Anthropophagy

The man-eater crouches in the corner of his room and stares at me. All he can see are my eyes as I peer through the thin slat cut high into the iron door.

His hair hangs short and ragged about his face, his skin is as pale as blind earthworms. Father once explained that this sort of creature abhors the clothes of men, and to tie his own trousers and lace on boots was what he taught the man-eater first.

He still strips naked before meals, though.

Of all the things Father collected this is my favorite. It exasperated Father that rather than play the golden harp or admire rainbow diamonds and butterfly lace, rather than groom the razor swans and cuddle the exotic blue cats, I’d lean this stool against the iron door to climb up and watch the man-eater.

When I was younger I didn’t believe he was dangerous. He was only a skinny boy my age, putting together intricate puzzled on the stone floor of the tower room. He didn’t read, but surely it was only because no one ever taught him. One morning I watched him flip through an illuminated book so carefully and eagerly that I stole the key from Father’s study and arrived with an alphabet primer under my arm and candy in my nightgown pocket.

As I slipped in, he stood and backed up to the wall, those large dark eyes of his locked to my face. I smiled, offering him the primer. He reached out with one lanky arm and curled his fingers around it. Dried blood stained his cuticles, and I nearly dropped the book. But I straightened my shoulders and strode to his small desk as confidently as I was able with bare feet. I set three pieces of candy onto the table, red and gleaming like rubies, and said, “I thought I should teach you to read letters.”

The man-eater slunk beside me, his mouth firmly closed. This near to him – nearer than I’d ever been – I could see the gray sleepless hollows beneath his eyes and the gentle blue veins at his temples. He stared at me, just taller, but skinnier, and then slowly, slowly, put the primer onto the desk. He reached for one of the candies and brought it to his mouth. When he slipped it between those pink lips, I glanced away.

I opened the primer and smoothed the old parchment. “Here is A.”

Ay,” he whispered.

“Yes! Good!” I smiled proudly, and the man-eater smiled back.

His teeth hooked like fangs, every last one of them sharp. I felt my face drop and my fingers splayed flat against the primer. The man-eater closed his mouth and focused onto A. He traced it with his finger, giving me time to calm.
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Bear

It was bones cracking.

The nightmare.

But waking up gave him no outlet to scream, for his throat could only whimper and roar. His tongue pressed against sharp teeth, yellowed and stained as though he’d spent a lifetime swallowing rabbits and deer-livers. He had no lips to form words, but sometimes in that moment before consciousness, he remembered language.

What he’d say: the snap and pop of fire makes me remember what it was like to change.

One of the sisters always heard him, slipping out of their loft on silent bare feet. Her shawl reminded him of something blue he used to know, and her silky white hair curled like the rapids in the river beside his…

She touched his muzzle unafraid, hissing little reassurances and digging her fingers into the thick ruff behind his ears.

The other sister came shortly, always aware of the first’s absence. Her lips were red and her eyes darker than… another thing he used to know. Together they teased him, tugging his fur or blowing lightly in his ears. The dark one painted pink on his claws. The quiet one tied glass beads into his fur.

***

It was a woman’s hands.

The dream.

Caressing his face, his smooth human skin. He could never see a thing, but only feel her fingers fluttering his lashes, drawing a line down his nose, tracing the corner of his mouth. There was no need to remember language then.

Those were the mornings he woke quietly, the banked fire pushing gentle warmth at his back. He heaved up onto his paws and trundled to the door a few steps before settling back into this monster’s shape.

And remembering he couldn’t turn the handle. If he wanted through the door, out of the cottage, he’d have to break through. Easy, with his bulk. But then the winter would rush in.

***

The world outside was built of diamonds. Snow and ice glaring the sun back at him, but the sisters ran ahead, leaving shadowed footprints for him to follow. Sometimes he did, vaguely knowing it was a game, a game he’d played before, hunting… hunting deer on the back of a horse with gray muddled eyes. Named…

He didn’t know his own name.

Just Bear.

Maybe his memory would blossom with the flowers.

***

It was easier to sleep.

 

 

Today’s story based on the common prompt: Snow White and Rose Red
image by Roxnstix via flickr CC

 

True, Truest

I told the king the truth before I’d grown old enough to understand lying.

