First Blood—Lyndsey Croal

I reach under the sink and grab the bucket and rubber gloves, still slightly bloodstained from last month.

El appears behind me. ‘Gutters clogged again?’

I look up at her and nod. ‘Have you seen the goggles?’ I don’t want to get entrails in my eyes again when the pipe unblocks. Just our luck that Jenny’s shift is so messy. Emma down the street just goes into hibernation for hers. And Lou from Jenny’s year develops gills and disappears into the river for a day or two. No blood or guts or half-eaten carcasses for their parents to deal with.

When I head outside and climb the ladder to the roof, Jenny is sitting in the oak tree overhanging the house. She’s made herself a nest where she can roost half-hidden, beady eyes watching the world go by. Dried blood stains the branches below her, making the tree look like it has root rot. When Jenny was little, we hung a tyre swing from that branch, and I would push her back and forwards as she screeched with delight, soaring high into the air. ‘Look Daddy, I’m flying!’

‘Yes you are, my little bird!’ I’d shout back. 

Yes. You are my little bird, I think now, looking up at my almost grown daughter. I swear her face is getting more angular each month – half bird, half wild girl, guts now dripping unceremoniously from her chin.

She watches me as I kneel and clear out the gutters, slowly filling the bucket with sinew and muscle and the occasional bone shard. I come across a leg bone – a rabbit maybe – and toss it into the flower beds to be buried later. My eyes drift over to the neighbour’s garden, realising I’ve not heard their pug yapping this morning. I look up at Jenny and she flaps her wings out and clicks her beak at me. We had the talk about neighbourhood pets three months ago.

There’s a noise from the street and Jenny’s neck cranes above her nest parapet, puffing out her green-black plumage so that it shimmers in the sun.

It’s only Dan, the postman, and the welcome sound of pug yapping follows as he does his rounds. ‘Morning Jay, lovely day,’ he says approaching the house.

I hold up my gloved hands. ‘Perfect for some spring cleaning!’

He nods and waves, puts our mail in the letterbox. Then his eyes land on Jenny and his smile fades a little. ‘That time already?’ He sighs. ‘I remember when it was Ayla going through it. Grow up so fast, don’t they?’ With that he tips his hat and heads off back down the street, a fixed expression on his face. Dan’s daughter Ayla left town last year. Actually, she ran off in her shifted form into the forest, and never came back. 

After a few days, Jenny comes out of her nest. Baby feathers appear everywhere and anywhere as she moults, sticking around no matter how much we hoover. Her beak retracts, her wings unfurl into soft skin, and finally she comes down for breakfast looking tired, but mostly like herself again.

‘Have we got cereal?’ she asks.

No guts. Good. ‘Of course sweetheart.’ I pour her a bowl with milk, alongside a glass of fresh orange juice. A balanced diet is important.

‘Have you noticed Jenny’s been out more than usual?’ El asks me one evening.

‘She’s a teenage girl, she’ll be out with friends.’

‘Maybe we should set a curfew.’

I shake my head. ‘We’ve got to let her spread her wings,’ I say, a smile on my lips.

But El isn’t amused. ‘Eric from Number 11 said he found her in their garden trying to climb their apple tree.’

I shrug. ‘Maybe she was hungry.’

‘It’s spring. There aren’t any apples.’

Not the sort of hungry I meant. Eric’s cat often sits up there, watching the birds. ‘I’ll talk to her.’

El sighs and looks out the window into the garden.

‘Is there something else?’ I ask.

‘It’s probably nothing.’ She pauses. ‘You’ve not noticed something…different about her?’

‘Beyond the feathers and talons she grows every month?’

‘It’s the way she looks at us, her eyes all narrowed like she wants to…I don’t know.’ She shakes her head, hackles rising. ‘It’s nothing. I’m just over worrying. My claws are due.’

I act surprised and pretend I haven’t noticed the sharpening and lengthening of El’s fingers. Or the way she literally howled with laughter at the golden retriever video Jenny showed us yesterday. Or how she ripped the armchair cushion when she stood up a little too fast to go to bed last night. Tonight, she’ll likely sleep in the garden for a few days until she shifts back to normal. Some families’ shifts sync up, but so far Jenny’s and El’s haven’t. I remain thankful for the little things. 

In the middle of the night, there’s a scream from Jenny’s room and I run through to her. She’s lying on the bed, writhing in distress. In the shadows I see the ruffle of feathers and her arm-wing outstretched. Surely it’s not that time again? I’m still recovering from her last shift. 

‘It hurts,’ she says. ‘Make it stop.’

I pat her on the leg but find the roughness of talons beneath my fingers. I pull away. She’s never complained about it hurting before. Maybe I should take her to see the doctor again. When the shifts first began, we took her there, but they just told us that all girls go through it. It’s completely normal, nothing to worry about. If it gets too disruptive, they have a pill or a patch she could try, with only “limited side effects”, like anxiety and headaches and nausea and blood clots. But it’s expensive, and we figured what’s a bit of guts in gutters, and feathers on the sofa to deal with every month? Better to just let nature take its course. And eventually, the shifts should become less extreme. ‘It’ll pass in a few days.’

‘What if it doesn’t, and what if I don’t change back? Like Ayla.’ She opens her mouth, and a strange guttural noise comes from the back of her throat. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. ‘And I’m so hungry,’ she continues. ‘And tired, and everything hurts and I’m just hungry! Why won’t it stop?’

‘Don’t worry sweetheart,’ I try to reassure her. ‘Let me help. What do you—’

‘No you don’t understand!’ she shouts, her voice different, strained. ‘I want Mum!’

‘Mum’s in the garden.’

Jenny lifts her head and lets out a long screech.

The pug next door starts yapping.

Next thing El is howling. 

I try my best to calm Jenny down, but she’s crying now like a harpy, uncontrollably, sobs amidst shrieks and caws. Surely it can’t be that bad?

‘Do you need to go outside? Can I get you anything? A cup of tea? Biscuits? Paracetamol? Hot water bottle?’ But she won’t reply, she just pushes me away. El is still howling, and I put my hands to my head. This is too much. There must be an easier way. What did I do to deserve all of this?

On my way to check on El, there’s a knock at the front door. Flashing blue lights reflect in the windows. When I open the door, local police officer Patrick is standing on the porch. He pokes his head in and looks upstairs where Jenny is still screeching the house down. Then, there’s a clatter from the window opening, and I hear her talons tip-tapping against the roof as she retreats to her nest.

‘Had a noise complaint?’

‘Hi Patrick, sorry it’s—’

‘That time again?’

I laugh in an attempt to lighten the mood. ‘Yes. I’ll try to keep them quiet.’

He speaks into his radio. ‘False alarm. Just a shift-sync.’

‘How’s the family?’ I ask him as he scribbles something in his notepad.

‘I suspect you’ve some idea,’ he says, looking as tired as he sounds. He has three teenage daughters. ‘Rhea got her first shift last month. Scales and all. A real mess, especially when she ate Harry the Hamster whole. Held a funeral in the garden with an empty shoebox, poor thing. The girls were beside themselves.’

I nod. ‘She’ll learn to control her impulses,’ I say. ‘Just takes time.’ I look behind me to the back door. El’s howling has become more high-pitched, agitated. The neighbour’s pug is scraping wildly at their back door.

And then, suddenly, silence. A still, disconcerting quiet as the night air chills. Patrick senses it too and he steps into the front garden and shines his torch down the street. I pull my coat off the hook and follow. He wanders round the edge of the house and shines the light at Jenny’s nest. But she’s not there. I turn around just in time to see the swoop of a giant bird, wings illuminated by the blue lights. She’s heading straight for us, eyes hungry, talons outstretched.

Look Daddy, I’m flying.

previously published in Mslexia’s Best Women’s Short Fiction 2021 (2021)

Lyndsey is an Edinburgh-based author of strange and speculative fiction, with work published in several magazines and anthologies, including Dark Matter Magazine, Shoreline of Infinity, and Orion’s Belt. She’s a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awardee, British Fantasy Award Finalist, former Hawthornden Fellow, and a Ladies of Horror Fiction Writers Grant Recipient. Her debut novelette “Have You Decided On Your Question” is published in April 2023 with Shortwave Publishing. Find her on Twitter as @writerlynds or via her website

photo by Chris Sabor and Vita Leonis (via unsplash)

A Contract with Wild Things—Claire Schultz

It was that hour just before dark when the long oppressive stretch of the day wore itself into the forgiving twilight, that time when all things existed at once, when she was both very old and very young (and she was, after all, both very old and very young). It was the time when storytelling stopped being storytelling and became memory, and when memory stopped being memory and became storytelling. It made the garden lush and wild in possibility; the long twists of roses and unhindered vines reached across broken walls and tumbled down what might have once been paths. It was a beautiful wild place that had grown wild and beautiful out of long-held spite. Overlooking a mossy green basin that might once have been a pool, the horns of a stone satyr scraped out of a dense tangle of trees. Although it was hard to see her, a girl sat by its feet. She was eight, maybe ten, maybe twelve in the right lighting, her elbows muddy and feet bare. She curled herself against the base of the satyr, right in the groove of its pedestal where the stone rippled with an old injury long since scarred over.

She didn’t do much, because there wasn’t much left to do. She’d done it all by this point, many times over. She’d read every book in the library, before the library had given itself back to the garden too. She’d watched every movie in the collection until she’d worn out the discs, and the power had long since gone, anyway. There used to be people to talk to down the road, but no one lived in the stretch of big glass mansions anymore, and they’d built them so far out of town for a reason. She did leave, sometimes. She walked down the long cracked asphalt driveway and kept walking until she hit something she’d never seen before, but she always found herself back at what remained of the house she’d been born in.

It was that hour just before dark that was worse than the dark itself, when the shadows of things stretched their long fingers at you and twisted around your ankles and turned the familiar wrong. At least the dark was decisive. In this half-light, the garden existed in duplicate. There was the trellis as she knew it in the daylight, there it was twisted into something bent, just slightly. The pool off the terrace was too deep and too long and too still and too round and something hollow swam in it where the last rays of sunlight hit the surface. The roses looked sepia and the lilacs dark blue, and everything was there—it was all there—but it was bad, it was off, it was wrong.

It wasn’t a nice garden, even in the daytime. The sunlight hardened its hardest edges; it was a trees and thorns garden, the wildness pruned out of it until the wildness fought back. The hedges were stern and straight, and the flower patches walled by brambly roses. It was a garden built by a man who wanted to tell people he had a garden, not to have a garden. It was as sensible and welcoming as everything else in the house, which was about as sensible and welcoming as a taxidermied stag (of which, of course, the house had several).

And in that horrible, unwelcoming garden at that horrible, unwelcoming hour, a man in a pinstripe suit lay crumpled at the foot of a stone satyr.

Ivy wouldn’t see the man, but she would see the yellow-grey outline in the grass the next morning where his shape had worn it bare. She had never seen her father weak before, and that wouldn’t start now.

She wouldn’t see the way he stretched his arm towards the statue’s outstretched foot, wouldn’t see the way he clawed at its base, but she would find the five long gouges in the marble. 

It was that hour just before dark and a man in a pinstripe suit lay crumpled at the foot of a statue, and he lay crouched at the foot of a statue, and he stood face to face with the statue, and he was nowhere to be found. In that indeterminate hour before dark, he was all of those things, and he was none. The garden was many things at once, and so was he, and in the version of it all where he could hear the statue and the statue could hear him in return, something spoke, and something listened.

Ivy saw none of this because she was in her father’s study, a place she was explicitly not allowed to be. During working hours on the days he hadn’t taken one of his flashy silver cars to the office, her father set up residence there, bolting the door tightly shut behind him. The door fit perfectly flush with the floor and the frame, not so much as a crack for light beneath it, and it had no keyhole for her to peep through. If she sat just outside it with her back to the wood, she could hear the echo of pacing inside, the occasional clatter of a keyboard, and a low murmur that sounded like her father’s voice, but she could never make out the words. The study was up three stories, at the end of a long hallway as sensible and welcoming as the garden, and she could just nearly see inside its window if she climbed the magnolia tree out back. It wasn’t a very good view or a very good climb, and if she stepped just wrong the branch would give beneath her, and she’d end up in a heap of bruised petals and bruised shins. If she angled it just right, though, and didn’t step just wrong, and her father hadn’t shut his blinds, she could see the glow of light against red walls, a row of bookshelves, and the silhouette of a man pacing, pacing, pacing.

And, because there was no keyhole, the door stayed unlocked when he was gone. Ivy didn’t think she was supposed to know this: she knew that she wasn’t supposed to be wandering the house unattended, that closed doors meant forbidden, and that she wasn’t supposed to go into her father’s study. But it was so very easy to slip away during her parents’ big fancy dinner parties, when the cold of their marbled foyer turned hot with so many wealthy, well-dressed people and their overlarge glasses of dark red wine. She wasn’t very big, and she couldn’t very well talk about international shipping or how the potential collapse of the stock market would tank the global economy or what that one anchor on the news was wearing last night, how dare she. At most, her parents paraded her around awhile to show off how cute and polite and look, how clever, she was before turning back to the houseguests in their sheath dresses and sensible hosiery. 

No one would notice then if she, say, grabbed a fistful of cocktail shrimp and ran up the back staircase and down that long, unfriendly hallway. Even all the way up here, she could hear the echoes of the party downstairs: nattering conversation, a man’s booming laugh. The door to her father’s study was heavy and displeased with being opened, but after Ivy shoved her whole shoulder against it, it gave in without much fight. She tumbled in, cocktail shrimp still in hand, and landed on a threadbare oriental rug. The door swung shut behind her immediately, and then it was just her alone in her father’s study: small, wood-paneled, a wall of bookshelves, a desk taller than she was strewn with crumpled papers, thick drapes around the narrow window.

