Archive for December 2009

Eight Maids A’Milking

December 21, 2009

by

Tony Noland

“… and that concludes my presentation. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.”

Meixu Liao smiled and turned her hands out, palms upwards. Americans typically saw this combination of facial expression and body language as conveying relaxed confidence and honest openness. She hoped it would quell any urge to ask difficult questions. The part of the data that she’d shown them should be enough to win them over, but Daniel Jackson was a very sharp man. You don’t get to be head of the biggest agribusiness conglomerate in the world by being a pushover.

One of her scientists turned on the lights and started fussing with the computer. Meixu stood with her smile and her open hands while the Americans looked at her and at each other. They were all waiting for Jackson to speak. Her own boss, Xianhu Fong, that fat idiot, looked at the Americans, almost bouncing out of his chair with the desire to “facilitate”. All of her own scientists were busy scribbling notes so they wouldn’t have to look at anyone.

Jackson spoke without looking at the notes and handouts in front of him. “Doctor, thirty-seven million dollars is a lot of money.”

She put her hands together and dropped the smile. She set her face to a serious, almost grave expression. If Jackson was only going to focus on the money, this would be easier than she hoped.

“Yes, Mr. Jackson, it is.” she said. “NovoGenerica has shown a great deal of faith in me and my team. I hope that what I’ve shown you today has justified that faith. The research -”

Fong interrupted her, “We are very, very, very grateful for all of your support! It’s a tremendous statement of activity!” He actually stood up to deliver this little speech to Jackson, using his very best English. Meixu knew her gritted teeth weren’t showing on her face; she had too much practice putting up with the Director’s fawning. Fong was a buffoon, but his antics were useful at times. However, Jackson was unlikely to be distracted. He had a personal interest in this work, having grown up on a dairy farm. That had made him an important champion of her work, but it also made her present situation very dangerous. This had to be handled delicately.

Jackson returned Fong’s bow with an inclination of his own head, then said, “Thank you, Mr. Fong. Please, Dr. Liao, you were saying?”

“I just wanted to acknowledge what NoveGenerica’s funding has meant for this institution,” she said. “From our days as the old Xiaoqueng Women’s College, we’ve grown into a world class research center. The investment from your company has been pivotal in that growth. Equally important, of course, has been the excellent leadership of Mr. Fong,” she said, bowing and thinking of Fong’s cousin the Party Assistant Secretary General. “None of the research we’ve conducted or, if I may say, the successes we’ve achieved, would have been possible without this mutually beneficial collaboration with NovoGenerica. Mr. Jackson, I know that you personally have been our chief supporter, and I am grateful for that.”

“Dr. Liao, in explaining our various research investments to my board of directors,” Jackson said, “I don’t have to work too hard to sell them on the benefits of genetically modified crop plants, cloned livestock or proteomically enhanced biofuels. These are technologies they understand. Despite all the pressure from the anti-GMO groups and the animal rights activists, the board members can readily see the advantages of basic research in these areas. After all, our mission is to advance agribusiness technologies to provide the food, feed, fiber and fuel of the future.” He repeated the tagline from their latest ad campaign, sounding as though he’d written it himself. Perhaps he had, she thought.

“Doctor, your original work in transgenic nanofiber synthesis was also fairly straightforward. However -” he lifted his copy of the executive summary “- the board has raised a number of questions about your latest reports on the cell culture-based bioreactors. Based on your spending patterns, it would appear that the majority of your efforts in the last three years have been directed to this research.” He set down the report and took off his reading glasses.

“So why don’t you cut all this bullshit, Dr. Liao, and tell me what it is you’ve been doing with our money.”

In the silence that followed, Meixu could tell by the color of their faces which of her people had a good grasp of idiomatic English and which did not. Fong, feeling the sudden change in the room, snapped his fingers at his interpreter, who began whispering into his ear.

“What is it you’d like to know, Mr. Jackson?” Meixu said. She might still be able to survive this.

Jackson looked at one of his assistants, the accountant. Kevin something. The man pulled up a sheaf of notes from his attaché and cleared his throat.

“In the last three years,” he said, “nineteen million, eight hundred thousand dollars were spent on something called AIS, the Advanced Intermediate System. What exactly is this project? You describe the results from it in rather glowing terms and you discuss how critical it is towards the development of the full bioreactor. However, you never actually say what this system is, or why it’s so important.”

Podelski, she thought. Kevin Podelski.

“Mr. Podelski, more than twelve years ago NovoGenerica asked me to use genetic engineering to produce fibers with certain unusual properties. With your support, we developed entirely new technologies and then expanded on them. We altered the proteome of mammary gland cells in our clonal herd of cows, so that the milk would contain the oligomeric building blocks of the synthetic fibers you wanted. Those eight transgenically modified cows were designed, created and, I might add, hand milked by my staff of scientists. With those eight animals, we successfully converted conventional livestock feed into nanofiber strands with a tensile strength almost eight thousand times that of molybdenum steel wire.

            “Ultimately, however,” she continued, “we want to have a machine-based system that will not involve actual livestock. By suspending in vitro cultures of the proteomically enhanced mammary gland cells in nutrient solutions, we will be able to scale up production to make it economically feasible.”

“We understand the goals of your research, doctor.”

“Then you will also understand that we cannot go directly from live cows in straw-filled pens to stainless steel tanks fed by pipes and pumps. Intermediate stages of technology are necessary, and that is the AIS. I believe my reports on the AIS have been fully descriptive with respect to the materials and methods. As to the budget for that project, there were a number of basic technological hurdles that we had to overcome. All of the accounting details are in the appendices, spreadsheets F and G.” Please let the bluster work, she thought, please let it work.

“Yes, Dr. Liao,” Podelski said, “you were very informative in your reports. The documentation on the AIS runs to more than four thousand pages. In fact, it is so informative and so descriptive that the scientists on our end can’t make heads or tails of it.”

