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Cast of Wonders 362: Hare’s Breath

Show Notes

This episode is part of our 2019 Summer Spotlight, showcasing the work of the year’s major award finalists.

Shimmer is a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine.


Many thanks to Shimmer for the use of their issue cover art for this episode.


Sweden Admit to Racial Purification (from The Independent)

“The so-called sterilization laws were instituted by the Swedish parliament in 1934 and 1941. Both allowed sterilization without consent under certain conditions. The reasons (indications) to perform sterilizations were threefold: eugenics (race/genetic hygiene), social and medical. Of the total number of sterilized individuals, 93 percent were women.”

From the report “Steriliseringsfrågan i Sverige 1935 – 1975” / “The issue of sterilization in Sweden 1935–1975,” issued by Socialdepartementet / Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, Sweden, March 2000.


Hare’s Breath

by Maria Haskins

1947, Västerbotten, Sweden

It’s Midsummer’s Eve and even this close to midnight there’s no darkness, only a long, translucent dusk that will eventually slip into dawn.

Britt and I are fifteen, and she has just come back from That Place, the one the adults won’t talk about even when they think I’m not listening. Something’s happened to her there, but I don’t understand what it is, and she can’t find the words to tell me. (Continue Reading…)

Episode 99: Little Wonders 3 – Scary Stories


Come With Me

by Beth Hull

Everything about her suggested impermanence.

Maybe that’s why we were drawn to her.

It wasn’t just the ethereal blond waves of her hair, or the goth-pale skin of her slender hands. It was her total, absolute ease at being the new student in our tightly-knit prep school.

She drifted into junior home room on a lotus-scented breeze.

Every guy sucked in a breath, and the girls—we don’t know what the girls were doing because we could see only her.

“Come with me,” she said, singling each of us out. For a day, for an hour, for a week we were her best friends, her lovers, her confidantes. But none of us knew anything about her—not where she was from, not the school she went to before ours, not even her name.

“Call me Beatrice,” she said.

“I’m Circe,” she said.

Morgan. Hermione. Rebecca. Medea. Anne. She was all; she was none.

And because of that impermanence, she felt safe. We could get involved. We thought we knew her type—military brat, probably, accustomed to moving, making new friends, and then saying goodbye. She’d be the perfect girlfriend.

“Come with me,” she said to us, and we went. She threw parties in a grand house just outside of town. September is still warm in California, so we swam in the pool, sipped beer, wine, and champagne in the spa, played foosball and watched independent foreign films in the basement theater until our brains were so addled we couldn’t remember our mother tongue.

“Who are her parents?” our mothers asked. “What do they do?”

We shrugged. We didn’t know any of that. We just knew we loved her and when she said, “Come with me,” we followed.

On a clear day in October, I walked with the girl across the quad at school, her slender fingers cold and tightly wrapped around mine. She said, “Come with me.”

“Where are we going?” I couldn’t believe the question had never occurred to me before. Maybe the sun was different that day, and broke the spell. A pimple was coming to a white head just below her right nostril. The first imperfection I’d noticed.

She smiled. “Sevanouir.”

“Where’s that? Some place in France?” I could buy a plane ticket, and I’d go, no question. One pimple was just that—one pimple.

I thought it was a trip for the two of us. I set aside a portion of my trust fund allowance. But then I learned she’d invited everyone—the entire junior class.

“Come with me,” she said, and we skipped school for a Sevanouir planning party.

It was too cold for swimming, but some people swam. I sat in a chair next to the pool, a bottle of beer in my hand, but I didn’t feel like drinking. I’d noticed another flaw in this temporary, impermanent girl: a small, t-shaped scar just below her ear. It was nothing worse than Owen’s forehead scar from field hockey, or Madeline’s mismatched eyes. But why had I never noticed it on her, whom I studied so intently?

I began to notice more imperfections, not only on her person, like the mole on her upper arm or the bright lines of veins on her shins. I saw the rusted outdoor chairs, the cracked tiles edging the pool, the dead leaves on the surface of the water that my friends paddled and splashed through as if they didn’t see them.