She did this whenever her parents hosted one of their corporate dinner parties, and they hosted their corporate dinner parties several times a month. She’d started it a year ago, when she first really realized that there was an entire room in her home that she had never seen inside of. She’d known her father had a study, of course; she’d seen him go up the stairs and down the hallway and disappear, but she hadn’t thought to question it. She’d been young then; she hadn’t realized that the somewhere he went was somewhere she could go too, but somewhere she had never been, and somewhere, when she asked, she was told she couldn’t go. 

She knew the dip of the floor beneath her by now, knew where she fit perfectly against the grooves of her father’s desk, knew that if she looked between the gaps in the shelves just so she could see into the party downstairs. Ivy didn’t know what her father did for a living, but she knew it involved a lot of old books and expensive ties. He used fancy pens, too, and covered the pages on his desk in a furious purple ink that she couldn’t read. They’d tried to teach her cursive in school, but she’d never been any good at it. She’d never been able to make out the titles of the books on his shelves, either. There were the encyclopedias and the dictionaries and the tidy row of popular crime novels, but there were also other, older books, cloth- and leather-bound and oddly-sized. It wasn’t that they were unusually small, exactly, or that they were unusually big, they were just the wrong size. They didn’t fit on the shelf somehow, even though they fit on the shelf just fine. It was all a little crooked, even though it was all neatly aligned. She was sure they had titles on their spines, but Ivy had never been able to read them. When she tried, they cracked and swam like the words on his desk, a cursive angry at her inability to read it.

She popped a shrimp in her mouth, throwing the tail into the bin beside her father’s desk, and traced a finger across the ink. It was tacky to the touch, like it was recent and barely set, but her finger came away dry. Not so much as a smudge. 

This was a game she liked to play: how far could she get before they noticed; how deep could she go beneath her father’s skin until she found something more than fancy suits and fancy wines. It was here, she knew that. No one cared about nothing, she knew that. The walls and floor of the study pulsed, the heartbeat of the house thick and steady in her ears. She couldn’t know it, but it matched her father’s heartbeat: strong, unchanging, mechanical. And then it spluttered and it hiccupped. Ivy jumped, dropping the last of cocktail shrimp on the desk, and she knew they would stain the wood and papers with a wet thud. 

Below it, a curl of purple bled out beneath its tail. The strange angry cursive distorted into a watery scar; her father’s spidery handwriting washing away. It was a disproportionate response for such a small spot of moisture, as if the ink in the paper had collectively decided to up and run. It was clearly angry at the violation—how could someone so small and so careless do something so small and so careless? This was a room of precision. Every line on those pages, as inscrutable as they’d been, was specific, built on the last and the first, tangled in a carefully-constructed chain. 

Ivy could not read what the papers said because the papers were written in a language everyone except the earth and her father had forgotten. If she could, she would have seen that they were contracts like the ones he talked about in offices and at dinner parties. A negotiation: one thing in exchange for another, we agree to these terms, this is a fair exchange of goods, we will uphold this agreement 

If Ivy could have read the papers, which she couldn’t because she didn’t speak the language of trees and wild things, she would have seen that this contract was a simple one written by a cunning businessman. He would get the better end of the deal, and he’d trick the poor sucker on the other end into thinking he’d walked away with the lottery.

She would have seen that this one she’d ruined was the last in a long series, the most carefully structured of the bunch. It was a dazzling feat of magic and manipulation; it was the result of a man years practiced in the craft. A man who had learned to speak the ancient earth fluently, but in the way of a learned speaker, not a native, with a careful control of its grammar and fluctuations, but no understanding of its soft edges, its metaphors. Her father did not speak the poetry of it, only the business. It was a little like using French to write an airport thriller: technically correct, but a waste.

Ivy knew none of this, because she spoke none of this, and she didn’t even know that she didn’t. She only knew that she’d broken something irreparable because the stone foundation of the house she’d been born in told her so.

Outside the window, where she couldn’t see even if she’d looked, her father lay crumpled beneath the foot of a stone satyr.

She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until she saw it in hindsight. Her father was more unpleasant than usual the next morning, not so much as a good morning when they crossed paths in the kitchen. He didn’t admonish her for her stack of toaster waffles, higher than her head. Her mother was nowhere, but her mother was never anywhere. She was a peripheral sort of mother, the kind who appeared in the evenings in glamorous earrings and thick lipstick before vanishing again for days at a time. Ivy would see in her in the empty wine glasses leaving rings on the side tables, or a ghost of perfume wafting up the stairs, but her mother, her flesh-and-blood-and-solid-bone mother, had left a long time ago, and then it was just Ivy in that house with the cold of her father.

In the way he had wanted to be someone who said he had a garden, not someone who had a garden, her father had always been someone who wanted to say he had a child, not someone who had a child. She was most useful to him as a pretty little doll at those dinner parties, where his coworkers could coo over her curls and pinch her cheeks and say she was so sweet, so well-spoken, so charming. They would then, realizing that he was human too after all, make the deals he’d brought them there to make. When she’d gotten old enough and tall enough to see their shark-toothed smiles, she’d started to understand what he’d been doing, and she was almost willing to play along.

After that evening in the study, when she’d felt her father’s heartbeat stop (and, later, start again a half-measure out of time), she thought she saw him staring at her curiously, or maybe it was hungrily. Maybe, for a moment, she thought, he’d finally seen her as something alive. Sometimes, when she was sure he didn’t know she was looking, she’d catch him smiling at her from down the long hallway, a whisper of something alive in his eyes. Proud, even. 

And then he’d come into full focus and it would be gone again.

She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until her slip of a satin dress mother didn’t reappear at the next dinner party, or the next, and the house began to smell of floor wax and linen instead of the floral spice of her perfume. She wouldn’t know that anything was wrong until her doctor told her that she had stopped growing, that she should have been an inch taller than she was this time last year, and her father’s hair streaked silver while her cheeks stayed baby-soft. It frightened her, and it thrilled her. Because the stunting of it snuck up on them in retrospect, they’d bought her party trick shelf life a little extra time. Ivy had always hated those cold, boring, dizzying dinner parties, but she found some kind of pleasure in the golden glow of it. She was a trophy like the taxidermied stags frozen forever at their moment of murder, empty mouths open, glass eyes wide. 

Contract: fulfilled.

The next time she snuck away into her father’s study, the heartbeat in the walls was still. The desk was bare. The bookshelves were emptied out; even the atlases and crime novels were gone. She could hear his laugh grating through the walls, but she found nothing of him in this little dark room. There were old pages in the bin beneath his desk; the purple ink had faded to something almost green, and the paper had gone a horrible slimy pinkish-yellow. She had the feeling that she could read it now if she tried hard enough, but she didn’t want to. Looking at those pages made her sick. Something corrosive writhed beneath her skin. It was the first time she’d felt it, but it was familiar, and she instinctively knew it wouldn’t be her last. The pages smelled of flesh and burning and of her mother’s perfume, and Ivy left them there to rot.

When she saw it again months later, the doorframe just as tall and her footsteps just as light, the ruined contract would still be in the bin exactly as rotted as it had been that last time, no more and no less.

They said she’d maybe just hit puberty and stopped growing early, but she knew she hadn’t. Although she knew very little of what it meant to grow up, Ivy knew it was supposed to feel like something. Her clothes were supposed to fit differently, her body was supposed to tell her it was time. The idea that one day she might see herself in the heavy mirror above the bathroom sink and be someone else entirely terrified her in the abstract, but it never happened. She became a well-worn photograph, not a living thing, and, she would come to realize, she could get tired of familiarity. She lost hours studying her face for signs of change: new freckles in the summer, an outbreak of acne, any sort of lines and marks of a life lived. Anything.

But there was nothing. There would always be nothing. The doctors didn’t know what to say, because this was not supposed to happen, and nothing in their training had prepared them for a girl who had a full set of adult teeth ready and waiting to push out the rest of the younger set, but never did. She stopped going to the doctor.

Her father’s smiles from the edges of hallways turned into the wrong kind of warmth: the steely, burning kind. Jealous conflagration, not the warm embers of a hearth. 

(It wasn’t just that she had broken his contract, it was that she’d taken it for herself. An accidental addendum reshaping a clause in the moment of trade, confusing the business of it. She’d rewritten the legalese instead of rendering it all null and void. It had gone incontrovertibly wrong. They couldn’t try again.)

Her father pulled her out of school once it was clear that she wasn’t growing in time with her classmates. Without the shadow of her mother to tell someone to homeschool her, he just left Ivy to wander on her own. He stopped trotting her out at parties; he stopped leveraging her accomplishments for business connections. Why try to raise a child who’d already grown up as much as she ever would?

Time hardly passed for her, because she had an infinite stretch of it. They figured it out eventually, but her father wouldn’t put it in so many words. He barely spoke to her at all anymore. It could have been every third Tuesday or every third year when he did, and it was usually just to tell her to remember to brush her hair, or didn’t she know not to eat ice cream for breakfast.

He grew very old and she grew very old and she stayed very young. The smaller he became, the whiter his hair turned, the lower his shoulders hunched and the skin beneath his jaw hung loose, the less he seemed to hate her. 

“Ivy, my girl,” he’d say. “Where’s your mother?”

“Ivy, my love,” he’d say. “How was school today?”

In moments of clarity, which became rarer every day or week or month or year, he’d apologize. The best years were sometime halfway between the start and the end, when he was just soft enough to speak to her but clear enough to still make sense. I didn’t mean to do this to you, he’d say. I didn’t want this to happen. Or I should have known better. What he didn’t say, but what Ivy heard in his rattling breaths, was that he hadn’t meant for this to happen to her. Maybe he regretted finding what he’d been looking for entirely. Maybe he just regretted that she had gotten it instead of him. If she was feeling especially forgiving, she liked to think that he was sad she’d never have graduations, a wedding, children, a corner office in his metal-and-glass skyscraper downtown. If she wasn’t, she thought he would have rather outlived her. He was ashamed that she’d seen him become weak and fragile, because he wasn’t made to age and decay. He was a man who had hedged in nature until it stood straight and cold; he’d pruned away the wildness until the wildness fought back.

He never told her what, exactly, he’d done that day, and she stopped going back to his study where the papers made her nauseous and weak. There was the unspoken agreement that he was, in fact, an excellent businessman and experienced in the sorts of contracts she’d broken. It had been a perfectly sensible bargain, trading off his wife, bit by bit, so that they had this house, the beautiful cars that sat untouched in the garage, the fancy dinner parties and the expensive ties and the peripheral slip of a mother who had eventually been swallowed up on the edges. He’d asked for one thing too many, and his goodwill had worn thin enough that all it took to break it was a curious careless child and a cocktail shrimp. The unwilded wildness his stone satyr guarded had been pruned to the wick and couldn’t go any further before it snapped back.

She, of course, outlived him. She would outlive everything now except, perhaps, the wildness that had made her. He wasn’t a young man when he died, but his life felt very small to her. He had been a very small man all along; she knew that now. Even a man as grandstanding and wealthy and well-dressed as he had been was nothing against the great impossible swell of nature. He’d wasted his life thinking he had contracted it and conned it into submission. (Of course, he’d gotten it backwards.) 

She wanted to bury him at the foot of the satyr or toss the splintering cocoon that had been her father into his horrible swimming pool, now thick with algae. The lawyers put him in the family plot across town. Her mother should have been there alongside him, but they had all long since forgotten her. They weren’t sure she was dead because they weren’t sure she’d ever existed.

Ivy stayed in the house.

She left, but she came back, and every time it was older and smaller than before, and every time she was exactly the same. It would eventually blow off in the wind, and she would still be here.

It was that hour just before dark when the long oppressive stretch of the day wore itself into the forgiving twilight, that time when all things existed at once, when she was both very old and very young (and she was, after all, both very old and very young). It was the time when storytelling stopped being storytelling and became memory, and when memory stopped being memory and became storytelling. It made the garden lush and wild in possibility; the long twists of roses and unhindered vines reached across broken walls and tumbled down what might have once been paths. It was a beautiful wild place that had grown wild and beautiful out of long-held spite. Overlooking a mossy green basin that might once have been a pool, the horns of a stone satyr scraped out of a dense tangle of trees.

Ivy sat at its feet. 

There was nowhere else to go.

Claire Schultz holds a BA in English Literature & Creative Writing from the University of Chicago and an MPhil Education (Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature) from the University of Cambridge. Her fiction has been published in Crow & Cross Keys, Press Pause PressElectric Spec and Pigeon Review, among others. You can find her at, or making a fool of herself on Twitter @anotherclaire.

photo by K. Mitch Hodge (via unsplash)

Bucca—Sam Horton

The tree has caved in the front of the house and nestles, now, between the large front windows—broken water pipes gushing around the trunk. A giant’s skull caved in; the murder weapon lodged in its cranium. It had fallen with such ease, in the end, as though standing tall had grown too much to bear. Collapse was a relief. The house stands at the end of the track, high on the cliff, overlooking a small, curved bay with a sandy beach. There are no lights on. Nobody lives here, though sometimes people stay.