He flipped through the papers. “This project has everything from animal cloning to genomic enhancement to tissue grafting. The million and a half spent on mass spectrometers and proteomics sequencers I can understand, but there are expenses listed for magnetic resonance imaging, neuroanatomical modeling, an entomologist, a grab bag of everything under the sun. You’ve even got one mysterious salary line here for a guy who turns out to be an aerospace engineer! You work with cows, doctor – why did you need to employ entomologists and aerospace engineers?”

“They were consultants, not employees.”

Fong rapped on the table and said, “Do not undertake evasions! Answer the question!”

Meixu frowned and said nothing. Podelski looked at Jackson, then closed his attaché.

“Doctor,” said Jackson, his voice unexpectedly gentle, “there are some on my staff who have concluded that this AIS project is nothing more than an accounting vehicle, a slush fund that you are using to siphon off my company’s money into a wide range of pockets.”

He held up both hands to silence and forestall Meixu as well as Fong.

“If I thought that was the case, I wouldn’t have travelled twelve time zones to be here. I would have simply pulled the plug on this place from my office in Kansas City. You’ve done good work for us in the past, doctor. You’ve accomplished things with cows that I never would have thought possible back when I was a kid milking two hundred head on my father’s dairy farm. My company has profited from this research relationship, and I would like for it to continue to do so.

“But,” he said, “I will break you right in half if I conclude that you are stealing from me. If this AIS is for real, I want to see it. Now.”

“Mr. Jackson, I hesitate to show you the AIS because of the nature of -”

“Now, doctor. Right now.”

Eye to eye, Meixu and Jackson were unmoving for long, long seconds, until the silence was broken by Fong rapping on the table again. “Dr. Liao!” he said, “This is unacceptable! You will escort Mr. Jackson to this laboratory at once! He is a most important friend of this institute, as you seem to forget!”

Meixu dropped her eyes to the floor. This was going badly, but there was still a chance. She said, “Very well, Mr. Jackson. The AIS runs around the clock; we can go see it immediately.” She moved away from the screen and handed the laser pointer to her assistant.

As the group gathered their papers and prepared to leave the executive meeting room, Meixu approached Jackson. Fong was leaning into him, blabbering a mixture of servile apologies and macho bluster. Perhaps if she’d shown the AIS to Fong, if he’d known what it was, he might have been counted on to help her hide it. It solved so many problems, it was the answer to everything. Wouldn’t even he have understood how important it is? With an inward sigh she realized that it didn’t matter if he had. Fong had no control over his own face. If he’d known, the horror of it would have overwhelmed the wonder and he’d have given it all away in the first twenty minutes.

Jackson caught Meixu’s eye and let her stand for a moment while he allowed Fong to vent. He interrupted the flow to say, “Absolutely, Mr. Fong, there is a great deal of truth in what you’re saying. Let me have a look at this AIS, and then I would very much like to hear your views on the matter. I know you are a busy man, Mr. Fong, but can I impose on you for some of your time right now? My associate, Mr. Podelski, would benefit greatly from hearing your perspectives on this. Oh, Kevin? Kevin, Mr. Fong has some fascinating insights into the situation. You need to hear them.”

Before Fong quite knew it, Podelski had engaged him in conversation and led him into a corner of the room, away from Jackson and Meixu. “One of your scientists can direct everyone else, doctor,” he said. “I’d like to speak to you alone. Shall we?” He held the door for her. Like Meixu herself, Jackson carried no files or papers; that was what assistants were for. The two of them walked on, their footsteps echoing in the empty hallway.

“Mr. Jackson…” Meixu fell silent, not knowing how to begin.

“You’re not getting ready to apologize, are you?”

She actually stumbled, she was so surprised. “Apologize? For what?”

He made a face, something that was not quite a grimace. “I didn’t think so. Alright, doctor, where would be a good place to start with this? Ah, I know – tell me about the neuroanatomy. Why did you need MRIs of the cow’s brains?”

She didn’t hesitate. She knew a last chance when faced with one. “Because lactation is a function of the hippocampus. Oxytocin is synthesized in the hypothalamus and released from the pituitary glands, stimulating milk production. To get mammary tissues that produce milk all the time, not just after the cow has given birth, we needed to understand how to get control of the hormonal regulatory systems.”

“And did you?”

“Yes. We can use microelectrodes to stimulate key areas of the brain and make milk production a permanent condition.”

Jackson shook his head. “That’s a dead end. Hormone control has been tried before. Cows can only produce milk for six or seven months before the metabolic drain kills the animal.”

“Not the way we do it.”

He looked at her, very sharply. She didn’t elaborate.

“Alright, tell me about the entomologist.”

She took a deep breath, then said, “Spiders make silk from at least twenty different kinds of precursors. They excrete them in different concentrations using specialized structures within their spinnerets. What we see as spider silk is actually synthesized as these precursors combine. The spider can alter tensile strength, elasticity, UV resistance, a host of structural and performance criteria, all using a brain no larger than a salt crystal.

            “For our work, we needed to be able to combine the subcomponent oligomers of the synthetic fibers in a precisely controlled way, so we used the spinnerets as a model system. Once we had the expertise in house, we… did something similar with the AIS. The transgenic cloning of the spinneret structures let us fine tune the fibers we were making through electrode stimulation. We got materials that were really astonishing. It was when we made lot number 679-C that we started thinking about space elevator applications.”

“About what? What did you say?”

“That batch had all the properties necessary for building a space elevator cable. Incredibly strong, cross-linked co-polymer fibers that were self healing. There was also some kind of autoassembling fullerene tube structure at the core of it that made it electrically conductive. We still don’t quite understand how it works, but with some more tweaking, I’m certain we could improve the binding efficiency. That would allow it to generate enormous amounts of power simply by interacting with Earth’s magnetic field, far more than would be needed to lift payloads to geosynchronous orbit.”

