Happy Birthday

I’ve gone a little Max Lucado on this one. I’m kind of uncomfortable with it, but it’s time to post so here we go. Hey, there’s a long tradition of heavy-handed Christian parables, right? We can’t all be Tolkien all the time. 

Actually, strike that, nobody can be Tolkien.

The book, barely visible in the dawn light, was large, so large you might describe it as being big as a lifetime. A small grappling hook shot up into the air and dropped beside it, biting into the wood of the table the book rested on. The hook jerked a couple of times and the rope stretched tight.

“Gimme a boost, Moss,” a tiny female voice said, far below. “I can’t reach the first knot.”

“Ugh. You weigh a ton, Flea.”

“Weakling.”

“Shut up! I just haven’t had my coffee is all.”

The rope trembled as the unseen creatures ascended, but the hook held tightly into the wood. The male voice, the one called Moss, grumbled between panting, “Why did we have to get up so early for this?”

“Are you seriously asking? Because we want to get here before dawn so she doesn’t stop existing!”

“Well yeah, but you didn’t need to get me up at five to go over our list of supplies—for the hundredth time.”

“Well…it’s exciting! And besides,” the rope stopped moving for a moment, as Flea’s voice took on a chiding note, “This is our job! To turn the page! And read the next year! It’s what we do!”

“Come on, Flea,” Moss griped, panting, “Stop lecturing and move!”

A tiny green head of hair pulled back into a bouncy ponytail appeared at the edge of the table, and in a moment, a small green girl hefted herself over the edge and laid on her stomach to haul up her brother Moss. The green boy climbed to his feet and dusted off his jeans. Despite his size, he appeared to be in his late teens with gangly elbows and knees and a mess of green hair. He stopped and stared up at the book, which towered over him by several inches. Inches may not sound like much except that Moss himself barely reached two inches tall.

His sister, even shorter, skipped over to the book and ran her fingers reverently over the rough edges of the paper. “It’s so beautiful. Did you hear the author handmade them all?” She looked up towards the window. “Dawn’s coming.” She said, her voice suppressed delight.

“Guess we should get at it, then.” Moss sounded more like he was about to attend the funeral of a dear friend.

His sister hauled a backpack off her back and started rummaging through it, pulling out climbing grip gloves and more ropes. “You guess, huh? What are you wanting to do, just not turn the page? Like Old Gershom said he did once? Really? You want that? For all the letters to fade away and then the whole book just vanishes, like that, poof! Like she never even was?”

Moss shifted uncomfortably. “Well no, obviously but…”

Flea got up, her arms full of more climbing gear. “Come on, we have to hurry, dawn is almost here!”

Moss folded his arms and didn’t move. “Dad said he read a man’s book once. One year everything was going well, and he was expecting a baby, and he had a wonderful wife and a good job and then Dad turned the page and read what happened the next year—the man lost everything. His wife and children left him. He got a terrible disease. He died. Alone.. And we’re supposed to celebrate that?”

Flea frowned, momentarily distracted. “But it might not be like that. There are wonderful things, too! And the author is writing a sequel to everyone’s story where there’s a good ending!”

“But is the good ending worth all the terrible things that happen in between? I mean, one good thing doesn’t equal a lifetime of pain. Besides, even if she has the most amazing life ever, this is just one more year closer to death for her!”

“Moss—”

But he was deep into his topic, eyes wide, hands waving. “And at the end, you know sometimes humans live on for decades but with their brain shut down! And their eyes not able to see! And their ears not able to hear! Why are you excited for her to be one more step closer to that?”

“Moss! Philosophize later; we have to get up there! It’s dawn!” Flea grabbed the grappling hook and flung it into the air. “Urg. Missed. I’m so bad at this thing. Come on! Help! It’s going to be too late!”

Moss registered the growing light with a start. “Oh crap! Where’s my gloves? Dad’s going to kill me if we don’t get it turned!”

“Dad is going to be the least of your problems!” Flea shoved the grappling hook into his hands.

Moss hurled the hook into the air and tugged it firm on the edge of the book page. He boosted his sister up and followed after her, hand over hand on the rope.

“We have till the light hits the second paragraph,” Flea panted.

Moss glanced up at the growing light and his face paled. “Faster!” He snapped at Flea.

“This is your fault, Moss!” She gasped, her voice high and pinched with panic.

She made it to the top, gripped the edge, and pulled herself over. Moss threw himself up the last bit of the rope and hauled himself up behind her.

The dawn light, barely visible in the shadows below the book, shone clear and bright on the page. For a moment, Moss breathed easy; the first paragraph only was illuminated. But even as they placed their hands on the rough, creamy paper to turn it, the light inched, impossibly slow, impossibly unstoppable, across the first black letters of the second paragraph.

“No!” Moss gasped. Flea screamed and covered her eyes.

And then a large hand, several times the size of either of them, descended and picked up the edge of the page. The white sheet rose into the air, the letters suddenly bright and stark against the pale background, and then the page fluttered gently down on the other side of the book, letting out a pouf of papery, book scent as it came to rest.

Moss and Flea froze, barely daring to breathe. A very large face lowered down so that it was just level with them and the book and a voice like a rumbling bass spoke. “Running a little late, Moss? You must pardon my deus-ex-machina entrance—it’s just I have more story written for this woman yet and I’d rather not have the story erased because one of my helpers picked a poor time to ask life’s great questions.”

Moss swallowed. “You’re…the author? Erm…The Author?” He revised, feeling the need for capital letters.

“I am.”

While Moss stammered, red faced, Flea blurted out, her voice tinged with outrage: “But if you can turn the pages—why are we here at all?”

The giant eyes crinkled at the edges like the author was smiling though they could not see the rest of his face to tell. “Because birthdays are gifts that ought to be celebrated, Flea, and I like to share celebrations with the people I care about.”

“Why do you write bad things in these stories?” Moss finally blurted, blushing and pretending that he wasn’t frightened.

The hand came across the book, palm up, and rested just in front of them. “Climb on.”

