EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Kate Wolford
CONTRIBUTING EDITOR ART DIRECTOR Amanda Bergloff
ASSISTANT EDITOR Molly Ellson
SPECIAL PROJECTS EDITOR Kelly Jarvis ALL COPYRIGHT To the written works in this issue belong to the individual creators. Cover Painting: Winged Figure by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1889
Enchanted Conversation 2020
THE LAMP. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2 Marshall J. Moore
FALLEN ANGEL. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .61 Henry Herz
THE MIRACULOUS KINGDOM OF SILVER & GOLD. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .13 Kelly Jarvis
THE STONE AND THE SONG. . . . . . 71 Mike Neis
A NOT-QUITE-FRUITLESS CHRISTMAS TALE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 Linda McMullen A SOLSTICE SLUMBER. . . . . . . . . . . . . 21 Ellie A. Goss A CHRISTMAS WISH. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25 Maxine Churchman DEATH AND THE MOTHER. . . . . . . . . . 29 Melissa Yuan-Innes THE WIFE THAT NEVER WAS. . . . . . . . 37 Teika Marija Smits THE OLD WOMAN AND THE ANGEL. . .47 Kelly Jarvis WINGS OVER THE PLAIN. . . . . . . . . . . .55 Kathleen Jowitt
THE STINGING WINGS. . . . . . . . . . .81 Maxine Churchman THE SNOW GOOSE. . . . . . . . . . . . . .89 Rebecca Fung ANGEL CAKE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .97 Alicia Hilton THE GIFTS OF MIDWINTER. . . . . . . 107 Kelly Jarvis ANGEL FIXED IN STONE. . . . . . . . . . 115 Kelly Jarvis NIGHT, THE HARDEST TIME TO BE ALIVE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121 Kim Malinowski JACK BE NIMBLE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129 Victoria Dixon
EDITED BY Kate Wolford GRAPHIC DESIGN & LAYOUT Amanda Bergloff
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story intrigued me because of the narrator. Both compelling and unreliable, I felt myself wanting another story about this “genie.” I think it’s a great read to start EC ﬁction up again. 2
THE LAMP Marshall J. Moore granted no wishes. That is the first thing that needs to be said. Yes, I held the powers of Creation in my hands. I have split atoms into their constituent parts, and have witnessed the formation of galaxies. I have served as midwife at the birth of new worlds and have brought about extinctions with the merest act of will. I exist eternally, within the rushing stream of Time but not beholden to it. I was before the universe began, and I will be after it ends. Would I bend the cosmic forces of existence, merely to enhance the social standing and wealth of an urchin child? The thought would be laughable, were it not so fundamentally against my very nature. No, I did not grant wishes—or at least, I did not reorder reality to do so. I merely imparted knowledge, which is the only true source of power. And as a being who exists at once in present, past, and future, my knowledge is considerable. If the boy made use of what I told him to fulfill his own desires—his own wishes—then that was his doing, not mine. Nor did I serve the boy out of some contractual obligation. There was no bargain struck in which I agreed to conditional servitude in exchange for an end to my imprisonment. Any kindness I did him was done out of simple gratitude, not a desire to relieve myself of the burden of my salvation. For his part, the boy was never so cruel or imaginative as to consider himself my master. The worst crimes he was guilty of were greed—
understandable, considering his extreme povertyâ€”and of being a bit stupid. At least, at first. So, no. The three wishes are an embellishment, as is my alleged enslavement. That did not come until the end. But there was a lamp.
It was a dark and dismal prison, as all prisons are. I suppose any such confinement that was comfortable and cheerfully lit would defeat the entire purpose of imprisonment. But even by the standards of such institutions, the confines of an oil lamp are, after all, quite cramped. I am not a corporeal being. I inhabit Time only partially and can only experience Matter with a great deal of effortâ€”save when I am forced to do so. Such was the case with the lamp.
The torchlight was not bright, but after over a millennium of confinement it felt like seeing the sun again for the first timeâ€”like when I had first danced upon the surface of the stars, delighting in the radiance of their endless fusion. I emerged from my prison in a rush, my wings unfurling, my halo illuminating the dank dimness of the cave until the meager torch was hardly visible amidst the splendor. I rose to my full height, until my wing tips brushed the cavern roof. Only then did I notice the mortal youth who knelt at my feet, his mouth hanging open in an expression of equal parts abject horror and unabashed wonder. In his hands, nearly forgotten, was the accursed lamp. He did not look like a monster. Not then. I reached out for him, intending to thank him for my rescue, but he scrabbled back on all fours, lamp still clutched in his hand. Ah. Right. I am incapable of forgetting, but in my haste to escape my prison I had neglected the proper niceties. I shrank down until I was scarcely taller than a grown man, folding all four wings behind my back and
dimming my halo until it became merely dazzling rather than blinding. I stretched out a hand and told the boy, “Be not afraid.” Yes, that was it. The proper form of introduction, accompanied by veiling of my cosmic form. Driving my rescuer to madness would be a poor thanks, and impolite to boot. The boy stared. His clothes were threadbare and much-mended. I could see his ribs in the places where patches had given way to holes. “You’re a genie,” he told me, his voice small. “I am,” I agreed. My kind have been called many names by many peoples through the eons. Djinn, kami, Elohim. Names are immaterial to us, changing with the age and place we inhabit. He looked me up and down, the fear draining from his face in favor of a shrewd calculation. It was the look of one who is forced to survive on their own cleverness, and must by necessity be willing to turn any situation to their advantage. Those who lived comfortably almost never possess it, while the impoverished nearly always do. “They say genies grant wishes,” he ventured, the crafty gleam in his eyes growing with each word. “Do they?” I asked, amused. “Perhaps we do. Let me guess. Money, power, the hand of a beautiful woman. All of those things you desire, yes?” His brow furrowed in surprise. “How did you know?” “One human is very much like another.” I shrugged. “I have inhabited this world since your people first began shaping river mud into clay. The first man who ever asked anything of me wanted a thousand ceramic pots, three wives, and to become chief of his tribe.” “And did you give them to him?” “I did. So, then. What is your wish, Master …?” Understand, I meant “master” strictly in the sense of being an honorific for an adolescent. “Aladdin,” he supplied. “And what do I call you?” “I have no name,” I told him. “Names are for things that do not know what they are.” “But,” he frowned, “I must call you something.” “‘Genie’ will do,” I told him. I looked around at our surroundings. The
cave was cool and dry, and showed signs of a recent cave-in. And there was gold. A great deal of it, scattered about the young man’s feet. I had been buried in a treasure hoard. How flattering. “So,” I said. “Aladdin. It seems that wealth is already taken care of, though I see you have no place to spend it in this cave.” “That problem had occurred to me as well,” he admitted. Still, he hesitated. “How many wishes am I allowed?” “It doesn’t work like that,” I told him. “Simply tell me what you want, and I will advise you how to make it so.” Aladdin frowned. “You cannot simply snap your fingers and it is done?” “I could,” I said, “If you were to ask, say, that I transported us both from this cave, I could do so with the merest application of will. But I cannot promise that I would not send us both to the distant sands of the planet Mars, where there is no air. I would be fine of course, but you ...” I waved a hand at his scrawny form. His face had grown noticeably paler. “I think I see,” he said, wiping at his brow. “If you require an analogy,” I told him, “think of it as performing brain surgery with a pair of pliers.” “What?” “Never mind.” Occasionally I forget that the mortal mind is capable of occupying only its current location in time. What a limiting mode of existence that must be. “For the good of yourself and others, I will not and cannot remake the world simply to suit your whims.” Aladdin’s frown deepened. “Then how are we going to get out of this cave?” “Because I do possess the only power that matters. Knowledge.” I pointed behind me, towards the back of the cave. “Go further in, keeping your right hand against the wall at all times. I will accompany you and guide you. Eventually you will reach a stream. Follow it, and it will lead you to the cave’s exit.” I glanced about at the coins littering the floor. “Though if it is still wealth and riches that you desire, I suggest you fill your pockets first.” “I will,” he said, then looked down at what he held in his hands. “And what of this?”
I looked down at the lamp. “Leave it,” I told him.
As I have said, our relationship was not that of master and slave. I advised him, yes, but in the same way as a parent advises a child. None of that “to hear is to obey” nonsense. My advice was good, as it always is. The stream led him out of the cave and into the remote desert. I stretched my wings, eager to take to the skies for the first time in many centuries. Flight is a joy that more than makes up for the indignities of being bound to the physical world. So I flew, navigating the safest path back to his home, where I knew his mother waited anxiously for her lost son’s return. Aladdin followed below, earthbound like all mortals. When he thirsted, he wished for water, and I would tell him where to find an oasis among the sands. When he hungered, he wished for food, and I would guide him to where the desert creatures slept in their daytime hiding places. On the fifth day we reached the city where he lived. I watched, invisible, as Aladdin embraced his weeping mother. He showed her the coins he had obtained, and promised to buy her a good home with many servants. Such greed was forgivable, I told myself. He is a poor boy who loves his mother. They are both entitled to some luxury after their hardship. Aladdin was true to his word. He bought his mother a lavish home and dressed her in the finest linens. But when all was purchased, he had only a single coin left over from what he had taken from the cave. “My mother and I cannot eat gold,” he complained to me. “So buy food,” I told him. “If I do, there will be no money left for us to buy tomorrow’s supper,” he said. Then he looked at me, the shrewd glint in his eye returning. “Unless you can make more money. Can you?” “If you wish it,” I said, and I told him how to multiply his single gold coin. Aladdin did as I advised. He borrowed enough to buy a caravan’s worth of silks and spices. Together he and I traveled to distant Byzantium
cave where he sold them for an astronomical profit. He returned to his mother’s house a rich man, freed from his debts. But wealth does not beget satisfaction.
Perhaps if he had been more imaginative, the harm would have been less. A curious man might have asked me the secrets of the universe, to know what base elements matter was made from and what unseen force moved the stars across the heavens. But the simple man does not think past his own needs. Aladdin’s mind was focused only on his life and its pleasures. And wealth. Ever more wealth. As a boy Aladdin had been content with the coins taken from the treasure cave, and afterwards with enough to give his mother a comfortable life. Now, as he grew tall and bearded, his heart became bound with golden shackles. Dutifully, I told him what I knew. What goods would sell best in which markets. Which trade routes were safe and which were beset by bandits. What emir it was safe to ally himself with, and which shah would be overthrown by his viziers before he could honor his agreements. And so Aladdin became one of the wealthiest men in the world, so wealthy that he became a friend of the sultan himself. In this, as in all things, I was his secret counselor, telling him the ways of the court, the proper etiquette to keep him from embarrassing himself in such distinguished company. And of course, how to conceal his lowly origin from the sultan and his courtiers. All that fell by the wayside when he saw her, of course. I had been correct in my estimation of him, that first day in the cave. When he caught sight of the sultan’s youngest daughter, Aladdin’s next wish was exactly what I had thought it might be. So I told him what he asked me to know: how to seduce her with fine poetry and music and choice delights brought by his caravan from distant lands. The human heart is not a lock to be opened or closed, but I told him the words that might win hers, and my advice is always good. They were wed within the year. what of this?”
But the avaricious man is never satisfied. He always seeks more than he has. Having known what it is to want, he lives his life in fear of being so vulnerable again. Years passed. No longer content with merely being extravagantly rich, Aladdin wished to become powerful as well. I told him the secret to winning men’s hearts, to garnering loyalty and manipulating the levers of politics. By the time he was thirty, he had deposed his father-in-law the sultan and instilled himself as regent. By the time he was forty, he was sultan in name as well as fact. Years became decades. I watched as Aladdin’s avarice consumed him, just as he consumed endless meals of rich delights. He ordered the construction of a splendid palace, larger and grander than that of the predecessor he had usurped. He filled his harem with fresh beauties, their youth and suppleness in direct proportion to his steadily advancing age. His wife, the sultan’s daughter, was cast aside with hardly a thought. You may wonder why I watched all this happen, and did not simply leave, or, failing that, turn Aladdin and the palace he had built into a pile of ash. I wonder myself, sometimes. Perhaps I hoped that some trace of the scrawny young boy who had released me from my imprisonment still remained. As his middle grew fat and his beard grew white, Aladdin’s avarice gave way to fear. The poor see their enemies on the daylit streets; the rich see theirs in every shadow. He grew wary of assassins, suspected a knife hiding behind every smile in his court. He ordered his enemies imprisoned or killed, whether they were real or imaginary—and I knew which were which. He doubled the number of his palace guards, then tripled them. Then, fearing that their loyalties were suspect, he had them all executed. He feared me too. I saw it in his eyes on the occasions he consulted me for advice, which were becoming fewer and further between. I was too powerful, too dangerous for him to allow me to fall into another’s hands. I had seen the writing on the wall. I knew the future that awaited me as surely as I did the past. And yet I did not run from it. What would be the
point? The future was set in stone. He came for me at night, surrounded by better than twenty guards. I was not asleep, having no need for it, but he looked surprised to see me awake, all the same. In his hands he held an old brass oil lamp. My eyes met his. I felt no anger, only sadness. I had made the sly, simple orphan boy into the fat tyrant standing before me. “I have one more wish,” he said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marshall J. Moore is a writer, ﬁlmmaker, and martial artist. He has traveled to over twenty countries, once sold a thousand dollars' worth of teapots to Jackie Chan, and on one occasion was tracked down by a bounty hunter for owing $300 in overdue fees to the L.A. Public Library.
Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1887
Image by Theodore Kittelson
THE MIRACULOUS KINGDOM OF SILVER AND GOLD Kelly Jarvis
had no fear. When I pulled my mother’s candle from the space between my breasts, I had no fear its light would reveal a troll. I knew it was a man’s body that embraced me while I lay half asleep in the dark, dreaming of soft white fur. I thought my kiss would break the enchantment and transform him back into the bear that I loved. Instead, the hot wax burned his fragile skin, and he angrily cast me away because I had defied his command. I had no fear when I set out on the long journey to find him in the land between the setting sun and rising moon. I knew I was the one who should have him, though he was betrothed to another. I had grown up in rags, but my childhood had been rich in stories, and I believed that faith and love would light my way. I clung to the North Wind as he whisked me over the frigid landscape. Snowstorms swirled in our wake, burying towns in torrents of ice and upheaving ships at sea. I had no fear when the hideous trolls brought me his shirt and forced me to launder it in exchange for his freedom. I plunged the soiled cloth into the soapy water and pulled it from the basin, clean and white like the Christ Child’s swaddling clothes. He forgave my curiosity, and I vowed to love him in his human form. We returned to the mortal realm, together and unafraid.
Our marriage was blessed with children, each one lovelier than the loveliest thing either of us could imagine. They all had hair as white as fresh fallen snow, and when I carried my candle into their nurseries to see them sleeping, it looked as if their heads were crowned with tufts of soft white fur. Half wild, they frolicked through the frozen forest, their white heads tumbling against each other like snowflakes swirling toward land. Their godfather, the North Wind, kissed their cheeks rosy with his icy breath, but they never felt the cold. Every year in December, when the earth paused in solstice silence, we gave the children silver bells to fill our holiday home with the jingling sounds of joy. There were presents wrapped in sterling paper, golden apples gleaming on the hearth, and thick storybooks with gilded edges waiting to be read. Tiny golden suns and silver moons dangled from our Christmas tree, and, when we lit the tapers woven into the evergreen branches, their dancing glow rivaled the beauty of the stars.
Our house is quiet now, even in December. The tapers on our tree have been replaced by electric strands of lights which leave no trace of tallow to mark where they have been. Our children, who grew as big as bears, have left us. My kisses could not transform them back into the babies that I loved. I gave them each a candle to take with them on their quests. They have no fear. On Christmas Eve, my husband lies next to me in the dark. I snuggle against his furry white beard. In my dreams, we are young again, and he carries me on his back through mountains covered in white-haired snow. Faith and love flicker fearlessly around us, pushing away the endless night. We awaken on Christmas morning, together and unafraid, at home in the miraculous kingdom of silver and gold that lies east of the sun and west of the moon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Jarvis teaches classes in literature, writing, and fairy tale at Central Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, and Tunxis Community College. She lives, happily ever after, with her husband and three sons in a house ďŹ lled with fairy tale books.
THE NOT-QUITE-FRUITLESS CHRISTMAS TALE Linda McMullen
o solve our little problem, my husband, Tom, had proposed consulting a witch, or planting barleycorns a peasant woman offered us—but those ideas accorded ill with my notion of what was due God, so I dissuaded him. I reminded him that we had one another, and we had our bakery to look after. Tom rejoined, “And who will look after us when we grow old?” A month came and went, then a year, then another, and our family size stalled at two. Tom’s mouth tightened a little more each time I shook my head: the anti-annunciation. But he gamely attempted to recover his golden-rulebook and produce a smile. “Better luck next year?” “We had best finish packing,” I said. We planned to visit Tom’s parents, and our horse and buggy stood ready in the yard. Tom let loose a very un-Christmas-y exclamation. The journey stretched for hours. We passed travelers walking, travelers riding, most of them calling “Merry Christmas!” When we stopped for lunch at an inn, we found several young mothers tending their infants, who wailed in three-part harmony. But each rebuffed my efforts to help. I hid my hurt. Finally, we arrived. Tom’s parents clapped him on the back, paused, shook my hand. But hugs, kisses, and exclamations rained down when Tom’s sister Mary turned up with her husband, her brood of four, and a fifth blessing in progress.
Tom’s mother, a grandma of the first rank and (of course) a baker’s wife herself, had treats ready for the children to decorate on arrival. I helped Mary’s eldest three create their gingerbread boys and girls while their mother and the youngest napped. “You will surely want to do this with your own little ones someday,” Tom’s mother said. I helped the eldest child adjust his gingerbread man’s buttons. Tom’s father stopped to observe our progress. “You’ll be a wonderful mother,” he said finally. I made a noncommittal noise. “You and Tom have been married—eight years?” “Nine.” “Nine,” he repeated, drawing out the word, his tone barren. The eldest child saved me the trouble of replying by spilling the dyed crystals, dusting us all in blood-red sugar. I called upon the Lord, to bear me strength. The children hurried outside to enjoy the falling snow. I helped Tom’s mother prepare the evening meal, and hung the children’s stockings by the fireplace, and led the entire family in carols on that cold Christmas Eve. After the children went to bed, Tom’s sister Mary said, “Sister, you have been a blessing in helping with the children today… when shall you have your own? What are you waiting for?” “A sign?” I choked out. “Really, sister—” she continued, blithely. “Really,” I agreed. “But—” “Can you not take a hint?” I demanded. Mary had the gall to look affronted. I stormed out of the room. Christmas Day dawned clear and cold, but our pew remained somewhat subdued. I nursed my grudge tenderly until the choir began my favorite carol. Then, only then, I unbent enough to allow the loveliness to resound through me. And then… Possibly… It might have been a trick of the light. I certainly couldn’t credit my own eyes. But up, far over the altar, near the shadowed ceiling, a carven angel seemed to tilt her head toward me—and nod.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over 60 literary magazines, including Drunk Monkeys, Storgy, and Newfound.
