The Whale and the Mermaid

I have been just barely getting the necessary things done in a day lately, so I have no new, completed short story this month. However, a friend gave me a fantastic prompt and this is the first bit of the as-of-yet-unfinished result of that prompt.

When my father raged, and I could bear his curses and his fists no longer, I would escape outside, to the sea. It was not the balmy southern seas that we lived by; no, it was the dark, icy water of the Pacific that lapped our shores.

We lived on a little jut of rock, far away from the people who might have calmed my father from his rages or helped my mother escape him. I don’t know that she would have left him given the opportunity, though. What he said, she believed. He bound her, inexorably with his words: slut, idiot, stupid, worthless woman. She was tied tighter by what he said than by the ropes that he strapped around her before he threw her over the side of the cliff and into the sea below to die.

But years before that happened, I began my visits to the sea. When I ventured outside I wore sealskin and reindeer fur like the native girls I was not allowed to associate with on account of my high station as a lady—much good that high born blood did me out there on that bare rock. I would go down to the shore and watch the waves roll in, feel the cold salt wind whip my face, and watch for the whales. Sometimes I saw them, far out in the harbor, huge dark forms arcing out of the water with a fling of spray and an almighty crash at reentry. I dreamed of being so huge and fearless that I, too, could frolic even in the icy depths of the ocean. 

I was only eleven when I found Rawlings by the side of the sea, beached. He was tiny, for a blue whale, anyway, and panicked. It was his cries for help that alerted my attention; I was far down the beach, almost out of earshot but I’d never heard a human voice that sounded so much like a giant glass bell, clear but ringing with immeasurable depths. So I went running and found to my surprise not a human, but a small whale, flapping his flippers frantically.

“Help me!” He shouted, rolling his massive eyes at me and nearly coating me with sand as a stray flipper threw some in the air.

“Hold on!” I spluttered, through a face full of sand. “I mean, hold still! I can’t get near you when you’re going to whack me with one of those flippers!”

“Well how else am I supposed to move?” He demanded but held still long enough for me to plant my hands on his rubbery body and shove. It didn’t work; no eleven year old is capable of moving even a small whale by herself. But as he calmed down we began to discuss the best ways for him to use his flippers while I shoved and how to use the tide to our advantage, and before I had time to realize that I was in conversation with a blue whale, he was shimmying his way back into the waves and I was standing, waist deep, staring after him. He frolicked once, and then he glided past me, just a few feet away, rolling up on one side. “Why do you stand there instead of playing? Aren’t you very young, like me?”

“I can’t play in the water.” I said. “I’m not allowed. And it’s too dangerous for me.”

“It won’t be if you’re with me,” the whale boasted.

“Oh can you fight giant squid?” I said, showing off my knowledge because I had been sneaking into my father’s study and reading about the naturalist scientists’ new discoveries about the ocean and the animals in it.

“Well…” he said. “Try me. I can take you for a ride, anyway. Are you too scared for that?”  

We didn’t meet any giant squid the first day. It was the closest thing to freedom I could imagine; the salt wind flying across my face, my hair in a tangled mess streaming out behind me, the salt water drenching me and yet I remained snug in my sealskin and furs. He tried to teach me his name in Whale, but then he laughed so hard at my attempts that we decided I should give him a human name. I was eleven, and as well as sneaking natural science books, I had been reading far too many novels featuring brooding heroes and heroines who wander the heath in England with the wind whipping their hair. With this romantic background informing my imagination, I named him Rawlings. Later, after I had read more books to him, he teased me about his absurd name mercilessly.

As Rawlings grew, our adventures became more elaborate. I filched some rope from our stable and created a harness for me to sit securely on him without fear of sliding off his wet back. We arranged a system of communication so that I could tell him if he’d accidentally dunked me under water longer than I could bear—and as we ventured further, we did indeed begin to run into the giants of the deep. Squid, sharks, other whales—all of these Rawlings and I faced in the briny wilderness of waves and iron grey clouds.

None of them were as terrifying as the monster that waited for me at home. A shark did not frighten me, not with Rawlings’ mammoth sleekness coasting through the water beneath me. But at home there was no Rawlings to protect me. My mother only apologized and cringed and berated me for making my father angry. And then one day I saw him tie her up and drag her out the door.

Some parts of me, looking back at my eleven year old self, wishes I had fought him, that I had gone out and tried to free her. But I knew and still know that if he had ever known what I saw him do, I would not have survived past the moment of his knowing.

So I hid in the attic and did not come down till breakfast the next morning. The kitchen was empty and cold, and I knew what had happened. I made my father breakfast. I couldn’t eat, but only sat pretending to put food in my mouth and chew it so he wouldn’t be angry. And as soon as he was out of the room, I ran for the beach, not even throwing on my sealskins before my feet were flying through the sand. I ran to find my mother, knowing all the while what I would see when I found her.

Rawlings intercepted me. He was closer into the beach than he had been in months, seriously endangering himself since he was so large there was no chance of me managing to help him escape this time.

“Lotty.” He said, in his big, bell-like voice. I waded out to him; I couldn’t not. He swung his tail around, blocking my view of the beach.

“I want to find her!” I cried, tears finally coursing down my face in the protective sting of cold saltwater.

“Don’t try to look,” he said. “It’s not—you don’t want to see her like this.”

And far out in the depths, there was a thunder of huge bodies, raising up and spouting. I heard his pod tell me in voices so deep they made the waves tremble: “We whales will see to her body. She will be buried like the sailors who die at sea and we will sing for her.”

And so I knew my mother was truly gone.

Rawlings insisted I go back inside as soon as I could compose myself, but I still became violently ill. And that illness saved my life. My father never liked to be around anybody sick, so he left me alone and called the doctor from the local town to come out and tend me.

