Posts Tagged ‘Alethea Kontis’

Genres:

Cast of Wonders 367: The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections (Part 2 of 2)

Show Notes

Many thanks to associate editor Alexis Goble for the episode photograph!


The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections (continued)

by Tina Connolly

Rose-Pepper Shortbread of Sweetness Lost

She and Danny have been married for three years now. The bakery has picked up, now that they are offering a few unusual items right alongside the daily bread. There is still no baby, but they are happy with their bakery and their work, and they do not mind—too much. Danny bakes and she assists, Danny invents and she assists. But she does not mind that either, for she has found her own calling at the front of the shop, and it is matching people with the right pastry.

There is an art to knowing what people need. Oh, they would all take the flatbread if they could, but do they need it? (Continue Reading…)

Genres:

Cast of Wonders 366: The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections (Part 1 of 2)

Show Notes

Many thanks to associate editor Alexis Goble for the episode photograph!

Benjamin C. Kinney’s Smell, Taste and Emotion #NeuroThursday


The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections

by Tina Connolly

Saffron takes her customary place at the little round table on the dais of the Traitor King. Duke Michal, Regent to the Throne is his official title, but the hand-drawn postered sheets, the words whispered in back alleys all nickname him the same. She smiles warmly at the assembled guests, standing poised and waiting by their chairs, ready for the confections and amuse-bouches that have been a mainstay of the high table for the last year.

Saffron has been Confection Taster all that time, her husband Danny Head Pastry Chef. Their warm smiles have been perfected as the Traitor King’s power grows, inch by inch, as those who object to his grasp fail and fall, as the printers are vanished, as the daughters disappear from their homes. The little prince still sleeps in his nursery—but for how long? That is the question on everyone’s mind in the last year. Not a question uttered, but a question that stays poised on the tongue, and does not fall. (Continue Reading…)

Genres:

Cast of Wonders 301: Ana’s Asteroid


Ana’s Asteroid

by M.K. Hutchins

I raced Cornelius home after school, through the corridors of the Platinum Phoenix. He took the right hand side, I took the left. The dents in stainless steel walls made our reflections wobble.

“I’ll beat you this time!” Cornelius called from behind. He was eleven — two years younger than me.

I laughed. “I doubt — ”

But my feet slipped out from under me. I skidded across the floor. Like all the other kids on this asteroid mining colony, my clothes were sewn from surplus mylar blankets — slick stuff. I crashed into a sealed-off door. There were plenty of unused corridors like that, leftover from better days when the Platinum Phoenix actually had passengers. (Continue Reading…)

Cast of Wonders 268: Banned Books Week – Below the Serapeum

Show Notes

Don’t miss our other Banned Books Week episodes.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Below the Serapeum

by Kelsey Dean

 “Lift up your gown, Halena. We’ll settle these around your back and stomach so that you’re at the center of the scrolls.”

Aunt places a thin bandage around my waist and then helps me unroll the papyrus. We wind it back up around my body, covering the bandage like a stiff cocoon, or the crusty, left-behind exoskeleton of a sand beetle.

“It itches,” I say, but I don’t fidget. There is still a smoky film hanging over the whole city from yesterday, when the Epirians set the Great Library ablaze. It didn’t burn the way they wanted: too many scholars ran back inside, screeching war cries like eagles, slopping all the water they could carry over the shelves and cabinets. The ones who survived the fire are imprisoned in the Epirian ships, probably until their executions can be arranged. They were glorious, for a shining moment, but in the end, all they did was thicken the smoke and slow the destruction of our people’s history–it took hours rather than minutes.

(Continue Reading…)

Genres:

Episode 239: Artemis Rising 3 – Hackers’ Faire by Rati Mehrotra

Show Notes

Illustration by Mat Weller. Artemis Rising logo designed by Scott Pond.


Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Hackers’ Faire

by Rati Mehrotra

Some jerk in a speeding racer had wrecked Tiya’s cat. I was all for recycling its remains, but Tiya would have none of it. She wept until I gave in and promised to get it fixed at Hacker’s Faire.

I’d sworn not to go back there, not unless our lives depended on it. Everything at the Faire has a price, and I had little left to sell or barter. I had optioned my useful parts years ago, before I met Hanna and settled down – if squatting in an abandoned warehouse with eight other families can be called settling. Anyway, I had left my old life behind, and I kept quiet about my Truthtelling skills.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 105: Black Hole Sun by Alethea Kontis


Black Hole Sun

by Kelli Owen & and Alethea Kontis

 

User Profiles:

 

Erica “Sunshine” Lukac

Age: 15

princessunnie@gmail.com

Twitter: SunnieLu

Following: 22 Followers: 17

 

Seth Williams

Age: 17

notgoth555@gmail.com

Twitter: notgoth555

Following: 0 Followers: 1

 


From: Princessunnie@gmail.com

To: notgoth555@gmail.com

Subject: Messages to the Black Hole

 

Hey, Captain Blackheart!

 

Mom was shopping today — she’s having some weird cravings with this new baby. She and Ron haven’t decided on a name yet. I’m calling him Surprise. Sunshine and Surprise. won’t we be a pair? Anyway…she bought a ham at the store (do you know how hard it is to find a ham when it’s not Thanksgiving?) and I remembered that funny story you told me about the crazy homeless woman trying to shoplift that ham. I hadn’t thought about that in forever. And then I remembered something else you said that day at the park — about how you were always crap at emails but if I kept sending messages to the Black Hole that you’d read them. So….hi! And I hope you’re okay. And I made an A in English — can you believe it? And i painted my toenails blue. And I think Mom and I are going to see Memory of Angels at the Roxy on Friday night and you’re welcome to join us even though I know you won’t. But I had to ask anyway. You’re always my first Impossible Thing before breakfast.

 

Hugs, grass blades, and bubbles!

xox

Sunnie


Seth’s laptop announced new mail with a thin metallic ping. In the two years since his mother’s suicide, “Seth’s muted shock has transformed into full-on victimhood, with a twist of anti-social behavior.” The counselors should have just called him emo and filed the papers.

He hadn’t spoken to Sunshine since the funeral. He would never again trust the female of the species not to crush him. He had severed all ties to them: his grandmother, his father’s sister, his best friend. But Sunnie’s contact with him continued as if nothing had happened.

It didn’t surprise him anymore, but it was starting to annoy him.

Seth highlighted the email and hit delete. He hadn’t read any of her attempts for the past year, and he wasn’t starting now…but he couldn’t bring himself to block her address or flag it as spam. Deleting each email was just another form of self-immolation, a virtual way for him to remember that he had some control over this semblance of reality he called life.


From: princessunnie@gmail.com

To: notgoth555@gmail.com

Subject: Rise of the Squirrel Nation

 

Ahoy, Cap’n Blackheart! The wind’s blowing from the south today and the squirrels are restless!

 

I was thinking about you today. Okay, technically I saw you first and that made me think about you — you turned down the hallway to Principal Harrison’s office when I was walking to the bathroom during forth period. It looked like you were being escorted. Well, I hope it was for something good. Chopping off all Dr. Nesbit’s ties is still my favorite prank of yours. That was so freaking awesome. You have mad skillz, my friend. Don’t you ever forget it. Does Principal Harrison’s office still smell like wheat paste and shoe leather? I still maintain she’s running an underground elf sweatshop. No way a principal’s salary buys that many manicures.

 

You didn’t seem to be wearing Prank Face, though, so I hope you’re okay. You know I’m always here if you want to talk. Our old swingset on the corner of James Park hasn’t been demolished yet. Dad says it’s going to be condos. I hope a ton of kids move in there and cry to the management because they don’t have any swings to sing about and jump from and have secret meetings on. Would serve them right.

 

No, it definitely wasn’t Prank Face. I still remember all your faces. I still have that radar for you too–the one that tells me whenever you’ve just entered and left the room. I didn’t just notice you in the hallway — I knew you were there. i guess when you grow up with someone from birth you never forget that. At least, I don’t. Do you? As of today my birthday is officially six months away. It feels like forever. I’m still planning on staying up til midnight and singing that song from the Sound of Music because then it will be true. I will be sixteen-going-on-seventeen then. You can come sing with me too, like we used to on the swings. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you really have a mushy center.

 

Miss you, prankface–

xox

Sunnie


The email notification sound was Sunnie. It was always Sunnie. He’d seen her in the hallway; this email no doubt said what her open mouth hadn’t been able to before he’d turned his back on her. She was always offering an opinion and a bubble-blowing, flower-picking, glitter-covered shoulder. He didn’t want to hear it. He was sick of hearing it. She wouldn’t have recognized the new counselor at school. The highly educated head shrink they’d brought in just for him. He didn’t want to hear it from them either. His mother was dead. Dead. Couldn’t they all just accept it and move on?

Whatever.

Seth highlighted the email and hit delete, but his stomach flipped as the email disappeared from the list. He didn’t mind if it hurt, he just didn’t want to care. For a moment, he missed life the way it used to be. The way it would never be again. The moment passed.


SunnieLu: Surprise Baby is craving apples today: Granny Smiths! Not Honey Crisps! Surprise and I are going to have a chat later abt quality.