A SOLSTICE SLUMBER Ellie A. Goss er heart thundered against its captive cage, refusing to still even though the feet that propelled her, had come to a halt. Frantically, she whipped her head about, then she saw it. The path lay ahead, where the moon cast light over a small group of deer that had wandered across the entry. Before she had a chance to move towards her escape, the deer sensing the creature pursuing her, darted away. Her chest tightened and she ran, she stumbled, she fell. Then roughened hands clasped her by the waist, dragging her back through the night-cooled blades of grass, the earthen smells filling her nostrils as she disturbed the soil from its place. Back to his lair, back to her sisters. She could not fight it anymore.
Long before the memory of man and when the cosmos was being designed, five sisters were given the task of guardianship over abundance and light. During their time they watched fairies play and make mischief, they whispered to the nixie and water sprites and danced jigs on the sweet and humid Summer nights with pixies and gnomes. Together they worked to ensure living things continued to flourish and the seeds of beginnings were spread to all the lands and inland waters. But eventually, vanity began to emerge among the sisters, as all praised their works, and so five brothers, the faun, were sent to give balance back to the earth. Together they sent rest to the land,
land, its plants, and even some of the creatures that would sleep the season through. The day-to-day growth inspired and cultivated by the sisters would be put to rest, allowing Winter to come.
The years had not been kind to the brothers five, as now there remained only one. He continued the task set for them, ensuring the sisters were placed safely in their winter home by eveâ€™s end of the Winter Solstice. Holly was always the most difficult charge, the faun had noted. Mischief and mayhem now ran deep within her, and, when earlier that week he was about to close the clasp on the lock to her door, she had sent a pollen cloud directly into his eyes. Momentarily blinded, the faun had failed to lock Holly in, and she had fled. For days he had chased her through valleys of frost and fog, within the branches of treetops and deep within the winding burrows and caves of the earth, now again firmly in his grip. Dragging her by the ankle allowed him to wrestle with his belt, which neatly tucked into a fold contained a magic sack. Drawing it free, he flung it over the sister, maneuvering her lithe form inside. There was no time to lose, whispers had spread about the late Winter, the delay of snow and blooms flourishing when they should be spent. He knew what would be, should he fail, the cost too dear. His feet fell heavily on the ground as his eyes sought the heavens, they connected with the constellation he sought and with a flash of light, they were transported. Arriving, he deftly threw the sack and its contents into a delicately ornate golden cage. Within moments of her struggle to be free and Holly laid her head down to sleep. Snow began to fall, covering the hills and valleys, and enchanting and ethereal silence spread in places of nature where the fires burnt, and that songs sang in celebration of Winterâ€™s Solstice didnâ€™t reach.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellie A. lived and works nestled between the Tarkine Forest and the Cradle Mountain National Park, also the inspiration for her ďŹ rst children's book, The Bunyips Bath (2016). She has gone on to publish further children's books as well her work can be found in ezines, magazines and anthologies across genres.
A CHRISTMAS WISH Maxine Churchman t New Year, Ben’s mum gave me an old cardboard box. It was lightweight and smelled dusty. “These are a few Christmas decorations from when Ben was a boy. Perhaps you would like them. They were quite special to him once.” I put the box away unopened and forgot about it, but as Christmas approached, I decided it might be a nice surprise for Ben; and Charlie might like to see the decorations his dad had as a boy. I opened the box, not knowing what to expect. Nestled in tissue paper, were several beautiful glass baubles and an exquisite fairy that was the ideal size for our tree. When Ben arrived home that evening, he let out a whistle when he saw the tree. I think his eyes were a little moist but I pretended not to notice. “That angel takes me back,” he said, looking at the fairy at the top of the tree. "She still looks fabulous, although a little discolored now.” “She’s a fairy,” I said. “Fairy, angel. Does it matter? When I was a boy, I used to make a wish on her on Christmas Eve.” “Did any of your wishes come true?” “Some.” There was a catch in his voice and he turned away. On Christmas Eve, Charlie took carrots to bed to feed the reindeer. Ben and I snuggled on the sofa watching the logs crackle and glow in the grate. As midnight approached, I suggested we make a wish on the fairy.
“We’re a bit old for that now, don’t you think?” he said. “Ah come on. Life’s too short and precious to be sensible all the time.” I was thinking of Charlie and I’m sure he knew it. He kissed me and grinned like a schoolboy. “There are rules,” he told me earnestly. “OK.” I stared at him intently to show I was paying attention. “You must only tell the angel your wish. If you breathe a word of it to anyone else, the wish won’t come true.” “Fair enough. No pun intended.” He frowned, unimpressed. “You can only make one wish, and I know through experience, she doesn’t like wishes for material gain.” I wondered what wishes he had been denied. “OK. Anything else?” “No, but if your wish is granted. Be sure to thank her. Are you ready? We must make our wishes at midnight.” We sat in silence watching the second hand tick count off the seconds. I already knew what I would wish for and a quick glance at Ben told me he had his wish ready too. As the clock struck the hour, we closed our eyes and made our wishes. In the morning, pale sunlight was just peeking through a gap in our curtains when a noise from Charlie’s bedroom woke me. Ben stirred sleepily and I touched his shoulder. “I think Charlie is awake. Let’s fetch him to open his presents.” I couldn’t wait to see his face. Charlie was sitting up in bed, eyes sparkling, grinning from ear to ear. “Mum Dad, I can feel my legs and look—I can wiggle my toes.” A car accident three years ago, had robbed Charlie of all sensations in his legs; doctors warned us he may never walk again. I brushed tears from my face. Ben swung Charlie into a bear hug. “That’s fantastic, Champ. What a great Christmas gift. Let’s celebrate by opening your presents.” “I just have to see the fairy,” I said, heading for the stairs. “Me too,” he replied with a grin.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maxine Churchman is a mother and grandmother from Essex UK. Her hobbies include reading, hiking, yoga and, more recently, writing. So far she has concentrated on short stories, but hopes to make progress on a novel in 2020. She has had work published by CafeLit, Black Hare Press, Stormy Island Publishing and Clarendon House Publishing.
EDITORâ€™S NOTE: I couldnâ€™t resist this angle on the Angel of Death. Melissa takes a classic fairy tale and Death and mashes them up in a very unexpected way. A surprising and satisfying tale. Image by Richard Tennant
DEATH AND THE MOTHER Melissa Yuan-Innes he Queen gasped as her newly born infant daughter snapped at her breast. "What shall I do?” asked the Queen, cradling the hungry baby as best she could. "Your Majesty, I will fetch your wet nurse," answered the youngest attendant. The Queen shook her head. She had longed for this tiny princess for far too long to hand her over immediately to a wet nurse. "It is better for you to rest now. You have lost too much blood," said the midwife, drawing a soft, white dressing gown over the Queen's shoulders before she reached for the princess. The Queen pushed away the midwife’s hand as the baby clamped on for several excruciating moments. As tears rose to the Queen’s eyes, the newborn's eyes closed and her tiny body sagged into sleep. The Queen laughed and held her daughter tighter. They would try again later. The Queen tucked her head against her baby’s soft head, trying to inhale her new scent, but a sudden chill cut through the bedroom. She opened her mouth to order someone to stoke the fire. Instead, she froze, spying a charcoal mist undulating toward the bed. Within seconds, the mist coalesced into a figure wearing a long, black cloak. He pushed back the hood to reveal his skeletal face. He hoisted his scythe in the air, aiming at her precious baby's throat. She tucked her own body over her baby's. She had no time for
disbelief or fear. "Angel of Death, you cannot have her." "Your Majesty, do you see someone?” asked the Queen's attendant. The midwife's head jerked up. She gasped, a tiny puff of air. The Queen ignored them both in order to concentrate on the specter in front of her. "Death, hold thy sting. This baby is not for you." Death paused with his scythe in the air. His voice was like the wind rattling winter's dry branches. "She is mine. Look at her skin, pale as alabaster. Her heart is not strong. She belongs in my arms, not yours." "Her lips are as red as a summer's rose," countered the Queen. "Yes, yes, the fairest of them all," soothed the attendant. The midwife placed a hand on the attendant's arm and shook her head, ordering her to be silent. "Her hair is as black as ebony. She lives, she breathes, she came through my body. She is not for you!” the Queen shouted. Her uterus tightened. She gasped as she bled afresh between her legs, but it didn't matter. Only her daughter mattered. Death shook his head. "A beauty she may be, but not for this world. I am sorry for your loss, my Queen." "Am I your Queen, then?” she answered, holding the infant so close, she murmured in protest. "All of you are mine, sooner or later, my Queen." "If I am your Queen, if I belong to you, then you may take me in her stead." Death shook his head. "I am not here to bargain, my Queen. I am here to cull a life." The Queen fixed him with her most imperious glare. "Are you, then? If any life will do, you may have mine and be done with it." Death chuckled. It felt like finger bones clinking in her throat. "It does not work that way, my Queen. Once a human has been marked for Death, I will keep coming, no matter how many lives are thrown in my path." "Will such a life slow you down?” the Queen asked, raising her own pale hand, nearly as white-skinned as her daughter's. "It might tarry me a little, but I will come regardless." "Tarry then, with my life before her own." As you wish," said Death’s Angel, and swung his scythe at the Queen’s throat.
throat. With her last breath, she kissed her daughter one final time. Blood gushed from between the Queen's thighs, soaking the bed. The attendant screamed. The midwife yelled, "Take the child! Call the Royal Physician!" and did her best to staunch the flow, but when the Queen's skin turned waxen and her lips leached from red to blue, the midwife whispered, "I will aid you as best I can, my Queen."
Nine years later, Death exited the castle with another soul. Every time, he expected to carry off the princess, but this time, it was a scullery maid who caught the worst in a kitchen fire. The Angel passed through the gardens and paused when he heard the King speak of his daughter. "She is too clumsy." "That may be," said the Chief Advisor, "but Snow White's beauty is already renowned throughout the land. She will not want for suitors.â€? He smiled at the little girl who tossed her ball in the air and shrieked for joy. "I had never thought a princess capable of falling in a moat," said the King. "Then, the other day, she choked on a piece of bread." Death would have smiled, if he had possessed lips. "The midwife happened to be passing and managed to remove it," said the Chief Advisor. "Yes," said the King, but his gaze strayed to the miniatures sent from neighboring kingdoms. He would have to marry again, and soon, to ensure heirs, preferably sturdy boys and not beautiful but clumsy girls. Death fingered the sharp blade of his scythe. Soon, he promised it silently. The Queen's blood had protected her for nearly a decade, but he would return for the girl soon.
Less than a year later, thanks to a new and jealous Queen, Death stalked the little princess on the heels of a huntsman. Death could feel her small, weak heart hammering in her chest and hear her frightened gasps as she stumbled over the roots of trees. See? he silently asked the former Queen. Would you not prefer a peaceful
peaceful death in your arms, as an infant, to being hunted like a deer before her heart and lungs are excised from her chest as a bloody trophy for the new Queen? A branch lashed the princess next to her left eye. She cried out and crashed down on her hands and knees on the edge of a clearing. The huntsman raised his blade. Now, thought Death. His scythe was sharp and hungry. The child wept. The tears and mucous on her face glistened in the moonlight. "Please, sir, I beg of you!â€? the child pleaded. Death shook his head. She had evaded him for ten long years. Payment had come due. A sound rustled in the bushes. Death ignored the wild boar, but the hunter raised wild eyes toward the animal. The child began to weep and wail in a way that might have touched Death's heart. Fortunately, he lacked that particular organ. The huntsman cast his knife at the boar's side. Its screech rent the air. Its forelegs lurched. "Go!" the huntsman shouted at the child. "Go far and never come back!" Death's teeth clattered in his jawbones. He pursued the still-sobbing girl, but she managed to stagger deeper into the forest, away from the huntsman, who seized a dagger and sliced the still-screeching boar's throat. The Angel of Death raised his empty eye sockets to the sky. He did not believe in heaven or hell, but sometimes, he wondered if the former Queen could unduly influence matters, still.
Fortunately, the new Queen did not entrust Snow White's fate to incompetent underlings a second time. By springtime, she had located the princess and enticed her into sampling an exquisitely ripe but poisoned apple. Snow White choked as soon as the poison touched her tongue. Her stomach heaved. Death eyed the princess, wondering if her mother would somehow manage to expel the bite of apple from beyond the grave.
The princess's eyes protruded. She tried to cough. Her hands flew to her throat and waved there helplessly while the apple remained embedded in her gullet. Less than a minute later, the girl slid to the ground. Her chest no longer rose or fell. "Good," said the new Queen, and hobbled away, still disguised as an old peasant. Death swung his scythe at Snow White's throat. When he pulled it back, her soul followed, drawing out of her body. The shimmering golden web caught half-way. When Death yanked his scythe, the soul struggled away from him, arching back toward the corpse. "What's this?" said Death. He touched her body with one skeleton finger. Immediately, he understood. The princess had been born with an extra ring of muscle in her swallowing tube, causing her to choke on too-large morsels of food from an early age. The apple piece had lodged there. She had choked and fainted, but had not crossed over. Yet. Death drew his pocket watch out of his cloak and studied its face. The clock had mysteriously reset itself to show five more days. Death could wait five more days, while the poison seeped into her body and completed her murder. "Soon, my pretty," he said, tapping a finger bone on her brow. She did not even blink. She was so close to Death, in more ways than one. Death drew his cloak back over his face and vanished. Five days later, he reappeared at her side, slightly surprised to see her arrayed in some sort of glass coffin while seven little servants struggled to carry her aloft. "That will make a fine tomb," he said, scything her throat. His weapon passed easily through the glass. He reached once more for her soul. This time, it came readily, if slowly, as a silver thread spooling out of her body. He spun it into a ball, humming. The thread slowed down. He tugged at it. The thread stopped altogether. She still clung to life. A stubborn child, just like her mother. Death raised his scythe a final time.
A pallbearer stumbled. Another one ran into him. The glass coffin tilted. The little pallbearers scrambled to hold on, but it fell to the ground. Two glass panes fractured instantly. Snow White's body bounced once, twice, still contained in the coffin. The Angel dove toward her, scythe ready, just as the princess stirred and coughed. "She lives!â€? shouted a little man, and soon they opened the coffin and swarmed all over her. Death gnashed his molars. They were in the way, but he had negotiated battlefields much worse than this. He hefted his scythe one last time. The princess gagged and spat out the poisoned bit of apple. Her soul unwound back into her body. "No!â€? shouted Death, snatching the ball of silver thread, but it passed through his hands and flowed like a thin silver river toward her now-breathing form. "No, no, no!â€? insisted Death. He seized his pocket watch. The princess's death had been reset to eleven years hence. "No one cheats Death," he yelled. "You are all mine eventually. Kings, Queens, shoemakers and sin eaters. Babies or grown women. You all belong to me." No one responded to him. The girl sat up, blinking in astonishment at the seven little men cavorting around her, singing their delight. From the sidelines, a taller man dressed in fine leather boots crossed to her side and caressed her cheek. When she turned toward him, he pressed a kiss on her lips. Death hoped that the poison remaining on her skin might harm one or both of them, but they merely beamed at each other. The man embraced the princess as if she were a weakened fawn he would nurse back to health. She closed her eyes, leaning into his disgustingly healthy body. Somewhere, somehow, The Angel of Death could have sworn he heard the former Queen laugh.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melissa Yuan-Innes is a doctor who loves fairy tales and werewolves. Sheâ€™s a Writers of the Future winner published in Nature and The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. She writes the Hope Sze medical mysteries as Melissa Yi, recommended by the CBC and Ellery Queen. Her website is www.melissayuaninnes.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story takes “Bluebeard” and twists it into something I never would have anticipated. It’s a truly fresh take.
Image: Self Portrait by Ilya Repin, 1887
THE WIFE THAT NEVER WAS Teika Marija Smits ife had come to Bluebeard’s castle, or so it seemed. All the servants remarked on it. There was a”‘something” in the air. A sense of a new beginning. Joy, even. This was due to the latest bride, Bluebeard’s seventh wife, Ziva. My, how exquisite she was! Every being who looked upon her ecru skin and sable hair felt their heart throb within them. Even Bluebeard, who thought himself unmoved by human beauty. Ziva reminded him of his youth, of long-forgotten days when his soul was pure. When he, too, was numinous, and one of God’s beloved servants, carrying out His heavenly work. But dwelling on his past—on what might have been—was bittersweet. So he put those memories away and considered the future. He found himself salivating at the prospect of his first trip away; of his return to the wide-eyed Ziva who, with trembling hands, would return to him his set of keys. The littlest, most ornate key—the key to the forbidden room—would be bloodstained, proving her guilt. And he’d rage and roar, his body thrilling with murderous anticipation, while she quivered before him, a little lamb, an innocent doe, unable to escape the huntsman’s knife. Yet when he returned, Ziva’s hands did not tremble when she returned his keys. His eyes sought out the littlest key. To his great surprise, and disappointment, it was not stained with blood. Ziva put her soft, cool hand to his cheek. “I’ve missed you, Husband.” Bluebeard, lost for words, allowed himself to be led to the divan and plied with drinks and fruit and questions about his trip. As he gazed upon
upon his beautiful bride he couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry.
Later that night, when his wife was asleep, Bluebeard crept to the forbidden room. On entering the bloody chamber, he was immediately aware that something was wrong. One of his dead wives was missing. She was utterly gone. Not a scrap of hair or flesh or clothing remained. He roared with fury, grabbing at the bodies of the other dead wives, begging them to tell him where she was. They merely hung there, mute. Bluebeard once more studied the littlest key, but there was not a speck of blood upon it. And the key never lied. So how had Ziva done it? He considered confronting her, knife in hand, but then decided against this. There was little pleasure to be had from an ambush. No, it was time for another trip away.
“Again?” said Ziva, the next morning, disappointed. “But you’ve only just now got back!” Bluebeard managed a mournful sigh. “There is unfinished business I must attend to.” Ziva nodded. “I understand. You’re a perfectionist, my love.” “Remember about the key?” demanded Bluebeard, handing her the large ring of keys. “I forbid you to use it to enter my private chamber. Do you understand?” “Of course, Husband,” said Ziva. “Just as you say.”
Bluebeard was back soon enough, and his wife was very happy to see him. Though, to his dismay, the key was just as it was before. This time, Bluebeard waited for only a short while before going to his bloody chamber. Another wife was missing. He raced back to Ziva, commanding her to tell him the truth: had she used the forbidden key? Ziva swore that she hadn’t. Clearly upset, she asked him why she would do such a thing. It would be a terrible, wicked thing to disobey such a good and loving husband. And wasn’t he the best and most loving of husbands?
Bluebeard, uncertain how to act, slumped onto the divan. “Wine,” he muttered. “Bring me some wine.” Ziva acquiesced. It was some time before Bluebeard took another trip. Yet when Bluebeard returned, another dead wife was missing. The same thing happened over and over, until all the dead wives were gone. Still, the key remained unblemished. Bluebeard despaired.