Hesitantly, they did. Moss looked down at the vast wrinkles in the palm, crevasses sprawling out towards the thumb and crisscrossing underneath him. And in the middle was a massive gouge; a scar from a wound so deep and so destructive that the scar tissue couldn’t begin to rebuild.

The hand moved and with a dizzying swoop, they came up level with the author’s eyes.

“Sir, where did you get that scar?”

“I don’t have any answers for your question that you’re going to like, Moss because they’ll make you feel small and uncomfortably out of control. But I can tell you something that might help you.”

“What’s that, sir?”

“I never put my people through anything I haven’t experienced myself. And you may doubt me, but I can take the worst evil in the world and turn it on its end and make something beautiful out of it. Does that help, Moss?”

Moss looked at the scar and the rough, callused hand that cupped around him. The sunlight, now diffuse through the room, shot through the gaps between his fingers and bathed them in morning light. “A little, sir.”

“Good. Any more questions?”

They shook their heads no.

The bass rumble of the voice lifted as the author smiled. “Are you ready to read another page?”

And with the crisp morning air ruffling their hair, the author lowered them down to the page to climb off his hand and walk the freshly inked words of a new year.

Under the Bed

I have never shared a bedroom with anyone. But one night when I had climbed into bed and clicked the light off, I heard someone speaking.

I opened my eyes. The room was dark, quiet. A dim light came in from the far window from the streetlight outside, but what light it gave showed only my furniture, bed, and the lump I made under the covers. I shut my eyes, and I heard the voice again. It was soft, sad, like someone in deep grief.

It was a warm evening and the windows were open; surely I had heard some passerby on the sidewalk outside.

And yet, I did not get up to look.

You’ll think it silly of me, but I was convinced that whoever was speaking might be easily startled away if I moved too fast, or even at all. And I wanted it to speak again. Something about the tone was achingly familiar to me—like the moment in a novel where a complete stranger voices some feeling that you thought only you felt and you find yourself suddenly bound in friendship for a person made of ink and someone else’s dreams. I spoke as softly as possible. “Who—is anyone there?”

“You can hear me?

It was barely audible, but there was wonder in itstone

“Yes.” I said. “Who are you?”

“Who are you?” It responded and for one silly moment I thought, “Oh, it’s just an echo.” But I answered it. I don’t know why. I said, “I’m Emilia. What are you doing…here? Why can I hear you?”

There was a pause. And it said in a voice choked with fear: “I’m trapped.”

I held very still in my bed, certain that this was only some bizarre dream.  But I also felt that if I woke up and missed getting to talk to this voice, I would grieve the loss for the rest of my life. “Are you…a person?”

“No.” It said, wistful. “Or maybe yes. I don’t know what I am. Or why I’m here. I’m just here, and I don’t want to be.”

“Well,” I said, “Can you see anything?”

“Some shapes…” It said, clearly trying to calm itself down. “Hard edges. It’s dark. Maybe they’re books? I seem to be under some dark shelter; it’s lighter out by the edge and I see some piles of things. There’s a little light coming from…maybe a window? It’s very dusty.”

I was silent. I hadn’t expected to hear a description of what sounded a very lot like the underside of my bed.

“Are you sure you’re not a monster?” I said, with a halfhearted chuckle. “Sounds like you’re under my bed.”

“Oh, I’m not a monster.” It said. “I’m sure.”

“How do you know, if you don’t know what you are?”

There was a pause. “I don’t…feel monstrous…” It sounded frightened. “What if I am a monster and I don’t know it?”

I found myself trying to calm it down again, which is not what you picture yourself doing when you imagine interacting with something hiding under your bed. “I guess your intentions might help define who you are. So what do you want?”

“I just want to get out.” It said, miserable. “But the light hurts me. It’s so noisy.”

“But there isn’t any light now.”

“Oh yes there is; coming from that window. It’s not very much, but it hurts my ears. I can only barely hear you. Could you…shut the blind? I just want to get out from under here.”

I did not want to get out of the bed. There is some deep instinct buried in the human psyche that forbids putting your feet out over the open and unknown air beside your bed in the dark. Especially when you’re speaking to the thing lurking under there.

“What do you mean noisy?” I said, stalling for time. “It hurts your ears, not your skin or something?”

“Yes. I couldn’t hear anything at all until you turned off your lamp. If this room was dark enough that there weren’t even any shadows left, I bet I could make it out…Could I come out? Will you let me come out into the fresh air and just sit and talk to you? It would feel so good. I’ve been alone for so long. I was trying to escape, but I got caught under here.”

“I’m not sure I can do that.” I said. “I only have curtains; I don’t think they’ll ever block the light that much.”

Up unto this point I hadn’t moved. I’d been lying on my side, fully certain that at some point I would wake up from my dream, find myself alone in my room, and then I’d be able to go back to sleep. But I sat up and nothing changed. I pinched myself. I inched my way to the end of the bed, reached out across the open space of floor to the window, and gave the curtain a little tug, putting the room in further dark.

Under the bed, the voice sighed in relief. “Even just that feels better.” It seemed louder now, larger and not as frightened. “I can reach the edge of the bed. If you peek down, maybe you can say hi and see me!”

I shook my head, suddenly less confident in my actions. Why had I done that? Why did I think this thing was harmless? “No, I’ll stay here.”

“Please don’t be scared of me.” It said. “I’m just lonely. I need company.”

“I’m listening.” I said with a weak laugh. No, of course it wasn’t threatening; it was just closer to escaping, that was all. And who would want to be trapped under someone’s bed? Was it a wrong thing to want freedom? “I’m here.” I said. “But what will you do when dawn comes? My curtains can’t even keep out nighttime lights completely; they certainly won’t keep out the sun.”

“You could stay with me?” It suggested. “Tape up your windows, close the blinds. Tell me about yourself. We could have a good talk. I haven’t talked to anybody in…oh, well, I don’t even know. Centuries?”

“Centuries?!” I said. “Who was the last person you talked to?”

There was a long pause. A very long pause. “I don’t remember.” It said, finally, and there was an odd, detached note in its voice. Almost cold. “I don’t remember anything about them. Just nothingness, swallowing nothingness. Then I was trapped for a very long time.” Genuine puzzlement seeped back into its voice. “It’s funny…I know I talked to someone.”