The winds that caused the damage have eased. They still blow, gusting petulantly and knocking birds from nests. Every now and then a stone will fall. Black slate scurrying down the cliffside to the sand below. But it is not like it was. The gale doesn’t howl like a wolf pack, doesn’t chase small creatures to ground and winnow through their burrows, freezing their bones. The rain doesn’t lash against the dunes, peeling away the layers until the roots of the grasses stand exposed, naked against the storm. The body of a seal lying between the rocks rests in a rockpool stained with blood. The damage is done, the dead are awake, and now a dull peace reigns. What weather remains picks irritably at the wilderness. Bored. So, when the twin lights swing round the head of the track it is as though the whole valley cranes its neck to see its visitor. Silver and boxy like a tugboat but silent and fast the vehicle slides up the narrow track. No fumes, no engine growl or parting waves, it creeps towards the house like a predator. It rolls to a stop in front of the house anticlimactically, disappointed to find its quarry dead. A shard of a door opens and from behind black glass a man steps out, a frown on his face and voices in his head.

“Hi, It’s Steve, look – hello? Sorry, I’m at the house, the signal’s bad. It’s a mess, that big tree fell, yeah, clean through. Can you call the contractors? Thanks. Look, I’ll ring you back later. Cheers.”

Steve taps the side of his head, and his frown deepens. He moves towards the remains of the house and his grey suit ripples against the wind. It is not a fabric suited to the country; the breeze blows right through raising goosebumps on his skin. He pushes his way through a side door, the wood caught in the frame that has warped with the weight of wood lying above it. Steve moves with confidence. Seemingly unconcerned that the tree might shift, that he might be the next to shoulder its weight. 

With the front of the house gone there is no impediment to watching eyes, no reason not to pry, no need to be invited in. Steve takes out a rectangle of polished obsidian and taps at it as he moves through the rooms. He pauses over sheets of cracked black glass, dark mirrors that hang in every room and almost all broken. On windowsills and bookshelves shells sit. The carcases of anemones and bottles of coloured sand that do not come from the beach below—that smell of different seas. In the kitchen, he picks carefully over the shattered remains of glasses and plates. A rectangular box glows with a white-blue light, humming as the bottles inside discharge wine over the floor. Steve seems particularly upset at this

“Fucking hell. What a mess.”

Steve has problems. He’s restless. In need of help. He mops at the floor with a clean white towel which absorbs the wine like blood into bandages. He picks up a pillow from the large bed and then places it back down. Lifts shards of the black mirrors and holds them up to the light. He seems suddenly unsure of himself and rushes to the large glass door that overlooks the sea, somehow still intact. Sliding it back he steps onto the wooden deck of a balcony that hangs over the beach. It creaks as he steps on it. The metal struts bolted to the cliffside groan under the weight. 

He ought to heed the warning. 

Instead, he walks to the edge, leans over the rail and takes in great lungfuls of salted air. There is a gust as the wind picks up again and the scent of the beach at low tide fills him. The smell of seaweed on the turn, limpets with imperfect seals and rotting flesh beneath. He gags. His eyes are wild, his hair blown out of its crisp perfection and his tie flaps free in the wind. The metal and wood creaks again and this time he listens, snaps free from the spell, and moves quickly back inside sliding the glass door shut against the howling gale. 

This plan would be wonderful were there a front to the house. As it is, it only takes a moment for the wind to find him again and it taunts him with tidewrack, with the stench of the sea—it is a beautiful smell, to some—Steve retches, and leaves through the side door and walks through the garden to a smaller house. The house that was here when he bought it. That’s the way of it, around here. See a place. Buy a place. Buy a small home and make it bigger. It happens all the time. 

This house has stood for three centuries. This house has weathered the storms. Its name etched in neat type onto the small slate plaque. 

The Toll House. A place to pay your dues. 

He lets himself in, passing through walls three feet thick made of heavy granite blocks and stuffed with lime. Amongst other things. Bottles with pins in. Withered hearts. Things to keep the outside out, the inside in. He pauses in the doorway and shudders. Shrugging off the wind. The door closes with a snap, and he’s gone.

The next morning and the weather is worse. The wind has woken cruel and cold, and plays with the iron latch of the Toll House. The door opens and Steve emerges. He looks better than he did. He appeared briefly, in the night, to salvage a bag from his vehicle and now he is dressed a little better than before. Though the waxed coat he wears could do with some years on it. Could do with a little bit of wearing in. Steve is talking to the voice in his head again.

“Jenny, morning. I’m fine, yes. No, I stayed in the guest house. Fine. A little poky but warm enough, reminded me why we built the new place. All those low ceilings and wonky walls. But it’s dry, and there isn’t a bloody tree sticking out of it. Did you get hold of them? What? What the hell could they be busy with? There’s nobody here! Fine. Fine. Yes, Fine – look, I can’t leave the place like this, anyone could walk in. I’m going to stay for a few days, until someone can come out and make it secure. No, I brought the Tesla.” He laughs. 

“No, it did not, not at all. You pay half a million for a house and there’s no road to get to it!” He laughs again then stops to listen. Jenny does not seem to have been laughing. Perhaps she did not like his joke. There is a long pause and Steve chews his lip throughout. He is physically biting his tongue. When Jenny is done, he snaps at her. 

“Look, just get someone out OK? I’ll go to the pub, use their wi-fi. I don’t know, it’s got a silly name. The Bugaboo? Something colourful for the tourists.”

That is not its name. The Inn is a reminder that passes tourists by. You need to know a thing first to forget it.

“The signal here is shit. Can you forward my emails to my personal account? Great. Right. Bye.”

He taps furiously at his ear and stands with his hands on his hips staring at the caved-in house. He turns. Attracted by movement on the beach. Creatures stirring. Steve is on it. This is a thing he seems equipped for; he moves with purpose, to the top of the wooden rope-railed staircase that slopes down towards the sand.

“Hey! You!” 

The shapes on the beach ignore him. Small and quick footed. They are searching for something, below the balcony. 

“This is a private beach! You can’t be here. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.” Steve does not sound sorry. Not at all. The two figures show no sign of hearing and Steve hurries down the steps and begins striding over crushed seashells and seaweed to the trespassers. He’ll show them. Steve will show them. 

But alas. Steve will not because, somehow, when he arrives at the spot, the spot they searched on, it is empty even of footprints. Steve wheels about in the cold wind. Flecked with sea foam and licked by a salt tongued breeze. Alone. Those rascals, those scoundrels, have escaped him. 

As though they were ghosts. 

Steve mutters steadily as he climbs the cliff, and his discomfort is buffeted to the ears of those that would listen until the door of the Toll House slams shut.

The morning passes quietly enough. The seagulls hang immobile on the wind, swaying lightly but holding firm. There is a creak, now and then, as the tree shifts in its cradle, and down on the beach the seals are back to bury their dead. Peace. Until Steve remerges. He starts towards the Tesla but stops. Looks down the old track he arrived on and shakes his head. He turns and climbs the stile towards the cliff path. 

It clings close to the edge of the field, teasing a collapse in several places though it never falls. Steve clings to it, threatened onto the straight and narrow by gales to his windward side and cattle to his lee. The cattle are bothered by wind nor man, though they follow Steve as he walks, chivvy him along. Focused on glaring at the cattle to his right, he misses the miracles to his left. A raven passes, flying upside down, just because it can, and when it has had enough it pivots and swoops and lands cawing on a drystone wall that ought not be standing, really. The boundary of a long-lost field, it is now nothing but a line of rock atop a bigger one. There are sparrowhawks, too. And kestrel. Searching in the grass for mice and rats that scurry eyes fixed downwards. Steve moves in the same way. Blind to what is hunting him. The path begins to descend. Over the years a natural progression has emerged. Soil giving way until the slate was met and a rock-worn tumbling staircase was revealed. No handrails here. Nothing to slow a faster descent, should a foot slip. Steve’s feet do not slip. He reaches the bottom breathless but safe and steps onto the concrete curb with audible relief. 

The bay used to hold a few houses here and there. A farm, some cottages. All gone now bar the few that cluster around the inn. The new estate sits above the wide sandy beach in darkness. Not a light is on. There are no Teslas here. Nothing moves but the occasional seabird. A flock of oystercatchers whistling overhead. Steve is the only Steve here. There are no other Steves at this time of year; Steve is a Steve out of season. It does not seem to bother him. He moves through the empty houses with a sneer on his face. Smiling at points of difference any other onlooker would not discern. Once or twice, he stops suddenly, his face reddens. Envy spread across it. These houses he passes quickly. But he always looks back. 

He is at the seafront again now. On the carefully maintained strip of pavement that follows the beach. The sand is wet and carved out by wind and Steve looks at it with the same disgust he viewed the cattle. The track to his house. He does not see the sea glass burnished in the sand, does not see the seals on the rocks to the north. He does see, however, the dark clouds the wind is driving onto shore, a fleet of them. And, unpractised though he is, even Steve doesn’t misread that sign. Steve turns towards the end of the bay. Past the last stragglers of glass fronted empty houses and the shuttered shops. Past loud things now quiet. Like Steve, this paradise is out of season. The oystercatchers have circled back, their whistles a bellow overhead as Steve breaks cover, calling the clouds and the rain to him. He is heading for the lights that hang below the headland. On the spit of the quay. To get to it he clambers over a low chain fence that separates concrete from quarried stone. From granite.

The last bastion of the old village. A few small cottages stand on the quayside, new names chiselled onto slate that, just like the Toll House, stand empty. 

Fisherman’s Rest.

The Net Loft.

The Harbourmaster’s Cottage.

Each a joke on someone that has never found it funny. In the harbour, fishing boats rattle their chains. Steve skirts these and stumbles into a stack of lobster pots that send him sprawling, long severed pincers reaching out for help. There is a laugh. Steve looks up to see a fisherman tidying the deck of one of the boats. As he chuckles he pulls a crab from the pot, kisses its shell and throws it back into the sea, eyes to the heavens.

Thank you.

Then the man, still smiling at the sprawl of legs and fishing nets in front of him, climbs over gunwale to solid ground and heads inside the Inn. You can smell the sea as he leaves. Handed down to him from his father, and his. Going back to the flood. 

Steve, who smells of nothing, stands, brushes himself off and heads inside the pub. Not added colour for tourists. Its painted sign swings in the wind and shouts its name, The Bucca’s Due. Named for a story that used to be true. The window stickered with the promise of ales. Of Doombar Pale, Moorland Stout, Free Wiffi. Delicious. 

Look, door open and inviting. Though there are only a few inside. The money made in the warmer months, the inn now half asleep, half shut down to survive but always open, just in case. Warm light pooling on the quayside from door and window. The window in which a bottle hangs full of coloured threads. There must be thousands. Millions. Begging to be counted. 

There’s a tradition that says wayward spirits can’t help but stop and count them. Nonsense of course. Nonetheless…




Dark. The pub is dark, the light in the window out and now the answer may never be known. The jar keeps its secret. Has done its job. Chalk one up to superstition. The fishermen must have gone home. Gone to newer houses further inland that don’t have names, just numbers. Pebble dashed and too far from the sea. 

Steve is gone too. Where? Back to the house, perhaps. A shortcut taken across the beach, around the headland just ahead of the tide. A few drinks inside him and brave enough to face the surf. 

What if he slips? What if the water takes him before his time? No sign of him stumbling across the dark shale, the moonlit seaweed and cuttlebones. How long has it been since he left? 

Nothing on the bay, so round the corner to the beach below the house that hangs over the cliffside as though a high tide had left it stranded. There. A shadow in shadows. Steve lurches up the steps to the clifftop. Not sure footed but lucky Steve is scrambling to the top. A Lucky man. A lonely man, no—not alone. He taps his head. 

“Jenny? Jen?” His voice slurred and slipshod. “Jenny?” He’s shouting now and drowning out anything that poor voice might be saying to him. “Bugger it.” A tap, the voice is gone, and Steve is home, tripping over the low fence and falling face first onto foreign gravel, imported expensively from distant shores.

“Shit.” He sits, brushes himself off and stares in amazement at the hole that the tree left, bereft of tree. There is confused murmuring, what did you drink Steve? In the Pub? Too much Wiffi? Too strong for you whatever it was. They’ve sent you home reeling. Unable to even utter a word of thanks at this great kindness. This grand removal. 

Steve stands and turns and waves a dismissive hand at the place where the tree lay, goes inside the Toll House but there—look—the door ajar. An invitation clear as night. A thank you, perhaps. An opening, a chance. 

No. The door is closed.

It is late in the day when Steve bursts forth. He almost trips over the shape on the mat. A ragged black pouch whose tendrils trail in the dirt. A gift. A present. It would sit prettily next to his shelves of seashells. His bottles of sand. If he was worried he shouldn’t take things from the beach below he needn’t be. Here is a gift. A hint. He bends down and examines the casing of the shark’s egg. Lifts it up. Feels the crackle of its edges, shakes it and listens to the sand rattling within, grains spilling from the crack in its side. 

Throws it away. 

An outstretched hand rebuffed and two heads dip back below the clifftop to wait for company. Another buzzing in Steve’s head. Jenny? No.

“Yes, hello? Speaking. Not for a…what are you talking about the tree’s gone, your lot must have been up here last night.” A pause. Steve listens, eyes flicking to the hole that the roots left. He walks to the edge as he listens and looks down into the darkness. To the hollow beneath, lined with duck down and tangled nets. A smuggler’s rest long abandoned, the caves to it collapsed. Maybe. It has the trappings of a bower. 

“Right. Well, it’s gone anyway so it’s just the house that needs making safe. Can you send someone up to take a look?” Another pause and Steve loses interest in the hole. Walks distractedly to the Tesla, places a hand on its roof. “How long? I need it done by the end of the week.” A pause again. These new voices must have some power over him; he shrinks back from them, clutching the Tesla for support. “Fine. As soon as you can, then.” He slaps at his ear like a horsefly bite to still the noise. 