“Husband,” said Ziva, on seeing him so broken, “what is the matter? Can you tell me? Indeed, I may be able to help.” “No,” he replied, pulling at his blue beard. There was no one in this realm who could help. He silently muttered to himself as he considered the missing wives. It was possible that Ziva and his steward, though always loyal in the past, were conspiring against him. But how? The key, wrought with the greatest dark power, a power that defied even God Himself, never lied. What if the dead women’s families had finally realized what had happened to them and somehow removed the bodies? By tunneling in? No, that was impossible. He’d checked every stone of the cell; they were as they had always been—solid, unmoving. Besides, he’d always been so careful about choosing his prey. All of them, bar the first, were fatherless girls from poor families, their mothers overjoyed to see their daughters make such a good match. They wouldn’t have the wit to go snooping. Ziva intruded on his thoughts. “It pains me to have to say this, husband, particularly when you’re so troubled, but I must away for a while.” “Away?” said Bluebeard, goggling at her. “To where?” “To see my father.” “Father?” he said, incredulous. “But I thought you had no father!” “Every being in this world has a father,” said Ziva. “Even you, my love, though you may not acknowledge Him. Do you not remember the importance of fathers?” Ziva began to recite the Lord’s prayer, “Our Father, who art in Heaven—
Heaven—” “Enough!” And Bluebeard muttered something about fathers being weak-hearted fools who cared nothing for their children. “Well, whatever your thoughts on the matter, I must still away.” “Now?” said Bluebeard, his heart suddenly full of sadness. Ziva nodded. “And dearest, will you do something for me, please?” “Yes, of course.” “Refrain from entering your secret room. Just until I return.” “What?” roared Bluebeard. “You are forbidding me from going to one of my own chambers?” “Not forbidding,” said Ziva, her voice steady, “but asking.” Bluebeard grabbed his wife by the hair and yelled at her to reveal how she had done it. “Was it you who got rid of them? How did you get in there?” Ziva, tears in her eyes, begged him to explain. “Tell me how you did it!” he cried, raising his fist, the bloodlust in him. He was going to enjoy this. But Ziva was no startled doe or quivering lamb. There was a something in her eyes, a fearlessness, which made his blood run cold. Bluebeard lowered his fist and then released her. The next moment the something was gone, and all he could see before him was her sad, startled face. For a fleeting moment he felt a pang of regret. “Go then! Go to your father!” Ziva went. Naturally, Bluebeard went straight to his secret chamber. But as he was about to place the key in the lock he stopped. Ziva’s beautiful face came to his mind. Maybe she just wanted the best for him. And all this back-and-forthing to his once-bloody chamber was driving him mad and causing him to hallucinate. Perhaps when Ziva returned all would be as it was before. And they could be… happy. “Ha! What do I know about happiness?” He thrust the key into the lock and then opened the door, the dim torchlight throwing all kinds of strange shadows. And there before him hung his newly dead wife, her slit throat dripping blood.
Bluebeard let out an almighty cry and fell to the floor.
There Bluebeard remained, prostrate, for some time, the fabric of his robes soaking up his dead wife’s blood. As he slowly heaved himself off the flagstones he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Why so sad?” asked a voice. “Did you… love her?” Bluebeard spun round. There was nothing there. Just a wisp of smoke. “Show yourself, demon!” “Did you care for her? Or are you sad because you wanted to be the one to kill her?” “She was the most beautiful and obedient woman I have ever known. The perfect wife. She did not deserve to die!” “Beauty and obedience? Are these the only things that matter in a wife?” The wisp flew about Bluebeard and he whirled around trying to grab it. “Show yourself, trickster!” “All in good time. As I recall, your first wife was beautiful and obedient too. What did she do that made her so deserving of death?” “She did not love me for me! All she wanted was my wealth. And then she began to lust after the stablehand. She deserved to die!” “She did lust, yes,” said the wisp. “But did she actually commit adultery? No. Never. As to love… Well, she held you in great esteem. In time both of you would’ve been happy in the marriage. But you were impatient.” “She coveted that man! She committed adultery. In her mind.” “And who are you to dispense justice? Besides, what about you, Bluebeard? Didn’t you murder Ziva, over and over, in your mind?” “But I didn’t kill her!” he roared. “You didn’t trust her, either, did you?” The wisp sighed. “If only you hadn’t entered the room.” “Tell me, what would’ve happened if I hadn’t come here? Would she be alive still?” A single tear rolled down Bluebeard’s face and was lost to his beard. Heaven—
The wisp laughed. “You really did care for her, didn’t you? But what if I told you that her beauty was a lie, and that whenever you left the castle she slipped through the keyhole and removed a wife? What would you say then?” Bluebeard was round-eyed, his mouth agape. “I’d say… that isn’t possible!” “Yet here you are, talking to nothing more than a haze of smoke.” Bluebeard backed away, towards the door to the chamber, but the wisp had made sure the door was closed and locked. “You want out, now, do you? After you’d been so desperate to be here? You would’ve done well to listen to your wife and keep away.” Bluebeard’s heart began to pound; sweat sprung to his skin. For the first time in his life Bluebeard was frightened. “Yes, this is how your murdered wives felt too. Horrible, isn’t it?” Suddenly, there was a great rush of wind within the chamber which caused the torches to gutter and Bluebeard to shut his eyes. On opening them he saw that Ziva was gone and, instead, the room contained six dead bodies hanging from the ceiling. They were not his wives. They were him. Six Bluebeards. “This cannot be!” he cried. He ran to the door and threw himself at it. It didn’t budge. “Oh, but it can, and it is,” said the wisp, becoming more substantial, human-like. It flickered through various forms—a tall hooded figure, with scythe in skeletal hands; then a black-skinned angel, huge, dark wings unfurling behind him; next an ebony jackal, handsome and sleek—until settling on the numinous form of lovely Ziva. “You!” said Bluebeard, as understanding came to him. “I was right all along. You were the one who took my wives from me!” “I returned their bodies to the earth and gave their souls peace. I whispered the truth to their families.” Bluebeard struck out at Ziva, but by the time his fist reached her she was nothing but smoke. When she reappeared in corporeal form she was wielding a sword. The sword that Bluebeard had used to slay his wives. “Mercy!” he cried as Ziva held him to her. “I beg you! Grant a fellow angel mercy!”
“You’re no angel!” cried Ziva. “You have fallen! You’re but a wretch who once had the love of God and then lusted for more. Your actions have condemned you!” He tried wrenching himself free, but it was no good, she was stronger than him. Panic welled within Bluebeard, he felt his bladder fail him and then an excruciating pain across his throat. Everything went dark.
When he came to, a rough hand hauled him up. “Ready for your second death?” said Ziva, the sword in her hand glinting in the torchlight. Bluebeard gibbered and stumbled backwards, trying for the door again. Ziva grabbed him and once again killed him.
Bluebeard died another four times. When Ziva breathed new life into him for the last time, he opened his eyes and then instantly closed them. “Is this the end?” he breathed. “If so, get it over with quickly.” “No, my sweet, it is not the end. It is only the beginning.” She put a shovel into his hand. “Now you must bury the bodies.” Bluebeard looked at the six dead bodies – bodies that were his – and slowly got to his feet.
Bluebeard spent the next six days at toil, digging graves in his garden. Ziva visited him occasionally, reminding him to make the graves deep. By the end of the week he was exhausted and utterly broken. “Now?” he said, when he saw her again. “Will you be taking me now?” “No, not yet. As I said, this is only the beginning.” Guilt, having hitherto been unknown to Bluebeard, was even more excruciating than the blade at his throat. He kept to his bed and longed for death. But when he took matters into his own hands he learnt that suicide was an impossibility—Ziva would stay his hand and keep him alive to endure the pain of grief and remorse.
The families of his murdered wives banged at the castle door and shouted at him to come out. They demanded justice for their daughters. Bluebeard went to them, eager to meet his death at their hands, but when he did, a great wind passed through the crowd and whispered to them that they must not touch Bluebeard. Justice had been done—was being done—and they must return to their homes, unsullied by revenge. The families went, and Bluebeard once again took to his bed to be consumed by darkness.
Years passed and slowly Bluebeard began to stir. He let his servants go and distributed his wealth among the villagers. He began to garden, and found satisfaction working the earth, the honest soil planting itself in the creases of his hands. Sometimes, he would sit on a bench, a haggard, grey-bearded figure, and watch the sun set. At times, he almost felt something like peace. Occasionally, Ziva would join him. Bluebeard would always ask the same question. “Do you forgive me?” And she would always answer, “Yes.” On this occasion, Bluebeard also asked if he was nearing the end. He felt, in his heart, as though it was almost time. “Almost, brother angel,” said Ziva. “And then you will be reunited with your father. Our Father, who art in Heaven.” Bluebeard nodded, acceptance coming to him at last. “And all will be well?” “Yes, my love. All will be well.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Teika Marija Smits is the editor of The Forgotten and the Fantastical series of fairy tale anthologies. Her own writing is heavily inspired by folklore and has appeared in various places, including Reckoning, Shoreline of Inﬁnity and Best of British Science Fiction 2018. Her name means “fairy tale” in Latvian.
EDITORâ€™S NOTE: This gloriously detailed story of heartbreak, and love and work appealed to me because of the visual and emotional connection it creates with the reader.
Image: Portrait of a Woman by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1870
THE OLD WOMAN AND THE ANGEL Kelly Jarvis reface: The story of “Jorinde and Joringel,” by the Brothers Grimm, begins with an old woman, a true witch, living by herself in a castle deep in a thick forest. But the real story begins earlier, when this old woman was a girl. Even ancient hags with eyes red from crying were young and beautiful once upon a time, and this girl, who was to become a witch, was the most beautiful of them all.
“Don’t leave me.” They were lying tangled together, breathless, beneath an autumn canopy of leaves. The boy smiled at the girl, his fingers slowly twisting through her hair. His own rust colored locks curled down from his temples, framing eyes the color of a far off horizon. “I will return in three years’ time, my love.” He gently twirled the iron nail he had shaped into a ring and slid upon her finger, his own circle of iron clicking softly against it. They had exchanged these rustic symbols in a secret marriage ritual as the sun had miraculously risen from its casket of green earth that morning. Now the sun took its final breath in the loving embrace of twilight, and a thousand protests rose inside the girl’s heart. She had hoped their forest vows would tether them together and silence his desire to sail the seas. A tear slipped from her eye, and she turned her head toward a patch of flowers stained red by the death throes of the sun. He plucked one and touched its silky petal to her damp cheek, circling it down the curve
curve of her neck. Then he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her while the fire he had built in the clearing blazed, dwindled, and eventually died into an ashy gray smoke that curled upward toward the star spattered heavens. It was long past midnight when she fell into a deep and dreamless sleep on the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. When she woke, he was gone.
The boy sailed the dangerous seas all through the long, dark winter. He sailed through the blooming of spring, when the girl, as swollen and heavy as a harvest tree, was sent far away to repent in the reverent home of her spinster aunt. He sailed through the thick heat of summer as her pains split her in two. The girl screamed out his name with each wave of agony, and, when she burned with fever, and her aunt, thinking she would die, cast a circle of prayer around her, she muttered his name through her blistered lips. Her aunt told her it was the Angel Zachiel who had answered their prayers. Through the haze of her clouded memory, the girl can recall a host of angelic forms gathered just outside the stone threshold of the window, stretching endlessly toward the horizon, their wings illuminated by celestial light. In her dreams, she remembers a child she would never see again, warm and wet against her breast, with ringlets of slick, soft, rust colored hair.
Her aunt’s cottage was an austere place, but the girl, who was now a young woman, came to appreciate the cold stone walls of the house and the scratch of the black woolen gown which had replaced her maiden wardrobe. She wore a silver pendant carved with Zachiel’s likeness beneath her robes so that the metal touched her skin, the cold circle pressing against the place where her heart had been. “When you were on the doorstep of death, Zachiel took mercy on you,” her aunt reminded her daily. Every morning the woman rose with the sun, spending her days in solemn repentance. Every evening, when her watchful aunt finally took her r
her rest, she loosened the wooden floor boards and retrieved the iron wedding ring she had hidden there. She pressed it into her icy flesh until the sharp point of the nail drew warm palpitating blood to the surface of her skin. During her times of deepest despair, the woman saw the Angel Zachiel hovering just outside her line of vision. His wings circled above her as her tears watered the ground, and he comforted her as he had when she had first arrived at her auntâ€™s cottage, frightened and bloated with miracle and sin. Three times three years came and went. Her husband never returned.
When her pious aunt passed on to heaven, the woman, now long past middle-age, stayed in the solitary cottage and began her arduous study. She borrowed books from a village apothecary and spent years learning the medicinal qualities of herbs that grew in her garden. She brewed health potions and traded them to local midwives for mysterious decks of cards. She pulled the cards under the light of the full moon, hoping to read a story of long-awaited reunion in their upturned faces. As rumors of her craft began to circulate, young maidens flocked to her isolated house to have their fortunes told, paying with the smooth pieces of glass that the sorceress needed to scry. Her aunt had kept no looking glasses, and the nearby marsh was windswept, so it had been years since she had seen her reflection. Red rimmed eyes, thick with rheumatism, stared back at her from a face burned yellow by the sun, and she smashed the mirrors on the ground, kicking furiously at the shards. Dismayed by the intrusive curiosity of the villagers, she spent ages learning to shift her body into animal forms to disguise her nocturnal travels. She slipped into the skin of a black housecat and prowled nearby inns and taverns, listening for news of a ship that had returned after decades lost at sea. When she could bear her grief no longer, she donned the silent feathers of a night owl and soared to the oceanâ€™s edge, returning home at dawn with the taste of salt air clinging to her tongue. One winterâ€™s evening, she cast a spell over her iron wedding ring, commanding it to spin on the cold stone windowsill where she had first seen
the angels gather. Once set into motion, it would spiral endlessly until day break, as long as her husband was alive and in love with her. Each night, the old woman fell into a deep and dreamless sleep on the rhythmic rise and fall of the ring as it slowly carved a smooth round recess into the stone. Three times three years came and went. The ring stopped spinning.
The old woman, who was now a true witch, left the cottage and wandered the woods. Her sadness spilled outward from her broken heart and created a circle of misery around her, so that everyone who came within one hundred feet of her was touched by the strength of her sorrow. She built a castle, deep in the thick forest, one lonely stone at a time. Over the years, the legends of the true witch grew. On clear, cold nights when the wind rattled through the valleys, children listened for the wailing of the old woman who cried in vain for her dead husband. Mothers told their wayward daughters of a castle-bound enchantress who would turn disobedient girls into caged birds. Young men whispered rumors of forest clearings where gilded statues of boys stood frozen in terror, and preachers warned that the privacy of the woods would bring nothing but death and doom. Still, new couples came into the thick forest, two by two, steeped in the heat of their youthful passion. One day, Jorinde and Joringel appeared. Jorinde, a maiden with eyes the color of nightfall, was more beautiful than any other girl in the world. Joringel, a strong and limber youth, curled around her like a tendril. But their love did not protect them from the weight of the witch’s grief. An aged owl circled three times around the helpless Jorinde, and, as she was magically transformed into a nightingale, Joringel froze in terror, like all the others had before him. A gnarled old woman emerged from the bush, lines of sadness written across her face. Her weathered hands gathered the frightened nightingale and stroked its reddish brown plumes. The songbird lightly wrapped its claw around the beldam’s finger, like an infant grasping its mother’s thumb. Mournful music tumbled from the nightingale’s beak.
“Zickety, Zickety, Zick…”
Even the newborn nightingales’ sorrowful song trilled with beauty when it first saw the aviary at the top of the circular tower. 7,000 cages made of precious metals and jewels hung suspended and sparkling in the setting sun. 7,000 birds with chirped behind their golden bars. The old woman tottered from cage to cage, releasing the winged creatures for their daily twilight flight. They gathered just outside the stone threshold of the window and glided endlessly toward the horizon, their wings illuminated by celestial light. In the growing darkness, they looked like angels.
Before returning to the forest to release the motionless boy, the old woman coaxed her cautious new nightingale onto a ruby encrusted perch. She knew that the moon would stretch its silver beams through the aviary window, and then the perch would throw scarlet blooms across the ceiling, lulling her rescued girls to sleep with a spangled dance of vermillion light. She crept down the circular stone stairwell, stopping every so often to catch her breath. “Greetings, Zachiel.” He was waiting beside the frozen boy, as she knew he would be. He looked the same to her now as he had when she was a girl. His enormous wings, tinged with a violet so dark it looked like rust, ruffled with each breath of the night. “When the moon shines on the cage, set him free, Zachiel, just at the right time.” “He will return,” the angel’s benevolent face seemed to say. “They never do,” was her silent reply.
Time, as always, wore on. The witch tended to her pets, offering them kind words of comfort when they were sad. The nightingale remained steadfastly on her shoulder, always singing its melancholy song of hope. “Zickety, Zickety, Zick...”
The old woman’s watery eyes searched the horizon, the tops of the trees rolling like an ancient sea. It was the birds who first heard Joringel’s footsteps on the stones. They twittered in wild unison. The witch watched as Joringel, smelling of sheep and clutching a red blossom in his fist, opened the heavy oaken door. She saw his eyes grow wide with confusion. She stood, frozen, as the wind from the open window whipped through the long gray ringlets of her unbound hair. She knew she would be painted as a madwoman. She knew the stories would cast this youth, paralyzed with indecision as his aimless gaze traveled over 7,000 birds, as an avenging hero. He would be standing there still, if the nightingale’s song had not told him what he must do. Joringel touched the nightingale with the crimson flower, and the bird’s downy wings turned back into luminous skin and hair. Joringel gathered Jorinde, reborn into his arms, and kissed her. She coiled into his embrace and let him carry her down the steps and into the forest. They did not look back.
The story of Jorinde and Joringel ends with the young couple living together in happiness for a long, long time. But the real story ends with the happily ever after of the true witch, the old woman, who was once a beautiful girl. She watched, silently, as Jorinde and Joringel fled into the night, their hands curling around one another, blind to the painful years that were sure to follow them. She watched, silently, as 7,000 maidens, all freed from one act of true love, exited the castle, heartbroken but hopeful, cooing like songbirds as their feathered cloaks flapped in the breeze. When she was finally alone with Zachiel, a tear slipped out of her eye and caught in the creases of her once rosy cheeks. Zachiel’s hand held the blood red flower, its center dripping with pearlescent dew. The angel touched the silky petal to her damp cheek, circling it down the curve of her neck. She inhaled the far off scent of ocean water. She heard the quiet clicking of iron on iron. She knew that at long last, her waiting was done.
She pushed aside her woolen gown. It was a molting, a prayer finally answered. ‘I’m coming, my loves.” When the petal softly touched her breast, like the dewy lips of a newborn child, the true witch, the old woman, the beautiful girl, blazed, dwindled, and died into an ashy gray smoke that circled slowly and was borne upward toward eternity on the wind of angel’s wings.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Jarvis teaches classes in literature, writing, and fairy tale at Central Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, and Tunxis Community College. She lives, happily ever after, with her husband and three sons in a house ﬁlled with fairy tale books.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The descriptive language of this story really grabbed my attention, as did the fact that Kathleen also leaves room for the reader to ﬁll in the blanks. A gorgeous story.
