“My brother says you’re a troll, ’cause trolls live under bridges. You’re living under a bridge,” the girl said. “So, are you a troll?”
Yes, he was, but she didn’t know that. In fact, no one was allowed to know that. “No. Not a troll,” he lied.
She smelled tender, savory, juicy.
The girl was intrigued by him, but she hesitated. She was smart enough for that at least.
Skari squeezed his eyes shut and drove his head back against the concrete abutment of the bridge. Again. The pain was like a gunshot through his skull, but at least it drove away the dark thoughts. Sometimes it just got so lonely, and he got so hungry here. He’d been thinking about eating children, tasty children . . . thinking about it altogether too much.
With a crash through the underbrush, a boy came down the embankment. Her brother. He looked about nine, a year or two older than the girl. Both were scrawny, their clothes hand-me-downs but still in much better condition than Skari’s. The children did have a raggedness about them, though, a touch of loss that had not yet grown into desperation. That would come in time, Skari knew, unless he ate them first.
Next to his sister, the boy made a grimace and said with a taunting bravery that only fools and children could manage, “I think you’re a troll. You smell like a troll!”
Skari leaned forward, lurched closer to the edge of the shadow, and the children drew back, but remained close, staring. “Methinks you smell yourself, boy.”
Rather than hearing the threat, the boy giggled. “Methinks? What kind of word is methinks?” He added in a singsong voice, “Methinks ‘methinks’ is a stupid word.”
Skari grumbled, ground his teeth together. His gums were sore. He picked at them with a yellowed fingernail. No wonder witches ate children. It was sounding like a better and better idea to him. His stomach rumbled. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Trip Trap”
This story from Kameron Hurley asks whether it’s better to do the necessary but painful thing or not. I’m not entirely sure it answers its own question.
She kept her machete up. “I’m called Bet, out here,” she said. “And what are you? If you’re dressing up as Plague Hunters, I’ll have some identification before you go pontificating all over my porch.”
“Abrimet,” the shoman said, holding up their right hand. The broad sleeve fell back, exposing a dark arm crawling in glowing green tattoos: the double ivy circle of the Order, and three triangles, one for every Plague Hunter the shoman had dispatched. Evidence enough the shoman was what was claimed. “This is Lealez,” the shoman said of the other one.
“Lealez,” Bet said. “You a shoman or a neuter? Can’t tell at this distance, I’m afraid. We used to dress as our gender, in my day.”
The person made a face. “Dress as my gender? The way you do? Shall I call you man, with that hair?” Bet wore nothing but a man’s veshti, sour and damp with sweat, and she had not cut or washed her hair in some time, let alone styled her brows to match her pronouns.
“It is not I knocking about on stranger’s doors, requesting favors,” Bet said. “What am I dealing with?”
“I’m a pan.”
“That’s what I thought I was saying. What, is saying neuter instead of pan a common slur now?”
“We are in a desperate situation,” Abrimet said, clearly the elder, experienced one here, trying to wrest back control of the dialogue. “The Order sent us to call in your oath.” Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: The Plague Givers”
This is fine. I’m okay with the events that are currently unfolding, as is the protagonist of this story from Monica Byrne.
When I was finished cataloging everything, I did something I now regret. I carried one of the little pigs—a female, who was quite docile, and seemed happy to go for a ride—into the surf. I wanted to see if it could swim. I thought it must be able to swim, the species being so proximate to water, even though its ancestors were likely ship-borne vermin.
So I carried it down into the surf until I was knee-deep. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have gone so far out. I let it down into the water. At that moment, a wave of unusual force slapped my midsection and I fell into the water. I lost sight of the little pig. Then I glimpsed it again, underwater, twitching and writhing and sinking, clearly unable to swim. I reached for it but just then, another wave slapped me back, leaving me even more disoriented than before. I lost sight of it altogether this time. I didn’t recover it, or even see it again.
I felt quite bad. Maybe I should stick to physics.
In my dream last night, I managed to stand up in front of the full-length mirror I’d positioned at the foot of my mat. (The Navy sent it with me. Of course I must have a full-length mirror. God forbid I should be unaware of my appearance.) I was very intrigued to see that my image was not inverted—the MIT insignia on my nightshirt read MIT, not TIM as it does normally in waking life. I remember receiving that nightshirt my sophomore year; it was a gift from Professor Gaertner—-the wife Sofia, not the husband Bernhard; I should clarify, as they both bear that title—who thought I might be lonely as one of the only coeds at the Institute. I appreciated that.
And now here I stood, wearing the same nightshirt, noticing how MIT stayed MIT. This is the first deviation from known physics in waking reality.