Making safe. The house needs making safe. But after that, a payment due. 



A house that’s safe. 

The first drops of rain fall and Steve hurries inside. Not to his cosy, thick walled house into which things cannot see. Into a private, hidden nest built for this very thing, to weather storms. No, Steve rushes into his shattered glass skull of a house that sounds like a hailstorm as the water hits it. The house that has not yet been made safe. No need to follow, you can see right through. He pulls the last unbroken bottle from its glowing box. Now this is promising. A libation. He hurries out of the wreckage again and into the cottage. Nothing spilt along the way. The weather is blooming, blossoming into a tempest and it rails against the windows of both broken house and whole. Through the glass of the latter Steve can be seen, drinking his wine, not looking happy. A tap on the window, to keep an eye.


Up he jumps. Red wine spilt onto polished boards. No good there Steve. Pour it onto the sand. His face pressed to the glass and looking into the grey looks scared, uncomfortable. Even through the window his whisper is audible.

“Just trees.” 

What trees Steve? None stand close enough to tap the glass. Something else, just as long and gnarled and branched. Hands outstretched. Fingers rapping. Steve closes the curtains and is lost again.

It is midnight when he reappears. Bleary eyed. The wine has robbed him of sleep. He steps out onto the driveway, moonlit, the silver light making even this sorry sight at least a fraction more beautiful. The rain has stopped. Even the wind has dropped. Steve walks to the cliff and stares out to sea. The ground beneath his feet a mere tremble away from falling. His turned back waiting to be pushed. But he stands. Looks out. Gasps. There had been a low fog across the water, but it rolls away like an anchovy tin lid, a sea of moonlit scales beneath. There in the water like some dredged up squid a tangle of black wood and leafless canopy floats the tree. A reminder of a favour done that’s yet to be repaid. The moon catches on the wet bark and the sound of the sea lapping at its edges echoes up towards the cliff. Steve turns and freezes, staring at something he cannot possibly see. Staring at me.

Hello Steve.

He taps the side of his head as though I can be shut off. 

I am not in your head, Steve. I am here.

He scrabbles at his ear, pulls a little black object out, a shell-less whelk and hurls it to the floor then stands panting in the moonlight. 

Is that Jenny, Steve?

Jenny lies quiet on the gravel. Steve runs inside his glass house, I can see him moving through the rooms. Can see him consider, for a moment, climbing the shattered bones of the stairs to the upper floors. 

This was your own fault, Steve. If you had lived quietly in that little house with thick stone walls I cannot enter I would have stayed sleeping. I would have faded away. But you built this house, shook the earth, loosened the roots of a tree as tired as I am. It was only a matter of time. 

Why have you gone inside, Steve? It’s dangerous. I have not finished. The tree was just the start. I will make your house safe. I am only trying to help.

But Steve does not listen. He is on the balcony again. Creaking struts and popping bolts.

When it falls it does so screaming. A flock of kittiwake, a fox calling. Twisted metal and breaking glass. Down goes Steve and the house, the tide rising to meet them. 

Thank you Steve. How generous. Quite the offering. A little too much perhaps? Though the favours I granted were substantial. And the door to the toll house left ajar! A new home to replace the one I lost. The one that is filling with water. A cosy place to sit and wait for those I hope are more grateful for my help. I am very helpful. As I cross I look out across the bay, past the three figures standing in the water, I see a light still on upstairs at the inn.

The Bucca’s Due. Named after a time when, once the fish had been caught, a little pile was left on the sand. For the Bucca. For the sea. For me. Payment for a favour done. A bountiful catch. A fortuitous tide. Some mackerel, some pilchard. An eel. A little piece for what they took. Never more than could be spared, a morsel not a meal. But those days are gone. Those people have left. There are no little gifts left on the sand. 

I had thought those days were done. The busy summers, full of people who did not need my help. Did not wish to feed me. Pay me. Nothing worth staying awake for. But I am awake now. Ready to help. And I have not been fed in a very long time

Sam is a writer living above the moor in Cornwall, he also works in a library by the sea. He was shortlisted for the Bridport flash fiction prize in 2020, and in 2021 was longlisted for the Louise Walters Books page 100 competition, as well as shortlisted and highly commended in the Hammond House international short story prize. In January this year he was featured on an episode of Litopia’s ‘Pop up Submissions’ which he won. He is represented by John Baker at Bell, Lomax, Moreton and his first novel GORSE, a historical folk horror, is out on submission.

photo by Kevin Bosc (via unsplash)

A Vacancy in the Starless Realms—Rebecca Harrison

No one but you can move the moons!

Yes, you. This notice is for you! So don’t turn away, shrug your shoulders in the gleam of the twenty moons, and bimble away down the city alleys. I know that spark in your eyes. For I had eyes like yours when I forged a harness from comet tails and captured Scrimrion. 

Yes, Scrimrion – the silver bear who treads the starless heavens. The bear, bigger than worlds and older than always. Yes, you know of me. Your mother whispered tales of me as she tucked you under a blanket. You walked past a statue of me on your winding way to school. You have lived in the light of the moons I gathered from empty planets and set in this sky. I made this world bright. It was quite a quest; I can tell you. 

Of course, I didn’t push them myself. That was Scrimrion’s job. Before me, your planet was dark – its only moon, a wretched sliver of a thing. Barely a blink of light! A world so dim, we never saw our shadows. Yes, I was the hero, and foolish with it. And perhaps foolish still, though my beard is white and wispy. For why else would I want to go home? 

The role 

  • The light bringer
  • The moon harvester
  • The banisher of dark

Because of you, light will fall on worlds abandoned by the stars long ago. Longer ago than you can imagine, for they were myths even when I was a tumble-foot toddler. ’Course, you lot don’t talk about them much now, not since I set the moons in the sky. No need. But when I was a boy, folk mourned and chanted and wished. In my dreams, I still hear my grandmama humming ‘the Grave of Sirius’. I confess, I sang it myself when Scrimrion last trekked the star graveyards. And if I cried and muffed the verses, who could blame me? 

Yes, I’ve grown sentimental in my dotage. Would you believe, I even took off my hat to Bellatrix? Of course, it was only for the Princess’s sake. The Princess was singing of Bellatrix when I first met her, when I climbed the palace walls just to listen. Had I not heard her, I would’ve lived my life in that dark and passed from it, and no one would have ever whispered my tales or carved my likeness in stone. 

Activities you will be involved in 

  • Taking care of your home on the bear’s back
  • Cartography – both making new maps and amending old
  • Delivering moons to dark worlds

Do not be afeared of Scrimrion. Though I wouldn’t call him tame, he sulks more than he roars. When he lays down his great head and grumbles, do not tug on his comet-tail harness. Do not give him the attention he seeks. You’ll have plenty of chores to occupy you while he wallows. I know I didn’t expect the heavens to be so dusty. And sometimes I wonder if the golden dust that has collected on my maps while I’ve slept is the very same dust that I tipped out the windows, before trundling up the stairways to bed. There’s a broom on every floor, and there are many floors. Yet, the little garden on the roof needs no watering, and the moon berries grow sweet and fat. 

You’ll have to navigate Scrimrion, or he’ll meander or worry-pace the same stretch of heavens. But of what can a celestial bear worry, you ask? 

‘Maybe his family are all gone?’ Princess Oriina whispered, long ago, as we sat on the palace roof watching his silver shape in the faraway. Her heart was so tender and her eyes so bright, they called her ‘little lamp’, for lamps were the treasures of that dim kingdom. She once held my hand when he roared.

What we can offer you

  • The heavens at your feet
  • A companion who shares his birthday with the first stars
  • The chance to be a hero

You’re young enough and foolish enough to be a hero. But your world has no cruel king to vanquish, no beast to capture, no princess to rescue. Only toil and games and merriment. But you can be a hero to worlds you cannot even name. They wait halfway to forever. Or you can stay in your city. There are no princesses there now. And the cruel king is only a rhyme. Yet once his words shuddered through the crowds:

 ‘Bring me Scrimrion, and I will chain him above the city. I will have light.’ 

Twenty lamp bearers surrounded him: if their hands trembled and their flames faltered, the knight would put a sword through their bellies. 

Did I volunteer then? Of course not. The moment hadn’t yet arrived when I would become a hero. But then a soldier appeared carrying Oriina. He held her over the edge of the wall. Her gentle face was stretched with terror.  

‘The princess’s hand to any who captures Scrimrion. If no one succeeds, this will be her fate.’ 

And that was my moment. 

We are looking for people who are

  • Voyagers – the old starways are waiting, though all the stars made their final journeys to their resting place long ago 
  • Scholars – many worlds still need marking on the maps
  • Heroes – my own path was the gutter to glory

I was a drackle-soul street rat. I had no hearth but the wind, no roof but the sky. Yet the princess loved me. I melted an enchanted goblet to fashion a blade, climbed the Dridaba mountains, and sliced off the comet’s tail. Yet, Oriina begged me not to chain Scrimrion, even to save her. So I rode him to another world and he pushed a great pearl moon all the way back. 

You’ve heard this story. 

You know the cruel king smiled. 

You know he demanded more moons. Moons from further out, and onwards. 

And so we went: bear and I.

Important information 

  • Time

Time is strange on the bear’s back. It cannot be counted or caught. There are no years in the heavens. Only ‘forever’ or ‘long ago’. Even for a hero. Even a hero riding a celestial bear. A bear pulling nineteen magnificent moons. For I had been diligent and discerning. Not for me were the measly or the cratered. Perhaps you’ve taken the beauty of the moons above you for granted? I assure you, they were the glories of the galaxies. How proud I was as Scrimrion trekked towards my little dark home. How the city would cheer. How the cruel king would nod. How the princess would look at me, her eyes moonful and welcoming. 

And the city did cheer. But as for the cruel king, he was just a tomb and a story. And Oriina, the little lamp? She had grown old eras past and was gone. So I stayed on the bear’s back. I kept on with my endeavour. 

But now I must hand my quest to you. 

Now, I wish only to walk by the palace and look up at the roof where we sat: the princess and the hero, and watch Scrimrion tread into the faraway, just as we watched him long ago. 

Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count. 

photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin and Aperture Vintage (via unsplash)

Three Sisters—Sarah Royston

I. Cuckoo Pint

This is the hungry time, huddling time. Women spin by rush-light, their men bicker and drink. Mine most of all, hog-slumped in his smoke-stale furs. Walled in by winter, I am stifled by his stare.

At Candlemas the wind changes, though none speak of it. Clouds skip-scud and a kestrel quivers, taut against the up-rush. Yaffingales drum beyond the pale, unseen. At milking I watch pigeons on the roof-ridge, urgent, harrying the air. My blood tingles. This is the stirring time, surging time.

I leave the pail half-full.

Wet clay sucks and splashes as I take the forest track. Crows spiral, shrieking challenge, conquest, lust. The air tastes of frost and leaf-mould, sharp and raw. A goldcrest leads me onward, a sunburst strokes my hair.

Shoots are pushing through the soil: snakes-head, or sweet sorrel. In this season few can tell the potherb from the poison. Sometimes I see things others don’t, or seek things they disdain. I kneel beside a furled spear-spike, and name it: lords and ladies, jack-in-the-pulpit, cuckoo pint. Soon it will show its prick for the village girls to smirk at. “Don’t touch it, wicked thing!”

I tear a leaf and crush it, drawing draughts of rampant green.

They said, “Beware of Robin’s Hole, the Devil’s pit, the way to Hell.” 

But I am not afraid. 

I stumble through the holly, let my old shawl snag and fall. I find a maze of shadowed steeps, a haunted, hollow place. Pale catkins shiver, dandled by the wind. Damp bracken starts to steam.

Then I see him. Still and silent as a tree. Ivy in his oak-moss hair, a wild light in his eyes. I don’t know if I woke him, or if he awakened me. Only that this is my soul-thaw, my springtime.

I lie in leaf-litter. Bare branches dance against the sky, brushing, lacing and parting again. I rise rooted as sap, as stems, as stars. Earth-heat floods my branching bones. He flows in my green veins and I cry out with the crows.

I open my eyes, alone. Gold-crust lichen paints my skin, crumbles acid on my tongue. Elf-bright water runs on pebbles where the brook has overflowed.

In the village I am skittish, can only grunt when neighbours greet me. I plead sickness and hide in my home. Soon I am sick in truth. The man is pleased at my swelling, says I will earn my price at last. His hopes are stillborn when I am delivered. He calls me witch and whore, grabs the whip, but I am faster. I take nothing but my strange offspring, cradled at my breast.

I know forest paths that they will never find. I wrap my egg in the sun-warmed down of traveller’s joy. It is the flawless green of millpond ice, smooth beneath my hand. Hare-like, I curl in a form, and drink from muddy springs. 

I have never felt so clean.

Cowslips bud at Robin’s Hole. This is the blossom time, blessed time. A clumsy, greedy fledgling nestles in my arms. My love, my cuckoo-child.

 II. Celandine

“You must marry your sister’s husband.” 

She went into the wood one year ago. We girls are wolf-watched now, and may not say her name. Rules rack up like midden-bones. Never walk alone. Never stray from the track. Never twine flowers in your hair.

“You will soon come of age. We owe him a wife.” 

Father has spoken, I dare not refuse. Silent, I step out to feel the sting of frost-sharp air. The forest is forbidden but the hills are still my own. I say I’m fetching water from the high chalk spring. Scrambling up the shadowed steep, my feet raise winter-ghosts of thyme.

