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20 minutes | 13 days ago
PodCastle 653: Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark?
Author : Matt Dovey Narrator : Heath Miller Host : Peter Behravesh Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published by Diabolical Plots. CW: Some violence, sexual content Rated R. Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark? By Matt Dovey In a generational shift that some claim threatens the fabric of existence and the sanity of all humanity, surveys show that worship of the Elder Dark is at a record low for one particular group—millennials. Bob Rawlins is worried. “When I was growing up in the 1950s, I made my obeisance before the Manifold Insanity every night, uttering the invocations to satiate the Watchers Just Beyond and keep them at bay for one day longer. But young people now aren’t prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.” I remind him that human sacrifice was deemed unnecessary and illegal in 1985, and animal sacrifice in 2009. “Well I don’t mean literally,” he says, though there’s a note of longing to his tone. Bob is showing me round his inner sanctum, a converted basement given over to the worship and appeasement of the Unknowable Gods. He’s the Grand Dark Supplicant of his local chapter, and is continuing a long family tradition: men of his bloodline have been bound to the service of the Elder Dark since the days of the Pilgrims. “Our ranks are already thin,” he says, resting a hand intimately on an idol of the Ten Thousand Staring Eyes. “I worry the world I’ll leave behind will be overrun by the gibbering horrors of the between spaces, ushering in a never-ending age of nightmares and insurmountable monstrosities. It breaks my heart to think of the Eight Palms golf course getting swallowed by a roiling pit of blackness. Hole five’s a real beauty.” In town, I talk with a group of twenty-somethings working in the local coffee shop. Aren’t they anxious about the impending immolation of mankind and the eternal night of the Elder Dark? “Well, I guess,” says Luiz, shaking chocolate onto my cappuccino in a cephalopodan design. “But it’s hard to get worked up about such a distant prospect when I’m mostly worried about making rent next month.” “Yeah, yeah,” agrees Deema, another barista. “And even if I had the brainspace to worry, I haven’t got the roomspace in my apartment for a shrine. I make my obeisance when I visit my parents at the weekend, but my apartment’s so cramped the shower’s in the kitchen. Where am I meant to find the space for the Eighteen Forms of Frozen Madness?” “Not that I have any time for the complete incantations anyway,” says Luiz. “As soon as I finish here I start a shift at the Midnight Dark Bar on 8th. Do you know how much mess is made by people burying the futility of their infinitesimal existence in drugs and debauchery? By the time I get home from cleaning that up I’ve only got five hours before I’m back here. It’s hard to muster the energy for self-flagellation on four hours’ sleep a night.” These responses may sound cynical and resigned, but talking to Luiz and Deema, there’s a sense of frustration: they want to be doing more. But some millennials have other reasons for abandoning the worship of the Elder Dark. “These old dudes—and they’re always old dudes, you notice that?—they’re all caught up in this spiel, like, ‘If you don’t perform the rituals of devotion then the world will fall to lunacy’, and I’m like, dude, look around already!” Ace shakes their long dreads dismissively and sips a green tea, looking over the gray ocean from their dilapidated RV. Their parents were members of the ultra-orthodox Church of the Nineteenth Insanity; Ace left home at seventeen, sent on their mission to witness the madness of the wider world. It was meant to reinforce the importance of keeping to the convoluted strictures of the Nineteenth Insanity, necessary to resist the influence of the Watchers Just Beyond. But instead, says Ace, they saw only human madness. “Like, all the suffering and hurt and injustice, that’s not coming from beyond the Pierced Veil, ya know? It’s caused by politicians and corporations on this side! People are blind to the roots of their problems, blaming it all on these creatures they’ve never even seen, right?” “It’s sad to hear,” says Kathy Halton, Honorary Senator for the Sunken State of Hggibbia. “I represent the Many Drowned Dead, so I know better than most what the cost of failure is.” Senator Halton looks up at the huge oil-on-canvas that hangs behind her mahogany desk, The Sinking of Dead Men’s Deeds, that infamous night when eighty thousand souls were lost to the sea. The eye is drawn irresistibly to the dark slash that hangs in the sky, the Pierced Veil itself, and the indescribable creatures of the Entropic Menagerie that spill forth—and it is surely an unparalleled artistic feat to paint a creature that cannot be described—and there is a strange sensation of being drawn into the painting, as if the soul itself is being pulled out through the eyes and reeled into that perversely dark hole on the canvas. Only Halton’s smooth voice breaks the spell; she seems used to the painting, immune to its attraction. “Some people are so desperate for a mundane explanation they’ll ignore the evidence of their souls,” she says. “The irony is many of this country’s problems can be traced back to a disturbing lack of faith in the younger generation.” But isn’t there an increasing consensus on grassroots social media that neoliberal government policies of the last thirty years are to blame for irrevocably leading us to this point of critical failure, where the very substance of the multiverse is threatened with annihilation by wage stagnation and an untenable housing market leading to unrealistic work expectations? “If only it were that simple,” she responds. “We’re doing everything we can to encourage participation despite the economic downturn, including state-funded glossolalia lessons and mandatory flagellation breaks for government employees. But we can’t force a free soul to act.” Two days later we’re standing on the windy beach at Chatham, Massachusetts for the annual Sunken Memorial, facing the steel-blue Atlantic where Hggibbia once stood. Senator Halton leads a group of representatives through the Silent Evocations of the Eighteen Forms, their dark trench coats snapping in the wind like ravens fighting over scraps. Two assistants have to help the elderly Health Secretary Johnson through the movements, sometimes physically lifting him to position his limbs correctly. Fifty yards away, behind a mesh fence and a police line, there’s a protest taking place. I’m not surprised to see Ace at the front, leading a chant of WE’RE NOT INSANE, WE’RE JUST MAD, WE BLAME YOU FOR A WORLD GONE BAD. “It’s all a distraction!” they tell me to a chorus of agreement from their fellow protestors. “They’re using the myth of the Elder Dark to stop you noticing their corruption!” “Yeah,” interjects another protestor, her pink hair straggling over a loose-fit chunky sweater. “Like, did you know they used this stuff to justify some super racist ideas? Most people can’t spot the subtext now, but if you read the old stuff they basically claimed Jews were in league with the Watchers Just Beyond, right? It’s unbelievable!” Ace picks up the argument, a real bitterness in their voice. “They like, try and handwave that racism away now, ya know, claim you have to understand it in the historical context, but it just proves how they fit it to their agenda at the time. It’s all bullshit. You can’t trust them.” I go back to see Bob Rawlins. He’s invited me up for the traditional orgy that marks the Approach of Winterdark, more commonly called the fall equinox. He prepares for the night by stripping naked, beating his tattooed skin raw with a branch of Hggibbian driftwood, and pulling a tight red hood on that covers his eyes. He offers me the branch and a spare hood, but I respectfully decline. There’s fifty or more participants gathered at the edge of town for the ritual, all naked bar that same red hood. It’s meant to evoke a feeling of insignificance, reminding supplicants they are only anonymous flesh to the Watchers Just Beyond, but the effect is undercut somewhat by small town America: everyone is easily identifiable from their voice and body shape, and Bob chats casually about DIY projects and school district elections as the sun sets. Once dusk grows dark and a chill settles in, Bob climbs onto a flame-lit stage set up for the event, reminds everyone to stick around for the barbecue afterwards, then begins the Rituals of Unending Vigilance. I find myself talking to a late arrival: Eric Rawlins—Bob’s son. “I’m only back for the weekend,” he explains, shuffling uncomfortably. “It means a lot to Dad that I get involved.” He’s eschewed the naked dedication of his father and kept his jeans on, a single Screaming Gshvaddath tattooed in Shifting Ink just below his red hood, dancing wildly in contrast to Eric’s diffidence. Presumably his father is grooming him to continue the family tradition? “Yeah, he’s really enthusiastic about the whole thing. Dad’s worried that if I’m not ready to continue his work the next time his back gives out then the Elder Dark will flood the world and shackle humanity to an eternal yoke of madness while he waits on his pain relief prescription. He honestly believes he’s the only one holding it back right now.” Does Eric think participation is down because people are coming to terms with the history of it and stepping away? I repeat some of the theories I heard at the rally. “Yeah, I’ve heard those ideas too. I agree with them, to be honest, with the people saying the Worship has racist underpinnings, but don’t tell Dad. He thinks the texts are sacrosanct, and it’s like, if you criticise them, you’re criticising him. But there’s a growing online movement to embrace the original truth of the Unknowable Scriptures, peeling back the layers of human influence and prejudice. We’re all just meat to the Watchers after all, regardless of our skin or beliefs, beneath the notice of an unfathomable Universe made of madness and unending time. I can show you some really interesting subreddits after this.” On stage, Bob is in an awkward crab position, thrusting his flaccid penis towards the night sky and howling in ecstasy. Blood drips from his back where a bed of nails beneath him pierces his flesh over and over; volunteers in hi-viz jackets wait at the edge of the stage with antiseptic cream, stood before signs reminding participants to PRACTICE SAFE SUPPLICATION. Eric looks anywhere but the stage as the crowd shrieks back, lacerating their own flesh with a variety of pointed implements. There are spiked paddles in ornately carved mahogany, hand-sharpened sticks of blasted elm, and one Hello Kitty cat o’ nine tails. “Dad worries too much, to be honest,” says Eric. “I’ve met a lot of people at college, and at the end of the day people are decent. They do what they can when they can, even if it’s just carving Escherian shapes into their avocados at breakfast. We’re not gonna let the world run to shit with shambling horrors at the bus stop and tentacles blocking up the plumbing. We’ve gotta live here too, after all.” Eric finally responds to his father’s exhortations with a self-conscious howl, and pricks his thumb with a pocket knife. Bob looks out from the stage, and spots his son; he lifts a hand in greeting, then, unbalanced, slips and lands heavily on the bed of nails. His scream of pain is answered faithfully by the crowd, but Eric runs forward and clambers on stage. He eases his father off the nails and they limp to the side, where a volunteer frantically unpacks a first aid kit. A brief yet intense exchange follows. The body language is clear: Bob wants Eric to finish leading the worship. The crowd is wavering, their flagellation tools drooping like their middle-aged bodies. I see the moment Eric takes the burden on: his back straightens, his jaw clenches, his shoulders square. He’s doing a good impression of being ready for this, and I find myself hoping it convinces Bob. Eric strips off and positions himself over the nails. He picks up the chant perfectly from where his father left off, closing out the ceremony with vigour, athleticism and rather more—shall we say—rigidity than his father could manage. Off to the side, Bob stands with his legs wide as his bleeding scrotum is gingerly nursed by the volunteer paramedic. He’s removed his red hood, and he watches Eric lambaste the crowd with a final chant of “Yhiu! Kaftagh falln!” and receive the answer of “Engibbigth valectia!” His face shines with paternal pride. The post PodCastle 653: Why Aren’t Millennials Continuing Traditional Worship of the Elder Dark? appeared first on PodCastle.
68 minutes | 19 days ago
PodCastle 652: Apple
Author : L. S. Johnson Narrator : Tatiana Grey Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published by F Is for Fairy, from Poise and Pen Press Content warning: sexual assault, gender-based slurs Rated R. Apple By L. S. Johnson Her Names They were twelve, and between them they encompassed Dawn, Dusk, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Seed, Blossom, Harvest, Maiden, Mother, and Crone; that is to say, they were complete. Thus, when a thirteenth fairy emerged from the breath of sun upon earth they were to a one confused. None of them had expected another sister. They waited for some time — perhaps there would be more? For they had come in pairs and trios before, and Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter had practically exploded out of the same minute point of light. But no one else emerged for some time. Finally, they looked to Dawn, who was eldest, and she looked at the new fairy and sighed. “What are you?” she asked plaintively. The fairy didn’t know. She was fifteen minutes old and quite astonished at existing. “We have to call her something,” Crone pointed out. (When her trio had emerged from the breath of the sun and were asked what they were, Maiden had said “beautiful,” Mother had rolled her eyes, and Crone had said “wiser than you.”) The twelve fairies looked around, trying to think of what this one, singular fairy could be. Time slipped past, and they had other tasks to do, but still they could not think of a thing. At last Dawn, who had been up for some time and wanted to nap, gestured to the nearest object. “We’ll call her Apple,” she declared, “until she figures out who she is.” “She looks like an Apple,” Fall said to Harvest, who agreed, and as they both knew a lot about apples everyone thought the matter settled. Between them they found a sweet little wood no one was occupying, with pine and oak and yes, even apple trees, and they suggested to the fallen branches and stones and mud that they come together into a cottage. Once the cottage was built they each gave Apple a present for her birth-day: a narrow bed; a table and chair; the secrets of fire, sleep, and flight; a jug and a wash-basin; a pot and a bowl to eat from; a dress to cover herself; and, rather inexplicably from Crone, a large, polished spindle. “She’ll find a use for it,” Crone said vaguely when the others gave her curious looks, and they didn’t press the matter, for Crone was indeed wiser than all of them. The fairies placed Apple in her new home, set everything right, gave her twelve kisses, promised to visit often, and flew away. She was, by then, one hour old. In her wood Apple quickly learned that she could only suggest, unless specifically invited to do more. She suggested the trees into bud every spring and suggested they drop their leaves for winter. She suggested that the bluebells spread far and wide in the dappled sunlight. She suggested a clearing where the birds and animals tested strength and will, and suggested hollows and burrows for them to nest and tend their young. She made stews and soups in her pot, and collected rainwater in her jug from the notched boughs and the fattest wildflower blossoms. She flew high above her wood and skimmed through its underbrush inches from the ground. Her sisters visited, and taught her how to suggest flower from bud and fruit from flower; they taught her the language of bees and the silent gestures of ants; they taught her to spin rainwater into dew and fog into lacy frost with her spindle. They brought her curtains and seeds and coaxed flowers into bloom all around her, until everyone said that Apple’s wood was the prettiest in all the land. They still didn’t know why she was, only that she was, and they often prodded her about her purpose: why was she here, what had she come to do? But the only answers Apple could give — that she was there to make her sisters tea, or make the wood bloom, or sing songs to the birds — never seemed to be enough. Apple would wonder about this, after her sisters left. Wasn’t it enough to simply be? Why did she have to have a purpose? Even if she was a thirteenth fairy who resembled a ripe, plump apple, wasn’t it enough to simply care for the world around her? But there was no one to answer her. Apple heard the plodding hooves first, strangely slow and lumbering, not the usual brisk passage of travelers cutting through her wood. This was a single rider, barely clinging to his horse; later she would remember how his armor glistened with moisture, shimmering in the dawn like it was made of sunlight. If he had worn a helmet, it was now lost. His face was youthful and wan and damp with sweat, and when she drew close he squinted at her as if he could not quite believe what he was seeing. Not a local man, to look at her so strangely, and with such a richly ornamented tabard. “Are you well?” she asked, but he only blinked at her. He smelled sour and his breath was worse, and she thought, aha, this is sickness. Her sisters had told her about sickness, such as when tree leaves emerged puckered and curled, or white mildew dusted the late blossoms. She led the horse to her cottage and suggested it rest and graze in the clearing, and she helped the man inside and to her bed. It took much doing to divest him of the armor, but each piece seemed to reveal a new curiosity, for she had never studied a man closely before. The patterns of pores and hairs were fascinating; the way he seemed to half-sleep, muttering and drooling, was something she had only glimpsed when flying over inns and the men in their yards. Deeply flawed was how her sisters described men; they spoke darkly of other patterns, such as of doing and undoing, that they could not affect unless bade to. This one, however, seemed unburdened by such complications. The whole of his being seemed to exude a singular will, and his will at that moment was to sleep in her bed, twisting and coiling like a drowsy cat. While the man slept she fried squash blossoms and the first onions, and suggested her loaf bake quickly, and gathered a jug’s worth of water. When she returned he was sitting up in bed, looking around with an amused expression on his face. “I have brought you water,” she said, smiling at him. She filled her little bowl and brought it to the bed. “You are feeling better?” He smiled back, baring lovely teeth. “I am now,” he said. He had deep blue eyes like the sky and they didn’t leave her face even as he drank the water down. How strange, to watch his throat work! She wanted to poke the lump in it, but thought that would be rude. Instead she asked, “your horse is a fine animal. Are you perhaps a lord?” “Lady,” he said, “in this moment, I am merely a man.” And he seized her wrist and drew her close to him. Sour sweat and breath and those bright even teeth, opening like an animal about to bite her; somewhere her bowl broke as he kissed her deeply. (Of course he was a king. Are they not all kings, these men? Kings of domains large and small, from whom all others flow. There are no queens without kings, no brave princes or enchanted princesses, no knights to be led astray or boldly fight, no maidens to swoon and be carried off. Not even fairies, to bestow them boons of voice and body alike; to curse them, the better to make a story worth telling.) Afterward, Apple could not remember what had happened. The time between his kiss and when he rode away, leaving her in the tousled bed, seemed to be just out of her reach — and she did not want to reach; she did not want to remember, even as she struggled to do so. What had she said, what had he done? In her mind was a darkness now, a fullness of experience shrouded and shoved to the edges of her memory. What had he said, what had she done? Why had he come to her at all? The memories were shrouded, but the bruises on her forearm lingered, five purpled smudges where each of his fingers had dug deep. Nothing she could suggest made them lighten; long after the pain had faded the five marks remained, and she took to wearing shawls and sweaters when her sisters visited, for how could she explain what she could not recall? For some time the sound of horses made her start, as frightened as the young rabbits crossing her clearing. For some time she dared not leave the wood, cringed at the thought of flitting past farms and villages and the men who lived there, their strangeness now a looming thing. All the colors around her seemed to dull and dim, until she could not quite remember what the world had looked like before him. She forgot to spin the dew and make suggestions to the bluebells; her eyes skidded over the blight-curled leaves, her ears missed the agitations of the birds and animals, how they broke their rhythms and fought wantonly. The corners of her wood began to smell of carcasses, and she did not think on it. Her sisters, noting the changes, kept their visits brief and their conversations carefully worded, though among themselves they wondered if her true purpose was revealing itself at last. “Not Apple but Anguish,” Dusk suggested, and they bowed their heads in acknowledgment. “Such is the weight of purpose,” Summer agreed. “Such is the weight of being a thirteenth when we were complete,” Maiden added harshly. Crone kept her counsel, watching in her mind’s eye as the wood around Anguish became shrouded and dark, as surely as pulling a blanket over itself, the better to hide from the world. Her Self, in Stories Some weeks after he rode away Anguish began dreaming: that she was a plump brown bird, feeding in a pleasantly sunny glade, when before her rose up a magnificent serpent, its scales glistening like they were made of light and its dark blue eyes as deep and wide as the sky above, and so lost was she in admiration that she did not struggle as it coiled itself around her tight, tight. Months after and Anguish dreamed: she was snuggled in a warm den with her sisters, their furred bodies twining and pressing, their sweet heat smelling of flowers and sunlight and the first hint of rain. Everything was cradling limbs and beating hearts and sleep and safe, until Anguish became aware of a shape at the mouth of their den, a shrouded presence moving towards them, and suddenly all that was sweet and safe became a prison: she struggled to flee but she could not awaken her sisters, who clung harder and harder, suffocating her with blind affection, oblivious to her cries. Alone in her wood Anguish dreamed, and when she woke exhausted she worried the dark spot in her mind like a loose tooth. Terrified of what lay behind it, unable to simply let it be, at times it seemed her sole purpose in the world was to break through that darkness; at other times she ran frantic through her wood, looking for any distraction to relieve her of its presence. Thus she stumbled upon a couple twined together at the edge of her overgrown clearing where sunlight still penetrated, providing relief from the gloom. A horse paced uneasily through the stunted grass, and for a moment Anguish felt a sharp pain in her belly, so dizzying was the sight of the animal’s embroidered caparison. The same pattern, the same bright colors, more vivid than anything she had seen since that day; her eyes filled with tears, as if she had looked straight into the heart of the sun. But the man rolling in her grass was not him. He was wrestling with a young girl who alternately giggled and squirmed, their tangled bodies crushing weeds and blossoms indiscriminately. The girl’s squeaks and squeals echoed through the wood and Anguish clapped her hands over her ears, but she could not block out their sounds. “I tell you it’s true,” the man gasped, wiggling on top of the girl. “You cannot leave me here, I may never return!” “Get away with you.” She slapped his arm, laughing. “Get away with His Majesty?” At his words the girl stilled, squinting at him. “It was the king himself who told me. He came to this very wood in his youth — got separated from the lads one night after a tourney. He fell asleep here and when he awoke he was in thrall to a foul enchantress, who tried to ensnare him — ” he paused, looking around with an expression of terror. “Did you hear that?” “I didn’t hear anything,” the girl said, but she looked uneasy as she spoke, and seemed not to notice when the man gathered her close. “You must protect me,” he mumbled into her neck. “Only the love of a mortal will keep the enchantress at bay . . .” Anguish could not watch, then; she could not think for the sudden emotion filling her. Foul enchantress. Around her the serpent twined until she was breathless; above her a vast shadowed shape bore down upon her wooded den. Foul enchantress. When she had only been a little fairy as round as an apple, without name or purpose. Behind her the couple grunted and gasped and then it was over, as quick as an eyeblink. Perhaps this was her purpose? What are you Dawn had asked her, and here was an answer she could give. A foul enchantress. A creature to fear, a story to whisper, the better to cow and to force, the better to make people look with dread over their shoulders, even at the height of a sunny day. Oh yes, that was a thing she could be. To her trees she suggested they release their burdens, and watched as their sickened branches snapped and gave way, tumbling down upon the couple while the man bellowed and the girl shrieked with fright. To her hunters, her birds of prey and her sharp-clawed mammals, she suggested that here was new prey to worry and torment. Like me, a voice said in her mind, whose voice was that? Anguish could not tell; she pressed her hands to her ears again, smothering the cries of the couple and the calls of the animals, smothering the wind and the horse’s wild whinnying, smothering her own whimpering breath. It was easier, after that first day. Easier to suggest the trees grow twisted and wild, with branches like walls and fruit rotting on their boughs. Easier to suggest her hunting animals see all as prey, locals and travelers, shepherds and sheep. Easier to play her role, smiling at the messengers and merchants, farmers and knights, all stumbling eager into the brush and her beckoning arms only to recoil in terror as her wood became their prison. Her five bruises became so livid and stark they could be seen from a great distance; she spun her tears into dresses patterned with those marks, over and over and over. Word traveled of the evil fairy in the wood, and when it did not travel far or swift enough Anguish flew to the top of her tallest tree and screamed it into the night so that even he, in the depths of his faraway castle, would hear her. Her Curse The day of the announcement Anguish awoke to a sickening chorus of distant cheers and ringing trumpets and she nearly vomited. Even before her sisters arrived, twittering with delight, she knew: knew, and felt betrayed yet again. A royal child. The soothsayers predicted a new moon birth; the castle midwives predicted a girl; wasn’t it all the loveliest, the most glorious? (Only Crone noticed Anguish’s misery, but she did not comment on it. Perhaps she was Anguish after all; perhaps it was her lot in life, just as it was Dusk’s to bring the cold of night, or Harvest’s to rip the fruit from the boughs.) When the messenger arrived, bearing gold-edged envelopes with fat red seals, each trailing a fine ribbon, Anguish’s hands stayed empty, and that gave the twelve fairies pause. The moment the messenger was out of earshot Dawn gave her a severe look and asked, “What did you do?” “What did you do?” Winter echoed. “You should be invited, no matter your purpose; you must have done something to upset him.” Anguish met each of their gazes levelly. “What does it matter?” she asked, the scorn in her voice making them flinch. “I am Anguish after all — or so you have decided.” At her words each of the fairies blushed and looked away, save for Crone. “What did he do?” she asked. And for a moment Anguish felt her resolve slipping away, felt herself small and round in her dress of tears and bruises; she wanted to run to her sister, bury herself in her arms and tell her everything. But that road only led back to Apple, unwanted and without purpose and unsafe, and she was not that fairy anymore. