Pelt

0459 - Pelt

The snow was cold beneath the pads of her feet, and there was ice matted between her claws, but she reveled in the bitter cold, the bracing wind. To move on four feet instead of two was to embrace her true self, the one with thick fur that was designed for life in a harsh environment.

She sniffed the air and caught the familiar scents of home and family – her human family. When she’d told them that she needed to go for a walk, her husband had understood what she meant, but her children had not. They didn’t know what she really was.

A rabbit scurried across her path. She considered chasing it, bringing it home for dinner, but she knew what the kids would say… “Rabbit’s gross. It’s so stringy. Mama, we can’t eat Thumper.”

She would never judge them for their human tastes, but sometimes – most times – she missed the chase, the kill, the way fresh venison had that slightly gamey undertone.

A mournful howl cut through the wind. It wasn’t one of her kind, but she answered anyway, her return song one of reassurance. “You will be alright,” she sang. “Winter won’t last forever.”

The sunlight was beginning to fade as she turned for home and she paused at the edge of their property just to look at the cozy house, all aglow with lamplight. Subtle wisps of wood smoke emanated from the chimney. Wood smoke and beef stew. Her husband had been cooking.

Shaking the snow from her back, she climbed the three steps to the back porch. She stepped out of her pelt, as she climbed, laughing as her shadow appeared to have six limbs at one point.

She dressed in the clothes she’d left on top of the bench, and bundled her cast-off fur into a soft, cloth bag.

Her husband was waiting just inside the mud room. “Feel better?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you.” She leaned to nuzzle his neck and then kiss his whiskery cheek. “Here,” she said. “You keep this.”

But her husband shook his head. “You know I can’t accept it. I want you here out of free will, not out of some compulsion.”

They had the same argument every time.

“You’re not taking it from me,” she explained, yet again. “I’m giving it to your care, just as you’ve given me your heart.”

“But I can abuse it,” he said.

“But you won’t,” she countered. “Any more than I would abuse your heart.”

Reluctantly he accepted her offering. “The second you want it back…” he began. But he didn’t finish; she knew what he’d say. Instead he simply asked,”You hungry? Dinner’s ready.”

Sometimes, she thought, a bowl of stew and the smiling faces of a family meant more than any hunt.

 

Fair is Fowl

0456 - Cauldron

“Double, double, toil and trouble,” rasped the feathered being behind her.

The Scottish Play? Really?” Agathe replied as she cracked the egg into the cauldron. Its shell fell away in pieces, dissolving into the concoction she was brewing. Then the yolk plopped in. She stirred gently with a wooden spoon, resisting the urge to taste it. Sure, it looked and smelled like egg drop soup, but there were other… ingredients… that were not so benign.

“You turned me into this half-human, half-bird,” the other replied. “You’re stuck with me until you manage to turn me back.”

“I’ve told you,” Agathe reminded her, “it was an accident. You weren’t supposed to sip the tea from that mug. It was supposed to be sprinkled over the hens’ feed to increase their laying capacity.”

“Because you’re too cheap to build a separate enclosure and buy a second rooster.”

Agathe rolled her eyes, ignoring the other’s comment.

“Admit it! You are; you are!” the other said.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have to be so cautious about spending,” Agathe said, accenting her oblique correction, “if someone I know helped bring in some income.”

“Like this? How could I possibly do that?” the other was incensed.

“I don’t know, give folks rides on your back? Go out on street corners and recite ‘The Raven?'” She turned the flame up under the cauldron, and the contents inside began to hiss and roil.

“Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” came the gravelly commentary from behind her.

“Merlin’s shriveled balls! Must you?” Agathe complained. Then she sighed. “Alright, I need the sword now.”

“Mine,” said the other.

“I know it’s yours. We have to dip it into the soup and then you have to lick it.”

“Lick it?”

“Yes. Lick it. Lick it good.”

“You know, this form isn’t so bad. I mean… I don’t mind it, except the egg-laying thing.”

“The egg-laying thing is what’s going to turn you back,” Agathe said. “The sword please?”