Since, he’s come to rely on me. I sit at his knee on a three-legged stool, my ankles together, hair oiled and braided into as much of a crown as I’ll ever receive, in a plain but finely made dress there’s no question everyone can see. From there I observe his court, and when the king asks what I see, I tell him. For my eleventh birthday he bestowed upon my mother a small retirement cottage outside the city, and my uncle who helped raise me a stipend to open his own clock shop. When I turned fifteen I was granted the title Truth Sayer, and a tiny sapphire and emerald ring with the king’s seal. I’ve always striven to serve His Majesty well, never skimping on the truths I see or sparing anyone. My word has led to executions and revelry, to the king’s fury, consternation, and eternal gratitude.

Tonight will be the last time.

The moon hangs low and orange over the garden. I stare at it, listening to the voices from this afternoon echo in my chamber. Three hundred and seventeen dead, Violet. His priorities are changed. You know this is the truth. You always do. Three hundred and seventeen. Do you have to tell their mothers why they died?

My heart pinches, cutting off the memories. I shudder and stand, taking up the dagger from the windowsill. Its jasper hilt is cold in my palm and slippery. I slide it into my skirt pocket, through the thin slit. There’s a hilt strapped to my thigh, an assassin’s tool.

Bennett waits for me in the hallway, his fine jacket gathering dust for how still he stands. Like a shadow he peels away from the wall and holds out his hand. I ignore it, for the truth is I won’t accept any comfort for what I’m about to do.
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One Wing

Rory Cahill has a wing instead of an arm. From the edges of his neck, spreading down his shoulder, over his biceps and triceps, around his elbow and lengthening along his wrist, are intricately inked feathers. Every inch of tan skin slinks and ripples with lines of the tattoo, as if wind flutters around him.

He always wears those A-line shirts as soon as the sun’s out, even in winter, as if he can’t stand to have a sleeve hiding his skin. Or he just wants to show off that physique. (Nobody complains unless they’re jealous anyway.) I definitely don’t complain. He sits in front of me in Pre-Calc, and even though the dress code forces another layer onto him I can stare at the back of his neck, where the first thin black feather peeks out from his collar. When I know the answer to the problems on the white board, I let myself fantasize about skimming my finger right there, and up into his hairline where I know the short hairs will tickle him. I’d put my tongue against that feather and Rory Cahill would say my name.

Nobody knows why he got it. I mean, one wing? He’d fly in circles.

He’s been asked before. By friends and enemies, in homeroom and in the quad, and memorably, during the pep rally against Newan High, Sandy Redford the head cheerleader asked right into the spotty microphone: “The question of the day isn’t whether we’ll defeat the Bighorns, or even by how much! The question is why does Rory Cahill have a one wing?”

Everybody laughed and cheered, and his buddies prodded Rory from where the basketball team stood in a line, across the gym floor to Sandy. She shoved the microphone under his mouth, (nearly gagging him I thought), and he said, “So I don’t have a disqualifying advantage over the other team.”

He was everybody’s favorite after that. We’re all shallow in the 11th grade.
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Homefront

I close my eyes before I kill him.

Just in the final seconds as my swordpoint hits fast and straight through the hole in the chain mail under his arm. In order not to see the expression on his face, his eyes bulge, the gasp of breath when he realizes it was a killing stroke. There’ll be pink bubbles on his lips as his knees hit the muddy ground, and his own weight jerks his body off my sword as long as I square my feet.

It’s the worst way to do it, to not watch. Anything could happen, but I can’t do it any other way.

As he falls I look again, in time to turn heavily and block another attack with my shield. But Deck knocks the new enemy over by grabbing his collar and flinging him back. My brother stands over the fallen soldier and guts him before grinning at me through a blood-flecked beard. He’s just managed to grow it.

I lower my sword because the enemy band is withdrawing back into their forest. It was only a score of them, down to a quarter of that now, and their long shadows stretch back toward us through the trees, promising more tomorrow. And the next day and the next, through the gods know how many more weeks. Here on the southern front, there’s almost no winter to speak of, and so no pause in the king’s war.

Deck bares his teeth at their backs. “Run!” he screams after them. “Run from us!” And he claps me on the shoulder, making me stagger. I sink the tip of my sword into layers of fallen leaves for balance, thinking of how Captain would cuss at me for it. Your sword is your life, boy, don’t treat it like a stick – what if there’s an enemy behind you and you can’t bring the sword up fast enough? You want to do nothing but fling mud in some banger’s face as you die? I breathe through my teeth, as if I can stop the thick smells from sticking to my tongue: blood and rot and that sharp smell of the evergreens around here.

