Cast of Wonders 356: Little Wonders 20: 2018 Flash Fiction Contest Winners
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An Economy of Words
by Wendy Nikel
Growing up so far from the wordfields, I’ve learned to appreciate the few words I have, so as the fitting for Baron Kensington’s festival garments drag on, I cringe at each wasted remark.
I drop my own “yes”s and “no”s gently from my lips whenever he requires a response, and I catch as many as I can in the folds of my apron without drawing attention to the indecorous act. My words are nearly past the point of recognition anyway – warped and worn from overuse, from years spent hoarded in mama’s glass jars as my inheritance, from being cobbled together from sounds and syllables traded to the wordsmith until they resembled something useful. For what good are things like “cupidity” or “accoutrements” to a poor orphaned seamstress when the “tea” and “rent” are worn so thin?
But the baron has no such qualms about his words, no regard for the damage he does as he flings them from his mouth. He spits tirades regarding “dilettantish haberdashers” and “dunderheaded laundresses” as I circle his stool, my fingers working frantically with measuring ribbon and pins, wishing I could work faster just so he’ll leave.
The baron shifts suddenly and, in my hand’s shaking, the pin slides too deeply. The baron cries out, and I expel a “sorry!” with such force that I’m unable to catch it, unable to stop it from splintering into bits on the stone floor.
“You worthless child!” The baron’s words barrage me, slapping wet and sharp against my burning face. “You’ve pricked me, clumsy fool! You think I come all the way into the city, into this hovel of yours, to be accosted with pins?”
I have no “sorry” left. I’ve used mine, and now it’s ruined. I bite my tongue to keep other words from sputtering out – ones like “vain” and “vulgar” and “crook,” which often find their way to the back of my tongue during his fittings, but which I’ve never allowed to slip. Hot, angry tears gather in the corners of my eyes, and I imagine a world where the tables are turned, where I have a plethora of words and he has none. Where he must listen to me.
“What are you standing there for, you dim-wit?” he rages. “Get back to work. I haven’t time for such pitiful nonsense.”
I swallow my words along with my tears, clear them from my throat, and finish the fitting. The only sounds are the swish of the fabric and the occasional insult dropped from the baron’s lips onto my head.
He leaves a trail of grumbles out the door, and when I close it behind him, I take a moment to rest in the silence.
Then I take my broom and dustpan and gently, carefully sweep up each discarded word, bending them back into shape and bottling them up in glass jars before they can dissolve, keeping them safe for the day when I’ve gathered enough.
The day when I will speak and be heard.
by Amy Brennan
You are crying.
Salty tears dripping into my fur and steaming off in the dry heat.
You hug me tightly, I feel your ragged breathing, your shivers as you hold in the sobs that want to be free.
I want to offer more comfort, but what am I? – Just bits of fabric with plush stuffing, a pink button nose and a pair of beaded eyes. I can do no more than be hugged, do no more than silently offer sympathy, wish to the legendary stuffed toys of the past – and to Veleveteen most of all – that I can do more.
There is shouting. There are gun shots and screaming and you flinch but don’t cry out.
Your heart beats like mine would were I were alive.
You are so frightened.
You are so brave.
I wish I could see what you are seeing.
My long fluffy ears drape over your dusty brown skin. My button eyes and pink plastic nose are squashed between my stuffing and your tee-shirt. You stroke my ears for comfort holding me tightly while you shake, while the tears slowly drip… drip… drip into my fur.
The screaming dies down but there is weeping, whimpering. There are still voices – strangers – and the crunch of feet on the dusty ground.
You are dragged from your hiding place, a large hand clamped on your arm.
“I got one!” a masculine voice calls out.
You struggle and squeal.
Let me go. But he won’t.
Clutched in your hand as you struggle, the world swings around me. I see your parents being pulled to a car. The next thing I see are the scrubby bushes that hid you. The world tilts again and I see the man who holds you. Uniformed, in a hat and reflective covers over his eyes, he has a grim look on his face.
You are placed in a car – empty save for you in the back.
“Momia! Papi!” You cry.
He straps you in as you struggle and scream for your parents, then he takes hold of my legs.
“¡No! No tomes conejito!”
Don’t take my bunny. You clutch onto my head with desperate strength.
I feel the stitching in my neck and legs strain as the man pulls. You won’t let go.
A thread pulls apart, the beginning of a broken seam.
“¡No!” you cry again and he sighs, lets go.
“Alright kid. You can keep the bunny.”
You quieten, hugging me close.
The drive is long.