Her temporarily feathered friend relinquished the weapon and watched as the witch dipped it into the soup – spell – concoction – thing. “Do I really have to lick it?”

“If you want to be returned to your original form, yes.”

Warily, the feathered one allowed the sword to be drawn gently – oh, so gently – through its beak. “Well? I don’t feel any different.”

“It takes a minute.”

“Oh.”

They waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And finally, there was a puff of grey and white smoke and the feathered hybrid had disappeared, replaced with a woman who looked like a slightly younger version of Agathe.

“I’m back,” she said. “I’m me! I’m back.” She danced around the room, laughing and crying at once. Then she looked at her sister. “I think you should taste the soup.”

“We don’t know what it will do.”

“Turnabout’s fair play,” the younger woman said.

“Alright, fine.” She dipped her wooden spoon into the mixture, then lifted it out and tasted it.

“Well?”

“Needs salt.”

“But… you’re not changing. Why are you not changing?”

“Oh, the soup had nothing to do with it. I just wanted a recipe to win the tasty treats contest. I could have turned you back any time.”

“But… Agathe. I’m your sister!”

“Yeah, but you stole my favorite pointy-toed boots.”

“You turned me into a bird thing for that?!”

“Well, foul is fair and fair’s fowl.”  She giggled. No. She cackled. Get it? Fowl? F-o-w-l.” She cackled some more.

There was a splash as Agathe’s Exotic Hybrid Egg-drop Soup became Agathe’s New Dress.

The other turned to leave, but her Agathe called her back.  “Doris! Come back here. Doris! I’m sorry.”

But the younger woman just called back over her shoulder. “Nevermore.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Briar Wreath

454 - Wreath

It was a delicate task, and one that was crowned with honor, to gather the wreath that would be displayed above the capitol doors.

In seasons past, Master Gavrel had led his party to the greenwood and the pinewood, selecting individual boughs from the trees there, and then he and the other masters and mistresses (who were also called ‘master’ now, but forgave him for using the old ways because he was old) would weave them into the Great Wreath.

But this year, this year, Master Gavrel wanted something different, something organic. So, he went to the winter wood. He knew that others had gone before him, seeking a wreath from the Order of the Brambles, and that most had come back injured and empty handed, while others had not returned at all.

He had prepared though. He had learned the prayers and practiced the ritual bows and walks. He had brought an offering of fresh soil and nutrient-rich mulch, and not one in his company carried an axe or saw.

Gavrel’s party reached the clearing, and he alone moved forward, through the impaled skeletons of those who had made this attempt, and failed, his movements precise, deliberate.

He spoke the words of the prayers and made his offerings of soil and mulch. He made his bow, and walked in a circle around the offerings, then bowed again.

And then he waited.

He was expecting drama. A sudden storm, perhaps, or trees come to life. But none of that happened.

Instead, there was a rustling sound, then a strong shake, and the suspended wreath dropped to the forest floor. He gestured for his companions to step forward and retrieve it, and then he bowed again and backed out of the clearing.

The wreath, wrapped in white lights, was hung above the capitol doors, and while some people complained that it looked like a bunch of dead sticks, most passersby understood that it was meant to represent the stark beauty of winter, and the idea that death is part of the entire cycle of life.

Master Gavrel stood among the crowd on the last night of the winter festival and smiled.

Better Angels

0439 - Guns and Angels

The humans called them “angels.”

They were meant to be calming figures, feathery beings who provided whispered advice at crucial moments. Their guidance typically came in the form of gut feelings or sudden inklings – those subconscious reactions that cause a right turn rather than a left or staying home rather than going out.

Hovering over the shoulders of humanity, they nudged gently and gave subtle pushes. Nothing overt. Just keeping things on track. That sort of thing.

But little by little, the human world changed. People divided themselves in arbitrary ways that had little to do with geography or culture and everything to do with anger, bitterness, and fear.

The angels’ voices were no longer heeded; their ethereal suggestions went unfelt.

The choir sang to deaf ears, and their enfolding wings were brushed aside by harsh hands, if they were noticed at all.

Humanity was no longer a noble race, full of wonderous creations – art, music, science, technology – and potential.

