Saturday Storytime: The Words on My Skin

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.

Keep reading.

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.

Saturday Storytime: The Words on My Skin

Saturday Storytime: Water, Birch, and Blood

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”

Saturday Storytime: Water, Birch, and Blood

Saturday Storytime: El Cantar of Rising Sun

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”

Saturday Storytime: El Cantar of Rising Sun

Saturday Storytime: Sleeping Beauty

This story from Ian McHugh is light and fluffy and exactly what I was looking for as a chance.

Late-1800s charcoal drawing of a young woman reading a page she's pulled out of a wooden desk. Circular vignette.
‘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”

Saturday Storytime: Sleeping Beauty

Saturday Storytime: Bride Price

This story from S. E. Jones really didn’t go where I expected it to. I rather like the differences.

Late-1800s charcoal drawing of a young woman reading a page she's pulled out of a wooden desk. Circular vignette.
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”

Saturday Storytime: Bride Price

Saturday Storytime: Hiranyagarbha

This story from Kevin Jared Hosein is just one piece in Lightspeed Magazine‘s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Flash Fiction! issue. There’s a whole bunch more great short fiction to check out as well.

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.

Keep reading.

Saturday Storytime: Hiranyagarbha

Saturday Storytime: The Drowning Line

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”

Saturday Storytime: The Drowning Line

Saturday Storytime: Deathlight

Sometimes you just have to try, whatever the cost, as Mari Ness reminds us.

If she killed him, the ship would use a little—just a little—less energy. She could stay warmer just a little longer.

If she killed him, she would probably die. He was, after all, why they were both alive.

And also why they might both die.

The drop mission had been routine, exactly like their last two. Exactly. So exactly that she’d often found herself blinking and needing to check chronometers to remember exactly when they were, especially when they’d found themselves rewatching vids, rehashing conversations. Probably why she had made the tiniest, tiniest navigational error, had forgotten once—just once—to do a routine maintenance check. Probably why he, in turn, had forgotten his own maintenance check.

They still might have lost fuel.

They still might have decided to cross through this nebula to save time. To end this journey just a little faster. To move on.

All kinds of things might have happened. What mattered now was what had happened.

And now this.

We shouldn’t have done this one.

IRIAN discouraged pairs from doing more than one mission; regulations set a non-negotiable limit of three. When Els first joined, she’d found that ridiculous to deeply short-sighted: Surely, if a pair worked well together, it was in IRIAN’s best interest to keep them together? She and Dun were perfectly matched on all levels: His strengths compensated for her weaknesses, and vice versa; they’d had parallel but not equivalent training; more importantly, he’d made her laugh. A year into their first mission, and they were best friends; a half a year later, lovers. Signing up for a second mission felt only natural. She couldn’t even think of enduring deep space with anyone else.

On this mission, they were both so desperate to finish, to end it—

His fault.

You need him alive.

I need him dead. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: Deathlight”

Saturday Storytime: Deathlight

Saturday Storytime: The Destroyer

Tara Isabella Burton reminds us that every unhappy family is uniquely unhappy–though some people may find some resonance with this mother and daughter in an alternate Rome.

Long before my mother destroyed the world, her experiments were quieter, more contained. They did not obliterate continents. They did not rack up the dead.

She began as a domestic researcher in the household of an Umbrian merchant, engineering fish with mirrored scales. She told me how he loved to see his own face reflected, one and then a thousand and then another hundred times; how he filled the fountains with so many that there was no room to breathe or swim; how she woke up one morning to find that they had devoured one another, and left the fountains overflowing with blood.

He did not recognize her genius. For him she was only a carnival magician: a maker of flower stems that shattered like glass, and three-headed dogs, and the many-faced prisms that years later gave me nightmares of mirrors that did not end. Women’s work, he said. Not science. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: The Destroyer”

Saturday Storytime: The Destroyer

Saturday Storytime: How High Your Gods Can Count

A lovely little creation story from Tegan Moore. Or not so lovely. Depends on your perspective, I suppose.

The visions have been walking among the temple ruins with us for months. They mingle with the tourists, climbing steps next to them in grotesque parallel. They squat and cringe where the human children run to catch up with their pink-shouldered parents.

Something big must be moving, to stir up so much. It makes us all uneasy.

A human boy has a bag of something salty and orange. The morsels fit my fingers perfectly, the shapes pleasantly dry, the crunch between my molars a unique delight. Around me are others, yearlings of my troop mostly, the bold ones. We scrap over the handfuls the boy throws. A big, nasty yearling plucks my crunchy bit straight from my cheek and eats it. I scream at him and he screams at me and we chase each other, fists raised. I would kill him for this, maybe, or at least pull his hair until he bled, if there was no promise of more crunchy things.

The human boy laughs. The bag is tilted as though it might spill. The boy eats a crunchy bit himself. The troop watches his hand move to his face.

A vision rises nearby. This would scatter the troop if there was no food to keep us fixed here, but we want more of what is in that bag.

It is a vision of the turkeys, when they flocked against us. Their eyes are wicked, dark beads. In this vision, they outrun one of our children. They swarm him. Their claws and beaks never seemed threatening when we kept them penned, but the gods have sharpened them with righteous ruination. The child’s screaming echoes through our memory.

The human boy takes another crispy bit from the bag and waves it. The nasty yearling steps forward. The boy puts the food in his mouth. The yearling grimaces. Continue reading “Saturday Storytime: How High Your Gods Can Count”

Saturday Storytime: How High Your Gods Can Count