Seth remembered Mama Lukac and her love of all things Honey Crisp. Her mouthwatering pies. Her amazing cobbler, still warm, with ice cream. The way she’d rant about the perfection of that apple and how all others paled in comparison. Such seriousness over a simple thing; it had always made him giggle. He missed Sunnie’s parents some days, but seeing her mom only made the abyss of his own pain deepen. It reopened scabs and scars he desperately to heal over.

He was glad to know her mom was pregnant. The Lukac house had been so sad when she’d lost the baby. So quiet. He knew that kind of quiet now, understood it. It had happened the year he and Sunnie were in third grade. That was the first year they’d been allowed to swing on the swings by themselves. While he sat there, blissfully lost in memory, there was an update.


SunnieLu: Missing a childhood friend is like missing baby teeth. You know there’ll be more but right now there’s just a hole that can’t enjoy apples.


Seth closed the laptop.


He walked through the living room, slicing through the quiet with an invisible machete. His father mumbled something at the television, which was currently displaying a commercial for some insurance company. Seth wasn’t sure if the program, the commercial, or life in general had Dad upset this time. He’d learned shortly after his mother’s suicide to avoid that tone, and then his father as a whole. He grabbed his backpack–containing everything he’d need to survive in the event he decided to never come back–and left the house without a word.

At the bus stop he pulled out his phone and checked his messages. There were several unopened posts on Twitter. For a school-day morning, Sunnie had been busy.


SunnieLu: Wow. Chicken Little told us once that the sky was falling. We should have listened. Wow. Wow. Oh my god…


Seth pushed his overgrown hair back from his eyes and stared at the nonsense tweet. Huh? Sunnie wasn’t one of those overly dramatic girls that constantly annoyed him at school. She was Sunnie. She was fun and bubbly. What the hell drama could make her talk like this? Maybe Mama Lukac’s hormones were messing with more than apple cravings. Maybe she’d gotten a C on her History test. Maybe it was about a guy. God, he hoped not. Then he really would have to cut her loose.


SunnieLu: We’re in a bad made-for-tv disaster movie. Quick–change the channel! I’d happily live in Tubbybabyland forever. As long as I got to live.


As long as she got to live? What the hell? And Tubbybabyland was the worst show on TV. It should have been cancelled back when they were ten. Things must have gotten really ugly over at her house. Then Seth remembered his father. Maybe it wasn’t just her house…


Breaking News: The change in gravitational lensing of Sgr A was first noted by Norwegian Astronomer Borak Krugeur in 2008.

 

Breaking News: Officials now stating initial figures were off and the trajectory of Sgr A has been recalculated at 94 days.


Confused, Seth silently cursed his choice to turn twitter off on his phone from midnight to six in the morning. He’d obviously missed something fairly important and now had to play catch-up on the news. He kept scrolling.  


SunnieLu: *sob* oh god there will be no surprisebaby. i’ll never meet my brother. never turning sixteen seems stupid now. it was a dumb song anyway.


No capital letters meant Sunnie was really upset. Shit. Sunnie’s mom must have miscarried again. But why wouldn’t Sunnie have a birthday? The baby wasn’t due until two months after.


Breaking News: Leak of Sgr A causing panic across the globe. Major cities in U.S. declaring martial law effective immediately.


What.

The.

Fuck.

Seth snapped his phone shut and looked around the neighborhood. Several cars that should have been long gone–their occupants well on their way toward workplaces and daycares–sat untouched in driveways. The previous night’s frost clung to windshields that hadn’t been scraped. Not a single vehicle ran idle in its driveway, fogging up the early winter morning. He raised an eyebrow, spun on his heel, and headed back to the house. Once again, school was the least of his concerns.

His father was still glued to the television, unshaved, in the T-shirt and sweat pants he’d slept in, half a cup of coffee sitting forgotten on the table in front of him. He didn’t notice Seth. Just like he hadn’t noticed for the last two years.

Seth tossed his backpack toward the corner of his bedroom and flipped open his laptop. He checked the emails first, retrieving Sunnie’s last few from the garbage folder. The first was just Sunnie being Sunnie. He smiled at the childhood references she’d made in the second, but he was still pissed about the school counseling. Dad had told them it was unnecessary–especially after finding out they were going to charge it to his insurance after the first three sessions.

But nothing explained the bizarre tweets. Out of habit, Seth clicked the toolbar link for the suicide support forum he’d lurked on since his mother’s death. He trusted regular people, not anchors or actors, to tell him what was going on. He scanned the thread topics as the dark blue and tan page finished loading. 

 

  • Holy Crap! Less than 3 months?
  • Sagittarius A
  • Oversimplified or hyperbole?
  • What’s the point to healing now?
  • Galactic suicide
  • Reporting End of World

 

Seth clicked the last one.

 

General Discussion —–> Reporting the End of the World

Bob0626

User #45

Posts: 1274

Fox News just reported some comet or something is heading this way. I’ve checked the other channels and they all seem to be talking about this Sagittarius thing. Does anyone understand what exactly they’re talking about? It sounds like it was here the whole time, so why is it important now? And holy crap, why are they freaking out?
4Jesse711

User #923

Posts: 88

It’s not a comet, it’s a black hole. And yes it’s been here. But it’s moving. For whatever reason it’s moving through the solar system and it’s going to knock the planets out of alignment. The sun too. What it doesn’t suck up will be out of orbit and the temperature will plummet, putting us in a deep freeze and killing everything on earth. Yeah… it’s serious!
NeverForget

Moderator

Posts: 3762

Get offline. Go see your family and plan how you’re going to live the last three months. The time for mourning is done. You’ve got 94 days to live. I wish I had gotten over my daughter’s suicide earlier and done more with my life now…

 

Ninety-four days.

Until the end of the world.

Seth shook his head to clear his thoughts.

Police’s “King of Pain” suddenly earwormed him.

There really was a little black spot on the sun today.

Ninety-four days.

And then nothing.


SunnieLu: My parents stopped calling me Sunshine because I remind them of everything we’re going to lose. I’m not even sure who “Erica” is anymore.


“Jesus!” He eyes rose from the laptop to the tattered picture on the cork board above his dresser.


From: notgoth555@gmail.com

To: princessunnie@gmail.com

Re: Subject: Rise of the Squirrel Nation

 

Dear Sunnie,

 

I saw


He didn’t know how to finish the sentence and deleted it. He stared at the blank form. A million thoughts ran through his head. Sunnie, the park, apples, playing pirates, climbing trees, his mother’s brownies…

Mom.

Dad.

Ninety-four days.


notgoth555: @SunnieLu Ground Control to Major Tom

 

SunnieLu: call me now it’s all right. it’s just the end of the world. ♫ http://blip.fm/~hhw9w

 

notgoth555: @SunnieLu Really? You know I suck at the lyric game… check your email.

 

SunnieLu: @notgoth555 *gasp* *sob* Land ho!


From: notgoth555@gmail.com

To: princesssunnie@gmail.com

Subject: (no subject)

 

Erica, 

 

Wow, I haven’t called you that since the first day I met you. The day you broke my blue crayon and then cried about it and got me in trouble with our kindergarten teacher… Mrs. Ford, wow. Remember her? Anyway, you ARE Erica. Whether you know who that is or not, that’s you. It’s always been you. My best friend. My confidant. My discarded wingman. And I’m sorry.

 

Now pick yourself up and brush off that funk you’re twittering! This isn’t new. This has been happening our whole lives, we just found out, that’s all. As it happens, everyone just found out. We’ve been dying since the day we were born. You could have died tomorrow. You could have died without knowing. Now you know. Now you can live. On the other side there could be sunshine and flowers, who knows. We’ll find out. Right now, we just need to cram in as much fun as we can.

 

I know it’s been a while, but the world isn’t gone yet. Our park won’t be demolished by the developers. If we’ve only got ninety-four days, I need you to know something, to hear something. 

 

Meet me at our swings…

 

S


Sunnie didn’t close her laptop. She didn’t grab her hoodie off the bed. And she left the front door wide open.

Episode 97: The Monster & Mrs. Blake by Alethea Kontis


The Monster & Mrs. Blake

by Alethea Kontis

Jeremy Blake took a snorkel to bed. An eleven-year-old boy was way too old for such nonsense, but he didn’t know what else to do. There was a monster under there. A big one. And it was going to kill him.

He hadn’t given the monster a name, like Jabberwocky or Wendigo or even Boogeyman. Mom always said that naming your fear made it real. Like having a pet. Once it had a name it was part of the family, for better or worse.

The monster had been with Jeremy since he was little. It started out as a shadow, haunting the corners of his eyes and scaring him into bed every night. It had stayed in that form for years before the noises came–a scratching at the window, the creaking of the closet door, deep, soft breathing. Like a cat’s purr. A big, evil cat.

By the time Jeremy was nine, the monster was strong enough to move the bed. It liked feeding off his fear in the wee hours of the morning. Then it started to feed off his flesh. If he left his foot outside the covers, the monster bit at his toes with its many little mouths and tiny pointed teeth. If he rolled over and left his side exposed, the monster would scratch him from hip to armpit with its razor-sharp claws.

It hadn’t left a mark…yet. But some days, Jeremy’s feet were a mass of pins and needles that forced him to limp to the bus stop. Some days, his side hurt so badly he couldn’t raise his hand in class to answer questions.