At that moment, the streetlight outside my room went out. Shadows vanished. Darkness deepened. I gasped, surprised, and felt a coolness steal over my limbs.

“Ahh,” the thing under the bed sighed, louder now. It sounded close enough to be sitting beside me on the bed. I thought about my childish daydreams of having a friend over for a sleepover, how fun it would be to cozy up in the darkness together and tell secrets.

“Now that feels nice.” It said, voice cheerier. “I don’t know how you can stand all that light. Let me show you how nice darkness is.”

Then the coldness increased to a wave of prickling numbness, like when you sleep on your arm wrong. Only this feeling was spreading all over me, up my arms and legs. I huddled under the covers, rubbing my arms, fear suddenly chilling my insides. “Stop.” I said. “Stop. I don’t like that. I’m meant to be in the light. I’m not like you.”

“No, no,” it said, “Wait and see. Let me show you; the darkness is good. I’ll make you like me. Just try it.”

And the coldness overwhelmed me, a prickling numbness followed by an absolute loss of feeling.

“Stop!” I said and lurched towards the light switch on the opposite wall. I couldn’t feel my knees on my bedspread; my hands tingled and stung.

“Not the light.” The voice begged. “Not the light, please. It hurts me.”

It sounded so truly terrified that even with my arms and legs going numb, I hesitated.

“Don’t hurt me.” It said. “Just talk with me.”

“Who did you speak to last?” I gasped as I lost all feeling in my fingers. “What happened to them? Why were you trapped?”

“It doesn’t matter.” It said, firmly. “The darkness is good for you. Let me show you. Come be my friend. You don’t have many of those, do you?”

My face was numb now. What could possibly be wrong with it wanting to escape confinement? My limbs totally numb, I slipped and staggered off my bed, only catching myself by toppling against the wall.

“That’s right.” It said, so close to me it might have been speaking in my ear. “Stay in the dark. Be my friend. Nobody will miss you.”

I reached out a numb hand for the light switch.

Small White Dog

I have set myself a rule to complete and publish a short story by the 16th of every month.  Normally I agonize over these for a good two weeks, but this month I got distracted by a larger project, and other writing projects, and life– and I started writing this one an hour ago. So it may not be my best work, or hold to my theme, but I’m fairly pleased with myself anyway!

Mrs. McHenry preferred to believe that small white dogs were sold in shop windows, and so that is what she saw when she walked past the pet shop. She also had, it must be said, very, very bad eyesight.

With a little gasp she stopped and peered in at it, readjusting her glasses on her nose to better see the bright happy eyes, the sleek white fur, the pink tongue lolling out of its mouth. It put a paw on the window, as if in greeting. Mrs. McHenry hurried into the pet store, the bell jingling.

If she had paused in her rush to look around her she might have had more questions about the nature of the pets being sold. There was a large stack of feed bags labeled GRYFFIN FEED: PURE GRADE. Some of the lizards in the amphibian section glowed like hot coals. Some of the birds had multiple heads. A store employee came forward and Mrs. McHenry sped over to the window cage. “Sir,” she said in her reedy little old lady voice, “I’d like this puppy, please.”

The young man looked disconcerted. “Uh, ma’am, that’s not…”

But Mrs. McHenry was twittering on, her cheeks pink with excitement. “My husband never liked dogs, but I always wanted one and I have been so lonely since my son moved to Atlanta—he got a better job down there, and it’s such a good thing for him, but I never see him anymore, you see—and this little guy—” She paused and looked down as the creature in the cage nosed her hand gently. “Oh…he’s not quite as small as I had thought…Oh well. Is he one of those Great Pyrnees pups? I heard they get quite large.” She pulled out her wallet. “I have a nice place for him to stay, and I actually have a food bowl and everything already, I picked them up at a yard sale ages ago hoping I would get a dog but it never happened—”

She continued talking through the entire transaction, the mute employee operating in stunned silence. Finally, leash in hand, Mrs. McHenry beamed at him. “Thank you so much, young man. I do get so lonely. I’m sure this fellow will be such a help. I’ve already picked out a name can you believe it? I think I’m going to call him Alexander.”

She and her new pet walked out of the store. The employee turned wide eyes on the only other occupant of the store—a tall bearded gentleman wearing robes, a pointed hat and a nametag that read: “Larry.”

“Did that really just happen?”

The bearded gentleman narrowed his eyes at the retreating figure and the large white animal beside her. “Funny enough, I know that woman. She’s my neighbor, and you know, I think it might just be beneficial for her to have one of those.”

Alexander settled in quite nicely with Mrs. McHenry. She was disconcerted when she found him with his head stuck in the refrigerator, eating the ground beef she’d been thawing, but she supposed a large dog like him would need more protein than she initially expected, so she began buying him meat from the deli.

A week after Alexander had moved in, Mrs. McHenry woke up with bright eyes and pink cheeks. “Alex,” she said to her pet over her bowl of oatmeal that morning, “today you get to meet Steve. He’s been the nicest young man, really takes care of me since Daniel—that’s my son—went down to Atlanta. He cleans, he brings me flowers, he runs out and gets things for me at the store; I just write him a check when he gets back.”

She beamed at the white head regarding her over the top of the table. “I’ve never met someone so selfless.” She looked at her cereal and then back to her pet with a conspiratorial air “Honestly—and I hope you won’t tell Dan this because he just wouldn’t understand—I’ve written him into my will. My husband left me quite a bit you know, and I hardly use it and I already put a lot for Daniel and, well, Steve’s been so nice to me…I was going to tell him today.” She leaned over and whispered, “You won’t tell, will you? It’s going to be my nice little surprise!”

Alexander snorted. He almost sounded skeptical, Mrs. McHenry thought, feeling hurt. But of course, he doesn’t understand; he’s only a dog.

Steve appeared dutifully at ten o’clock, bearing flowers and a smile so wide and shiny it might have been painted on. “Mrs. McHenry!” He exclaimed, hugging her gingerly, “It’s been so long!”