Jackson said, “But naturally, the fibers can’t be made in bulk, and you’d need more money than God to build such a structure, right?” He sounded like a man trying not to get excited.

“Actually, we’ve already made ten thousand meters of it with the AIS. All of the small scale results are holding up. The engineering consultants said that construction of the space elevator would be expensive, but feasible.”

He stopped and turned to face her. “Are you serious? Screw space elevators. If this is for real, this is a power source, an unlimited source of free electricity! Don’t you realize this is the most important advance in the history of biogenic nanotechnology! Why on Earth didn’t you say all this in your report?”

“Because it was made using the AIS. I wanted to get the bioreactor working, and reproduce the fibers with that.”

“Goddamn it, doctor, if this stuff is as good as you claim, what are you waiting for? It sounds like your current system is good enough for us to establish ourselves as first to market; we can own the entire industry! You’ve already done the legwork for it – let’s build a dozen or a hundred of these AIS things and scale up production.”

Meixu shook her head. “I don’t want to make another AIS.”

“You don’t… why the hell not?”

She swiped her ID across the lab’s security panel and stepped through as the double doors opened. Jackson followed.

Every sense was assaulted. The noise was deafening, a clicking and buzzing cacophony of a thousand pumps, fans, and digital readouts. The smell was a mixture of vomit, manure and acetone. But the sight was what made Jackson’s face turn pale. Suspended from the ceiling in the huge central bay of the laboratory was a glistening, bulbous thing, twelve meters long at least, a monstrosity of pink and gray flesh, covered in tubes, wires and small pieces of equipment.

Along the length of it, teats and udders erupted from all over its body. He couldn’t even begin to count them all. To each was attached a miniaturized milking harness, linked with wires and tubes. A team of masked technicians were tending these, eight young women doing the milking, adjusting clamps and hoses. He approached one teat as closely as the smell would allow. Its tip was pulsing in time with the flashing lights on the controller. A single hair-like filament was being drawn from the teat. It was led up to a roller pulley and it disappeared into a maze of tubes in the ceiling. The same was being done at each of the dozens, hundreds of teats.

The effect was like seeing a hideous conglomeration of fleshy pink spiders, each an abomination of life and electronics, each fighting to spin its own little web, and everything being stolen from them, thread by thread.

After a long shocked moment, Jackson moved forward, approaching the end that had a cow’s head.

A small forest of wires disappeared into its skull. Its eyes were covered by little glowing screens. IV tubes led from some unknown source into the large veins of its neck.  A thick, translucent tube snaked into a huge hole in its throat, permanently attached by what looked like staples and gray tape. He could see a thick sludge being pumped into the thing. As he stood staring, he saw the head twitch and the nostrils flare. He heard a sound, muffled and tortured, but it was unmistakably the moo of a cow.

Clipped to what was left of one ear was a metal tag: DAISY. The D and Y had been scratched out. Jackson stepped back.

“It almost looked like a normal calf when it was born,” Meixu said. “We’d spliced in the spider DNA hoping to restructure the four normal teats into spinnerets, but we never expected anything like this. It started changing with the onset of its first estrus, grew so large it couldn’t support its own weight. We had to suspend it, then eventually cut off its legs to keep it from hurting itself. The wiring directly to the brain and the hypnotic visual inputs help keep it calm, but we keep it pumped with sedatives as a precaution. The IVs also supply the lactation hormones, antibiotics, everything the feeding tube doesn’t.”

“My God.”

“Mr. Jackson, it’s not that I can’t make another one of these. It’s that I don’t want to. I know this is horrible, it’s why I didn’t want to show it to you. Anyone with experience on a conventional dairy farm must find this… Please believe me, I never meant to do this to an animal, I never intended this to happen, but the AIS is the key to everything! Entirely new fields of materials science, cheap energy, cheap spaceflight… I know I can make the bioreactor work! I can get everything that I’m getting now, but from unfeeling tissue cultures supported by pumped nutrient streams and artificial hemoglobin instead of from this poor thing. We can euthanize the AIS, put it out of its misery just as soon as the bioreactor is up and running.”

Jackson returned to the massive head, tried to look into the milky, bloodshot eyes. “How long will that take?” he said.

“Three years. Five years at the outside, I promise.”

Jackson reached out and, moving slowly among the wires, tubes and staples, he ran his fingers gently along the side of the face and up behind the ear. The head twitched, held in place by the clamps but still seeking out his touch.

“I’m sorry, girl,” he whispered. “Daisy, Daisy, I’m so sorry. Just a little while longer, girl, just a little while longer. I swear it.”

BIO:  Tony Noland is an author and blogger living near Philadelphia, PA. He writes literary fiction and flash fiction, with occasional forays into science fiction, horror and fantasy. Tony is active on Twitter as @TonyNoland. His nanofiction has appeared in several Twitter-based e.zines, including Outshine, Thaumatrope and TweetTheMeat, as well as in “The World According to Twitter”, by David Pogue. His website, http://www.TonyNoland.com, hosts his writer blog and free fiction archive. In 2010, he will be co-editing the book, “The Best of 2009 #FridayFlash Anthology,” working with senior editor J.M. Strother. In addition to his short fiction, Tony has two novels in revision, and a great many more waiting to be written.

The Miracle at Hightop Farm

December 21, 2009

by

Jonathan Pinnock

 

Bertha says I shouldn’t have told anyone. But I need to know what it all means, and I can’t work it out on my own. Mind you, it’s not as if anyone else has come up with any sensible suggestions yet, so perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut. At least that way we wouldn’t have had to deal with all these religious types.

The Hindus I can handle. They’re nice, peaceful guys and I think they have the calf’s best interests at heart. Well, that’s obvious really: they’re Hindus, right? Bertha complains about the bells and chanting, but y’know I kind of like all that. And the food they give us is wonderful. No, the Hindus are no trouble at all. It’s the Christians I’m having trouble with.