He could only hide under the covers for so long. It was only a matter of time before the monster became smart enough to catch him, strong enough to lift the covers, and real enough to kill him.

He couldn’t tell anybody – who’d believe him? They would say that monsters don’t exist, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Yeah. Only Santa didn’t want to skin you alive and lick the blood off your bones, and the Easter Bunny didn’t want to snap you in half and suck out your insides like a crawfish.

Baggy-eyed and sleep-deprived, Jeremy suffered in silence. He straightened the shiny, stiff baseball glove at the top of his bed. His eleventh birthday was two weeks ago. He wished he’d enjoyed it more; he knew he’d never see his twelfth.

Most days, Jeremy pretended he was a normal kid. He went to school. He played baseball with his friends. He helped Mom clean up after dinner, when Dad retired to the living room to watch TV.

“Jeremy, can I talk to you for a sec?” Uh-oh. It was the Mom Voice. She took the half-empty bowl of fruit salad from him. “Have a seat.”

Jeremy shot a glance in the direction of the living room. When he heard the Jeopardy theme, he relaxed a little. A one-parent conference then. Whatever trouble he was in couldn’t be that bad.

Mom smiled as if she could read his thoughts, and then scowled again. She picked up a fork and stabbed at an orange wedge, mad at the orange rather than mad at him. Mom was a bit of a nutcase, but for the most part, she was all right.

“Your midterm report card came in the mail today.”

Jeremy winced.

“See, I have this problem,” she said. “I’m a mom. Moms worry about their kids.” She put the fork down. “I’m worried about you, kiddo. This isn’t like you.”

Jeremy shrugged. “I’m okay, Mom.”

“You’re not okay,” she said. “And I have Mom Eyes, so you look ten times worse to me.” Jeremy laughed. “You started middle school this year. Is it that? Is it the pressure of being the small fish in the pond again?”

“No,” said Jeremy.

“I know some teachers don’t like smart kids. I had my share of those when I was your age. If some teacher’s taking it out on you, let me know. I’ll beat the snot out of her.”

The thought of his tiny little mom taking on anyone was funny. And not a little bit scary. “No, my teachers are fine.”

She rested her chin in her hands and batted her eyelashes. “Is it a giiiirl?”

“Ma!” Jeremy started stacking plates.

Mom sat back in her chair. “Is it the monster?”

Jeremy knocked over his milk glass. What little was left soaked into the tablecloth before he could throw a napkin over it. He had told his mom about the monster once, years ago. He hadn’t expected her to remember long after he should have grown out of it.

“It’s all right, kiddo.”

The hand she put over his was soft and steady. Jeremy flinched, ashamed of his own trembling. “I can handle it. I’m handling it. Just”–he looked toward the living room again–“don’t tell Dad, okay?”

She chuckled. “Your dad’s a bit of a monster himself, isn’t he?”

“Mom, I’m not joking.”

“Okaaaaay…” she started. Jeremy could hear the “but” coming like a freight train a mile away. “…but only if you promise to listen very carefully to what I’m about to tell you.”

Jeremy reluctantly plopped back down in the chair.

“Are you listening?”

Jeremy nodded.

“Sometimes in life there come things that are just plain-old too big for one person to deal with.” Mom pushed a strand of curly dark hair out of her pixie-like face. Jeremy would miss her when he was gone. “There’s a reason there are six billion people on this planet. We’re supposed to help each other out. There will still be lots of things you’re meant to do on your own. It’s part of growing up. But sometimes…” She sighed. “I want to help you, Jeremy. But I won’t. Not unless you ask me first. Just promise me you’ll ask me.”

“I promise,” Jeremy whispered. He would not cry. He would not. He might not have been big enough to scare away the monster, but he was big enough tor resist that.

She kissed him on the forehead and tousled his hair. “Don’t worry about the mess tonight. I’ll take care of it.” She put her silverware on top of his stack of plates. “Go on upstairs and try to get some rest. You look like crap.”

Jeremy smirked. “Gee, thanks, Mom.”

“Hey.” Jeremy turned just in time to catch the apple she threw at him from the centerpiece on the table. “Midnight snack,” she winked. “Love you, kiddo.”

God, she was so weird. “Love you too, Mom.”

What on Earth was he going to do with an apple? He wasn’t supposed to eat in his room. If he got hungry in the middle of the night, he’d just go down to the kitchen…assuming he could let his feet touch the floor…

Huh.

Jeremy polished the apple against his shirt. Maybe his mom wasn’t totally Looney Tunes after all.

He put the apple on his headboard next to his shiny new baseball glove. He got his pajamas and the snorkel and cocooned himself under the blankets. He said his prayers just like he did every night, with special emphasis on the “If I should die before I wake” part. It was rare, but some nights, the monster left him alone. He prayed this would be one of those nights.

It wasn’t.

Jeremy woke to grumbling and gnashing teeth, the slurp of spit and the crunch of bones. He pulled himself into a ball and checked all of his limbs. In the blessed relief after his physical inventory, Jeremy realized that the crunching wasn’t bones at all. It was the apple.

He smiled so hard he thought his face might break. If the monster liked fruit more than it liked him, it could have all it wanted.

Jeremy started taking an apple to bed every night. Mom never said a word. Red, green, yellow– she bought apples by the bushel and kept every bowl in the kitchen stocked. Jeremy got sleep. He did his homework. He passed his tests. He broke in his new baseball glove. He ate his meals with gusto and cleaned his plate in ten seconds flat.

“Drink your milk, son,” Dad said, “so you can grow up to be big and strong like me.”

Grow.

The monster had nibbled at Jeremy before, but it had never actually eaten anything. What if it was growing? What if, by feeding it, Jeremy was making the monster stronger than ever? What would happen when apples didn’t fill it up anymore, and it wanted Jeremy for dessert?

That night, the monster bit Jeremy on the toe. Through the sheet. In the morning, there was a hole. The next night, a tentacle brushed across the bottom of Jeremy’s foot. It left a welt. The claws left red stripes down his chest and across his legs. The little mouths left bruises and small puncture wounds.

It hurt to put on clothes. Jeremy took to wearing a hat and long sleeves, even when it wasn’t cold outside. Each step was slow and painful and reminded him of what a coward he was. What a silly little boy. Eleven years old and still scared of the monster under his bed. What a baby. He knew that’s what they’d say. If he’d been in their places, that’s what he would have said.

True to her word, Mom said nothing. She and Jeremy cleaned the kitchen after Dad left, just like always. Sometimes she tried to make him laugh. Sometimes they worked in silence. But every night, when they were done, she handed him an apple and sent him off to bed.

“Mom,” Jeremy said finally. “I’m asking.”

She dropped the apple she held and took Jeremy into her arms. “Thank God! I was afraid you were going to wait until your school called and told me to stop beating you.”

“You still won’t tell Dad, right?”

She locked her lips and threw away the key. “Mum’s the word. Go on, now. I’ll be in after I put your father to bed. Don’t worry, kiddo,” she said. “We’ll beat this thing.”

Jeremy wasn’t so sure. For one, Mom was small. He was as tall as she was, and he was only eleven! For two, she didn’t know how huge the monster was. Or how strong. Oh, no. Jeremy didn’t know Mom’s plan for the monster, but he wasn’t going to let it hurt her.

He did as he was told and went to bed. He picked up a book and turned the pages, too distracted to actually read. Mom showed two hours later, dressed all in black, with a green bookbag. “Jeremy, are you still up?” she scolded overdramatically. “You put out that light and go to sleep, young man.” She waved her free hand in the air at him.

What? Oh! She wanted him to play along. “Aw, Ma…five more minutes?”

She gave him a thumbs-up. “No, sir! Lights out.”

“O-kay.”

Mom kissed Jeremy loudly on the forehead and laid the bookbag on the bed, close to his body. “G’night, kiddo.”

“G’night, Mom.”

She closed the door, tiptoed back to the bed, and eased on to it gently until she sat cross-legged, facing Jeremy. Moonlight fell into a square on the covers between them. Mom quietly emptied the bookbag into the square. There was an apple, a big knife, and a tape recorder.

Jeremy was confused. Mom put a finger to her lips. Relax, she mouthed. Jeremy fluffed his pillow and rested against the headboard.

After about ten minutes of complete silence, she pressed “Play” on the tape recorder. Slow, even breathing filled the room–the sound of someone sleeping. The sound of him sleeping! Jeremy sat up. Was that really what he sounded like? When had Mom taped him sleeping?

He opened his mouth but she scowled, so Jeremy listened to himself sleep. It was kind of funny. Every so often he murmured or rustled the bedclothes. He was so caught up in listening, he almost didn’t see the hand reaching for the apple.

Jeremy slapped his hands over his mouth and swallowed a scream; tears sprang to his eyes with the effort. He’d never seen the monster when he was wide awake. Its fingers were large, with purple and yellow stripes. Blue-green veins pulsed under pimply skin. At the tip of each finger was a small mouth, each with hundreds of tiny, glistening, pointy teeth.

Having Mom there should have made it easier. It didn’t. It made him more afraid–the most afraid he’d ever been in his whole life. The monster was real. Jeremy was going to die. And when it finished with him, it would kill his mother.

The arm slithered to the center of the bed where the apple lay. Two tentacles joined it. Jeremy refused to wet the bed and embarrass himself in front of his mother. Mom. At least he could see her wonderful, lovely, crazy face one last time before he died, could see her…wink at him.