“Oh you sweet boy,” she giggled, patting him on the arm, “It’s only been a week!”

He gestured out the door. “I brought you some groceries again. Remembered what you wanted from last time. And you said some extra ground meat for a new pet? That’s exciting! Where is the little tyke?”

“Alex!” Mrs. McHenry called, looking around the living room. There was no sign of any white animal, dog or otherwise. “Oh, he’ll be around soon, I’m sure. He’s a little shy.”

“Not the guard dog type, huh?” Steve laughed, looking around the little living room with its china cabinets, antique clocks, ceramic figurines and fake flowers. It was not really the kind of place you could imagine inhabited by any pet but a small fluffy dog or perhaps a cat.

“Oh no. He’s so sweet. So friendly.” She got her checkbook out from under her potted geranium. “Now how much do I pay you for the groceries, dear?”

“Two hundred.” Steve said.

She looked up, surprised. “Two hundred? Why did you get me so much, dear? I’m only one little old lady; I don’t eat that much.”

Steve shook his head. “It’s the meat for the dog, honestly. The price of that stuff is insane. They were out of the cheap stuff. Now what do you need me to do around here today, Mrs. McHenry? Anything at all, I am your humble servant!”

That evening, Mrs. McHenry settled into bed with her favorite large print Agatha Christie and a peaceful smile on her face.

“What a lovely day,” she said to Alexander, who was curled up beside her, nearly crowding her out of the bed with his bulk. He flicked an ear towards her. “I just love doing nice things for people.” She continued. “The look on his face when I told him I was settling money on him—he was just overcome, Alex. He is the sweetest boy. Reminds me so much of Daniel…” she trailed off into happy thoughts and then elbowed Alexander abruptly. “And shame on you, you unsociable beast! He wanted to meet you! I can’t imagine where you hid yourself all day! I wanted to show you off!

Alexander rubbed his head against her hand and purred. Mrs. McHenry patted his head and smiled, “Oh, I didn’t mean it Alex…” she paused. “I didn’t know dogs purred.”

Alexander stopped purring and looked innocent. She shrugged and yawned. “I wanted to read, but I’m really so tired out by the excitement. Goodnight, Alex.”

The light clicked off. The room was dark. When Mrs. McHenry’s breathing was soft and slow, Alexander slid off the bed, opened the bedroom door, and vanished into the dark hallway. His tail snaked back into the room and shut the door behind him.

Midnight came and went. One o clock. Two o clock. The old cuckoo clock in the living room cuckoo’d once for the half hour, and the front door handle clicked and turned. A masked figure entered, key in one hand, wearing black clothes. He shut the door softly behind him and turned.

He froze. A white dragon stood on the landing, lit and glowing in the moonlight coming through the window. It was at least seven foot tall, its head brushed the ceiling, membranous wings outspread. It opened its mouth in a hiss.

The intruder backed up against the door, his hands outstretched. “Good…good dragon?” He fished around in his pocket and found a petite little dog bone, clearly prepared for the fluffy puppy he’d expected. He held it out in trembling fingers. “Want a snack?”

The dragon chuckled. And then it breathed fire.

 

Mrs. McHenry was very surprised when she found Alexander cornering Steve in the entry way. Her surprise only increased when she realized that the reason the smoke detector had gone off was because Steve himself was gently smoking and there were burn marks on the carpet and walls all around him. But after her attempts to call Alexander off failed and Steve began shouting at her, and her neighbors called the police, one thing about that night surprised her more than anything else.

“Yes ma’am,” one the police officers was saying in a patient voice, as blue lights made flashing patterns over her ceramic statuettes. “We found arsenic on him. We think he intended to make it look like you’d died in your sleep. That dragon of yours saved you.”

Mrs. McHenry sat down the cup of tea they’d made her. “My what?”

“Your dragon, ma’am.”

She slowly raised a hand to her mouth and looked down at the large white form crouched beside her chair. “D-dragon? Alexander?”

The policeman nodded, and with a nervous look at Alexander, added, “A fine specimen. Very brave, to protect you like that.”

Alexander looked up at Mrs. McHenry with hopeful eyes.

“Oh my. You saved me?” She slowly lowered her hand and rested it on his head. “Thank you, dear. I guess I didn’t need a dog after all!” She paused, and considered him. “But I might need to get new glasses…”

Griffin in the Tomatoes, Letter IV

This is the last of a four-part short story. The first letter is here.

March 10, 19–

Baron,

I will never cease berating myself for forgetting that Kathrine does social magics—and after that I will never, ever cease berating myself for assuming Rhysdaal makes the same mistakes I make. I promised you a full explanation, and as I wish never to repeat my mistakes again, I shall discipline myself by writing it down in black and white.

The day you sent your letter I was out assisting at a difficult birth all day and when I received your letter I was bone-tired. That’s not an excuse for what I did, only an explanation. I read until I saw that Kathrine had arranged some small magical presentation for your birthday and I lost all common sense.

I was convinced that it was up to me to go and right the wrong and fix the damage done.

Foolish, foolish, foolish. I, of all people, ought to know that there is no excuse for not following a griffin’s instructions when it comes to magic, but I threw on my hat and my cloak and ran out the door exactly like some demented fishwoman. I said to myself; I have ruined everything—exactly like any of it rested on my shoulders at all in the first place! And you nearly died for my arrogance.

Because you see, what Rhysdaal and I knew and you did not was that your guest was a particularly foul kind of Fae called a Red Cap. Red Caps are not common, but they have two distinct tells: first, they are immortal as long as they keep their red hats soaked in the blood of their victims, and second, they increase their strength (both physical and magical) when they are in the presence of human magicians. It is possible to isolate a Red Cap from any human magic residue until it is too weak to overpower its victim. Without blood, its hat dries out and it dies on its own.

This was the reason I had to stay away from Rushdon House. I also could not speak to you about this because it is a touchy business accusing a fae of anything, and Rhys and I did not want to bring a fairy war down on you and your wife’s heads. I mean no offense, but you are a particularly easy person to read and we feared that Mr. Hastings might understand something in your manner.

