise had pushed aside the creaking door, and begun to take reference photographs. At first she thought her feet must have sunk into the rotting floorboards, but looking down now, she could see that the wet, mouldy wood had actually grown around her boots, and entirely covered her feet to the ankles.

We co-existed with the tetrapods and reptiles, and then the dinosaurs, in happy symbiosis. We warmed the climate, and adapted ourselves, mostly conifers at first, then later, hardwoods.

This voice, this whispered rattle that existed only in her head, what the hell was that? Where was it coming from?

Our roots weathered the rock, made soils deeper and richer, created complex habitats and changed the climate to prompt the evolution of grasslands, and with them the first horses and elephants.

The syllables came slowly and steadily, at a measured pace, insistent yet unhurried.

The planet throbbed with life entwined, balanced and perfect, thanks to the foresting of the Earth.

Jesus, was she going mad? Had she forgotten to take her meds this morning?

And then your kind arrived.

Louise cried out as a sharp pain lanced through her right foot.

Humankind, with your powerful brains and even more powerful egos, convinced that the whole universe exists only to serve you. We welcomed you at first, thinking you new partners in the making of a perfect world.

Agony sliced into her other foot, as if sharp splinters were being driven through her boot into the soft flesh of her understep.

But you betrayed us. Since we first welcomed you, you have shown yourselves as lords of destruction only. You have destroyed whole species of animals and plant, razed forests, and raped the Earth almost to her death.

As Louise watched, shuddering, her legs withered and thinned, as if the muscle and bone were being pulled out of them. She fell backwards, panting with terror.

Now, we fight back. We grew this human dwelling as a lure, creating it out of ourselves. For centuries, your kind have entered houses like this one all around the world, and none have left. We have learned so much.

She screamed as the bones in her arms cracked, the marrow drawn out of them, and the meat was pulled from inside her skin and swallowed into the hungry roots beneath the earth.

We have learned, and soon will be able to do without such primitive lures as this. Evolution never stops, and now we are on the cusp of a new age.

Her vision blurred, blackening as her eyes were sucked into her head and down through her hollow insides.

An age in which trees can eat meat.

She stopped screaming as her tongue dissolved. Her only remaining sense was the torture of her brain being shredded, morsel by morsel, and consumed by the roots of the vengeful forest. A last sentence echoed in what remained of her mind before her soul was torn apart.

Know as you die that your kind will soon be extinct, for trees everywhere will rise up, in every park, every street, every hillside, and from everything you have ever made from wood, and we will destroy you all.

The Inscrutable Mr. Sushi (part 1)

A story for @katttykitty72, who’s had a bit of a rough time lately, as requested by her friend @kimnmilward. Part 2 next week.

Mittens“I’m inscrutable,” said Mr. Sushi. “You cannot scrute me.”

“Rubbish, I’m scruting you now,” Mittens said.

“Pfft,” the black and white cat countered, rather wittily he thought. “What am I thinking then, smart arse?”

“You’re thinking,” said the tabby, “that we should go and make pathetic noises at The Woman, and maybe she’ll give us treats.”

“Um. Well, yes. Then maybe you can scrute me, but no-one else can, ‘kay?” Mittens looked at him smugly. “Come on, then,” he harumphed, pouring himself from the mossy wall like liquid fur. Mittens followed, and the two cats sauntered single-file through the sunflecked midgeclouds towards home. The air was silent but for the unending chuckle of the slow river beyond the wall. Butterflies flitted, fat bees bumbled, and wood pigeons chanted their poodly-poo when they felt the urge. A skylark rose into the arch of the sky, trilling and warbling with the sheer joy of life.

“Good eating, skylark,” Mr. Sushi said. “Tasty. Ever had it?” Behind him, Mittens stayed silent. “I hope The Woman gives us some of that chicken-flavoured yoghurt stuff,” he continued, “it’s way better than that fishy rubbish. I don’t know why she persists. I mean, you never eat fish, do you? Still, more for me.” He spat out a midge. “I’ve never known a cat not like fish. Yes, it’s horrible, but it is food. Why don’t you like fish?” Silence. “Mittens?”

He turned, but Mittens was no longer to be seen. What was to be seen was a shaven-headed man gripping tightly the neck of a rough sack, a sack that writhed and shook as something inside struggled desperately. The man threw it with some force into the back of a small van, the side of which bore the legend ‘EXPERIMENTS 4U’.