The doctor, a man of compassion and mental acuity, observed my father and I and the hollow absence where my mother had been, and understood more than he let on. He insisted on taking me into town for medical attention. I discovered later that as soon as I was safely ensconced in his guest bedroom, being tended by his wife, he immediately contacted local law enforcement, and then wrote to my only living relatives, in Chicago, where we’d moved from. 

I do not remember much of the next months. My illness left me with dizzy spells and I know that many things were concealed from me by well-meaning people who felt I wasn’t strong enough to bear the truth. But I had ridden on a whale and faced the monsters of the deep.

At some point my father was taken to jail. Later I heard conflicting stories; some said he was executed, other said that he was sent to another prison, escaped en route, and was found mauled by a bear in the wilderness a week later. I do not know which is true, only that he died somehow.

What I do remember, the one constant of those disturbed and painful memories, is the absence of the sea. My living relatives, who I barely remembered from my early childhood, paid for me to come home. I traveled in stage coach, bumping over rough mountain roads, and then in trains, scorching their way across vast, flat prairie land, and I did not have a chance to visit my cold, rocky beach and say goodbye to my friend, the whale.

The Great Cake Prophecy

Today’s story is brought to you by a pregnant woman who wanted cake and didn’t have any.

It was not his cake. Terrible things would happen if he ate that cake. Or any cake, for that matter. But still, he stared at it, ensnared by its chocolate swirls, envisioning the buttery moistness of the cake itself.

A woman and her son (proper customers, not ones burdened with portents and empty pockets) walked through the doors. The boy was tossing a baseball from hand to hand and his mother was scolding him. “Derek, put that ball away!” The door jingled and shut behind them, letting out a puff of warm air, sweet with scent of heat and butter and all things golden-brown.

He shook his head. No, no. He should walk away right now. The mayhem he would cause if he bought a slice of that cake…. Besides, you don’t have any money, he reminded himself. You’d have to steal it, and that would make things worse. He sighed. Of all the people to get his fortune told by a centaur, why did it have to be him, Brine?

Everyone knew centaurs were aloof, hard to find, and incredibly fastidious. If you did find one, and it considered you sufficiently intelligent, or well spoken, or if it thought you remarkable in some way, it might foretell your future by the stars. It was a great honor and usually a very learned, solemn affair full of gilt-edged words of six syllables or more. This was the kind of thing academics wandered around in the woods dreaming about.

In Brine’s opinion, you probably had to have a first rate education simply to untangle the double meanings and riddles centaurs spoke in. Seeking the guidance of a centaur was the last thing he’d considered as a possibility. His talents lay more in the simple enjoyment of day to day life; finding a meal, eating the meal, and having a comfortable place to sleep at night.

Not only was he content being a nobody, he looked like a nobody. He was plain-faced, gangly to the point of absurdity, all knees and elbows and Adam’s apple. His only redeeming physical feature was his large, sad, brown eyes.

Besides, more importantly, he barely counted as educated; certainly no one had ever mistaken him for an intellect. He’d been taught to wash his hands and apologize when he burped, but that was it as far as his nice company manners and eloquent speech went. If there was a list somewhere with People Centaurs are Unlikely To Be Interested In, Brine was at the top.

And yet.

A year ago he’d been walking through the woods on the way back to his small cabin after a long day of odd-jobbing and pilfering, not really looking at anything, just letting his feet take him home. When there it had been. Massive, standing in the middle of the path, its burly arms folded, its beard cascading down its chest in golden curls, its brows dark and lowered at it stared at him.

“What is your name?” It boomed.

Brine stammered, “Brine, uh, sir.”

“Brine.” The centaur said in deep disgust. “Well…Brine…”

Brine gulped. If he’d had the kind of vocabulary the sort of person likely to talk to a centaur would have, he would have said the centaur’s tone was portentous. As it was, he didn’t think anything and simply mumbled, “Yessir?”

“Brine,” The centaur heaved a sigh. “You do not interest me. But the stars have been read and your fortune is clear and some of us are more compassionate to the unfortunate than others. So, we warn you: do not eat cake. I put this in simple terms, just for you. Terrible things await you if you eat cake.”

“S-sir?”

But the massive horse-man only sighed, muttered something about it all being a waste anyway, and clopped away into the trees, leaving Brine baffled, and, unfortunately, thinking about how nice it would be to have a thick slab of pound cake topped with berries and whipped cream right about then.

He withstood the temptation, though. He may not have fully appreciated the blessings of a centaur’s fortune, but he knew enough to understand that you don’t take what they say lightly. Even more impressive to him was the fact that they’d bothered to make it understandable to a simple guy like him.

Still, it was a hard year. He’d never been aware of how many types of cakes danced in and around his life, and he wasn’t sure exactly at what level a type of pastry became a cake. Initially, he eschewed even corncakes and ate his mum’s beans and pork without anything to sop up with. After a while he decided savory cakes weren’t cake, not really, but that left far too many cakes still out of reach.

There were the strawberry shortcakes the pastor’s wife had offered him last spring.

He’d slunk into the Ladies’ Neighborhood Society Meeting to schlep off with some free food and nearly forgot himself over a mint chocolate truffle cake

While taking a lunch break from work a friend had offered him a chunk of spice cake. The cinnamon and the cloves and the lovely dense butteriness of it nearly won him over.

At the bakery one day when he was passing by right after payday, there was a three layer double chocolate cake with candied cherries glistening on top.

He’d been nose to nose with the raspberry almond wedding cake at his friend’s brother’s next-door-neighbor’s wedding and he’d had to sit there and watch everyone else eat it. He couldn’t even ask for a non-cake dessert because then they’d notice him and realize he hadn’t been invited.

And with the holidays came even more pitfalls—pumpkin cake with cream cheese icing, fruitcake, Christmas cake, plum cake, teacakes of all types and sizes, jelly rolls, panettone, cheesecake, King cake, croquembouche—all of them he firmly resisted.