I guess I should have expected trouble when I told everyone that we’d had a calf born by immaculate conception on Christmas Day. A grotesque parody, they called it. Tasteless. Vile. And even when I pointed out that most of the animals on Hightop Farm tended to be born in mangers, they were having none of it. For a few weeks we actually had our own picket from the Westboro Baptists, although they eventually lost interest when I managed to convince them that the calf wasn’t (as far as we could tell) gay.

But if there is a religious angle to it, I reckon you’d have to go a lot further back than that. I’ve been reading up on Hathor the Egyptian cow goddess lately and she seems cool. She’s all about love, motherhood and joy, and – y’know what? – I kinda think we need a bit more of that in these troubled times. Then again, Bertha says I’m full of shit. If the world were left to hippies like me to run, she says, every farm on the planet would be full of unmilked cows with sore udders. She’s a practical woman, my Bertha.

So what really happened, then, that morning in March?

Well, we were just about to set up for milking when there’s this strange light in the sky. Shortly after that, the phone lines went down; and Hightop being where Hightop is, that meant that we were completely cut off. Then the power failed, and Bertha and I began to get a little nervous. In fact, Bertha went so far as to arm herself with a pitchfork, saying she didn’t want no alien coming at her with an anal probe.

So when the knock on the door came, we both feared the worst. Bertha crouched, pitchfork in hand, ready to spring. We waited. And we waited. Then there was another knock – more insistent this time. So I gently opened up. But instead of the tentacled alien that we were expecting, my eyes were met with the sight of eight buxom blonde-haired milkmaids.

“Hello,” they said in unison. “Do your cows need milking?”

“I … well, as it happens, they do,” I said, turning to look at Bertha. She was still holding her pitchfork, but it now seemed to be aimed more at me than the newcomers. I shrugged at her, but all she did was narrow her eyes. She’s never been the most trusting of women, has my Bertha. But as I’ve said, she’s a practical one, too, and after a while she gave a little nod. After all, the herd needed milking, and we were without power.

So I took the eight of them girls into the milking shed, and they stood there for a moment, looking at the cows as if they’d never seen one before. Then they went from one to another, laying their hands on them as if they were searching for some kind of sign, until finally they arrived at Daisy.

“She is beautiful, is she not?” they said, tilting their heads on one side.

“Ha!” I said. “She’s good for nothing, that one. Never produced a single calf. Hardly ever delivers as much a teaspoon of milk either.”

“And yet she is beautiful,” they said again.

“Well, if you say so,” I said, not really following any of this.

“We do,” they said. “But now we will milk your herd. Please provide us with buckets.”

“Ah, yes, buckets,” I said, glad of something practical to do. I fetched eight pails and gave one to each. “You know what to do?” I said.

“Of course,” they said. “We are milkmaids.”

“Of course you are. Of course you are. Right. Well, I’ll leave you … to it,” I said, wondering how long it was going to take them to milk an entire shedful of cows. They could be there all week.

As it happened, they finished milking the entire herd in an hour. And then they were gone. And as soon as they left the farm, the power came back on and the phone lines to the outside world were up again.

Bertha and I didn’t talk much about what had happened until Daisy went sick a week or so later.

“You let them touch Daisy?” she said.

“I let them touch all of our cows, Bertha,” I said. “They were milking them, remember?”

“Yeah, but poor Daisy.”

“Well, looks like she’s going to miss her date with the inseminator, either way. Can’t risk her falling pregnant in that state.”

So that’s how we knew that Daisy had never been inseminated. And why it came as such a surprise when she brought forth that calf on Christmas Day – the calf that everyone wants to come and see.

Sometimes, y’know, I go and sit in the shed late at night and look at that magical calf of Daisy’s. And she looks back at me with a sad kind of look in her eyes, as if she knows everything that’s wrong in the world and that she could fix it all if she could just speak to us. And sometimes I wonder if one day she will do just that. Why not?

BIO:  Jonathan Pinnock was born in Bedfordshire, England, and – despite having so far visited over forty other countries – has failed to relocate any further away than the next-door county of Hertfordshire. He is married with two children, several cats and a 1961 Ami Continental jukebox. His work has won several prizes, and he has been published in such diverse publications as Litro, Every Day Fiction and Necrotic Tissue. His unimaginatively-titled yet moderately interesting website is at www.jonathanpinnock.com, and you can follow him on Twitter as @jonpinnock.

Beautiful Woman

December 20, 2009

by

Jeanette Bennett

 

“Are you Princess Odette?” a voice growled.

Cynthia looked up into the yellow eyes with slender pupils. The creature’s thin lips pulled over the pointed teeth into a snarl. A Chedorian–they looked like the misbegotten love child of an goblin and a gorilla.

Cynthia swallowed hard. “My name is Cynthia. I portray Princess Odette in the Mermaid Water Ballet Show. Can I help you?”

The Chedorian’s stubby fingers shoved a piece of paper at her. “Can I have your autograph?”

Cynthia blinked at the grotesque face and realized the snarl must really be a smile. She forced one of her own back. “Yes, of course.”

She looked down to see the page with her picture had been carefully torn from a program. She pulled a pen out of her purse and took the page. Cynthia started to ask the creature its name, but then realized she probably couldn’t spell it. So she just signed her name.

Her first fan. Great! This wasn’t quite the way Cynthia had pictured it. But nothing in her life unrolled quite the way she had pictured it.

Cynthia had always wanted to be on stage. Pity she couldn’t sing, dance or act. However, she could swim. She could swim longer and dive deeper than anyone else she knew. These talents lent themselves to only one thing–synchronized swimming.