Instead, it was in danger of destroying itself, and the world it inhabited.

The choir convened.

Discussions were had, and heated debates, and finally a decision was made. They would have to solve the human crisis in a way the bitter, frightened people would comprehend.

They began to appear in selective places. They let their halos show, but they also displayed their weapons: shining, silver-outlined, mostly transparent versions of the projectile weapons the flesh-and-bloods seemed to treasure.

When merely showing up had no effect, they fired booming warning shots that ricocheted across the skies like thunder – only louder, stronger, and more ominous.

And when the warnings failed, they had no choice.

They eradicated humanity for the greater good.

Afterward, their white and silver forms stained red (time would let it fade, they knew), they reconvened at their undetectable headquarters and sang songs of mourning and remembrance, until they could sing no more.

Finally, so much time had passed that the angels were ready to try another experiment. “There is another world with a crop of humanity,” one said. “Let us try again, with them. Perhaps this time, they’ll thrive. The natives call it ‘Earth.'”

And so, they moved their headquarters across the universe to a blue-and-green world with diverse lifeforms and humans who were still receptive to their influence. But they also made a unilateral decision: they would act sooner, more swiftly, and with more surety.

This time, they would not fail.

This time, they would be better angels.

Not Pandora

0447 - Not PandoraShe’s no Pandora, unable to curb her curiosity and inadvertently setting a mass of horrors loose upon the world. Her boxes aren’t metaphors for the trials and tribulations of daily life.

Rather, they’re the memories of all the people she’s loved and lost. Keepsakes and memorabilia, photographs and old letters are all tucked away in cedar-lined darkness, waiting to be acknowledged, accepted, assimilated.

That box represents her grandmother: pearls and rose petals and half-done knitting projects, the needles still attached. And that other one? That’s her grandfather’s collection of old cameras and model trains, seed packets and artisan bread recipes.

Other boxes are smaller. One holds an assortment of dog collars and old chew toys, and vials of the ashes of lost companions. There’s room, yet, in that one. Another protects the tiny clothing never used by the baby who was never born. Tucked inside, a grief counselor’s business card, and the wristband from her hospital stay. (Keep those boxes closed, she reminds herself as she moves through the attic space, squinting her eyes to ward off unbidden tears.)

Cardboard boxes hold traces of old boyfriends, relationships that were fine in the moment, but flickered out, and friendships left hanging as people grew up, moved on. (She really should call her college roommate. It’s been five years since they last spoke… or is it six?)

She freezes when she sees the newest box, its shiny lid cracked open. That one… that one was added just this past summer, and it never will stay closed. It’s got soil samples and pencil stubs, a book on improving your memory (lost for years, found too late). Printouts of emails and silly cards, a brooch she can’t stand to wear right now – copper and brass safari animals dangling from a central ring – but creeps in to pick up and hold. She pushes the lid down, knowing that she’ll have to close it again all too soon, but every time, it stays shut a while longer.

These boxes don’t hold horrors.

If she’s careful lifting the lids, she can slip a smile out. A friendship bracelet made of knotted fairy floss, a sun hat that still has grains of beach sand embedded in the straw.

She tries so hard to be careful.

But memory is fickle, and grief is tricky, coming back day after month after year after decade, usually when she least expects it, and smiles are still smiles, even when they’re tempered with tears, and missing people means you loved them, doesn’t it?

She’s no Pandora, with one box of horrors to share and one bright spark hidden at the bottom, but like that woman from myth and story, she knows that spark, and treasures it.

She moves out of the room by the same route she entered, eddies of dust swirling in the sunshine that drips in through the skylight.

At the attic door, she turns, and addresses the boxes. “All my hopes.”

Rhoda, Revisited

Rhoda - Flash PromptKilling the rabbit had been way easier than getting rid of that annoying Daigle boy. And no one would care -this time – about the marks her tap-shoes left on the creature’s head.

She’d smile pretty and tell them she did it to save Mrs. Danforth’s vegetable garden.

And they’d believe her, her aunt and uncle would, because they didn’t know the way her mother had. (Mother was no longer a problem. The spanking had been the older woman’s last act in soooo many ways.)