But now he stood in front of the bakery and his mouth watered.

After avoiding them all, he was hesitating before this simple creation: a yellow cake with chocolate icing in rich, thick swirls.

If he’d left in that moment, he would have been fine. Because in the next moment, the bakery window shattered into a thousand pieces. Inside, he heard the mother shriek, “Derek! I told you to put that ball away!”

As the shouts of the baker and his employees filled the air, Brine saw only one thing. The cake. Unprotected, undefended and unharmed. Glass lay glittering on the sidewalk, nobody had yet made it out of the bakery—and he took his chance. He leapt forward, snagged the cake on the cake stand, and hurried away, balancing his prize delicately.

A block later he realized that no one was following him. He found a nice bench, sat down, and looked at the cake. There was a piece, already cut, lying on its side, waiting for him. He picked it up and took a bite.

It was everything he’d dreamed of. Chocolate and vanilla, fluffy cake and thick icing—he became aware suddenly that he was eating the cake from a different angle. He tried to sit up and found that sitting up seemed to be a different procedure than he was used to. He looked down.

Instead of human hands, there were dog paws on either side of the cake. Large, gangly hound paws, to be precise. He swung around and looked in the back of him and there, wagging on the sidewalk like it was glad to be noticed, was a thin, whippy tail.

While he was still examining himself a pretty girl stopped, right in front of him and said, “Aw, what a cute doggy!” She patted him on the head. Brine grinned up at her; pretty girls didn’t generally look twice at human Brine. She went on down the sidewalk. Brine looked back at his paws. He looked at the cake. He grinned a very doggy grin again.

Maybe the idea of being transformed into a dog was a terrible fate—to a centaur. But as for Brine…he settled down, quite contented, to enjoy the rest of his cake.

P.S. I got my cake, too.

Pandemic Survival 101: Read Epic Fantasy

This is not a particularly original thought. But, original or not, it’s what I’ve been thinking.

Because the libraries have been closed for quarantine, I’ve relied primarily on book donations from friends the past few months, and consequently have increased the amount of non-fiction in my reading diet. I am so grateful for those books, because four months without books would be…unspeakable. Forget low toilet paper supplies and loneliness—paper and ink ranks up there with food and shelter on my hierarchy of needs. Still, I find myself missing fantasy fiction.

And because I’ve been snubbed more than once for my unserious, unchristian genre of choice (“What do you mean you don’t write Christian Romance? Didn’t you say you wanted to be a writer?!”) I wondered if I was simply being escapist by pining after swords and adventure and heroics.

Isn’t it better, more realistic, more faith-building, I reasoned, to come face to face with the horrors of Stalin’s gulag? Or the limits of our medical system, or the oppression of women? I do think it’s important to read those things and to sit in the reality of a fallen world. But after some thought, I’ve decided fantasy also has its place as well in a well-rounded reading life. Non-fiction shows us ourselves for what we are, but fantasy gives us a glimpse into what we could be, and, for Christians, what we will be.

Over and over again, fantasy holds out hope for a time and a place and a leader that will transcend the muddy wreck of human ambition. Beowulf sacrificing himself to save his people, Aragorn, riding out in a last-ditch attempt to give Frodo a chance at scaling Mount Doom. Aslan, ruling over his garden at the end of the word, Chrestomanci setting to rights all the bumbling wrongheadedness that has occurred in one of his many worlds, Harry Potter giving himself up to defeat Voldemort.

We want leaders like those leaders. Desperately. To the point that we are sometimes willing to pin our hopes for a happy ending on human beings woefully incapable of providing it. Non-fiction underscores that failure. Even the truly heroic are not enough. They can’t escape the brokenness of their own souls, or the inevitability of death, and they are never enough to end the pain. But despite this failure, fiction, especially fantasy, strengthens the desire for a good king, for justice to triumph over corruption.

And it is good to hold on to that hope. It’s not escapist, because, just as hunger reminds us that we need food, our craving for good leadership reminds us that we are meant to serve a King. One day Christ will return, and that longing will be satisfied. The prophet Isaiah says that God will “swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.” (Is 25:8) It will be the triumph to top all other triumphs.

So rather than imagine a goodness and truth on an idea or group of people that fall short, step back. Read good fantasy fiction. Remember that the resolution we crave isn’t here yet. Right now, it’s dark and dirty and spider infested. But the victorious end approaches. The King is coming back.

The Listener

I’m not entirely satisfied with this one. For one, I feel like I tried to cram too much story into too short a  form (this is what I get for spoiling myself with a longer story last month). Also, despite the ominous beginning it’s not intended to be a horror story, but I don’t know that it ever recovers from the initial horrific situation. 

When he finally stopped screaming for help, when the footsteps were silenced and the echo of the cell door clanging shut had faded, he realized there was something in the cell beside him. He turned to face it, pressing his back against the wall, peering through the darkness. Sunspots swam before his eyes and he was completely blinded in the dark. “What are you? Who are you?” He said. “Say something!”

The thing was standing there in the dark, watching him. And then it walked away. It took a moment for his brain to register the lack of sound.

It wasn’t chained.

Whoever it was did not come back into view. It had vanished in the darkness. After standing until he ached all over and was shivering from both fear and cold, he finally retreated to the wall and sank down into a crouch. It was hopeless to try and fight anyway. “I don’t care.” He told the darkness. “My life is over. Wasted. Do what you want.”

The days passed in darkness. Sometimes he saw his cellmate, always at a distance. He supposed it was good that it never threatened to approach. But it also never spoke and it never came close enough for him to see it.

He began to hate it. His chain rubbed sores around his ankle and it walked around free. When they were fed, he wolfed down his food, but his cellmate took his and withdrew to eat it silently. Every time he would watch this performance with a dull, burning dislike for the creature that hadn’t somehow been reduced to behaving like a starved animal.