Fortunately synchronized swimming had come back into vogue. The Water Follies had become so popular that small-time imitators had formed. Cynthia worked in one. At least she got the lead in one of the production numbers. She played–well, swam–Princess Odette in the Swan Lake number. The ten minute piece featured her and six other girls dressed in white one piece swimsuits layered to look like feathers. They did movements reminiscent of ballerinas to the music of Tchaikovsky. She wore the crown, so that made her Princess Odette. Shame there wasn’t a Prince in the piece, just the seven swans. In two other numbers, she just swam in the chorus line.

Show business had brought her to this God-forsaken planet out in the middle of nowhere. These back-water colony planets were so hard up for entertainment that they would flock to anything that showed up. This colony had to be about the furthest one from Earth. It would be months, maybe years before Cynthia would see Earth again. It would be Christmas in a few days, her first away from home.

“Why are you away from your tribe?” the Chedorian asked.

Cynthia smirked at that, calling the troupe of performers her tribe. Most of them snubbed her. “I wanted to see something of this planet.” She almost added there wasn’t much to see, but felt that would be rude. It might be just a dusty mining planet, but it was his home. “I didn’t notice any Chedorians in the audience, just the human colonists. Did you see the show?”

“Chedorains are not allowed. I peeked in. Saw you dancing in the water. I found this program on the ground. I took out your picture. You are Beautiful Woman.”

That took Cynthia aback. She might be a hell of a swimmer, but she was no beauty–not with this nose. “Uh, thank you. Is that why you followed me and wanted my autograph?”

“Yes, names are powerful, as are images. I wanted something of your spirit.”

Okay, that made Cynthia feel creepy.

Just then the sound of an explosion came from behind her. Cynthia spun around, trying to understand what happened. All she could comprehend was smoke, screaming and blood. A small freight transporter flew overhead carrying Chedorians with weapons blasting.

“Fools!” her Chedorian hissed. He grabbed her arm. “Come! Run! Follow me!”

Cynthia felt herself being dragged into an alley between two sandstone buildings. She didn’t fight, but tried to keep up with the creature. They came upon a long legged beast with large ears and protruding lips. The Chedorian scooped her up, and jumped onto the four legged creature’s back. He sat Cynthia in front of him.

She noticed this animal had what looked like a bridle on its head. The Chedorian grabbed it’s reins and shook them, making a trilling noise. The beast lurched forward, running down the street. It wove through the town until it at last reached the wilderness beyond the buildings. That didn’t take long, for the town was not that big.

They continued on over the open country toward the nearby hills. Her rescuer kept urging the beast forward through the brush. When they at last came to the hills, the Chedorian steered it into a narrow ravine. He pulled on the reins until the steed came to a halt. It’s long grey tongue lolled out of its mouth as it panted.

The Chedorian jumped to the ground, and then reached up and pulled Cynthia off.

“Where are we?” Cynthia looked about at the arid gulch. Far cry from the Smokey Mountains back home.

“Safe, for now.”

“Why did you bring me here?”

“Because you are Beautiful Woman.” He pulled his lips back to show those sharp teeth again.

Cynthia swallowed hard and backed away. “You realize they will come looking for me. I don’t know what how you treat your females, but in my society abducting women is not tolerated. They will come after you.”

“Abduction?” The Chedorian cocked his head.

“I mean I know some societies think it’s quite all right to steal women, as some sort of weird marriage thing, but that is not allowed among my people. You will be punished.”

The Chedorian now backed away form her. “What? You think I brought you here to be my mate? We are not even the same species!”

“That’s not what you had in mind? Then why do you keep calling me Beautiful Woman?”

“Because you are. Your movements in the water are so graceful. A thing of beauty should be protected.” The creature suddenly got a sick look on his face. “Wait, do human males mate with everything they think is beautiful? By Grata, I would hate to see what they would do in a temple full of art treasures!”

Cynthia started laughing–partly out of relief and partly at the bizarre picture that brought to her mind. She collected herself and looked up into those yellow catlike eyes. “I suppose I should thank you then.”

“Thank me?”

“For protecting me from those bandits.”

The Chedorian shook his head. “Not bandits. Defenders. They want to protect our people. Drive the humans away. The humans capture our people. They force us to work in their mines.”

“Slave labor? That’s illegal!”

“Maybe for humans to enslave humans. Not for humans to enslave Chedorians.”

“What! That’s not right. You might not be human, but you are still a person.” Cynthia hung her head. “Uh, what’s your name?”

“Pada of the Thumo Tribe.”

“I’m Cynthia Swimmer. Yeah, that’s my real name. Ironic, huh. Old Cherokee name dating back to the 19th century.” Cynthia stuck out her hand. “Glad to meet you.”

Pada took her hand, then bowed and pressed his forehead to it. Not quite what she had in mind, but a greeting is a greeting. “I am most honored to meet you, Beautiful Woman.”

Cynthia forced a smile. Great. She had always wanted to be called that, but she had hoped it would be some good looking young man. Oh well, Pada seemed harmless at least. “You said the humans are enslaving your people? Are you a slave?”

Pada shook his head. “I am a shaman. Humans do not see me, unless I want them to.”

“You can make yourself invisible?”

“I can make myself ignored. I do not call attention to myself. I am unimportant to the humans. I do not belong to them.”

“Is that all you are to the colonists–property?”

Pada patted the beast that had brought them. “We are no better than dukors to them. Still we treat dukors better than humans treat us.”

Cynthia felt her face flush, though whether with anger or shame she wasn’t sure. “You must hate humans. Why don’t you hate me?”

“I hate what the humans do to us. How they treat us.” Pada smiled at her. “Yet you treat me with respect. Why would I hate you?”

Cynthia smiled back at the creature. “That’s awful. Somebody should do something to stop this.”

“There is something you could do, Beautiful Woman.”

“Me? I can’t do anything. I’m nobody.”

“Yes, you are, and it’s something only you can do.”

“Huh?” Cynthia cocked her head, wondering what she was getting herself into.