And I noticed her—Beatrice, Circe, Morgan, Hermione, Rebecca, Medea, Anne—walking up to each of my friends and placing something small and black in their drinks. My friends peered into the bottoms of their cups in wonderment, but with a light touch and a smile, she distracted them before moving on.

Owen stopped swimming and began to sink.

“Owen!” I tore off my shoes and jumped in the water, struggling to find him among the swirling leaf-sludge at the bottom of the pool. I brought him up, shaking water and decayed leaves from my face. I paddled to the shallow end and turned him around. His eyes were cloudy. Open, they dully reflected a flock of black birds flying overhead. I did something I’d only seen in the movies, and checked his neck for a pulse. Nothing.

Other people sank into the pool around me, collapsed on their chairs, and fell to the concrete steps.

“Stop drinking!” I yelled to the small group nearest me. “She put something in our drinks!”

“Why would she do that?” They drank, and fell.

The girl watched from my lounge chair.

“What did you do to them?”

“We’re going to Sevanouir,” she said. “Come with me.”

“No!”

She took a sip of my beer, then held it up in a salute. “I’ll see you in Sevanouir.” The bottle fell to the concrete and shattered.

She kept her smile even after her eyes clouded over.


Piper

by Ian Rose

He came one day down the northern road, his skin paler than the local men, and his eyes a lighter blue than we had ever seen before. There was a scar above his left eye, and he carried no bag on his shoulder, nothing but his pipes and a flask on his hip. The king had sent word of his people’s need far and wide, sparing a few of his dwindling horsemen to carry the plea. Word had reached the piper, who had dealt with this problem before, and so in time the piper came.

When he blew on his pipes, we followed him without thought or question. My father went first, then my brother, then one by one the rest. They crept at first, then walked, then ran after him, wanting or needing to stay in earshot of the song. I followed the crowd more than the noise itself, my hearing having never quite fully recovered from a bite in the head from the miller’s cat a few months back.

I huddled into a hidden spot that barely fit me, pressed between the reeds. My muscles twitched, my mind and instinct arguing about whether to help or to hide. Chances are that I could not have helped anyway, and I’ve never been particularly brave. So I hid, and I watched. They all went into the dark brown water and for a moment, it looked as if they would simply swim across. My father had taught me young to avoid the creek at all costs, but in their frenzy, their feet could have carried them to the other side. It wasn’t the safety of the bank, though, that called them. It was the piper standing in the center of the creek, and they huddled around him as they fought to keep their ears more than their mouths above water.

When the last of the swimming had stopped, and he waded past them and out of the river, I alone followed him back down the wooded path to town. I was careful to stay hidden and always ready to run, but he barely ever looked back. I wanted to study his face, hoping to detect a sign of regret or maybe just relief. Relief would have been enough, a sort of acceptance of a hard but necessary thing done. When he did turn and I caught a look at his face, he looked pleased. But it was not the kind of pleasure that a man feels on his way home from a job well done. I’ve seen that contented look, in the miller and the cobbler that lived in our house back in town. This was different, more smug and more scary than that. He was thrilled with himself. The face that he made as he cantered back to town – I’d seen that before too, in the soldiers returning from war. A few of them came back so different from the way they had left, with something new and cruel in them. They had tasted blood again and again. They had come in time to expect it, and at some terrible further point, to hunger for more.

I followed him until the palace hedge, and watched him march to the gate, the townspeople in a tight cone behind him. I chose not to blame them for their perverse excitement, because I had seen what they had all been through. The sheer scale of death that had fallen on our town over the last year was staggering, and their faces were marked with it. To have so many of them die in such a short time, when they were accustomed to living so long; it had to be jarring. The miller and the cobbler had lived with us for generations. My grandfather’s father had known them, and I got the sense that they were not even children then.

They somehow knew that we were involved, even if they didn’t understand how. They could not have known that the fleas that often woke us at night with their itchy little bites carried the disease that was killing them all so quickly. They didn’t see the fleas. They only saw us, and where they saw us there was death, and that was proof enough.