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. Her twelve sisters took their leave, downcast, unable to meet her gaze; as each flew away, back to their realms of light and dark, growth and decay, each whole and content in herself, Anguish caught at Crone’s arm, staying her. “I think I know my true name,” she said in a low voice. “I think I am Anger, sister.” At that Crone’s mouth quirked. “For now,” she replied, and before Anger could debate the matter she flitted up into the night sky, the invitation in her hand gleaming like a distant star. Anger had no invitation, but she soon knew the details they contained: a great feast was planned to celebrate the babe’s birth, with games and dancing through the night. Kings and noblemen would present the new princess with gifts (and more than a few offers of betrothal.) And every fairy in the kingdom was invited to give the princess one boon. A boon. The word lingered in Anger’s mind, all through the day and the night and the day again. A boon: an irreversible gift, a singular invitation to pronounce rather than suggest. A boon such as he had given her, such as she had been repaying year after year. For blight was pooling from her wood, stunting the crops in the neighboring fields, tainting the lakes until the reeds collapsed and the fish floated to the surface. Now no one rode through her wood without utmost cause, urging their horses lest the evil fairy snatch them away. A different kind of boon, that. Was she not a fairy of the kingdom, even if she hadn’t received a slip of paper? Oh she would grant the princess a boon, one worthy of her father. The thought filled Anger’s mind until she could not unthink it; it filled in the dark absence of his visit, giving it form and substance as she stroked the marks on her arms and mouthed boon boon boon. She trailed after her sisters on the journey to the capitol, flitting through daytime skies and across broad shimmering lakes, through woods not her own and over fields that ripened in their wake. For once she did not undo the goodness her sisters created; she kept her gaze ahead, her mind’s eye on the beautiful terrible thought within herself. A beautiful, terrible thought, but was it more terrible than what awaited the child, with such a man for her father? What torments might he inflict on her, what kind of husband would he force her to accept? A lout from his own lands? Or would he barter her with some distant king for land and gold, no matter what kind of man he was? It was twilight when Anger arrived at the castle. To a one the guards looked at her in fearful confusion, unsure of whether to admit or bar her, unsure if they could keep her at bay; she let herself savor the moment, that one small, apple-round fairy could so cow them. Then she suggested they let her enter, and they stepped aside. Inside all was light: hundreds of candles, perhaps thousands, all burning. A fortune in wax. For the first time Anger understood just what power lay behind royalty: not just the liveried knights riding to every corner of the kingdom, pushing its borders ever outward; not just the battles she knew were waged in distant lands, sometimes painting the sky in her own wood with a haze of far-travelled smoke. It was in the thousands of candles, when so many would never own one; it was in the cascades of tapestry adorning the walls, when so many shared but one rough blanket between them. The crowd parted for her, the sumptuousness of their clothing almost blinding; Anger resisted the urge to raise a hand to shield her eyes. They looked everywhere but at her. Was she so terrifying? Or perhaps it wasn’t fear but disgust, perhaps they could see the bruises through her dress, perhaps they wondered as her own sisters had wondered. What did you do, what did you do? The crowd parted, bodies flowing to the far sides of the room as if her taint surrounded her like a cloud. They parted in a wave down the long, long hall, flowing like rivers in springtime when they ran high only to break around the largest rocks. She was a rock now, she could see herself from above, and all the silver and gold was breaking around her. Cutting through it all, the candles and the tapestries, the acres of gilt and velvet and deep-dyed wool, all breaking over the rock that was Anger Anguish Apple. At last before her a dais rose like a filigree mountain, two towering gold thrones and the golden bassinet between them. On either side her sisters were staring, staring. On their thrones the queen looked merely pale and exhausted, but his expression was one of utter shock, one that Anger found herself mimicking. He was so much older. The smiling young lad was gone, replaced by a careworn old man on whose lined face was dawning a profound, sorrowful understanding. She had known time was passing, years of it; she had not thought on how profoundly it might leave its mark. For a moment, doubt ran through her, a tremor that echoed back, back, until she was standing in her little cottage with its curtains fluttering in the wind and realizing it was just her and this strange young man — She raised her chin, banishing the memory back to the darkness. “I am invited to give a boon,” she said, and her voice was strong and true. “Every fairy in the kingdom can give one boon to the princess.” “Anguish,” one of her sisters said in a low voice — Spring? Seed? She could not say, and in truth it did not matter. “The princess will be your undoing,” she began, her voice ringing out. “All you have achieved, all your value, she will strip from you. She” Anger looked down at herself, at her gown spun of her own tears, so many tears, clinging to her body in gossamer sorrow, mottled with the mark of his grasp. “She will take everything from you, using nothing more than a spindle.” She looked back up at the king and felt a frisson of pleasure. For his face was a picture of terror, so vivid in its silent emotion that it eclipsed all around it: the gasps and cries and rising clamor of the nobility thronging the room; the ghastly expressions on her sisters’ faces; the unholy squalling as the queen dragged the bassinet close, away from Anger’s words. All nothing compared to his terrified expression. Like a man staring into an abyss — ! That she could create such a thing was a kind of power she had never tasted before, it seemed to make something stir in her belly. She felt as if the darkness in her mind was spreading, growing — And then a voice said, calmly, “I too have a boon to give.” Crone stepped before the dais, severing Anger’s view of the king. It made Anger come back to herself with a shudder, as if she had been bodily struck. Her sister raised an eyebrow at her, then looked at the king. “I cannot undo my sister’s words,” she said. “But I can amend them. All that my sister said will indeed come to pass. But afterwards? Something even greater will take the place of all your losses.” There was a roaring in Anger’s ears, a sound that wasn’t without but within. She wanted to weep but she couldn’t make the tears come; she wanted to scream but her voice was suddenly a small thing. All she could do was look Crone in the eye and use one of the words a man had called her, when she had suggested his horse throw him into her wood, when she had watched as her wood took him into itself. “Cunt,” she said, and flew from the castle into the deepening night. Her Words, and Their Meanings For six months afterwards, the king’s men went forth and confiscated every spindle within his borders, burning them in great pyres in the castle yard. Spindles were banned at the borders, and possession of a spindle became a punishable crime. Anger watched it all with interest: had not Crone turned her curse into a gift, wouldn’t he welcome such an outcome? Yet still the fires burned. Anger watched, and waited. But no horses came to Anger’s wood, no one disturbed her. Still she waited to see what would come of her words, watching from atop her tallest tree, clutching the large, polished spindle that Crone had given her, long ago. He came down the overgrown path to her cottage, picking his way through the ivy-choked weeds. On foot this time, leading his horse, his posture erect. At first Anger did not look closely at the horse, so startled was she that he had come without a retinue. A small, hopeful part of her thought apology; a more sensible part of her thought the spindle. But then she looked at the horse and saw the slim young girl bouncing in the saddle, her golden braids rippling around her laughing face, and the part of Anger that had dared to hope fell silent once more. She hid the spindle on a shelf in her kitchen, then put on her dress of tears and unbuttoned the sleeve to show the marks on her arm, as livid and purpling as they had been that day. Calmly she suggested that the clouds occlude the sun: just a suggestion, but he didn’t need to know that, and it made for a most dramatic entrance. She swept out of her cottage, her head held high for she was Anger. This was her job, her role, just as her sisters brought the sun across the sky and coaxed the grain from the tilled soil. She walked out, replete in her purpose, and unflinchingly met his gaze. “What do you want?” she asked. He took a step back, clearly startled; the movement pleased her. “Only to talk,” he said, then before she could speak, “Rose! Rose, come here.” Princess Rose dismounted nimbly from the horse and ran to her father’s — no, to the king’s side, it was better to think of him as such. A king first, a man second. Lady, in this moment I am merely a man. That much Anger remembered clearly, for the lie it was. He brought the princess in front of him, crossing his arms protectively over her. She looked up at Anger with wide grey eyes, the same shade of grey as the dawn in her wood, not a hint of fear in them. Instead she said, “I’m Rose. Who are you?” Faced with that small, round face, its open curiosity, the word Anger died on her lips. Instead she found herself saying, heavily, “I was called Apple, once.” “That’s a lovely name!” Rose clapped her hands. “Apple blossoms are one of my favorite flowers, aren’t they, Papa?” “Yes,” the king said softly. “Yes, they are.” He took a breath. “Apple, you must undo this.” His voice was trembling. “We have just concluded Rose’s betrothal to a firstborn prince, a more advantageous match than we dared to hope for. Our joined lands will be an empire greater than anything in the world, and with access to the southern seas our trade will increase beyond reckoning. Would you take all that from our people?” He was staring at Anger with a singular, miserable intensity, and she understood then: Crone had the right of it, she knew what I did not. That her mitigation would have been a true boon to any ruler, save this king. Rose had wiggled out from beneath his arms. Now, suddenly, her fingers ran along Anger’s waist, just skimming the full folds of her skirts. “It’s such a pretty dress,” she said, frowning a little, “and yet it’s a very sad dress, isn’t it?” “Rose,” the king said sharply. “Rose, come back here.” “It is a very sad dress,” Anger agreed, taking Rose’s hand and moving it away. The girl’s fingers twined with hers, warm and soft. “Not for princesses, I think.” She looked at the king again, but he was staring at her hand clasping Rose’s, with its bracelet of bruises. “You never said no,” he whispered. For a moment she gaped at him, astonished; and then she was Anger again. “I never had to use that word, before you,” she spat back. “I didn’t know how.” In her mind the darkness shuddered as if rupturing at last, and she couldn’t bear it, not now, not like this. She suggested a storm, she suggested her fury be echoed in her wood that was both within and without her, a reflection of its foul mistress — But then a sound came, light and high, so strange it made Anger pause. She looked down at Rose and the girl was laughing, open-mouthed with delight, as the first raindrops spattered her face. “Rain!” she shrieked, throwing her free arm out. “Rain, Papa! Oh, isn’t it lovely!” She broke free from Anger’s grasp and began hopping up and down, trying to catch drops in her mouth, laughing as they caught in her eyelashes. Anger could only watch as if in a stupor: first those words, then her still-simmering rage, and now this. Joy, she thought stupidly, staring at Rose’s ecstatic face. Why was there no Joy in their number? Why had she been born Anger, if there was no Joy to balance her? I think I am Anger, sister For now “There is no greater future than the one I have worked for,” the king said, his voice driving. “We must expand if we are to quell the threats to our borders. It has taken years to negotiate this marriage. If you cannot undo it, I know you can amend it! Say . . . Say Rose causes me to lose my horse, or a district, or . . .” He trailed off, but she did not see his expression; she was watching Rose’s face, how in its curves she could see the first hints of the woman she would become. “Ask me for another boon,” she said. The king recoiled. “What?” “Ask me for another boon. For Rose.” The name made Anger’s lips round, like a kiss. “Or do not, and bid your empire farewell — “Give my daughter a boon,” he interrupted hoarsely. “Please. Please.” Knee-deep in weeds Rose raised her cupped hands to the sky, giggling as she tried to keep the rainwater from escaping between her fingers. And what of her when she grew older, then? What bruises might ring her arms? Anger took her time with her words, speaking them as much to the small dancing figure as to the king. “The princess will undo all that you have done, with nothing more than a mere spindle. But the greatness that comes after? It too will be her doing, not yours. You will leave no legacy save her.” Rose ran back to her and tugged on her arm. “Apple, Apple, let’s dance in the rain!” And when Anger would not dance she ran about, spinning wildly and shrieking with laughter, her gown and hair richly spattered. She realized then that she had been so distracted by Rose she had forgotten to note the king’s reaction to her pronouncement, missed that moment of dark triumph. Now she looked at him and saw only a guarded fury on his face, and she found that she did not care. Anger shrugged, inclined her head, and went back to her cottage and shut the door on them: on the king, on his horse gently nosing through the ivy, on the golden figure of Rose who was Joy still dancing as the heavens poured down. (And would it even matter in the end, Anger wondered? What could a princess create, when she was nothing more than a bargaining piece for her father? What could she hope for, save that her betrothed would be a decent man? Still Anger’s eyes kept straying to the spindle Crone had given her; still she knew that what had been said must come to pass, even if she could not see how.) Her Heart Rose lingered in Anger’s memory, sun-bright against the scrim of her wood. Though she did not consciously decide to do so, again and again Anger found herself flitting along the castle walls, watching Princess Rose. Here, she gossiped with her ladies while they tended a little garden; here, she rode forth to deliver alms; here, she received her subjects in her father’s hall, giving each of their stories her utmost attention. Always doing is our princess, they said in the streets, dabbing their eyes. For the time was coming soon for Princess Rose to leave them: a castle on the southern border was part of her dowry, to someday become the capitol of the imminent empire. Had Anger’s words somehow created this, added impetus to the king’s negotiations, the better to send away the daughter who threatened him? Yet every spindle had been destroyed; the king’s guards searched every person and cart on the borders to ensure no more would enter. There was no threat, save for what Anger harbored in her kitchen. And if Rose left without incident, if the curse played itself out years from now, perhaps a generation hence? That she could reflect so dispassionately on these matters surprised Anger, but only just. It had been many falls of the leaves since the king first rode into her wood. The dark spot in her memory felt almost normal now; she had grown accustomed, even fond, of her weeds and rotting wood and gowns of tears. Once a bright, golden creature had danced in the rain, and it would be a sorry thing if her words somehow smothered that joy. No matter that the same was done to you? the voice whispered in her mind. No matter. It had been a long time since any dared to venture into her wood, and it was with a sense of inevitability that Anger opened her door and saw the horses crowding the weed-choked path, so hemmed in by the brambles they seemed to form one looming, many-headed creature. The combined patterns of livery and gleaming metal momentarily blinding; she threw up an arm to shield her eyes. For a brief, panicked moment, all her old dreams came back and it was the glistening serpent again, only with one eye dark, the other vibrantly golden. Then the golden eye rippled, and called a halt, and Anger blinked and saw Princess Rose. She raised one hand in an uncertain greeting while the rider beside her held the bridle of her horse. “Apple,” she said. “We would beg a moment to rest here, and water? Only we were riding and became lost.” Anger took a moment before replying, trying to ground herself. She was no little bird anymore, and this no fearsome beast, only a retinue of young nobles. But the uncertain gesture, the stilted words — and how could they be lost? Half the kingdom knew the road that ran nearby. You could see the smoke of several villages by simply climbing a tree. (Rose’s hair was, impossibly, even a brighter gold than her last visit. Who gave her that gift? Blossom, Anger suspected. It would like her sister to waste an entire boon on the right shade of blond.) “Of course,” she said, bowing. “My cottage is at your disposal, your highness.” At her words the party began to dismount, the women exclaiming as brambles caught at their skirts, the men looking uneasily at the twisting, stunted trees. A different livery on each — the women part of Rose’s retinue, the men clearly linked to the one who now helped Rose down, his arm sliding snakelike around her waist as he lifted her onto what remained of the path. “If I could refresh myself, inside?” She moved quickly towards Anger; when the man made to follow her she spun about, smiling brightly. “My lord, in this I should be attended by a woman alone.” “Then you should bring your ladies,” he replied. A chin that preceded him, a clipped accent to his words. “They say strange things happen in these woods, and speak ill of a fairy who lives in it.” He looked hard at Anger as he spoke the last. “They are fools,” Rose said. She swept into Anger’s cottage, waving a dismissive hand over her shoulder at the other women, who receded like a flock of injured birds. Anger followed her, shutting the door behind them. In the dim light all Rose’s brightness seemed to vanish. In her place stood a disconsolate girl, shifting from one foot to another, and seeing her wilt so made Anger’s stomach clench. “I will be brief,” Rose said. “I don’t wish to impose on you. We have imposed too much already, I believe.” Anger just looked at her. Those soft hands twisting, the tremor in her lower lip. “I leave in a fortnight, and it seemed important . . .” she trailed off, then began again. “I wanted you to know that I understand, about the curse. Your boon, I mean. I would have done the same if I were you. He should never have . . .” But words failed her again and she turned away, wiping roughly at her cheeks. For a moment Anger was stunned: had he told her? What had he said, what did he remember? But before she could think how to ask Rose continued in a shuddering voice, “I — I heard the maids. When they thought I was asleep. Talking about how he was when he was younger, and now — my mother is not well, she, she dreads my departure, she weeps endlessly and cannot sleep. And the maids were terrified that he might visit them again . . .” She began crying bitterly, and Anger understood then that the king too oozed a taint from his very being, as surely as if he wore the fabric of his violence. Still Rose wept, and Anger looked around for something to offer her, only to find herself bewildered again: her kitchen was dusty, the jug long empty. Why had she not noticed before? What had she been subsisting on? Grief, the voice said wisely in her ear. Still the princess wept, wiping at her eyes with a handkerchief; Anger took an uncertain step forward, hesitated, and said instead, “Your companion. He is your betrothed? The prince your father spoke of?” The princess nodded, blowing her nose. “Should I call for him?” “No!” The word nearly a shout; she took a shaking breath and wiped her nose again. When at last she had mastered herself she said, “what do they look like?” “Pardon?” Anger blinked, startled. “Spindles.” She pronounced the word with a hushed reverence. “Only, I have never seen one — that is, I glimpsed one in a painting, but I would not know one if it was placed before me, either to avoid it, or . . . to avoid it.” She blushed as she spoke, but Anger thought she saw something in her reddened eyes, a gleam of something harder. Wordlessly she went to the shelf, pushing aside the dusty pot and mended bowl to find Crone’s gift, as clean as if she had polished it that morning. “They look like this,” she said, holding it out. Rose gaped, astonished into silence; her hand drifted forward; abruptly she turned away. “Rose,” Anger began, what did she want to say? So many things she could not find words for. “If you want me to, to destroy it — ” But she was interrupted by the cottage door opening, the doorway filled by a large figure in gold-trimmed livery, his chin entering the room before him. The prince’s face was smooth and young and glistening with sweat. He seemed to fill the room, blocking out all light. It was suddenly warm; when had it become so warm? “My lady,” the prince said. “I thought perhaps something had happened.” Anger’s breath was catching in her throat. He was so close. The spindle in her grasp. “Nothing save conversation,” Rose replied, the bright smile back on her face. “I would have some more time with my dear friend Apple. You may ride on if you like.” “Certainly not.” He looked around the cottage, his lip curling. “You will come away now. This place is . . . unsuitable.” He uttered the word with distaste. The smell of him. Had her cottage become smaller? Her breath was catching, she felt dizzy; Rose looked at her in alarm, save that she was suddenly far away — yet how could that be, when her cottage was shrinking? “In a moment,” Rose said, but her voice was muffled, distant. “Now,” the prince barked. Rose’s hands twining with Apple’s, her grey eyes like the dawn in her wood, her hair like the breath of the sun from when she was born, all that warm, cradling light . . . “Rose!” The prince clapped his hands. “Rose, come!” “Everything will be all right,” Rose said softly. Her lips brushed Apple’s cheek. The prince stepped forward, his hand outstretched. Were his eyes blue? Apple begged the chair fall please fall and it obediently tipped backwards, making him stumble. With a grunt he swiped for Rose, seizing her wrist and dragging her to him — and then the spindle was gone from Apple’s grasp as Rose spun about and struck the prince in the head with a too-large fist. He fell to his knees with a bellow. There was a flurry of cries from without and suddenly her cottage was full of people, clamoring and exclaiming, pushing Apple further and further into the corner. Like a wave crashing in, filling every inch of the space. She heard the twittering of Rose’s ladies and the muttering of the prince’s men and Apple covered her face with her hands and wept, her tears overwhelming her in their sudden bright pain, like some festering thing had been lanced at last. And when at last her crying subsided, leaving her aching and hollow, she lowered her hands and saw that her cottage was empty, the chair neatly tucked beneath the table once more. There was no sign of the spindle. (There was no empire, of course.) (In fact, there were no marriages at all. Word went around that Rose was quite unfit, with many allusions made to her state of mind, her womanliness or lack thereof, her overbearing father, dozens of stories and speculations boiling down into the succinct mad bitch. Which a princess can easily be, if required. Especially if it means ending border campaigns and byzantine negotiations and finally getting back to ruling.) Apple heard the horses, but distantly at first. Not the plodding gait of the lost but a brisk, purposeful trot; still, it gave her enough time to finish her conversation. She had been listening to a large, spreading oak, listening to its requests: a sick branch that needed removing, a pine tree jostling it for some much-needed light. A new thing for her, this listening. Everything had a voice, why hadn’t she realized that before? Everything had a voice, and needs, and desires, and she had imposed her own for far too long. She had made enough suggestions for quite a while; it was time to give others a turn. Dusting her hands, she flitted back to the clearing by her cottage, watching as two horses drew near. Now she heard the gay little bells swinging from their harnesses, a sweet kind of music she had never heard before; it suited the bouncing golden braids of the first rider, a single girlish touch to the otherwise womanly figure. (Music, Apple remembered, was one of Spring’s passions.) When they drew close Queen Rose dismounted lightly and then hesitated, shifting from foot to foot. “Apple,” she said. Apple inclined her head. Only a little older, but Rose had aged in other ways; such, she supposed, was the burden of rule. Still her eyes were as grey as the first light of dawn; still she carried her brightness within her, as bright as the breath of the sun itself. “I’ve been wanting to bring you something.” She drew a pouch out of her saddlebag and held it out. “As a thank you.” “A thank you?” Apple took the pouch carefully, reverently. Inside were dozens of small, dark shapes, spheres that tapered to little points. “Bluebell seeds.” Rose looked around with a smile. “I have always loved this wood — it feels so free, and yet so safe. But no wood this lovely should be without bluebells.” Apple found herself smiling as well, as she had not done in some time. “I don’t understand. You have nothing to thank me for.” “Other than the means to rid myself of my boorish suitor?” Rose laughed, then sobered. “If you had not spoken as you did, at my birth? I would never have believed my maids, Apple. I would never have been able to see my father clearly.” The words were earnest, she could see it in Rose’s face, and yet . . . “I didn’t do it for you,” she whispered. “I had no caring for you then. I wasn’t even this . . . I was Anger, in that moment.” “That may be,” Rose said. “But you were also brave, and honest, and I am grateful for it.” Apple could only nod. Everything was so wonderfully bright, in that moment; it closed her throat, it seemed to fill her from head to toe, it softened that lingering darkness in her mind to a shadow. Even the pattern of her gown seemed more vibrant, more like blossoms than bruises, though she knew her wrist would be forever marked, just as she knew the shadow would never vanish entirely. Nor did she want it to. Rose dabbed at her eyes. “I saw your apple trees are blooming.” “They asked to,” Apple said simply. Still Rose hesitated, shifting again; at last she blurted out, “it is a lonely thing to be queen.” Apple looked at the other rider but Rose waved her hand dismissively. “He’s to protect me, nothing more. Though we have fewer threats now; everyone wants our textiles, not our antagonism.” Then, more shyly, “I would not blame you, if you saw me as you saw my father. Only — only I need a friend? Someone who cares enough to be angry, and brave, and honest.” Her eyes were welling again. “I presumed to call you friend, once . . . and I have thought of you often . . . Apple?” Once a thirteenth, apple-plump fairy had believed it was enough to care. Once a girl named Rose who was Joy had danced in the rain. What are you? I am Apple . . . and I am Love. Apple took Rose’s hand in hers. The post PodCastle 652: Apple appeared first on PodCastle.