But the worst moments were when he felt most alone, when he began muttering to himself just to heard a human voice, even his own, and the silent person came just close enough that he knew it was there, but could not see it clearly. It would crouch down—threatening him, he thought, creeping up on him.

Usually he would jump up and scream at it, making it scuttle away to its darkest corner. But one day as he sat on the floor, feeling the grime of the cold cement under his palms, worn and exhausted from weeping and dreaming of the faces he had left behind, he became aware of the presence next to him, breathing.

“Why won’t you leave me alone?” He hissed into the darkness.

No answer.

“Is it because I’m so useless and weak you like to gloat? Is that it? Do you want to know why I’m here? How nothing I did matters anymore?”

There was a shuffling sound as the figure, barely visible in the darkness, sat down, facing him, and waited.

He stared at the unseen person across from him and a new idea about his cellmate’s behavior occurred to him. So, voice hoarse, stammering in uncertainty under this new idea, he ventured: “It—it was an old lady. She was our neighbor, and—and well I tried to keep them from taking away her house…and it didn’t work and that’s why I’m in here.”

There was no answer. He squinted, willing his eyes to penetrate the darkness, to see this person’s face. But he could see nothing but an attitude of listening. And that, somehow, was a relief.

So he spoke. He told her about his wife and his three children, about the house they’d bought in town and how their first summer there they made a backyard garden like they’d always dreamed of when they lived in an apartment. The zucchini plants had done so well they nearly overran the entire garden, and for an entire summer his wife baked zucchini bread and they had zucchini sauted, baked and fried.

Whoever it was said nothing. But he could almost feel the warmth of another person through the bars.

He turned his gaze past his family and talked about his neighbor. A wizened woman in a tiny rented house beside his own with a balding Scottie and a fondness for zucchini bread. He had barely registered her friendship with his wife until she came to them on afternoon, in tears, because of an eviction notice for overdue rent. His expectation was to find financial records disordered by dementia and old age, only to find her records neat and every cent accounted for.

So he’d gone digging, investigating how six months of rent could just vanish. And what he found was more people, angry. upset, unheard, being pushed out of their homes. Which meant, he discovered, that low income residents of all types and shapes and sizes were being summarily pushed out of their town. He had been so angry, he said, his voice shaking, he didn’t sleep well for weeks.

The listener said nothing.

Fired by indignation, he had traced missed payments, discovered fraud, found the names of the people in charge of removing low-income residents in the hopes of gentrifying their rental properties. But most of the ones targeted were alone, barely surviving as it was. They didn’t have family. Nobody cared if they lost their houses. And the people quietly removing them from their homes had financial and legal backing from the most powerful people in the city.

The listener said nothing.

When he began advocating for those elderly people, he was met with blank stares and shut doors. The news station refused to report on the issue. The mayor blandly gave him a runaround about improving the safety and quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods. He bought ad time on TV; wrote letters to the newspaper, walked door to door telling people. But it wasn’t until he hired a lawyer that the hidden defrauders became truly angry.

The listener said nothing.

So, he said, they came up with a way to shut him up. He spoke of the pounding on the door in the middle of the night, his wife’s terrified face, his children’s screams. The door slamming shut between them, the grim frowns on the faces of the men who dragged him away. The long, dry days in the courtroom, where they produced lie after lie destroying his character, ruining his reputation. He remembered the look on his wife’s face when they pronounced his sentence, remembered the long, horrible walk down here, down to where they left madmen.

For a long time after that, neither of them said anything.

“I couldn’t be quiet.” He said.

The listener said nothing.

But a question seemed to hang between them. He answered it. “I would do it again.” He said, “If I knew for certain that this is where I would end up, I don’t know if I would be brave enough. But…if they set me free, I would do the same thing all over again.

And the listener didn’t need to say anything, because sometimes what is needed is simply to be heard.

The Gargoyle Heart, Part V

Previous segments one, two, three, and four here.

She was eventually aware of two voices, familiar and unfamiliar. The familiar one spoke first. “Couldn’t it have been anybody but the dark elf?” Lady Geraldine said, very upset. “Your most dangerous enemy, Ardell? I just can’t stand seeing her lie there like that, all because of me.”

“I didn’t plan on Garneth showing up!” The unfamiliar voice said, male, young and tense. “You can’t un-gargoyle anybody without sacrifice. I was trying to arrange for a minor dragon, sometime next week, after she’d had more time to recover from the full moon!”

“A minor dragon!” Lady Geraldine moved from upset to incensed. “You know how those creatures terrorize the poor shepherds around here! You get too cocky, young man and I’ll put you in your place! Don’t think my magic has deteriorated so far that I can’t at least do that!” A gentle hand rested on her brow. “And the poor child, sent into the clutches of a dark elf, for only me!”

“Well you weren’t supposed to be truly taken ill and I was supposed to be on hand to help her out if necessary.”  Ardell said and Soria imagined the speaker running his hands through his hair in frustration. “I don’t know why she’s not waking up yet. She really ought to be coming out of it now.”

They sounded so worried, Soria decided to be kind to them and open her eyes. She looked up into a friendly, freckled face in whose features she immediately recognized Lady Geraldine’s high forehead and wide-set eyes.

“Soria!” He said, and blushed. “But you don’t know me, sorry. I’m Ardell. Uh, Sorcerer Ardell. I’ve been invisible, before, so you haven’t officially met me…”

Soria lifted a hand to find a bandage on her chest. It hurt, but it was the normal pain of blood and muscle and nerves; the numbing cold of the stone in her heart was gone. It was gone. Whatever they had done, she was wholly alive again. She felt that in light of this she could probably excuse Ardell for having been invisible.