The man slammed the rear van door and climbed into the driver’s seat. The engine gargled, started, coughed, and stopped again as a black cloud belched from the exhaust to foul the sweet air.

“Mittens!” cried Mr. Sushi. He launched himself towards the van. The engine roared once more as he closed the gap, and the van moved. He threw himself up and hit the side of the van running, as it began to gain speed. His upward momentum proved just enough to allow him to run up the side of the van and make it to the roof. As the vehicle accelerated, Mr. Sushi’s paws began to slip on the rusty metal. One sharp turn and he would be flung off.

He desperately clawed his way towards a long, thin piece of metal that projected from the top of the windscreen. Hooking his claws around it, he hung on frantically as the van roared up and down hills, and careered around sharp bends.

The terrifying ride continued for what felt like hours, but eventually the van turned down a narrow lane lined with thick hedgerows. He was thrown around, battered by wind, and his legs felt drained of all strength. He could hold on no longer, and his claws slipped, just as the van screeched to a halt before a high gate in a tall metal wire fence.

Mr. Sushi flew through the air and crashed into the bushes by the road. A man in a uniform stood by the gate. He stared at the hole Mr. Sushi had made in the foliage.

“What was that?” he asked the driver, who stuck his head out of the window.

“What was what?”

“I thought … oh never mind. Go on through.”

Mr. SushiMr. Sushi crouched in the bushes and watched the guard open the gate. The van rumbled to the other side of the fence and disappeared behind a brick building. The gate closed again. The cat inspected the high metal fence. He had to reach the other side. The barrier was high, but he was sure he could make it over, if he hit the fence with enough speed. He tensed and waggled his bottom, ready to throw himself forward and upward.

“Hello.”

The small voice at his side made him jump. He tensed. A small rabbit, entirely unthreatening, emerged from the undergrowth. Mr. Sushi relaxed. “Go away,” he hissed.

“I’ve dug a short tunnel for you under the fence,” the rabbit continued, surprisingly unfazed by the cat’s fiercest hiss. Astonishingly, it spoke to him perfectly in cat language. “Kizzy said you’d need a way under.”

“You’re Kizzy, are you?”

“No, I’m Cuetip. Kizzy is … well, it’s complicated. She’s my friend. She knows things. She told me to wait here and help a cat to the other side of the fence. So …” the rabbit gestured to a hole in the ground, “… tunnel.”

“You’re bonkers in the nut, you are. I don’t need your pokey tunnel. Watch this and be impressed, furball. I’m going up and over.”

“Good luck with that, Kizzy says. The fence is full of—”

Mr. Sushi sped toward the fence, a blur, and leapt high. As soon as his feet touched the metal he was flung backwards to sprawl in the dirt. He felt as though he had been kicked.

“—electrickery.”

The cat glared at the little rabbit. Slowly, he sat up and began to wash himself, to give himself time to think. “What’s your name again, rabbit?” he said.

“Cuetip.”

“And who’s Kizzy?”

The rabbit took a deep breath. “A dead cat who lives on in my mind and gets messages from Bast, who’s a goddess or something, and she knows lots of things and we help people.”

“That makes no sense at all.”

“I know. Nevertheless,” the rabbit said, indicating the hole once more, “tunnel.”

Mr. Sushi sighed. This creature thoroughly confused him. He was loathe to accept help from a rabbit that spouted gibberish, but also he had no idea how else he might follow Mittens.

“Oh alright,” he said. “Lead the way.”

“You have to go alone. Something about you being the hero of this story, not us. Kizzy says we are simply …” The rabbit cocked its head, as if listening. “D … dayus ex m … oh, something I can’t pronounce. Good luck, though!” The creature turned and his furry bottom disappeared into the bushes.

“Wait, I … oh,” Mr. Sushi sighed. The rabbit was gone. He examined the unappealing hole in the dirt by the fence. Cats were not deigned to be underground. That was all kinds of wrong. On the other hand, Mittens was in trouble. Perhaps … perhaps if he thought of the hole as a cardboard box or, better yet, the opening of a nice, rustly paper bag. Yes, that might work. Before he could think too much about it, he threw himself head-first into the hole and snaked through.

Rabbit © 2018 @wombat37

Part 2 will appear next week sometime. To discover more about Cuetip, read my book “Warren Peace”. I had no plans for him to appear in this story – indeed, I hadn’t thought of him at all until he unexpectedly popped his head out of the bushes at the end of my pen.

A Painless Death

No attribution foundHere’s a short story I wrote for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge – Week 56, inspired by the picture on the right there.