30 minutes | a month ago
PodCastle 651: At First Glance
Author : Shannon Peavey Narrator : Avi Silver Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Daily Science Fiction. Rated R for strong language. At First Glance By Shannon Peavey On a narrow highway in western Texas, an old Ford pickup hurtles through a curve at eighty-five miles per hour. It slips a little on bald tires, but recovers and swings out to the straightaway, accelerating. Two girls sit in the cab — one in the driver’s seat, one behind her in the back. The driver chews her lip until it bleeds. Her younger sister has a pair of dark glasses pushed up onto her forehead and her face pressed up to the glass until her nose squashes flat like a bulldog’s. She’s careful not to look up at her sister. Somewhere behind them, there are posters with their names and faces, policemen canvassing neighborhoods. But they are miles, miles away. “What the hell’s with all these armadillos,” Brynn says. “I mean, look at this road. It’s a goddamned slaughterhouse.” Sam glances back in the rearview mirror. Just a quick look, and then back to the road. The air stings her split lip. “Get your greasy face off my windows.” “You think they’d learn,” Brynn says, without peeling her face from the glass. “Isn’t there some sort of instinct? Species memory?” “Their mamas didn’t teach ‘em right.” “Maybe they think you’re gonna stop for them. Maybe they think you’re a merciful lady.” “Nobody thinks that,” Sam says, and eases off the gas. They don’t see any live armadillos for the rest of the drive. Only dead ones, splayed carelessly along the fog line. Sam’s mercy isn’t tested. When they stop for gas, Brynn stays in the truck and drops her sunglasses back over her eyes. She stares at her knees and imagines the scene — the long-haul truckers in their cabs, maybe a family with kids on a road trip, harried mother telling them to be quiet while she fills up the car. Though really she can’t see a thing. The lenses of her glasses are smoked and neatly coated with black paint. Sam gasses up and then heads inside to buy corn nuts and Mountain Dew. She watches the cashier carefully as he rings her up, carefully enough that he stops smiling and ducks his head to hide his eyes behind the brim of his cap. Too late to save you, honey, Sam thinks with something like pity — but all she says is thanks, and she takes the green bottles and the corn nuts back out to the truck and knocks on the window before she gets in. “Cashier was cute enough,” she says as she does up her seatbelt. In the backseat, Brynn uncaps her Mountain Dew with a carbonated wheeze. “One of those sensitive artist types. Married, though.” “Never stopped you from looking,” Brynn says, and she laughs. It’s an ugly sound. “Never has.” Sam starts the truck and they pull out into the evening dim. A whisper of a breeze blows grit across the windshield. They drive until it’s full dark, and then stop in some little shithole town with a motel right by the highway. Sam goes and gets the key, begs a lower rate off some girl wearing too much makeup and a bunch of jewelry in shiny red plastic. Even her shoes are red. Sam sees them because she kicks her feet under the desk like a child. Their room is on the second floor at the corner. Sam goes there first and gets it unlocked and then heads into the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror while Brynn gets herself settled in. She doesn’t look so good. Sallow-skinned, red-eyed. Bit nails and hair tied up with a broken rubber band. “Gotta find some place to hole up,” she tells her reflection, looking herself squarely in the eyes across the bathroom sink. When she comes out, Brynn is already lying flat out on one of the beds with her boots still on her feet. Her black glasses folded neatly and resting on the Gideon Bible. “These ugly-ass bumpy ceilings,” Brynn says. “Popcorn ceilings. Yeah.” “I just keep trying to find pictures in them. You know? Like clouds, or like somebody wrote some code in there.” “It’d be a stupid fuckin’ code.” Sam had a house, once — renovated it herself. She’s scraped her share of popcorn off ceilings. It never came away clean. “Maybe something like the DaVinci Code. Some shit about Jesus.” “I saw that movie,” Sam says. “It was all right.” Brynn snorts and closes her eyes. Sam finds the remote in the bedside table and flicks on the TV. She surfs channels until she finds a rerun of Jaws, and then settles back to watch a mechanical shark eat the shit out of some swimmers. “I love this one,” she says. “That shark. What a predator.” Brynn twitches on the bed, but doesn’t open her eyes. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Sam says. “I’m going out for a smoke.” Brynn swings up to a sit and her boots hit the thin carpet with a clop. “Watch yourself,” Sam says. “And take your glasses.” “I’ll be careful.” “Yeah,” Sam says, and turns back to the TV. That shark — what a predator. Just death in the water. Brynn sucks smoke deep into her lungs and holds it there, looking fixedly across the highway. There’s a cow pasture on the other side, fenced in with barbed wire. A pair of tan cows watch her with placid faces. It’s okay, though. It doesn’t affect animals. They’ve tested it. So she keeps her glasses in her pocket. She doesn’t like to wear them more than she has to — doesn’t like to make herself blind. Sometimes she thinks she might like to have a dog. Someone she could really talk to, face to face. But they moved around too much; it wouldn’t be fair to the dog. Sam says she wouldn’t mind having a dog in her truck. But Sam says a lot of things that aren’t really true. “You got a light?” It’s a woman’s voice, off to her right. Brynn fumbles in her pocket for her lighter, then holds it out to the side and flicks the spark wheel without ever glancing her way. “Thanks.” The woman shifts around and takes a puff of her cigarette and her shoes make scuffing noises on the pavement. Red shoes with little peep-toes. Brynn can look at those; shoes are safe. “You sure seem interested in those cows,” the woman says. She has a good voice. A little raspy around the edges. “They’re nice cows.” “They reek.” She blows out a breath and her plume of smoke mixes with Brynn’s. “Not their fault,” Brynn says. For a while they stand there quietly, side by side, and smoke. Brynn’s cigarette burns down to the filter and she drops it on the pavement and grinds it out with her toe. “What are you doing out here?” the woman says. “Just passing through?” Brynn ignores that and quirks her head to get a better look at the animals across the street. One of them has dropped away to find better grazing. The other still stands there, quiet alongside the barbed wire. She says, “Do you think cows think about their futures?” The woman laughs and then her laugh dies away and still Brynn says nothing more. The woman shifts uneasily. “No,” she says. “I mean, they’re cows.” “Yeah,” Brynn says, her voice light. “It’s probably for the best. What do they have to look forward to?” She sees the woman move out of the corner of her eye and she flinches away. Her hand, snaking out toward Brynn’s arm. Her fingers graze the edge of Brynn’s sleeve. “Hey,” the woman says. “Look at me while I’m talking to you, okay? It’s only polite.” Brynn swallows. The woman’s cigarette is still burning and the smoke slides up her nose, into her eyes. It’s a better brand than the one Brynn smokes, or maybe she’s just better at savoring the taste. “Come on,” the woman says. Her pretty voice, low and inviting. Her red shoes shifting on the pavement. “You should go,” Brynn says. “Don’t tell me what to do,” the woman says, and then Brynn just can’t stop herself anymore. She turns around and looks. She’s the most beautiful girl Brynn’s ever seen. Sam wakes up in the middle of the night with the feeling that something’s gone wrong. She rolls over and checks the digital clock on the bedside table. Two-thirty. She looks for the lump of her sister in the other bed. But she’s not there. “Fuck,” Sam says, and she tears out of bed. She doesn’t bother to get dressed, just slams her feet into her boots and heads out the door with the room key curled in her fist. The night is cool and dry and sucks the breath right out of her. “Brynn,” she says, trying to keep her voice low but carrying. “Where are you?” She walks the parking lot in circles, pausing in the patches of harsh light cast by the motel’s neon sign or the caustic orange glow of a streetlamp. The truck still sits where she’d parked it, cold and motionless. Brynn wouldn’t have gone far. Not by herself. She stops when she passes a low ditch by the edge of the parking lot. She can’t see well, but someone is breathing roughly down there. Their breath catching like they’re trying not to sob. “Brynn, it’s me.” She steps over the curb and skids down on her heels into the bottom of the ditch. It’s dry all the way through, and sandy. No rain for weeks. Brynn is only a vague shape in the darkness, crouched over something that lies limp and broken in the bottom of the ditch. She shifts to the side and her foot comes down on a piece of red plastic jewelry and it cracks under her weight. “Oh, shit,” Sam says, and she kneels down and runs her hand over the dead girl’s cheek. The girl is cool under her hand and her makeup smears across the tips of Sam’s fingers. “I didn’t want to hurt her,” Brynn says, her voice tight and strained. She’s pressed against the side of the ditch, cowering like an animal. Her face turned down to the dirt and the darkness. “I know you didn’t. It’s okay.” “I just wanted to see her face. She had such a nice voice.” Red lipstick is spread across the corner of the girl’s face, down to her chin. She looks like she’s swallowed a mouthful of blood. “It doesn’t matter,” Sam says. “This doesn’t change anything.” “I can’t stop it. Someone needs to stop me.” “That’s a lie,” Sam says fiercely. “You’re not doing nothing wrong. It’s just the way you are. Nobody expects a shark not to kill. It’s just following its instincts.” Brynn says nothing. Sam gets up and holds out a hand to her sister, trusting that she’ll keep her eyes averted. After a moment, Brynn takes it and Sam pulls her up. Sam kicks out, jars the dead girl’s ankle with a booted foot. “It’s not like anyone’ll miss her, anyway. Look at these red shoes. Nobody but a dumb whore’s gonna wear red shoes.” “Yeah,” Brynn says. “Right.” “Okay,” Sam says. There’s a numb feeling in her gut, but it’s easy to ignore. “Let’s go take care of it, then.” Sam drives the truck over close to the ditch so they won’t have to walk so far carrying her. In case there are security cameras or something like that. She takes the girl by the shoulders and Brynn takes her ankles and they put her in the truckbed and wrap her in a tarp. “Don’t suppose you know a quiet place around this town,” Sam says. Brynn shakes her head, and Sam nods. Best they can hope for is to buy themselves a little time. “Get in the truck, then,” she says, and they get in and the old thing starts up without a hitch. She leaves the truck running while she grabs their bags from the motel room and leaves the key on the bedside table. There are still traces of the dead girl’s makeup crammed under her fingernails. She gets in the truck and puts it in drive. Doesn’t think about where they’re headed next. Sometimes it’s all driving in circles, anyway — going places they’ve already been and trying to be new people there. It never works that way, of course. No matter how hard they scrape at it, nothing ever comes off clean. So they just run. Whenever they hear a siren, whenever they see a sudden flash of light — Sam says, down, and they duck behind a wall or turn their faces away from the windows. They change the plates on the truck again, just in case. Sam chops her hair short, though she looks even more criminal with that wild bristle haloing her face. “This is too much,” Brynn says. “I can’t do it anymore.” “Fine,” Sam says, and shrugs. She forces her voice to be light. “We’ll just let them find us. Not like we can’t deal with them when they get here.” Brynn flinches. She’s thought about it. She’s wondered how long it would take her to look one of the cops in the eye. Not very long, she thinks. “No,” she says. “You’re right. We’ll keep going.” “So get back in the truck.” Sam turns them back to the road. The truck jolts in a pothole and her teeth click together. They’re taking the back roads, now, trying to stay under the radar. “We’re gonna run out of places to go,” Brynn says. “Fuck that. Then we’ll stand and fight them.” Brynn says nothing. There’s a tickle of unease in Sam’s gut, but she says, “There’s nobody who could beat us. You know that.” “I know it.” “So don’t be such a chickenshit.” “Get off my case,” Brynn says sharply. “It’s not important now. Nobody’s found us.” “Not yet,” Sam says. The worst part is that Brynn can’t really argue with her. Doesn’t really want to. Because if Sam left her, where would she be? Can’t drive — might accidentally see other drivers through their windshields, or pedestrians by the side of the road. She might make it in some halfway house, never taking her dark glasses off. If they had some pity to spare for a blind girl. She’s mostly helpless, mostly useless — save for that one talent. “I’ll probably look at you one day,” she says. “You won’t,” Sam says. “I’ll gouge your eyes out first.” “Okay.” It makes her feel oddly better. Brynn hasn’t seen her sister in years — not since the start of this whole thing. But she can put together something of a picture from all the bits and pieces, the occasional glances. Sam has big feet, and her boots are worn. Underrun at the heels. She has long, thin fingers and she bites her nails. But her face — that’s three years out of date. They drive on. At midday, they stop at a deserted rest area and Sam slaps some ripped-up jerky and American cheese between slices of bread and wraps them in foil and puts them on the engine block to heat up while they drive. “Everything looks better with hot food in your stomach,” she says, and pats the truck’s hood affectionately. Forty minutes later, the sandwiches taste delicious. “Pull over there,” Brynn says, wiping her fingers on her jacket. “What?” “I said, pull over. That driveway there.” “The one that says World’s Biggest Battlefield in Miniature?” “Yeah, there.” Sam slants a look back in the rearview mirror. “Looks like a tourist trap.” Brynn shrugs. “I want to see it.” Sam tips her head to the side. The sign for the World’s Biggest Battlefield in Miniature gets bigger and bigger as they draw close, and at the last minute she rips the truck off the road, down the cutoff to the tourist trap. “Don’t say I never did nothin’ for you.” The place is almost deserted. Two other cars in the parking lot and a little house with an old man who takes money and stamps hands. They won’t ask him, but that man can talk for hours about what made him start this place. He says it’s an abiding love for history, but really, after his young son died, the old man just didn’t know what to do with all of his action figures. Brynn follows mutely behind her sister, eyes flicking behind her glasses, catching little bits of scenery around the edges. She holds her hand out to be stamped and out of the corner of her eye she traces the pattern of brown and yellow twining up her bootlaces. “She slow?” the old man says. “Nah, she’s just shy,” Sam says, and though her voice is easy there’s a warning in it. The old man hears it, and says nothing more. Outside, Brynn hooks her elbows over the split-rail fence keeping them from the exhibit and takes her glasses off to look at it. It’s okay, because the place is mostly deserted. Sam stands a pace back, shifting her weight from foot to foot. “This thing is fuckin’ huge,” she says. “Wonder how long it took to make it.” Little green army men crawl all over sand hillocks and sheets of AstroTurf. Impossible to tell what battle they’re reenacting. Maybe something in Vietnam, from all the plastic jungle trees scattered around. The tableau stretches nearly the length of a football field. Plastic men pointing guns at each other. Some of them lie dead, their limbs chewed off or just quietly still, staring up at the sky. “Seems pretty goddamn pointless, to me,” Sam says. “Waste of time,” Brynn agrees. They stand there for a while more, looking out over the carnage. A crunch of gravel in the parking lot announces the arrival of another car. Sam glances over her shoulder and then freezes. “It’s a cop.” Something settles in Brynn’s stomach, something heavy like inevitability. She flicks her glasses back over her eyes but isn’t sure it’ll make much difference. “How many?” “Just one, I think.” “No lights. No siren.” “No,” Sam says. She nudges Brynn with her elbow and they edge around the fence to the far side of the exhibit. Hands-in-pockets casual. The cop gets out of her car. She’s rake-thin, a little past middle age. She vanishes into the little house to give the old man his money. While she’s gone, Sam and Brynn scurry off toward the truck. Trying not to look like they are running from the law. The door opens. The cop steps back out. They freeze along the fence and duck their heads, like they’re absorbed in the exhibit. The army men in front of them appear to be capturing a town made out of Popsicle sticks. “You know, I see this place all the time when I’m driving, and I’ve never stopped before,” she says back through the open door. The old man says something back to her, but they can’t hear it. “What should we do?” Brynn’s hands are white knuckled on the fence. “What if she knows our faces?” “Cool it,” Sam says, under her breath. “She’s off duty. She’s not searching for us.” But in truth, she wouldn’t mind if the woman confronted them. She’s not nervous. Just a stir of anticipation. After all, it’s only natural. They shouldn’t have to hide what Brynn is. The cop steps up to the fence. She scans the battlefield and lets out a low whistle through her teeth. “What a production,” she says. “What should I do?” Little splinters of wood start to flake off under Brynn’s hands. “Keep your fuckin’ head down.” Sam keeps an eye on the woman as she starts to circle around the fence, coming their way. She nods hello to an elderly couple sitting on a bench in a splash of meager shade. Brynn swallows. Her face is bone white, her glasses utterly dark. The cop stops a few feet in front of them, eying a pair of green men scaling a plastic palm tree. “Hell of a setup, isn’t it, girls?” Her voice is friendly. It takes Sam a moment to realize that she’s talking to them. “Yes ma’am,” she says. “Get vicious winds through here. I wonder if they’re glued down.” “Not sure,” Sam says. There’s a tiny quaver in her fingers, so she clenches them. “I’d imagine they are.” “Have to be.” The cop nods, and Sam can see that the skin of her throat is paper-thin. Riding loose over the column of her spine. She almost thinks she can see the thready pound of the woman’s pulse. Sam says nothing and turns her face back to the exhibit. Hoping that she’ll move on, that the conversation is done. But it’s not. “So, what brings two young ladies such as yourselves to a place like this? You don’t seem the type.” “I’m very interested in history,” Sam says. She inches her hand across the wood until it collides with Brynn’s. Just a light bump. Saying, be ready. “That’s great,” the cop says. “My family’s full of veterans. My brother went to Vietnam. I’m glad to see some young people still respect that contribution.” “Try to,” Sam says, and she gives a smile full of teeth. The elderly couple have gotten up and gone away. The contrail of their dust still fading in the parking lot. It’s just the sisters and the cop, now. Sam’s hand clenches in Brynn’s sleeve. Brynn listens to the woman’s voice as she talks, wondering what her face looks like. She has a dry voice, but it’s kind. Brynn could kill her in an instant. Sam is getting tense. Brynn can feel it in the grip Sam has on her cuff, hear it in the scrape of her feet on the ground. The cop doesn’t know. She doesn’t know anything. So Brynn says, “We’d better get back on the road. Aren’t we supposed to meet Frank soon?” Sam jerks a little bit. She lets go of Brynn’s sleeve. “Right,” she says. The cop smiles at them and looks back to the battlefield. “You two have a nice evening.” “You too, ma’am.” “You too,” Brynn echoes. They shuffle past her, both of them watching the dirt. As they go, the cop’s hand darts out and closes on Brynn’s wrist — she didn’t see it coming; she almost screams out loud. But all the cop says is, “It’s quite the sight. I wish you could see it for yourself.” Her voice is so kind. “Thank you, ma’am,” Brynn says, and her face is trying to make some expression but she doesn’t know which one, so she stops it. Just shuts everything down. They stay silent until they have the truck in drive, pulling out onto the backcountry road with the sign proclaiming the World’s Biggest Battlefield in Miniature. Then Sam starts laughing, a helpless spasm of it, and after a moment Brynn joins in. They laugh without stopping. Sam curled over the steering wheel like it’s the only thing holding her upright. Brynn bent over her knees, her knuckles dug so deep into her eye sockets she sees stars. “Jesus,” Sam says, once her laughter’s died away. “What a close shave.” “Way too close.” “Good thinking, little sister,” Sam says, and she slaps the wheel for emphasis. “Really good.” There’s quiet in the truck for mile after mile. The landscape rips by dull and the same — wastes of prairie tallgrass and stunted mesquite. Neat rows of cotton. The occasional clapboard house, shutters drawn tight so it’s hard to tell if anyone lives there at all. The truck rounds a bend. Brynn says, “Were you gonna have me kill that lady?” Sam doesn’t answer right away. She straightens out and squints into the low glow of the setting sun. “Would you have done it?” “Yes,” Brynn says. Sam’s mouth works. She rolls down the window and spits. “Well, you didn’t,” she says. “And look at us now. We’re doing okay, right?” “Yeah. Just fine.” They drive on. Brynn watches the side mirror, sure that she’s going to see flashing lights and cop cars coming up behind them. She doesn’t, though. Only dry road and the blur of cars passing in the opposite direction, beetle-bright in the glare. So she stares at herself in the mirror and meets her own gaze steadily. After a while, the slant of the sun grows low enough that it strikes off the mirror like a lance, right into her eyes — it burns, makes her squint, makes her eyes water. But she won’t close her eyes and she won’t look away. “There’s another fucking armadillo,” Sam says, a twist in her voice. Brynn keeps watching her own face in the mirror, her mind moving slow. Dumb with the light and the thoughts of what’s happened. She’s remembering that girl, and how she moved her feet on the pavement. The calm faces of the cows in the pasture. She’s wondering whether she or her sister will be first to know what it feels like to die. The post PodCastle 651: At First Glance appeared first on PodCastle.