“Let’s go, Half,” Deck says, not waiting before he begins tromping back toward camp. I kneel down, ignoring the ache in my right thigh from an old scar, and set down my shield beside Deck’s gutted enemy. He’s clutching at his stomach, where blood leaks through the wide round metal joints of his armor, and I smell his death easily enough. But it won’t be easy for him, and I pull my dagger from the sheath on my gauntlet. He’s hissing and his big eyes stare up at the purple sky as I tug off the helmet skewed on his head and set my blade against his throat.

He’s doomed, and this will be better than him gasping and bleeding here until the wolf-priests come to collect our dead and burn the enemy overnight. This is the right thing to do. The good thing.

But I close my eyes again, while the knife pushes gently into his dirt-crusted neck. It’s got to be done. It’s just another practice thrust, Half. Do it.

And I do. I should’ve taken my gauntlet off first, but it’s already got blood soaked into the cracks and this spray won’t make it too much worse.

***

As I drink thick broth at the fire that night, my sword hand begins to tremble.

I set down my mug and clench a fist, tucking the offending hand against my side. I’ve only been back at the front for eight days. I should be good for at least twelve more before fatigue sets in, before I’m anxious again and jumping at the cracks from the fire.
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Jack’s Field of Bargains

There was a farm off highway 32, just north of the road, that the Linwood High School cross-country team drove past every Tuesday and Thursday during the fall semester on their way to the six-mile course near Lake Archer.

The farm was just a two-story cabin with peeling white paint and a collapsing barn out back. The silo’d been stripped of its tiles and looked like nothing more than a fat concrete smoke stack, and a massive old cottonwood shaded a pond covered in lily-pads. Between the silo and the tree was a fallow field a half-acre square, full of junk. It was organized in haphazard rows, and varied from tin can sculpture and tire flower beds, to trunks of porcelain baby dolls and old rotary telephones.
A hand-painted plywood sign declared JACK’S FIELD OF BARGAINS.

Tom Vanderpoel sat in the backseat of his teammate Evan’s rusty Chevy, forehead pressed to the cool window, as they sped at least ten over the highway limit. He’d only been running cross country for a couple of weeks, having moved to Linwood with his mom after she and his dad divorced over the summer. Up front was Evan’s girlfriend and star of the women’s team, Mary Jo. Her feet were up on the dash as she hummed along with some emo singer-songwriter and Evan performed a monologue on the injustice of Mr. Summers, the U.S. history teacher’s, epically long final exams. Tom didn’t mind, since it kept him from having to talk back, and he was struggling with himself for thinking Evan in no way deserved Mary Jo.

When he saw the sign, he interrupted. “What kind of bargains?”

Mary Jo set her feet down into the well and twisted around. “Oh, Jack’s. My mom says her dad used to be friends with Jack Dalling, and he used to say you could find your destiny in his field.”

“Seriously?”

Evan snorted. “It’s junk.”

She narrowed her eyes dangerously at her boyfriend, and Tom said, “Pull over.”

There was a dirt turn off about fifty yards down, and Evan swerved as his wheels fell off the pavement. He cursed, but continued on. The car filled with the crunch of gravel as the wheels kicked up a solid cloud of dust as they backtracked. He pulled to the side, the square nose of his Chevy pushing at tall yellow grass. Tom and Mary Jo shoved their doors open immediately, spilling into the same grass. It scratched at Tom’s track pants and he considered the likelihood of ticks.

Mary Jo was in shorts, and squealed as she dashed to the tractor path where all the grass was flattened out. “Asshole!” she called back at Evan, who snickered as he stepped onto the safe gravel and came around the car to join them.

Crickets chirped and tiny winged bugs scattered around their heads, buffeted by the dry breeze. Overhead the sky was pristine blue, unbroken by clouds. As sorry as Tom usually was to have come here instead of going with his dad to Wisconsin, he had to admit at least to himself that this much sky was awesome, in that old sense of the word his Junior High English teacher had tried to get her kids to understand.

The three of them stopped at the junk field, near where a man sat in a beach chair. His face was tanned and cracked with wrinkles like a dried up riverbed, and an old John Deere baseball cap shaded his sharp blue eyes. “Hey there, you kids. You come to trade?”