WINGS OVER THE PLAINS Kathleen Jowitt inter is harsh out on the high, broad, plain of Castile. There's nothing to stop the wind: it blows in cold from the sea, and becomes colder still as it crosses the mountains. Sometimes it brings snow; sometimes it just sweeps bitingly around every hunched tree and huddled building, and the people get through the winter as best they can. And on those long, cold, nights, the sky breaks into stars, more of them than you could count, brighter than you can imagine, showing a westward path that only the very devout or the very foolish follow at this time of year. In the spring, the days get longer, and the nights shorter, and the lonely trees break into small green buds, and the path of stars still shines, though you have to wait longer for it; and the pilgrims walk, more and more of them. In every village thereâ€™s a church with a roof of red tiles crimped like the edges of scallop shells, and a bell that hangs from a gable made of the same yellowish stone as the rest of the building. And on every church thereâ€™s a messy nest of sticks the size and shape of a bass drum, balanced on a ledge or a corner. And on every nest there's a pair of storks, long-legged, long-beaked. If you look up, you'll see them. One might be standing tall, preening the head of its sitting mate. Or, perhaps, you'll see them swooping in the skies over the square, wings extended crosswise and legs trailing behind them, before returning to their nests amid a performance of ungainly flapping. Storks, like human beings, build their homes to last. If the nest was good enough last year, why not use it again? Unless, of course, some other
other pair has got there first, or unless one stork or the other has found another partner, a more promising prospect for a family this year. These things happen. It’s sad, I suppose, if you choose to see it that way, but it’s the way of nature. There are other storks, other nests, other villages. In this particular village, the church is particularly ornate, with a bell gable sweeping in generous curves towards the top with three ledges on either side, and with four bells set in pairs. It was on one of those three ledges that the storks in which we are particularly interested had built their nest. They were not the first storks to have chosen this church, not by any means. Over the years hundreds of chicks must have been hatched and raised here. And even this year they were not the only ones to have chosen this church; there was another pair opposite them, and a third beneath them, on the corner of the roof. But this nest was different. This nest contained no eggs, had never contained any eggs, not in any of the years that they had returned to it together. Why, in that case, didn’t they seek other mates? Why didn’t one of them move on? Why hadn’t some more successful pair claimed the nest? I don’t know. All I can tell you is this: up in that nest, there, on the middle ledge on the left-hand side, there were no eggs, there had never been any eggs or any chicks, and yet that pair of storks kept coming back to it. This is not to say that the nest was empty. Not this year, at least. This year, this nest contained something that this pair of storks guarded as carefully as any of their neighbors did their eggs. This is what had happened: Over the winter, the air had become cold and brittle, and small, strong fingers of ice had found their way into every crack and gap—between the slabs of the road, in the bricks of the houses, in the stonework of the church. Freezing and melting, freezing and melting, breaking stone silently and strongly. And then, some days ago in the fierce breezes of spring, a small piece of stone, about the size of a man's hand, had become dislodged from the ledge above and had landed in the storks' nest. There was nothing very remarkable about it, except the fact that it was there. They had found it there when they returned from the south and reclaimed their nest. And it was
And it was this stone that they sat upon, turn by turn, and it was this that they warmed with the heat of their bodies. Forty days they brooded, turn by turn, day and night. By day, beneath them, the pilgrims tramped eastwards, dusty and footsore. By night, high above them, the sky split from east to west in a glowing path of stars. And, day by day, night by night, the stone warmed through until at its heart it was burning hot, too hot for you or me to touch, though the storks did not seem to find it uncomfortable. At the end of those forty days, the stone broke open. It split from end to end with a crack that sounded like the end of time, and yet nobody stirred: not the landlord sleeping over his bar, not the priest in the presbytery, not the pilgrims in the church porch, not the farmers in their houses out on the plain. And from within the stone came something remarkable. Oh, it was as bedraggled as any hatchling, and it made the plaintive peep peep sound that most young birds make. And although it was already stronger than either of them, the parent storks fed it as they would have fed any other chick, and it ate obediently if not eagerly. But it was like no chick that has ever been seen in this world before or since, though you would be hard put to describe precisely what it was that made it different. It had the wings, had it not? And the downy fluff? Yes, but even so, it was different. If you tried to describe it, you would find that in fact you were talking about any ordinary young stork, and you would know that you had failed to convey its true nature. And all you would be able to say, feeling a little foolish, would be, yes, but it was different. The stars shone; the pilgrims walked. All of the adult storks went out to the wide flat fields outside the village and followed the plow. They waited for the worms to turn up in the disturbed earth, and brought them back to their chicks. Spring gave way to the scorching heat of summer. The roads dried to dust and the sun took command of the wide blue sky. The pilgrims stopped to fill their flasks at the fountain in the square, and sat in the shade of the church to eat their bread and cheese. In most of the storksâ€™ nests, the chicks ate and squabbled and grew; they clattered their beaks; they ventured up onto the sides of their nests and stretched and flapped their
their wings, and, tentatively, taught themselves to fly. It was not like this for the chick that had hatched from the stone. It was as if this one had always known about flying, had never belonged to the ground, had only been waiting for permission to rise up. It rose—flew—went up, high up, out of sight, dissolving into the blue sky, and swooped back down again, circling joyfully around the skies around the tower where it had hatched. Its parents clattered their beaks—in approval or grief, dismay or joy, I can’t tell—and it gave a strange cry, replying, and rose up once more. But this time it seemed to get bigger as it rose, so big that it filled the whole sky, and bright wings spread from horizon to horizon. Have you a minute to spare? Then come into the church with me. Look up, into the rafters; turn your head a little to the side. Do you see that angel, with the white robe and the dark face and the outstretched golden wings? Somehow they always forget to mention it in the guidebooks; but nobody who has seen it forgets. No one knows who carved it or who painted it, and every art expert who looks at it has a different opinion from the last on how old it is. The woman who came in today swore that it dates from the eighteenth century; the man last week said it was medieval. I don’t think it matters, myself … . Oh, but it's getting late. You’ll be wanting to eat. Come, I'll walk back as far as the hostel with you. Look up, into the sky; turn your head a little to the side. The stars are just beginning to come out. Do you see it, that iridescent shimmer? That's all that you and I can see of those great white wings that stretch from end to end of that long westward pathway, and, for all I know, further, beyond the end of the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathleen Jowitt writes across a range of genres, exploring themes of identity, redemption, faith, and politics. Her work has been shortlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize, the SelďŹ es Award, and the Betty Trask Award. She lives in Ely, UK.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This light-hearted, funny take seemed like a perfect bonus story, and here it is. Henry’s mashup of “The Pied Piper” and one very hungry angel will lighten and brighten your day.
Image: The Pied Piper by Arthur Rackham, 1934
FALLEN ANGEL Henry Herz ride and gluttony led to my fall from Heaven, but that is a tale for another time. Retaining my white wings proved a mixed blessing, as keeping them hidden quickly grew tiresome. I walked the Earth alone, posing as Evangeline the minstrel-mage. I traversed rarely trodden trails to astound audiences and, more to the point, to collect their coins with my spellbinding music, storytelling, and spell casting. A chill wind blew, stinging my ears and tingling my fingers. I pulled my multicolored mantle tighter about my shoulders and tucked-in wings. Onward I trudged, following the lowering sun westward. I topped a gentle rise and spied a distant but welcome sightâ€”a small town, its far edge nestled against a dark green wood. Wisps of smoke from hearth fires beckoned. Ah, a chance to warm my chilly hands, rest my weary feet, and fill my empty belly, I thought. I could really go for a curd-smothered beef round between trenchers with a side of fried fingerling potatoes. But there's got to be a catchier name for that ... Encouraged by the prospect of sleeping on a bed rather than al fresco on unyielding earth, I marched without pause, reaching the hamlet before sunset. The peasants seemed pleasant enough, and I obtained without difficulty directions to the only inn. I strolled toward the central square, navigating narrow alleys lined by the wattle and daub buildings common to this province. But I soon discovered this was like no other town I'd ever before beheld, for the villagers wore blue bretona birds on their heads like living hats! Being winged myself, birds held a special place in my heart.
The birds sang sweet songs. The villagers primped and played with their precious pets. How odd! This place is for the birds. Hunger outweighed my curiosity, so I held in abeyance my questions about their feathered fedoras until I reached the thatch-roofed inn on the square. There I discovered that the innkeeper wore more than one hat, as they say, also serving as the mayor. I spent the last of my well-earned coins to secure dinner and a modest room for the night. “I'll have a curd-smothered beef round with fried fingerlings,” I told the barkeep. “A number seven!” he called to the kitchen. “Would you like an ale with that?”
I sighed contentedly after filling my belly. Tomorrow, I'll need to fill my purse. I yawned, eschewing the rustic evening entertainment scheduled for the common room, and climbed the rough-hewn wooden steps to my room. Miffed by the absence of a mint on my pillow, but exhausted by the day's exertions, I blew out the sputtering candle and sprawled on the straw-filled mattress.
I dreamt of traveling in style and comfort via a four horsepower luxury chariot. Intermittent slurping sounds woke me. I opened an eye. Beams of moonlight peeked through the curtains, softly illuminating the room. Spying nothing amiss and too tired to spare the noises any further thought, I fell back asleep.
I rose in the morn, refreshed though still sore from days of hiking. I longed for a chicken coop of fried eggs, a pigpen's worth of bacon, and a hot spring of coffee. But my empty purse dictated a different plan. Tightening my belt, I resolved to remedy the situation by finding a suitable spot on the square to play for passersby and pass the hat, as it were. These rustic folk are probably starved for good music. Ugh, I've got to stop thinking about food.
I stepped outside and breathed the fresh morning air. But villagers scrambled helter-skelter in alarm like pheasants fleeing a flushing spaniel. For an overnight onslaught of scaly vermin now disrupted the harmony of the pastoral village. Who will toss me a coin now? I wondered. I'll have to don my thinking cap. “Pestiferous niblings dug up my flowers,” complained one villager, pointing. “You don't say?” I replied, having previously encountered such rodents of unusual shape in my travels. “They snuck into cupboards and ate our berry scones,” cried another. “Is that a fact?” I responded. That explains why they smelt of elderberries. My stomach growled, but my brow smoothed as a pecuniary opportunity percolated in my mind. Percolated? Stop thinking about breakfast! “They gnaw my toys, and snurfle while I sleep,” wailed a small boy. Hence the strange sounds last night. I nodded with empathy. Yet of all the niblings' offenses, the villagers deemed most egregious the torment of their bretona birds. For the tree-climbing niblings gave the birds no respite, chasing them from roosting spot to roosting spot, whether for play or as prey I could not say. As the tally of complaints multiplied, the mayor strode into the square, huffing and puffing, shouting and pouting, but in no way improving the situation for his folk. He frequently fiddled with a large, lavishly plumed bretona bird perched atop his head. I've traveled enough to know a nincompoop when I suffer the misfortune of meeting one. The grievances grew, and when he could countenance no more, the mayor stamped his feet. “Mifflestones! This will not do.” Incompetent and irritable. I mentally doubled my de-infestation fee. “I am Evangeline the minstrel-mage. I can help,” I said to the mayor, throwing my hat into the ring, so to speak. I bowed my head with more manners than were due the backwater bumpkin. The mayor did not reply. Instead, he ordered the villagers to build cages, weave nets, and set traps. The indignities I endure to earn a meal. He lacks the courtesy to reply, the wits to solve the problem, and the humility to seek aid. He should ha
should hang up his hat as mayor. Biding my time, I made myself comfortable as a spectator. This will be entertaining. The milking of animals, the planting of crops, and other daily routines ceased. But all to no avail. The pestiferous niblings dodged and evaded. The cages, nets, and traps remained empty. Shoulders slumped as the villagers resumed their regular duties. The mayor's face reddened. I stood. “I am Evangeline the minstrel-mage. I can help. Ridding towns of their troubles is old hat for me,” I said, pointing at a nibling preparing to nibble on a dozing dog's tail. The mayor glared, but approached nonetheless. “What will my townsfolk think of me if I let a stranger solve our problems?” he replied rhetorically in a whisper, tilting his head toward the square. I smiled, saying nothing. That you are not a prideful fool. Instead, you make clear that you possess the wits of a donkey's back end, but with less aesthetic appeal. I sighed. Oh, the indignities I endure to earn a meal. He won't be able to pull a solution out of his hat. Sooner or later he will bow to the inevitable and hire me. I mentally tripled my de-infestation fee. After a pause, the mayor's face lit with an idea, possibly a rare experience for him. “Let us loose our woolyfloof herd to chase off the pestiferous niblings!” he cried. At the drop of a hat, the dutiful villagers again ceased the milking of animals, the planting of crops, and other daily routines. They drove the woolyfloofs from their split-rail pens. But the pestiferous niblings, while small in stature, possessed the tenacity of terriers. They bared their fangs, swiped with their claws, and snurfled most defiantly. The larger but timid woolyfloofs bleated and fled pell-mell. Or was it helter-skelter? Higgledy-piggledy? I can never keep those straight. The niblings resumed their depredations, while hapless villagers scrambled to recover their errant livestock. “Wobius!” they cried. “When shall we be free of the pestiferous niblings?” Third time's the charm. “Shall I rid you of these rodents?” I hailed the mayor, spreading my arms.
Emotions played out on his face like a stage performance. Eventually, he grinned, which I found strangely disconcerting. “Very well. Name your price, minstrel.” “I shall wipe out your pests in exchange for ... cue dramatic music ... your bretona birds,” I said, pointing at the one perched on his head. My fame would soar as the only minstrel this side of the Great River with a personal gaggle of bretona birds. Or was it a convocation? Parliament? Regardless, in a pinch they could serve as lunch. There I go again, thinking about food. The mayor's eyes bulged, his fists trembled, and his face reddened further, if that were possible. With a visible effort of will, he gradually regained his composure. “A moment,” he sputtered, storming to the center of the square. Townsfolk crowded round the mayor. They argued in heated whispers, casting glances at me. A lengthy debate ended with the mayor having the last word, a polysyllabic one at that, incrementally raising my estimate of his intelligence. He approached me and doffed the bird from his head, cradling it with affection. “We cannot abide the pestiferous niblings. But bretona birds are cherished pets, dear to us as children. Will you accept a hogshead of pike as payment?” he asked, hat in hand, you might say. “Our pickled pike are the pride of the province!” he proclaimed. I tilted my head but did not reply. That was far too low a price to dignify with a response, and in any event, fish, like this fool before me, tend to stink after a couple of days. The mayor furrowed his brow. “How about a mule and cartload of woolyfloof milk, butter, and cheese? Is that not a valley of plenty for a humble bard?” “Hmmf,” I grunted, scowling. A better offer, but still too stingy. The mayor glanced back at the villagers, stared at his feet, and finally sighed in defeat. “Five splendificant rubies, the size of which are seldom seen?” he offered, touching the leather pouch at his belt. The villagers gasped. Now that's a horse of a different color. “Agreed. I shall face the mighty horde,” I declared, making the task sound far more daunting than it actually was. “Clear the square,” I shouted to the townsfolk with
a grand sweep of my arm. The cut of my cloak rendered such gestures très dramatic. The villagers' faces brightened at the prospect of the niblings' imminent removal. They hastened to comply. Many held their breath. A hush fell. I strode to the center of the square and drew my sorciful flute with all the theatrics I could muster. I traced an orniculous symbol in the air. That would not aid my casting, but wizardry is 50% showmanship. I raised the instrument to my lips and played a dulcet canticle, followed by Bourée. The latter is not part of the spell, but the melody is always a crowd-pleaser. At once, the niblings desisted their digging, forsook their foraging, and stopped their snurfling. Instead, they swarmed about me, drawn to the sweet sounds like hummingbirds to honeysuckle. The villagers' eyes widened, their mouths agape. I led the bespelled beasts out of the village, through shadowy woods to a distant glade. There they stayed. I hummed a tune for my own amusement as I skipped back to the village, savoring the prospect of a lavish luncheon for their savior. The anticipation of a full belly raised my spirits considerably. But it turns out one should never count their birds before they hatch. Hmm. That's a catchy saying … “Huzzah! Hurray!” cheered the villagers. “Hats off to Evangeline!” They leaped and wept. They danced and pranced. They wirbilated in harmony with their beloved birds. “The niblings shall vex you no more,” I declared. Cue dramatic music. “Now, fulfill your oath.” “What now?” the small boy whispered to the mayor, unaware of my keen hearing. “You knew we had no rubies.” The mayor turned to me. “Well, I um ... misspoke. Alas, we have no gems,” he said, holding up empty palms. “Yet you kept that under your hat,” I growled. He suffers from pride and greed. “How about ten woolyfloofs?” asked the mayor, pointing at a pen. “That was not our accord,” I declared, putting my hands on my hips. “Beware. I will brook no betrayal. I wield great power.” … And responsibility.
responsibility. “No one threatens me,” growled the mayor, clenching his fists. “Certainly not a white-haired mottle-mantled piper. The pestiferous niblings are gone. You may have woolyfloofs or nothing.” He turned and marched off. He defrauds and derides me? I'm a friend of humanity, but even I have my limits. My face flushed. The faithless villagers retreated from my baleful glare. I would have swept out my flaming sword and separated his duplicitous head from his shoulders, but that sort of thing is frowned upon these days as too wrathful. Nor does it tend to encourage attendance at my musical recitals ... except by the teenagers, that is. Again I drew my sorciful flute. I tapped a tree trunk two times and trilled a 'taliatory tune. The bretona birds flocked to me. Again I trod toward the tenebrous trees. The villagers gasped. “Wobius! What have we done?” they cried at the sight of their poultry in motion. They wailed and flailed to no avail. For they would never again behold their beloved birds. Far from the village, but no longer alone, I composed a new tune and sang with my flock. Or convocation? Parliament? In any event, it began thusly: “If you fail to play it straight, you'll no longer wirbilate. So, pay the angel, heed your words, and you won't lose your cherished birds.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Henry Herz is the traditionally published author of 13 speculative ďŹ ction adult short stories, 11 children's books, and 3 children's short stories. He edited the dark fantasy anthology, Beyond the Pale. He blogs at HenryHerz.com.