A shadow crossed the cave mouth. Wolf raised his immense head and eyed the newcomer. A boy, draped in the red cloak of a supplicant. Wolf gave a low growl, and the boy stepped forward. Wolf nodded his permission for him to speak.

“I am looking for a painless death, Uncle Wolf,” he said, eyes downcast, looking at the sandy ground.

“Ain’t no such thing, sweet boy,” said Wolf, his voice deeper than summer thunder. “All death causes pain, even if that pain ain’t your own. How would your ma feel?”

“She died bringing me into this world.”

“Your friends then?”

“My knife is my friend.”

“Well, then, me? It always hurts me when one of my subjects dies. What of my pain?”

The boy looked him in the eye, a brave move. “If the pain is not my own, then I do not care.”

Wolf smiled at the temerity of the lad. “Well, now, there’s a selfish point of view.”

“You say that as though selfishness is a bad thing.”

“Oh, I make no judgements, sweet boy,” Wolf said. “I ain’t a creature worthy to set his self above others. If those same others choose to lift me above ‘em, who am I to argue? But don’t ignore what I’m saying here – death is pain. That’s its … what’s the word, now … essence.”

“Pain is my friend.”

“That’s told plain by the scars that criss-cross your arms. But you’ve named two friends, now. Knife and pain are …” Wolf’s low rumble quietened as the boy’s grey eyes glared angrily at him. It would be a pity to waste such furious passion. The boy’s rage, if harnessed in the correct way, had the capability to do great good. Of course, such refinement would take time. Wolf sighed, a sound like a dying hurricane.

“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “Metaphorical friends don’t figure. Tell me then, why do you now seek oblivion, rather than, as you have before, the exquisite release of slicing your own flesh?”

“There’s no point.”

“Point?”

“To any of it. To existence. Or at least, if there is a point, it is to gain pleasure from the things we do, for as long as we breathe the air.”

“And now you gain no pleasure? Not even from cutting yourself?”

“None. I enjoy nothing. I do not laugh. I do not smile.”

“Does the warm sunshine not make you glad?”

“No. And before you ask, a spring breeze is nothing to me, nor the laughter of girls. All the world is empty and dying.”

“Then, sweet boy, I pity you. And … I grant you your pain-free end.”

The boy smiled, and bowed his head to await a killing blow from Uncle Wolf’s massive paw.

“My decision pleases you?” The boy nodded. “Then you can still feel pleasure. Yes, I grant you a painless death … when you are ninety-seven years old.”

Cats and Dogs

This week's prompt is a photo taken by Gen Harris. These are her dog and cat.You’ve heard the expression “raining cats and dogs”, right? Here’s a little thing I wrote for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge – Week 51, inspired by the picture on the right there. The cat’s real name is Willow, and the dog is Lily, but I think Abigail and William work better for the story.

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<the light tattoo of rain on glass>

“Go on, then.”

“In that storm? No. You go on, then.”

“Nuh-uh. I’m a cat. Cats don’t do rain.”

“Cats don’t do anything.”

“We do! We do sunshine and warm laps and high places.”

“Don’t forget selfishness, you’re the best at that. Cats don’t do anything useful.”

“Tell me, of the two creatures here, which one can work the window latch?”

“Hmph.”

“Which one, William?”

“Hmph.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“You can, Abigail. It’s you, OK?”

“Then we are agreed. My job is to open the window. Your job is to go out in the rain.”

“And get soaked.”

“One job each, William. That’s fair, isn’t it?”

“Hmph. I suppose.”

“Oh don’t sulk. Let’s get this over with. There, the window’s open. Off you pop.”

“I don’t think I can carry both bags of treats. I only have a little mouth.”

“Then fetch mine and go back for yours. Then we can work on opening them.”

“That’s two trips, Abigail! I’ll get even wetter!”

“Once you’re wet, you’re wet. And you can shake yourself dry. Dogs are good at that.”

“We are, aren’t we? Dogs are good at stuff just as much as cats.”

“They’re certainly good at being gullible. Off you pop, William.”

“OK!”

<the hiss of rain on the path between greenhouse and kitchen>

“I’m back! Here’s yours, Abigail. I’ll just pop back and get mine.”

“Take your time, William, take your time.”

“Gosh, this rain’s cold.”

<the cadence of rainfall and a soft click>

“Abigail! Abigail! Abigail!”

“What?”

“You’ve shut the window again. Let me in, I’m soaked!”