Like lightning she grabbed the monster’s arm with both hands. “Gotcha!”

“What are you doing?” Jeremy screamed.

The arm wriggled madly. The tentacles disappeared back under the bed. “Jeremy, help me!”

He didn’t give himself time to think about how nuts this was. He threw himself on top of the monster’s slimy arm and hugged it to him.

“Come out from under that bed!” No one disobeyed the Mom Voice.

The arm thrashed and writhed. Jeremy expected the monster to come out and attack them both head on, but it didn’t. It kept trying to hide back under the bed. What did it have to be afraid of? Didn’t it know it was bigger than Jeremy and his mom put together?

Awestruck, Jeremy watched Mom brandish the knife and cut off one of the monster’s fingers. It growled and howled. The bed shook mightily. Green blood oozed onto the bedsheet and the smell of rotten eggs filled the air.

“Come out right now,” said the Mom Voice, “or you’ll lose another one.”

The arm stopped moving. The howling changed into a whimper. Slowly, the monster eased itself out from under the bed.

Jeremy watched through squinted eyes. Half of him didn’t want to see. Half of him couldn’t look away. The reality of the beast was worse than he ever could have imagined. It had two hands with ten–now nine–mouthfingers full of teeth. It had two hands with four claws apiece, each one as big as Jeremy’s head. The claws on its feet were even bigger. It had two eyes on stalks and four tentacles, two on either side of its body. And in the middle of its torso, like an octopus, was an even bigger mouth–one Jeremy could imagine fastening onto his head and sucking his skull dry. Or swallowing his mother whole. The monster’s eyestalks swiveled to Jeremy. Saliva dripped from the big mouth.

“Jeremy, stop it!”

Jeremy tore his eyes from the monster and concentrated on his tiny, crazy mom with the big, shiny knife. Green blood slipped off the blade and onto the carpet.

“Now,” Mom addressed the monster. “Do I have your undivided attention?”

The monster nodded. At least, Jeremy thought it nodded.

“You’re hurting my son. It’s one thing to scare him, but it’s another thing to attack him physically.”

The monster whined.

“I know you’re just doing your job, but this has gone too far. You have to understand, Jeremy has a very big imagination. He gets it from his mother.”

For some reason, Jeremy suddenly felt very proud of himself.

“I am not going to force him to be anything less than he is just to rid the world of something like you. However, I cannot allow this to continue. You are simply too frightening for Jeremy to imagine you into existence. As I see it, you have two choices. Go away forever,” she lifted the knife again, “or we kill you right now.”

The monster bowed. It closed its eyes. Ever so slowly it began to shrink. The edges of it blurred and folded in on itself. It grew smaller and smaller until it was only a shadow and a growl, until it was nothing more than a memory and a rustle of leaves outside the window.

Mom’s shoulders sagged and she dropped the knife onto the bedspread. Jeremy threw himself into her arms, hugging her tighter than he could ever remember hugging her before. He couldn’t cry…but he couldn’t seem to speak, either.

Mom squeezed him back. “It’s okay, kiddo. We beat it. Together.”

Jeremy couldn’t stop trembling. He was going to have a twelfth birthday. He could ask for a bat to go with his glove. It was going to be so much more than just “okay.”

“You think you’ll be able to sleep now?” Mom asked. Jeremy sniffled and nodded again. “Just toss that top sheet on the floor and I’ll throw it in the wash tomorrow. And crack your window a little…it stinks in here.” She collected the knife, the apple and the tape recorder and put them all back in her bag. She helped Jeremy into bed, tucked the bedsheet around him, and smoothed his hair back, just like when he was a baby. He let her.

Jeremy smiled up at her, his mom, the Coolest Mom in the Whole Wide World.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Anytime.” She kissed him on the forehead. “Sweet dreams, kid—” She stopped herself. “Little man.”

“Mom?” Jeremy stopped her before she closed the door. He had to know.

She poked her head through the crack. “Yeah?”

“The apples and the tape recorder and…well…how did you know how to do all that stuff?”

“Easy,” she grinned. “How do you think I met your father?”

Episode 86: Ieia by S. L. Bickley


Ieia

by S. L. Bickley

Even after seven years living out in the country, Palfi didn’t know how to sense the seasons. But she knew the autumn equinox had not come yet, for she’d had no visitors in a week or so. People always came flocking when the seasons turned.

Autumn and its pilgrims could stay away forever, for all she cared. She didn’t need donations: she already had plenty of shelfbread, and plenty of wine, and a good store of donated silver which she had few opportunities to spend. And the only things a visitor might give her, apart from bread and wine and silver, were irritation and trouble.

She sat at her devotions nonetheless — partly because someone was sure to arrive the moment she abandoned her façade, and partly because the grove was a pleasant place, and Ieia, the goddess statue, was better company than most real people.

She pulled an eyeberry from the branch in her lap, bit a small hole in it, and sucked. There was a technique to getting the juice out while leaving the sharp seeds, and like any mastered skill, it pleased Palfi to execute it perfectly.

Another branch of berries sat on the statue’s base-block, atop a blotchy pink stain — the record of many fruit offerings. Eating in the grove looked less irreverent if the statue had something to eat, too.

Palfi flicked the spent berry-skin into the grass and peered up at the statue’s white stone face. On the block it was two feet taller than Palfi, so when she looked at it from a seated position, the face was all nose and chin.

The eyes, unfortunately, were not completely hidden. They were made of clear amber, and set in such a way that, in even the dimmest light, they seemed to glow.

Palfi sometimes caught herself superstitiously imagining that there was a consciousness behind them. When she had first come here she had always cast her gaze down when entering the clearing, so that she wouldn’t have to look into the eyes. Now it did not matter; from the back of the clearing, they were too blurry to discern.

She was glad she had gotten out when she did. A nearsighted thief could never make good.

“I think I’m going to take a nap,” she said to the statue, smiling at herself, as always, for talking to the silly thing. “Keep ’em away for now, huh?” The eyes glowed, as always; the nose and chin, as always, did not move.


Ieia watched herself through Palfi’s eyes, knowing that she saw more than Palfi did. With senses reduced to vision and hearing, and with her observer’s thoughts largely hidden from her, the goddess was free to concentrate on the small beautiful details of her surroundings: the hour-by-hour creep of the shadows over her face, the day-by-day yellowing of the leaves above and behind her, the year-by-year widening of the juice-stain on her plinth. It was a slow existence, full of quiet.

Palfi seldom stayed more than a few hours at a stretch; the rest of the time Ieia was alone with her thoughts, blind except for the dim, inconstant perceptions of woodland animals.

Palfi’s view shifted, tilted. She was looking high into the trees now, and only the top of the Ieia’s head remained in view, bobbing over the horizon of her vision. The priestess yawned, and it was loud in her ears.

Suddenly there was another set of eyes. Ieia saw herself, half-blocked by branches, from far back beyond the edge of the clearing. The gaze was still for a moment, overlaying Palfi’s view of the trees. Then it edged forward, branches rustling as a large, hairy hand pushed them aside, and Palfi appeared, seen from behind. She sat leaning back, propped up on sunburnt arms, her curly brown hair brushing the ground.

Pilgrims usually kept their eyes on the goddess’s face.

The intruder came a little closer. Ieia didn’t like the intermittent way he moved; it suggested stealth. He must be within the clearing now, for no branches obscured his view.

Palfi did not seem to be aware of him. Her view flickered as her eyes blinked slowly, then cut out as they closed. Ieia watched only through the intruder’s eyes as Palfi dropped back, stretching out her legs and folding her hands behind her head.

The intruder came closer. His gaze moved downward, toward Palfi, slowly at first. Then it plunged. Ieia caught a glimpse of the man’s rising knee, and of Palfi’s eyes snapping open, and then became blind and deaf. She was no longer within the intruder’s field of vision; he must be bent low, intent on whatever he was doing to Palfi. And her eyes must be covered.

Ieia seethed. Believer or no, Palfi was a priestess: What right had any man to attack a priestess at her own shrine?

She was tempted to lash out with lightning, to strike him down for Palfi’s sake.

Palfi had done her plenty of good, had given her an existence free of noise and hypocrisy and impossible demands. Normally that might warrant a simple favor — but a simple favor was no longer simple when it came at the cost of one’s own life.

She waited.

At last the intruder looked at her again. This time his view was framed by Palfi’s thrashing head and awkwardly upthrust elbows. His hands gripped her forearms. Her wrists were tied behind her neck, and as she twisted in her struggles, Ieia saw that the same rope looped around Palfi’s throat, between her teeth, and even over her eyes.

“Great Athor!” shouted the intruder, in a language different from Palfi’s. “You are safe!”

A chaos of new eyes swarmed into the clearing, first converging upon Ieia-Athor, then focusing in on their own thick hands as they tipped her from her plinth.


After what seemed like hours in the bumpy, crowded cart, Palfi concluded that fighting was, for the moment at least, useless. Her abductors seemed to have an unlimited supply of rope, and whenever she struggled, they added more. Both hands and one leg had gone numb, and the extra loops around her chest made it hard to breathe.