They’d just cuddle her and bundle her off to a hot bath and bring her cookies and milk in bed, and take her clothes to be cleaned.

They wouldn’t notice that there was blood spray. She’d tell them she strangled the poor thing.

And they’d believe her.

They always did.

And all she had to do was smile.

 

 

Marigolds

0324 - CatrinaShe misses them, of course. Her husband, her children, her sisters, her friends.

It’s been so long since she’s kissed her little ones goodnight and breathed in the scent of their youth and innocence: dirt and soap and rosin and chocolate.

Bella, the ballerina, always slept on her back with one leg straight and the other en passé.

Simon was her baseball player, and more than once she’d had to slide his glove off his hand in the middle of the night. That was part of his scent, too: the oiled leather of his catcher’s mitt.

Victor, her husband, had a stronger scent: fresh-mowed grass, pipe tobacco (he never would give up that thing) clean cotton and the musky tang of his sweat mixed with the slightly aquatic aroma of his favorite shampoo/body wash combination product.

How she longed to slip into bed beside him, to rest her head on his chest and let his heartbeat lull her into peaceful sleep. How she missed those early mornings when the kids were still asleep and they came together in the pre-dawn starlight, quietly, but with such intensity, passion, and love.

She would never stop wanting that man.

Her sisters were more distant. Perfume and coffee, red wine and gardenias… that was them. And her friends? More wine, coffee, arrachera tacos and guacamole with fresh cilantro, lime, and salt, and Indio beer.

She remembers their scents almost more than their faces or voices. She’s forgotten many important events, but their love for each other is indelible.

And tonight she will see them all.

She can feel it: the thinning of the veil, the strengthening of the old magic. She can see the shapes of the women and men dressed as Catrinas and roaming around the town square. She can sense the brightness – color and aroma both – of the marigolds, and she follows the pull of the invisible string tugging at her navel.

They are all there, at her ofrenda. There’s a plate of the shrimp mole she loves, and another of chocolate-raspberry torte. Her wedding dress is there, and her collection of fountain pens, and her favorite sun-hat.

She feels wetness on her cheeks and realizes that she’s made the crossing.

Her husband is there, alone for the moment, and she caresses his face, smiling at the texture of the stubble on his chin. He turns, and his smile lights the night. He touches a button on the cd-player (the ancient ‘boom box’ she had in college, when they met) and their song wafts through the tented space.

Beyond the awning and the posts, the masses circulate, carrying Oaxacan hotdogs wrapped in blue corn tortillas, pausing at each ofrenda to comment on the photographs, the drawings, the food.

The children will be back soon, and her sisters, she knows, but for now it is only herself and Victor.

“Dance with me,” he says as the old-style waltz music fills their immediate vicinity. “Can you?”

“Tonight, I can,” she says.

The children, the friends, the relatives, they come and see Victor turning leading her wispy, ethereal form in the dance, and as much as they, too, want to spend time with her, they step away.

When dawn comes, and she must leave, she is frozen by his question. “Will I see you before next year?”

“Plant marigolds,” she tells him. “I’ll come, if you plant marigolds.”

But he won’t remember that instruction once the sun has fully risen, and she won’t really be strong enough to cross over again until the next year’s celebration.

And it is a celebration, this day. It’s a celebration of love and joy and connection, and the knowledge that even death can only pause those things, never eliminate them completely.

 

 

Bottled Up

0416 - Potion 36At first glance, it was an ordinary bottle. Clear glass, with a matching (rubber tipped) stopper to keep it airtight, apparently empty, labeled with a number. Thirty-six.

She’d found it on the beach while walking her dog. Well, really, the dog had found it. He hadn’t picked it up, because he was a pointer, and didn’t fetch for anything. Even playing ball in the back yard, the dog would locate the toy, point to it, and, if she didn’t come to pick it up fast enough, look back with an expression that clearly said If you wanted it back, you should have adopted a retriever.

So, the dog had pointed, and she had done the fetching.