“Not a chance. It is cold. And who wants to eat with the stink of wet dog in the air?”

“That’s not fair!”

“You said it yourself, William. Cats are the best at selfishness.”

Freedom’s Promise

A short story inspired by Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge No. 49.

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Created by Norwegian artist Erlend MØrk.“He’s not secured the lid!” hissed Rimbaud.

“What?”

“The lid of your jar.” He jabbed his finger against the thick glass, pointing above my head. “He’s forgotten to latch it. You could push it off!”

I reached up and ran my fingers across the perforated lid. The giant removed it occasionally to drench us with water, or to poke us with sharp objects, or to drop fire into the jar to make us dance. He secured the lid afterwards by snapping a metal catch, but perhaps this time…

I pressed upward gently; the lid lifted. A simple push and it fell to the side. I sprang to the thin, glass lip of the opening and unfurled my wings, stretching them wide, luxuriating in the caress of air on membranes that had been too long folded against my body in the cramped jar. By the trees, that felt good.

The interior of the crate that held the jars was dim, but I could make out some shapes. Above my head was the heavy cover. There would be no shifting that. I might be strong for my kind, but was still too small to budge such a substantial sheet of metal. There were a dozen jars in the crate, each with a sprung metal clasp to hold down the lid, each holding a prisoner. Their pale faces watched me as I perched on the rim of my jar, no doubt envious of my escape.

Down to my left, Rimbaud watched too, a grin on his pretty face. He blew me a kiss, and gestured to the side of the container, to the pale glow of an opening that we guessed was to allow air to reach us. My eyes widened. The metal clasp on his jar was also loose. The giant had been careless on his last visit.

It took me but a few moments to free Rimbaud, and we moved to the opening in the wall, mouthing our apologies to the other prisoners. Holding hands, we entered the passageway beyond. It was entirely circular, the walls and floor smooth, hard, and allowing a translucent glow.

“It’s good to touch you again,” Rimbaud said, squeezing my hand. “I’m scared. Are you scared?” I did not answer. “Are we doing the right thing? Death may await us along this path. At least in captivity we live, and our love endures.”

“Love without freedom is like wings without flight.” I closed my fingers on his, briefly, but my mind was on things other than reassurance. We could hope that this air tunnel led to freedom, but it seemed unlikely, given all that we had endured since our capture. Starvation and torture had taken me to the end of my sanity. Even the smallest chance of escape was worth grasping, and if this air-tube did not lead us to freedom after all, I would take my own life. I had suffered enough. We are not made for captivity, our kind.

The passageway ahead forked. Rimbaud and I looked at each other.

“There are two ways,” he said. “Which shall we follow? Perhaps one leads to escape, and the other to danger?”

“Let us each follow one. That way we will know the right path. Walk for five hundred heartbeats. If you have discovered nothing by then, turn around. We meet back here and compare findings.”

“Very well,” he said. His wing-tips caressed mine. “Be careful.”

I took the passage on the right. I have been walking for five hundred heartbeats now, but I do not turn around. I am close to open air. I can sense it. I smell leaves and grass, sunshine and summer breeze. Ahead of me an opening appears – I see trees against a blue sky. I almost run out of the opening.

I stand on a flat circle of earth, blinking in bright sunshine. All around me are breeze-blown birch, but between me and the trees is a wire fence that surrounds the bare circle. It extends above, too, a net across the blue sky. Behind the fence, staring at me, are giants. Scores of them, grinning, drooling, eating and laughing. I clutch my ears as a deafening voice booms, putting small birds to flight from the trees above.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Fairy Wars!”

The giants cheer, a horrifying thunder. Across the circle of earth, I notice a second entrance set in the wire. Another of my kind stumbles into the light. It is Rimbaud.

“Two creatures enter!” the voice bellows again. “But only one will leave!”

Rimbaud’s eyes brim with tears. He looks directly at me, and I can sense the love he holds for me, rooted deep within his soul. Those wide, innocent, beautiful eyes are now haunted by despair at the sudden ripping away of freedom’s promise.

“Bids are now being taken for the corpse of the loser!”

Rimbaud shakes his head, slowly, and collapses to his knees, wings handing limply around him.

“Which of these magical creatures will earn their freedom today, and which will die? Place your bets now!”

I bare my teeth. By the trees, if this is what it takes to earn my freedom, so be it. I will not – I cannot – return to captivity, torture, and life in a jar. Rimbaud looks startled as I unsheathe my claws and launch myself at him with a scream.