She wondered if she had completely lost her street-sense. Struggling too hard was a novice’s mistake, a sign of panic. Whoever these people were, they surely had other things to do: eventually they would dump her in a cell, or at worst an oubliette. If she saved her energy — if she had any energy left to save — she could attempt her escape from there.

She sagged against the side boards and tried to ignore the din of alien voices, the bite of the rope on her extremities and the prickle of it over her eyelids and the taste of it in her mouth.

At long last the cart stopped. The ropes around her legs loosened. Hands gripped her arms, half guiding, half pushing her to the ground outside.

Her feet tingled, and her knees would not straighten, but before she could fall the hands grabbed her again. A man on each side of her, it would seem, walking her to her fate like a drunk’s friends walking him home.

The ground was packed dirt, and then it became cold marble. That was the last clue. These men seemed — in their numbers, their foreignness, their brutality — unlike police. And marble had no place outside a palace or a temple. She had nothing a noble might want. This had to be about the statue.

They had stolen her goddess — which she herself had bought honestly.

But if they had it, what could they want with her?

The men steered her sharply to the right, spun her around, and pushed her onto a soft seat. The one to her left spoke. The other made a rustling noise. The ropes around her chest fell away, then those around her arms and face. Her hands dropped heavily and were suffused with a hot ache that she knew would only get worse.

One of the men was swarthy and the other — the one holding the knife — was very fair. The whole room was white marble, lit by a little lamp in a low niche. The wooden door opened inward. The hinges were on the inside. The room had not been designed as a prison.

The men gabbled their gibberish at each other and backed away. Palfi remained still. Even if she could stand on her own, which was doubtful, it didn’t seem like a good idea to break for the door.

They backed out and locked her in.


Athor knew the temple, recognized all its physical details: the smoky lamps, the great stone arch above her and the little altar below, the dizzy profusion of overlapping eyelines, the pandemonium of voices and the expanse of heads.

What was new was how depressing it all seemed. If the worshipers returned to their old habits of devotion . . . She sighed inwardly. A great crowd like this, once a day and sometimes twice. At least three people in the sanctuary at all times. No sunlight, no rain or night or seasonal change. No solitude or rest. The only variables in her routine would be how many eyes she had to look through and which long-winded prayers she had to endure.

Athor watched from a thousand angles as a tall woman emerged from the congregation, wearing long robes cut similarly to Palfi’s but bleached an unnatural white. The woman stopped at the altar. She raised her arms. Her head fell back, black hair bunching in the crease of her neck.

Athor found and, with effort, isolated the priestess’s gaze. Straight up, it was, and fixed on Athor’s face, which seemed to be all nose and chin.

“O Great Athor,” the priestess shouted, and the congregation contributed a burst of wordless, nasal chant. The priestess continued. “We plead your mercy and forgiveness for abandoning you to exile, and we pledge that never more shall you be dishonored by an infidel’s prayer. We who are pure of heart and truly prepared . . .”

And so forth, and so on.

Athor composed a litany of her own, addressed to fellow-deities who almost certainly were not listening.

I didn’t believe you. You called it a fate worse than death, and I didn’t believe you, because I was happy stuck in this statue: happy with the damned death cult, and happy with these people, and happy being shuttled around the market, and happiest of all with Palfi. Was that your doing, making my existence better and better by increments, so gradually I didn’t realize how content I was . . . and then pulling it away? Did you plan it all? When you left me with the possibility of one last act, did you know I would be tempted to use it?

“Great Athor,” said the priestess, “you shall never endure another moment separated from our fervent prayers.” And the congregation moaned.

This isn’t punishment, this is extermination. You were planning to get rid of me all along.


Outside the high window darkness fell. The flaming, oil-soaked cushion was now the room’s strongest source of light, and it was mostly consumed.

Palfi knelt before the door and picked up another shard of the smashed bone lamp. This piece was smaller than the one she had been using, but also blunter. With any luck, it would have enough push to shoot the pins out of the hinges.

She rewrapped her right hand in a torn-off strip of her robe, positioned the shard underneath the pin of the lower hinge, and jammed upward with the heel of her padded hand. One, two, three times.

She had waited for the ache in her hands to go away before she began her work, but now it was returning. This job shouldn’t be so long or so hard. In younger days, she thought, it would have presented no challenge at all. She was losing her touch.

Was that because she was out of practice, or was it just her age? Hard to tell. She’d never met a fellow-thief who’d lasted long enough to become either idle or old.

Maybe, at some point, your time was just up.

No profit in thinking like that. She rubbed the shard on her robe, trying to get more of the oil off, and then repositioned it.

One, two, three.

One, two, three.

One, two, three.

One, two . . . there. The pin moved up — just incrementally, but getting it loose was always the hard part. She settled the bone into the new hollow at the bottom of the hinge and pressed her hands together, palms up, the left underneath the right.

A few minutes of pushing, and the pin was almost out. She peeled away the fabric and gripped the top of the pin with her bare hand. It came straight up.

That was it for the lower hinge.

She glanced at the burning cushion. She would have to make quick work of the upper one.

Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door. Palfi stiffened, holding her breath, waiting for them to pass.

They didn’t pass. They stopped. A key grated in the lock.

Palfi had an urge to stamp out the flame, but that would not hide the escape attempt for long. Instead, she stepped back and held up her hands.

The door creaked open, sagging on its one intact hinge. It swung across the cushion, extinguishing it. Light from the corridor shone in. Two women entered.

“Please come with us,” said the one on the right. She had an accent. “It would be wrong to resist.”

The other stood by, expressionless, waiting. Evidently she did not understand what her compatriot was saying.

Palfi looked down at the broken lamp, the discarded pin and the smudge of soot. Her time was up.

“All right,” she said.

Right said something to Left in their own language, and Left produced a pair of handcuffs from a fold in her robe.

“You don’t need to restrain me,” said Palfi. “I’ll come on my own.”

“You will forgive us if we do not believe you,” said Right.

“Sure,” said Palfi. “I’m very forgiving.” She smirked. “It’s a priestess thing.”

She lowered her arms slowly. Right nodded. Left stepped behind Palfi and secured the cuffs around her wrists. The two women moved into place beside her. Each laid a hand lightly on her shoulder, and the three stepped into the corridor.

“Are you allowed to tell me why I’m here?” Palfi asked Right.

“Ask specific questions. I may answer them.”

“Did you take my statue?” asked Palfi.

“We returned Great Athor to her home.”

“I’ll take that as a yes. Look, I want you to know that I’m not the one who stole it from you. I bought it fair and square, and I didn’t know anything about where it was before.”

“That does not matter.”

“I didn’t think it did. I just wanted you to know.”

“And now I do,” said Right. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes. What are you going to do to me?”

“We are going to sacrifice you. The sacrifice of infidels pleases Great Athor.”

Of course. Of course it would end like this. Blood on an altar — a death fit for a goat.

“Don’t most gods want their sacrifices to be pure and holy?” Right opened her mouth, and Palfi cut her off: “For that matter, don’t most gods prefer animals nowadays? Human sacrifice can get you in trouble around here, you know.”

This time, Right paused before she answered. “We are farther from your homeland than you think. And Great Athor is not most gods.”

They walked in silence for a minute or so, and then not in silence. Voices rippled through the corridor — one voice shouting, and many more chanting in response. They grew louder, clearer.

Soon Palfi and her guards reached a large wooden door. Right shook a key from her sleeve. The worshipers might be locked in. That was interesting. And the same key appeared to give access to both the cell and the sanctuary; if there were more than one, they would be on a ring. That was interesting, too.

But not useful. Not anymore.

The two women stepped away from Palfi. Right unlocked the door, and they both pushed it open. Din and brightness rushed out of the huge chamber, followed closely by the stink of lamp oil and the cloying odor of perfume.

Palfi stood still, waiting to be led. She didn’t have to wait long. The two women shouted something in unison, and a dozen or so congregants leapt up and rushed out of the sanctuary. They gathered behind Palfi and pushed her bodily through the door. The crowd split before her; their chanting turned to shouting as she passed.

A white statue stood at the front of the sanctuary, dwarfed beneath a gray stone arch. Palfi squinted as the dozen congregants propelled her closer. Yes, it was Ieia.

Her last chance at a quiet life stood above her, too high and heavy to move, too well-guarded even to approach further.

Hands pressed into Palfi’s underarms and the backs of her knees. A dark woman in bleached robes stepped to the side, revealing a narrow altar. She moved to the front of it without turning.

The altar was coarse white stone, unstained. Palfi wondered what that meant.

The hands raised her, and then dropped her. She sprawled onto the stone. Her hands strained at the metal cuffs, and she threw her shoulders back, trying to keep her balance, but it was no use. Her chin cracked painfully against the hard surface, and her breasts squashed beneath her.

She lay in pain for a few moments, sucking in the hot, thick air and trying to ignore the noise. Better to die with a little dignity, to at least face the thing that had gotten her into this mess.

She rolled onto her side and used her elbow to push herself into a sitting position, then scooted around to face the statue.

Something touched her chest, and she glanced down. The women who had brought her from her cell stood on either side of her, a white cord stretched taut between them. They raised it toward her neck. She backed up a few inches, realizing the action was useless — go back far enough, and she would just fall off the altar.

The women yanked the rope against Palfi’s throat and she fell supine, the handcuffs digging into the small of her back. All she could see was Ieia’s weathered face beneath the great stone arch.