His mother shouldered him aside. “I’m so sorry dear, we didn’t mean for it to happen quite this way.”

“But it’s gone?” Soria said. “My gargoyle heart?” She felt tears suddenly hot on her eyelids and blinked them back.

“Forever.” Lady Geraldine and her son said in unison. Soria shut her eyes again, embarrassed. Silly to cry about something so wonderful. Silly to suddenly be afraid that she would be sent back to her grandmother and her family who had not cared whether or not she would die.

Lady Geraldine seemed to think she was upset because she needed an explanation so she began to explain. “I trained my boy as a sorcerer until I began to fade. DuPontier sorcerers do, you know. Most of the high magical houses have some failing and that’s ours. We manage magic for so long, and then it begins to manage us. My magic began to suck my life away to support itself. So my son put a spell on me; I cannot do anything by myself, beyond basic self care—but I can assist someone else to do it. Less of a drain on my magic, you see. So we needed someone to help me, first of all.”

Soria nodded.

“And then we found you, and Ardell had discovered that the only way you can destroy a gargoyle heart is to sacrifice what’s left of your real one for someone else. And I thought, you were such a nice, bright young thing, and Ardell seemed quite taken with you,”

Ardell flushed beet red.

“We thought we could do something good with what was left of my magic.” Lady Geraldine finished, and gave Soria a worried look. “It has been good for you.”

“Will I have to go home now?” Soria said, trying to sound like she didn’t much care one way or another.

Mother and son looked at each other. “Actually,” Lady Geradline said, “We were surprised to find you adapted to a magically dense life surprisingly easy.”

Ardell stepped forward and smiled at her—what nice eyes he has, she thought in an aside to herself—and said, “My magic will fade someday, too. Will you be my apprentice? You will have a home with us as long as you wish.”

Soria smiled. “Yes,” she said. “I will.”

The Gargoyle Heart Part IV

Here are the previous bits: segments one, two and three.

The morning after the full moon, as Soria gasped and wheezed around the kitchen making breakfast, Lady Geraldine entered, looking haggard. Her neat bun of grey hair was slightly lopsided, and she folded and refolded her hands repeatedly.

“I am not feeling well. I must go and speak to my son today.” She said, abruptly. Soria looked up, surprised. Her son? Was that the mysterious stranger managing all the magic in the house?

“When I go to see him, he must take off all the protective enchantments on me and I will be in danger for a time.” She looked at Soira. “Please do not let anyone inside the castle.”

Soria blinked. “I suppose this means someone will try and get in, today.” She said, quietly.

“Yes.” Geraldine said, watching her carefully. “You will have to handle them on your own.”

Soria knew then, without any doubt that Lady Geraldine had somehow been helping her all this time. And Geraldine knew how incapable she was, yet she was abandoning her. Leaving her to her fate. From the look on Geraldine’s face, it would be a terrible one.

“I’ll just have toast and tea this morning,” Geraldine said. “Having enchantments removed always makes me queasy.”

After Geraldine had drank her tea and eaten her toast and left Soria sat for a long time in the kitchen staring miserably at her plate of cold eggs and wringing her hands in her apron. The cold weight of the stone in her heart seemed to pulse with a horrible life of its own. Wouldn’t it be better to simply leave? Why would she give up her life violently, to please a woman who deliberately threw her into dangerous situations? Why not run away and lie quietly down in the forest until the stone finally swallowed up her heart and she died? Wouldn’t that cold numbness be better than a bloody death? But if Geraldine was truly in danger…

When the doorbell rang, she hesitantly went to answer it. As the door opened she froze.

Standing on the doorstep was a dark elf; utterly beautiful and terrifying, his pale features sharp and cold, power both magical and physical in every movement he made. Even more terrifying than the elf himself was the unsheathed sword glinting in his left hand. Soria found herself unable to look away from it, her breathing short and panicked. It did more than threaten; its spoke to her in a voice so low it was almost inaudible, a sibilant hiss whispering of blood and death. Would this vile thing cut into Lady Geraldine and leave her lifeless?

He fixed a hunter’s gaze on her and she felt like a pinned rabbit.

“The lady of the house is in.” He said, smoothly. It was not a question.

“She said nobody was to come in.” Soria said, still clutching her apron awkwardly.

He looked her up and down and raised an eyebrow. “On your own you can’t stop me. Step aside and I will see that my sword gluts only on the blood it was promised.”

She wanted to run. She wanted to go die quietly by herself with her stone heart. Why should she do this for an old lady she barely knew? Her knees trembled. “No.” she whispered. “I won’t let you in.”

He snorted in disgust, and before she could even flinch, he had slapped her aside so hard that she fell to the floor, hitting her head with a crack on the tiles.

He strode into the atrium and headed for the stairs. Soria scrambled to her feet, disoriented, panicked. “No! Stop!”

At the top of the stairs she saw an unfamiliar young man run out of a room, his own sword drawn, and behind him, half hidden by the door, Lady Geraldine’s pale, frightened face. She looked so weak—for the first time truly elderly—and at the sight of her friend, vulnerable, Soria threw herself forward onto the elf.

For a brief moment she clutched at his armor, the hard edges slick on her palms, even his clothes hissing of dark magic and death and then he flung her off. The sword raised in the sunlight; she could almost imagine it smiling as it flashed down towards her.

The pain was intense. It seared through her entire body and then centered on her heart, burning and burning and burning. And then nothingness.

The Gargoyle’s Heart Part III

I had to pause this for a few days. There’s probably only going to be one or two more parts. You can read the previous segment here, and the first one here.

Over the next few weeks, Soria only found herself more confused. Apart from her regular, quickly-finished chores, there was a host of tasks she could not begin to contemplate completing even without the constant pain in her chest.