Celandines circle the sweet-spilling pool. I gather some and weave a crown, singing as I fill the pails, a silly rhyme of larks and hares. A wren trills from the ivy that cloaks the gully-wall. Water trickles clear from the narrow-rifted rock. I think of deep and hidden places, things that lie beneath, unseen. Rivers running lawless in the dark. I shiver, not from cold.

Above me at the hill-brow stands a kite-haunted knoll. The Barrow. We may not go there, save for this day, the first of Soul-Month. No-one will tell me why.

People straggle up the sheep-path and I slip into the line. They leave their seed-cakes at the tomb, then turn away, for fear of wights. Father sees my flower-ring and throws it to the ground. Mother says, quiet, “Let her be. She has little time left for fooling.”

The offerings look stale. I linger when the others leave and find my fallen circlet, lay it before the knoll. A low sun breaks the storm-dark sky and wakes the petals’ gold.

In the night the rain comes hard. The field-ditch floods and takes a lamb.

By dawn the sky is pale, washed clean. I side-step up the streaming slope, holding the hem of my gown. Mother dyed it cowslip-colour. “Light as your hair,” she said, with leaden eyes. My betrothal will be sealed today.

I reach the valley-head, panting, and find the land is changed. Below the Barrow-knoll, a slab of hill has slipped away. The chalk shows raw, bone-white, where its ivy cloak is torn. The crack in the cliff is wider now, and near as tall as I am. From its foot the spring flows fast, saying something I can almost hear.

The wren is singing again. Celandines shimmer, roots tangling in the secret soil.  I watch as sunrise licks the ridge. A beam bursts from the hill-brow, dances bright across the pool. Water surges round my calves as I wade towards the cave. The ray pierces the passage as if lighting my way.

The hollow hill has called me. I will not refuse.

III. Catkin

It is bitter blackthorn winter. Cattle starve and stores run low. Unwanted and unwed, I’m a burden to my kin. “Too sallow, stubby, shy,” men say, “Not like the two who went away.”

A roving willow-woman comes, and strikes a deal for me. I will serve a year and learn her craft. She warns it is a hard life, tramping on the track, but I’ve no wish to stay. I long to find my sisters – one lost to the greenwood, one to the hollow hill. Weaver’s path may bring me word of them.

She works with deft hands, spider-light, her baskets give but do not break. My clumsy fingers bleed, and she binds them with betony. 

“Carry on, Catkin, you’ve still a way to go.”

At lambing-time we load her cart and hitch a nanny goat. I’ve never been beyond the ridge. Now far from home, I feel adrift. At night I shiver in my shawl and think of wodwos, wights and wolves. My shoes break up and cut my heels. Weaver lifts the hem of her heavy hooded cloak. “Barefoot is better.” 

Soon the road is in my bones, my soles as tough as hers. 

She has a cuckoo and a wren who nestle at her neck. Half-wild, they come and go. But a kestrel never wanders, she stalks us shadow-true. Weaver names her: Windhover.

We take Icknield Way to Barton for the Whitsuntide Fair. Then Ermine Street to York. We trade wares with lying pilgrims, and tales with honest thieves. On the Fosse a warband passes as we crouch in a ditch.

When winter bites we travel west, to lands of marsh and mud. Bitterns boom in rushes where the white willows grow. Weaver barters with the hook-men. Their voices are rough and teasel-burred, their tongue is strange to me.

We hole up in a hut with thatch that sweeps the earth. When her hands are withy-weary, she takes up her loom and threads. Lichen yellow, moss green, rosehip red. She lets me untangle the criss-cross skeins.

Sometimes I walk on the black oak causeway. The paths are a maze through the forest of reeds. I think of roads that thread this land, the knots and nets they weave. Highways and holloways, hedge-ways and holy-ways. I could trace them all and never tire, light as pollen on the wind.

As my year is ending, we journey slowly back. At Candlemas I see ahead the ridge that once meant home. I cry for my sisters, who may be dead. Weaver shakes her head and laughs,

“They are well, silly girl, and you will meet them, in good time. Wren and Cuckoo told me so.”

I do not doubt her. I look up at the kestrel, still guarding our path.

“Is she your familiar too?”

“Oh no, my Catkin. Windhover watches, but not over me.”

From her pack she draws a cloak, red and green and gold.

“Take this gift,” Weaver says, “You’ve still a way to go.”

Sarah Royston’s writing draws inspiration from nature, folklore and the landscapes of southern England. Her short fictions and poetry are published in Popshot Quarterly, Full House Lit, Ellipsis, and The Hyacinth Review, among others. She lives in Hertfordshire, UK, and works as a researcher on sustainability issues at Anglia Ruskin University. 

Twitter: @sarahroyston4

photo by Lisa Fotios (via pexels)

How To Keep Mama Happy—Elodie Barnes

Remember, you must never touch the fox fur. 

It looks tempting, doesn’t it? Thick, smooth; a thousand and one fallen leaves stitched together and made soft as snow. Autumn always was your favourite time of year. Chilled air and terracotta sunsets. But you mustn’t touch. There are other things within reach that you like just as much. Clothes and makeup, jumpers and lipsticks, all in tawny reds and ochres and cinnamons, warm and sweet on the fingers and tongue. Mama’s hair. She often lets you brush her hair, long and heavy down her back, exactly the same shade of rusted jewel as the fox fur. It shines when you’ve finished, slips through your fingers like water. All these are things you can touch, but remember you must never touch the fox fur. 

Never go into Mama’s bedroom when she’s putting the fox fur on. She won’t say anything, but you’ll know by the look in her eyes. They shine green and hungry, brighter and brighter and more and more restless until she goes to her bedroom and shuts the door. But you mustn’t follow, not now. There are other times when you’re welcome in there. She likes a cup of rooibos tea in the mornings, brought hot and steaming and brewed to the copper-red of a penny before she’s even properly awake, and she likes you to sit with her while she drinks it. Just like when you were little, and used to pile into bed for a story. Back then you would use these precious, intimate moments to ask about the fox fur, but you know better now. You’re old enough to know the rules. There are hundreds of other things you can talk about, because you can tell Mama everything; in fact, she expects you to tell her everything. What you’re thinking and feeling, your deepest secrets. After thousands of mornings drinking tea, because you’ve been making it for her since you were old enough to boil the kettle and not get burned, there isn’t anything about you that Mama doesn’t know. There isn’t much about her that you don’t know, either. Except the fox fur. Remember, nothing is off limits except the fox fur. 

Never follow Mama when she leaves the house with the fox fur draped around her shoulders. You know she leaves only by the soft click of the back door, because you’ve remembered not to look and not to touch, and you’ll swallow your disappointment because you know this is Mama’s time for herself. You’re welcome in every other moment of her day, from that first cup of tea in the morning to brushing her hair out at night; in fact, she likes you close. She likes to know you’re safe. You know by now not to wander beyond eye’s reach, and you’ve discovered over the years that eye’s reach is about the same distance as the drift of her perfume. The scent reminds you of a sunset, faintly tangy and smoky, a sky burning down to embers. You know that if you can’t smell her perfume then you’ve strayed too far, and so you make sure it’s always there. Even when she leaves in the fox fur, it’s still there. It lingers in the walls, creeps under the warp and weft of the rug, crackles in the fireplace. It’s how you know she’ll always be back. She’ll never abandon you, not if you’re good. Not if you remember not to follow when she’s wearing the fox fur. 

But you aren’t good. There is one day – one day, out of all the thousands of days of being good – when you can’t be good any more, when curiosity snakes too hot through your body. Just a stroke, you think, won’t hurt. You listen carefully to the water running in the bathroom as your fingers run guiltily over liquid flame, and you feel an echo of wildness over your skin. Frost and pine forest, dark nights lit only by stars. You’ve noticed that Mama never goes out under a moon. Already, you understand why she’s told you not to touch, but you can’t take it back. You keep touching until the shower stops, and then you tell yourself never again. 

But then you watch. There is one night she leaves the bedroom door open just a crack, and you don’t stop to think that it might be deliberate, that she might be testing you. You don’t realise that something of you has seeped into the fox fur, that she knew the instant she put it on that you’d touched it. Your feet take you silently to the shaft of light that spills orange into the hallway, and you see slivers of her body. Pale skin and deep russet fur, one twisting around the other until it’s impossible to tell which is which. Her eyes are greener than you’ve ever seen them. Sharp green, like the edges of fire. 

You follow. You can’t help it. You think you can feel her fury; it washes over you in waves of anticipation, and you think you can sense every harsh word, every blow that hasn’t yet landed. But you follow anyway. You think that maybe, just maybe, after so many years of being good, she’ll forgive you this once, and it’s that which encourages you even though you know it’s a lie. You follow her footsteps through mud and frost, through the softened moss of leaves until footprints become pawprints. Above you, the stark branches of trees brush the sky. Your eyes have adjusted to enough to see dark shadows and lighter ones, but no more. This is Mama’s world and you’re trespassing. 

When you finally see her ahead in a clearing, the slaughtered rabbit steaming on the ground like the rooibos tea, you feel a sickening kind of guilt. You shouldn’t be here. You know you shouldn’t be here, because you understand now that she’d wanted to wait until you were ready, until you’d proved beyond all doubt that you were hers. It’s too late now. She never told you that once you touch the fox fur, there’s no going back. 

She looks at you, mouth dripping, and you realise for the first time that fox fur is the colour of dried blood. There is enough time to see the disappointment in her eyes. There is enough time to see the betrayal, and the hurt. There is enough time, before the world turns to fur and teeth, to know that you’ve made Mama angry, and the punishment is worse than you ever imagined.

Elodie Barnes is a writer and editor living in the UK. Her short fiction has been widely published online, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, where she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women and non-binary writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her online at, or on Instagram @elodierosebarnes. 

photo by Gary Bendig (via unsplash)

The Witch in the Woods Who Sold the Spark—Meg Murray

In her cottage in the woods, the witch brewed her birch twig tea and waited for the arrival of the young couple who wished to conceive. Her blue-green eyes glowed with the power of sight as she watched them from a bird’s eye view. She blinked the sight away. She went to the fireplace and threw another enchanted log onto the burning pile. Neon purple smoke curled upward, escaping out the chimney, alerting the tired travelers that their destination was near.

The witch’s bony fingers wrapped around the mug atop her tiny wooden table. She brought the steamy drink to her thin lips and watched through a round glass window. Two figures stepped from the dark forest path into the clearing. A rattling squeal erupted at her feet as three of her fox pups nervously circled her. They felt her weary anticipation of humans entering their den. 

She set the mug down and went to the door. She paused for a moment to steady herself as memories of the war slammed into her chest like a detonation wave. She placed her hand on the rough sawn white oak door, letting the wood remind her that she was safe from attack. The war was over. Her cottage—simple, but sturdy—was built by a carpenter she’d known in the early post-war years. She often thought of him when a new couple sought her help. The carpenter and his partner were the recipients of the first life spark she’d made. She exchanged it for the building of her home. That time, the spark had not returned. Later, she upgraded the formula. She hummed a soothing noise at the foxes. They hushed their barks and chattering. Ten of them surrounded her inside the cottage, like a roiling red-orange sea. 

The witch opened her cottage door and waved to the couple as bundles of fur spilled out around her bony legs. The pups ran and hopped and rolled in the clover on the ground in front of her, their anticipation heightened beyond control. They barked and the witch resisted the urge to bark with them. The woman and man froze to watch the foxes’ display, their fear easing as they saw the harmlessness of the playful animals. The couple looked too young to have been born during the war; their generation had only known peace.

“We saw the purple smoke.” The man pointed at her roof, speaking loudly to be heard over the noise of the gekkering foxes. “Are you the wit—I mean, the woman—who helps people conceive?”

“Come inside,” she responded, trying to force a smile. She’d need another cup of birch tea to help her twisted old face. “I’ve been expecting you.”

The young woman buried her head into her partner’s arm. He patted her back. “Come on, Brygida, we’ve traveled so far.”

The witch knew the couple had tried, but the magic of their seeds was too weak. Too far removed from the old gods, she thought. War chased away life. Some call it fertility, the witch called it the spark. In the time of dirty machines—before the forests regrew—men and women, women and women, and men and others conceived children without thought. After the last great war, the rebuilders discovered the trouble. The missing sparks angered many, but there was no more desire to fight. The peace treaty was amended to allow those in tune with nature to experiment with new ways to give life. The witch found the forest clearing for her home soon afterwards.

Once inside the cottage, the witch motioned for the couple to sit on two stools near the fire. She wrinkled her nose at their antiseptic-clean lavender aroma. It was a city scent that reminded her of her days as a prisoner of war. They wrinkled their noses as well. The witch assumed they didn’t appreciate the vixen musk she’d built up over the months since she’d visited the river. She stood in front of the fireplace and stared at them, until the discomforting silence forced the man to speak. 

“We want a child.”

“Why?” she asked. The rapidity and harshness of her response made the young woman look up in surprise. The witch glared arrows at Brygida and asked again, “Why?”

“We don’t have to explain ourselves to her, Lowry,” the woman said into her partner’s chest as she pivoted away from the witch’s piercing stare.

“Brygida, please. We want this. What does it matter if she asks questions?” He turned his face to the witch. “We want a child because we want to see our love manifested in our offspring.”

The witch tapped a bony finger to her hairy chin. She knew they were desperate enough to have made the trip into the woods. She began negotiating.

“We must determine a trade if you are to receive a life spark.”

“We brought money,” Lowry said.

“What use have I for money?” She laughed—a short barking laugh that was echoed by the foxes, who’d filled the small cottage floor around the couple. She petted one of their soft heads and purred at the pup. The young woman pulled her arms into her chest, shrinking away from the excited pack.