“I hope you’re enjoying this more than I am,” she croaked at the face, and tried to smile. But it was too late for wisecracks.

The cord pressed tighter.

The room became quiet.

The cord went slack.

Air passed into Palfi’s windpipe again. She waited for the cord to retighten, for a blade to pierce her, for someone to speak, but nothing happened. Lamplight flickered on the stone arch and the statue’s face. The quiet was unnatural. So many people could never be so silent.

She turned her head to the left, then to the right. Her executioners were gone. She sat up slowly and twisted to look back at the room.

Everyone was gone. She started, and her hands pulled apart. One of the cuffs had come loose.

She dragged herself to the front of the altar, dropped to the floor, and stood for a minute, rubbing her throat with one hand and her abraded wrist with the other.

Then she turned, surveying the room. It looked larger now that it was empty. The footworn rock floor spread out like a fallow field, and the vaulted ceiling rose dizzyingly high. The door at the back was shut.

Not a shoe or garment remained. Only the burning lamps and the strangling-cord and — what was that next to it on the floor? Palfi bent to pick it up. A key. The key.

She rose and turned back, and her eyes came level with Ieia’s bare feet. “Did you do this?” she whispered.

It seemed like a foolish question. Her attackers had disappeared, her life had been saved, her hands were free — and she had the run of the temple. Of course the goddess had done it. This hunk of stone — her prop, her tool, her excuse — was a thing of power after all.

Palfi’s head dropped in sudden reverence, and she whispered the best prayer she could come up with: “I know you are alive now. Please don’t ever let me doubt it.”

She looked up at the goddess’s face. The amber eyes were dim in the lamplight. The nose and chin, as always, did not move.

 

Episode 80: Small Magics by Alethea Kontis


Small Magics

by Alethea Kontis

Minna tried to stand still in front of the mirror, but it wasn’t working. Effie jerked Minna’s hips from side to side, trying to adjust the bustle of her sateen French cream walking dress. Minna stared at the print of the Luck etching she held, then closed her eyes and pressed it to her breast, wishing with all her might for the magic she had given it to seep back into her.

  “Would you like some glue?” Minna’s eyes snapped open as her friend’s voice sounded in her ear, dark and exotic as the Greek gypsy girl herself.

  “See, now,” said Minna, pointing at their reflections, “your head looks better on this dress than mine does.” Minna folded the Luck etching and tucked it inside her sleeve, desperate for its closeness.

  Effie noticed. “Luck doesn’t always mean the good kind.”

  “Yes, but Lady Luck is my favorite. At the very least, she’ll make life interesting. And if I’m lucky,” Minna wrinkled her nose, “it’ll all be good.”

  “Silly,” said Effie. “You can’t fool me with that brave act. You’re scared to death, admit it.”

  Minna sighed and wove her fingers together. “It is true. I am a little scared. Who wouldn’t be? This interview with Lord Astor is so important…”

  Effie turned Minna back to the mirror and started pinning up her hair.  “I’m still not certain it’s a good idea. This Society of Natural Scientists could be a bunch of fools for all you know. They are men, after all.”

  Minna tried to look up at Effie, but her friend forced her head back down and mercilessly drove home another bobby pin. “I need an Alchemist, Effie. A true magic user. I need someone to guide me. My powers have already outgrown anything our mothers can teach.”

  “Yes, but you’re a woman,” said Effie. She bent down so that her chin rested atop Minna’s coiffed head. Her thick, wavy locks fell to Minna’s shoulders. “And they are men. So they cannot be trusted.” She gave Minna a playful wink before stepping back a pace and putting her hands on her hips. Minna stopped worrying her hands together and dropped them to her sides.

“Perfection. All you lack now are gloves.”

  Minna looked at her hands. The skin of her fingertips was stained with etcher’s ink, their pads callused from acid. Her father’s legacy. Daddy’s little girl.

Jack Willows had been a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. He had taught his daughter how to handle the cutting tools and the acid, so that Minna might make etchings of her own. He had taught his wife as well—and well enough that a number of Mother’s etchings had even appeared in the newspapers. Minna learned the art from her father, but she learned the magic from her mother. Few people had ever noticed the simple magics Mother had taught her to add to the etchings. Even her father had not known.

Mother had counseled Minna to hold her tongue, to never mention to her father the meanings of the tiny symbols hidden in the details. It was woman’s magic, her mother had whispered to her. Small magic. Old magic. Tales and superstitions handed down through the years. Her father never would have held with such nonsense.

But it wasn’t nonsense. The symbols they etched into the pictures did mean something. They could evoke emotions and protections. Minna had the knack for incorporating patterns of symbols and creating new ones. So her mother had made sure that Minna learned as much as she could from her father.

After his death, the Society had invited her mother to take her husband’s seat and join the ranks of the elite Lady Etchers. Now Minna helped her mother, and continued to learn herself, but at the price of the smooth skin on her hands. Her vanity hated her for it, and her heart broke a little every time she looked at her ruined skin and remembered her father. He had been ignorant of her gift, but still always so proud of her.

Effie’s throaty laugh derailed Minna’s train of thought, and a pair of black kid six-button gloves was thrust into her hands.  “Stop looking so serious. You’re not going to a funeral.”

  “It will be a funeral if Mother catches me. My funeral.”

  “Auntie Charlotte is too busy back at your house scolding some chambermaid for letting mice into the attic.”

Minna could tell Effie was quite pleased with herself over that little prank. She still wasn’t sure how exactly Effie had managed to get them all there. Her magic came from a darker place. It was gypsy magic—ancient, quiet magic that was more felt than seen. Minna’s only jealousy was that it didn’t have to be confined to printed art. But it was nothing compared to what Minna could do if given half a chance. She was sure of it.

“Even if she does catch you,” Effie went on, “you simply tell her that you are paying a professional visit.”

  “Mother does not consider the Society of Natural Sciences to be professional.”

  “Only because they are not as willing to let women into their ranks as the Painter-Etchers or the Artists are. That makes me question their intelligence—I will agree with her on that. But if Science is what you want, Dearest, than you shall have it. Don’t let anything step in your way, man or mother. Lord Aster will see that you are a bright, intelligent woman, and if he is any man at all he will give you a chance to prove yourself.” She glanced up at the clock. “And if you are late, that will not make a good impression at all.”

  “I wish you could come with me,” Minna pleaded.

“Beatrice will be with you.”

“A chaperone hardly counts.”

“Certainly she does. Come now. And you mustn’t forget your book,” Effie said, thrusting the slim black volume into Minna’s hands. “If I didn’t have to help Mama with her séance tonight, I would be fast to your side.”

  “I know.” Minna followed Effie down the stairs.

Effie halted at the door, poked her head around, and then motioned for Minna to come. They tiptoed through the parlor, Minna’s smart boots making tiny clicks and clacks against the wooden floor.  She was grateful she had Effie to follow through the dark room. A few small gas lamps were lit here and there, only shedding enough light to cast large, wavering shadows on the wall. She caught the faint, warm scent of incense. Effie’s mother was busy preparing the back room for her evening guests and would not trouble them, but they didn’t want to risk drawing attention.

  They met stout and silent Beatrice at the back door, where the hired carriage was waiting.

Effie turned to her once more. “Penny in your shoe?”

Minna nodded.

“Evil eye?”

Minna nodded again, placing a hand on her breast where the small blue charm was pinned beneath her bodice.

“Then you are all set, Dearest.” Effie hugged her tightly. She kissed Minna on either cheek, turned her head to the right and made a spitting sound towards the floor. More luck. “One look at your little book, and Lord Aster will throw himself at your feet, begging you to be his personal apprentice.”

“Well, I don’t know about all that,” said Minna.

“Bah,” said Effie.  “You will be marvelous.”

“Only because you say so,” said Minna.

“Extol my virtues later.” Effie turned Minna around and pushed her out the door.  “Now go! Go quickly so you can come back and tell me everything!”

Minna dashed into the carriage before she could think up another reason to dally.

The ride to the headquarters of the Royal Society of Natural Scientists was too long and at the same time too short. Beatrice’s silence gave Minna too much time to think about what she was about to do. Outside looking in, it all made perfectly good sense. She was a talented artist, and could etch magic into metal better than her mother. It was only natural that the next step be to study with a true Alchemist, someone who could shape her abilities and steer her beyond her mother’s limitations.

Minna needed to believe that she was meant for greater things than granting luck or easing birth pains. Not that she wanted to stop doing these things, but she wanted to learn a more economical way of doing them. One that didn’t require hours on end spent with knives and acid. She wanted to learn about the world, how it worked, and more importantly how to see it working. She wanted to learn about the stars, what was in them, how to read them. She wanted to learn about people, how to cure them completely and not just stop a cough or break a fever. So she was going to meet with Lord Aster, head of the Society, and plead her case for apprenticeship. She flipped through her small book of illustrations, some of which had already been etched, others that were just waiting for the time to be right. It was a respectable enough sample of her work to impress him. She did not want to leave herself looking like a fool.