First, there was the infestation of sprites in the well—sprites were notorious for being difficult to dislodge and likely to produce nasty counter-magic if they sensed they were being got rid of. But at Lady Geraldine’s insistence, Soria merely edged up to the well and, wringing her hands on her apron, politely asked that they leave. And they left. They gave her the stink eye and one of them made a rude hand gesture, but they left.

There was the hole in the roof that needed patching. Soria, with no head for heights and no knowledge of shingles, patched it excellently, with Geraldine standing on the landing below reading her instructions from some arcane book on roofing.

And then the time the griffin appeared in the forest outside Lady Geraldine’s castle and began eating the local peasantry’s sheep herds. Lady Geraldine had Soria saddle up a horse (Soria had never sat on a horse in her life) and ride out to do battle with the thing. That time Soria had been absolutely certain that she was going to die, but somehow she managed to stay on the horse, and the horse seemed to know how to manage the griffin (not something she thought most horses knew) and the griffin flew away.

A more confident girl, or perhaps one that didn’t know she was working these miracles while suffering from a terminal disease, might have given herself some credit.

But Soria had centuries of stolid peasant wisdom ingrained in her: best to leave magical things to the magical class and keep yourself to yourself. Everyone had an aunt or a neighbor’s friend who had said something they shouldn’t to a sorcerer or a hedge witch and had consequently been turned into something unpleasant. Yet here she was, living inside of a magic castle, doing magical tasks, and working for a woman who, although she never apparently worked magic, was clearly involved in it.

To add to her anxiety, she was also becoming convinced that there was another person living in the house with them. An invisible person. Every morning when she went down to the kitchen, someone had stocked the larder with fresh foods. Sometimes furniture moved in rooms nobody had been in.

Once she brought inside a particularly beautiful flower from the castle gardens. After searching in vain for a vase, she grumbled aloud to herself that a woman as high born as Lady Geraldine really ought to have a pretty vase or two. Then she put the flower in an empty milk jug. The next morning, the milk jug had been replaced by a delicate glass vase.

“Oh, Lady Geraldine!” She exclaimed when she noticed it. “That’s a beautiful vase!”

Lady Geraldine looked primly over the rim of her cup and said, “Yes? What? Oh, I didn’t do that.”

“Then who did?” Soria asked before she thought better of it.

“Never you mind, dear. Now let’s get to work.”

Soria was uncomfortable with the idea of an invisible person (a he no less, as she remembered Lady Geraldine’s slip after the incident with the trolls) sneaking around, listening to her. But there was no chance of finding out about the invisible person. She could get no information out of Lady Geraldine about anything; curse, cure, or magical tasks. And the time for the next full moon crept ever closer.

Finally it was the day before the full moon. She still knew nothing about the cure, nothing about why she was there or what she was supposed to be doing.

While she was scrubbing the kitchen floor one afternoon, Lady Geraldine, sitting primly at the kitchen table, wordlessly pointed towards a missed spot and Soria snapped. She straightened, aware that her hair was escaping her bun and she was red-faced and holding a scrubbing brush. “I’ll clean this by myself, Lady.”

Geraldine frowned, hesitated. “Very well.” And swept out, looking indignant and upset.

Soria got back on her hands and knees but immediately spots swam before her eyes, and she had to stay there on all fours, breathing heavily her vision returned to normal.

This, she remembered with a jolt, was how it always felt to do housework when she had been helping her grandmother. Was Lady Geraldine only following her around for company? Or had she been, somehow, helping Soria?

But a worse thought occurred to her, and panic began to cloud Soria’s vision. Why would someone from the magical class ever voluntarily help a peasant girl? Wasn’t it much more likely that something had gone wrong, and she wasn’t supposed to have help doing all these magical chores after all? Was Geraldine testing her for worthiness, and was Soria somehow accidentally cheating? What would happen when Lady Geraldine discovered Soria wasn’t doing all these wonderful things on her own? Would she be thrown out of the castle to die?

She sat up, the soapy water from the tile floor gradually soaking into her knees, unnoticed. “I can’t do this on my own.” She whispered. “I can’t.”

Just then, very quietly, almost stealthily, the kitchen door creaked open. Soria spun round to look at it, but it was simply the kitchen door, half open. But then a moment later a sponge lifted itself from the mop bucket. Soria watched it in horrified fascination as the sponge sneaked (floating unsupported in mid-air but somehow definitely sneaking) across the kitchen and began scrubbing itself over the tile in a place she hadn’t reached yet.

Soria got to her feet and pointed her own dripping sponge at the stealthy one on the floor. “No!” She said, “You can’t help me. I’m not good enough to do this on my own; I should just be open and obvious about it. I’m not good enough for whatever magical test you’re wanting me to pass; please just go away and let me fail in peace! I wish I’d never heard the idea of a cure!”

She threw down her brush and ran up the stairs to her bedroom. There she stayed, all day, watching the sun cross the sky, and sink, slowly behind the trees. Then the moon rose, and the pain began as another sliver of her heart hardened to stone.

Outside her door, Lady Geraldine stood, her brow furrowed, and her lip bitten, listening to the sounds of the girl in the room crying into her pillow. She turned to the invisible person beside her and said, “Isn’t it time to help her yet?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gargoyle’s Heart, Part II

I’ve been enjoying escaping some of the pressures of our current situation with writing lately. I think that’s partly why this story has telescoped out of my usual proportion (there’s even more to come later). It’s not particularly earth-shattering (if anything I ever write is) but maybe it can provide a moment or two of escape for somebody else as well!

The trolls in the dumbwaiter were the first real problem, surprisingly enough.

Soria expected, on entering Lady Geraldine’s castle (which, its owner informed her with an air of modest pride, was possessed of sixteen bedrooms, a library, a dungeon, eight storage rooms, a dining hall, a courtyard, and a monolithic kitchen) that she would probably spend her life scrubbing the place. Nervously she clutched her bags to her and hoped that she was not being lied to.