All of this vanished from my mind as soon as I heard that Kathrine’s magic was set to go at a scheduled time. Illusory social magics are not powerful, but they might easily be enough for Mr. Hastings to overpower you, and with no one in the house to hear any cry for assistance, you would be helpless.

My horse was still saddled from my midwifery business, so I threw myself on her back and was galloping down the road in moments. I cannot tell for sure, but I think that Mr. Hastings sensed the moment I crossed the boundary onto your lands. That, I believe, was when he raised such a ruckus calling you up to the attic—sufficiently far enough upstairs that Rhys would have difficulty fitting round the bends and passing through the locked doors.

I ran into a completely silent house. No butler, no Kathrine, no maids. And no Rhys. That was the most terrifying thing. Red Caps are vicious creatures, and even a creature as large and powerful as a griffin can be overcome by a trap. I shouted for Rhys and heard only echoes. And far away, some scuffles and bumps.

Up the stairs I went—all three flights—and down the hall to a locked door that thudded with impacts. I was not thinking straight, even then. Instead of getting a poker or some physical implement, I said a word and blew the door straight off its hinges.

Dramatic, but fatal. I saw the change come over Hastings even as the door fell away. Even as you planted a nice right hook in his midsection (very neatly done) the residue of my magic hit him and he swelled, his muscles bulging, his height telescoping. Everything turned. In an instant, you were pinned and there was blood everywhere and the knife flashing in the light again and again.

I have never been so horrified or so helpless. Kathrine, who is a better friend than I deserve, would be right to hate me, as I was almost the instrument of your death. I couldn’t do any more magic, obviously, and against a creature as hulking and powerful as Mr. Hastings then was, I had no chance of physical attack either. I did the only thing left to do; I screamed for Rhys.

The window shattered and he was there, all wings and teeth and terrible paws. In a moment, he had knocked Mr. Hastings off you and was shaking him like a terrier shakes a rat. I saw Mr. Hastings’ hat tumble to the side and I ran for it and threw it on the fire. It burned.

I didn’t stay to watch; I ran out of the room because the longer I stayed the stronger the Red Cap got. It pained me more than I can say to leave you lying there bleeding alone. Fortunately I met Kathrine coming up the stairs, just home from the city, and sent her up to fetch you out at once. I may say, you have a treasure of a wife, to regret her pique and come home just in time to save your life. But you already knew that.

And that’s the most of my tale. I need not mention the vast amount of stitching up you required, or how long it will be before your scars fade. Kathrine says neither of us come out of this situation looking very impressive and I must agree with her. I imagined myself more important than I am, and you ignored the very specific advice of your own magician! A sorry lot the both of us.

Sincerely,

Margaret Saylor,

Magician at Attendale, Yewsford Village

Griffin in the Tomatoes: Letter III

This is the third of a four-letter short story. The first one is here: Griffin in the Tomatoes: Letter I, The Baron to Miss Saylor

March 1, 19–

Miss Saylor,

It has been a fortnight since you last wrote and I have done my best to abide by your instructions and be patient with the explanation you have provided me.

But now I find myself with two unwanted guests. Mr. Hastings has refused to decamp, despite his apparent terror at your beast at Rhysdaal. And Rhysdaal has moved into the house, apparently feeling that I need extra guarding. I attempt to be grateful, but my patience is waning.

I do not even understand what prompted his move from his nest in my tomatoes to our atrium. I intend to describe the evening to you in the hopes that you can offer some explanation for his change and perhaps I can make arrangements for Rhysdaal to move back outside.

It was raining and we were enjoying an evening inside. Kathrine, as you know, has some small talent in the illusionary magics and Mr. Hastings requested to see a display of colors and lights as he had heard she can do especially prettily. I did not think it would be a problem as Kathrine is hardly a magician. While she was preparing what she needed, he went upstairs and fetched a most hideous red hat with the explanation that it was his “magic-viewing hat.” I mention this only because it struck us both as an extremely odd thing to do.

Once he was settled, wearing his disgusting hat—indoors, no less—she began to create her illusions. And no sooner had she begun the first spell, than we heard a scream from the entryway. We ran out into the hall to find Rhysdaal standing there, dripping all over our floor, nearly brushing the chandelier with his head and roaring. He roared at me and my guest and my wife in my own house. And then he sat down and would not move and has not moved since.

My wife went to bed with a case of the vapors. You will be pleased to hear that I regret not following the advice of my wife and my magician. I did not insist Mr. Hastings leave, and he begins to show his true nature. Despite the circumstances and her terror, he expected my wife to continue her magical illusions. Her refusal did at least convince him to take off his filthy red hat.

Katherine has informed me that she will reside in town until the griffin has vacated the premises. You might remember it’s my birthday tomorrow, and we had a day of festivities planned, including guests and a little magical surprise for me from Kathrine.  Because of your creature we must uninvite our guests and I shall have to enjoy my wife’s present with only the company of Mr. Hastings and his hat.

And my wife is not the only loss I have sustained as of late. Since Rhysdaal has moved indoors my entire staff have vacated the premises, excepting only the cook and my personal valet. They have all told me they cannot abide a terrifying creature, especially one as big as a pony lying in our atrium all hours of the day, hissing every time Mr. Hastings passes by.

Despite the mince pies I have yet to see any peaceable relations grow between Rhysdaal and I, but that might perhaps be because Mr. Hastings has attached himself to my person and I cannot be rid of him. Nonetheless, I find my human guest to be much less of an irritant than your giant magical beast.

I do not need an explanation if that is what you insist is proper; all I ask is that you come remove your beast. It has been almost a month and I have not been threatened by anything but the griffin himself. I do not like to remind you that I am your baron and your superior and you owe me some loyalty. If you continue to disregard me, I have a cousin in town who is a magician and would, no doubt be more obliging.

But I would much rather you simply helped me out of your own good nature and friendship.