She shivered at the thought. Impress Lord Aster? Much easier said than done. Look like a fool? Well that was an unfortunately easy feat to achieve. Lord Aster, Edmond Chamberlain by name, was terrifying even from a distance; a fact Minna had garnered from a few rare glimpses of him at social gatherings. He was uncommonly tall and his shoulders were eternally stooped from bending over to speak to smaller people and reading notes from a podium. His hair was a shock of silver. Grayness befit most men his age, but Lord Aster’s shining silver-white was unsettling. And he was gaunt, a thinness that made his eyes appear shadowed and sunken. He was the very spectre of a man, and looked as though at any moment he could slip into death without giving anyone cause to notice.

Minna had been surprised that he had responded to her request for an appointment—he was well known for his gruff and rather disagreeable nature. Her mother certainly did not care for him, and was quick to voice her opinion to anyone who stood still long enough to listen. But Minna still believed, deep down in her heart, that Lord Aster would see how talented she was and as a result would not be able to turn her away.

She took the glove off one hand and reached into her sleeve to feel the smooth paper of the Luck etching again. She could not feel the ink, but she knew by heart what symbols were hidden in the delicate lines of the portrait. She needed the reassuring touch of the paper against her skin. It was the first print from Minna’s Lady Luck etching; the older the print and the closer to the body, the stronger the magic it offered.

But she knew luck alone would not see her through this interview. Perseverance had gotten her here. She had to rely on her talent now in order to succeed.

The carriage came to a halt, and Minna frantically pulled her gloves back on. Beatrice followed her to the front door, where an equally stout butler led her to a sitting room.

“Miss Willows, Sir.”

“Thank you, Harrison.” His voice was rich and deep. Minna steeled herself and stepped through the doorway. In front of her stood a dashing young man in a dark suit. The white of his cravat matched the unnatural white of his hair, yet he was very evidently not Lord Aster. He snapped a small bow to her. Minna had the presence of mind to bend her knees, but she did not tip her head. Her mind raced. What was going on here?

“Miss Willows, please. First let me apologize. You have been played false, but with all good intention. I intercepted your missive to my uncle and answered it in his stead. I am intrigued by your interest, and wish to discuss it with you. I assure you, had he even deigned to open your letter, he most certainly would not have made this appointment. As it is, we must consider ourselves fortunate that I managed to save it from the fireplace.”

Lord Aster had not even read her letter? He did not even know she was here? All her careful planning and intrigue was for naught, all the nerves unwarranted. She was not on her way to becoming a scientist. She could see it now. Her head swam. She would become a laughingstock. She was a woman! Who was she to think that she could simply be accepted into the most exclusively male Society of them all?

The man must have noticed her floundering, because he offered her a chair. “I apologize again, I did not mean to distress you. Please, sit. Harrison?” he called over his shoulder, “can you please have Mrs. Whitebridge send up a tray?”

The butler stepped out. Minna sat on the couch and looked down at her gloves. The man took a chair opposite her. Her eyes went again to his hair, and the rest of what he had said began to sink in.

“You are Lord Aster’s nephew?”

“More apologies, I am afraid. I seem destined to apologize to you until the end of days. Gabriel Chamberlain, at your service. My father is Lord Aster’s considerably younger half-brother. He decided I was in desperate need of some city refinement, so I have been banished from our country estates until after Christmas.” There was a twinkle in his eye, as though he expected Minna to comment or laugh, but she remained quiet. “I think it’s more a punishment for my uncle than it is for me. Personally, I’ve been enjoying the amusements provided by his little Society.”

Minna couldn’t help but smile.

“You should do that more often,” said Gabriel.

“Do what?”

“Smile. If I may make so bold, it is quite becoming.” He straightened. “But exploring such a topic will have you calling me a rogue no doubt, so we will not dwell upon it. You must tell me about the aspirations you expressed in your letter. I would like to know how a bright, beautiful and no doubt talented woman such as yourself comes to have an interest in the Natural Sciences.”

Minna recognized that he was being amusing and charming to put her ease, and despite her disappoint at the way the meeting had turned out, she found herself appreciating his efforts. At the very least, she would have a wonderful story to tell Effie when she returned. Harrison brought the tray, and a moment later Beatrice came forward to serve the tea.

“Are you familiar with my family’s work?” Minna asked him.

“Yes, indeed,” Gabriel said, his large hands dwarfing the fragile teacup.  “I have seen the works of both Mr. and Mrs. Jack Willows printed in the Times, and samples grace the walls of many an affluent household. Do you etch as well?”

Minna knew that now was hardly the time for modesty. “Yes, and I believe I am quite talented.”

“As any Willows progeny would be,” said Gabriel. “Might you have a sample of your work with you now?”

She thought he’d never ask. Minna opened her volume to the first page, an illustrated copy of the Luck etching she had secreted in her bodice, and handed him the book. He set down his tea and took a moment to examine the portrait. He excused himself, and stepped over to the lamp to have more light. “You are very talented. The detail on this is fascinating. You must have the patience of Job to fashion it so precisely. Who is the woman?”

“No one,” Minna replied offhandedly. “Just someone I made up. I call her Lady Luck.”

He moved to sit again. “Why do you call her that?”

“Because it’s for a Luck etching.” Had he not noticed? Her father had missed it, of course, but her father had not been an Alchemist.

“A what?” Gabriel asked.

Surely her talents were not as insignificant as all that.  Maybe he was testing her. “An etching for Luck. I have the original print here.” She unfolded the paper and traded him for the book. “Look there,” she pointed to the woman’s collar. “Do you not see the symbols?”

Gabriel held the small paper a few inches from his face and angled it to better catch the light. “Why you’re right. My heavens, what precision. If I ever had doubts about your skill as an artist, I certainly don’t now. Remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.”

“I know it’s small magic,” she added quickly, “and you are used to things on a much grander scale. That’s why I’ve come. I believe that I have learned all I can in this area, and I’d like to move on. I was hoping to apprentice myself to one of your Alchemists or perhaps…” she trailed off.

Gabriel stared at her; his dark eyes fixed, his brows furrowed. Oh, no. She had let her mouth run away with her again. When would she ever learn to stop? Silence was called golden for a reason. Gabriel probably had the same ideas as his uncle about women overstepping their bounds and was shocked at what she was suggesting. Well, it was too late now. The words were out, and there was no net that could catch them and bring them back.

Desperate, Minna smiled and attempted to make light of the conversation. “Should I be the one apologizing now?”

Gabriel snapped out of whatever trance he was in, and grinned. “I’m afraid I mistook your words for a moment, Miss Willows. I am sure what you meant to say was that this was a luck charm, like any other superstitious fancy.” He held up the paper. “There is no magic here.”

Minna leapt to her feet, and Gabriel stumbled to do so as well. “Now see here,” she said. “You must admit that the womanly arts have less available to them, more limitations, tighter boundaries inside which they must remain. You may be much better at it than a girl of seventeen, but your lifestyle has afforded you the opportunity to study it at great length. I believe that I am proficient at enough magic to know what it is I’m doing. Since I do not have the freedom of quantity, I practice quality. It may be small, but you cannot deny that it is perfect.”

“My good woman,” Gabriel replied rather condescendingly, “It is neither you nor your talents I doubt, but the existence of magic itself.”

“I am not a child, Mister Chamberlain. You do not have to feign ignorance on my behalf. You are a scientist yourself. If you are involved in your uncle’s Society, I cannot believe that you do not know about this simple force of Nature.”

“I can honestly say I have never experienced it.”

No experience? Well, she could certainly remedy that. Minna opened the book in her hand to a page near the middle, a picture of a house by a stream. The illustration did not hold as much magic as the original etching itself but the symbols were still there, echoes of the promise of magic. She held it out to him.

“I have already told you,” he said, leaning in, “your work is breathtaking, my dear.” He stepped closer. “Fantastic. Charming. Quite the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” He reached out to snatch the book away. “Do you have a print of this etching? I must have it. No, I must have the master itself. It is so simple and yet so… haunting. I must have it. I will give you absolutely anything your heart desires to have it.”

“Turn the page,” she said with confidence.

He flipped to the next page, revealing a simple pastoral setting with a church. A mother and a daughter were on their way inside. The calmness of the image belied the true intent of the hidden symbol.

“This is horrible,” he spat. “Tragic. Sad.” His face contorted with disgust. “You are a despicable woman. Vile. What a wretched woman you are for showing me such a thing. And what a nosy busybody you are for coming here in the first place. You may be able to draw passably well, but your nose is far too large and your insolence…”

Minna had heard enough from that one. She reached out and turned the page herself this time. The illustration here was of a vee of ducks, passing over a stream at sunset.

Gabriel looked at her, his dark eyes pleading. She watched him mouth shape the words: I am so sorry, but no sound escaped. He lifted a hand to his throat. His next silent words were something along the lines of What the Devil…

And in that silence, Minna heard the hammering of a determined fist on the front door.

“My daughter is in there, and I demand to see her at once!”

The bark of her mother’s voice down the hallway snapped Minna to attention. She was caught. Her heart raced as her mother’s voice drew closer, grumbling down the hall and overshadowing the pleas of the butler trailing in her furious wake. Minna winced as the door flew open.

Her mother swept past her in a flurry of rose skirts and snatched the book from Gabriel’s hands. She gave him a withering look, causing the young man to falter before he snapped a bow to her. Finding his voice, he barely managed to croak, “Gabriel Chamberlain.”