And the thing is, she isn’t sure why she decided to take the bottle home. She didn’t typically pick up litter (she should probably feel guilty about that, but she didn’t), and she wasn’t the type to collect beach glass.

But something about this bottle was a little off-kilter. Maybe it was the condition: old, sure, but intact. And pretty clean, if slightly scarred by tides and saltwater.

It just… spoke to her.

So, she took it home, and left it on her desk, next to the mug full of pens to the right of her monitor. Eventually, she’d wash it out, maybe discard the stopper, or leave it in the junk drawer and turn the bottle into a bud vase. She’d always liked using glasses and jars and old candle holders instead of actual vases.

Days went by. She forgot about the bottle, but on the night of the full moon, she noticed a shadow inside, almost like a person. She held it to the light, but that didn’t make anything solidify, it was still just a vague, shadowy outline.

Opening the bottle was likely an unwise idea, but she couldn’t help it. Just as when she’d chosen to cart it home, the thing was speaking to her.

Only this time, the speaking was literal.

Let me out… please! Let me out!

She pulled the stopper, expecting the worst. A demon maybe, or a trapped djinn. She expected her dog to start barking his fool head off, but he couldn’t be bothered to leave his place on the sofa, and as far as she could tell, all that was released was some air that smelled of saltwater.

The full moon crept across the sky.

She took the open bottle to the coffee table and stared at it.

Nothing happened.

The sun made its first appearance, while the moon was still faintly evident in the sky, and she gave up and went to bed. Her dreams were bizarre that night – morning – whatever. They were filled with sailing ships, storm-tossed seas, rum-running and cheating boyfriends. And then she had the feeling of being trapped and immobile. She tried to breathe, but the air was stale and swampy. And when she tried to sit up, she hit her head on the window.

Wait… window?

She opened her eyes to a sunlit room, but it wasn’t her bedroom. It was her living room, but everything was oversized, and she couldn’t seem to move from her spot.

Realization came in the form of a demonic red eye on the other side of what she now recognized as a curve of salt-etched glass. The eye blinked, and suddenly it was blue – the same blue as her own.

A hand curved around the bottle, and lifted her up, and she saw the demon properly. But the horned head morphed into a facsimile of her own face, and when she looked down at herself, all of her color was gone. She felt small. She felt transparent. She was… trapped.

She tried yelling for her dog, but the fickle creature was standing next to her newly-made double with his leash in his mouth, and his tail wagging.

He gave a single bark and the demon with her face and body laughed in her voice. “Sure, let’s go to the beach, boy. We should get rid of this thing.”

The demon clipped the leash onto her dog’s collar and tossed the bottle – her prison – into her tote.

When they got to the beach, the demon walked out to the end of the jetty and hefted the bottle once more. With a strong arm (apparently the demon had inherited her softball pitching arm) she threw it into the sea.

A magical creature could have lasted centuries in a glass bottle, even in the depths of the ocean. But she wasn’t magical. She was just a young woman who’d found a bottle on the beach. She was unconscious before the bottle sank into darkness, and dead by moonrise.

And the demon?

She lived a happy stolen life in her stolen body, with her stolen dog.

As demons do.

Four Horsewomen of the Post-Apocalypse

0417 - Four Horsemen

“And behold, a pale horse and its rider’s name was Death,” Margo quoted. She asked her horse to pause at the top of what had once been the main street of the city they were entering and waited as her companions caught up to her.

“Are you casting me as Hades then?” Helen asked, drawing up her own mount beside her wife’s. “Not sure that’s flattering.”

“But don’t you feel like that’s who we are?” Margo challenged. “Look at this city. The buildings are burned out husks. Nature is weaving itself back over the framework, and what are we doing? Picking over the carcasses of what’s left behind.”

“Child, you fret too much.” The warm words came from Mother Ruth, the leader of their community, and this… hunting party. “We did not cause this atrocity, we survived the actions of those who did.”

“But we’re still gaining from it, Mother,” Margo complained. “How does that make us any better?”

“Because we have accepted the challenge of rebuilding the world,” the older woman answered in a tone that brooked no argument.