In honor of the Gaertners’ German heritage, I’ve decided to call my experiment (and the universe it elucidates and its attendant systems) Traumphysik, which sounds more rigorous than “dream-physics.” Everything sounds more rigorous in German. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Traumphysik”
Stories are largely about the choices we make and their consequences, intended and unintended. This story by Caroline Yoachim distills that dynamic to its essence.
In theory, it was a good system, having only a handful of families responsible for all the pens. Skinwriters filled out piles of paperwork and endured random inspections. There were supposed to be harsh penalties for those who disobeyed the rules. In practice, no one looked at the paperwork, and the inspectors were more interested in bribes than rules. By the time I was ten, I was sneaking words onto my skin a couple times a month—clever, stealthy, independent—and I never once got caught.
One night when I was fourteen, I stayed up late and wrote words on my inner thigh—passionate, sensitive, flirty. Mother hadn’t put a word on me for years, but when she found out she added three new adjectives to my back—responsible, practical, prudent. Irritated that she would treat me like a child, I retaliated by filling my entire left shin with words. Artistic and sassy. Ambitious, playful, outgoing, strong. Mother pretended not to notice. She didn’t want to escalate the conflict, or maybe she approved of my new choices.
I moved out when I was eighteen, and I wrote myself confident and sexy. I started dating an older man, and I fancied myself in love with him. He didn’t come from a family of skinwriters and words were expensive, so he only had three—brave, athletic, and charming. Everything was going well until I discovered he was cheating. I did an unthinkable thing. I wrote on him while he was sleeping, on the back of his neck, near his hairline so he would never see the words—loyal, faithful, honest, loving. He left the next morning and never came back. I hadn’t specified who he should be loyal to. It clearly wasn’t me.
Uncanny Magazine, which published this story and is the magazine to which I turn most frequently for stories for this feature, is holding its annual Kickstarter. They’ve hit their first funding goal, but in order to Uncanny to continue at its current scope, they have several stretch goals to hit. If you like the stories I share here, consider helping to fund their work. One of the backer rewards is a blog post from me on their site on a topic of your choosing.
This story from Sara Norja makes me wonder what I’d find if I returned to the lakes and forests of my childhood. I mean, I know, all impaired memory aside, but it still makes me wonder.
“A magpie laughing in front of a house,” mutters Kristiina, “means bad things are coming. Old things.”
“Old superstitions!” My father laughs. “Have some more cake, Mother.”
The magpie shimmers in the sun, its feathers gleaming blue-metallic. I can’t keep my eyes off it. Only when it takes off and flies into the forest, towards the lake, do I come back to this world.
The white stone is still clutched in my hand. It should be hot and sweaty from contact with my skin, but it’s cold. As if it had that moment appeared from the bottom of a lake. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Water, Birch, and Blood”
In most of our fantasy stories, the magic works to make things better, even if it’s a dangerous force. Then there’s this story from Sabrina Vourvoulias.
Before the candles, before the stoles and bells, before the cop—I get the call.
Every people to their duty.
This is an epic written in collective, changing every time the street tells it.
This is a vernacular cantar de gesta.
This is the legend of son, brother, daughter, sister, over whose broken body we spill words and tears.
This is, today at St. William, the story of one who lived two decades in the six–eight time of bachata, rumba clave, and gunfire. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: El Cantar of Rising Sun”
This story from Ian McHugh is light and fluffy and exactly what I was looking for as a chance.
‘Look to your defences, monster!’ he cried, in what he hoped was an authoritative tone.
‘That’s really quite hurtful,’ she said, but declined to lift her club again. Which, he had to admit, was probably for the best. The ogress had sprung to her feet with alarming speed when he entered the dell, and her pocked hide looked as if a siege engine wouldn’t dent it.
There were a couple of shields propped next to the cave mouth. Juan tried not to imagine what had become of their owners.
‘What do you mean “I’m holding them wrong”?’
‘Your weapons,’ she said. ‘You hit me holding your sword like that, you’ll just jar your elbow. And your shield’s too low. It’ll trip you if you have to back up.’
‘I…’ Juan stopped, not sure what he had been about to say. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Sleeping Beauty”
This story from S. E. Jones really didn’t go where I expected it to. I rather like the differences.
The family hall was tucked behind the children’s hospital. The road was dotted with skeletal plane trees, their leaves long since stolen by winter. Against the brick of the surrounding buildings, the hall looked odd—an Edwardian manor untouched by time.
Well. The great magical families had never been shy about protecting their own property while letting everything else burn. The blitz of World War Two had made much less of a dent in their holdings than in those of the general public. They had lost just as many buildings in the resulting public anger before they had joined the war effort, but that was the foresight of the great families—keeping themselves separate until reality forced them to participate in society.