“I gathered that from your shining head, young man. God did not choose that color for many of his servants, and it’s a blessed good thing.” She turned to Minna. “Miss Willows does not realize that this cloud has no silver lining. It would have been decent of you to have informed her of that immediately and sent her on her way instead of leading her a merry dance. Such behavior is unbecoming.”

“You are correct, Mrs. Willows,” Gabriel stammered. “I… Please forgive me.”

“Forgiven, and I trust never to be repeated. Good night, Mister Chamberlain.”

“Good night, Mrs. Willows. Miss Willows.” He bowed again, meeting Minna’s eyes for a heartbeat. “It was…illuminating.” Minna was not allowed the luxury of time to bid her farewell before her mother ushered her out of the door.

The ride home was silent. Not merely silent, cold. The longer her mother was quiet, the stronger her voice was when she decided to use it. Minna removed her gloves and picked at the rough spots on her fingertips. She risked a glance at Beatrice. Beatrice met it knowingly. Minna pursed her lips. No need to investigate who had betrayed her.

When the carriage came to a halt, Minna was surprised to find herself not at home, but back at the steps of Effie’s house. Her mother strode up to and through the door determinedly. As luck would have it, someone was there to open it for her. Had there not been, Minna was sure she would have seen the door torn from its hinges as her mother passed.

There was no other carriage in sight, so the séance must have been “successful” and therefore brief. The house was still eerily dark, however, the incense much stronger than it had been when she had left.

Minna’s mother stormed through the house, through the entrance hall and into the kitchen where Effie’s mother was boiling water for coffee in a copper pan on the stove.

“Theodosia, they have gone too far.” Mother did not speak loudly when addressing Effie’s mother by her full name, but her tone roared through Minna’s ears. She tossed the black book on the table. Its slight clatter was akin to the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil.

Effie came down the stairs to investigate the commotion, and without misplacing a single step on the stairway performed a perfect pirouette and headed straight back up them.

“Oh no you don’t. Come back down here at once young lady.” Effie stopped mid-step and turned, wincing. “Come along with you, girl.”

Effie trudged back down the stairs, exchanging worried looks with Minna as the pair of them were ushered into the kitchen.

Sit,” Minna’s mother ordered.

Minna drew up a dining chair and Effie took her time crossing the room to sit beside her. Thea Theda—“Aunt” Theda, as Minna referred to her friend’s mother—was still concentrating on the water. She added four spoonfuls of coffee, and matched them with four more of sugar. She watched it boil up once, twice, then a third time.

Minna felt Effie’s hand searching for hers under the table. She reached out and held it tightly.

Thea Theda poured the coffee into four small cups and handed them out. Minna leaned over her cup and breathed in the dark heady aroma. The addictive smell was deceiving. She didn’t really enjoy the vile brew, sugar or not. But if she could make it down to the mud, Thea Theda would spin it and read the grinds for her. The séances may have been just for show, but there was most assuredly more to her gypsy friends than candles and incense. They were nothing more than tricks to gull the naive.

Minna watched her mother crack open the book and thumb through the pages until she found the second picture she had shown Gabriel, the one with the cottage he was desperate to possess. Thea Theda made a small circle in the air with her finger above the picture, protecting herself from the effect of the illustration before moving in closer to examine it more thoroughly.

“Desire,” Thea Theda muttered, her accent as thick as the coffee.

Mother turned the page.

“Hate,” The H was gutteral, scraping down Minna’s already frayed nerves.

The next.

“Silence.” She stuck a bit of her tongue between her teeth and took a sip of her coffee. “You are very talented, pedi.”

“Don’t encourage her, Theda!” Mother closed the book. “Did you teach her this?”

“No.” Thea Theda took another silent sip and stared across the table at Effie. Old chocolate brown eyes met young ones. Effie’s hand squeezed Minna’s painfully.

“You said I could learn the magic. You never said I couldn’t read the books!” Effie cried.

Thea Theda’s voice was deadly calm. “Neh, pethimou, but you should have asked me first.”

“Why? You didn’t ask your mother how to have visions, did you?” Effie spat.

“No,” Thea Theda said curtly. “But I did ask her about it when I had them.”

“Listen to me, girls,” Mother laid her hand on the cover of the book, “there are rules to this kind of thing. Limits. There have to be. Otherwise, it gets out of hand.”

Minna had heard this argument one too many times. If Effie could be passionate, so could she. “I know there are limits! But I want to go beyond them! Don’t you understand? I am better than that! I have the talent! I’m old enough to know!”

Mother’s jaw clenched as she lowered her voice as much as Minna had raised hers. The difference was frightening. “You never did listen did you? You heard, but you never did listen. There is no limit to what you can do. The limits are those you must impose on yourself. Mark me, girls, pay heed for once in your short lives. Those limitations are to keep you from becoming dangerous. You are old enough to see the power only, and naturally you crave that power. What you need to do now is be mature enough to realize that it is the small magics that make the biggest difference.”

Minna let out an exasperated breath and threw her free hand in the air. “How am I going to grow by etching ‘Luck’ and ‘Fertility’?”

Mother turned to the page for Silence and spun it around to Minna. “If you can stop a voice, who is to say that you cannot stop a breath? Answer me that, girl! Where does it end?”

Minna leaned in beside Effie to look at the ducks, idly flying to the south before winter approached. The almost indistinguishable symbols ran along the ripples in the water they flew over, and along the blades of grass that bent in the wind. And there, at the tip of a cattail, was the symbol for speech. Change a line here, a curve there, cross it… her breath caught in her throat as the implications of what she was hearing, what she saw, hit their mark.

She felt Effie’s hand tremble in her own, and could not bring herself to let go. She realized she was crying. It didn’t matter.

Mother closed the book again, and stretched a hand out to her daughter. Their ink-stained fingers intertwined. “You must only put good things out into the world, for whatever you put out into the world comes back to you.”

“Three times,” added Thea Theda.

“Some people believe that, yes,” her mother said to Thea Theda. “Personally, I think that saying was simply made up so that you would be sure to judge the consequences of your actions.”

Thea Theda threw a hand in the air, as if waving that nonsense away.

“This is one of the reasons why the ways of these magics have been passed down from mother to daughter. Long ago, when men had the gift and could harness their power, and as a result caused great devastation. So God withdrew his gift and took the power away from them.”

Minna drew in a breath and held it. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. She always thought they had kept the magic a secret from Father because women were not permitted to practice it. She never would have imagined that Father had not known how to do it. That he had never known. That no man knew.

“No help,” said Thea Theda. “They make their machines and destroy the world anyway.”

Mother stood slowly. “You may stay here with Effie for the night, though I need to see the carriage home. Good night, everyone.” And with that, her mother left the kitchen.

“Come on,” Effie said. “It has been a long night. Let us get some sleep.” Minna nodded and started to follow her out of the kitchen.

“No fortune?” Thea Theda called, waving at Minna’s untouched cup. Even at this point, Minna would always swallow the lukewarm drink like medicine so that she might have a glimpse of things that had happened long ago, or that hadn’t happened yet. Better than the fortune, she liked the stories Thea Theda saw there.

But not tonight.

She had had enough of small magics for tonight.

“No thank you,” Minna replied. “I don’t think I want to know.” She left both cup and book behind and trudged wearily up the stairs.

  Even as she stepped into the bedroom Effie started pulling at Minna’s clothes. “Start talking, leave nothing out until you’re done and start with Gabriel.” She sang his name teasingly.

Minna began and retold the story over and over until Effie fell asleep in the bed beside her.

Minna reached over and drew a symbol on her friend’s olive skin with her finger. Sweet dreams. She could have done more, added a swirl, have Effie going off on a ship to be a pirate. Intersect that line with another, and she could have given her flowers and rainbows and love and happiness. But they would not be Effie’s own thoughts and dreams; they would be ones of Minna’s making.

No.

She laid her hands over the invisible lines she had drawn. Sweet dreams. That was enough. She drew the symbol on the back of her own hand, turned her head into the soft pillow, and slept.

Episode 2: The Unicorn Tree by Alethea Kontis

Show Notes

Today we present The Unicorn Tree by Alethea Kontis. Alethea is an author and editor who lives in Ashburn, Virginia. She is the author of AlphaOops!: The Day Z Went First, described as “an alphabet book with attitude”, and many other books and short stories. You can find out more about Alethea and her work — for example, the fact that she’s half French and half Greek — at her website.

It’s narrated by Marguerite Kenner. “By day” Marguerite is an executive admin. for a large intellectual property law firm. By night, she’s an avenging hero with superpowers such as rock climbing, aikido, music (she is a classical percussionist), gaming, sewing costumes, and reading anything and everything. You can find out what’s on her mind here.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


Narrated by Marguerite Kenner

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Today we present The Unicorn Tree by Alethea Kontis. Alethea is an author and editor who lives in Ashburn, Virginia. She is the author of AlphaOops!: The Day Z Went First, described as “an alphabet book with attitude”, and many other books and short stories. You can find out more about Alethea and her work — for example, the fact that she’s half French and half Greek — at her website.

It’s narrated by Marguerite Kenner. “By day” Marguerite is an executive admin. for a large intellectual property law firm. By night, she’s an avenging hero with superpowers such as rock climbing, aikido, music (she is a classical percussionist), gaming, sewing costumes, and reading anything and everything. You can find out what’s on her mind here.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.