41 minutes | a month ago
PodCastle 650: Luella Miller
Author : Mary Wilkens Freeman Narrator : Jen R. Albert Host : Dominik Parisien Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums This story is in the public domain and was published in Wilkens’s 1903 collection The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural. Rated PG. Close to the village street stood the one-story house in which Luella Miller, who had an evil name in the village, had dwelt. She had been dead for years, yet there were those in the village who, in spite of the clearer light which comes on a vantage-point from a long-past danger, half believed in the tale which they had heard from their childhood. In their hearts, although they scarcely would have owned it, was a survival of the wild horror and frenzied fear of their ancestors who had dwelt in the same age with Luella Miller. Young people even would stare with a shudder at the old house as they passed, and children never played around it as was their wont around an untenanted building. Not a window in the old Miller house was broken: the panes reflected the morning sunlight in patches of emerald and blue, and the latch of the sagging front door was never lifted, although no bolt secured it. Since Luella Miller had been carried out of it, the house had had no tenant except one friendless old soul who had no choice between that and the far-off shelter of the open sky. This old woman, who had survived her kindred and friends, lived in the house one week, then one morning no smoke came out of the chimney, and a body of neighbours, a score strong, entered and found her dead in her bed. There were dark whispers as to the cause of her death, and there were those who testified to an expression of fear so exalted that it showed forth the state of the departing soul upon the dead face. The old woman had been hale and hearty when she entered the house, and in seven days she was dead; it seemed that she had fallen a victim to some uncanny power. The minister talked in the pulpit with covert severity against the sin of superstition; still the belief prevailed. Not a soul in the village but would have chosen the almshouse rather than that dwelling. No vagrant, if he heard the tale, would seek shelter beneath that old roof, unhallowed by nearly half a century of superstitious fear. There was only one person in the village who had actually known Luella Miller. That person was a woman well over eighty, but a marvel of vitality and unextinct youth. Straight as an arrow, with the spring of one recently let loose from the bow of life, she moved about the streets, and she always went to church, rain or shine. She had never married, and had lived alone for years in a house across the road from Luella Miller’s. This woman had none of the garrulousness of age, but never in all her life had she ever held her tongue for any will save her own, and she never spared the truth when she essayed to present it. She it was who bore testimony to the life, evil, though possibly wittingly or designedly so, of Luella Miller, and to her personal appearance. When this old woman spoke—and she had the gift of description, although her thoughts were clothed in the rude vernacular of her native village—one could seem to see Luella Miller as she had really looked. According to this woman, Lydia Anderson by name, Luella Miller had been a beauty of a type rather unusual in New England. She had been a slight, pliant sort of creature, as ready with a strong yielding to fate and as unbreakable as a willow. She had glimmering lengths of straight, fair hair, which she wore softly looped round a long, lovely face. She had blue eyes full of soft pleading, little slender, clinging hands, and a wonderful grace of motion and attitude. “Luella Miller used to sit in a way nobody else could if they sat up and studied a week of Sundays,” said Lydia Anderson, “and it was a sight to see her walk. If one of them willows over there on the edge of the brook could start up and get its roots free of the ground, and move off, it would go just the way Luella Miller used to. She had a green shot silk she used to wear, too, and a hat with green ribbon streamers, and a lace veil blowing across her face and out sideways, and a green ribbon flyin’ from her waist. That was what she came out bride in when she married Erastus Miller. Her name before she was married was Hill. There was always a sight of “l’s” in her name, married or single. Erastus Miller was good lookin’, too, better lookin’ than Luella. Sometimes I used to think that Luella wa’n’t so handsome after all. Erastus just about worshiped her. I used to know him pretty well. He lived next door to me, and we went to school together. Folks used to say he was waitin’ on me, but he wa’n’t. I never thought he was except once or twice when he said things that some girls might have suspected meant somethin’. That was before Luella came here to teach the district school. It was funny how she came to get it, for folks said she hadn’t any education, and that one of the big girls, Lottie Henderson, used to do all the teachin’ for her, while she sat back and did embroidery work on a cambric pocket-handkerchief. Lottie Henderson was a real smart girl, a splendid scholar, and she just set her eyes by Luella, as all the girls did. Lottie would have made a real smart woman, but she died when Luella had been here about a year—just faded away and died: nobody knew what ailed her. She dragged herself to that schoolhouse and helped Luella teach till the very last minute. The committee all knew how Luella didn’t do much of the work herself, but they winked at it. It wa’n’t long after Lottie died that Erastus married her. I always thought he hurried it up because she wa’n’t fit to teach. One of the big boys used to help her after Lottie died, but he hadn’t much government, and the school didn’t do very well, and Luella might have had to give it up, for the committee couldn’t have shut their eyes to things much longer. The boy that helped her was a real honest, innocent sort of fellow, and he was a good scholar, too. Folks said he overstudied, and that was the reason he was took crazy the year after Luella married, but I don’t know. And I don’t know what made Erastus Miller go into consumption of the blood the year after he was married: consumption wa’n’t in his family. He just grew weaker and weaker, and went almost bent double when he tried to wait on Luella, and he spoke feeble, like an old man. He worked terrible hard till the last trying to save up a little to leave Luella. I’ve seen him out in the worst storms on a wood-sled—he used to cut and sell wood—and he was hunched up on top lookin’ more dead than alive. Once I couldn’t stand it: I went over and helped him pitch some wood on the cart—I was always strong in my arms. I wouldn’t stop for all he told me to, and I guess he was glad enough for the help. That was only a week before he died. He fell on the kitchen floor while he was gettin’ breakfast. He always got the breakfast and let Luella lay abed. He did all the sweepin’ and the washin’ and the ironin’ and most of the cookin’. He couldn’t bear to have Luella lift her finger, and she let him do for her. She lived like a queen for all the work she did. She didn’t even do her sewin’. She said it made her shoulder ache to sew, and poor Erastus’s sister Lily used to do all her sewin’. She wa’n’t able to, either; she was never strong in her back, but she did it beautifully. She had to, to suit Luella, she was so dreadful particular. I never saw anythin’ like the fagottin’ and hemstitchin’ that Lily Miller did for Luella. She made all Luella’s weddin’ outfit, and that green silk dress, after Maria Babbit cut it. Maria she cut it for nothin’, and she did a lot more cuttin’ and fittin’ for nothin’ for Luella, too. Lily Miller went to live with Luella after Erastus died. She gave up her home, though she was real attached to it and wa’n’t a mite afraid to stay alone. She rented it and she went to live with Luella right away after the funeral.” Then this old woman, Lydia Anderson, who remembered Luella Miller, would go on to relate the story of Lily Miller. It seemed that on the removal of Lily Miller to the house of her dead brother, to live with his widow, the village people first began to talk. This Lily Miller had been hardly past her first youth, and a most robust and blooming woman, rosy-cheeked, with curls of strong, black hair overshadowing round, candid temples and bright dark eyes. It was not six months after she had taken up her residence with her sister-in-law that her rosy colour faded and her pretty curves became wan hollows. White shadows began to show in the black rings of her hair, and the light died out of her eyes, her features sharpened, and there were pathetic lines at her mouth, which yet wore always an expression of utter sweetness and even happiness. She was devoted to her sister; there was no doubt that she loved her with her whole heart, and was perfectly content in her service. It was her sole anxiety lest she should die and leave her alone. “The way Lily Miller used to talk about Luella was enough to make you mad and enough to make you cry,” said Lydia Anderson. “I’ve been in there sometimes toward the last when she was too feeble to cook and carried her some blanc-mange or custard—somethin’ I thought she might relish, and she’d thank me, and when I asked her how she was, say she felt better than she did yesterday, and asked me if I didn’t think she looked better, dreadful pitiful, and say poor Luella had an awful time takin’ care of her and doin’ the work—she wa’n’t strong enough to do anythin’—when all the time Luella wa’n’t liftin’ her finger and poor Lily didn’t get any care except what the neighbours gave her, and Luella eat up everythin’ that was carried in for Lily. I had it real straight that she did. Luella used to just sit and cry and do nothin’. She did act real fond of Lily, and she pined away considerable, too. There was those that thought she’d go into a decline herself. But after Lily died, her Aunt Abby Mixter came, and then Luella picked up and grew as fat and rosy as ever. But poor Aunt Abby begun to droop just the way Lily had, and I guess somebody wrote to her married daughter, Mrs. Sam Abbot, who lived in Barre, for she wrote her mother that she must leave right away and come and make her a visit, but Aunt Abby wouldn’t go. I can see her now. She was a real good-lookin’ woman, tall and large, with a big, square face and a high forehead that looked of itself kind of benevolent and good. She just tended out on Luella as if she had been a baby, and when her married daughter sent for her she wouldn’t stir one inch. She’d always thought a lot of her daughter, too, but she said Luella needed her and her married daughter didn’t. Her daughter kept writin’ and writin’, but it didn’t do any good. Finally she came, and when she saw how bad her mother looked, she broke down and cried and all but went on her knees to have her come away. She spoke her mind out to Luella, too. She told her that she’d killed her husband and everybody that had anythin’ to do with her, and she’d thank her to leave her mother alone. Luella went into hysterics, and Aunt Abby was so frightened that she called me after her daughter went. Mrs. Sam Abbot she went away fairly cryin’ out loud in the buggy, the neighbours heard her, and well she might, for she never saw her mother again alive. I went in that night when Aunt Abby called for me, standin’ in the door with her little green-checked shawl over her head. I can see her now. ‘Do come over here, Miss Anderson,’ she sung out, kind of gasping for breath. I didn’t stop for anythin’. I put over as fast as I could, and when I got there, there was Luella laughin’ and cryin’ all together, and Aunt Abby trying to hush her, and all the time she herself was white as a sheet and shakin’ so she could hardly stand. ‘For the land sakes, Mrs. Mixter,’ says I, ‘you look worse than she does. You ain’t fit to be up out of your bed.’ “‘Oh, there ain’t anythin’ the matter with me,’ says she. Then she went on talkin’ to Luella. ‘There, there, don’t, don’t, poor little lamb,’ says she. ‘Aunt Abby is here. She ain’t goin’ away and leave you. Don’t, poor little lamb.’ “‘Do leave her with me, Mrs. Mixter, and you get back to bed,’ says I, for Aunt Abby had been layin’ down considerable lately, though somehow she contrived to do the work. “‘I’m well enough,’ says she. ‘Don’t you think she had better have the doctor, Miss Anderson?’ “‘The doctor,’ says I, ‘I think YOU had better have the doctor. I think you need him much worse than some folks I could mention.’ And I looked right straight at Luella Miller laughin’ and cryin’ and goin’ on as if she was the centre of all creation. All the time she was actin’ so—seemed as if she was too sick to sense anythin’—she was keepin’ a sharp lookout as to how we took it out of the corner of one eye. I see her. You could never cheat me about Luella Miller. Finally I got real mad and I run home and I got a bottle of valerian I had, and I poured some boilin’ hot water on a handful of catnip, and I mixed up that catnip tea with most half a wineglass of valerian, and I went with it over to Luella’s. I marched right up to Luella, a-holdin’ out of that cup, all smokin’. ‘Now,’ says I, ‘Luella Miller, ‘YOU SWALLER THIS!’ “‘What is—what is it, oh, what is it?’ she sort of screeches out. Then she goes off a-laughin’ enough to kill. “‘Poor lamb, poor little lamb,’ says Aunt Abby, standin’ over her, all kind of tottery, and tryin’ to bathe her head with camphor. “‘YOU SWALLER THIS RIGHT DOWN,’ says I. And I didn’t waste any ceremony. I just took hold of Luella Miller’s chin and I tipped her head back, and I caught her mouth open with laughin’, and I clapped that cup to her lips, and I fairly hollered at her: ‘Swaller, swaller, swaller!’ and she gulped it right down. She had to, and I guess it did her good. Anyhow, she stopped cryin’ and laughin’ and let me put her to bed, and she went to sleep like a baby inside of half an hour. That was more than poor Aunt Abby did. She lay awake all that night and I stayed with her, though she tried not to have me; said she wa’n’t sick enough for watchers. But I stayed, and I made some good cornmeal gruel and I fed her a teaspoon every little while all night long. It seemed to me as if she was jest dyin’ from bein’ all wore out. In the mornin’ as soon as it was light I run over to the Bisbees and sent Johnny Bisbee for the doctor. I told him to tell the doctor to hurry, and he come pretty quick. Poor Aunt Abby didn’t seem to know much of anythin’ when he got there. You couldn’t hardly tell she breathed, she was so used up. When the doctor had gone, Luella came into the room lookin’ like a baby in her ruffled nightgown. I can see her now. Her eyes were as blue and her face all pink and white like a blossom, and she looked at Aunt Abby in the bed sort of innocent and surprised. ‘Why,’ says she, ‘Aunt Abby ain’t got up yet?’ “‘No, she ain’t,’ says I, pretty short. “‘I thought I didn’t smell the coffee,’ says Luella. “‘Coffee,’ says I. ‘I guess if you have coffee this mornin’ you’ll make it yourself.’ “‘I never made the coffee in all my life,’ says she, dreadful astonished. ‘Erastus always made the coffee as long as he lived, and then Lily she made it, and then Aunt Abby made it. I don’t believe I CAN make the coffee, Miss Anderson.’ “‘You can make it or go without, jest as you please,’ says I. “‘Ain’t Aunt Abby goin’ to get up?’ says she. “‘I guess she won’t get up,’ says I, ‘sick as she is.’ I was gettin’ madder and madder. There was somethin’ about that little pink-and-white thing standin’ there and talkin’ about coffee, when she had killed so many better folks than she was, and had jest killed another, that made me feel ‘most as if I wished somebody would up and kill her before she had a chance to do any more harm. “‘Is Aunt Abby sick?’ says Luella, as if she was sort of aggrieved and injured. “‘Yes,’ says I, ‘she’s sick, and she’s goin’ to die, and then you’ll be left alone, and you’ll have to do for yourself and wait on yourself, or do without things.’ I don’t know but I was sort of hard, but it was the truth, and if I was any harder than Luella Miller had been I’ll give up. I ain’t never been sorry that I said it. Well, Luella, she up and had hysterics again at that, and I jest let her have ‘em. All I did was to bundle her into the room on the other side of the entry where Aunt Abby couldn’t hear her, if she wa’n’t past it—I don’t know but she was—and set her down hard in a chair and told her not to come back into the other room, and she minded. She had her hysterics in there till she got tired. When she found out that nobody was comin’ to coddle her and do for her she stopped. At least I suppose she did. I had all I could do with poor Aunt Abby tryin’ to keep the breath of life in her. The doctor had told me that she was dreadful low, and give me some very strong medicine to give to her in drops real often, and told me real particular about the nourishment. Well, I did as he told me real faithful till she wa’n’t able to swaller any longer. Then I had her daughter sent for. I had begun to realize that she wouldn’t last any time at all. I hadn’t realized it before, though I spoke to Luella the way I did. The doctor he came, and Mrs. Sam Abbot, but when she got there it was too late; her mother was dead. Aunt Abby’s daughter just give one look at her mother layin’ there, then she turned sort of sharp and sudden and looked at me. “‘Where is she?’ says she, and I knew she meant Luella. “‘She’s out in the kitchen,’ says I. ‘She’s too nervous to see folks die. She’s afraid it will make her sick.’ “The Doctor he speaks up then. He was a young man. Old Doctor Park had died the year before, and this was a young fellow just out of college. ‘Mrs. Miller is not strong,’ says he, kind of severe, ‘and she is quite right in not agitating herself.’ “‘You are another, young man; she’s got her pretty claw on you,’ thinks I, but I didn’t say anythin’ to him. I just said over to Mrs. Sam Abbot that Luella was in the kitchen, and Mrs. Sam Abbot she went out there, and I went, too, and I never heard anythin’ like the way she talked to Luella Miller. I felt pretty hard to Luella myself, but this was more than I ever would have dared to say. Luella she was too scared to go into hysterics. She jest flopped. She seemed to jest shrink away to nothin’ in that kitchen chair, with Mrs. Sam Abbot standin’ over her and talkin’ and tellin’ her the truth. I guess the truth was most too much for her and no mistake, because Luella presently actually did faint away, and there wa’n’t any sham about it, the way I always suspected there was about them hysterics. She fainted dead away and we had to lay her flat on the floor, and the Doctor he came runnin’ out and he said somethin’ about a weak heart dreadful fierce to Mrs. Sam Abbot, but she wa’n’t a mite scared. She faced him jest as white as even Luella was layin’ there lookin’ like death and the Doctor feelin’ of her pulse. “‘Weak heart,’ says she, ‘weak heart; weak fiddlesticks! There ain’t nothin’ weak about that woman. She’s got strength enough to hang onto other folks till she kills ‘em. Weak? It was my poor mother that was weak: this woman killed her as sure as if she had taken a knife to her.’ “But the Doctor he didn’t pay much attention. He was bendin’ over Luella layin’ there with her yellow hair all streamin’ and her pretty pink-and-white face all pale, and her blue eyes like stars gone out, and he was holdin’ onto her hand and smoothin’ her forehead, and tellin’ me to get the brandy in Aunt Abby’s room, and I was sure as I wanted to be that Luella had got somebody else to hang onto, now Aunt Abby was gone, and I thought of poor Erastus Miller, and I sort of pitied the poor young Doctor, led away by a pretty face, and I made up my mind I’d see what I could do. “I waited till Aunt Abby had been dead and buried about a month, and the Doctor was goin’ to see Luella steady and folks were beginnin’ to talk; then one evenin’, when I knew the Doctor had been called out of town and wouldn’t be round, I went over to Luella’s. I found her all dressed up in a blue muslin with white polka dots on it, and her hair curled jest as pretty, and there wa’n’t a young girl in the place could compare with her. There was somethin’ about Luella Miller seemed to draw the heart right out of you, but she didn’t draw it out of ME. She was settin’ rocking in the chair by her sittin’-room window, and Maria Brown had gone home. Maria Brown had been in to help her, or rather to do the work, for Luella wa’n’t helped when she didn’t do anythin’. Maria Brown was real capable and she didn’t have any ties; she wa’n’t married, and lived alone, so she’d offered. I couldn’t see why she should do the work any more than Luella; she wa’n’t any too strong; but she seemed to think she could and Luella seemed to think so, too, so she went over and did all the work—washed, and ironed, and baked, while Luella sat and rocked. Maria didn’t live long afterward. She began to fade away just the same fashion the others had. Well, she was warned, but she acted real mad when folks said anythin’: said Luella was a poor, abused woman, too delicate to help herself, and they’d ought to be ashamed, and if she died helpin’ them that couldn’t help themselves she would—and she did. “‘I s’pose Maria has gone home,’ says I to Luella, when I had gone in and sat down opposite her. “‘Yes, Maria went half an hour ago, after she had got supper and washed the dishes,’ says Luella, in her pretty way. “‘I suppose she has got a lot of work to do in her own house to-night,’ says I, kind of bitter, but that was all thrown away on Luella Miller. It seemed to her right that other folks that wa’n’t any better able than she was herself should wait on her, and she couldn’t get it through her head that anybody should think it WA’N’T right. “‘Yes,’ says Luella, real sweet and pretty, ‘yes, she said she had to do her washin’ to-night. She has let it go for a fortnight along of comin’ over here.’ “‘Why don’t she stay home and do her washin’ instead of comin’ over here and doin’ YOUR work, when you are just as well able, and enough sight more so, than she is to do it?’ says I. “Then Luella she looked at me like a baby who has a rattle shook at it. She sort of laughed as innocent as you please. ‘Oh, I can’t do the work myself, Miss Anderson,’ says she. ‘I never did. Maria HAS to do it.’ “Then I spoke out: ‘Has to do it I’ says I. ‘Has to do it!’ She don’t have to do it, either. Maria Brown has her own home and enough to live on. She ain’t beholden to you to come over here and slave for you and kill herself.’ “Luella she jest set and stared at me for all the world like a doll-baby that was so abused that it was comin’ to life. “‘Yes,’ says I, ‘she’s killin’ herself. She’s goin’ to die just the way Erastus did, and Lily, and your Aunt Abby. You’re killin’ her jest as you did them. I don’t know what there is about you, but you seem to bring a curse,’ says I. ‘You kill everybody that is fool enough to care anythin’ about you and do for you.’ “She stared at me and she was pretty pale. “‘And Maria ain’t the only one you’re goin’ to kill,’ says I. ‘You’re goin’ to kill Doctor Malcom before you’re done with him.’ “Then a red colour came flamin’ all over her face. ‘I ain’t goin’ to kill him, either,’ says she, and she begun to cry. “‘Yes, you BE!’ says I. Then I spoke as I had never spoke before. You see, I felt it on account of Erastus. I told her that she hadn’t any business to think of another man after she’d been married to one that had died for her: that she was a dreadful woman; and she was, that’s true enough, but sometimes I have wondered lately if she knew it—if she wa’n’t like a baby with scissors in its hand cuttin’ everybody without knowin’ what it was doin’. “Luella she kept gettin’ paler and paler, and she never took her eyes off my face. There was somethin’ awful about the way she looked at me and never spoke one word. After awhile I quit talkin’ and I went home. I watched that night, but her lamp went out before nine o’clock, and when Doctor Malcom came drivin’ past and sort of slowed up he see there wa’n’t any light and he drove along. I saw her sort of shy out of meetin’ the next Sunday, too, so he shouldn’t go home with her, and I begun to think mebbe she did have some conscience after all. It was only a week after that that Maria Brown died—sort of sudden at the last, though everybody had seen it was comin’. Well, then there was a good deal of feelin’ and pretty dark whispers. Folks said the days of witchcraft had come again, and they were pretty shy of Luella. She acted sort of offish to the Doctor and he didn’t go there, and there wa’n’t anybody to do anythin’ for her. I don’t know how she DID get along. I wouldn’t go in there and offer to help her—not because I was afraid of dyin’ like the rest, but I thought she was just as well able to do her own work as I was to do it for her, and I thought it was about time that she did it and stopped killin’ other folks. But it wa’n’t very long before folks began to say that Luella herself was goin’ into a decline jest the way her husband, and Lily, and Aunt Abby and the others had, and I saw myself that she looked pretty bad. I used to see her goin’ past from the store with a bundle as if she could hardly crawl, but I remembered how Erastus used to wait and ‘tend when he couldn’t hardly put one foot before the other, and I didn’t go out to help her. “But at last one afternoon I saw the Doctor come drivin’ up like mad with his medicine chest, and Mrs. Babbit came in after supper and said that Luella was real sick. “‘I’d offer to go in and nurse her,’ says she, ‘but I’ve got my children to consider, and mebbe it ain’t true what they say, but it’s queer how many folks that have done for her have died.’ “I didn’t say anythin’, but I considered how she had been Erastus’s wife and how he had set his eyes by her, and I made up my mind to go in the next mornin’, unless she was better, and see what I could do; but the next mornin’ I see her at the window, and pretty soon she came steppin’ out as spry as you please, and a little while afterward Mrs. Babbit came in and told me that the Doctor had got a girl from out of town, a Sarah Jones, to come there, and she said she was pretty sure that the Doctor was goin’ to marry Luella. “I saw him kiss her in the door that night myself, and I knew it was true. The woman came that afternoon, and the way she flew around was a caution. I don’t believe Luella had swept since Maria died. She swept and dusted, and washed and ironed; wet clothes and dusters and carpets were flyin’ over there all day, and every time Luella set her foot out when the Doctor wa’n’t there there was that Sarah Jones helpin’ of her up and down the steps, as if she hadn’t learned to walk. “Well, everybody knew that Luella and the Doctor were goin’ to be married, but it wa’n’t long before they began to talk about his lookin’ so poorly, jest as they had about the others; and they talked about Sarah Jones, too. “Well, the Doctor did die, and he wanted to be married first, so as to leave what little he had to Luella, but he died before the minister could get there, and Sarah Jones died a week afterward. “Well, that wound up everything for Luella Miller. Not another soul in the whole town would lift a finger for her. There got to be a sort of panic. Then she began to droop in good earnest. She used to have to go to the store herself, for Mrs. Babbit was afraid to let Tommy go for her, and I’ve seen her goin’ past and stoppin’ every two or three steps to rest. Well, I stood it as long as I could, but one day I see her comin’ with her arms full and stoppin’ to lean against the Babbit fence, and I run out and took her bundles and carried them to her house. Then I went home and never spoke one word to her though she called after me dreadful kind of pitiful. Well, that night I was taken sick with a chill, and I was sick as I wanted to be for two weeks. Mrs. Babbit had seen me run out to help Luella and she came in and told me I was goin’ to die on account of it. I didn’t know whether I was or not, but I considered I had done right by Erastus’s wife. “That last two weeks Luella she had a dreadful hard time, I guess. She was pretty sick, and as near as I could make out nobody dared go near her. I don’t know as she was really needin’ anythin’ very much, for there was enough to eat in her house and it was warm weather, and she made out to cook a little flour gruel every day, I know, but I guess she had a hard time, she that had been so petted and done for all her life. “When I got so I could go out, I went over there one morning. Mrs. Babbit had just come in to say she hadn’t seen any smoke and she didn’t know but it was somebody’s duty to go in, but she couldn’t help thinkin’ of her children, and I got right up, though I hadn’t been out of the house for two weeks, and I went in there, and Luella she was layin’ on the bed, and she was dyin’. “She lasted all that day and into the night. But I sat there after the new doctor had gone away. Nobody else dared to go there. It was about midnight that I left her for a minute to run home and get some medicine I had been takin’, for I begun to feel rather bad. “It was a full moon that night, and just as I started out of my door to cross the street back to Luella’s, I stopped short, for I saw something.” Lydia Anderson at this juncture always said with a certain defiance that she did not expect to be believed, and then proceeded in a hushed voice: “I saw what I saw, and I know I saw it, and I will swear on my death bed that I saw it. I saw Luella Miller and Erastus Miller, and Lily, and Aunt Abby, and Maria, and the Doctor, and Sarah, all goin’ out of her door, and all but Luella shone white in the moonlight, and they were all helpin’ her along till she seemed to fairly fly in the midst of them. Then it all disappeared. I stood a minute with my heart poundin’, then I went over there. I thought of goin’ for Mrs. Babbit, but I thought she’d be afraid. So I went alone, though I knew what had happened. Luella was layin’ real peaceful, dead on her bed.” This was the story that the old woman, Lydia Anderson, told, but the sequel was told by the people who survived her, and this is the tale which has become folklore in the village. Lydia Anderson died when she was eighty-seven. She had continued wonderfully hale and hearty for one of her years until about two weeks before her death. One bright moonlight evening she was sitting beside a window in her parlour when she made a sudden exclamation, and was out of the house and across the street before the neighbour who was taking care of her could stop her. She followed as fast as possible and found Lydia Anderson stretched on the ground before the door of Luella Miller’s deserted house, and she was quite dead. The next night there was a red gleam of fire athwart the moonlight and the old house of Luella Miller was burned to the ground. Nothing is now left of it except a few old cellar stones and a lilac bush, and in summer a helpless trail of morning glories among the weeds, which might be considered emblematic of Luella herself. The post PodCastle 650: Luella Miller appeared first on PodCastle.
24 minutes | a month ago
PodCastle 649: The Plague-House
Author : Maya Chhabra Narrator : Eleiece Krawiec Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Anathema. CW: Plague, illness, and death Rated R. The Plague-House by Maya Chhabra When the plague returned in a rash of aching joints and toxic, pink-froth coughs, Catia did not wait for it to sneak into her family’s home. Armouring herself with sweet oils and talismans of cracked agate—nothing that exorcised fear or released paralyzed feet for another step could truly be called useless—she stalked off to confront it where it lived and died. Between their freshly painted townhouse and the low, sprawling warehouse appropriated last month by the faceless, vaguely incompetent entity that served as Sanitation Commission, three blocks spread before her like the southern plains amidst a dust storm. The street cleaners stayed home these days, and the promenade might as well have been a gutter. Soon slim terraced houses gave way to commercial buildings; she lowered her veil and gasped, taking in the docks’ vivid salt air and pungent fish scent. Two wiry, homesick Eldasran sailors menaced a peacekeeper, and a lanky woman, face covered, tipped a burlap sack out of her cart and fled. No one paid Catia mind as she marched past, agate biting her left palm as she steeled herself to yank the warehouse’s hemp bell pull. No one except the burlap sack, which grunted and twitched as she stepped carefully around it. Catia looked away from the evidence; during the epidemic of ’74, she’d seen fathers slip poison into their children’s medicine, sons dump their parents’ not-quite-corpses into the bay ’til the edict requiring cremation banned the practice. That some were driven to burn the living she did not doubt, but of that at least she could claim no first-hand knowledge. Mercifully, this woman had abandoned her relative near a plague-house; Catia didn’t think the vanished figure had much to be ashamed of. At least this time, Catia didn’t have a child to shield as well. Not like last time, with Nicoletta. During plague outbreaks, Catia revelled in her infertility. She tugged the cord and it made an echoing, tinny noise. The sack coughed, and let out a kitten’s mew—the sound of an animal, or a very young girl, in pain. Catia looked at it, at the shape of tiny, contorted limbs poking through sackcloth. The sorceress who answered the bell found a figure dressed in bright green, carrying a small child with a crimson-stained bib. Catia didn’t think the girl’s half-Borran features, her hazel eyes and sweat-plastered auburn curls, much resembled her own. But the sorceress couldn’t see that, she realized. “We’re full up, madam. You should take your daughter home before she gets chilled.” “She’s not—” But the healer, callused as Catia had been by a surfeit of suffering, was already turning away. Nearing panic, she remembered her original purpose. “Do you need an extra pair of hands?” Eyes the choppy grey of rough seas met hers. “Take your kid home and come back quick as you can.” This time, when the sorceress called the girl Catia’s daughter, not even the beginnings of denial escaped her. The child frightened Pier Antonio. Not the plague—Catia kissed him on tiptoe when he waved off her apologies for inviting it in—but the child. “Caterina, she’s dying. We can give her a warm place to do it, and the love her parents didn’t—” “Pier Antonio! Her mother couldn’t have known there wasn’t room.” A quiet, blink-and-you’d-miss-it smile. “I’ll settle her while you go back. Don’t worry, I’ll look after her.” She saw then that he stood between her and the door to their new guest-bedroom, and realized what he feared. That she would get attached to this girl, as she had to her stepdaughter. Before leaving, she unhooked the lucky gems from her belt and rinsed the scented oils from her sleek black hair. She put up her hair, stabbing each pin into the bun fiercely, so it wouldn’t get in her eyes as she worked. Full of old grief and new fury, she left without checking on the girl. Half a block later she regretted it. When Pier Antonio’s daughter, Nicoletta, had sunk into a coma, Catia hadn’t been in the room. She’d been napping feverishly after trading shifts, and between sleep and the beginnings of sickness, she couldn’t recall how they’d parted. The peacekeeper who’d earlier fended off the quarantined sailors now restrained an ashen-faced man trying to commit an illegal sea burial. She pitied the overworked woman; no one wanted to go to the crematorium, to queue for hours with the contagious dead and their soon-to-be-dead relations. This time the corpse was indeed a corpse. She rang the bell, its dull sound driving the survivor’s keening from her head. “You don’t have to worry about contagion. Everyone here who’s not magic has it, and those who don’t soon will. Good thing it incubates for a week. Well, not always, there are flash cases, which are a fucking pain. Work as long as you can, and we’ll see you get a decent, private room when you can’t any more.” Catia nodded. “I’m immune.” “Good. Name’s Aoife, by the way. If I talk rough, I’m just tired.” Despite her thick Borran accent, she spoke West Farren quite idiomatically. Catia complimented her and was rewarded with a glare. Realizing she’d been condescending, Catia blushed, grateful for her veils and wondering what sort of brazenness it took for North-Provincial women and Borrans to spread the intimate workings of their minds before any stranger. They didn’t all have hard masks like Aoife. “First, if anyone starts haemorrhaging, call me. If there’s no time, use one of these charms with some of their blood, but that’s still a one-in-eight chance of survival and sorcery can give one-in-three.” Clutching the string of charms and memorizing instructions, Catia followed the sorceress into the ward. They attended five patients together, and then she was dizzyingly alone. The blood-stink recalled her stepdaughter’s sickbed in ’74, and her own illness. When she found her first haemorrhage, it stole her voice as she woke light and damp and soaked at the hips, her insides tearing themselves up. Forget having children—she was desperately close to having no future at all. “Are you sick?” A fellow nurse stared. She scrambled inside herself for a voice and barely found it, a slippery shard. “Sorcerer!” Too quiet. “Sorcerer, bleed out!” A greasy-haired man with a healer’s tattoos appeared at her side to stanch the flow, shooing her off to treat the others. When she had an excuse to wander over, she noticed the patient who’d been on the floor had been moved onto the mattress, where she lay curled on her side, convulsing. Surprising herself, Catia did not collapse on her way home, or even immediately inside the door. Pier Antonio helped her to the kitchen table and waited for her thoughts to order themselves. They didn’t. “How was the work?” he asked. “What do you want for dinner? We’ve got beef, half-price with all the ships trying to dump it before it rots.” An uneasy chuckle. She knew he couldn’t say, “Catia, are you all right?” with her clothes filthy and her face nearly as green. And she couldn’t say, “I saved five lives today,” because the plague didn’t care how proud she was of her newfound competence, or how stubbornly Aoife fought to keep blood inside bodies. They had barely made a dent; the dying went on. She couldn’t talk about the sorcerers pouring out their lives, or the volunteers who, unlike her, had no protection and how they compared in courage to any of those who’d lost their lives in the revolution two decades before. Those people had only fought for independence, while in the plague-house civilians manned a barricade against Death herself. And Death didn’t care. “How’s the girl?” He flinched, then grew tender. “She’s sleeping. The cough is less now.” “You don’t have to pretend, you know. You were her father, of course you miss her more than I do.” He swallowed once, twice. “Yes, but I know she hasn’t come back.” Catia looked away. “If she—when she dies, I’ll join you.” Before the plague-house, she would have exulted, “If! You said if!” Now she knew for certain that her husband was wrong to worry about her and the girl, for she had not gotten attached to any of her patients, had already lost count of the deaths. “I want to see her now.” The girl sniffled and murmured nonsense as she turned over in bed. Maybe only nonsense to Catia’s ears. Maybe she spoke Borran or a very thick southern dialect. To judge by the style of her bib and smock, she hadn’t been long in the city. Catia was glad the child had got to see some of the world before she died. “You’re not immune.” “You never would have married me if I cared for such things.” He rated her too highly. “I’m going to be alone. You’re all going to leave me alive, aren’t you? I get to watch.” “Brave Catia.” The dim lamplight darted over the grey streaks in his hair. “You’ll manage.” The nameless little girl rolled off Nicoletta’s bed. They both caught her, moving in unison so that her hips and legs rolled into Pier Antonio’s arms while Catia protected her head and neck. Catia didn’t want to think about the speed of her heartbeat when the child fell, or the agony in her chest. She moved off to find her bed; Pier Antonio had the first watch. He’d had it the whole night, apparently, and Catia excoriated him as dawn washed softly over the hangings. “You were tired,” he said. In no mood to argue, she washed and dressed in silence. She kissed the child, tasted salt and heat. In the storeroom that morning, looking for a disinfectant to scrub the bloody floor with, she stumbled on a cache of anti-haemorrhage charms. She sprang away from it as though it were infectious. Except she couldn’t be infected, and everyone she loved could. She thought of Pier Antonio saying, “I’ll join you”; of the little girl off the bed’s edge, mid-air, utterly vulnerable; of Nicoletta, crying in pain and then shaking in silence. Patients died while she stood there. Two, four, six, more across the city. Brothers, lovers, children. Not hers. She slipped a string of charms under her peacock-blue veils. “What on earth are you doing, Catia!” Aoife shrieked. “We need every one of those, I’m too spent to make more.” “My daughter is sick.” She was past shame, like a man howling as a peacekeeper kept him from laying his wife to rest; like a woman who abandoned her child to fate because she had other children and would not let fate take them all. “She’ll die in the night if I—” “You think you’re the only one? You think I have any family left at all? You think I don’t wish I was dead right now? One-in-three I was meant to be able to save, and all five of them drowned in their blood.” Catia shoved the string at her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Aoife wasn’t there. Her stormy-sea eyes focused on her dead, she missed Catia’s apology; missed what Catia apologized for. Turning back to the ward, she did not notice the trifling new weight in a fold of Catia’s veils. One of the patients they had saved her first day was not regaining his strength. He remained chalk-white, unnaturally pale for a plainsman. He was conscious, at times. He was dying and he knew it, and in a gentlemanly way (though his hands did not speak of gentility) was only sorry to take so long about it. He faded out again, and they needed the bed. It fell to Catia to find two healers to countersign the forms necessary, even in a crisis like this, to hurry a patient along. She found the rules comforting, even though she checked every ten minutes that her loot was secure. As long as this island of triage and forms-in-triplicate existed, as long as the plague-house held out, she could tell herself that despite her crime and all the crimes committed amid the anarchy of an epidemic, they still belonged to a civilization. Once again, she missed her watch. “Pier Antonio? Pier Antonio!” Her veils caught and tore on a splinter in the doorframe of Nicoletta’s room. She didn’t lose the charm; it had imprinted on her hand during the walk home. He knelt by the bed, his back to her. The child didn’t stir, and Catia’s stomach rebelled as she recognized that fatal stillness. But this time she was not helpless—she’d made certain of that. She thought she saw Death in her peripheral vision, a moth-wing flutter. “Do you want her? Want to finish the work we interrupted? You’re going to have to fight me for her, and you can’t touch me. Though often enough I’ve wished you could. And you won’t take her either!” She tore aside the bed sheets, found blood pooling around the girl’s head, and took out the charm, possessed by fury and love. One-in-eight. Good enough odds to give battle. The breath went out of her as she saw the dark stain seeping from the foot of the bed, leaking out of her husband. His chest rose shallow, irregular. Flash cases, which are a fucking pain. She didn’t even know the child. This was not Nicoletta, could never be Nicoletta. But he would want her to save the girl. Even if he had always overestimated her. Odds were they would both die. He had dismissed her apologies for inviting Death into their home. The girl wasn’t breathing. She took his cooling hand, gave it a courtly kiss. She immersed the charm in the girl’s blood. Pier Antonio faded while she waited for a response. Seven-in-eight the girl would follow. Not that the odds had ever been anywhere near fair. They’d lost before they’d even tried, before the girl had even lived. Pier Antonio would have said something silly and utterly disarming, like “Well, it wouldn’t have been chivalrous to just hand her over.” She could hear him – his voice ripped through her and she thought she bled as well. Catia spilled onto the bed, holding the child. She could hardly explain why she hadn’t left her in the street. But there they were, so she shielded the little girl as best she could. “You don’t get any more of my children,” she told the shape in the corner, more weary than fierce. And the child gasped for air. Death didn’t care about Catia’s threats, but one-in-eight happens sometimes. Not daring to believe, she reached for the light. No shadows lapped at the edges of her vision. The little girl opened her eyes, coughed, breathed clearly, and fell asleep in the soaked, dishevelled bed. Catia raced to heat some broth. Something practical. When the child woke for good, she would need to ask Aoife where she could find a translator. Maybe she could reunite the child, immune now, with her mother. And if not, she could raise the child herself—but it would be different. Alone. She would have to be everything the little girl needed in this mostly capricious world. She ladled the warm broth into a bowl. She would manage. The plague-house managed, some god knew how. Catia moved the girl to her own clean room, leaving the broth to feed her when she woke. She would take Pier Antonio’s body to the crematorium tomorrow. Before she slept, Catia lit a stick of incense in Nicoletta’s room, less to give thanks for the child’s salvation than to mask the battlefield reek of sweat and blood. The post PodCastle 649: The Plague-House appeared first on PodCastle.