“Trade?” Tom said.
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Death’s Red Bowler

When Bernadette was very small, she thought she was the only one who could see the Driver.

She’d been six years old when her neighbors had moved their old granny into their house along with a hospice nurse. For a week, Bern came home from school and helped her mama bake a pie or cookies or a casserole that they’d walk over to the Oswalds’ together. Everyone whispered, and the hallway smelled cold. Not like the bright orange feeling Bern used to get when she visited to play with the Oswalds’ old poodle.

The last morning, Bern was slowly tying her shoelaces on the small concrete step just outside her front door while her mama ran around the house after the right purse and her favorite earrings and – oh yes – grabbing a lunch from the freezer. As Bern finished her laces, a dark shape turned up her street: black as fresh asphalt, the carriage was square and windowless, with large silver wheels. The team of four horses pulling it were black, too, except where the sunlight caught them just right and they shimmered purple and blue and pretty, perfect yellow, in slick rainbows like spilled oil.

Bern stood up, clapping her hands together. But her little pink shoes stuck to the concrete as she noticed the man on the high bench, his gloved hands holding the reins loose as he drove. The sun shone hot, but this man wore a coat with tattered hems and a wide-brimmed hat, all of it black. He drew the horses up, and his carriage stopped in front of the Oswalds’ house.

And nothing.

The horses shook their flanks, sighing and settling. The man on the bench leaned back and tipped his hat down so the rim shadowed his face. Bern waved, and one of the horses turned its long nose to her, stretching out its neck. One of her feet lifted free, and just as Bern began to run, her mama snatched her up, saying, “Come on baby, time for school!” and tucked her up into their car. Mama kept her face averted from the carriage, never glancing that way or pausing even as she backed out of the driveway. But Bern pressed her little hand to the window and stared until they turned right at the stop-sign and the carriage vanished behind the houses.

***

What impressed her most about the carriage wasn’t that nobody seemed to want to talk about it, or that she saw it herself almost once a month, or how easily it slipped through traffic, never quite impossibly, but often only avoiding collisions in a way that had Bern wincing and on edge.

It was that the driver always wore a different hat.
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Girl, Waiting

There he stands three steps higher than I, dark eyes locked onto my face and the scythe-like curve of his smile the way it has always been. I bow my head and step nearer, my slippers thin enough I feel the smoothness of the stone under the balls of my feet. I go deliberately, softly, hoping to pass him by.

He catches my right hand. I lean against the curving tower wall as he puts his face to my sleeve. I am nearly undone by the feel of his hot breath in the crook of my elbow, and then he pushes back my sleeves and touches his lips to my wrist.

His words slither up my skin, “I will kill you, if I must.

It is a sharp thrust of steel straightening my back. Gripping my knife – only a small lady’s knife, for cutting her dinner, for showing off her father’s favor – I twist and stab it at his face.

My hope is surprise will win me the day, but I might’ve known better. He grabs my left hand, crushing my fingers under his and against the hilt of my knife. Slamming me back, he laughs.

He laughs.

I am pressed between the hard stone wall and his body. The metal of his armor coif shimmers dully in the daylight melting through one thin window over my head. It is like dragon scales, growing out of his forehead and spilling all down his body, changing him. With my hand still trapped in his, he puts the tip of my knife to his cheek and together we cut. I shove all my weight into him, into my arm, but he is too strong, and only a trickle of blood leaks from his skin.

He smiles at me again, and my knees are week. I will not bend, I tell myself. I will not bend. But through his smile he suddenly cries out, as if in fear and pain! “Aoife! No!” And before I can react, swings me down the stairs.

When he lets me fall, all the world falls with me.
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Holy Water

Just before my Granny Ava died, she pulled me near to her face so all I could smell was antiseptic and her slight sour breath. “Peach,” she whispered, “your mother . . . isn’t . . . human.”

Stained glass

I jerked back so hard the metal bars on the side of the hospital bed we’d had rolled into her living room rattled. “Gran!”

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The Center of Valor

She waits to kill her king with a glass of sherry cupped in one palm and a dried cornflower in the other.

The blue petals flake away each time she moves, as she curls her fingers one at a time until they are a cage around the flower. Juro gave it to her when she first came to the palace, with a promise that if she fulfills her part of the plan and takes her vengeance for the slaughter of her family, she’ll be a hero.

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