Sincerely,

Baron Jefferson Tarkington,

Rushdon House, Yewsford

Griffin in the Tomatoes, Letter II

This is a story told in a series of four letters. The first is here

February 13, 19–

Dear Baron,

I am so cautious I make a very namby-pamby magician (as the townsfolk of Yewsford have informed me many times over) but now I find my excess of fear has caused me to give offense to a good friend. Sometimes for fear of burning someone with an overdose of magic, or saying the wrong spell, or forgetting the proper ingredients for a potion, I just…don’t do it at all. And that is exactly what I have done to you, good friend.

The simple fact is, I cannot tell you why Rhysdaal has chosen to take up residence in your greenhouse. He has bound me to silence.

But on giving the matter thought, I realized that though Rhys forbade me to explain the matter to you, he didn’t tell me to refuse to speak to you at all and then run out of the room like a frightened child. I have perhaps again allowed my fear to urge me into an excess of caution.

The thing is, Rhys frightened me terribly on Thursday when he told me where he was going and why. (Yes, I knew where he was going, though if I’d known he was going to tromp on your tomato bed I would have tried to redirect him to a less beloved plant.) He normally maintains a prickly and proud sort of bearing, but he unbent enough to be upset, and that, I found, was equally upsetting to me. I depend on him to be unpleasant and sarcastic and when he shows signs of a heart, I am truly unnerved.

But I have thought long and hard about this. I cannot give up my caution in magical matters—no matter what Rhys says, I cannot behave with the wild improvisations of better magicians, but I do not wish to lose a friendship over an excess of caution. Perhaps if I can’t explain why Rhys is living in your tomatoes, I can at least explain why I have to follow his instructions and not speak of the matter.

…I hope you don’t mind me digressing into a little lecture on magic theory here. People have somehow gotten a broken connection to magic. Other animals, especially griffins, unicorns, manticores, dragons and similar beasts, have an unbroken connection.

It helps if you think of magic as streams running invisibly around us. Magical creatures like griffins, unicorns, manticores, dragons and the like swim in the streams, connected with them like fish are in water.

Human interactions with magic act more like filling the stream with large rocks. There’s a lot of splashing and too many rocks or too large will disrupt the flow of the entire stream. Frequently one of the strongest ways we disrupt the flow of magic is by speaking. The splatter, so to speak, of untimely words, is often easily lapped up by evil creatures and used for strengthening their harmful deeds.

I know Rhys can be a pest and I’m sorry about your Beefeaters, but you and your family are in real danger and you do need him there as much as you do not need me there. Please extend my apologies to Kathrine for upsetting her. If she could see her way to forgiving me, I would be happy to host her here for tea if she wishes to venture outside. It is of absolute importance that you avoid having any magic in your house at the moment.

Also, I don’t want to dictate your household, but if Mr. Hastings finds Rhys upsetting it might be best for him to take up residence elsewhere. I believe Kathrine has frequently mentioned that she does not approve of how he butters you up anyway and it’s always a good idea to listen to your wife!

Please be safe.

Sincerely yours,

Margaret Saylor,

Magician at Attendale, Yewsford Village

P.S. I am sending two mince pies with this letter, one for you and Kathrine and one for Rhys. He is especially fond of mince pie. It should improve your relationship. Also if you call him by his name instead of just “creature” or “beast,” that should help, too.

Griffin in the Tomatoes: Letter I

I thought my short stories might come together more easily if I had a theme, so I’m exploring silence. Last month was the silence of not being heard (No More Ink). This month’s sprung more from the idea of silence as a means of protection. I’ll admit it went a little off the rails and I wouldn’t submit it as a thesis on the theme. But the whole point was to get me writing, and at that it was a success! 

 

February 12, 19–

Miss Saylor,

I called on you this past Monday to inform you that your griffin has moved into my greenhouse and has made a nest for itself out of my tomato plants.

One wouldn’t think that its removal would be a difficult request, honestly. Our two households have dwelt side by side amicably for the past four years. Until this past Monday I would have even dared to call us friends, but your silence in this matter makes me question if I have perhaps assumed too much. My wife is upset as well, and wishes me to tell you that she won’t have you for tea on Friday until you remove the beast.

You have mentioned before the difficulties of housing your griffin due to his temperamental and catlike personality, but I am sure something could be arranged in a manner satisfactory to you and I (and the griffin) if you would simply have the decency to talk to me about it.

Or at the very least acknowledge that there is indeed a griffin running amuck in my vegetable garden. He has squashed every single one of my Beefeater Tomato plants and they have taken Best in Show for three years running in the county fair. I had hoped that they might do the same for a fourth year.

He has also frightened my wife Kathrine and scared off my head groundskeeper. Friday morning Mr. Thompson, who is as top-hole of a groundskeeper as can be hired in the entirety of England, came to me in a state of extreme alarm and told me that though the windows were not broken and the door was shut, he had stepped inside the greenhouse to find himself face to face with a large griffin standing in the walkway and clacking its beak at him.

Even as he spoke to me, I heard Kathrine scream and come running back into the house. She had gone out to gather some herbs and the creature tried to speak to her. She now refuses to go outside for any reason. I have lost privacy, my tomatoes, a peaceful wife—and Mr. Thompson has refused to return until the griffin is gone, which will put the gardens in a sad state.

As you are aware, we have a guest at our house, a Mr. Oliver Hastings. Mr. Hastings and I went out to attempt to reason with the creature. Perhaps I should have left him inside after all; the meeting did not proceed exactly as I imagined…

I do not remember all the etiquette rules for conversing with a griffin but I did my best. I went in and found it lying in the tomatoes with its great, terrible paws hung over the side of the raised bed.  I bowed as I remembered you said they appreciate. I said, “Good griffin, my home is open to you, but may I ask why you have chosen to reside in my tomato bed?”

But the creature only hissed at us and looked at us hard with those copper eyes. Mr. Hastings was so upset that he screamed and ran out of the greenhouse. I admit I had not expected such timid behavior from him, nor such speed (as he is quite elderly) but I cannot have my guests terrorized while they visit me.

Naturally, I immediately went to see you to rectify this problem. You can imagine my disappointment when I hardly got more of a civil reply out of you than out of your beast!