62 minutes | 2 months ago
PodCastle 648: The Beast Weeps with One Eye
Author : Morgan Al-Moor Narrator : Laurice White Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Graeme Dunlop The Beast Weeps with One Eye By Morgan Al-Moor After three days of breathless escape across the grasslands and no less than thirty of our people lost, the waters of the Nyamba river finally sparkled before my weary eyes. Every soul among the survivors — the last of the Bjebu — sobbed with joy, and even the faithless murmured their thanks to the Great Elders from between dry lips. We dropped to our knees at the riverbank, panting like a herd of mad oxen. Some threw themselves into the water, swallowing and gasping. Others rolled on their backs, drenched in sweat and dust. Mkiwa, our chief huntress, climbed the great tree and perched above us, her spear thrust forth, the lion’s pelt hugging her shoulders. I washed my face and arms in the cold water. Dirt had dyed my crimson khanga brown, so I rinsed its edges and tossed the veil around my head. I uttered a short prayer for those who had fallen along the road. The grasslands stretched around us, bathed in the early rays of dawn — a rippling ocean of green in the fresh wind. The blue mountains guarded the horizon, gathering around their highest peak — Mount Wawazee, the abode of the Elders. I caught a breath of the dewy air. Deer grazed in the shadow of a far tree, oblivious to our clamor. “Can we rest yet, High Sister?” asked one farmer. “Are we safe yet, High Sister?” whispered one hunter. I yearned for a comforting reply to their fears, but I couldn’t offer what I didn’t have. After what I had seen in the past days, it was difficult to imagine that a haven still lay somewhere in this land. Our pursuers’ vicious beaks and manic caws had filled our senses for days now. Their furious small bodies had poured upon our homes and ripped through wood and clay and flesh until our village drowned in its own blood. We had fled, only barely escaping them. I raised a questioning eye to Mkiwa. A moment passed as she stared into the horizon, and then my heart fell as she grimaced and spun back to me with a look I knew well. The ravens were upon us. We had never lost them. I uttered a desperate sigh. Around me sat three hundred souls that had spent days venturing across the grasslands — those children playing in the water, and the old men who had seen no less than a hundred winters, and the farmers who could neither hold a spear nor a shield. I looked at our handful of weary yet fearless hunters, who I knew would die before they let harm chafe us. But what use was bravery in the face of sheer numbers? I dropped to my knees and pressed my hands to the moist grass. I drew in a deep breath and twisted my tongue and lips to match the breath of the earth beneath me. “Heed my call, Ancient Land, and lend me your wisdom. My people need shelter.” The land sighed under my palms. The old voice filled my head. “I hear you, High Sister, and I have what you seek. Though the ravens fade into oblivion when compared to what lies here.” “I have lost many lives on the road, Ancient Land. Show me this sanctuary, whatever it may be.” “You stand upon the abode of the Keeper of Sorrows, and of him and this place, I shall speak no more.” My fingers dug into the dirt. “You must talk. By the will of the twin Elders, Arowo-Ara and Ufefe, Striders of Thunder and Lightning, I implore you to show your secrets.” The voice grunted in pain. I hated my cruelty, I hated to use the Elders’ names to threaten another being, but time was of the essence. “So be it,” whispered the land. A sudden quake rushed beneath our feet. Gasps filled the air, and I clung to the dirt as my body swayed. Above us, shades of crimson spilled across the sky, as if the clouds had bled. Screams erupted. Our hunters jumped to their feet while the children wriggled into their mothers’ arms. Across the river, three trees burst into smoke, and behind them stood a walled structure that had not been there before. “High Sister!” shouted Mkiwa. I turned and saw the cloud of quivering wings and screaming beaks, crawling across the sky to where we stood. “Make haste, people!” I cried. “Follow me.” The villagers snatched their sacks and rolls and helped the weakest to their feet. I carried one of the fleeing children on my shoulder and pulled the edges of my khanga, then waded into the chilly waters. We raced to the stone structure, hopping and splashing across the river. My drenched clothes clung to my legs, sending ruthless shivers through me, but I clenched my teeth and held the girl on my shoulder tight. We poured through the open gate, pushing against each other and coughing, until we filled the courtyard — an ancient grove of thorny trees. Our noise petered out into the hum of those murmuring their trembling prayers. I helped the child on my shoulder to the ground and let her run to her mother, then turned to see where we stood. The barren branches swayed in the heavy air. Rusty lanterns rattled around us, sending harsh beams on the pale faces. Who kept those alight, and what oil did they feed upon? I could smell no living soul but ours. I held my breath and listened to the wind, but I couldn’t understand its whispers. Had it no memories of this place? Or was it too fearful to tell? I made my way to the small building at the end of the grove. Engraved glyphs covered its walls, similar to an Elder’s shrine, though I had never come across a shrine in such a meager size. The door was sealed with a sigil of a wailing raven. My fingers ran over it, and it gave a crimson glow. The caws grew louder behind us. Soon those beasts would overrun this grove. Men fell to their knees, weeping and praying. Women clutched children — theirs or others’ — into their arms. I pushed the door and it pushed me back. I pounded it with my fists and rattled the chains. I tried to commune with the stone, with the iron, with the water running in the grooves. My mind jumped between tongues like a chameleon changed skin, but the place eluded me. I pressed my palms to the stone. “I ask your aid, Uymawela, Elderess of Every Flying Beast, to shield us from your rogue minions.” A hum rushed under my hands. I strained to listen for an answer, but I couldn’t hear one. “Help us, Kahewer, Elder of the Wandering Winds, and stop those foul creatures riding your arms.” A chuckle echoed in my mind — mocking and disdainful, nothing like the firm voice of Uymawela nor the gentle laugh of Kahewer. Shouting erupted behind me, mixed with rabid squawks. Children wailed. I turned and saw Mkiwa pulling our hunters to surround the villagers, spears high, teeth bared. A whirlwind of ebony birds loomed above our heads. “Hear me, Uhrgama, Elder of the Writhing Mambas.” My voice quivered. “Send us your army and take our lives. End our pain now.” “You call the wrong names, shamaness.” The slow voice poured into my head, thick like a muddy creek, cold like a grave. The fluttering around us slowed, and each raven brandished its talons and caught a tree branch. “High Sister!” cried one of the villagers. I raised my hand demanding silence. “My minions are upon you,” said the voice. “You saw my sigil, yet you fail to call my name.” He spoke the Elders’ tongue, but I couldn’t recognize him. “The birds answer to Uymawela,” I said warily. “The ravens answer to me, The Father of all Ravens.” He uttered the last words in our Bjebu tongue, so I returned it in his. “Babawa-Kunguru,” I said, and then I remembered the words of the land, “the Keeper of Sorrows.” His laugh rang in my head. “You’re good, Shamaness Nwere of the Bjebu, Speaker of a Thousand Tongues, and Sister to All.” A few heartbeats passed before I recognized my birth name, the name no one among my people knew. “I could contemplate sparing your lives. And I might even offer you a place to call home, permanently,” he said. “Yet what do I get in return?” Alarm filled my senses. Neither his words nor his tone bore any resemblance to the Great Elders, save for the ancient tongue. Why did such eagerness coat his voice? “Name your price, Elder,” I said. He didn’t hesitate. “Three offerings of sorrow — a tribute from your people to my shrine. Do this, and the land is yours. Forever.” Someone gasped behind me. I spun around to see Old Auni, the blacksmith, passed out on the ground, a girl hugging him and whimpering in silence. Eshe the water-carrier was ceaselessly clapping her head, surrounded by her five daughters. My people watched me with primal terror. My head ached. I needed time to think, to understand what this tribute entailed. How could sorrow be — Three ravens flew off their branches and landed on the stone above my head, their lecherous gaze licking my face. I shuddered and lost my focus for a moment. There was neither time nor a choice. I turned and pressed the stone. “So be it.” His dry chuckle filled me. The swarm of ravens squawked and struck the wind once, buffeting our bodies with a chilly gust, then flew high and away, as if called from afar. The villagers dropped to the ground, crying and laughing and praying and hugging. Two attended to the senseless man. Mkiwa pointed her spear at me. “Praise to you, High Sister! Praise to you!” I tried to smile back, to share their joy, but my eyes clung to the crimson sigil as it went out, dimmer and dimmer, until it became another dull scrape on the shrine’s wall. Three offerings. Three offerings of sorrow. Like an unrepentant echo, the words trudged in my head through the next day, and the next week, and the next month. We were guests in the abode of the Father of All Ravens — guests allowed to use the land, with a promise that we could claim the place as ours when we delivered our end of the bargain. I buried this truth in my heart away from my people, but the trepidation gnawed at my soul. The riverbank blossomed into a young village. Rows of smoke-spewing huts framed the waterside, facing the great Wawazee peak, and separated by winding lanes. The small storage yard held game and fruit — our primary sustenance for the moment, but we had started digging a shallow canal from the river, hoping to farm for grain and yams next season. I helped construct a narrow bridge over the river and took residence in Babawa-Kunguru’s shrine. The place housed three chambers under its roof; one for me, one for a small depository of papyrus scrolls, and a sealed inner sanctum at the rear. A modest abode, no match for the towering structures erected to honor Uymawela or Uhrgama. I sat in the depository one night, sifting through the ancient writings, when sudden bangs on the door interrupted me. “High Sister!” I dropped the scrolls and ran to the noise. A party of three stood there, their faces pale and drenched with sweat. “High Sister, help us,” blurted one of them. “It’s Mkiwa.” My heart fell. I tossed the veil around my head and wordlessly hurried with them to cross the bridge. The villagers had already lit the night lanterns, sending spheres of light on the dusty lanes. Grim faces lined my way, and even the children had ceased their play. What was it that could halt a child’s frolic? Worried hunters blocked the door of Mkiwa’s hut. They noticed me and immediately made way. Mkiwa lay on her hay bed, shivering and clutching the ground. Her lion’s pelt sprawled in the dust. Beside her sat a boy pressing a blood-soaked rag to her leg. I set a hand on his shoulder, he turned to me, and a wave of relief washed over his face, as if I had already saved his chief huntress by my mere presence. Mkiwa’s dry lips parted. “High Sister . . . ” I sat beside her and lifted the cloth, and I struggled to stifle a gasp. Her bloated calf twitched furiously under stretched skin, and within the blackened, angry flesh I saw two punctures — too small to perceive, but the oozing blood gave them away. Mkiwa strained to talk. “An…an ashen viper. I…I was — ” Great Elders help me, I thought as I patted her. Few hunters had ever bested that venom. My voice hardened as I spoke to the boy. “I need a clean cloth and a knife, and some boiled Anugra roots. Find someone to get me a mortar and a pestle.” The boy nodded and vanished without a word. My requests landed before me faster than I had ordered them. I pulled up my sleeves and started speaking while working. “Igbi, press over the muscles on this side. Banu, heat the knife. Are the roots ready, Nya? Pass me the pestle, then!” Mkiwa shivered. Her skin felt cool and clammy, but I managed to stop the bleeding. I applied the salve with care, then gripped her ankle and called the name of the venom. It evaded me like a water lizard, leaping from one limb to another, trying to spread itself through her body, until I forced it through the open wound into a small bowl. I closed the skin. My face dripped with sweat. Mkiwa looked at me with bloodshot eyes. “P — Praise you, High Sister.” I patted her foot again. My mind churned dark thoughts. She might survive through the night, but this leg would never carry her body again. We had lost our chief huntress’s spear that day. I wiped my face and leaned back against the wall. The boy insisted on spending the night with me here, and I was too weary to argue. He sat straight for the first quarter of the night, but his eyes let him down, and in the next hour he lay snoring on his side. My eyes wandered to Mkiwa’s face. Pity swarmed my heart as I saw tears trickling from between her closed eyelids over her strong face. A cold presence floated across the room, and the shadows danced on the walls. A chilly breeze blew my veil, and a thick voice poured into my head. “Loss is the father of sorrow, shamaness.” I sat straight. “Babawa-Kunguru . . . ” “The huntress mourns the loss of her path, of what she believed was a birthright, to walk and chase and climb without thought. I know such sorrow well. ” Blood rushed to my head. I whispered, “Why are you here?” “To claim my first offering, of course. This is the first of the three sorrows I asked.” My eyes darted around, as if I expected to see a glimpse of him somewhere. “You’re here to kill her?” He chuckled. “Kill her? Why would I? The dead feel no sorrow. Remember that.” “What then?” “You are the Speaker of a Thousand Tongues. You will call her sorrow to you and bring it to me in the inner sanctum now.” I frowned. Draw her sorrow, the way I drew the venom? A pale ray of hope blossomed in my heart. “Would that take her pain away?” “How far you can help her is tethered to your skill, but know well that sorrow is no feeble poison.” His reply did little to comfort me. Again, I could feel his orders pushing me forth like a rapid river with little choice. I took a deep breath and crawled to the bed. My hand felt cold, so I rubbed it against my leg before I rested it on Mkiwa’s heart. She didn’t open her eyes. She was weeping asleep. I drew in another shaky breath, then spoke in the tongue of sorrow — dark words that came from the hearts of mourners at graveyards and farmers at the end of a poor inundation. Mkiwa’s face twisted, but she didn’t wake up. Black smoke seeped from her chest and circled my fingers. The veins on my hand bulged and a numbing cold crawled up my arm, my shoulder, and into my own heart. I gasped, struggling to contain such darkness, to keep it from consuming me. I finally stood up and staggered to the door, then out onto the sleepy alleys. My journey back blurred. I stumbled into the shrine, everything dancing before my eyes. I leaned against the wall to steady myself, but then I caught a glimpse of the inner sanctum. The door was open for the first time since our arrival. Light poured from inside. Breathless, I stepped into a wide room, well-lit with blazing torches on the walls. The air smelled of thick incense. I fell on my hands and knees, and before me lay a large stone slab, countless glyphs marring its face. I coughed. I clutched my chest and coughed again. Wisps of black smoke poured from my mouth and swirled over the glyphs. The lines glowed with a fiery hue, but I couldn’t read them. Babawa-Kunguru inhaled in my head, an edge of lust in his breath. “Yes, I know this sorrow. I know this loss.” The glyphs glared brighter. I touched the stone. My heart raced, and the room blurred around me. “Babawa-Kunguru,” says a tall woman in a mantle of glowing feathers. “I have erased your name from our books. The Elders will swear fealty to me, and today I command every flying beast.” “Not every beast, Uywamela,” growls a man cloaked by the shadows. She chuckles. “Brother, are you comparing your carrion-eaters to my army? Your filthy ravens, against every vulture, eagle, owl, and stormbird?” Babawa-Kunguru grabs her arm. Her golden eyes widen, and with a thunderous squawk she backhands his face. A terrifying flutter of wings floods the room as countless birds engulf him. He wails with agony. “My eye! Curse you, Uymawela! My eye!” I opened my eyes, feeling a thrill in the stone under my hand. I squinted hard. Suddenly I could read the ancient tongue engraved before me. My lips uttered the first phrase; Mata wa Urizi. In the ancient Elders’ tongue, it meant, he who missed his path. “Loss of the path,” whispered Babawa-Kunguru in my head. “Perhaps not the deepest of miseries, as I’ll teach you one day, but it fits my first offering.” Was that the pain that gnawed at Mkiwa’s heart? I wondered. I’d rather die now than bear such sightless grief. I rubbed my chest, struggling to breathe, but managed to force the words through my throat, “What is . . . the deepest of miseries?” But his voice had faded. “I accept your tribute for tonight, shamaness. Until the next time.” Brutal nightmares whipped at me every following night — foul visions that I couldn’t recall when I opened my eyes in the morning. When I stared at my copper mirror I saw new lines gathering around my eyes and a new ashen strand splitting my hair. Sorrow is no feeble poison. I touched my cheekbones. Was that how I looked after a single offering? How would I endure this for two more times? I washed my face and crossed the village to Mkiwa’s hut. Her face still paled, but her strong body had stifled the pain. Did her heart’s pain fare any better, though? I couldn’t tell. I stopped by some of the farmers. The canal had neared its finish. One of them approached me with a hopeful smile. She said they had found a nearby settlement of the Omi — a large tribe whose herders claimed their cattle were the most well-fed in the land. “We could start a trade with them, High Sister. Would you consider?” she asked. We had lost our herds back home, and with it, a lot of our pride. It was time for the Bjebu to spread new roots in this spot of land. I smiled back at the girl. “Who’s escorting me to the Omi?” I asked aloud, and no less than a dozen hands jumped into the air. A short trip it was, but we negotiated for the whole afternoon. The Omi agreed to trade five heads of cattle for ten rolls of leather and a wagonful of dried game. I thanked their chief and promised her another visit soon. Shouts of joy erupted as we approached our village. Farmers came running, praising me while guiding the beasts back to the new sheds. I smiled as I watched their spirits soar. The Bjebu hadn’t perished in the raging cataracts of time yet. The Bjebu were starting our own herds again. “Will we see you tonight, High Sister?” asked a young man. I remembered. That night we were to hold a Kale-Naga a boy’s coming-of-age, the first since we arrived here. I would definitely be there. When the night had fallen, we sat in two half-circles before the great tree where we first arrived. Those at the outer circle held the lanterns and chanted songs of the ancestors’ deeds, while the inner circle clapped their hands and stamped their feet. I stood before them, burning incense, calling the boy’s name — Hami, son of the tanner. Hami rose from the crowd. He had been fasting for two days to cleanse his body and had worn his father’s necklace and armband. He knelt before me, and I rubbed the ash over his forehead, telling him how proud we were, wishing him strength in his coming life. He turned to the crowd, and three older boys rose and faced him. Like Hami, they were unarmed. The boy had to defeat the hardships of life with his bare hands before he would resort to a spear. Hami arched his back and clenched his fists, then charged at his rivals. I glanced at his father; he was pouring a drink in bowls and passing it around to the villagers — milk and honey, the drink of the Elders. Cheering erupted. Hami had sent his first opponent rolling over the grass, then parried a punch from the second and swiped his feet off the ground. He turned to the third boy and roared, pouncing over him, and rammed the boy’s chest with his head. His muscular body glistened with sweat, but he was grinning. The villagers howled with excitement, and a group of hunters waved their spears at him. The last part was ceremonial yet necessary. Hami had to spar with his own father, the tanner, and his father would have to feign defeat. It was a reminder to us that this boy had started the first step to taking his father’s place one day. The tanner set his bowl down and stood up, wiping his lips. With clumsy hands, he tossed a staff at his son and grabbed one for himself. His eyes danced wildly in their pits. Mkiwa sat in the front row, ready to present the boy with his spear after the ceremony, but her pale face bore furrowed brows. Her eyes caught mine and I saw concern in them — something about the tanner felt odd. The father swayed. “My little cub,” he cried, “has become a lion.” He poked with the staff at his son’s shoulder — a cruel poke, not one of humor nor of encouragement. “And yet you, petty lad, are nothing like Sabu.” Hami’s smile vanished. Sabu was his older brother. We had lost him during our flight from the ravens. “Brighter . . . than a full moon, my son,” the tanner huffed and slurred, “stronger than a hundred lions. You may wear a band and bear a spear, but my real son is . . . is — ” Whispers erupted from the villagers. Hami dropped his staff and extended a comforting hand towards his father. The tanner’s staff swung once and struck Hami’s thigh. The boy grunted and fell on one knee. “Father . . . ” Without warning, the tanner clutched his son’s hair and slapped him. “The ravens chose well that night!” Spittle flew everywhere. “They chose well!” Two men grabbed the tanner. He started wriggling like a hyena and tore the band off his son’s arm. Two others dragged and pinned him to the ground. I dropped to my knees beside him and held his head to smell his frothy mouth, and the pungent odor quickly chafed my nose. He had not been drinking the drink of the Elders . . . The fumes were unmistakable. It was aged date liquor, laced with Bama bark. The Omi warriors used it in battle to flame their bloodlust. It was no less a taboo for us than desecrating the dead. What fiend had brought this into my village? I stood up. “Carry him to his house. Everyone else, go home.” The crowd slowly parted, their murmurs and hums incessant. The fire burned low. The moon hid behind a stray cloud, and a drop of rain touched my face. Hami huddled in a corner; his band lay broken beside him and tears dropped off his chin. I might have welcomed him as a man to this life a while ago, but at this moment he was but a lost child. I sat beside him and put my arm around his shoulders, but a dry chuckle echoed in my head. “Do you recognize the loss that sired this sorrow, shamaness?” whispered Babawa-Kunguru. “Do you recognize the loss of dignity, the humiliation before the eyes of those whom you hold dear?” By the Elders, if my body were thrown in a pile of maggots, I wouldn’t have felt such loathing. Babawa-Kunguru continued, “My second offering is nigh.” His eagerness sent my blood boiling. I hugged Hami harder. “You had a hand in this,” I hissed. “The tanner loved his drink.” I spat on the grass. “At ease, shamaness,” he said. “You are close. Soon, this land will be yours to claim.” I cursed him under my breath and cursed his bargain. Listening to his poisonous voice felt like a vile sin worthy of the Pits of Daagu. I was now willing to give everything to leave this wretched piece of land. But again, how would I ever persuade my people to leave? To return to the road again, with no home to lean upon? And worse yet, what secrets would I be forced to defile? Hami shivered under my arm. I leaned upon him and closed my eyes to call the boy’s humiliation to me. It came quicker this time, pinching at my hands and arms. My fingertips numbed and my skin crawled. The boy’s sorrow oozed faster than I could contain it, like an overflowing pot. I gasped for a breath through a narrow throat. Slow moments of this agony passed as the rain drummed on the grass, but Hami eventually calmed. I asked in a hoarse voice if he could go home and he nodded, so I stood up and staggered away. When the black smoke had left my body and found its way on the stone slab, I lay on the floor panting, cold sweat matting my hair and veil. Countless scratches danced across my hands and arms, as if an invisible blade carved them. My chest heaved. The engraved words glowed on the stone. I ran my scarred finger over them. The man staggers in a clearing and clutches his left eye. A party of onlookers stand in the distance. A ball of dirt strikes his stomach. He cries, “Will you abandon me now, Kahewer? Do you not remember our feats together?” A gust of wind melts the man’s clothes away to tatters. “Will you aid Uymawela in her usurping, Uhrgama?” A spit collides with his face. “I saved your life a hundred times, Mamandra.” No one answers him. No one cares, or perhaps no one dares. He raises his trembling hands, and in a heartbeat the angry caws of the ravens fill the sky. I opened my eyes. Every part of my body ached. The second phrase on the stone shone so bright it stung my eyes. Mata wa Kraag. He who missed his pride. Babawa-Kunguru growled in my head. “Centuries had passed, leaving only the sorrow behind. Now I see the loss again, and it hurts no less.” Weariness had flooded my mind and words eluded me. Uywamela’s shrill screams lingered in my ears, and the smell of dirt dwelled in my nose. “One