The piper passed through the main gate and into the palace, his eyes bright and proud. But to hear the townspeople tell it later, the king must have been even prouder and more sure of himself, because when the piper asked for his payment, the king laughed and refused. “We are in your debt,” he proclaimed, “but what you ask is too much, a fortune for the task of removing a pest.” He offered to pay a small part of the original price; still, the king said, a handsome reward for a bit of fluting. He hadn’t seen what I had, hadn’t noticed the shine in the piper’s eyes. He couldn’t have seen it or he never would have tried to bargain.


The Boatman

by J A Ironside

Soon he would have to row back to the castle. It rose on the opposite bank, a stark, black silhouette against the titian sky. Even from his perch in the stern of his boat he could hear the ravens across the river, prophesying death in their harsh voices, although most people would not have understood them.

The river that bobbed and swelled under his barge felt alien to him. He supposed the Thames was alright in its way but it wasn’t his river. He didn’t know every eddy and shallow of its teasing tides. The Thames was younger, sleepier, less alive. It dreamed and sometimes he watched those dreams.

It flowed through the city and captured reflections – here a scrap of blue velvet – a rich young noble man with a half dressed woman in the wrong part of town; here a skinny child, head to toe in thick mud, ancient eyes in a young face; And here a young woman, cloaked and muffled against recognition, a brief flash of a pearl encrusted slipper.

Time to ready the barge. He pulled his hood closer to hide his death’s head grin. Even the dead had never reacted well to it so he supposed that it probably would disturb the living more. Screaming and swooning seemed excessive in the boatman’s opinion though. At least this work exchange program would be over soon. The truth was when the little scroll of parchment had been delivered to him he hadn’t read the details very thoroughly. It had seemed the opportunity he was waiting for; A change of scenery. He’d had no idea that he would end up half way around the world and 1500 years into the future to boot.

Well he couldn’t argue that the scenery wasn’t an improvement but the rest of the assignment was just downright bewildering. If he had had flesh on his cheekbones he would still be blushing with mortification at the memory of leaving several nobles and a bishop waiting on the tower side of the river despite repeated summons. When he’d finally realized that he was supposed to ferry his passengers both ways on this river and collected them, the bishop had refused to pay him.  

The cloaked woman had reached the barge. He held out a wrapped and gloved hand to help her aboard braced for her to notice the lack of flesh on his finger bones.  She said nothing. Her scarred bodyguard climbed aboard. Not the usual man, the boatman noted. The barge moved smoothly onto the river.

Halfway across the river, the guard stabbed a long knife through the boatman’s back. Without waiting to check on the boatman, he turned on the woman brandishing a second knife. Her face was pale, her lips compressed. The boatman was fascinated. He’d never seen a murder committed, only ferried its victims across the river. The guard’s knife grated against his fleshless ribs. He pulled it out. It clattered to the bottom of the boat. Distracted by the noise the false guard spun, almost losing his footing. Which meant the boatman’s pole caught him full in the face, smashing his skull. Grinning a genuine death’s head grin for once, the boatman hit the guard again knocking him into the cold waters.

“My thanks sir” The woman was a little breathless but composed, “ask for any reasonable reward and it shall be yours”. She pushed back her hood to reveal red hair dressed with pearls.

“No reward necessary, my lady.”

She peered forward into the depths of his hood. He braced himself for a scream but she merely sat back, a considering look on her clever features.

“May I have the name of he to whom I am so indebted.” It was not a request.

“Charon, my Lady”

“Elizabeth” she replied, gazing over the water after her would be assassin. There was not a ripple to show his passing.

All rivers dream and remember in dreaming that they are echoes of the great river between life and death; The Styx .The Thames bore the guardsman’s corpse downstream for the mud larks to find and exclaim over.

The Boatman smiled again.


 

JA Ironside. Jules Anne Ironside started writing as a child. She grew up in Dorset in a house full of books, fed on a diet of myths, legends and spooky tales. She particularly likes to take well known myths and turn them on their heads. Jules is a keen martial artist having taught karate for fifteen years now. In her free time she likes to read and add to her collection of dead or little use languages. She has had several other short stories published in the anthologies Reading is Magic and Stories for Homes both available from Amazon. Her next published story will appear in the A Chimerical world; Unseelie anthology. You can follow her on Twitter.