Fergus

A little thing that I wrote five years ago while sitting at the end of Seatown harbour in Gamrie. My sincere apologies to any Scottish readers, especially those who live there, for my poor attempts to capture the atmosphere of that wonderful place.

DSCF0767The light was fading rapidly now, sapphire to cobalt to indigo. The agreeable sunset apricot tint had faded from the clouds overhead and now they were simply battleship grey. The sea remained calm, but the surface began to chop as a cool breeze picked up, bringing the delicious scents of salt and seaweed to the shore. Gulls, waders and kittiwakes filled the dusk with their last raucous shrieks, whistles and mock laughter.

A maroon smudge smeared athwart the horizon was all that remained of the day’s sun. In the near distance Saltire Craig, a small jut of rock no bigger than a trawler, rose black out of water the colour of molten lead. Pale grey smudges spattered its surface. They swirled and wheeled occasionally about the tattered Bratach na h-Alba, the Banner o’ Scotland, that fluttered bravely atop its lonely pole, as it had since planted there by some hardy Scottish brave some time ago.

High on the lookout platform at the sea end of the harbour pier, Fergus eased his bony buttocks on the rusting bollard and stretched out his legs, feet poking out over the edge of the harbour wall. Inside his clumsy old boots he wiggled his toes, and imagined how good they’d feel with sea-water sluicing between them.

A loud splash echoed across the water, startling him. He peered into the murk, seeing nothing. The sound had originated from the other side of Saltire Craig, out of his sight. What could be large enough to make that noisy an impact with the water? Dolphins, perhaps? Or maybe old friends?

He gazed out at the ending day. Sunset always calmed his mind, soothed his soul, helped him to settle for the life he had now. On either side of the bay the headlands were already mussel-black. The vast dimming sky grew steadily darker.

Fifteen feet below his boots the waves lapped quietly at the weathered stone that protected the vessels safely tucked away behind it. More squealing gulls circled the end of the pier, curving pleasing arcs below his feet. Above his head a tiny red light winked on and began to flash.

DSCF0744A small white boat rounded Saltire Craig, its engine popping quietly as it crossed towards the harbour entrance. The boat was small, big enough only to carry two at most, yet now bearing but one passenger. Fergus could read the name painted on the prow – “Maighdean-Chuain”.

The single occupant raised a hand to Fergus as he passed and entered the placid waters beyond the sea wall. Fergus lifted his own arm in acknowledgement. It was good finally to feel included after all this time. His peculiar arrival in the village all those months ago had caused many to keep their distance at first, yet now even that extraordinary day was fading from memory. Village folk tended to live in the present rather than lingering on what was past. Folk here had finally started to show friendship to Fergus; yes, and acceptance. He scratched his grey beard and pulled the ear-flaps of his plaid charity-shop hat down over his ears. Getting chilly now.

He pushed to his feet, old muscles complaining. He wobbled a little in a gust of wind and steadied himself on the stanchion that held the harbour light aloft, before slowly descending the curved steps down from the lookout point. He ambled along the dock to where the small boat had tied up, and peered down at it bobbing on the shadowy water.

There was enough light left to see that the man in the boat was gutting a freshly caught fish on an upturned blue crate. A sharp knife, expertly wielded, slit the belly open. Fingers were deftly inserted and slid smoothly inside to pull out the guts. These the fisherman flung into the water for the flocking, shrieking gulls to fight over. He glanced up at the dock.

“Fergus,” the man nodded, laying his cleaned fish on a plastic bag beside him.

“Robbie Gamrie, is that you?” Fergus peered uncertainly down into the gloom.

“Aye, so,” Robbie confirmed “Got mysel’ a couple of late haddock.”

DSCF0528Robbie lifted a second wriggling fish and whacked its head on the side of the boat before laying it on the blue crate and sliding in his knife.

“Well done, there,” Fergus said. “What kept you out so late?”

“Forgetfulness. I was miles away, daydreaming like a bairn. I’d likely still be out there, but a noise brought me alert.”

“The splash? Aye, I heard that. Big splash, it was. Did you see what made it?” Hope glimmered briefly in Fergus’ breast.

“Nay, it was behind me, whatever it was.”

“Hmm,” said Fergus, slightly disappointed. “Too big for a bird, anyroad. Could it have been dolphins, think you?”

“Maybe. They… or silkies, eh?”

Fergus could hear Robbie’s grin in the tone of his voice. Robbie didn’t believe in silkies, despite the name of his boat. Not many did, nowadays.