“Long ago there was another enemy who came from the skies. A great queen arose. She united our people as one, so we could drive them away. Once our enemy was defeated she took off her crown. She said she held too much power for one person. She threw her crown into a deep pool of water. She said one day in a time of great need a new leader would come to free our people. We would know them by her crown they would retrieve from the pool.”

“So why hasn’t someone just dived in and gotten this crown before now?”

“Chedorians are terrible swimmers. You can do it. I saw you do it in a dream I had last night. That’s why I came to find you.” Those alien eyes could look so imploring–right up there with a hungry puppy.

“Is this pool close by?”

“Not far from here.”

“I suppose I could look at it–as long as you can get me back in time for tonight’s performance.”

“Yes, I will, Beautiful Woman.”

__

The pond wasn’t very big, maybe only fifty feet wide. Around it a couple of scrawny bushes took advantage of the moisture. There wasn’t much vegetation, mainly because the area was solid rock, the plants growing in holes that had collected enough blow sand to form natural flower pots.

“Is this an oasis?” Cynthia studied the well worn path behind them.

“This is a Holy Spot.”

“So how do you know the crown is here?”

Pada walked over to the edge of the pool and pointed.

Cynthia came over and looked down. The water was so clear she could see down to the bottom. There catching the sunlight lay a gold crown. “It must be deep because the crown looks too small to fit on someone’s head. Do you know how deep it is?”

Pada shook his head.

Cynthia didn’t have a swimsuit and she knew her clothes would weigh her down. She could strip down to her underwear, or take off all her clothes. She balked at that. She looked at Pada. The Chedorian found her as sexual attractive as the dukor. She shrugged and striped off her clothes.

Cynthia looked around for a loose stone to use as a diving brick to help her descend faster. She picked up a large rock that still looked small enough to hold in one hand. She took a deep breathe, then dived in. The water felt cool but not too cold to Cynthia’s skin. She felt glad she didn’t need to worry about chlorine burning her eyes. She swam down toward the crown that seemed to keep moving out of reach as it sat there waiting.

Cynthia bolted forward and finally felt her fingers touch the metal. She grabbed her prize and dropped the rock. She then somersaulted in the water. Her feet landed on the bottom and she jumped, propelling herself upward. She kicked her legs, feeling herself fly toward the sun’s image contorted by the water’s prism.

Damn. Her lungs began to burn. She fought the urge to gasp for breath. She had gone too deep. She tried to kick harder, but her strength faded. She wouldn’t make it to the surface in time.

Suddenly it felt like oxygen had been pumped into her lungs. She felt herself recharged and swam with all her might toward the light. Cynthia broke the surface and gasped in that wonderful air.

She snorted water out of her nose, and swam to the edge, still clutching the crown. She pulled herself out and flopped on the warm rock like a seal. She gulped in more air and rested a moment.

Cynthia looked her prize over. Golden tendrils weaved around a circlet, looking very dainty and ethereal. “Got it!” Cynthia panted.

No answer. Where the hell did that Chedorian go? Cynthia raised herself up on her elbows and looked around.

Pada lay collapsed on the ground. Cynthia got up and stumbled over to him. She knelt down and turned him over. Pada gasped for breath. He looked up at her.

“I got the crown.” Cynthia pointed to where she had dropped it. “Are you all right?”

Pada nodded, and forced a smile.

Cynthia noticed he had the program page with her picture on it clutched in his hand. “What happened?”

Pada panted some more, catching his breath. He sat up looking exhausted, and smiled at her. “I gave you my air,” he rasped.

Cynthia remembered the sudden surge she got, just as her oxygen began running out. Pada meant that literally. He did say he was a shaman. He also said images and names had great power.

“Thank you, Pada.”

“No thank you, Beautiful Woman.”

“I have that crown for you. Now you can lead your people.”

“The crown was meant to be retrieved by the one who would lead.”

Cynthia shook her head. “I’m no leader. I’m just a swimmer. You would make a better leader than me.”

“My people are too divided. Each would want a member of their own tribe to be the leader. Even though I am a shaman and respected by all, they would still not follow me, a member of another tribe. We need an outsider.”

“Don’t be silly. What makes you think your people would even want to follow a member of the species they are fighting? Why would they follow one of the enemy?”

“Because they did last time. Queen Shadal was not Chedorian. She was a Penkan like those who attacked us. She was disgusted with how her people treated us and so joined our side.”

“I’m sorry, Pada. I’m no warrior. I’m certainly no leader. You have your crown. You’ll have to find some other messiah. I’m no Joan of Arc.”

Pada said nothing, but bowed his head.

Cynthia looked up at the sky. The sun was closer to the horizon. “You said you would get me to back to town in time for tonight’s show.”

“Yes, I will take you back, Beautiful Woman.”

__

The town came into sight. Cynthia suddenly felt joyous to be reunited with the flea-bitten water circus. She could pick out their ship sitting at the port. The piece of junk had never looked so good.

Suddenly fire shot from its engines. “NO! NO! NO!” Cynthia watched as the ship–her ship–lifted off. “How can they leave without me! Those dirty rotten S.O.B.s!” She looked over her shoulder at Pada. “This is your fault!”

Pada stopped the dukor. “I did not ask your people to leave without you. They are cowards to leave one of their own behind.”

Cynthia snorted, her anger turned away from Pada. “Wouldn’t put it past Mr. Wilkins, the jerk. He looks out for Number One, that’s for sure. Now what the hell am I going to do?”

“I can take you to the other humans.”

“They’re slavers! They have no scruples. I wouldn’t put it past them to enslave me. We’re far enough from Earth they could get by with it. At the very least they would probably ignore me. I don‘t trust them.”

“I could take you to my tribe–if I can find them.”

“Find them?”