I am aware that young ladies of society often speak in riddles and expect their listeners to understand somehow, and we have all heard tales of magicians being even more prone to this particular foible, but I find ma’am, that I do not care for this method of communication.

I did think we were friends, Margret. I do not understand your silence in this matter.

Sincerely yours.

Baron Jefferson Tarkington, Esq.

Reardon House, Yewsford Village

No More Ink

The privileges of being unpublished and having a swiftly dwindling blog readership: I can  moan and whine about being unread without worrying about tons of people rolling their eyes at my pity party…

(In case anybody is worried, I wrote this at home, comfortably curled on the couch, and no blood was involved.)

When the novella, the collection of short stories and the eight different magazine articles didn’t sell, Jack was unperturbed; he didn’t expect many publishers to be excited about publishing a convict. When his paper ran out, he used a day’s food money to bribe the prison guard for more paper. When he ran out of ink he didn’t eat for two days to save enough to bribe the guard to bring more and when he did get it the ink was watery. But he didn’t complain.

Jack wasn’t much of a talker; and when he did speak, he stuttered. He was big and lumpish and always moved as if he was afraid he might break something, but any time he was in his cell, he was writing. Word in the prison was that Jack had stabbed his last cellmate after the cellmate had torn up some papers Jack at been using to write. Jack had been there so long nobody knew if it was true, but he certainly looked like the kind of person who would kill over something stupid like a book.

The only person Jack ever had conversations with was with the guard that patrolled the lower dungeon on Tuesdays and Thursdays, one Roland Ellison, a skinny man over fond of brilliantine and his own wit.

One Tuesday afternoon, Jack shuffled up to the window as the guard marched past. He held out a sheaf of paper. “Will you t-t-t-ake this to Handson and Tarrow’s? And,” he mumbled, his ears red, “I n-need more ink.”

The guard stopped and stared down his nose at him, twirling his moustaches idly. “Two days of bread money.”

Jack winced.

“Well, take it or leave it, your choice…” Ellison continued walking. Jack gritted his teeth, clenched his fists and raised his voice, “Alright!”

The guard stepped back and put a hand on his hip, surveying the massive, lumpish person standing on the other side of the bars. He raised an eyebrow, waiting.

Jack scowled and muttered, “Please.” He held the papers forward, through the bars. “It’s a b-b-b-book.”

“A whole book this time?” The guard snatched them out of his hand a thumbed through them with his lip curled. He waved them at Jack.  “Why do you do this? Nobody cares. Nobody’s going to read anything you have to say.”

Jack’s bulgy face showed no emotion, but he twisted his hands in front of him like a bashful schoolboy. “Mebbe something I say will h-help somebody. Mebbe somebody’ll think the words are…b-b-b-beautiful.” His voice faded away as the guard’s face spasmed with suppressed laughter.

“Buh-buh-buh-yewtiful. If that isn’t the stupidest…. Beauty? Who cares? And who cares what you think about beauty? And…can I just reiterate here—nobody wants to read you!”

He shook his head, rolled the papers into a scroll and stuck them in his back pocket. “Have the money by Thursday.” He said. “And I’ll bring you ink..”

Jack nodded and watched the curl of his book sticking out of Ellison’s coat pocket as he walked on down the corridor.

Thursday came and went. Ellison didn’t come. All of Jack’s ink was gone. The other guards just laughed at him or ignored him. On Tuesday, Jack was at his cell door again, waiting for Ellison’s shift to begin, desperate to hear about his novel and get his new pot of ink. A dim figure in guard’s clothes started down the corridor and Jack stuck his hand out of the bars, uncaring that Ellison hated to be hailed by the prisoners. “Hey! Ellison!”

But a strange man stopped and peered in at him and Jack withdrew his hand, momentarily confused. “I-I thought you were Ellison. H-he had…ink for me.”

The unfamiliar guard snorted. “Yeah, you know why Ellison isn’t here anymore? Illegal bartering with prisoners.”

Jack blinked and then stumbled into more words than he was accustomed to. “But…He’s not here? D-d-did he say anything about my book? He was sup-p-posed to take my book. Can you get me ink?”

The guard chuckled. “Oh, right…you’re the madman who writes all the time. You know what they found in Ellison’s cupboard when he left? A three foot high stack of papers with writing all over them. We used them for kindling yesterday. Thanks to you, my toes were toasty warm last night.”

He spun around and continued down the hall, his boots clicking on the flagstones. Jack stood at the cell door and stared through the bars, unseeing.

After the echoes of the guard’s footsteps had faded and the only noises were the skitter of rats and the drip of water, Jack walked the exactly nine steps to the back of his cell and sat down in the grit and dirt on the floor. He stared at the wall, moving something from hand to hand methodically. The afternoon light from the cubbyhole on the wall fell into the room and made the object visible—a shiv, fashioned out of a spoon.

Jack held out his hand in front of him. It trembled slightly. And then he sliced the shiv across his finger, squeezed it until the blood welled up, raised his finger to the wall, and began to write.

 

 

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A Sketch: Maeve

Every now and then I run across a stranger so uniquely themselves that I feel a compulsion to sketch them out in sentences and paragraphs. I theorize about what kind of lives they must live, give them names, and maybe exaggerate them a little (like any caricaturist), but otherwise, I try to just put them down as I saw them.

Meet Maeve Harris.

Here she comes, across the grass, towards a crowd of runners bunched in front of the start line of the race. She bustles up, arms swinging in righteous indignation. Everyone around her is wearing exercise clothes and running shoes. She is bizarrely out of place with her neatly arranged hair and her dress with the roses all over it. She clutches a mauve pocketbook under one plump arm as if she’s restraining herself from whacking someone on the head with it.

“Mama came into your room at 6 AM this morning and you weren’t there!” She bellows at an elderly man in the middle of the runners—her grandfather. Dutifully he shuffles over to her and says something inaudible in a voice that rustles like paper.

Privately he thinks he should be given credit for being the only octogenarian attempting a 5k today, but his granddaughter, he knows, would rather he take up a sweet, elderly sport, like checkers, or whittling. It’s why he signed up without telling her or her mother, who is like her.