Her first morning opened in a spasm of pain as her gargoyle heart constricted. But if there was any chance to survive her heart being turned to stone, she wasn’t about to lose her chance.

She struggled out of bed and ventured down to the monolithic kitchen to make breakfast.  Afterwards, while she was clearing the dishes, Lady Geraldine produced a list of chores, written in a precise and minuscule cursive. Soria moved her lips to read as she struggled through the cursive, and her face paled. There were forty-nine tasks. Forty-nine, and all to be completed while her heart was slowly consumed with stone. And she was still expected to have dinner and supper ready at exact times as well!

She looked up to see if Lady Geraldine was in any way mocking or snide about this impossible task, and found her employer sipping delicately from a teacup and looking out the window. Soria pursed her lips. Well. She’d said she would do this job. She; she’d do it, and if she couldn’t, well she’d done the best she could.

“I’ll start by cleaning the north tower bedrooms. They’re the furthest out, right?”

Lady Geraldine smiled at her. “An orderly mind, I approve.”

Soria gathered her cleaning supplies and headed off for the northern tower. Lady Geraldine followed. Surprised, Soria glanced at her over her shoulder as they climbed staircase after staircase, winding around and up and across. When they reached the north tower bedrooms, Soria thought Lady Geraldine would go away, but no, there she stayed, through the first bedroom, the second, the third—Soria began to clean with angry energy—she clattered and banged the fire tongs while she cleaned out the fireplace, wrenched the bedsheets off the beds and shook the dusty rugs out the window with such vigor that you would have thought they’d personally offended her. Still, there Lady Geraldine sat, not helping, not speaking, just sitting there, holding her teacup.

So furious was Soria that she nearly tripped and fell down the stairs when she left the seventeenth bedroom.

“A fine job.” Lady Geraldine said, and Soria gazed around wildly.

“I’m finished?”

“With the north bedrooms.” Lady Geraldine said.

Soria glanced out the window at the sun and tried to remember when she’d last heard the castle clock bonging. “That can’t have been but fifteen minutes.”

“Very efficient.” Lady Geraldine said.

Soria stared at her wild-eyed for a moment, and then hesitantly looked back at her list. “I guess I’ll go on to dusting the hallways…”

The entire morning proceeded the same way, and every morning after that. Lady Geraldine followed her around doing nothing. Massive tasks took minutes. Soria found that each day, no matter how absurd her list appeared, she was nearly completed by lunchtime. Magic, she thought, and shivered.

Clearly the castle was thick with it, though she never saw Lady Geraldine doing anything remotely magical. It was always best not to inquire when you were dealing with the magical classes. Everybody had an aunt or a cousin somewhere who’d been made into a toad or something less pleasant because they’d mouthed off to a wizard or a sorcerer or something.

Also, she began to notice the nervous earnestness underlying Lady Geraldine’s autocratic manner; the occasional spasmodic motions she made as if she would like to help but was afraid, and she began to wonder if the older woman followed her around because she was simply lonely.

But magic or not, Soria’s daily chores were all normal household activities. The trolls were not. Two weeks after she’d come to live with Lady Geraldine they sneaked in through a drain and spent a Tuesday night giving each other rides up and down the dumbwaiter, roaring with gravely, hoarse laughter that echoed through the house.

Soria was sitting up, listening to their horrible voices and trembling in fear when Geraldine appeared at her door. The older woman was wearing a bathrobe, carrying her umbrella tucked under one arm, a candle in one hand, and a fire poker in the other.

She handed the poker to Soria. “Here.” She said. “Get rid of those pests.”

Soria stared at the poker (red hot) and back at her employer. “What? I can’t get rid of trolls! I don’t know how to do that!”

Lady Geraldine, blinked, utterly amazed. “Of course you can! That’s what you’re here for!”

So Soria found herself holding a hot poker, creeping through the scullery in the dark with Lady Geraldine (complete with umbrella) creeping right behind her. They could hear the trolls cackling and roaring just ahead. Soria trembled, readjusting her grip on the hot poker.

“Go ahead!” Lady Geraldine whispered behind her, “Attack at once!”

Soria thought irritably that by her tone you’d think Geraldine’s exact idea of fun was attacking trolls in the middle of the night with a hot fire poker. Nonetheless, she took a deep breath, and jumped around the corner waving the fire poker. “Get out!” She shouted—or tried to, it came out as more of a squeak.

In the light of the candle Geraldine held behind her, they dimly saw three trolls, each no more than four foot high, startled into motionless, half hanging off the dumbwaiter, their dark eyes glinting in the candlelight, their horrible snaggles of teeth jutting out of their mouths. Then Soria saw them grasp the truth of the situation; a small young woman trembling with fear could be no match for them.

They leapt for her.

With a shriek of fear she squeezed her eyes shut and whacked out with her fire poker.

To her surprise, there was a crack as the poker connected with a rock-like back. And another crack on the back swing. She opened her eyes then to get better aim, and she whacked and whacked and whacked—and in a matter of minutes, the trolls were clambering down the coal shoot, howling with indignation. Geraldine shouted down after them, “Never come back!” And slammed the door shut with a bang.

“I’ll get him to block—er, I’ll come back down and block that up tomorrow.” She said. “Good work, Soria. Now let’s get to bed and have a nice rest.”

Soria followed her meekly upstairs, still befuddled about the whole experience. And she had not missed Lady Geraldine’s slip of the tongue. In the two weeks she had been at the castle she had seen not a single other living person. Who was this “he” her employer was referring to?

The Gargoyle’s Heart

This ended up being unexpectedly large, and I put off writing it so long I don’t have time to chop it dramatically down to size, so I’m going to break it up into manageable chunks.