“Then what do you want?” The bitterness in Brygida’s voice was clear.

“You must take a vow that when I know what I want from you, it will be mine.” She looked into the purple blaze of the fire, the flames dancing on the logs. This was the moment when she truly judged the couples. The man seemed worthy enough, but she had her doubts about the woman.

“What does that mean? Lowry, we can’t give up something without knowing what it is!”

He settled her by murmuring into her ear. Brygida nodded as he squeezed her hands. He was the stronger one.

The witch took two chicken eggs from a basket—one dyed teal, one dyed purple—and held them up for inspection. 

“We will do what you ask,” Lowry said, “but will the child really be ours?”

She tilted her head at him, as she placed a cauldron over the fire. She decided Lowry was worthy of the purple egg and Brygida would have the teal.

“Don’t stare into the abyss, if you wish to fulfill your lives with a child of the woods.” The witch dropped the two eggs into the boiling cauldron and stirred the concoction. “They will look like you and they will love you. What else could you want?”

The couple was quiet as the eggs cooked. The witch lifted them out of the cauldron with a skimmer spoon and set them on a towel to cool. The teal and purple colors of the shiny wet shells were brighter and glowing.

“This is the beginning after the end,” she said, peeling the cooled eggs and holding them out to the couple.

“The end of what?” Brygida cautiously took the teal egg.

“The end of your childless days,” the witch said, this time not bothering with an attempt at a smile. She placed the purple egg into Lowry’s hand. “Now, eat.”

With the life spark spell consumed by the young couple, she gave them instructions for conceiving their child and sent them away.

After the war ended, after she moved to the cottage in the woods, she lost herself in the ways of the forest. Her fox pups found their way to her, one-by-one over the years. She was careful to space out their arrivals, so no one in the cities put together the puzzle when they shared the rumor of the witch in the woods who sold the spark. She often sat by her fire, petting her skulk of foxes, and tried to remember what the war was fought over. She only remembered the children it took from her.

With eyes glowing blue-green, she watched the young couple leave her clearing, their bellies full of magic eggs and their hearts full of hope. Lowry would make a beautiful fox pup for her pack. She would know the right moment to call him home, sometime after the child was born. Brygida would have to cherish their offspring, as so many mothers did after the war; alone.

Meg Murray (she/her) is a queer writer living in Colorado, with her spouse, four children, and rescue dog. She writes speculative fiction stories about personal autonomy and motherhood, as well as all things nature-related and eco-hopeful. Her work has been published in Solarpunk MagazineHyphenPunk MagazineTL;DR Press, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter (@megmurraywrites) and online (

photo by Jeremy Hynes (via unsplash)

Cincinnati Sweeps the World Series—Rick Hollon

Content warnings: blood, self-injury, child abuse (verbal and physical), non-consensual manipulation through magic, mention of alcoholism and drinking.

In our third week of third grade, after the Cincinnati Reds crushed the Chicago Cubs 9-1 and brought their lead over the National League West Division to 76 wins, Miss Grenadine had us shape our changelings from butcher paper, glue, and crumpled sheets of last week’s Dayton Daily News.

Miss Grenadine said, “Let’s be a bit naughty today,” and turned on a tinny radio. She swayed in her denim dress, her amber beads clinking in time to Poison and Jon Bon Jovi. She shuffled from group to group to eye their progress.

Rachel and I traced each other’s outlines in crayon in the back of the classroom, away from everyone else. Rachel claimed purple for herself. She asked me three times to make sure I captured her big curls, her picture-day-ready belted dress, and her bow. I was embarrassed that she was so close to me—my overalls and Bugs Bunny shirt hadn’t been washed since Meemaw got them from the Goodwill on Patterson Boulevard, and I knew I stank because I hadn’t washed much more recently than that—but Rachel traced me cheerfully, chatting about what wishes she should make.

My double could only be done in red, of course. I added pinstripes to my legs once she was done.

“I thought a lot about a pony, I really did,” Rachel yammered on. “But—where would I keep it? My yard’s too small. Unless it’s a fairy pony. Those you could keep anywhere. But what do you feed them? Pumpkins? Snakes?” She shuddered.

I stuffed my changeling with the sports pages, smoothing out the picture of Chris Sabo, luminous in perfect apotheosis the moment his ball cleared the fence. That one went in last, sheathing my heart, or where my heart should have been.

“One wish for each drop of blood, that’s the exchange!” Miss Grenadine reminded us, scarcely looking down before shimmying away toward her desk, clacking along to Cheap Trick. I knew she didn’t much care for me. She didn’t really care for problem kids.

Rachel and I looked at each other. She was silent, finally, too nervous to look at her own thorn. Mine was already in my hand.

Rachel squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the ball of her finger, proffering it to me before she could have second thoughts. “Do me,” she whispered. Her thorn was on the other side of her. I looked up for Miss Grenadine, but she was busy separating two boys who had started kicking each other over which green crayon was best for the army.

“Please,” Rachel said.

I pricked her finger with my thorn, and she yanked her hand back and glared at me while she measured out three drops, red red red, onto her changeling’s heart. “You did that on purpose,” she spat, suddenly near tears.

I only did what you asked, I said inside my head, but the words found a logjam behind my tongue. Rachel huffed as she turned away from me, gluing her shape shut without my help.

The classroom echoed around me, slowed, thick with magic. Dust in sunbeams. Bruce Hornsby murmured in half-time. Garfield’s lazy hunger eyed me from my lunchbox. My thorn still bore a single drop of Rachel’s blood, stubborn like her, refusing to fall.

I pierced the meat of my thumb.

Red, once for the pennant and the team.

Red, once for Dad and the bruises he left.

Red, once for Rachel and my awkward tongue.

A fourth drop, unnamed, unwished, unsaid.

Blood drifted in sunbeam motes to alight on Chris Sabo’s face.

Rachel played with her changeling at recess, skipping across the pavement and screaming from the highest arc of the swing. Other girls joined them with their own doubles, while the boys held mock-battles with theirs in the dusty baseball field beyond the monkey-bars: Cobra vs. GI Joe, Peter Pan vs. the pirates, cops vs. robbers.

I held hands with mine and wandered off with her to the creek behind the school. I was disappointed she looked so much like me. Despite my careful pinstriping, her butcher-paper skin molted to reveal the same ratty clothes I wore, the same home-cut hair falling around her ears. The only difference was in her eyes, which were the green of sunlight through beech leaves instead of mirror-familiar brown.

Magic could miss, just like even José Rijo’s fastball could miss the catcher’s mitt. Sometimes the batters were just too much to outmatch.

You resent me, my changeling said inside my head.

I stopped at the brink of the creek and dropped her hand. I looked between her still-papery skin and the muddy water I’d brought her to, guilt seeping up my chest.

She pressed her hand against my heart, tilted her head to listen to its beat.

You resent me, I said to her.

I do, she said, and we smiled at each other, a September sort of smile, the kind that knows its own daylight is waning.

I touched her chest, where I had drawn the blood-drop C of the Reds’ insignia. A trace of it remained, not yet flaked away from the thin denim of her overalls. I thought of her wearing this in the woods as the season turned, doing who knows what for the fairies under the silvery moon, shivering while the Reds redeemed my wish and won the World Series. I felt both spitefully happy and sick to my stomach.

You have my blood, I said, conscious even then that something had been taken from me.

And you’ll have two of your wishes, she said. Feel blessed. That’s more than most get.

Her eyes flitted across me once, as if memorizing. For a moment she lingered on my pocket. We weren’t supposed to keep our thorns. Miss Grenadine had gone around the classroom with a trash pail, making sure each kid dropped theirs in, now burnished with a sheen of blood, for the janitor to burn behind the cafeteria kitchen. But Miss Grenadine never paid much attention to me. Somehow (because she was me?) my changeling knew I had stowed my thorn for safekeeping.

She turned and jumped across the creek and ran without a word into the woods beyond the school.

Lots of the other kids cried when their changelings ran off at the appointed time at the end of the school day. Rachel didn’t. She folded her arms and glared at me as if it were all my fault, then turned her back without saying a word. She sat with the popular girls on the bus, leaving me no choice but to sit with Billy Cornwall, who picked his nose and never washed his hands and tried to put his palm on my thigh until I punched him in the ribs. We rode the rest of the way to my stop in silence, punctuated by his sniffles. When I got up I feinted a fist at him to watch him flinch, then stomped off, ignoring Rachel’s loud “Some people just weren’t raised right” behind me. One of her friends stuck her head out the window as the bus pulled away, yelling “Dirty hick!” until the bus turned the corner.

I counted my steps up the porch and made a leap so that I reached the door at twelve, not thirteen. I let myself in and found Dad passed out in front of the TV. For a moment my heart jumped—had this been one of the two wishes to reach home? But no, he breathed still, and his recliner—nicest piece of furniture in the house—had a halo of brown bottles, which flickered in the light of syndicated afternoon reruns. Nothing had changed here.

If that wish hadn’t flown true, though, maybe there was hope for me and Rachel.

I shoved my backpack under my bed upstairs then crept back down to scrounge something from the kitchen. Meemaw was still at work, so I helped myself to one of her “secret” fruit pies, bought by the bagful at the Hostess outlet store next to the Goodwill and hidden away in an upper cabinet, behind some jam jars she had washed and saved. I looked around while I ate, then froze. My changeling watched me from the window.

She vanished before I could cut out through the back porch. I hunted her for a time, first in the backyard, then up and down the alley behind the house. I nearly turned my ankle on a fallen green walnut, and wondered if she had set fairy traps against me.

I wanted to tell her I meant her no harm, that I wanted to talk. Secretly, way down deep in a place I scarcely sensed, I had hatched an idea of running away with her, of taking my chances with the fairies. I wanted to say all of that to her. Instead all that came out was, “You asshole.”

I threw green walnuts at neighborhood trashcans for a while, until barking dogs and thrown bottles coaxed me into moving on. Our neighborhood had been nice once, or so I’d been told. Great big houses from the 1910s, identical except for paint, their roomy backyards strung with clotheslines and blooming with apple trees, redbuds, forsythia. A movie theater had once lit up inside a building on the corner of Main Street, now dim and cracked and blotted with graffiti. My grandfather had moved here from Kentucky after the war, becoming a county surveyor. He and Meemaw bought the house and raised two kids and took summer vacations to Natural Bridge and the Blue Ridge Parkway. But a rot had set in, somewhere.

My grandfather drank and didn’t say much of anything, withdrawing into himself as their kids grew up, engaging with them only to hit them. He died of throat cancer the year I was born. Dad had a hungry gleam in his teeth whenever he talked about how his own dad needed to have his jaw cut out to stop the cancer, and how he died despite it all. Now, Meemaw was working herself thin in a restaurant up in Trotwood, taking the bus back and forth every day, while Dad drank and fumed about homosexuals and Freemasons and yelled at me from his recliner. He always made me answer the phone in case it was a collection agency coming after him.

I had a vague sense that my mother still existed in some way, but I had no memories of her, and no desire to seek her out. When I thought about her at all, it was with a certainty that she was just as bad as the rest of us.

The rest of the neighborhood went the same way we had gone. The big old houses accumulated plywood in place of windows. The fences and garages that lined the alleyway were now choked with mulberry and honeysuckle, tangled jungles that ate any ball I hit from our backyard. A few kids still played in the street each summer, but they threw sticks at me and asked if I was a boy or a girl. I stopped trying to play with them.

One time that summer, not long before school started, Dad announced that his old high school best friend, the one who’d landed an aerospace job and moved out to Englewood, had bought us tickets to a Reds game. I put on my very best clothes and my red baseball cap (not a Reds baseball cap; Dad said they cost too much) and jumped in the car. I think I talked more on that drive than I had in months. I clutched Chris Sabo’s 1989 baseball card and I chattered about how I wanted to sit where we could catch his home run. I went on about how I would be the first girl in the Major Leagues and outwit the fielders and steal a hundred bases each season. And then Dad’s car broke down on I-75 near Middletown, and I never got to see the game, or any other. Dad’s friend never offered tickets again. I stopped asking about it after Dad hit me.

Magic wasn’t taught much, not in public school. Highschoolers learned some low-level alchemy. We were never taught the hows and whys. But I had the dim sense that this was all payment for something.

I also had a feeling of unfairness, a feeling that most of us making the payment hadn’t been able to enjoy whatever it was we were paying off.

“Asshole,” I said, and flung another walnut far down the alleyway, where it dinged off the hood of someone’s old Impala.

“Rude child,” a familiar voice purred. I spotted something like a fat orange tabby-cat smiling down at me from a tangle of honeysuckle, its back and tail hatched with black stripes. Its eyes, though, were uncomfortably human.

“I wish nothing from you,” I said, blurting one of the few rituals we had been taught. I spun in place three times, just to make sure.

“Ah,” the tabby said, borrowing a voice I knew well from Saturday morning cartoons. “But you’ve used your wishes already, child. Unless you desire a new exchange?”

I bit my tongue, but refused to lower my eyes from the tabby’s.

The tabby folded its paws and sighed. One ear flickered with impatience. The voice, though, remained as lazy and detached as before. “You have it still, there in your pocket. It will bring you only ill favor, dear child. Give it to me freely, and go with my blessing.”

The thorn, I wanted to ask, but said nothing.

“Don’t think to bargain with me.” The tabby rose and stretched, splaying its whiskers with a yawn. “Return it, and go in peace. This is my only offer. I give you until midnight. That’s when the Queen awakens, child. You’d do well to avoid her.”