Maeve has ploughed into the middle of the runners now, dividing a group mid-conversation to better aim her shout at her grandfather. “She was planning on taking you out in the boat, and you weren’t there!”

At the start line, the event coordinator picks up his microphone to announce the beginning of the race, but Maeve is focused—so much so that she has wedged herself in front of a runner who can’t shift backwards any further. The runner politely pretends she can’t hear the conversation being carried on twelve inches from her face.

“She got me up and I had to go in and look for you, and you were here, all the time!”

Maeve’s grandfather seems to be trying to edge away from the blast of her speech and presents his counter argument sotto voce. His papery tone conveys irritation, finally ending up with a statement loud enough to be audible to those around him, “Well she planned this, didn’t she?!”

Whoever “she” was had, apparently, planned this, and Maeve cedes the point.

The runner whose space she has invaded watches to see if Maeve will leave, but no—now the conflict has been dealt with, her equanimity is restored, and she feels sociable. She spies someone else in the crowd she knows and shouts across the pack: “Hi! Christine! Betcha going to beat everybody today! Did you put your age down as 70 plus so you win first place?!”

At that point, the beginning of the race is announced. The runners shift into place, and Maeve, aware for the first time that she is in the way, re-tucks her pocketbook under her arm and heads off on her next errand. There is good to be done and people to manage and she is the woman to do it.

The Hazards of Vampirism

This was supposed to be a melancholy, sweet story set shortly after WWII. I had grand plans of people wiping tears from their eyes at the end and going out into the world with kinder, more tender feelings towards the people around them. (I always have unreasonably high hopes for my writing). 

This is not that story.

People talk about characters that won’t do as they’re told–here is an entire story that simply wouldn’t do as it was told. 

 

You know how to keep a vampire from biting you? Keep him talking.

They can’t talk very well with their incisors poking over their lower lips. Some misinformed people describe vampires as having sultry Transylvanian accents, but in reality, any vampire with his fangs extended just sounds…silly. You try talking with your lower jaw tucked back to keep from stabbing holes in your chin and see how menacing you sound.

They never told us about that in our Monster Safety and Etiquette classes at school. They mentioned garlic, crucifixes, and holy water, but I was the one who discovered the trick of talking to them.

We had one vampire in our neighborhood—Mr. McGinty. He lived at the end of the block in a tiny old house with a lawn full of rose beds. We kept our distance, but we’d all wave if we saw him out in his rose garden. Our mothers warned all of us kids to not to go by his house after dusk, and in our games throughout the neighborhood we occasionally ran across the odd bloodless squirrel corpse, left over from one of his snacks. But otherwise he did not trouble us, and we left him in peace.

But one Saturday evening I was making my way home from playing at the park. I must have been about eight. I’d gotten into an argument with my best friend and I was so preoccupied with composing all the clever retorts I should have said to her but didn’t that I took the wrong turn and found myself going past Mr. McGinty’s house at dusk.

I didn’t even realize it until I heard a footstep on the sidewalk behind me. I turned around to see him there, a hunched little man with a bald head, liver spots, and two, long white fangs slicing out of his mouth. His eyes were dark and shiny and his mouth was spread in a terrible facsimile of a smile.

Oddly enough, I didn’t feel frightened, but I must have been more than I realized because what came out of my mouth was, “Oh, Mr. McGinty, your roses are looking gorgeous tonight.”

An agony of indecision crossed over his features. Finally, his loneliness and his passion for his hobby won out over blood lust. He smiled, his fangs still extended, and slurred, “Ooo ‘ike dem?” He paused, retracted his teeth back into his mouth with an embarrassed air as if he’d been caught picking his nose, and continued, “Thank you, Gilly. I like a nice bright spot of color myself.”

“The purple ones are so unique,” I said, and when I saw his fangs sliding down out of his mouth again, hurriedly added, “How do you get them to bloom so well?”

“’Ell, akshully,” –the fangs slid back in—“I use a special bloom promoting trick of my own creation.”

“Oh? You came up with it yourself?” I continued to edge down the sidewalk and he came up to walk beside me, his hands clasped behind his back.

“It took several years, and a few happy accidents you know,” he edged closer to me. “The key,” the tip of a fang began to show, “iss ‘ee ‘oper ‘alance o’ acid—”

“I disagree!” I squeaked, feeling his breath on the side of my face. “I think they do better in an alkaline soil!”

He looked offended and sucked his teeth back in immediately. We were getting closer to my house. I could see the porch light was on. “No,” he said, “You don’t understand the science of it! They’re a plant that likes acidic soil, and what they do the very best with is coffee grounds. I always pour my coffee grounds into the soil to prepare it!”

He was also darting irritable glances towards my house and clearly becoming frustrated. His fangs slid out, fast and sharp.

“No!” I barked, “M-mouse droppings! You have to use mouse droppings!”

“I beg—pfhlfpfh—” he stabbed himself in the chin with his fangs and stretched his jaw trying to unstick them. “I beg your pardon?!” He finished, finally retracting the fangs again and leaving two gaping, bloodless holes in his chin. “Mouse droppings? That’s insane! Nobody uses mouse droppings to fertilize their roses! Why the effort of collecting enough droppings alone–”

“We do!” I shouted and broke into a full out sprint. At the same time, his fangs shot out, gleaming and wet, and he sprang for me with terrifying agility for a man so old and bent. But he was too late. I crossed into my yard, slammed the gate shut in his face and ran all the way up the garden walk to my porch. I turned around, puffing and panting to see him glaring at me over the edge of the fence. We stared at each other for a long moment, and then he turned and walked away.

He did not speak to me again and I never walked by his house if I could help it. Years passed. I grew up and moved out, and did not think about Mr. McGinty very often. One day I called my mother from college and she mentioned that he’d died.

“They actually found something for you in his house.” She said.

“What?” I said. “For me?”

“Yes—I can’t think why but he must have thought poorly of you for some reason. It was just a single, dried rose. And you know how lovely his rose gardens always were—well this was the puniest, most sickly looking rose I have ever seen, and it had a little tag: ‘Fertilized with mouse droppings. For Gilly.’”