last offering, shamaness,” his presence waned, “I will wait patiently.” Rain licked at the window’s sill. I let my muscles rest. We were past more than half of the way to our bargain with the Elder, but my mind kept recalling his words — of the day when he would claim his tribute whole, when he would teach me about the deepest of miseries. A winter passed and a summer in its wake. I rose one dawn to a hail of laughter coming from the village, and I knew the day I feared had come. Our merry moments, it seemed, called to Babawa-Kunguru like honey called to ants. Wahiru-Naga — the first harvest in the life of a young village, a sign from the fates that this place would thrive — had landed. People poured onto the village square, striking the drums till the beats rocked the sky. Dancers painted their faces and their children’s. The aroma of spiced game and sweet yams dominated the alleys — I could swear the beasts of the grasslands smelled it. Everyone danced, everyone offered their thanks. Everyone except me. I knew The Father of All Ravens would never miss that day to claim his final tribute. I examined every crate and barrel in the village myself. I opened the vessels. I tasted the drinks. I inspected every corner of the storage yard. When the sun had started its descent, I stood in my window, gazing at the great fire the villagers had started in the main square. When daylight perished behind the blue mountains, the festival would end by burning a hay-image of Abebe, the crocodile Elder who devoured the grain stores of Mamandra. Cold breathed into my room. My khanga fluttered, and I felt his presence before he spoke. “You have spent quite the day wasting your joy,” said Babawa-Kunguru. “I’d rather you saved your powers for the final offering.” My scarred hands clung to the window. My voice came out tired, with an edge of hatred I had never felt before for another being. “I knew you’d come tonight, Elder.” “Did you?” “Yes. This is the deepest of miseries, when a whole village loses its harvest of the year. Isn’t that why you came tonight?” A scraping noise echoed in the corridor. I ran outside my chamber to see the door to the inner sanctum open. I stepped into to the large room. The torches on the wall shivered, and Babawa-Kunguru’s voice sieved through the stones. “You speak of the deepest of miseries, though you’ve seen but a sliver of true sorrow, shamaness.” A sudden gale blew across the shrine, sending the lanterns and the scrolls flying. “Touch the stone slab,” he ordered. “Call my memories to you. Force them, if you must.” I stepped back, but a dangerous tone crept into his cold voice. “Do it!” The scars on my arms throbbed. My breath twisted before my eyes into clouds of steam, and my teeth chattered. I was forced to my knees and my hands touched the slab. The images struggled to show themselves this time. I called to them again, harder and harder until my head spun, but they disobeyed me every time. “Focus!” said Babawa-Kunguru. Blood pounded my eyes and ears. Why couldn’t I see his memories? What had I missed? The ache in my head surged. I screamed in pain. Images floated before my eyes, slowly but steadily. I pressed the stone until my arms trembled, until I could see him again. Thousands upon thousands of birds collide in the sky, blotting the sun and plunging the land in darkness. Uymawela’s swarm tears Babawa-Kunguru’s wailing ravens apart, and with one final roar, it swoops down at him — a raging wave of flesh and bone and feathers. When the winged tide ebbs, he lies on the ground, covered in blood and dirt and shame. A little girl with a thick braid rushes to him — Tzanza, the youngest of the Elders, She Who Walks With The Rain, Uymawela’s daughter. She kneels beside him, holding a bowl of water, and starts to wipe his face and chest. He tries to smile at her. Tears flow from his right eye. Rough hands grab the girl’s arm, and the bowl is tossed away. “Imprison him,” says Uymawela, “in a tomb where he lies now, and shackle him with his own sorrows.” And the last line flared on the stone. Mata wa maha, He who missed hope. My head felt like a leaden weight when I raised it. A shadow loomed a few steps away from me, and my breath caught in my throat. It was him. Before me stood Babawa-Kunguru, broad-shouldered, marred with countless wounds. Tears seeped from his right eye, and a long scar ran through the left. “When Babawa-Kunguru lost that last touch of hope,” he said, “he knew the deepest of miseries and the gravest of losses. Babawa-Kunguru became the Keeper of Sorrows, and his grief became his bindings.” I couldn’t help the pity creeping into my soul, but I crushed it mercilessly. “You…you brought us here for this,” I whispered. “To cast your own sorrows — your shackles — upon us. A whole village, chased here so your curse could bind us in your stead.” His shaven scalp glistened in the flickering light. His tearing eye gazed at me. “But . . . but why the offerings?” “To see that Babawa-Kunguru is no demon, no leper that deserved to be shunned.” “I could see your memories now — ” “Without the offering, yes. And you barely survived it. I couldn’t have let you perish earlier. I needed the offerings to show you what you would have never understood.” I stared at him. My words dripped of anger. “You don’t need me anymore, then.” He shook his head. “Your people will bear my final shackle tonight. I have prepared it well.” I clenched my fists. “You have tossed enough of your darkness at us, Elder, but you are not stealing my people’s hope.” “We have a bargain.” I shook my head. “None of those villagers had a hand in your misery,” my voice trembled, “and I’d die and take you with me before you harm them.” His pearly teeth glowed. “You’re a good woman, Nwere. Did I ever tell you that my ravens chose to bring you here for this reason? Because you would do anything and everything for your people. I admit that I have given you no choices since we’ve met, and I regret that tonight is no different. You’d better stay out of my path, for if I unleash some of what I have gathered in my vaults at you, your body will crumble under the agony.” My heart hammered my chest. “I don’t fear you.” His smile widened. “Yes, you do. And if you don’t, then you should.” Dense smoke boiled at his feet and swirled to engulf him. An ear-piercing wail rattled the tomb and threw me to the floor. The smoke formed into a giant one-eyed raven. The shadows over the walls swelled and strangled the light, and a sudden heaviness fell over my body, pressing me to the floor. I struggled for a breath, but the air felt rusty and thick. Then came the grief . . . An unexampled flood of sadness drowned my mind and soul. I saw whole forests burning to the ground, and old men begging for mercy, and children screaming down gaping chasms in the land. I saw fallen good warriors and triumphant wicked sorcerers, cruel mothers and vile daughters, storms ravaging the fruitful trees and mindless wars wasting the work of honest farmers. I pushed the floor to stand, but my arms buckled. I crawled to the window. Something warm dropped from my nose. I looked and saw bright blood dripping on the stone. His ancient sorrow could decimate whole worlds, my mind screamed. He needed a whole village to break his bindings. What chance do I have of besting such a creature? I pulled myself up to the window, twitching like a dying beast. The sun had gone down, and the dancing and drumming echoed through the grasslands. The villagers pulled the large hay-image of Abebe, ready to burn it in the high fire. “The tastiest water is the puddle you stumble upon in the scorching desert,” whispered Babawa-Kunguru, “and the deepest sorrow is the one that shatters the rare moments of happiness. Look at your village closely now.” His words suffocated me, but I clung to the window and kept my gaze on the villagers. Their joy flooded the grasslands. Infinite. Undying and unwavering. Singing and dancing that echoed off Mount Wawazee itself. I opened my mouth, and with one desperate cry, I called some of their mirth to me. The warmth came rushing, like a thirsty gazelle racing to the Nyamba. The darkness inside me writhed and wrestled with my heart, threatening to tear me apart, threatening to engulf me in flames, but I breathed in the villagers’ laughter. Babawa-Kunguru growled. I turned to him. The villagers’ painted faces smile, their bodies dance in circles, wider and wider, chanting and clapping. I focused the warmth inside me into a bright halo that bounced off the walls. The Father of All Ravens roared at me, his breath chilled my face, his single eye burned like a firestorm. A tall hunter jumps to dance before his brethren and jiggles his shoulders in silly moves. They cackle and join him. The halo filled the room and flooded the shadows. The furious Elder cawed and charged at me. I threw myself to the floor. His body struck the wall behind me, dust rained upon us from the ceiling. Three children run between the dancing legs, racing together, daring each other. One of them smiles, her mouth is missing a tooth, still waiting to grow in time. A shriek of agony burst behind me and pushed my body forth. I snatched a stray rock and twisted around, ready to throw myself at the beast . . . . . . but he was nowhere to be seen. My eyes darted around. I spotted a grimy raven staring at me from the far window. I whispered between my breaths, “Listen . . . listen to them outside. They would never bear those shackles in your stead. Not after what they have been through. You pushed them to the edge of death countless times on the trail here. They lost everything and everyone. Now they see their mere survival as a blessing.” The bird cawed at me, its talons clutching the stone. I dropped the rock. “I shield myself with my people’s glee.” The raven eyed me for a few heartbeats. Nothing could be heard except my panting and the song outside. “May Babawa-Kunguru see a hint of such sheer joy in his darkest of hours,” I whispered, and I meant it. The raven cawed again. A subtle droplet escaped its right eye, or perhaps I imagined so. It then spread its wings and rode the wind. I raised myself to the window. The image of Abebe was now a titanic torch, its flames stretching wider than the branches of the great tree, casting a glowing patch over the land. And the villagers’ ecstasy burned even brighter. The post PodCastle 648: The Beast Weeps with One Eye appeared first on PodCastle.
29 minutes | 2 months ago
PodCastle 647: The South China Sea
Author : Z.M. Quỳnh Narrator : Z.M. Quỳnh Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producers : Peter Behravesh and Z.M. Quỳnh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Genius Loci. Rated R. The South China Sea By Z.M. Quỳnh They are in the fragmentation of raindrops during monsoon season and the quivering of evaporating dew in the dawn of sea salt mornings. I am intimately familiar with them for I have always been surrounded by spirits. Our village was built around a cemetery abandoned during the war. That was where we migrated to when our hamlet was massacred and over a thousand lives lost. Ghosts were seen as regularly as any villager, wandering through the tombstones in our gardens, passing the evening dinner table, and swirling in the incense in our temples. I often caught a glimpse of them in the air as if in shards of broken glass. With them always lingered a scent. It was this same scent that permeated the air when we drifted into the crests of the South China Sea. It was intermingled with the smell of misery and remorse and the taste of sweetened rust, as if you plunged an abandoned nail into sugar cane and then sucked on it for days on end. I knew then that we had ventured into that ghostly stretch of sea in which the souls of people still lingered aimlessly, struggling against the powerful waves, gagging at the descent of salt water into their lungs, playing out their deaths over and over again as their hope for life somehow continued long after their demise. As soon as her swells began to coil around the boat, I felt the mood on board shift. Elders grouped together above us on the deck to set up a small altar. Damp joss sticks were lit and inserted into nicks in the wood and muffled invocations whispered. “Let us pass in peace dear sister, dear brother, dear mother, father.” From the darkness of the cabin below, I felt them pass through me, the victims of the sea, friends and family and strangers. Twice she had beaten me. Swallowed my brother and sister, captured scores of people in my village, and betrayed my father. “I hate you.” I whispered to her. “Mine…” I thought I heard her whisper back to me. But it was only the sound of her salty tentacles rippling against the rotten wood of our fishing boat. My back was turned to her as I methodically dumped the mixture of bile, feces and urine that had been collected in the buckets kept at various corners of the small boat. She felt uncharacteristically calm, a quietness that made me nervous. I averted my eyes from her, focused on my task. The mere sight of her caused such anxiety to well in me that I had taken to severe bouts of vomiting. She was nearly impossible to avoid though; her blue green eyes taunted me from all directions. Trying my best to shut her out, and preferring the familiarity of the contents of the buckets to her misleading beauty, I studied the mixture of bits of rice and undisturbed fish bones from the previous night’s meal. They were the markers of our life. So long as we breathed, these buckets would be filled. Leaning back, I dipped the first bucket into the warm waters, keeping my eyes on the deck in front of me, following the lines of the wood grain. I felt her tongue brush against my fingers, lapping at the blistering salt seared there. I pulled back reflexively, causing the bucket to fall overboard. Swearing, I reached to retrieve the bucket. It was then that I caught it out of the corner of my eye – a smudge of blackness on the horizon, half dipped into the ocean, half set against the sky. I turned toward it, although it loomed over the sea. Within seconds the vastness of the sea reached out and struck me flat across my face. A wave of nausea overwhelmed me as I was flooded with visions of my brother and sister devoured whole in our second attempt to escape Việt Nam and the faces of children, shallow and starving, in the arms of their mothers who held them above water as they themselves were slowly pulled down, their legs entangled in the seas’ slimy tresses. Nausea buckled my knees, dry heaving the dehydrated contents of my stomach onto the deck. “What use is this child of yours?” said a man near me. He gave me a disdainful look and then turned to seek out my mother whom everyone had paid with blood and gold for passage on our family’s small rickety fishing boat. His scan of the deck was stopped short at the black mass that was once nothing more than a stain in the corner of the sky. It was gaining size as if it was absorbing the sky, the clouds and the ocean around it. “Row – row the other way!” my mother yelled. “But that will take us back!” But the oncoming blackness motivated all hands. People rowed back towards the country we had fled. Try as we might though, we could not travel as fast as the patch was growing. I felt paralyzed as I watched it consume everything around it, blanketing us in darkness. With it came a deafening howl and the stench of sweetened rust filled my senses, pungent and sharp. But, the black void brought something different – the distinct musk of human sweat perspired in desperation. At one time I had loved the sea. Every waking morning was filled with rituals of welcoming her waters, which always stayed damp on my skin. Nearly ten years ago when our father first purchased this boat, we had all looked towards her as our savior, a means to carry us away from Việt Nam. Since we lost Khánh and Trúc though, she was nothing more to me than a cruel deceitful being that could never be trusted. Our first attempt was foiled almost immediately by the police patrols along the shoreline. The patrol boat had forced us ashore and all those passengers that did not dive into the waters had been shot on land. Several dozen people decimated within seconds. On our second attempt, we got as far as we are now, the South China Sea. On that trip the fear of police had passed into the fear of pirates. We had been six days at sea and our supplies were low. That was when she betrayed us. When we were at our weakest, when the human waste we threw overboard spoke of death and starvation, she let out her siren’s call. And then they came, partners in treachery. They invaded our boat, carried away our food and supplies, captured all the women and girls. The screaming was manic with people lunging, flesh and bones sacrificed to attempt to stop them. But they had strength and machetes. And we had nothing. It became a nightmare that ran on repeat in my head. My brother had charged at two men who had grabbed my sister. For this the sea clamored up and claimed him. As they dragged us onto their ship, I grabbed my sister and dragged her overboard. The sea promptly pulled us down until we were both under our boat. I felt her hand loosen from me in the same instant that my consciousness slipped from me. When I awoke I was lying on the deck, the sound of sobs all around me, my sister gone. My mother hovered above me, her graying hair disarrayed about her face, the body of my father, his face bearing the sharp laceration of a machete, in her arms. Despite all this, or in spite of it, three years after burying our father, we began anew, recruiting the same families that had once lost members with us. What else did we have to lose? Many thought we were cursed. All the more reason to flee. We had two choices. A country that had lost all respect for human rights or the sea with her unpredictable melodies. Which was more treacherous? We chose the sea. On this third trip, only twenty-five people came with us. The boat felt oddly spacious, as if each individual had at least five extra inches of space in which to breath. In past attempts, we had crammed a hundred people into our tiny fishing boat. Every inch of space on the boat had been filled with a body, often sitting on top of each other, the hope of escape overriding the need for personal space. Two hundred total for both attempts. Fewer than seventy-five survived those, only to return to Việt Nam where they languished in prison for the treasonous act of attempting to escape. My mother and I were the last of our family of five. We had nothing left to lose but each other. With no light, there were no markers of the days. Time rolled into itself, hour after hour, minute after minute, second after second, until it became irrelevant. We had among us a single box of matches and a few candles. Though their wicks were long, we conserved them, not knowing how long we’d wander in the dark void. It was on my watch that I realized that the candle, like my hunger, remained still as if frozen in time. The wick seemed not to diminish nor the candle wax to drip. The spoonful of salted rice I had eaten lay savored on my tongue and cooling in my belly as if I had just swallowed it. And yet in the next instant, I was hungry again as if I had not eaten in a month and the candle had burnt down almost to the end of its wick. When I rose to blow it out, for fear of losing our only source of light, I was once again staring at a candle that seemed to have been burning for only a moment. Like a story told in reverse, out of order and out of context, moments passed or were about to occur and occurred over and over again as if they just happened. I could not take the inconsistencies anymore. I retreated to the cabin underneath the deck, huddling among the children and elders where I sat numbly staring at blackness all around me. Mother poked her head down into the cabin from the deck. “Child!” she hissed. I ignored her. “My child!” She marched down the steps, trampling over people as she made her way to me. Peering right into my face, the flame of the candle in her hand burning my eyes, she pinched me. Hard. But still I refused to respond. What would be the purpose? The damn sea had won again. There was nothing that can explain the darkness above except our deaths. “We are dead mother,” I said, “Dead.” “Shut up and get up. I need your help!” She grabbed my arm and dragged me up to the deck. She was fierce, like a firefly, unwilling to be defeated. She attempted to lift me up but gravity helped me stay dumb and motionless. “No mother. There is nothing out there. No light, no life, no fish, no sound, nothing. We are on our journey to the next life. I want to see father. I want to see Khánh and Trúc again.” She slapped me then. It stung and I blinked. “Father would be ashamed of you,” she said. The words struck at me harder than her slap. I shook her off and started up the stairway, into the impending darkness. Reaching the deck, a wave of intense anxiety overtook my senses. I could feel the sway of the water so much more strongly than below deck and the boat leaned, tremulously unbalanced on one side. I searched for something to grasp onto as the feeling of sinking came over me. I whimpered and my knees gave out. I fell onto the deck. On deck stood and squatted all of the adults on the fishing boat. I should have been with them. I had come of age last year and was by far the strongest and tallest among them. I could see all this in my mother’s fierce eyes. But instead I had chosen to cower among the elderly and the children, welcoming death to my side. At least there my family members would outnumber the living. “We need you to help us bring down the broken mast. Its weight is making the boat lean into the water. If it falls, it will bash a hole in the hull.” “No…ma…no…I can’t…” Violent images began to flood me. Mother guided me to the mast that leaned to its side nearly cracked in half but not quite broken all the way through. It hung over the side of the boat, pulling it into the water. People were furiously bailing water. The sight of water immediately threw me into a fit. I started wheezing, my eyes shut tight. I dropped to the ground again, pulling my arms around my head, blocking out the image of water pummeling me, water pulling Trúc and Khánh into the sea. Mother shook me. “This is our boat, this is our responsibility. You know this boat better than anyone here and you are the right size. We are all too small, the children all too small, you are strong. You need to do this or else this boat will sink.” I began to inch backwards. I felt my mother’s arms around me, trying to grab me, and I broke into a sprint until I reached the stairs. Before she could catch me, I had made my way back down to the corner of the cabin where I pressed myself against the children there. Mother did not return. I sat with the children and elders and we listened as the adults shouted commands above us. I clamped my hands over my ears shutting out their voices, shutting out my cowardice. Then came yells and screams that I couldn’t shut out and a heavy splash into the water. The boat rocked and shook as footsteps stomped on the deck, running back and forth – then more shouts and splashing before a sudden chilling silence. We all looked up towards the opening even though the darkness was so profound that we could see nothing. Then I heard my mother’s wail. A pang of guilt stabbed at me and I bolted up the stairs onto the deck, reckless of the wrenching in my belly. A frantic man accosted me. “This is your boat, we paid you to take us on this hellish trip. Get up and do something or you’ll see your mother die. What kind of ungrateful child are you?” Pushing him aside, I ran onto the deck. For the first time since the darkness had descended upon us, the deck was completely illuminated with a bright light that seemed to come out of nowhere. The strong smell of sweet iron filled my nostrils and a chill seeped into my bones. Before me, rising rapidly from the water, was a serpentine creature glowing silver, and massive in proportion. The whipping lashes of the sea framed it on all sides. It roared as loud as thunder, echoing with tortured voices. At the very top of the beast was the face of a man, small and severely disproportionate to the rest of the creature’s body. Thin as a skeleton, the hollow of the man’s cheeks caved inward while his mouth distended unnaturally. He reached two long arms towards mother who was hanging onto the tip of the broken mast, a butcher’s knife poised in her hand. “Mother!” I screamed, remorse vibrating violently on my tongue as I realized that she sat where I was supposed to be, doing what I had refused to. I scrambled up the mast, attempting to reach her. Several men and women grabbed oars and hacked at the monstrosity. With each strike, limbs sprouted along the monster’s torso – arms, legs, and hands distended from its trunk. Mother stabbed her knife at the man reaching down towards her. I inched closer to her, but the sweat and slime of the sea and my own anxiety created a slippery coat on the mast, forcing me to slide back down. To accompany the disjointed limbs, faces emerged from the beast’s body, each grotesquely pulled back as if stretched too far. They peered at us, screaming words that were blended one into each other. Their voices dripped of grief and sorrow, speaking of the dream we all had, of escape, of freedom. Faces wavered in and out, faces I knew well. Nghĩa Thuy Ngọc Binh Khánh “Khánh! Mother, its Khánh!” I caught mother’s confused expression. In that moment a man directly in front of me pierced his oar deep into the creature, sinking it between the faces of two villagers that once lived side by side, both lost to the sea in our last attempt to escape. Their faces scrunched up in pain. For an instant, their voices became clear, calling my mother by her name: “Hoa.” Different tones, different dialects, different pitches, but all the same name. Mother wrapped herself around the broken mast. The arms of the man at the top of the creature elongated, grabbing mother, tearing the broken mast from the boat. The boat swayed