Stevenson Memorial by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1903
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has a twist on the boy seeking to marry a princess plot line in so many fairy tales. It’s ﬁlled with wonder and a surprising set of twists at the end. It’s a good, angelic story. 70
THE STONE AND THE SONG Mike Neis long time ago, in a land far away, there lived a poor orphan boy who had nothing but his hunger and a small creature who lived in his ear. The creature would give the boy advice on where to go, what to eat, and how to live. Sometimes the advice got the boy into trouble, but the creature always got him back out of trouble. And every night, the creature would chirp a lullaby into the boy’s ear until he fell asleep. For this reason, the boy called his friend “Cricket.” The two had been together for as long as the boy could remember. One bright and warm day as they walked along the road, the pair heard a great noise in a distant town. “That sounds like a celebration,” said Cricket. “Go there. Parties always have lots of food.” The boy agreed. The town was celebrating the return of its king. The boy grabbed fruits, breads and sweets from open tables. When he came to the town square, a glorious parade was passing by. The king was dressed in magnificent finery, but it was a girl at the king’s side who caught the boy’s eye. “Who is that girl?” he asked a man beside him. “That’s the princess, the most adored maiden in all the kingdom,” said the man. Indeed, the girl was beautiful. Golden hair flowed from the top of her head down to her waist. A heart-shaped face framed a tiny nose, full lips, and large round eyes that sparkled like two stars. Wherever she walked a hush would fall over the crowd, in awe of her beauty and grace. “Oh, that girl is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen!” said the boy to Cr
to Cricket, but Cricket already knew what the boy was thinking. “Take care boy, or you will lose your heart, and once lost, a heart is very difficult to get back.” “I think it is too late,” sighed the boy. “For I shall die if I cannot gaze into that lovely face every day for the rest of my life.” “You are a fool,” said Cricket. “Nevertheless, I can tell what you say is true. You should go to the king and ask for the princess’ hand in marriage.” “Oh! That’s a marvelous idea!” said the boy. “Head for the castle,” said Cricket. “The party will continue there. Ask for the girl’s hand during the happy feasting, and the king might agree.” Indeed, it was easy for the boy to pass through the great halls of the castle, right to the very court of the king himself. He arrived just as the king sat down on his throne, with the princess at his side. “What do I do?” asked the boy. “Throw yourself down on your knees before the king and call out, ‘Your majesty! May I ask a favor?’ If he agrees, then say, ‘please give me the hand of the fair princess in marriage, for I love her more than anything else in this world,’ and then hope the king will say yes.” So, the boy did as Cricket said. He threw himself down on his knees before the king and called out in a loud voice, “Your majesty! May I ask a favor?” The crowd quieted, amazed at the temerity of this poor peasant boy, and nervous how the king would respond. “What is your request?” said the king, a clever man with sharp eyes and a stout face. He looked down at this impudent boy in the hopes of some amusement. The boy lifted his head and looked the king square in the face. He spoke as Cricket advised him. “Please give me the hand of the fair princess in marriage, for I love her more than anything else in the world!” This time the entire assembly fell into a stupefied silence, horrified that the boy could be so presumptuous. All eyes went to the king. The king’s own eyes narrowed. His lower lip pushed upwards, and his broad chin dimpled as he considered the outrageous request from this worthless urchin from the street.
Then he burst out laughing. The throng did the same, and the room was filled with the sound of laughter. “Poor peasant boy,” said the king. “To marry my daughter, you must prove yourself worthy. Come back here with a halo on top of your head, and then will I give my consent.” The king chuckled and pointed at the door. “Now go! Fulfill this quest I have given you but take care. If you fail, I shall cut off your head!” Then he burst out laughing again. Guards took the boy by the arms and led him back outside. And so, the boy was on his own, walking down the road as he had always done. “That was not good advice,” the boy said to Cricket. “Perhaps not,” said the creature. “If you fail, we shall avoid that place. But I have an idea. There is a glen in an old forest. No one has gone there for ages, but I have heard that a saint was martyred there. Perhaps this glen can help you find the halo you seek.” And so, the boy, with the guidance of Cricket, found the old forest and the glen. In the middle of the glen sat a stone with some words inscribed on it. “I cannot read the words, Cricket. What do I do?” “Do you see anything else?” asked Cricket. “I see blood on the stone.” “Touch the blood,” said Cricket. “Then you will be able to read the words.” The boy touched the blood and found the Cricket’s advice was true. “Now read the words aloud,” said Cricket. “I cannot just read the words,” said the boy. “The words are lyrics set to music.” “Then sing the words according to the music,” said Cricket. And so, the boy began to sing. Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth Pleni sunt cæli et terra gloria tua. Hosanna in excelsis. Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Hosanna in excelsis.*
The boy sang the chorus again and again. He could not stop, for a spirit had taken hold of him. Then the greens and browns of the land, and the blues of the sky changed to white, and the trees transformed into magnificent angels, tall as trees themselves. The angels had shining wings and sang in voices that made the air shimmer. They, like the boy, were singing the song. Then, one by one, the angels fell silent and drew away from the boy, until the boy was singing all by himself once more. The boy’s voice did not make the air shimmer, but his pitch was pure and true. Some of the angels looked like they were about to burst out laughing. Some had faces contorted into scowls. A few were weeping. But all were staring at the boy. “That’s enough singing, boy,” said Cricket. “Stop singing and see if they will speak to you. And get on your knees! Even the king himself is nothing next to these beings!” The boy stopped singing and fell to his knees, and the angel who had been at the head of the choir, who seemed to be the leader, flew down and alighted in front of boy. “My child,” said the lead angel. “How did you arrive at this place?” The boy trembled because he knew he was kneeling before an angel of singular power. The tallest angel of them all had robes that shone like the moon and wings that could make the wind blow at their slightest stirring. Nevertheless, the boy screwed up his courage, and told his tale about the forest, the glen, the stone, the blood, and how he began to sing. The angels looked at one another and spoke in hushed murmurs. Then the lead angel held up his hand. “All is well, child. None have approached this stone and sung its song in a long time. Indeed, your people have forgotten their creator and the heavenly host. And so, I may give you a wish. Is there anything you would like to have?” “Now is your chance,” said Cricket. “Ask for the halo. But try to be polite about it.” The boy began to speak. “Thank you, oh wondrous angel. There is one thing I would like to have—if it is not too much—and that is a halo. May I please have one of my own?” The angels fell back to murmuring, and the boy raised his eyes and looked
looked around. But again, the lead angel held up his hand. “All is well,” he said. “You shall have a halo of your own.” He reached up into the whiteness of the heavens, higher than the boy could see. He brought down a shining band of light just like the halos that the angels themselves wore. And the lead angel affixed it to the top of the boy’s head. “Thank you,” said the boy, filled with wonder that the halo lit his own surroundings. “Now I must leave and present myself before the king and show him that I have done as he requested.” “Farewell, then, my child,” said the lead angel. “And remember, if you wish to return, you need only come to the glen and sing the song again. Farewell.” The boy began to walk, and with each step, the angels looked more and more like trees, and the heavenly whiteness turned back into the land and sky. The afternoon sun warmed the boy’s face as he walked back to the town, guided by Cricket. The clouds and the whole heavens looked close to the ground, like they were trying to embrace the earth below. Vast fields, heavy with grain and fruit, gave assurance of the abundance of the lands and the boy sang the stone’s lyrics as he walked. When he arrived at the town, the people were astonished to see the boy wearing the halo as the king commanded. By the time the castle came into view, a vast throng had assembled behind him. But as he approached the gates, a powerful longing seized the boy. “Oh Cricket! My heart aches to the point that it will burst! For I long to be singing with the angels again. I never could have imagined their glories before, and now everything is different.” “You are a fool,” said Cricket. “First you will die if you don’t have the princess—now your heart will burst if you are not singing with those angels. Will you not make up your mind? But if that is what you want, you need only do as the lead angel instructed. Return to the glen and sing the song. Then you will be back with the angels.” And so, the haloed boy pushed his way through the townspeople, who fell back as he approached. He returned to the glen in the forest and began to sing—and just as before, the greens and blues of the land and the sky transformed into magnificent whiteness, and the trees transform
transformed into angels. The boy sang with them as before, happy as he had ever been. And, as before, the angels fell silent to listen to the boy. The lead angel flew down and alighted before him. “You have returned, my child. Why? Did you not present yourself to the king?” “No, I did not,” said the boy. “I no longer desire the things of the earth. I only wish to be with the choirs here, and to sing their glorious praises forevermore!” The angels fell into a murmuring, and their movements were animated. The lead angel held up his hand. “All is well,” he said. “You shall be one of us this very day. You shall have wings like us, a voice like us and a body like us. You shall have our powers, and you shall be free of the woes, the blights and the vermin of the earth—like that creature that dwells in your head.” The boy put a hand over his ear. “Vermin? You mean Cricket? But he is my friend. I cannot leave him. Not this way.” The lead angel knelt down beside the boy and put a hand on his shoulder. “We have no other way,” he said. The boy’s heart was breaking, for a terrible decision loomed before him. Nevertheless, he delayed his answer only long enough to draw breath. “No,” he said. And his head shook. “I cannot join your glorious choir.” The boy reached up, removed the halo from his head and held it up to the lead angel. “I am sorry, but I must go. Thank you for all you have done for me.” And as the boy looked into the lead angel’s face and the faces of all the angels, he saw great sadness and great joy—like the parents of a bride and groom—sad to see their offspring leave, but happy at the future ahead of them. The lead angel accepted the halo and placed it back into the impenetrable whiteness of the heavens. “Bless you, my child. Your gifts, your faithfulness have served you well, and I foresee that your life will bring great blessings to the entire world.” And so, the boy took his leave. As he walked, the angels and the whiteness transformed into the rich colors of the old forest, which was rapidly
rapidly descending into night. The boy was very tired. He lay down at the base of an old oak and made ready to sleep. “You are a fool, boy,” said Cricket. “You have lost the princess, the angels, and your halo. You have lost everything.” “I have lost nothing,” said the boy. “I still have the song, which has been my key to all I truly desire. And I still have you, my friend, without whom I could not imagine living—even for a moment.” The boy felt a stirring in his ear, like the soft throbs of an old woman weeping. “Thank you,” said Cricket. “I am truly the luckiest creature alive to have a friend like you.” And the creature chirped a lullaby for the boy.
*Translation: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Neis lives in Orange County with his family and does technical writing for a commercial laboratory. His ďŹ ction has appeared in Amethyst Review, Euphemism, and elsewhere. His outside activities include church music and teaching English as a second language.
The Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1903
EDITORâ€™S NOTE: I love how Maxine used the simple tone of fairy tale writing, while dealing with complex ideas and feelings about motherhood and childhood. And she has a very interesting take on wings!
Image: The Fair Face of a Woman by Sophie Anderson
THE SINGING WINGS Maxine Churchman hen the king declared his betrothal to the beautiful maiden from over the mountains, some were dubious of the match. However, all who witnessed her radiant smile and silken hair on the day of the wedding fell in love with her. There was much celebration in the land, and everyone eagerly awaited the news of a first-born child. As time went by, and no announcement was made, many spoke out against the queen and her lowly origins. Everywhere she went, she saw unhappy faces and shaking heads. She took to walking alone in the Great Forest behind the castle grounds. One day she heard someone singing. Their beautiful song brought joy to her heart, so she followed the sound until she came to a shady glade next to a beck. An old woman, surrounded by birds and animals, was seated upon a large moss-covered rock in the centre of the clearing. It was her voice the queen had heard; it soared and fluttered, weaving sunlight and wonder throughout the glade and beyond. The queen stepped out from the trees. Immediately, the birds and animals scattered and the old woman stopped singing. “Good morning, grandmother,” she said. “Your song brought great joy to my broken heart.” The old woman smiled and bade her sit a while to rest her feet. The queen sat on a flat rock, next to the old woman, and the thick moss moulded itself to her form creating the most comfortable seat imaginable. She ran her hand over the soft cool surface. “I should gather up this moss to make a cushion for my throne.” other
“It would soon dry out and crumble; this is where it belongs. Things should stay where they belong if they wish to thrive.” These words stung the queen and she glared at the old woman. She wished she had stayed on the other side of the mountains and thought her subjects felt the same way, but none had been so bold as to say so. She stood to leave. “Fear not my queen; you will have a baby soon. A very special baby.” The queen was greatly troubled by the old woman’s prediction and hurried from the clearing before she could say more. There were old stories of a fairy who had been banished to the forest, many years ago, for trying to steal a royal baby. Could the old woman be that fairy? She told the king about her meeting and vowed never to enter the forest again. A year later, the queen gave birth to a daughter. Everyone rejoiced and the celebrations went on for a whole month, but the queen worried about the old woman’s words. How would her daughter be special? Would she be safe? She had the princess guarded night and day. When the princess turned one, the queen noticed strange growths on the child’s back. Each day they became more prominent until it was obvious she was growing wings. The queen called for the royal surgeon to remove them, but even his sharpest blade could not sever them. The king was perplexed. “Does it really matter? She is still our daughter and we love her just as she is. Isn’t that all that counts?” But the queen was distraught. “How can we keep our daughter safe if she can just fly away?” “We could tie a silk string to her wrist so she could not fly far,” he suggested. “Like a kite?” The Queen was outraged. “She will be called a freak and it will be my fault. Everyone will hate me again.” The king didn’t like to see his wife so unhappy, so he sent his men to find the old woman. Perhaps she would be able to help. After all, the king was sure she was indeed the fairy of the forest. The queen kept close to her daughter as the old woman inspected her wings, lest she try to steal her. “I can remove the wings, if that is what you really want,” the old woman said. “But you must keep the wings safe; the princess will need them
them one day. When that day comes, you must allow her to visit me in the forest.” The queen would never allow her daughter into the forest, but the King accepted the terms and the old woman rubbed a lotion on the wings. After a few moments she plucked them from the child’s back leaving nothing but two small marks. She conjured a large flat box and placed the wings tenderly inside. “Why is the box so large?” asked the queen. “So the wings have room to grow. Look after them well and let them out from time to time.” The queen locked the box and pushed it under the bed. She would like to burn it, but was terrified it would harm her daughter. As the years passed, the queen thought about the wings less and less. The princess grew to be pretty and adventurous. Although she was not allowed out of the castle grounds, there were still plenty of places to explore and lots of trees to climb. She searched for frogs in the pond but although their raucous noise suggested a large quantity dwelt there, she rarely spotted any. When the princess turned twelve, she asked her mother if she could explore outside the castle grounds for a change. The queen said no: terrified she would get lost or be stolen. The defiance in her daughter’s eyes did not escape her notice and she doubled the guards protecting her. To ensure her safety, the queen had a tall tower built in the garden. It had only one small entrance and the first ten floors had no windows, just a spiral staircase winding up the centre. Five sumptuous floors with tiny windows topped the tower and it was in these rooms the queen locked the princess. No one was allowed in except the king and queen. Two soldiers guarded the entrance at all times. With the princess locked in the tower, the queen relaxed. As the years passed she felt more and more confident the princess would be safe and never leave her. One day, she became curious about the wings. She had not seen them since they were removed. She secured the door and windows of her room and, for the first time since it was hidden under the bed, she pulled out the large box. The golden key was on a chain around her neck and she
and she slipped it into the lock. Opening the lid just a crack, she peered inside. It was too dark to see so she put one hand in and felt soft feathers. Pressing firmly down on them, she opened the box fully. The wings filled the box. The feathers looked dull and lifeless but she tied a silk ribbon to the bony extrusion on each wing before letting them go. They didn’t move. Fearing she had allowed the wings to die, the queen gave the silk ribbons a sharp tug. The wings lifted ponderously into the air and over to the window where the sun was streaming in. They fluttered and stretched as though soaking up the sun’s warmth, and as they did, they began to change colour. The flat brown feathers plumped up and turned golden. The wings flew around the room, flapping ever more strongly until they were causing a powerful wind that took the queen’s breath away and ruffled the soft furnishings. She held the ribbons tightly and feared she would be pulled off her feet. The wings stopped near the window and beat against it until the glass broke. Seeing what was happening, the queen tied the ribbons to a bed post so the wings could not escape. They strained at the end of the silk and began to sing as the breeze from the window caressed their feathers. The song had no words, but the tune held the queen enthralled and made her cry: it was so sad and beautiful. When she felt she could cry no more, she pulled on the ribbons. The wings came to her without protest and she locked them in the box and pushed it under the bed. Her heart was beating fast and she vowed not to open the box again. In the tower, the princess had lots of toys and books to amuse her, but she spent most of her time looking out of the windows. From her high vantage point she could see the tops of the trees that made up the forest. They stretched for miles towards the horizon. In the other direction, far across the plains, she could see the pink and purple mountains. Just outside, birds soared overhead and flitted in the trees. She envied their freedom and ability to fly. How wonderful it would be to float across the sky and dive through clouds. Below, she could see people going about their daily business, but she was too high to hear or speak to them. It was a sad and lonely existence.