You are alone in this place of concrete and mesh walls and crying children of all ages. You left your friends to go with your family. You have been stripped of your family and protectors. But you are not alone. You would not let them strip you of me.
You are crying.
Salty tears dripping into my fur.
You want your parents.
You want to be safe.
You have only me.
For now, just for now that is enough.
The Mud Princess
by R. Jean Bell
The huge stone in the middle of the creek called to Ruby, as it did every summer. Each year she tried to lift it, but she had never been strong enough. Once she even dragged Liam down here, but he couldn’t budge it at all.
She wriggled her toes into the mud to find a solid footing then reached deep into the muck with her fingers. She pulled hard, but her hands slipped, and she fell backwards, her bottom plunking into the cool water, stirring up silt.
Trying again, she dug deeper until she found a bump to grip. She bent her knees, took a deep breath, and lifted like an Olympic weightlifter. It took all her strength, but the rock came away and she flipped it back.
The water cleared, revealing her prize: the biggest crayfish she’d ever seen. Something didn’t look right, but she reached down and caught it.
She pinched gently in front of its tail, avoiding the giant snapping claws and the weird shape on its back. It screamed as she pulled it from the water. She’d never heard a crayfish make noise before and she’d caught hundreds.
The screeches became words. “Where’s the princess?”
The shape on its back looked like a tiny human, riding astride. Startled, Ruby almost dropped it.
“What princess?” she asked, bringing her hand up to her eye to see better.
“The prophecy states that only the true heir to the throne can open the gateway.” He twirled the end of his grey handlebar mustache with one hand while the other held a flattened pitchfork.
“If you mean that big rock, I lifted it.”
He shook his head. “Your feet are bare. A princess always wears slippers.”
She gestured to the stiff ill-fitting shoes handed down from her cousin that lay on the bank. “We can’t afford fancy stuff and wet shoes are icky.”
“You’re dirty. A princess is always clean.” He stabbed her nose with his fork.
“Ouch!” She touched the sore spot. “You’re mean.”
He kicked the side of the crayfish with his heels and it clapped its claws again. “I’m the guardian of the kingdom. Take me to the princess.”
“What kingdom?” It was patch of muddy pebbles under a rock.
He pointed towards the spot with his trident. “Through that tunnel is a land of riches and magic. Now, where’s the princess?”
“There’s only me.”
“I suppose you’ll have to do,” he said, tugging at his mustache. “We’ll get to work on your dresses as soon as you’re shrunk and have had a bath. And you’ll need proper slippers also. Repeat after me: crumpa, crimpa, crickle.”
She hated dresses and shoes. “Why?”
“To become the princess. It’s your destiny.”
“Nuh-uh.” She shook her head. “Nana says I can be anything I want when I grow up. I’m gonna be a biologist.”
Ruby returned the crayfish to his hole and flipped the rock back. Then she gathered her shoes and skipped barefooted home to Nana’s for dinner.
About the Authors
R. Jean Bell
R. Jean Bell has been devouring any available reading material since age three, often averaging a book a day. This love of reading brought her to writing both fiction and poetry. Although she grew up playing in the creeks of Pennsylvania, she’s spent the last twenty years enjoying the beaches of Denmark. She still believes shoes are torture devices, so she trained her border collie to help remove them.
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and is forthcoming from Analog and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com
Amy is a huge fan of all manner of fiction and non fiction writing, music, art, basically anything even mildly creative. A geologist by training, holding a masters in Geoscience from Keele Unversity she used to make mud pies for a living. It is a job that is both enjoyably challenging and at times mind-numbingly repetitive. She devoured audiobooks at a rate of knots to get her through the day – until she discovered podcasts and hasn’t looked back since. She lives in Cambridgeshire with her partner, and three floofs of the cat and rabbit type. She has 1 professionally published credit: “Bunny’ and has recently started dipping her toes into narrating. She occasionally blogs, and you can follow her on Twitter.
About the Narrators
As well as narrating, Chloë has written many short stories and some poetry. Her latest publication, ‘A Treacherous Thing’ can be found in the Fox Spirit Books’ Anthology The Jackal Who Came in From the Cold. She’s currently working on several projects, one of which might just send her down the rabbit hole. You can contact her through her website www.chloeyates.com while she wanders through Twitter under the sobriquet @shloobee. English born, she currently lives in the middle of Switzerland.
Roberto Suarez is a community college advocate and program manager in Portland, Oregon. He is the co-host and producer of A Pod of Casts: The Game of Thrones Podcast and Radio Westworld: The Westworld Podcast. You can find Roberto on the web and on Twitter.
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.