backwards, sending everyone on deck tumbling. Mother’s face twisted in pain as her torso and legs were swallowed by the mutilated human appendages, the trail of a tear etching a faint scar along her cheek. Within seconds she disappeared into the creature. Almost as suddenly as it appeared, it sank swiftly into the water taking its glow deep into the abyss, leaving us shrouded in total darkness. Once again, I had been inches away when the sea stole someone from me. I stood and screamed out at her with all the rage in my being. “Give her back to me!” For durations I cannot remember, the instances of my mother’s disappearance, of arriving on deck to see her perched on top of the mast, of staring at the tumble of arms and legs and tormented faces, replayed itself out of order. Around me people began screaming as they slipped in and out of what had happened, what was happening, and what was to happen. Attempting to avoid insanity, we talked ourselves through each interval of time, moving collectively so that we could prevent madness from tearing at our minds. When I could grab cognizance of the now, it felt as if I was taking a seat within my own body. As soon as confusion passed us and it was evident that we were in the present, someone would shout, “Now!” Everyone would throw themselves into motion, trying to get as much done as possible, preparing food, feeding the children, the various tasks of staying alive. Everything we did became paramount to losing our minds. We became more and more cognizant of when we were, of the instant moment and when we would fall out of it. I sharpened oars and created makeshift weapons. I darted back and forth from the deck to the cabin to check on the children who ran in circles, unable to cope with the ever-changing slippages in time, and the elders who sat holding their heads. “What is happening to us?” they moaned to each other. Excrement, urine and bile lay strewn haphazardly in the cabin. No one cared anymore to use the buckets, their minds a field of havoc. I packed the raw pieces of their innards into the buckets, feeling the familiar comfort of their stench relaxing me in between intervals of my own memory lapses. It came again several times again. Each time we fought it off, our sharpened oars piercing through it and each time it claimed more members of our boat. The last time it came, the deck was full of children and elders. Our inattention to hygiene in wake of all that had happened had started to produce sores on the skin of the children. Children were brought up to be bathed with salt water. The same was done for elders. It was in this instance, when every child was on deck and running about naked glistening, salty and clean, and elders were being escorted upstairs that the sweet stench of iron filled the air. “It’s coming!” I yelled. The children were rushed downstairs and the elders were carried one by one into the cabin below. Those on deck grabbed their makeshift weapons and readied themselves. A roar broke from the waters of the sea and rising once again in a pitiful wail was the creature framed by a tidal wave of water. Voices screamed from within the wave. Arms reached out and faces pressed forward, changing between expressions of grief and happiness. Each face cried the name of a person on board and random limbs and fingers reached out, brushing up against our skin, attempting to grab us. Then, a woman’s face emerged, soft and flattened, beautiful almost. Staring down on the deck she wailed, “Grandmother!” and reached her arms out to an elder who had been left behind. The elder screamed up at the woman, sobs coming out of her chest in crests. “My child, my child!” she cried. Her arms reached out to the woman. “No!” I yelled, running to block the girls’ descent. “I want to go with her!” sobbed the elder. The girl’s face flitted in and out of distortion until she looked just as she did when I last saw her. It was our second attempt. She had jumped, like me, like Khánh. The sea had grabbed her. I remember her face sinking below the water. “Moi,” I said, “Moi was your name.” She smiled then and it was neither unnatural nor terrifying. Before I could stop her, the elder jumped up and grabbed Moi, pulling her back onto the boat. Arms reached out to cling onto the elder. We pulled her back onto the deck but her hold on Moi was steadfast. She pulled until Moi fell onto the deck and behind her tumbled a line of people who had held on to Moi’s legs. More people squeezed through the beasts’ torso, trying to follow Moi. “Grab them! Grab them!” yelled the elder as she reached for the faces that appeared from the creature, pulling at arms and hands. Her strength seemed amazing. One by one people tumbled, children, infants, adults, crying, smiling, relief thick in their voices. I dropped my oar and grabbed at arms and faces. Others stared at us in horror but when the bodies of people, naked and smiling, appeared, they all joined in, pulling more and more bodies out of the creature. Oars were dropped. Knives were thrown into the sea and the boat became a clamor of arms reaching out to grab at hands, fingers, toes, hair. I called out the names of my family. Khánh! Trúc! Mother! I heard myself echoed in the voices all around me as people yelled out the names of loved ones they had lost. One by one they tumbled from the creature that hovered over our boat. The creature shrank and slimmed with each person that we pulled out, transforming back into nothing more than a tidal wave, dangling frozen above our boat. Then a face emerged. A face I knew like the back of my hand. Khánh. My sister. I grabbed her. She fell onto me, bursting into sobs, burying her face into my neck, her hair long and twining about her body. From within the wave we had pulled out nearly a hundred people. We sat like sardines on the deck passing a candle back and forth, identifying faces, calling out names. I sat staring at my brother and my sister as my mother held onto them both. Beyond them were the faces of people dear to me, people I had passed every day in our village, people I had convinced myself to forget because missing them was too painful. Voices continued forever into the darkness as people spoke, whispered, cried about a haven, the sea’s safe harbor. Had it been like this all this time? That the sea had been a solace for lost souls all along? Going back and forth between trying to catch glimpses of my family and the wavering movement of the candle, I curled my fingers into the sea. In the sheath of the darkness, I made my peace with her. When the darkness parted, fading into the soft blush of dawn, the fear that had plagued us all left as suddenly as it had came. Screams and yelps of relief broke out as sunlight filtered through the darkness. Though I hid my face, I knew the sea was opening all around me. The musical lapping of her waves were drowned out only partially by the celebratory cacophony of the passengers. Fearing an episode, I drew my attention to the deck, focusing on the ragged worn lines of the wood as it trailed old stories. I drew down closer to it, squatting until all I could see was feet. I watched the interplay of small feet with big feet, heavy feet, tiny feet all walking, running, jumping, dancing. A familiar hand rested on my back. Then a head, grey hair falling into my face, tears soaking warm on my torn shirt. She came into full view and I remembered how beautiful my mother was. I wrapped myself around her, becoming a child again. I let myself cry, darkening her shirt with sobs for all those faces I did not see, those that were not returned to us, those not taken into the protection of the sea. Like father. Her arms curled about my body and we clutched each other. Khánh and Trúc joined us, tangling their limbs in ours. “Open your eyes,” Khanh laughed at me. I peeked open one eye and spied the vastness of the blue sea. I expected to be curled into myself within an instant, dry heaving onto the deck. But instead, waves of calmness washed through me. The sea was winking bright flashes of sunlight at me, her arms spread wide and inviting. I took a deep breath and opened both of my eyes. The post PodCastle 647: The South China Sea appeared first on PodCastle.
29 minutes | 2 months ago
PodCastle 646: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — The Medicine Woman of Talking Rock
Author : Pamela Rentz Narrator : Ada Milenkovic Brown Host : Emmalia Harrington Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Red Tape. Rated PG. This episode is a part of our Tales from the Vaults series, in which a member of PodCastle’s staff chooses a backlist episode to rerun and discuss. This week’s episode was chosen by associate editor Emmalia Harrington. “The Medicine Woman of Talking Rock” originally aired as PodCastle 255. The Medicine Woman of Talking Rock by Pamela Rentz Violet Spinks checked her to-do list for the ceremony: canoe, plants, medicine cap, trails. List-making might not be traditional, but no one would blame her for needing a brain prompt. She set the list in her medicine book and picked up the TV remote. She clicked through the channels and stopped when she spotted a young man with a torso like polished bronze. He shook out a bundle of black rubber cables and attached them to a shiny disk. The camera zoomed in on his brawny arms and legs as they worked the cables with the disk spinning in the middle. He looked like he wrestled a spider. A notice on the screen said three easy payments of $14.99 plus tax and shipping. Find the rest of this story in the Red Tape anthology. You can find it here. The post PodCastle 646: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — The Medicine Woman of Talking Rock appeared first on PodCastle.
20 minutes | 2 months ago
PodCastle 645: God Damn, How Real Is This?
Author : Doretta Lau Narrator : Andrea Bang Host : Jen R. Albert Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? Published by Nightwood Editions in 2014, audiobook version of this produced by ECW Press. CW: strong language, including racist and misogynistic slurs. Thanks to Nightwood Editions for allowing us to reprint the text of this story and to ECW Press for allowing us to run an excerpt from the collection’s audiobook; this audiobook was produced as a part of ECW Press’s Bespeak Audio Imprint. You can purchase the print version of this book here and the audiobook here. God Damn, How Real Is This? By Doretta Lau My future self sends me a text message at least once a day. The latest: Hey, tricho-slut, get your man hands out of our hair. I have a Lake Michigan–shaped bald spot forming on the back of my head. stop plucking. it’s starting to look like a penis. Last I checked there were no Great Lakes of any sort blooming on my scalp, no Superiors or Hurons or Eries flooding my hair. Of late, these missives from the future have become increasingly more abusive. I wonder, when will I flip my bitch switch and hop on this negative self-talk train? In a week? In a year? I’d like to believe this use of misogynistic language is out of character and that maybe I’m being trolled by a bored identity thief. I file the thought as something for my present self to discuss with my now therapist. Another message flashes on my phone: That mole on your left arm that you’ve been ignoring? Get thee to a doctor. I peer down. My arm is presenting itself as blemish free. At times like this I wish I could send a text to my future self to make clear the murky. I want to address important issues such as: “Will I die alone? But that technology hasn’t been invented yet, or our future selves have circumvented its implementation for the good of humanity.” I call my local clinic and explain my situation. “This is Franny Siu calling. I can’t find this mole my future self is warning me about, but I’d like to make an appointment to see Doctor Chang.” “I understand,” says the woman on the phone. “Last week, my future self started blasting me messages about herpes. Today, she escalated to drug-resistant gonorrhea. I think she’s trying to tell me that my boyfriend is cheating on me.” “No sex for the hexed,” I say, unsure how to handle this kind of intimacy with a near stranger. “Come at two tomorrow afternoon.” “Great. See you tomorrow,” I say, and hang up. Despite this disruption, I still have time before my therapy session to stop by my ex-colleague Rita’s house and check on her. Rita has not left her house in months because her future self keeps divining death and destruction. As soon as she thinks of doing something — innocuous activities such as watching a movie or washing her feet — a new text arrives dissuading her from taking action. I pack up some leftover food and a stack of library books, slap SPF 90 sunscreen on my face and arms, and get on my bike. A block from Rita’s, I see that Chronology Purists have purchased a new billboard: Has communicative time travel ruined your life? Our counsellors are ready to talk. I think about calling the number listed, but decide instead to stop at a convenience store to pick up additional supplies. The scene indoors is vaguely apocalyptic. The lights are off. Many shelves gape, emptied of goods. Since the texts from the future began arriving nine months earlier, people have been hoarding canned food and toilet paper out of fear that the new technology has sparked end times. I sigh. Spoiler alert, present-day peons: it’s our appalling behaviour that blights our existence. I grab a loaf of bread and head to the counter. The clerk is wearing a bulletproof vest. “What if I shot you in the head?” I ask. “The vest wouldn’t do you much good then.” “Do you think you’re the first to ask that, smartass? My future self has already pointed that out to me, thank you very much,” he says. “How does the store stay afloat without the scratch-and-wins?” I ask, motioning to the bare strip of space under the Plexiglas countertop. Three months ago, the government suspended all forms of gambling. I miss the surprise of running a toonie across a scratch card, that sick joy of self-inflicted failure that’s preceded ever so briefly by hope. “That will be ten dollars, please,” he says, pointing to the bread. I reach Rita’s house and speak through the front door. “Hey, I’m leaving you some gazpacho. The ingredients are organic. I triplefiltered the water. There’s also a loaf of gluten-free bread and the books you asked for.” No answer. The smell of feet lingers in the air. “Just send me a text,” I say. My phone pings with a message from present-Rita: Thanks, Franny. There’s twenty bucks for you under the doormat and a book that needs to be returned. “Your recent actions are fashioning me into an enabler,” I say, stooping down to look under the mat. “I don’t like who I am becoming under your influence.” No answer. I text her: your future self is chicken little. your future self has become your mother. No response. I move on. My therapist, Kelly, does not have a cellphone. She’s a Chronology Purist — she wants her life to play out exactly as it would have if communicative time travel had not been invented. I don’t get how this is possible, given that the timeline has already been breached, but logic is not my strong suit so maybe I’m missing the point. Sometimes her future self tries to get in touch with her via my phone, but present-Kelly has instructed me never to pass on any information. I’m in the uncomfortable position of knowing that the majority of her stocks will tank in the next six months . . . though I suppose if I do pass on the information, it would be classified as insider trading. I keep my mouth shut; we both stay out of jail. I wonder if I should look for a new therapist. “How was your week?” Kelly asks. “I worry that I am a misogynist,” I say. “My future self is really fond of calling me a slut or a whore, which I find puzzling because I never use either of those words. I’d be much more likely to refer to myself as a douchebag.” “What at present do you think is causing this negativity?” “I don’t know. I’m frustrated with the fact that I can’t communicate with my future self. I mean, I guess I could leave notes for her in my journal, but I don’t know if she’ll ever see them.” “What can you do right now that will make you feel better?” “I guess I could write a letter to myself, and you can give it back to me six months later.” “Okay, do you want to try that this week?” “Yes,” I say. “Our time is up,” she says, standing. “Until next week.” As soon I leave the office, a new message arrives from my future self: Hey rickets breath, have you taken your calcium and vitamin-D supplement today? I hit delete. Kelly’s future self is angry with me: I’m going to have to raise my fees to cover my losses, so you’re the one who will suffer if you don’t tell me to sell the stock. I decide to write two letters: one to my future self and one to Kelly’s. The next day at the doctor’s office, the waiting room is a cacophony of phones beeping and bleeping. Everyone looks anxious. I know now that ignorance is Eden. If I knew how to code a virus, I would direct my future self to send the inventor of communicative time travel a diseased email to avert this reality. I text Wilson to meet me at 2:30 at a coffee shop across from the clinic — I need someone to talk to in case I have terminal cancer — and he replies with an immediate affirmative. The receptionist, who does not look ill, calls my name and leads me to a private room. Doctor Chang appears after a few minutes. He examines my arm and says, “Do you think that maybe — and I don’t want to sound judgmental — that your future self suffers from a touch of Münchausen by proxy?” “What makes you say that?” “You’ve been here seven times during this past month. You complain of future ailments, but in actuality they’re merely imaginary diseases foisted upon you by your future self.” “I read somewhere that the child is the father of the man,” I say. “Are you still pulling your hair out?” “Did my future self contact you about that?” “Yes.” “I’m sorry we have no boundaries,” I say. “Also, isn’t my condition just Münchausen? I mean, I’m still me, even in the future. No proxy.” Doctor Chang gives me a look that indicates that he is the medical professional and I am just a poor excuse for a patient. I leave his office in shame. My diagnosis? Dormant Münchausen by proxy. Wilson is late for our meeting at the coffee shop. My hand wanders to my tresses. My phone pings. Whorebag! place your man hands where I can see them or I’ll shoot! I sigh and fold my hands in my lap. The last thing I need is for my future self to become suicidal and send an assassin my way. Fifteen minutes, three hairs and four text messages later, Wilson rolls in on a skateboard. “Konichiwa,” he says, kissing me on the cheek. “Nice dress.” “Those wheels become less and less an acceptable form of transportation with each passing calendar year,” I say to him. “I broke up with Cynthia,” he says with a shrug. “I live for today.” Two months ago, Wilson’s future self went silent. No texts or email. He concluded that his future self was dead, so his motto became carpe diem. He made a bucket list, which included things such as climb Mount Everest, learn Japanese and eat yogurt for the first time ever. Everest was a bust (summit, avalanche) and he’s lactose intolerant. I suspect this list could be the reason for his early demise, but I haven’t said anything because I don’t want to be a killjoy. “Did you get a haircut?” I ask. “I did — that’s why I was late. So, how did your appointment go?” “My doctor says I have dormant Münchausen by proxy but I think it may just be plain Münchausen since I’m doing it to myself,” I say. “There’s now a hold on my insurance for a month and I can only seek medical help in life or death situations. Also, Rita still won’t leave her house.” “Forget your troubles. I’m here! Come to the park with me,” Wilson says, grabbing my hand. “Is there a cliff you want to jump off?” “Something like that. Better, actually. Also, I stopped drinking coffee and I don’t like the way they serve tea here.” “What’s better than jumping off a cliff?” I ask. “You’ll see,” he says, smiling. We leave on our separate vehicles. I reach the park first. Wilson shows up with a fresh bruise on his arm. “I fell,” he says. “I wish my future self were alive so he could send warnings.” “Everyone is afraid to live now,” I say. “You should be thankful for the radio silence.” “I’m nearly done everything on my list. There’s only one thing left.” “What is it?” I ask. He points to something in the trees. I gaze up in search of this final thing, sure that I’m about to witness some new kind of beauty, but I don’t see anything. When I look back at Wilson his face has travelled and is inches from mine. He kisses me. I close my eyes and think only of the present. We separate. He smiles. “I feel the same way about you, too,” I say. His phone pings. A look of surprise lights up his face. “It’s a text from my future self.” You magnificent bastard, it reads. I’m glad you stopped being a scared little pansy and chose to live life. Don’t fuck this up for us. I love her. He turns off his phone, but not before I glimpse the rest of the message. Tell her to get that mole on her left arm checked. The post PodCastle 645: God Damn, How Real Is This? appeared first on PodCastle.
28 minutes | 2 months ago
PodCastle 644: Sea-Crowned
Author : H. Pueyo Narrator : Kaitlyn Zivanovich Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published by The Dark. CW: Domestic abuse Rated R. Sea-Crowned By H. Pueyo Water — there’s water everywhere, water covering my feet, my knees, my hips. Water, foam, salt, sand in my mouth, waves […] The post PodCastle 644: Sea-Crowned appeared first on PodCastle.
39 minutes | 3 months ago
PodCastle 643: Strange Things Done
Author : Tori Curtis Narrator : Serah Eley Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums PodCastle 643: Strange Things Done is a PodCastle original. Content warnings for sexual content, mild gore, mention of injections, and imagery related to body changes. Rated R. Strange Things Done By Tori Curtis Audra was […] The post PodCastle 643: Strange Things Done appeared first on PodCastle.
18 minutes | 3 months ago
PodCastle 642: In a Field of Bone-Bonnets
Author : Aimee Picchi Narrator : Jen R. Albert Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published by Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. Rated PG-13. In a Field of Bone-Bonnets Aimee Picchi The hut shuffled to face the sunrise, a habit that pleased its old witch, and kindled the […] The post PodCastle 642: In a Field of Bone-Bonnets appeared first on PodCastle.
36 minutes | 3 months ago
PodCastle 641: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — And Their Lips Rang with the Sun
Author : Amal El-Mohtar Narrator : N.K. Jemisin Host : Tierney Bailey Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in Strange Horizons. This episode is a part of our Tales from the Vaults series, in which a member of PodCastle’s staff chooses a backlist episode to rerun and discuss. This week’s episode […] The post PodCastle 641: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — And Their Lips Rang with the Sun appeared first on PodCastle.
38 minutes | 3 months ago
PodCastle 640: Mist Songs of Delhi
Author : Sid Jain Narrator : Amal Singh Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums PodCastle 640: Mist Songs of Delhi is a PodCastle original. Rated PG-13. Mist Songs of Delhi By Sid Jain Rajaji had listened to three songs of the deceased that morning. He couldn’t help himself. Whenever […] The post PodCastle 640: Mist Songs of Delhi appeared first on PodCastle.
9 minutes | 4 months ago
PodCastle 639: Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil
Author : Samantha Mills Narrator : Sandra Espinoza Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Previously published by Translunar Travelers Lounge. Rated PG-13. The destinies of two women — one, a soldier; the other, a princess — become intertwined in C. L. Clark’s debut, The Unbroken. This is a story […] The post PodCastle 639: Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil appeared first on PodCastle.
14 minutes | 4 months ago
PodCastle 638: Slipping the Leash
Author : Dan Micklethwaite Narrator : Austin Malone Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums PodCastle 638: Slipping the Leash is a PodCastle original. Rated PG-13. Slipping the Leash Dan Micklethwaite It is 1958, and Aloysius Proctor has survived a war, and survived the clap, and he is married to […] The post PodCastle 638: Slipping the Leash appeared first on PodCastle.
53 minutes | 4 months ago
PodCastle 637: Ink, and Breath, and Spring
Author : Frances Rowat Narrator : James Thomson Host : Setsu Uzume Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums First published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Rated PG-13. Ink, and Breath, and Spring by Frances Rowat The wheelbarrow thumped a jolt into Palwick’s arms with every third step as he led Mattish back […] The post PodCastle 637: Ink, and Breath, and Spring appeared first on PodCastle.
42 minutes | 4 months ago
PodCastle 636: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 2
Author : Jen Brown Narrator : C. L. Clark Host : Emmalia Harrington Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh Discuss on Forums Originally published in FIYAH. Rated PG. While Dragons Claim the Sky By Jen Brown [Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Please visit last week’s post to read Part 1.] When marble […] The post PodCastle 636: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 2 appeared first on PodCastle.
44 minutes | 5 months ago
PodCastle 635: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 1
Discuss on Forums Originally published in FIYAH. Rated PG. While Dragons Claim the Sky By Jen Brown When a breeze shook the reed curtains in mama’s salon, I thought it might be another dragon gliding low, stopping to drink from Lake Mritil. ‘Course, mama and I weren’t afraid; we loved watching them soar overhead, wings […] The post PodCastle 635: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 1 appeared first on PodCastle.
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