The tabby leapt down and sauntered away up the alley. My fingers stole to my pocket—what would I ever need with a bloody thorn?—but before I could fumble inside, the tabby vanished through a broken fence. I realized the crickets were loud around me, and it was nearly night.

Dad had a good scream at me when I got home. I was fast enough to get away before he could pin me by the arm, but he threw a bottle that got me right in the shoulder. I clattered up the stairs and jammed my door shut and cried for a while, hating him and hating Miss Grenadine and hating Rachel and hating the fairies and hating the Reds too, just for good measure.

They won their game that night, demolishing the Cubs 6-2. I heard it when the news came on. That made 77 wins for the Big Red Machine. Well, that was one of my wishes coming true. I felt stupid for wasting a drop of blood on something that would have happened without my help. My shoulder stung whenever I shifted my weight against the door.

I dozed off, drained from crying and from everything the magic had taken from me. I knew enough about magic to know I wasn’t dreaming when I found myself floating through Rachel’s room, a pink paradise tucked all by itself in her parents’ attic. I had always been jealous of her, whenever she would invite me over. Her clothes were always new. Her parents hugged her and only rarely yelled at her. Her house, like all the houses on her street, was still beautiful, its windows intact, its furniture bought new from a furniture store. They had a dryer instead of a clothesline. She had boardgames that used up batteries and lit up our faces, instead of the same old copy of Parcheesi her dad had grown up playing.

Yet the room I found beneath me had grown wild, a tangle of nettles beneath the blankets, drifts of oak leaves spilling from her dresser.

Rachel sat in bed, hugging her knees, listening to a tape on her Walkman. Tufts of grass sprouted around her, feeling their way around her calves, her wrists. She looked feverish, maybe on the verge of puking. She buried her head when I drifted closer.

Rachel, I said, though I had no voice.

She looked up at me. She had been crying.

“You’re such a jerk,” she said to the ceiling. Her tears looked sticky, like sap.

I’m sorry. I don’t even know what I did. I don’t know why you’re mad at me, or why any of this is happening.

“Your thorn. You did it on purpose. You knew it would hurt me!”

Sweat ran down from her hair—usually perfect, now bedraggled and forgotten beneath her headphones. Dead yellow petals shook loose from her scalp.

“You’re just like your dad,” Rachel said, and I felt myself pushed, repelled, banished back to my own body, where I woke with a grunt of pain.

My little clock-radio said it was 11:47 pm.

I pulled the thorn out of my pocket and set it on my pillow. It glistened as if it were still wet with our mingled blood.

I pulled my backpack from under the bed, and dropped my Garfield lunchbox next to the thorn. I hated my lunchbox. I’d gotten it in first grade. I had been so excited to show it off to the new friends I would make, and then we’d never had the money to replace it as I’d grown older and the other kids taunted me about it. I flicked the latches open and found only a half-eaten jam sandwich from lunch, a bruised banana peel, my thermos still full of tap-water. I dumped them on the bed, but still nothing. No fairy emerged, no lazy-voiced tabby curled into my room.

“Asshole,” I said to the lunchbox.

My shoulder ached. I picked up the thorn and thought about sneaking out, but the TV was still on downstairs and I didn’t know how I could get past Dad.

Something tapped at my window. My changeling, her eyes lit green in the moonlight.

I shoved the window wide and she elbowed into my room, her skin chill from the September night. I held the thorn out to her but she ignored my hand, looking into every corner of my room: my pile of sweat-stiff clothes, my ratty sheets, my lamp, my Chris Sabo poster, my shoebox of baseball cards, the paint peeling from the ceiling. The little barricade I piled against my door to keep Dad out.

This is me, she said in my head, tracing fingers along the edge of the poster. This is what I was made to be.

Paying for a bargain we didn’t even strike. Cycles of payment, recurring like collection agencies circling the phone.

How do I return the thorn? I pleaded with her.

She looked at me, her thoughts a million miles away, as if her eyes saw through me into fairyland and the toil that awaited her.

I am bound by what I can say, she said. Midnight approaches. I can tell you this: think of the thorn.

I saw myself pricking Rachel’s finger. A sense of shame as I realized, deep down, I had wanted to bind us, to tie her to me, to mingle our blood in sisterhood. The three drops, red red red. My wishes. A fourth drop, its wish unspoken even to myself. Pocketing the thorn, after.

The janitor burned the other thorns, behind the school. Every kid had their thorn burnt after the exchange. Miss Grenadine didn’t care about mine because she didn’t care about me. Just another dirty briar-hopper brat from a poor hick family who showed up to school with bruises and problems that meant extra paperwork for her. Miss Grenadine ignored my thorn the way she ignored every other problem my existence brought to her.

The thorn wasn’t a vehicle of power, it was a threat. An instrument of control that the fairies would be exquisitely interested in obtaining. Garfield’s hungry smile greeted me from my lunchbox.

I need to burn the thorn, I said.

My changeling sighed, her shoulders slumped. My shoulder throbbed in sympathy.

You have three minutes left, she said.

I paused, my hand halfway to grabbing the matches I had hidden under my mattress.

Payments for bargains we hadn’t made.

I need to use the thorn, I said.

My double froze, birdlike, as if wary of approaching footsteps.

I cannot say, she said.

“I’m sorry for making you,” I said. I crossed the room and plunged the thorn into her chest.

She smiled, closed her eyes, and the room flooded with the scent of mushrooms, of deep rot, of subterranean growth. My blood wicked up out of her, my blood and Rachel’s, red and red and red. I plucked the thorn out, and the fourth drop wavered on its tip.

She opened her eyes one last time, the light of the summer forest waning. “Two of your wishes come true,” she whispered, a voice of paper, of newsprint fading under my fingers. She crumbled into sheets, into scattered words. The picture of Chris Sabo, stained dark, drifted to the floor.

“You broke your bargain,” a familiar voice purred from the windowsill. “Naughty child. The Queen won’t be happy.”

The fat tabby smiled down at me, tail swishing like a cat ready to pounce on a baby bird. I smiled back, dropping the thorn in my lunchbox, dropping to my knees to grab my stash of matches.

“It isn’t midnight yet,” I said, and lit a match.

The tabby vanished the moment the thorn caught fire. I made sure it burned down to nothing, then tossed the lunchbox out the window.

Rachel was cold to me at school, but if her friends ever grabbed at my hair or called me a dumb dirty hick boy, she stamped her foot and scolded them quietly until they gave up and found a better game to play. I brought my lunches in castoff grocery bags and avoided a certain Saturday morning cartoon.

The Reds swept the World Series in October, beating the Athletics four games to zero. I felt my fingers tingle each time, a parcel of power spooling out into the world.

I watched the final game in the dark from the stairs while my Dad drank in his recliner. Oakland Coliseum, way out there in the magical land of California, seemed as remote as fairyland. José Rijo gave up a run in the first inning, and the A’s kept our batters smothered inning after inning. Eric Davis and Billy Hatcher, two of our powerhouse hitters, got injured and had to leave the field. But I felt the tingle in my fingers, and I whispered into them, breath like a touch of summer. In the eighth inning we finally gained the upper hand, thanks to loaded bases, a groundout, and a sacrifice fly. When that second run crossed home plate, the power left my fingertips, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was just as happy to be done with the damn thing as I was at sweeping the pennant.

By the end of the game I knew what that fourth wish had been. I swore in my heart it would be the next wish to come true.

Rick Hollon (they/them or fey/fem) is a nonbinary queer author from the American Midwest, with family roots in Appalachia. Feir stories and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Kaleidotrope, Prismatica, perhappened, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter @SailorTheia.

photo by Julian Paolo Dayag (via unsplash)

Daphne—Eve Brandon

It is after dinner one evening, and the garden is awash with stretches of the last golden beams of summer sun. Finn is stranded somewhere deep amongst the brambles, his feet awkwardly large and pale in his battered sandals. Wearing Finn’s too-big boots, Noor is playing the white knight, crushing the thorns gently under foot until she’s close enough to sweep an arm around his waist. He’s smiling, all big and dimpled, and Noor can feel the warmth of him through his thin shirt. 

They’re here for dessert, and they begin to forage, clinging to each other like a large, many-limbed beast. They’ve made short work of this year’s crop in the past weeks and they have to venture under the tree canopy to find anything worth eating. Noor stretches up on her tiptoes to reach into the maw of several tangled bramble plants. She smiles as Finn hums something familiar, but half-forgotten.

He swears, shattering the peace, and she swings around to face him. He has shoved a blackberry into his mouth and is squinting up at his hand. A drop of blood wells on the tip of one finger, dark and dull in the evening shadow. He pulls a face and brings the finger to his lips. 

Noor makes a mocking little moue of sympathy and brings a gentle hand to his cheek. Her fingers leave little daubs of black and purple on his skin. He laughs and turns his face to her, leaning into the touch. How easy it is, Noor thinks, to love this man. 

Under the trees, his lips are very dark and very red.

Every time they fight, Finn goes all fragile and limp like a spooked rabbit. Perhaps fight is not the right word for what they do. Noor is annoyed, and Finn waits, passively, until she is not. It is an acquiescence. A martyrdom, maybe. He casts his eyes down, he bares the soft line of his jugular. 

“You can’t just leave me in situations like that,” Noor says. “You know what they can be like. I need your support.”

She is careful to keep her voice gentle. It doesn’t help—Finn’s body goes slack and still. It is the kind of reaction that brooks no further argument. He puts himself beyond reproach. 

“I’m not angry,” Noor promises. “I need you to understand.”

“I know,” he says, quietly. 

Noor has every right to be annoyed. She wants to frown; she wants, perhaps, to raise her voice. More than anything she wants to know who Finn is seeing, when he glances at the corner of the room. 

The speakers in the kitchen hum and buzz with poor copies of Finn’s favourite songs. Noor has been picking distractedly at the spots of moss growing in the joint of the windowsill. Curls of light warp around the drops of rain on the glass and all Noor can think of is finding Finn for a kiss, a cuddle, a quiet word between them. 

She gives in, and wipes her hands. 

Their bedroom door is ajar and Noor can hear the sound of movement within. Finn is perched on the edge of the bed, surrounded by slumped towers of folded laundry. Leaning close to the mirror, he seems to be inspecting his own green eyes, transfixed by his own reflection.

Noor huffs a laugh and Finn jolts backwards. In the mirror, Noor sees his growing smile before he turns all the way round. She closes the distance between them and puts her hand to his chin. As she moves, she catches sight of her own shadow slide across his cheek. For a moment they are inextricable, like ink into cloth. 

 She raises his jaw up to the kiss. 

“Working hard?” she asks. From this close, she can see the blush creep across his face.

“I’ve done most of it,” he says, and turns to kiss her palm. “The rain has me all dreamy.”

With the first frost, a rabbit drags itself from the forest and lays its body down on the step by the back door. Finn gathers its soft, limp body up in his gentle hands and takes it to the workshop to be skinned. The skin slides off the rabbit’s lean, bloodless flesh with unexpected ease. Noor watches at the open doors, transfixed by her husband’s calm, perfunctory violence. 

He pinches the soft, thin skin over the rabbit’s stomach and slits it open, revealing the brownish coils of its guts and shining lumps of organ meat. His hand stops suddenly. Noor’s eyes flick to his face. She steps into the workshop, trying to get a closer look at the animal. Finn’s hand comes up, shielding the little carcass. She shoulders in next to him:

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” he says, weakly. His hand falters, coming to rest next to the downed knife. “Just—”

For a moment Noor struggles to comprehend what she can see. She swallows an involuntary roll of her stomach. 

Tucked between the curls of intestines, whole blackberries sit like jewels amongst the offal. 

“What the fuck?”

No,” Finn says, quiet but fervent.

Noor lurches back from the table. She sees the whites of his eyes, the flutter of his lashes, and the frozen corner of his mouth. She stares down at the curl of his fingers around the rabbit’s flayed body. 

She will never know what he was feeling in that moment. But when she thinks back to this, it will be his face that greets her. There is no horror there, no disgust. Only a shocked softness—a quiet, bewildered, pleasure. 

“It’s a gift,” he says. 

Winter closes in around them, rendering the world pallid and austere. In the weak, white sunlight the lichen glitters with frost and falls in pale ribbons from the trees. Noor relishes the crunch of ice beneath her boots and swallows against the burn of cold air at the back of her throat. Making her way to the corner of the garden, she pries off the lid of the compost bin and sets it to rest in an iron-red mat of dead fern. She is greeted by a fetid smell and a warmth that reminds her of summer. She thinks of all the black earth that will be six months in the making, woven through with bright red worms. Noor empties the dustpan into the bin and watches the dark curls of her and Finn’s hair disappear into the gloom.

She feels a strange sensation, like someone is breathing on the nape of her newly-bare neck, and turns to look at the house. In the gloaming, it is easy to see into the kitchen: Finn sitting exactly where she left him, head bowed as if in prayer. 

They are eating dinner and Noor tears open a loaf of bread. It has burnt a little in the oven, and she has had to cut the top off, leaving its insides pale and exposed. It softens beautifully in the golden spill of oil that floats on the surface of her soup. As she chews, she feels something catch on the sharp, uneven edge of a tooth. She frowns, feeling about the inside of her mouth with the tip of her tongue. Something dark and strange sits in the centre of the loaf. She pulls the bread toward her, and without giving herself time to think, digs her thumbs into the heart of it, ripping it, easily, apart. 

There, baked deep into the loaf of bread, a chunk of animal fur curls, still attached to a long strip of skin. 

Noor looks from her own shaking hands to Finn’s beautiful, placid eyes. She rises unsteadily from the table and sets her spoon down on the tablecloth. She moves to the kitchen sink, picking up a glass from where it dries on the rack. 