At night she wished on the stars and tried to sing to the moon, although her voice reminded her of the croaking of the frogs in the pond. The evening before her sixteenth birthday, when she was feeling particularly low, she heard beautiful music. There were no words to the song, but the tune evoked feelings of sun on her face and wind in her hair. That night she dreamt of jumping off the roof of the tower and flying all the way to the mountains. During that same night, a fire broke out on one of the lower floors. The tower acted like a chimney, drawing the flames up to the living quarters. With no windows in the lower section, no-one saw the fire until it had taken hold and become too fierce for anyone to use the stairs. The princess was trapped. Loud crashing noises in the tower below woke the princess. She smelt the smoke and felt the heat from the flames. Terrified, she made her way up to the roof. She could see that no rescue was likely. She started crying and praying to the stars above. The king and queen stood by the tower, wringing their hands and begging someone to rescue their daughter. The townsfolk threw water at the fire, but it was too high and hot for their efforts to be effective. No ladder was long enough to reach the princess. Everyone feared the worst. On the roof, the smoke billowed making the princess cough and her eyes stream. There was nowhere for her to escape the intense heat of the fire. It would be better to jump and end it all quickly. She closed her eyes and stepped towards the edge. The fairy from the forest shook the queen’s elbow. “Release the wings,” she shouted above the commotion. The queen pushed and shoved her way through the crowd and arrived in her chamber out of breath. Tears of frustration streamed down her face and she prayed she would not be too late to save her beloved daughter. With clumsy fingers she put the golden key in the lock. As soon as the lock was released, the wings burst out of the box, knocking the queen over. They flew through the open door, their song dark and haunting. The princess could hear singing. There were no words to the song, but the tune was urgent and fearful. It sounded so loud and close. She opened
opened her eyes. Through the smoke and her tears she saw a golden bird swooping around the tower. The heat of the flames blackened its feathers, yet still it came and still it sang. As it flew beneath her, the princess jumped. The ground raced towards her sending her stomach into her throat. She felt the bird touch her shoulders. Pain seared her back as the wings reattached and took her weight. Wonder flooded through her as she felt the strength and power of the wings and realised she could control them. She took several powerful downward sweeps that sent her high into the sky. She kept pumping her wings until the air grew thin and the ground disappeared behind a thin layer of cloud. She swooped and soared, rolled and spun, elating in the freedom and the cool night air on her skin. She sang to the moon of freedom and flying: her voice now was beautiful and clear. At last she flew down to the castle and landed next to her parents. They embraced and shed many tears of joy and relief. The fairy of the forest spoke. “Princess, the Fae Folk lent you to your parents, now you must learn how to wield the magic you possess. I will teach you if you will come with me into the forest.” The princess was delighted, she longed to explore beneath the canopy of the vast forest. She looked at the queen expecting her to disapprove. The queen took her hands. “I nearly lost you tonight because of my foolishness. Go if you wish, but please promise you will return to me often.” The princess gladly agreed to return, she could not imagine a life without the love of her parents. “Your first lesson, princess,” said the fairy as she threw back her cloak, will be how to fold your wings so they don’t show.” She unfurled two magnificent purple wings and held her hand out to the princess. “Follow me.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maxine Churchman is a mother and grandmother from Essex, UK. Her hobbies include reading, hiking, yoga, and, more recently, writing. So far she has concentrated on short stories, but hopes to make progress on a novel in 2020 and beyond. She has had work published by CafeLit, Black Hare Press, Stormy Island Publishing and Clarendon House Publishing. She blogs at Cccmaxine.blogspot.com
EDITOR’S NOTE: I love The “angel” in this story is unexpected, and Nadia, the protagonist is very lovable. I loved the imaginative approach Rebecca took. A great holiday fairy tale! 88
THE SNOW GOOSE Rebecca Fung adia had never seen snow, certainly never at Christmas. Christmas was never like what she had seen in greeting cards or in pictures in her favorite books, with fir trees topped with white, houses nestled in layers of happy soft snow and people inside merrily eating and drinking hearty meals together by warm fireplaces then going out to make snowmen. If it couldn’t snow, thought Nadia, at least it could be a fine warm season with sunshine and flowers, and she could go for a walk and enjoy Christmas in a different way. But no, where Nadia lived, Christmas was always the same: a sort of grey and muggy time. Often it rained or gray clouds hung over, threatening to storm at any moment. The paths were thick with ugly brown mud. The forests weren’t blessed with greenness or flowers nor hidden under a blanket of elegant white. Their stark barrenness was on display day in, day out as it got closer to Christmas and Nadia became more depressed. “Snow is the least of your problems, my girl. Just be thankful your mother is putting together a Christmas feast,” her father reminded her. Nadia knew she ought to be grateful as her parents were trying very hard and everyone in the small village struggled at Christmas time. She watched as her mother put aside a little bit of food each day in her “Christmas store,” trying to build up a stash and yet not affect too much how much she served up to the family each day. Her mother was very clever at this; she’d been doing it for years. An extra potato, several biscuits, extra tea or dried fruit. All the villagers did this and tried to share a
share a little with each other to make sure everyone got some treats. Nadia’s mother always had a good store and was clever at exchanging for things like flour or sugar. She would try to make a cake or pudding, even a small one. There would be a stew with more potatoes than a usual day. It wasn’t very lavish when Nadia compared it to the pictures in her books of people sitting down to meals of massive puddings dripping with brandy sauce, huge stuffed turkeys and hams, fish and chicken, overflowing trays of roasted vegetables and bowls of fresh fruit, stockings stuffed with lollies and chocolates, plates upon plates of gingerbread and mince pies. Still, it would be a feast compared to their usual meals. What would really make a difference would be whether they could manage to get any meat for the meal. Of course, they couldn’t buy any meat, that would be far too expensive and nobody else would have meat to trade. But sometimes Nadia’s father would bring home some meat he caught. He had caught a rabbit once and sometimes he went fishing. Nadia knew her father wanted meat too, but he had a job in the factory so that didn’t leave much time for going after rabbits or fish. Each day Nadia hoped her father would return home, clutching a rabbit and calling out that he’d brought home Christmas dinner. Each day he came home empty-handed and she wanted to say, “When will you look for a rabbit, Daddy? When will you go fishing?” But his face looked so tired. She knew it was hard work in the factory and his body was already bent over from all the days, pulling levers and packing boxes. One day her father came home and told them all that the factory had just fired ten more workers. He was very lucky it wasn’t him, because then they’d have no money at all. But it did mean he had to work extra fast and hard now – pack more boxes and work even later, to make up for the others who had lost their jobs. Her father sighed, as if his back and arms and legs didn’t ache enough as it was. Nadia understood. There would be no rabbit and there would be no fish. If the chance for time to go fishing was slim before, it was nonexistent now. She could feel a little ache in her stomach. She watched as her father came home each day and he seemed a little bit thinner. Nadia held out her arms to him and offered him a hug. She rushed
rushed to make him a cup of tea and get his slippers which she had been warming by the fire. (Even if it wasn’t snow season, the air was getting cold and muggy.) Nadia’s father smiled and held her close. “I’m so sorry,” he said. But he was too tired to say much more. Nadia decided not to say anything about the empty feeling in her stomach because she wanted to keep him smiling. She worried sometimes that her father was turning into a wisp of air that could so easily float straight out of his fragile body, and she wouldn’t be able to catch and keep him with her, no matter how hard she tried. She suspected he was feeling a little ache as well. One morning, Nadia looked outside. The ground was still grey, and she could see it was looking kind of muddy. Then she saw something white and fluffy hit the ground just outside her bedroom window. “What’s that?” she cried out, and she and her father both went out to look. On the ground was a large goose, covered in white feathers. “As if it had dropped from heaven,” said Nadia. “More likely it was flying from the lake and it hit itself on a tree or something. Unlucky but it happens,” said her father. “Well, look who’s having a Christmas dinner fit for a king! Yosemite, your mother will stuff that goose fit for a king.” Nadia could taste the goose on her tongue and right down to her stomach as her father said that. Then she put her hand on the soft whiteness and she felt something move. She could feel its warmth, and the thud-thud of its heart. “No, Daddy. The goose isn’t dead – it’s just hurt. I think it’s hurt its wing. We can’t kill it – we should take it inside and look after it.” As she said that, the goose turned its head upwards to her and blinked. “We’ve got lots of things to do before Christmas and our own three mouths to feed without adding a goose in,” said her father. The goose looked up at Nadia. It did not beg, but Nadia could see its wing was crushed and its eyes met her as though it could trust her. She could not betray this beautiful bird. She might feel a little empty now, but how would she feel if she did the wrong thing by this goose? She didn’t like to think about it. “Please, Daddy,” said Nadia. “For my Christmas present.”
Her father looked down at the goose and it gave him a steady blink as well. Nadia looked at him with a wide-eyed, pleading stare. He relented, and helped Nadia carry the goose inside and place it on a pillow in front of the fireplace. Nadia’s mother prepared a bowl with some corn in it for the goose and Nadia cut a length of bandage for the goose’s wing. For the next few days, the goose stayed in the house and sat on the pillow in the living room. Nadia’s mother gave it a bowl of seeds and bits of vegetables each mealtime with a bowl of water. Nadia enjoyed watching the goose grow stronger. Instead of flopping to one side, the goose managed to sit up and its white feather began to glow shinier. It began to move and stretch itself more easily, not slowly and with groans of pain. Most of all, Nadia watched as a glow of happiness began to sparkle in the goose’s eye as it grew stronger. Nadia still had her chores to do, but she stole moments to stroke the goose and assure it all would be well soon. In the evenings, before she went to bed, she sang it a little song. She was sure she could see the goose wink at her as she did, and she liked to wink back. Sitting next to the goose made her feel peaceful. It seemed to radiate a calm aura that made Nadia forget how tired chores made her or that her meals were getting smaller as her mother scrounged further for bits and pieces to put in the Christmas store. She was sure she wasn’t the only one feeling a change. Her father came home each day and went out of his way to pat the goose before he did anything else. When he did, his shoulders seemed less stooped and Nadia thought he didn’t even look so thin. They hadn’t told the neighbors about the goose, but people began to talk. It was clear that Nadia’s little house had changed. Nadia didn’t come out to play very often and when she did come out to collect firewood or to take out the garbage, there was a light skip in her step and a glow in her face that even a casual neighbor noticed. “Her mother, her father and Nadia too,” said the neighbors. “Her father used to drag his feet as he came home from that old factory, and now he runs up the steps like a mouse to cheese. What’s got into them—or into their house, for that matter?” “I think the whole house is glowing like the moon,” said another villager, but everyone shushed her for having far too much imagination and not enough sense.
and not enough sense. Still, their curiosity grew and grew. What were they hiding there? It must be a treasure. Something for Christmas Day, thought one old neighbor. The old neighbor knocked on Nadia’s door as she was singing to her goose. “Merry Christmas Eve,” said Nadia, answering the door. “Merry Christmas Eve,” said the old neighbor. “I haven’t seen you so much, Nadia. You’ve been spending a lot of time indoors.” Nadia realised she had been so preoccupied with the goose she had barely gone out to talk to her neighbors or play with her friends at all the last few days. “There’s just so much to do coming up to Christmas,” she said. “Now, you can’t fool me. You have something inside, don’t you? You’re storing up a Christmas feast. Is it a pig or a chicken or a turkey? Tell me! I won’t tell the others. I just want a taste.” Nadia tensed. She could see the old neighbor licking her lips. “We haven’t got any special food to eat this Christmas,” she said truthfully. “Just the usual. We have extra potatoes.” “Bah! I’m not here for potatoes! Don’t hide from me Nadia, I’ve worked it all out …” The neighbor plucked a bit of white from Nadia’s jumper. “That’s a goose feather. Goose! It’s a long time since I’ve had goose but I’d recognise it anywhere. I’ll come by tomorrow. Sharing, Nadia. It’s the Christmas spirit.” The goose couldn’t stay, Nadia realized. She held it close that night and pressed its warmth into her. When her father came home, she told him about the old neighbor. They had to get the goose out of the house, for Nadia was sure that if their goose was home the next day the old neighbor would manage to get herself into the house and find it. She might bring others and they’d force it from them. People were desperate for meat. But they were not going to get Nadia’s goose. She would miss it. She took the goose to her bed and held it close, as her father said it was best to let it go at dawn when the bird could best see its way. Early the next morning, Nadia and her father checked on the goose’s wing again. It looked healed, and the goose gave it a confirming flap, so they remov
they removed the bandage. The feathers were extra soft and silky underneath. Then Nadia walked into the front yard, gave the goose a kiss and tossed it into the sky. The goose soared. It flapped a wing towards Nadia as if to say goodbye. Nadia waved back. Then she saw the shiny white wing beating again and the goose was circling, above the village. Little tufts of white began to fall to the ground, and the goose kept circling, Soon the village was layered in white. The branches of trees were touched with little specks of the delicate shiny glow, the houses and roads were snuggled under white blankets. The little place in Nadiaâ€™s stomach which felt hunger was silent now. All of Nadiaâ€™s body felt peace as it watched the goose climb higher in the air to freedom. Then Nadia was dancing, holding out her hands, letting the little flakes of white fall in her fingers, fall between them, so she could make the miracle feel like it would last forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Fung is from Sydney, Australia. She loves mandarins, owls and chocolates and can often be found on the sofa with her face buried in a book. She has written several short stories for Christmas anthologies as well as many speculative ﬁction short stories. She has also published a chapter book, “Princess Hayley’s Comet” (Christmas Press, 2018).
EDITOR’S NOTE: What a fun story! Alicia Hilton has ﬂipped the script on the angels theme, and she’s made it both terrifying and funny. I don’t want to tell you anymore, might spoil it. You’ll enjoy this. 96
Or The Deadly Hellacious Bake-Off Alicia Hilton emons judged the Hellacious Bake-Off, so the rules were subject to capricious interpretation and corporal punishment was routine. The contest always ended with at least one death. Most contestants sought the honor of being awarded second place and relished the opportunity for a brief respite from the dank catacombs where they toiled. You had to be barking mad or totally desperate to covet the winner’s prize, an opportunity to be executed and reincarnated, but Phixa understood that if she won she’d likely be transformed into a dung beetle. At least she would be freed from her misery. A mortal existence as a humble insect, scurrying through dust and eating manure, couldn’t be worse than eternal imprisonment in Hell and suffering from unrequited love. Entering the Underworld’s most perilous contest was the only way Phixa could prove that she had repented and was no longer a monster. She’d bartered all of her Earthly and Underworldly possessions, even the sarcophagus that had contained her corpse, in exchange for one lottery ticket—the chance she would receive the “special” ingredient that would make her confection the most delectable of all Hell Cakes. Phixa stared at the other contestants. Contestant #3, the basilisk, hissed and opened its jaws, displaying jagged teeth. Phixa pressed her paws together, trying to contain her nervous energy. Torches cast eerie shadows across the subterranean amphitheater. Judges
Judges lurked in the sidelines, ready to pounce if rules were violated. Saloon-style doors at the mouth of the cave swung open. Judge #327, the Minotaur Ambassador, was wearing a butcher’s smock that was splattered with fluorescent green fluid. He snorted smoke from his nostrils and said, “We got ourselves a screamer.” The basilisk’s forked tongue darted out and stroked the left side of her scaly face, lapping mucus from her glowing amber eye. “Marvelous,” she said. Contestant #1, sitting on the podium closest to the sulfurous stream because he was the Second Place Winner of the 78th Hellacious Bake-Off, clapped his tentacles together. He said, “Refused to repent? Silly fool, resistance is futile.” The Minotaur Ambassador said, “Stress gives the meat extra bite and flavor.” Phixa stared at her lottery ticket. Phalanges. How could she create a phenomenal cake with such a piss-poor “special” ingredient? She glanced at the workstation on her left. Of course there were the regulation sacks of flour, sugar, stick of vanilla bean, stick of butter, quart of milk, six eggs, measuring cups, cake pans, bowl and whisk that were supplied to all contestants, but the ghoul who was Contestant #8 also had his own chef’s knives. He must’ve been a very successful grave robber because the German knife set was bloody expensive. Phixa said, “What did you get?” The ghoul said, “Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.” He leered, displaying a mouthful of rotten teeth. She bared her own fangs and snarled. The ghoul lunged at Phixa, but the iron chain that tethered his ankle to the stone floor clanked, holding him in place. The Leviathan Ambassador slithered towards Phixa. “Contestant #9, where is your lottery card?” She lifted up a sheet of animal skin parchment and showed it to the serpent.The Leviathan said, “Phalanges, how unfortunate.” The ghoul cackled, “Bummer, whatcha gonna do with the toe bones?” Phixa flapped her wings and glared at the ghoul. The ghoul held up his own card and said, “Liver.” “Nice,”
“Nice,” the Leviathan Ambassador said. “Good luck.” “I won’t need luck. I’m an artist. ” The ghoul picked up one of his fancy knives and hurled it at Contestant #1. “Watch out!” Phixa shouted a warning. When the tentacle creature saw the knife zooming towards his face, he dropped his bag of flour and shrieked. He lurched to the left, narrowly avoiding being stabbed. Twang. The knife imbedded in the wall. “Snitch,” the ghoul said. Phixa snarled. She extended her claws and raked the air by the ghoul’s face. “Next time I’ll draw blood,” she said. As the judges prepared to start the competition, Phixa thought about all she’d endured since she was doomed.
Phixa latched her lips around the thorn and plucked it from her paw. Fluid seeped from the wound, but it was barely a scratch compared to the deep gouge on her back. Like other new arrivals in Hell, she’d been beaten and starved, to break down her defenses. Through an archway cut in the cavern wall, Phixa could hear demons gnashing on bones, their throats guzzling tankards of mulled wine. The smell of roasted flesh and spices made her mouth water. From the opposite end of the cave, Phixa heard footsteps approaching. She lifted up her paws to protect her face from the inevitable attack. The chains that tethered her to the wall clanked. As the figure that held the torch got closer, Phixa breathed a sigh of relief. It was a human woman, not one of the demons that had beaten her. Persephone set her torch on a wall bracket and bent over Phixa. She said, “Let me help.” She tore a strip of fabric from the bottom of her skirt. “I’m going to examine your paw.” The wounded flesh was sensitive. Phixa winced. “Did I hurt you?” Phixa shook her head. She said, “Why aren’t you afraid of me?” “You’re not like the others.” Persephone probed the cut, wiping away dirt. “Could
“Could you check my back?” Phixa said. She rotated her shoulders, but couldn’t move very far since she was chained to the wall. Persephone gasped when she saw the deep laceration. Gently, she tended to the wound. Phixa’s eyes filled with tears. She’d never felt so vulnerable. Sometimes an act of kindness leads to great misery. As Phixa watched Hades’ bride run into the shadowed corridor, the Sphinx realized that she had fallen in love.
Phixa grabbed her sack of flour and pressed it between her paws. Her heart beat faster, thrumming with passion for Persephone. Hades deserved to be eviscerated for keeping such a wonderful woman prisoner. Becoming more enraged, Phixa kneaded the bag of flour so hard that it burst, spilling all over her counter. She flapped her wings, fanning the wheat dust onto the stone floor. At least more than half the bag was left. The ghoul had really hit the jackpot. Liver, even the word practically melted in her mouth. Depending on how it was prepared, the fatty organ could be light and fluffy like mousse or dense like a truffle, the essence of succulent, meaty, lusciousness. Creating a tart with a juicy pâté center was the obvious choice, but liver was so versatile, it could even be diced and fried to create a delectable, crunchy topping. A door in the side of the cavern opened. The Incubus Ambassador entered the competition amphitheater and shouted, “Late arrival. Contestant #10.” The demon yanked on a chain that was wrapped around a little girl’s neck. Phixa felt a twinge of pity. The child’s throat was rubbed raw from the metal links. She looked like a schoolgirl, dressed in a white blouse, plaid skirt, and scuffed sneakers. The Incubus clipped the leash to the unoccupied workstation across from Phixa and the ghoul. The girl wasn’t tall enough to reach the counter. Phixa said, “Would you like a step stool? That’s not against the rules.” The
The girl snapped her fingers, and instantly levitated above her workstation. “Would you like a step stool?” she said in a sing-song voice. Phixa said, “Sorry, I was trying to be helpful.” As the young witch floated in a circle above her workstation, the chain thunked against the counter. The sorceress sneered. “Balderdash, you were psyching me out. I’m not a bloody simpleton. Spout any more patronizing twaddle, and I’ll have you disqualified for violating Rule Number 4—No intimidation.” The sorceress rolled her eyes until only the white portion of the eyeballs showed. She said, “Don’t try your riddles on me.” Phixa turned away. There was no use arguing or coveting other contestants’ ingredients. She took a deep breath. She needed to focus. Winning the contest was the only way to escape the infernal cavern of fire and brimstone. Hades was too clever to fall for riddles or tricks. A gong sounded, announcing that the contest was about to commence. Phixa raised her paw. “Could I have a mortar and pestle?” Judge #49, the Cerberus Ambassador, swiveled his heads. The head on the left opened its canine jaws and said, “Rule Number 23– All tools must be approved.” The head on the right said, “Mortal and pestle are not knives, whisks, or spoons.” The middle head said, “What’s a mortar and pestle?” Phixa snarled in frustration. She said, “What about a rock? Can I use a rock?” She pointed at one of the boulders strewn along the cavern floor. The basilisk said, “Harvesting unapproved flesh violates Rule Number 1—Do not cannibalize other contestants.” The ghoul chuckled. “Oooooh, I’m scared. Sphinx is a bloodthirsty wench.” Phixa felt a sudden onset of nausea. She said, “I’m not going to kill anyone! Can I use a rock as a tool?” The Incubus Ambassador pulled a branding iron out of the fire pit. The gong sounded again. A huge clock hanging on the wall near the sulfurous stream started to tick, counting down the minutes until the contest would be over. Slots in the
Slots in the cavern ceiling opened above each workstation. A metal tube protruded from the hole above Phixa’s head. She grabbed the bowl off the counter, and held it below the tube. Tiny toe bones plonked into the metal bowl. Each of the phalanges had been stripped of flesh. They glowed so brightly, the bones appeared to have been bleached and polished. She lifted one of the phalanges out of the bowl. It was as hard as a piece of gravel and as cold as an ice cube. Perhaps if she warmed the bone it would be more pliable? She pressed the foot pedal underneath her workstation, pumping vigorously until water trickled out of the faucet. Giddy with relief, she stuck the bone under the feeble stream, but the water was cool, not hot. Next, she tried to mash bones by pummeling them with a metal measuring cup. Sweat beaded on her forehead and trickled down her face, making it harder to see. She kept wailing on the bones until the bottom of the cup was dented and her muscles ached, but not even a single phalange got chipped. The ghoul snickered, laughing at her plight. Enraged, Phixa shoved the smallest bone into her mouth and chomped on it. Crack! Had she broken one of her teeth or the bone? She poked her tongue into the space and felt a sharp shard. The basilisk hissed, “She’s cheating!” Judge #2, the Centaur Ambassador, roared and pawed his hooves against the stone floor, raising a cloud of dust. Phixa grabbed the rest of the bones and shoved them in her mouth. The hard lumps were bitter, but as she ground them to pulp between her molars, the taste became sweeter, almost like molasses. The Centaur Ambassador galloped across the cavern. When he’d reached the little witch’s workstation, he leapt over the counter. His rear hooves struck her bag of sugar, spewing crystals all over the floor. The witch said, “My cake is ruined!” She snapped her fingers. A spark shot from her index finger and set the Centaur Ambassador’s tail on fire. Trailing a wake of flame, the beast with a man’s face and torso and the body of a horse skidded to a stop beside Phixa. He bared his teeth and shouted, “Spit it out!”