“They will be hiding. Renegades attacked the town. The colonists will round up the guilty ones and kill them. And then they will kill ten Chedorians for every human injured.”

“What!” Cynthia stared at Pada.

“It’s what they have always done in the past.”

“That’s not fair! Some one has to stop them!”

Pada pulled the crown out of his satchel and held it out to her. “You could. I’ve seen it. Just like I saw you retrieve the crown.”

“I only was able to do it because you helped me.”
“And I will help you again, any way I can. I will willing give you my life, Beautiful Woman.”

“Why do you keep calling me Beautiful Woman?”

“It’s what you were called in my dream.”

Cynthia frowned. “That name sounds familiar. Something from my past–” Her eyes got big. “Oh my God! The Beautiful Woman! It was a title my Cherokee ancestors gave to a woman warrior. She was a tribal leader, the one who decided the fate of the prisoners of war!”

“The Chedorians are the Prisoners of War. It is you who will decide our fate.”

Cynthia made a face. “Give me that damn thing!” She snatched the crown out of Pada’s hand. She put it on her head. It would fit perfectly. “This is one hell of a Christmas present! Next year just get me a box of chocolates!”

Pada grinned at her. “As you command, Beautiful Woman.”

BIO:  Ink free for twenty years, Jeanette fell off the wagon two years ago, and has been on a writing binge ever since. The consequences of that spree is a series on time travel. It’s the adventures of Dr. Serendipity Brown, the 24th century inventor of Time Travel, and her assistant, Sherman Conrad, she picks up in 1985. The third book is on hold while Jeanette revises and polishes the first two books hoping to publish them.

Jeanette’s husband suggested she get on Twitter to promote herself. Publishers are more apt to pick-up someone who can already show they have a following. Problem was writing about herself was too boring. Instead she decided to Twitter as one of her characters at @Wendell_Howe. Dr. Wendell Howe is a Temporal Anthropologist from the 27th century who studies the Victorian Age first hand. The tweets are set four years before the first book, Walking a Fine Timeline. Jeanette was trying to show how lonely and boring Wendell’s life was before he ran off with Serendipity, but the plan backfired. Wendell currently has over 6,700 followers who think his life is exciting.

Ms. Bennett lives in the Scablands of eastern Washington State with five cats and Mike, her long-suffering husband. She is fairly sane and normally does not talk about herself in the third person.

http://twitter.com/Wendell_Howe – follow Dr. Wendell Howe on Twitter

http://wendellhowe.blogspot.com/ – Wendell’s blogsite explaining his world

http://scablander.blogspot.com/ – Jeanette’s blogsite with links to excerpt from her novels

http://victorianreferences.blogspot.com/ – Sources for Victorian Research: reviews and links to websites on Victorian history and culture

Bondi

December 20, 2009

by

Jodi Cleghorn

I look down at the pile of paper sitting on the kitchen table and the list Claire has prepared. My shoulder starts aching.

“You need all of this?” I’m in utter disbelief at what she’s presented. Claire’s face is earnest and eager. Mine twists into a frown and I try to rotate my shoulder.

I admire my ten year old daughter’s thoroughness and organisation. Claire is her Matthew’s daughter, despite the dark curls and amber eyes inherited from me. In the past year I’ve barely been able to scribble a simple shopping list, much less ensure I get everything on it. He should be helping her through this, not me.

I don’t want to rain on her parade, but I’m appalled by the fact she needs a council permit, written proof of ten million dollar public liability coverage, written approval from the local traders association, shops and residents just to play some bloody Christmas carols on her flute to raise money for UNICEF.

But I owe this to Claire–to jump through these paper-trail hoops, so on behalf of ‘All Ye Faithful’ she can bring some ‘Joy to the World’.

“The problem is the public liability cover.” She points to it, highlighted in bright yellow on the list.

“Are you intending on wrecking a yuletide swath of death and destruction through Bondi?” The words are out and hanging between us before I realise what I’ve said. The utter absurdity of the local council bureaucracy has brought part of the old me back. “Honestly Claire,” I say quietly, “why don’t you just wander downstairs and play.”

“And break the law Mum?” There is a dramatic gasp, which would sound melodramatic from any child other than Claire, who was already too serious about life before last Christmas. “Are you really encouraging me to do something illegal?”

“All I’m suggesting, is this,” I motion to the printed piles of paper, “is lacking in common sense.” I throw my hands in the air and stand up. “Last year…” I catch myself this time and rather than finish the sentence I get up and walk out. Claire deserves better from me, they all do but I just don’t know how.

Opening the fridge door I stick my head in, take a deep breathe of frigid air, and give thanks it is not the gas oven.

It is December 10th. The tree’s not up. I haven’t written or received any Christmas cards. The company Christmas picnic is tonight, but the invite just said ‘Company Picnic’–specially doctored by Matthew. The girls haven’t made cut and paste wish lists from the proliferation of catalogues which choke the mail box like lantana or begun the Christmas haggling for inappropriate gifts they’ll never get.

I need something to get me through, but I have no idea what. I need to know I will do this, but the best I can promise is an ephemeral I think I can. I will be the little red caboose of Christmas cheer. I think I can… I think I can. If I say it enough times, I might actually believe it.

The fridge is beeping at me and Claire is standing at the bench staring at me. I’m forever at the girls to decide before they open the door, so I pretend to be looking for something right up at the back.

“I forgot about the coleslaw for tonight,” I lie.

My hands are full of carrots when I stand up.

“What should I do about the insurance, Mum?”

“Ring your father.”

“Christ, not ABBA Mum.” Jane, my 14-year-old daughter, strides across to the stereo and flicks through the docked iPod and chooses something more to her liking. Eddie Vedder’s angst ridden voice fills the kitchen. Anything but Pearl Jam I want to beg. “For someone with awesome musical taste, you really suck sometimes.”