Not that they’d learned yet—her bride price was not something anyone would be able to bid for. No, only those with magic in their blood need apply.
Kyria slipped in through the old servants’ door. Her footsteps echoed as she made her way down the corridor.
Her father would be in the ancestors’ hall. When built, it had been furnished with a throne and portraits of old men of power. Anything to make visitors feel small.
Now, the throne was gone, and the hall was divided into two meeting rooms, connected to each other by a single door. The walls were a product of the old messy feuds that came with the interbreeding between magical families. Now they just cut down on the heating bills.
Kyria made her way to the first meeting room. The portraits stared down at four chairs, each occupied by a man. One chair stood empty.
So these were her supposed suitors. Quick off the mark. That made them very rich or very poor. Either eager to cement their legacy, or desperate to start one.
Damn them all and all their legacies to hell. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Bride Price”
But I stop myself. I had to call Yadav to see this. So when Yadav and me come back to the spot, we come prepared, camera and all. We didn’t really know what to expect. To be honest, I thought we was gon find something similar to what happen in Brazil a few years back—where the Rio Doce was running red after a dam collapse and spill iron into her veins. Didn’t have nothing like no oil rig or ore mine set up shop anywhere near Caroni Swamp, though—didn’t matter. We just wanted to be the first to see. At least, we coulda claim that.
The water was shallow enough to wade round near the mangroves. We take a cutlass and chop a path through where the gold fluid was seeping out. The colour got deeper and deeper. I coulda see where it was coming from. I squint my eyes and bam!—a frantic fish hawk nearly knock me over. I swing my blade at it and damn near cut Yadav’s head clean off. He cussed me for five minutes straight. Wasn’t only the fish hawk was acting up, though. The herons was going mad, hopping and zipping from bough to bough, crashing into each other, colliding into the mangroves. Bubbles form where the golden pool began, surrounded by groupers, snook, catfish—all belly-up, some of them completely coated in gold. A tree boa looked down at the pool, its body looped round itself in a double-knot. Probably the only animal not joining in the cacophony.
Yadav, who was almost as loud as the birds, dwindle into silence when he laid eyes on the shimmering pool. My chest tensed up and tickled, like there was a humming in it. The pool was an unnatural gold—unnatural to the swamp and everything round it, couldn’t even tell if it was solid or liquid. Reminded me of them glutinous algal blooms you’d see in ponds near farms. Was it a sap? Leakage from some pipe we didn’t know nothing of? Maybe some radioactive mineral? It had a slight glow. Honestly, first thing I thought about when I saw it was Hiranyagarbha from the Vedas, the golden womb that was the source of all the universe.
But this thing wasn’t sacred. I wasn’t going near it, but Yadav dip his hands—his bare hands—in it. It’s warm, he say. When he pulled his fingers out, they were gold.
Your fingers arright? I ask him.
Just numb. Can’t feel much, he say.
Later in the day, the gold creep along to his palm and then his wrist. By the time morning come, it infest his entire arm. His arm wasn’t solid gold, no. It had the texture of a scab. We rush him to the hospital, but nobody know what to do except drown him in sedatives. They call a man, who then call a next man—and before we know it, had a team of university researchers and scientists standing over Yadav’s cot, fingers to lips, silently observing the golden scab as it spread to his collar. Before nightfall, it engulfed his neck and he was dead. The doc say that it collapse the cartilage in his windpipe.
Two months later, three white men fly down here to Trinidad, asking me to see the pool. They tell me that they’s from an American TV show—Paranormalists or something like that. I ain’t gone back to the pool since the time with Yadav, and sure as shit ain’t want to now. But the money they’s offering—shit, that is white people money.
This story from Haralambi Markov is one of those fantasies you think could be metaphor until the end, when it still could be but you really hope it isn’t.
“Don’t frighten her.”
“I’m frightening her?!” David does all he can to keep his voice low, working on bandaging the wound in a squat. His hands move fast. His touch is unforgiving. “You can drop dead from blood loss any minute now. Don’t talk to me about fear.”
“What do you want me to do, David? I go to therapy. I take the fucking meds. You want me to chain myself to the bed now, too?”
David flinches at that last bit. So the though had crossed his mind.
“It’s five AM and I have work in four hours. I startle every time I don’t feel you next to me. I fear next time I wake up to an empty bed, it’ll be the last. This is fucking unbearable.”
He breaks down. I have never seen him cry like that. Una breathes more laboriously low, on the verge of crying. I comfort them both as I guide them inside the car and take the driver’s seat.
I drive on the way back and tell my husband everything he needs to hear—slowly and with conviction, a recital of sweet nothings. What I really do is think about the man in the water, my family’s legacy and undoing. The one Una will inherit once I die. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: The Drowning Line”