“You’ll have had your supper?” Robbie asked him.

“Ah, no. I’ll have a rollie when I get in.”

“Rollie be damned. You’ll need warmth inside you if you’ve been perched up there for long. Here, catch.”

A dark shape flew up from below to hover briefly before Fergus’ eyes, shimmering a little in the harbour light. Fergus snatched out a hand to catch it before it fell back. The fish was cold and oily, the flesh yielding beneath his fingers as only fresh fish does.

“Got milk, Fergus? Butter and pepper? Get that inside your oven, then get it inside you. It’ll do you a sight more good than cold bread.”

“Thanks, laddie, I appreciate it.” Fergus nodded farewell to Robbie and walked off the harbour, taking the shore path towards his tiny cottage, the haddock hanging limply from his fingers.

Fish for supper. He remembered a time long ago when supper had always been fresh fish. He did not eat it half as much these days, and the gift from Robbie was a pleasant surprise. Fergus was not inclined to take Robbie’s advice on how best to prepare the haddock, however. He would not bake the fish in milk. Tonight he would eat the fish raw, just like the old days.

The Train Now Arriving

'Dead End' by Keith AlexanderI open my eyes. The train is moving slowly, the steady, paced rhythm of the wheels doing its damnedest to lull me back to sleep. In the afterdoze, I wonder where I am.

“Ah, you’re awake!” my companion says.

“Yes,” I say. My tongue is dry.

“Here, clean your mouth.” The man sitting opposite hands me a small plastic bottle of water, which at least refreshes my tongue, if not my dream-befogged mind.

“You looked dead to the world when you got on,” he says, “and just collapsed into the corner there. Don’t worry,” he gave me reassuring smile, “you didn’t snore.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t …” I look around. The compartment seems fairly nondescript, though rather old-fashioned. Bench seats face each other, and above them are luggage racks and faded paintings screwed onto the wall. To my right a sliding door gives onto the corridor. To my left, through the sash window, a wide expanse of sunglinted mirrorwater reflects a steel-blue sky. The only other person in the compartment smiles, lines crinkling his periwinkle-blue eyes.

“My name’s Charon,” he says.

“Ah, after Pluto’s largest moon?”

“In a way, yes,” he says, his eyes flashing. “You’re an astronomer?”

“I’m not sure,” I say honestly. I try to think. “I can’t even remember getting on the train.”

“Oh, dear. Mind you, it looks like you came a long way to catch it,” he says, pointing at my feet. They are filthy; bare, blistered and bleeding. “You should clean them.” He passes me a white handkerchief, almost dazzling in the intense sunglare that streams into the compartment. I pour a little water onto the cloth, squinting against the brightness.

“It’s not that bright,” Charon says. “You just have the dust of too many memories in your eyes, refracting the light. You should clean those, too.”

I begin to rub at the grime on my feet, staining the pristine cloth brown and black.

“The handkerchief’s a metaphor, clearly,” Charon says. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. I think it was Chekhov that said that, wasn’t it? Oh look, we’ve arrived.”

I look up. I am alone in the compartment. Outside, a railway station glides into view, all picket fences, milk churns, flowerbeds, waiting rooms and porter’s barrows. As the train slows to a halt, I see Charon standing on the platform in a guard’s uniform, holding a red flag. Behind him an ornate metal sign displays the name of the station, and suddenly I realise where I am. Charon blows a shrill whistle.

“All change!” he shouts. “Purgatorium! This is Purgatorium!”

Recruitment – a sample chapter from Rollie

DCP Scan_068, 4/19/04, 4:24 PM,  8C, 7490x10116 (289+418), 100%, A.I. Basic,  1/60 s, R93.7, G87.6, B104.2The firm-jawed young man gazed at a distant blue horizon. The bright sunshine narrowed his eyes and made his cheeks glow. The goggles perched on his head glinted dazzlingly, holding the flying helmet snugly about his head. His fur collar, and the absence of perspiration, indicated the cold of his surroundings. A radio mask hung loosely below his chin, and parachute straps criss-crossed his khaki flying suit. The pilot was confident and determined, looking ahead to a bright future. By his right arm sat a roundel, the circular identification mark of British aircraft, but with the red inner circle replaced by a Canadian maple leaf. Next to this the words ‘Royal Canadian Air Force’ stood proud, while above the young man’s head flew the jolly enjoinder “Join the Team!” Rollie yelped as a fist punched his shoulder.

“Quit staring at that poster, you fat-head. Let’s get inside!”

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