On the other side of her workstation, the Incubus Ambassador waved the branding iron. When the hot poker was about to fry her forehead, Phixa complied. She spat the bony pulp into her bowl. The gooey mixture glistened and had an opalescent violet tinge. The Centaur said, “What in tarnation?” “Phalanges,” Phixa said. She handed the Centaur her lottery ticket. “I didn’t break any rules.” “Why’re they purple?” the Incubus said. The little witch rolled her eyes. “Simple chemistry. Sphinx spittle reacts with calcium.” The Minotaur Ambassador grunted and peered at Phixa’s mouth. “Teeth are calcium, why aren’t your teeth purple?” Phixa yawned, displaying her molars. The back teeth were indeed violet. “Satisfied?” she said. “Can I make my cake?”
The ghoul hadn’t lied when he called himself an artist. Phixa had never seen a more splendid dessert—a three-tiered buttercream cake topped with a liver flan. The caramelized crust glistened like crystal. Phixa’s heart pounded as she waited for the judges’ final verdict. She pressed her wings against her sides to stop them from trembling. The Minotaur Ambassador forked a gooey dollop of her sweet monstrosity into his mouth. “Nice vanilla finish. Very fluffy. What do you call it?” “Angelic meringue,” Phixa said. He set down his fork, and pointed his horns at the sacrificial altar. “What is your final wish, Sphinx?” Phixa gasped. “I won?” A tear trickled down her cheek. She said, “Let Persephone take my place.” The Minotaur said, “Lop off the pretty wench’s head?” Phixa trembled. “No. I’ll suffer the axe, but let Persephone go free.” Of course, there was a brief squabble because all of the demons wanted the honor of being the executioner. Fur flew, hooves kicked, lightning cracked, and the Minotaur wrestled the Phixa purred and curled up by Persephone’s feet. Of course, Hades’
runaway bride assumed that she was an ordinary cat that had appeared on
the axe from the Incubus. With a mighty swing and a roar, the Minotaur severed Phixa’s head with one swift stroke. Hades never learned the truth about how the wily Sphinx sacrificed her corporeal form to free Persephone. Demons were remarkably good at keeping secrets.
Persephone patted Phixa’s head and said, “Good kitty. Thank you for chasing the icky spider.” Phixa purred and curled up by Persephone’s feet. Of course, Hades’ runaway bride assumed that she was an ordinary cat that had appeared on the doorstep. In her reincarnated form, Phixa was no longer a Sphinx, the fearsome mythical creature who had the head of a human woman, giant eagle’s wings, and the body of a lion. Persephone and Phixa shared a small cottage in a suburb of Lausanne, Switzerland. The accommodation was modest, but Persephone let her sleep on the bed instead of the floor, and the wood stove kept them warm on winter nights. It would be harder for Phixa to vanquish evil without wings, and losing the power to speak was also a handicap, but she was determined to guard Persephone. After all, fairy godmothers came in all shapes and sizes, and villains in the living world were less formidable than demons. Pouncing on the occasional spider was a hell of a lot less dangerous than being chased by Cerberus.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alicia Hilton is an author, law professor, arbitrator, actor, and former FBI Special Agent. She believes in angels and demons, magic and monsters. Aliciaâ€™s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Akashic Books, Best Indie Speculative Fiction Volume 3, Daily Science Fiction, Demain Publishing UK, DreamForge, Vastarien, Yearâ€™s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 4 & 5, and elsewhere. Her website is https://www.aliciahilton.com. Follow her on Twitter @aliciahilton01.
THE GIFTS OF MIDWINTER Kelly Jarvis merry bonfire crackled on the riverbank, its burning logs snapping in the snowy silence. The babbling brook, usually eager to share its secrets, had been hushed by a thick layer of winter ice. It was too cold to be gathering near the water’s edge, but the villagers would not forgo their Solstice ritual of seeking the first star in the dusky evening sky. Even old Babushka, the storyteller, tottered toward her seat of honor next to the flames, her woolen scarf wrapped tightly around her white hair. One of the villagers offered her a sip of amber alcohol from his tankard, and she drank deeply, letting the burning liquid linger on her frozen lips. When the purple veil of twilight tossed itself across the horizon, Babushka knew it was time to start the story. She spoke slowly, as though her voice was gently pulling at the ribbon atop a brightly colored gift, trying to reach the present inside without damaging the beautiful wrappings. “A dark tale is best for winter,” she whispered, the skies deepening in response to her words. “And this dark tale begins with love, as dark tales often do.” The villagers drew closer. Babushka’s words hung in the frigid air as her breath rose, ghostlike, in the sun’s final glow. It seemed as though the spirit of Old Winter itself was speaking through the storyteller. “Davnym-Davno, Once Upon a Time,” Babushka began, “Father Frost and Mother Spring fell in love. Never was a pair more unfortunatelywed, for he was aged with deep set wrinkles in his soul, and her
and her mind was as young as a newly opened rose.” “The couple spent much of the year apart, for in summer, Mother Spring was busy tending to the growth of the world, and during autumn’s harvest, she rested. But each year just after the Winter Solstice, when her husband’s growing darkness finally turned toward her light, they would find each other again.” “Father Frost would initiate courtship by brooding about Mother Spring’s long absence, stubbornly refusing to lift the white blanket of the North so that he might welcome his wife home to bed. Mother Spring, ever young and playful, would shiver at his icy touch, teasing her husband with slices of sunshine and bits of birdsong until his temper softened. Try as he might, the surly god of winter was unable to resist the blush of life beneath the goddesses’ glowing green eyes.” “Their passionate embrace would plunge the new year into a turbulent dance of ice and thaw. Only when Father Frost saw the painful scars of frostbite his love had written across his wife’s dewy skin, would he allow himself to weaken so that she might grow. Mother Spring would weep with sorrow as her husband languished, and her tears would fall upon the earth like rain, coaxing beauty and life from the pain of his annual death.” Babushka stopped speaking and let her gaze fall upon the villagers. Some were wearing black coats or shawls, signs of the grief they had suffered since the last Solstice gathering. They nodded in sympathy as they recognized themselves in the sad tones of the tale. They leaned closer to the warmth of Babushka’s words, feeling their absent loved ones summoned by the story. “Although his immortal life renewed itself each year,” Babushka continued, “Father Frost knew that his seasonal death caused his wife immeasurable pain, so one year, he decided to give Mother Spring a parting gift to comfort her. With the last of his strength, he crafted a late season storm, molding mounds of fresh fallen powder into the shape of a snow-child. He gave it hair the color of sunlight, eyes the midnight blue of the sky, and lips stained red by holly berries.” “Delighted, Mother Spring kissed the gift, and her rose scented breath melted the snow-child into living flesh. They named their daughter Snegurochka, so they might remember she had been born from the
from the last of winter’s beauty.” “The Snow Maiden lived in her father’s winter woods. She grew to be a lovely young lady, and though her pale skin was always cold to the touch, her golden hair, crowned with diamond icicles, radiated warmth, falling around her shoulders like liquid sunlight. Her parents took turns visiting her in her far-off realm. Her father would bring her long blue robes and fur trimmed hats to keep her warm in his chilly presence, and her mother would drape her in sundresses woven of white flower petals which fluttered against her temperate maternal breezes. Snegurochka was happy for thousands of years, but each year at the Solstice, when her parents forgot all but one another as they renewed their passion, the poor maiden grew lonely, longing to find a true love of her own.” “One year, the Snow Maiden wandered to the edge of the winter woods where she spied a shepherd driving his flock home from the fields. The sheep meandered down the lane like little earth-bound clouds of snow, and Snegurochka, having been crafted of snow herself, felt the gentle creatures were her kindred spirits. When the shepherd lifted his pipe of reeds to play his sheep a tender tune, the notes rang against the clear evening sky. The lonely melody lingered in the air, calling the sheep home, and stirring the Snow Maiden’s ice carved heart.” “Mortal love will bring you nothing but pain,” Father Frost howled, storming away when his daughter told him about the shepherd. He threatened to bury the shepherd under sheets of ice if Snegurochka did not promise to stay away from him. Confused, the Snow Maiden appealed to her mother, who could see warm desire blossoming beneath her daughter’s breast. “To truly know mortal love, you must become mortal yourself”, Mother Spring explained sadly. “Mortal life does not renew itself like the seasons. If you become mortal, you must leave the winter woods forever.” “Although she had lived for thousands of years, the Snow Maiden was little more than a child. She stamped her foot and cried until her doting mother, who could deny her daughter nothing, created a magic halo of white chrysanthemums. Mother Spring placed the flowers just above the maiden’s golden locks. She sighed in agony as she bid her daughter farewell, but Snegurochka, who was hurrying to reach her shepherd at
shepherd at the edge of the forest, was too excited to notice her mother’s tears.” “Snegurochka entered the grazing field at twilight. The sheep were wandering home, their soft wool blending into the purple shadows of the evening. The shepherd’s heavenly music lifted with the breeze and danced among the wakening stars. He turned to see a beautiful woman running toward him. Her silver gown fluttered behind her, spilling frosted drops of sparkling snow onto the solitary lane.” Babushka paused, giving the young sweethearts who were gathered around the Solstice fire time to smile shyly at one another, remembering their own romantic beginnings. When she spoke again, her voice creaked like a long-forgotten memory. “This is not a springtime story,” she warned, “This is a winter’s tale.” “The shepherd’s mystical music beat inside Snegurochka’s newly human heart, pulsing with passion and pain. When the Snow Maiden felt the weight of time wrap itself around her, she suddenly understood the terrible price she must pay to know true love. Still, she closed her midnight eyes, and still, she opened her berry lips, and still, she leaned forward to kiss the shepherd whose song had touched her soul. The moment her frozen skin brushed against his human heat, she melted into a puddle of icy water.” “The astonished shepherd stared at the chrysanthemum flowers floating on the misty pool at his feet. He brushed his fingers against the strange film of frost that settled on his beard. Then he returned to his somber song, filling the dusk with crystal notes, never knowing that he had been kissed by a Snow Maiden who had willingly sacrificed everything for one moment of mortal love.” The villagers stirred, and Babushka lowered her voice to conclude her tale. “Some say that if you listen carefully on the Solstice night, when the veil between the living and the dead is thin, you will hear the lonely voice of the Snow Maiden calling for her shepherd. Some say that all mortals who hear the shepherds haunting tune echoing off the stars on the longest and darkest night of the year will know great love and suffer great loss. Do not be afraid to listen, my children, for the pain of loss is the price of love, and it makes our mortal lives worth living.” A frozen tear slipped down the storyteller’s cheek as she spoke, and she lifted
she lifted her face to the heavens where the first star of the Solstice, drawn forth by her story, unwrapped itself in the night sky. A cheer of celebration rose as the spell of the tale was broken. The villagers gulped the dregs of their tankards, hugging one another in Solstice celebration. Now that the star had appeared, they would return home to break the first bread of the winter holidays. They would feast and sing and exchange gifts. They would reminisce on the souls who had passed that year and celebrate the newest arrivals. They would set white candles in their windows, leaving the flames to flicker against the darkness until the breaking of dawn. Long after the villagers left the waterâ€™s edge, the merry embers of the dying bonfire continued to glow, casting a ruddy shine on the quiet surface of the river. Just past midnight, the swollen sky released a flurry of love-struck snowflakes who, having heard Babushkaâ€™s story of devotion and despair, eagerly threw themselves into the sizzling embrace of the burning ashes waiting below. Old Winter yawned and was finally lulled to sleep by the sweet, sad tune of a thousand stars singing a song of Solstice love.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Jarvis teaches classes in literature, writing, and fairy tale at Central Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, and Tunxis Community College. She lives, happily ever after, with her husband and three sons in a house ďŹ lled with fairy tale books.
Sowing Angel by Armand Cambon, 1860
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story by Kim Malinowski brings us a gorgeous and touching fairy tale ﬁlled with sorry and beauty and hope. Enjoy! Image by: Kayla Koss
ANGEL FIXED IN STONE Kim Malinowski he realized long after the process had started that angels could be turned into stone. With every prayer, with each tear, her ethereal marrow, her graceful flesh, slowly changed. Without a glimmer of realization, she began creaking into hardness. She did not know to fear, and perhaps would have embraced her destiny had she known. This did not mean she was lost or did not feel divine mercy. She did not know what caused her ache, but she knew she could still hear and help the suffering and even the dying. But it was the mortals’ pleas that caused the damage, as if divine will could damage even an angel. The humans’ bleeding wounds and their begging for tattered hearts to be mended. Each petitioner’s need calcified her as she loved them. She blessed them in granite. Their prayers cemented her. She crooned lullabies for their salvation. She kissed the valiant off to war. All the things angels ought to do, but none of it was permanent—only her. She felt the warmth of flickering candles and prayer. Those she blessed wished for her to save them. They wanted her to save everyone in the village, give peace to everyone on earth. She, of course, wished this too. But she could not understand the stiffness of her shoulders or how her heavy limbs sank into the dirt. She focused on her capture. And then, she would forget it with the first rays of sun. She would beat her wings each morning and rise to the heavens. She felt renewed by the sun’s energy and heaven’s grace. She sang songs of remembrance for herself. Then, she floated back to the earth as if on wisp a of cloud at dusk.
The pilgrims waited patiently for her arrival. Each time though, she was heavier, even her breathing was more labored. She felt her pelvis stiffen and it would not loosen, not even during prayer. Worse, each time she rose, it became harder for her to fly. She claimed these people’s fear. She sang away grief and eased deaths. She knew she was burdened by their depravity and love. But after prayer and vigil, the men and women were lighter. They blew kisses to her and sang brightly. She knew that they were better for coming to her. That made any sacrifice she made worth it. As time went on, her vast wings pounded through fog and blizzard, and even spring petals. But she became rooted. Her feet were firmly planted, as if her toes were mired in mud. She was no longer able to fly. She was cemented by wax, desperation, and the pilgrims’ and villagers’ need for companionship. They needed someone to watch over them and their land. They needed her. And even though bound to earth, she knew she needed them just as much. She had bound herself to the land as much as the divine had. She blessed the mortals and taught them to pray. She led them gently to forgiveness. She accomplished even the most difficult of tasks—teaching them to forgive themselves. The dead were laid at her solidified feet and she beat her wings and blew her sacred breath over them. She chanted each of them off to heaven. Each prayer, each candle, and especially her tears, made her more rigid. Already, she lived the life of a statue. She only felt like her angel-self when helping someone. As the snows began falling, those who had nowhere to go, huddled by her feet. She offered protection with long robes billowing from her arms. Even her garments began to harden. Her robes covered the needy and the pigeons rested on her halo. She feared not being able to help. She did not fear being petrified. She knew through grace that even some trees became stone—monuments of time and beauty. Some angels were thought to be carved out of stone. She now knew better. She was becoming a statue. She was transforming into a piece of art. She found solace in the men and women’s worship. She begged for divine love and for miracles. Surely, if a broken man touched her foot, he would become whole or at least have enough strength to press on.
What was prayer anyway? She mulled as another molecule became granite. She was made up of millions of prayers. Wasn’t that art? Wasn’t that divine love and grace? Wasn’t that purpose? Her gown and robes became even more solid. They did not billow. They mocked the gauziness and felt starched, as if carved from a block of stone dragged from quarry. They became as much of as a statue as the wearer. Still, there was work to be done. Women and men, even light-footed children, came for blessings. She waved her hand over their brows. Then later, she could only wiggle her finger. Then even later, only her nail trembled. The people could feel her power and blessings, though. More candles appeared and there was such love and devotion. She knew the divine had brought her here—to this place, to this town, to this plaza. She knew love destroyed. She saw it destroy countless marriages. She saw it ransack wronged lovers who begged for reconciliation or revenge. Those lovers that had done wrong pleaded with her for relief and forgiveness. Then, in a moment of solitude, she realized that love would destroy her. It was a solemn realization and a quiet one. She prayed for hours over it. Then days. She was being turned into granite—or concrete—rock—and these things while hard, weathered. She would be turned into sand and float away to the sea. She understood love had a cost. There was always a penalty. She loved the people and so her wings had stopped beating. Soon, they could not even vibrate. They flew behind her, but as stone. No one carved her, but there she was, becoming art. The divine carving her into love—into symbol. There were more candles and more tears. So much despair and death and love. All a cycle. She wanted to know if she was part of a cycle? What would happen when she could no longer cry? When her tears would not drip onto wounds and heal?One day she felt the etherealness leave. Her skirts were stuck in perpetual breeze and her lips did not move for prayer. Her heart felt like it would burst and she prayed. And prayed. And prayed. One last molecule. Gone. She was stone. Carved by the One himself. She felt no beating heart, no flapping wings… And even in her rigidness, a sobbing woman lay broken at her rooted feet, begging, calling out—
calling out—and she cried over her. This one was the last tear. Tear ducts calcified. And then, the woman fled, healed and light—almost floating like she had once done. She felt a tear try to fall and felt a thunderous crack. The fracture started at the nape of her neck—all of the humans’ penance. The crack caressed her neck with all of the love she had given and received. Her stone head fell into time. It broke into sand or was buried or carried to the sea. Her dust was held in pockets for good fortune. She blessed believers as they touched her legs and brushed palms across her skirt. The people were desperate for miracles and she performed many. She gave and she gave. Divine energy flowed from her rock form. Particles disappeared into ether. Pilgrims came to collect dew at the soles of her feet. Beggars felt safe by her and were given enough for dinner each evening. She could do that much at least. She still stands guard. Headless, but caught in beauty—a rock of salvation and refuge. With each tear that is wept at her feet she knows that, in time, she will become a whole angel, and she will once again fly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kim Malinowski is a lover of words. Her debut poetry collection is forthcoming from Kelsay Books. Her chapbook Death: A Love Story was published by Flutter Press. Her work was featured in Faerie Magazine/Enchanted Living and Eternal Haunted Summer. She writes because the alternative would be unthinkable. Visit her website at http://www.kimmalinowskipoet.com/.