When she twists the tap, dogwood roses drop sodden but whole from its mouth.

Anaemic winter skies give way slowly to clouds that are bloated and bruised. Snowmelt swells the stream that curls around the back of the house, lifting animal bones and debris from the dirt. Noor stands at the back door. She inspects the stale snow cradled in the shadow of the workshop. As it melts it reveals the suggestion of a small, animal body, rotting beneath. Noor sighs and drags her palm across her face. 

The thing about fear, she thinks mildly, is that if you push up against it for long enough, you can make a place for yourself. You can graze your soft body against its sharp edges and maybe, finally, it becomes a long curve in which to bend. It becomes easy, natural. It becomes one more chore on a list.

Noor fetches a shovel. 

Noor has unearthed a bottle of bleach from beneath the kitchen sink. She has been scrubbing at the green film that leeches across the floor and watching the raw pads of her fingers leave trails of red across the plastic. She realises, gradually, that she can hear sobbing through the thin, plasterboard wall. The sound of Finn gasping and his occasional, animal keens. Noor pauses to drag her hands across the thighs of her jeans. 

Through a crack in the door she sees him sat at her vanity. His back is hunched toward the mirror and his fingers are in his mouth. From this angle it looks as if his lips have stretched too far, pulling taught across his knuckles. 

She must make some movement, some sound that betrays her presence. He flinches, eyes shining as they turn to the place where her shadow slants across the floorboards. He makes a soft noise right in the back of his throat. He moves quickly, melting into the darkness outside of her field of vision. She lets the door fall open. 

He is sitting with his back to the bed frame, his knees tucked up to his chest. She kneels beside him, shoulder to shoulder. His breathing is quick and shallow like a prey animal. It smells sour, and green.

“I think there is something rotten inside me,” he whispers. In the poor light, all Noor can see is the wet gleam of his teeth. “I think it grows with every passing year.” He touches his stomach and the folds of his shirt seem to yield beyond the point of reason. Noor wants to crawl away, but she does not. “And it is warm, and living, and it knows the shape of me.”

Finn keeps Noor up at night. He’s always been a restless sleeper. 

She watches, pinned in place, for several, long minutes as he rattles the back door. He slams his shoulder against it, so hard the room shakes. He drops hard to his knees and there is the sharp crack of bone hitting lino. Nail and skin fall away as he scratches at the keyhole, like he can shed enough soft tissue to slip through.

Noor is unable to turn away, but equally incapable of witnessing this moment. She closes her eyes. She rests her palms against the fever-hot span of his shoulders. He says something. It is manifold—like babbling water, a hundred voices rolling into one. The sound coils and writhes in the space between them. It reminds her of a collection of unwieldy, contradictory things: popping firewood, Salve Reginas, the scream of a fox. She doesn’t understand it. She doesn’t need to. 

Noor crouches behind him, fitting herself around the tortured curve of his back until the edges of their bodies are one, long line of uninterrupted contact. She puts her face into the shadowed hollow of his neck and breathes in the smell of wood rot and fresh blood.

The next morning, she peels herself from the kitchen floor. Finn is still asleep, knees pulled up to his chest. He looks too thin and tall, as if his body could spiral forever inward. Noor steps over him, and unlocks the back door. 

Noor has never been religious, but there is something holy in the pearlescent dawn light. She kneels in the damp earth, and presses her forehead into the grass. She smells the rain and the soil. She puts her hands to the grass and feels the soft warmth of many creatures. She prays aloud, half incoherent. She prays for the green, growing heat of summer, for fresh fruit and the breeze through open windows. She curls her fingers into the dirt, pressing her face so close to the ground she can taste it on her lips. She prays that the festering hurt within her will be starved out, cauterised, transformed into burnt and salted earth. 

It is Midsummer, and Finn has laid the table. He pulls a chair out and she sits, carefully, down. He pours her a glass of sweet, cloudy cider. It shines, crystalline, in the sun. His fingernails look too long, but his hands do not shake. He looks good—better, maybe, than he has in years. Behind him new, pale leaves split through the paint on the kitchen cabinets. The windowpanes are beaded with bubbles, as the glass remembers it was once sand. 

They eat and it is simple. The skin of the fruit splits easily on her teeth. She eats mouthfuls of fish and the little bones cut the soft insides of her mouth. She cannot taste the blood. It is all just meat. 

When she is finished, Noor stands up. She stretches her arm across the table and takes Finn’s hand in her own. They leave the dirty plates behind them and step barefoot onto the sun-warmed flagstones. His hand in hers, they walk to where the forest spills blue shadows across the grass.

Noor lowers herself to the earth and lets Finn lay his head in her lap. She pulls him as close as she can, desperately trying to gather all that remains of him into her arms. The green light through the leaves loves him. Under its radiance he looks beautiful and sad, like a saint in a stained glass window. 

He opens his mouth, and all it contains is a shining, endless red.

“Finn,” she says, weakly, as though she can speak him back into existence.

He smiles, and it is beautiful. He glows with it. 

When Finn cries it is the amber of tree sap. 

And when he begins to drag himself toward the treeline, Noor lets him go. 

Eve Brandon (they/them) lives in London, England. They write about transformation, rot, and love. You can find their most recent short story in Lavender Bones Magazine. They are on Twitter @EveBrandon_

photo by Magova (via pexels)

Fruits—James Cannice

content warning: mild body horror

The rain is beginning to pick up as I stand in the tall grass, not too far from the road. I’m waiting for someone. I’m waiting for you.

And sure enough, I see the headlights of your car pierce through the downpour. You can just make out my form through the rain and the dark of the encroaching night. And there shouldn’t be a young woman in a white dress standing out here, all by her lonesome. She could get very sick or even, if this storm escalates (which it will), drown. So, you slow down your car. You slow it to a stop.

You crack open the door, leave it just ajar for the moment. Maybe you take some time to wonder what kind of girl would be standing out in a field, so far away from any city, even any barrio, at a time like this. What are you doing here, so far away from any place you might call home?

Perhaps you are hesitating to leave your car, simply wondering why I do not shiver. Once you judge either the rain to not be too great a threat or my safety to be too great a need, you push your car door all the way open and step outside. And that’s when I get my first good look at you. You are a young man, barely more than a boy growing a weak moustache to hide your baby face. You try to stand tall, sell yourself as strong and resolute. But the little things, the twitch of your brow, the steady rise in your heartbeat, give you away. You tremble in the cold, more than you thought you would. You grab the flaps of your coat so it doesn’t fly away, pull you away, let the storm whisk you away into the sky, into heaven.

“Hey,” you yell. You can barely see me as you shield your eyes from the water. You left your headlights on and for brief moments some of the raindrops look like falling crystals. I wonder, as I always do about the men who pull over for me, as I always do to no resolution, if I remind you of someone. Because there has to be a reason you would do something so foolish. Haven’t you listened to the tales your Lola or Lolo has surely told you?

Maybe I remind you of someone you once thought you couldn’t live without but have had to live without. You should barely be able to make out my face, so maybe you’ve filled in the blanks with features of that someone, and that is what has drawn you to me. You couldn’t possibly bear the image of her face driven into the mud, suffocating. Or maybe you are just so lonely that of course you’d stop at the side of the road to try to comfort a girl out in a storm.

I turn away from you and start walking away from the road, deeper into the overgrown grass. You yell for me again and start running. For you, it doesn’t quite register how unhindered my steps are by the rain, the muck. I hear you slip, your pants and coat getting caked in mud. I don’t worry that you’ll turn back, that you’ll say to yourself that I’m not worth it, that you’ll head back to your car and drive back to whatever kind of life you live. I don’t worry that you’ll try to forget this thing ever happened. Because you won’t. I hear you pick yourself up, fruitlessly try to shake off some of the mud, and continue plodding along through the field. It’s getting dark.

It really is your fault for following me out here, for being this naïve.

You can barely see me (and maybe you don’t, maybe your vision is tricking you into thinking a shriveled tree swaying in the heavy wind is a girl) but you continue on. You push forward and only pause when you see the house—the rancid heart of a dead hacienda that could collapse and swallow up anyone inside it at any moment. Its wooden walls are painted a dark red that seems to bleed in the rain. You behold it for a moment. The calamansi and duhat trees that surround it, and whose fruits seem to somehow glow, are strange to you. Their fruits, that should not be so vibrant next to something so decayed, are ripe, just like yours soon will be. You do not trust this house. You fear it, even. Every strand of your skin is shrieking at you to turn back, as they know what will happen to you. But you make out my figure opening the door and entering the house. The shadows, the dark inside it are so strangely complete that you no longer see even a sliver of my dress, my skin.

I know you turn your head back, look to see how far your car is. You don’t see it. It’s too far away. But even if it were close, you weren’t just going to forsake your mission. You turn back and pull yourself to the house, toward me.

There is a steady, rhythmic sound the water makes as it slides off your coat and plops onto the wooden floorboards. You make the sign of the cross as you step through the threshold, either for yourself or for me. Maybe with every step you take you convince yourself more and more that I am that person who has disappeared from your life, that person you need to fill some hole in your heart. You would need to believe that, now.

You feverishly look around to see nothing but old rotting dark wood walls, a dead living room with furniture stripped bare, a staircase that would crumble beneath your weight. I am not there. I can hear your breath quicken. You need me to be there. You shout, “Hello?”

You spin around, using the flashlight on your phone to see. The rain pelts the walls of this house sideways like bullets. I can feel your heart begin to pound in your chest, tantalizingly so.

Just wait, a little longer. I’ll join you soon. The night is almost settled in.

You continue to walk through the house, through the rooms bereaved of any life they may have once had. Some of the walls, you notice, have deep black burn marks that must have been left long ago. Either from fear or from the cold or from a mixture of the two, you are shaking, almost violently. I hear it in your voice.

“I… I saw you come in here. It’s not safe for you.”

You keep turning and shining your flashlight behind you, as if anything would have changed, as if I would have snuck up on you. But I’m not there, yet.

“Come with me,” you say, once the trembling in your voice has dissipated slightly. You try to speak in a stern tone, to make yourself believe that you are more of a man, that you can protect the girl you saw on the side of the road, that you can protect yourself.

For a moment, I believe, it occurs to you that I may be some sort of squatter, perhaps living here with my family. There are no signs that anyone has been living here, but it makes little sense for no one to have made a home out of an abandoned house like this. And yet here it stands, devoid of life. Nowhere to sleep. Not a crumb of food.

You lower yourself to your knees and feel the wood of the floor. You focus on it. Some of it seems discolored, almost stained red. I know you begin to feel dizzy, the blood rushing out of your head. This should make it just a little easier for you to believe whatever you need to believe in these last moments.

And the night has finally settled in, I feel it flowing in my arteries. Even from another room, I can hear your irregular heartbeat rising, threatening to burst like a plum. I begin to salivate as I remove my dress. I hold my left ring finger’s nail, as it has now grown quite sharp, against my skin, just below my ribcage. I puncture my flesh and begin to tear a line around my torso.

And you hear it. I hear a sudden shift. It must sound like someone unzipping a sleeping bag to you. Ah yes, a sleeping bag, what a squatter would need. But you don’t quite believe that, do you?

“Hello?” you say again. You care too much. It tempts me to be kind.

I hear you crash to the floor as you hear wings rip themselves out of my back. The sound couldn’t be mistaken for rain. You struggle, push yourself by the elbows away from the noise. With a single flap of my wings, the top half of my body frees itself from the bottom. My spine snaps in the middle, loudly. You scramble mindlessly on the floor and thud your head against the wall in an almost musical, loving response.

When you wake up, I am with you now, just above you. It’s almost funny, ironic that you don’t immediately realize this. The first thing you notice is a snake-like weight upon your arm, slithering into your lap. You shudder, try to wrestle it off of you, but you’re on the ground with your back against the wall. You’re just too weak. You focus your eyes on the elongated tongue now crawling up your chest, try to make sense of it. Before you even accept it as real, you slowly trace it to its source. The next thing you see of me are my intestines hanging, suspended from my body like a chandelier from a ceiling. Your heart is thrashing in your chest now, entirely ripe. Your gaze slowly climbs up my body, to my face. And I am not how you imagined I would be. You can no longer fill in the blanks of the girl by the roadside with whatever you need to. It’s irreconcilable. And your heartbeat falls, just a touch.

Almost as soon as you limply try to push my tongue from off of your body, away from your ribcage, it’s over.

A little later in the night, once I have had my fill, I rest by what remains of you. Any love, any pain you may have had now coats the walls of my throat. It’s ours now.

I pick up the phone that you dropped on the floor, search for any clues as to who you might have been, who you thought I might have been to you. There is only a photo of some fat cat that must be wondering when its next meal is coming. I toss it.

I dig into your pockets until I find your wallet. There is nothing in it but your ID and a few hundred pesos. I toss that aside as well.

And then I put myself back together and wait. I wait a long time, just until the monsoon relents. Once it does, I don my white dress and walk through the tall grass, which has since grown taller, more lush, until I am just close enough to the road to be seen. And there, I continue to wait. Once in a while, a car will pass by. Once in a longer while, a car will slow down before speeding up again, as if its driver had just been unsure of the road.

And I wait, just a little longer, until it happens. I hear a car’s engine slow down, feel the headlights shining on me as if I were a prized gem. The car stops, and the door clicks open. It takes a moment, but there, there you are.

James is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. His short fiction has appeared in Tales to Terrify, Maudlin House, Novel Noctule, and MetaStellar. He currently resides in Los Angeles. His work can be found at

photo by Georgi Kalaydzhiev (via unsplash)