When the moon waxed full and bright, Soria’s heart began turning into stone. Each month she felt it harden, another piece, another cold inch of numbness in her chest.

The gargoyle curse, her grandmother told her, matter of fact. You’ll die eventually. It happens sometimes in our family, but it won’t happen very quickly.

Her grandmother did not have the gargoyle curse and neither had her deceased husband or her children, so she did not think about the fact that a slow death rather than a fast one is not necessarily a comfort for the person doing the dying.

Either way, there was too much to do in the way of eking out a life on the vast prairie land to be worrying about an orphaned granddaughter’s diseases. So Soria learned to keep quiet and help around the house and not bother people about the coldness creeping into her heart.

When the pain grew so great that she could not do her chores, she left, packing a small bag of provisions and gliding out into the sweet scented night to either find a cure or hasten death. She was a realistic girl; she figured it would be the former, and the cold weight of a gun thumped repetitively at her hip, reminding her, with every step, what was coming next.

She walked for hours until she reached the river. There was no bridge. She sat down heavily in a patch of ferns and stared at the water as it rushed past, black and fast and filling her ears with an incessant roar. In a daze, she scooted down towards it till the water frothed up and reached the toes of her boots, lapping at them. So entranced was she that she almost didn’t hear the voice speaking behind her. “Young lady,” said the voice, “Young lady? Do pay attention, please.”

Soira turned around in surprise to see a well-dressed gentlewoman, quite elderly, standing behind her. The woman smiled sweetly as she met Soria’s gaze. “Ah, yes. I can’t seem to find a bridge. You look like a sturdy young thing. I would so appreciate it if you carried me across.”

Soria stared at her, mouth agape. Between the pain in her heart and the exhaustion from hours of walking, she felt there was very little left of her to be carrying anybody anywhere, much less across a deep river. But then, if all she was here to do was to die anyway…

Soria stood up. “Certainly, my lady. I hope you don’t mind getting a little wet.”

“Not at all.”

There were some awkward moments where Soria tried to figure out how to pick up a full grown person wearing a dress with a crinoline and carrying an umbrella.  Eventually she found herself surrounded by floof, the umbrella dangling dangerously by her cheek, the gentlewoman perched on her back. Bemused by her strange companion, Soria started down the bank. “What is your name?” She asked as she skidded on a slick piece of moss and nearly dumped them both feetfirst into the river.

“Lady Geraldine DuPontier.” Said the voice behind her head primly as Soria took her first step into the dark, rushing water. “Though you may refer to me as Lady Geraldine.”

Soria doubted she’d have time to refer to her as anything at all as the water closed over the top of her walking boot. But to her surprise, her foot did not simply descend into an abyss of dark water. It landed on a solid, sandy surface, so that the water only reached her knees. It dragged at her, sucking her long, heavy skirts downstream, but she forded across without once going underwater.

On the other side she lowered Lady Geraldine to the ground, trembling from exhaustion. Lady Geraldine saw her staring back over the river and said, “Now Soria dear, let’s not stare at that too long. Come help me to my house, and I’ll get you a dry skirt.”

Soria startled, turning away from the river. “I didn’t tell you my name!” She protested, hurrying after Geraldine, who was stumping through the trees with remarkable speed, using that umbrella as a kind of cane.

“Of course not, I don’t need to be told silly things like that.” Lady Geraldine retorted over her shoulder. “I know all about you. Your indifferent grandmother, your gargoyle heart—all of it. I’ve come to give you a job.”

“What is that job, Lady Geraldine?” Soria asked, hurrying after her. She wasn’t entirely certain she wanted a job.

“I need someone to manage my house for me.”

“And why?”

“Because you have a gargoyle heart.” Lady Geraldine said. “You are dying.” She turned around and narrowed her eyes at Soria. “Do you not know how to get rid of a gargoyle heart?”

Soria felt a shiver of anger run deep inside her. “I won’t stand here and be mocked.” She said. “There is no cure for a gargoyle heart.”

“But there is!” Lady Geraldine said. She clasped her hands in front of her and for the first time she seemed a little unsure of herself. “I can’t explain. Please just come and give it a try… I’ll help you.”

“You’ll help me. With housework.”

“Yes.”

And again, Soria felt the cold weight of the gun hanging in the bag at her side, and couldn’t think of a reason why not.

The Trial

Warning! I am not a poet! But I wanted to make my contribution to the flood of pandemic-inspired art, and I just couldn’t explain what I’ve been thinking about through fiction this time. So that’s my excuse for venturing where I have no business being; the terrifying jungle of verse!

 

This is not what I expected.

 

Perhaps I imagined I would battle evil,

Kill dragons, ride unicorns, ease the conflicted,

Or triumph in warfare like a knight medieval.

I might suffer and struggle but triumph, respected.

 

Then I could stand by my spoils and say to the King,

“Aren’t you impressed by how much I got done?

I didn’t need discipline, I didn’t need your rod.

Do you love me now? I did it; I’m a valuable one!”

 

Instead I’m stuck at home, not even doing that well,

Being stomped down by fears and wrenched tight with unknowns,

No dragons—just bickering children and diapers that smell,

My only connections through cold plastic phones.

 

Ashamed, I paste on a smile, lonely and bleak.

I can’t please the King when He’s given me so much

And I’m still unjoyful, whiny, and weak.

I’ll manage by myself, any help’s just a crutch.

 

But I recall—the battles are fought, the dragon’s been slain.

I fight alongside the Knight who already won

I’m not the hero. Attacked, I waver, feel pain.

He puts His shield-arm around me, His sword glints in the sun.

 

His battles show me how alone, I’m undone.

He knows I hold cardboard weapons (my bold-faced façade),

Yet my pattering heart he won’t shun.

But I need to see them, to choose instead the armor of God.

 

This is what God expected.