EDITORâ€™S NOTE: Love in its many forms can uplift or curse those that ďŹ nd themselves under its spell. It is a theme that resonates in fairy tales set in the past and the present. We hope you enjoy this unique tale as much as we did. 120
NIGHT, THE HARDEST TIME TO BE ALIVE Melissa Yuan-Innes
is mother never permitted his father to sleep. She would prod him awake with her elbow or kick him in the backs of the knees. In fairness, Da never wanted to sleep. He rigged up his own devices to keep his eyes open, including a bed of nails. He shivered under a thin blanket when the snow lay three feet thick outside. He tried not to lie down because if he did, he said, he would never wake up. "Why?” the boy asked. Neither mother nor father answered. All their energy seemed devoted to this strange task of keeping Da from sleeping. Ma made a meager living taking in laundry and doing embroidery. Da worked in the fields when he could, but he took a chill more often than not. His hacking cough kept all of them awake for weeks. Until one day Da fell asleep under thin blanket. "Da?” Michael said when he came through the door. He forgot the dirt crusted under his nails and the straw in his hair from weeks of harvesting. He saw only his father curled up by the dying embers of the fire. And his mother curled over his Da, weeping silently and saying, "I killed him." Michael ignored her. He shook Da's shoulder. Da rolled toward him, but his eyes had finally closed. Da's chest lay still, his lips slightly parted. "Da?” Michael repeated, in a higher voice. He wanted to tell his father
father about the harvest, that he had made enough money for wood and a bit of meat this winter. Tears dripped from Ma's face on to Da's blanket. "I killed him. I cursed him," she said. Michael finally held his mother while she blurted out some story about how she had been a nymph, had given up her immortality when she married his father and bore Michael. But when she caught Da cheating on her, she cursed him. "You promised me you would love me with every waking breath. So be it. When you fall asleep, you will die." Michael patted her shoulder. Poor Ma Ondine. Raving. In his head, he calculated how much a funeral would cost out of his new earnings. They would only have to feed two mouths this winter, but they could no longer count on Da's small income, either. He would have to take care of the family now. Generations passed. Ondines loved and cursed their mates. Michaels grew old before their time, caring for both of them. The cycle repeated without breaking. Always the Ondines. Always the tragic loves. And always the Michaels. If they survived their parents, they swore to work and never love anyone except themselves. The 21st century Michael loved women. He loved the way they ducked their heads and looked sideways up at him through their hair. He loved the way they walked, undulating in front of him. He loved the way they smelled. And there it ended. His parents had paid too high a price. He would not make the same mistake. Little did he know that his parents continued watch over him in every incarnation. And with each generation, the power of their combined love and protection grew stronger. They were his guardians. You might call them his seraphim. If only their power could overcome the curse.
"Abarka. Thank you.â€? Nina Chowdary flashed the final slide of her presentation, showing herself and the rest of the medical team surrounded by Gambian doctors and nurses and children. Dr. Nina's brown
brown skin contrasted with both the ebony villagers' faces and the rest of the pale Canadian complexions. "From all the children in Gambia who can now smile, Abarka.â€? Nina massacred the Gambian words, but language wasn't her forte. Surgery was her strength. Microsurgery, to be precise. She'd been the only resident invited on the medical mission and she'd taken up her precious vacation and study time to go. While everyone applauded, a waiter handed her a glass and she downed it, realizing too late that it was champagne instead of water. She choked on the bubbles. Her microphone picked up the noise, and everyone laughed. She cleared her throat and croaked, "I'm not worried because if I have any airway trouble, about 90 percent of the people in the room know how to resuscitate me." The crowd laughed some more. "Sorry," said the waiter. She took a closer look at him. Blond guy, young, carefully spiked bangs. Deep blue eyes. A good body hidden under his uniform. But not a good waiter, although the champagne flute would've given the alcohol away if she'd been paying attention. "Don't worry about it--â€? She glanced at his lapel pin--"Michael." And that was that, except when she snuck a cigarette at the back door at the end of the night, she spotted the waiter tossing out a garbage bag. When he turned, he called, "Hey. You're a doctor. Don't you know those things are bad for you?" "Terrible," she called back, waving the cigarette at him. "Don't turn me in." "Hey, I'll just make you choke on some champagne again." She took a last drag and stubbed the cigarette out. "Good. That's one way to make people laugh and donate more money." "Glad to be of service." Their eyes met across the night air.
What surprised Nina the most was not that he turned out to be nine years younger than her, a barely-legal 21, or the fact that he'd actually read Emmanual Kant, which was more than she could say. It was the way he
way he always closed his eyes in bed, squeezing his eyelids shut as if to block out everything except the sensation roaring inside his body. "Open your eyes," she coaxed him the third time, the tenth time, the twentieth time, until she finally gave up and figured there were worse things, like premature ejaculation. At least this way she could make whatever faces she wanted and he'd never know. "I don't do love. Sorry.” He closed the bedroom door softly behind himself. Two weeks later, she heard he'd taken up with a high school student who catered with him. Young. Not too bright. But with big tits and a tinkly laugh, someone who might not do love, either. Or, if she did, he'd saw the heart right out of her chest. Well. Nina was a surgeon. She knew how to put things back together. She hoped. For weeks, she wrestled with strange dreams. A man who commanded her not to give up, that she and Michael were so close to “the beginning.” A dark-haired beauty who warned Nina that she was in danger of sealing over her own heart. “Forgive, start anew. Love.” Both the man and woman looked so majestic and yet hauntingly familiar in the shape of their eyes, the lift of their chins, or the twist of their lips. Sometimes, in Nina’s dreams, she heard a rush of wings.
Twenty years on, a blond man in a tuxedo offered Nina a flute of champagne at a fundraising dinner. She held up her glass of water, barely glancing at him. "I've got a drink, thank you." "Plus change," he said, and gave a crooked smile that tugged at her memory. "Michael?” she said, sloshing her water in its glass. She examined his broadened cheekbones, the looser jaw, the threads of white mixed at the temples, and his filled-in build. He still looked hot, damn it. But then, he'd only be about 42. Prime time for men. Unfortunately. He bowed his head. "Dr. Chowdary." She held out her hand as if he were an old acquaintance. Which he was. He shook it, holding on a little too long. His palm felt cool. "You look great."
Great." She shrugged and pulled her hand away. "I do all right.” Plenty of her colleagues had opted for Botox, filler, or a face lift or two, but Nina had resisted everything except laser therapy so far. "How are your wife and kidlets?" "I don't have any.” He swallowed the champagne she'd refused and dropped the flute on the tray of a passing server. "Are you wondering why I'm attending the reception instead of catering it?" She sipped her water. It seemed to hang in her throat before she swallowed it. Somehow, she was always choking around this man. "You were a lousy waiter." He laughed. "Yeah, you're right. Okay, I'll tell you why. I wanted to see you and make a donation to your foundation." "Thanks. You'll get a tax receipt.” She signaled the organizers that she was coming. He paused. "I guess I deserve that. Can I call you?" She adjusted the strap on her scarlet gown. "Sure. The foundation knows how to reach me.” And then she crossed to the podium with a practiced smile stretching across her face. He wasn't the only one who had learned to live without loving. But when she slipped out the back door and saw him leaning against a maple tree, silhouetted in the moonlight, she stared at him. He raised his head. "Sneaking a cigarette?" "No, actually. I gave it up ages ago." "Good for you.” He patted his front pocket with a rueful smile. "I was going to offer you a light." Just like that, she crossed to his side. Because although she had learned not to love, she also knew how to heal. And she was willing to try one more time. Because everyone knows that once in a great while, a curse, instead of a true heart, may be broken. Ondine and her lover spread their wings around Michael and Nina—wings too far and to ephemeral to be felt by mere human flesh. And yet, in that precise moment, all four of them smiled.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melissa Yuan-Innes is a doctor who loves fairy tales and werewolves. Sheâ€™s a Writers of the Future winner published in Nature and The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. She writes the Hope Sze medical mysteries as Melissa Yi, recommended by the CBC and Ellery Queen. Her website is www.melissayuaninnes.com.
Angel by Luis Giordano, 1672
EDITORâ€™S NOTE: This story uses nursery rhymes in inventive, surprising ways. Itâ€™s an unusual tale in all the good ways, and Victoria has provided a truly fresh take here. Enjoy! Image by: Frederick Richardson
JACK BE NIMBLE Victoria Dixon ack ignored his pain and buckled his lederhosen before praying again. "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the legs that I stand on." Why did he bother asking for healing? What was the point? Though he prayed daily, nothing changed. His leg never improved. The villagers still mocked him. The agonizing question, 'Why me?' remained an unanswerable conundrum. Why would God allow an innocent child to go through this? The villagers said he must deserve it. Grandfather claimed it was so others could see God's glory through Jack's suffering. Jack hadn't seen God's glory yet, so neither had anyone else. Outside his window, the water wheel that destroyed his life whispered, "Cripple…cripple…cripple." Jack closed his shutters to block out the ugly wooden beast. He called to mind the angels visiting his dreams last night, andused the memory like a shield. Their songs flooded his room like the sounds of harps and trumpets. Silvery bright, they prayed and watched the road through his window. He soared, free among them, but they did not heal him. Heavenly glory was a humbug. Jack dressed, tightening the laces on his bad leg so the boot's edge gave his weakened calf a little support. He dreaded the day's work. He had ever since his leg was shattered by a piece of the miller's water wheel. Taking Jack as an apprentice made the miller look good to the town. The miller was not a good man. He made a new game yesterday. “To make
make the day go faster.” He’d stolen Jack’s crutch and laughed, watching Jack crawl between jobs. Jack still felt the miller's beating with the half-full grain sacks that left no marks. The beating came because he’d not completed a day’s work. The villagers knew of Connell's cruelty and some joined him. Outside, a young man’s voice sang. "Girls and boys come out to play; the moon still shines, as bright as day. Come with a whoop, come with a call, come with a good will, or not at all." Jack wavered. Nell needs milking and then there's work. If I'm late, Connell will make me feel it. Panpipes sounded, trilling music through Jack's heart. He grabbed his crutch, clicking and dragging himself downstairs. It couldn't hurt to see who had come to town. A crowd of children ringed a stranger. "Why, what do you know? I'm surrounded," the singer lowered his panpipes. He looked twenty summers old. Beneath a felt hat, blond hair lifted in the light breeze and gold eyes reflected the sunrise. The singer gestured to him. "Call me Wolfram, my friend. Your name?" "Jack Christianson." Jack offered his hand, but Wolfram didn't take it. "Why do you walk that way?" Wolfram nodded at Jack’s crutch. Simon, the weaver’s bulldog-faced son and Jack’s only friend, shifted from foot to foot. Another fight brewing and Simon won’t help. "It's not my fault I can't do what you can." The girls sniggered as Jack clenched his fists. "There's no need for that, Lad. I'm here to show you what you can do." Wolfram winked and pointed across the street. "Magic." "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Jack, jump over yon candlestick!" A lamppost towered as Jack’s impossible target. Longing filled him, and as if that was enough to change his life, an invisible force spun him around. The children laughed when Jack dropped his crutch, for what could he do without it? Jack bounded over the lamppost. I don't believe it. Faces below gawped as his disfigured leg realigned itself. It didn’t even hurt. Cheers thundered around him when he landed. The children lifted Jack and
Jack and Wolfram high. Jack yelled, "No, I can walk. I want to walk." The crowd put them down. Jack stood on his straight leg and stared at Wolfram. "How. . . Thank you. It's a miracle." Wolfram tucked his pipes away and gave an airy, devil-may-care grin. “Come, over the stile, over the stair. Run away all, we're off to the fair."The children laughed, playing as they passed others on the road. "I'm hungry, Wolfram," Simon whined. "'Tis an easy matter to fix." Wolfram pointed to a baker's cart and pushed Simon forward. "Please, Herr Becker, may I have a pie?" Simon said. "Not that way, Lad. Watch and learn." Wolfram licked his lips, grinning. "Here, you lot, what are you doing?" The baker brandished a rolling pin. Wolfram laughed. "Simple Simon met a pie man going to the fair." Simon scowled. Jack stepped forward and whispered in Simon’s ear. "Says Simple Simon to the pie man –" "Let us taste your ware." Jack's and Simon's hair stood upright when the magic forced them to say the words in unison. Wolfram clapped Jack on the shoulder. "Excellent, Jack. A quick lad if ever I saw one." The baker gave each child a pie. His befuddled expression unsettled Jack. "Shouldn't we pay?" "We sang a song worth sixpence for the baker's pocket full of rye." Wolfram winked. If the magic gave everyone strength, that seemed fair. They bought what they wished, paying in magic. Simon was the only child unable to pay and they mocked him. Their games lasted 'til dusk. Jack squinted uphill where a crowd roiled. The baker burst from its center, pointing. "There they are!" He’d brought the festival sergeants. "To market, to market to have us some fun. Home again, home again, the market is done!" Wolfram faced the guards as the children ran. "Four
"Four sergeants sliding on the ice upon a summer's day, as it fell out they all fell in. The rest they ran away!" An ice lake cracked underfoot, then consumed the sergeants. The shopkeepers screamed and fled. Jack chilled. He didn’t know anyone who could swim. "Wolfram," Jack said, hesitant to question the one who healed him. "If we did nothing wrong, why are we running?" "Because we can." Wolfram punched Jack's arm. "Race you, limping Jack." Wolfram’s grin and the joy of running deafened Jack’s doubts. They rounded the bend and the mill loomed with Miller Connell in the broad doorway. "You’ll not come whining for pay today." A rushing wind filled Jack’s skull. The miller sneered. Jack Christianson, the butt of every ounce of contempt a village could muster, pointed a shaking hand. "There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked sixpence 'pon a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse, and they all lived together in a crooked little house." Stooped over, Connell shuffled into the mill. Power seethed in Jack’s soul, demanding release. A mansion two minutes before, the miller's house sagged where the foundation gave way. The children cheered and threw stones at the house's cracked windows. "Quite the bit of work, Jack, your apprenticeship is done," Wolfram said. "Say you'll make a pact and away we two shall run." Inside the house, Frau Connell sobbed. She had given Jack a cool cloth once after the miller beat him. Jack had seen her black eye, though she tried to hide it. Did I hurt her? Have I become Connell? When did a need for healing change into a desire for revenge? Do I really want it? "Let me think." Jack didn't look at Wolfram, who left with the mob of children. Magic coiled inside Jack. Its sweet blight defiled him, yet he wanted more. Jack considered how much he owed Wolfram. It didn't matter. Jack looked for Wolfram. Chanting drifted from the mill. "Millery, millery dustipole, how many sacks have you stole?" Wolfram's
Wolfram's scream matched the rising wind. "Four and twenty and a peck!" roared every child of the village. "Then hang the miller by the neck!" "No!" Jack threw open the doors. The howling wind dropped, and he jumped at the cracking bone's retort. The children's torch cast a shadow that swung against grain sacks. Jack shuddered. "Why'd you do it, Wolfram?" "It's what you wanted," Wolfram said. Jack made himself look. Connell swung to and fro, his head nodding at an obscene angle. Jack’s lust for vengeance drained like water over the paddle wheels. "That's not what I wanted—ever." Wolfram's smirk said otherwise as he led the others past Jack and back outside. “Help!" Jack yelled. Candlelight flickered in a few nearby windows. Someone would come. "High diddle diddle," Wolfram said. "The priests did fiddle and the brave folk, they did swoon. The little dogs laughed to see such helplessness under the light of the moon." One by one, lit windows darkened. No one could answer Jack's plea. Wolfram's eyes smoldered yellow flame. "Bow. Wow. Wow. Whose dog art thou?" Wolfram poked Jack's chest until he howled at the transformation. Jack whimpered a puppy’s whine. "Oh that I was what I should be, then would I be what I am not, but what I am I must be, and what I should be, I cannot." His wolfish cries worked. He rose from four paws, a boy once more. "If my healing is your price. . ." Jack took a deep breath. "Then undo it and leave this town." That's not a spell. Too late. Wolfram prowled, yellow eyes narrowed, then snapped his fingers. Jack's leg crackled into pieces that jutted out from his skin. He screamed, collapsing as he clutched the pieces of ruined flesh. "Jack's gone and given me thought. Come along and see he's brought." Jack sweated, wanting to vomit as the children carried him to the bottom
bottom of the lane. They dropped him there and spikes of yellow slashed his vision. He cried out. "When the wind blows, then the mill goes, and our hearts are light, and merry-o!" Wolfram sang. Mill, water wheel and house shrieked, crumpling into a ball. They blew away like fall leaves. Jack groaned. "All together, lads and lasses." Wolfram held out his hands and the children made two rings. They danced around Jack. "Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies. Ashes, ashes, they'll all fall down." Jack's heart skipped. Bloody rashes sprouted across his arms. Sweat poured off his face and he coughed blood. Black sores festered among the rash marks. Moonlit cheeks and burning eyes smudged Wolfram's face. His shout pierced the wind. "I gave you power which you ignore, now see the strength Hell hath in store. Even now you could stop me, Jack. Methinks it's the words you lack." Jack's cleverness vanished behind his pain. His rotting flesh made him gag. Around him rats squealed and died. Jack lay dying, too. I tried. I don't want to fight anymore. I can't protect myself, let alone the villagers. So much for them seeing the glory of God through me. Yet, after all he’d done, would the silvery angels of his dreams bear his soul away? Fiery hope burned through Jack’s pain. "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the road that I lie on. Four corners to our town, four angels protect it round; one to watch, and one to pray, and two to bear Wolfram away!" The rats shrieked and shriveled into dust. Prayer like living moonlight turned Wolfram into a ghostly figure. His panpipes clattered to the ground. The rings around Jack dissolved. "I have made of my friend a foe," Wolfram said. "I will be sure I do no more so." Dawn’s finger swept the horizon. On the hillside, the monastery's matins bells rang their proud message. A shimmering presence grew. Powerful. Peaceful. Protective.
"Leaving soon, I must be, Jack," Wolfram said. "But I'll welcome any with the knack." All but one of his mob had fled and dawn did not show where they went. Chubby Simon, Jack's only friend, wrung his hands, but he did not leave. "Rescue us from our enemies, oh Lord!" Jack reached and Simon helped Jack stand. At least I saved us. "Wolfram, get behind me in the name of Christ." "Ah, Jack, be careful what you wish for." Wolfram shrugged away invisible hands. He plucked his panpipes from the path and blew a shrill blast. The wind rose, keening in harmony. Dust circled the boys, stinging Jack’s eyes. Like a friend sharing a secret, Wolfram’s voice whispered in Jack’s ear. "Having Satan behind you is precarious, at best. You can't see what he's up to next."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Victoria Dixon is obsessed with culture, faith and fantasy literature. She throws in a love of medicine and scrapbooking to round herself out. She currently lives in Kansas, which is not monochromatic, regardless of what fraudulent wizards might say.
Night with Her Train of Stars by Edward Robert Hughes, 1912