Beyond her, the fourth member of their party released her left hand from the reins and pointed. She didn’t speak – hadn’t spoken since the Day of Destruction many decades before – but her meaning was clear. They were meant to move forward.

“I’ll lead this time,” Helen said.

“Just because you don’t want to be Hades,” Margo teased.

“Well, that… but also it’s my turn.” And she urged her horse forward, assuming correctly that the others would fall in line behind her.

At the center of the city, they found their destination. It was not, as Margo had expected, Mother Ruth’s home church, or even the great cathedral in the center of the broken metropolis. Rather, it was the public library.

“Books?” Margo asked. “We’re here for books.”

“Books, yes,” Mother Ruth confirmed. “But also, to see if the computer network here might still be working, to find out if there are other survivors somewhere.”

Technology had all but died after the last war, and the surviving engineers and computer and telecom experts were just beginning to bring it back. Electricity had only been reasonably reliable for about a year, and with it, refrigeration.

“And if there are? Do we reach out?” The question was Helen’s this time.

“We give them directions to neutral ground and invite a meeting. We don’t know what other survivors might be like. Some might be quite violent.”

But while the network was still up – shielded as it was in the basement of the old building – there was no sign of anyone using it. They left one machine logged in to a message board they’d set up. Then they’d filled their saddle bags with books – how-to manuals, cookboks, gardening guides, and a few novels – and made their way back outside.

The horses were waiting patiently.

Mother Ruth helped their silent companion to climb aboard her mount, then settled herself on her own saddle with surprising grace. Margo and Helen were not quite as graceful, simply because they hadn’t had the same years of practice, but they were competent, and the party soon began their journey back out of town.

The light was fading as they left the city, and somewhere behind them a wolf howled, causing Margo to shiver. Closing her eyes against the fear, she imagined the four of them as they must look to anyone still hiding within the crumbling stone and rusted steel, and the bible verse came back into her head.

Helen and Ruth and their voiceless friend might not like the comparison, but it was people like them who had destroyed the world, and it was they themselves who were picking over the bones.

“And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given power over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” ~Revelations, 6:8, RSV translation.

Musings of a Solitary Ghost

Ghost in the WallCold.

She’s constantly cold now. And damp. She can’t even remember what warmth feels like, but she also can’t get to the place where she’s numb enough to fall asleep and linger there.

She doesn’t remember sleep, either.

She exists in a state half-way between dreams and waking, in a kind of perpetual twilight punctuated only by the periodic beams from the beacon at the top of the lighthouse.

She thinks there used to be a man who lived there, and took care of it, but she’s heard people talking, strange people that come into her house but never greet her, and they say it’s been automated for at least a decade.

Time has become meaningless.

There is no day, no night, no hunger or thirst.

Just cold and damp and dimness.

She can walk through walls now. She’s pretty sure that’s a newly acquired skill. She can walk through walls and float through floors, but she can also walk across the broad wooden planks that have been under her feet for as long as she can remember.

She misses her family.

She is surrounded by families that are not hers.

They move into her house and make changes. The old kitchen with its red hand-pump at the sink now has a shiny metal faucet with a single lever pointing one way for hot and the other for cold, and the streams come out mixed together.

The big bathroom where she used to soak in the claw-foot tub and stare at the lighthouse through the round window has a stall shower now, in one corner, and instead of coal, the house is heated with hot air forced through vents.

Or so she overhears.

But she can’t feel the heat, or stand in the shower, or work the taps. Her hands can’t grip, can’t touch.

So, the families come, and they talk about their lives and she drinks it all in. She watches as they change the paint and repaper the walls and load in new furniture.

But they never stay.

The lighthouse beacon is too bothersome, they say, and there are odd draughts in the house, and sometimes they see movements in the mirrors.

The families leave, and she remains.

She’s fairly certain she’s supposed to be somewhere else, and that there’s something she’s supposed to accomplish before she can go there, but she doesn’t know what or where or when.

And so, she walks… paces, really. She walks through the house and sees the old colors and furniture overlaying the new, and when the lighthouse spins to cast its beacon she thinks she might dance in the light.

Or maybe… just maybe… she’ll climb aboard and see where it takes her.