It is the closest she has come to a compliment in months, but can’t enjoy it. I want to scream at her that, ‘Once Upon a Time’, I didn’t give a rat’s arse about what anyone else thought about my taste in music. ‘Once Upon a Time’ I didn’t give a shit about making coleslaw for a company picnic I didn’t want to go to. ‘Once Upon a Time’ when I was hurting and lost I’d just drink myself stupid until the yellow brick road emerged and I got on with it, or I passed out. ‘Once Upon a Time’, not too long ago, Christmas meant something else.

But to Jane I’m just a pathetic, middle-aged woman with about as much relevance to her life as the discarded ballet slippers and Barbie Dolls. Both donated to The Salvation Army when we moved.

Since we got here, Jane’s seized on the idea she’s complicated and misunderstood, but I like to think I can read her like a book. It’s a cover for how she’s really feeling, but she’s made it abundantly clear she doesn’t want to talk about it. I want to think it is Jane who needs me, but it’s me needing her.

 “Don’t…” I say, pausing mid-grate to point a carrot at her. “Or it’ll be ‘The Rivers of Babylon’ before you can say Bony-M.”

She rolls her eyes but loiters by the corner of the bench.

Because Matthew is not Jane’s father, he gets a better perspective on our relationship. He says I go up so hard against her because she is too much like I was at this age. Matthew and I were at high school together and his memory is better than mine. He says I am too tough, but I disagree. He’s too soft.

“Just thought I’d let you know, Lauren is going to be here in five.” She doesn’t look at me when she says this, announcing it instead to the walk-in pantry.

 “I’ve talked to you about this before–this thing you’ve got going with your friends where our apartment becomes a halfway house.” I grate the carrot faster, watching it disappear as the pain sears through my shoulder. “We are not having a repeat of the September holidays. You need to ask me before inviting your friends over. OK?”

The carrot misses the grater and I skin two knuckles. Swearing under my breath I wait for the blood to rush to the surface.

“We live right on Bondi Beach Mum.  Everyone wants to come here. I thought it would make you happy.” This is important enough to turn and say to my face. “Besides. Lauren is my new bestie.”

“So, Lauren’s flavour of the month,” I say pushing into my knuckles to stop them bleeding. It makes them hurt more, but I don’t mind, it distracts me from my shoulder.

 “You make it sound like ice cream”

“These friendships seem to last as long.”

I push past her, into the pantry for a band-aid.

“You wanted me to make friends, so I did.”

I stick my head out of the pantry. “I want you to make some proper friendships Jane–not these fly-by-night acquaintances.”

“You want me to have real friends, like all your real friends here.”

I flinch and stay in the pantry longer than I need to. Jane knows just how to find the tender bits and jab her finger into them while missing the bleeding wound in the middle.

“And Mum, while Lauren is here, don’t call me Jane. I’ve changed my name to Alexandra.  Alex for short.”

“You’ve what?” I’m straight out of the pantry trying to get the band aid to stick.

Jane pulls a piece of paper from her pocket of her too-short cut offs, unfolds it with dramatic flourish and slaps it down on the marble bench.

“I was holding off telling you because of the whole Christmas thing.”

I snatch up the paper and see my daughter has legally changed her name

“When the hell did this happen? You’re only 14.  You can’t legally change your name.”

“Dad signed the form.” Jane squares her shoulder and juts her chin out.

“He what?” The band-aid has stuck to itself, not me.  I rip it apart and flick it on the floor.

“He wanted to know what I wanted for Christmas and I told him I wanted to change my name.”

You didn’t discuss this with me. Or him for that matter.

“This is my Christmas present from him. I didn’t even know if we’d be having Christmas this year.”

“Of course we’re having Christmas.” I slap my good hand down on the bench. “You deliberately chose not to tell me because you knew I would say no.” I want to tear up this piece of paper, this betrayal. “Why do you do this to me Jane?”

“Alex.”

“You were christened Jane Louise.”

“And I just un-christened myself–officially.” Her head moves from side to side and her hands are on her hips. “Dad understands me. You don’t. He wants me to be happy. You just want me to be miserable, like you.”

She snatches the document from my hand, the top right hand corner staying between my thumb and forefinger.

“If he’s so generous and understanding how about you ask him why never paid a single cent in child support for you,” I scream after her.  The bedroom door slams shut but I don’t stop. “If he’s such a brilliant bloody father you ask him where he was for the first four years of your life.”

After all the shouting the kitchen is still–quiet and empty. I’m wavering, like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff being consumed by vertigo, when a set of arms snake around my rib cage, squeezing me tight. They ground me as my chest beings to fall in on itself and the tears sting like onion.

“I love you Mum.”

Claire hugs me close to me and I burying my fingers in her hair, realising how much time as passed – how tall Claire is, how long her hair has grown.

“Jane’s Dad’s a real bastard isn’t he?”

I nod, despising myself for sharing this with her.

“I’m glad he’s not my Dad.”

When I can breathe again, I wipe the escapee tears away with the back of my carrot-stained hand and I hold her at arms length, looking at her seriously.

“What did I tell you about swearing Claire?”

“But I’m right, aren’t I?”

I never thought coleslaw could be cathartic–I’ve hated it since I got stuck doing the washing at school camp–coleslaw impregnated water, wrist deep, clinging to my skin. But I get lost in a frenzy of cutting and grating, carrots and cabbages becoming shredded piles of vegetable. If only dismembering Oliver was this easy.

The past year I needed him to stop playing Jane against me, instead it feels like he has taken the war to a whole new level. Or maybe it was me?  It is easier to be angry with the living–to blame them. Raging against Oliver is like putting on comfy slippers. I understand, it makes sense.

Oliver is no more responsible now, than he was at twenty when it all too difficult and he walked away. He’s a sperm donor more than a father and he infects Jane with his reckless disregard for everything, including me. He gives her everything she wants; DS, iPod, mobile phone, laptop, independent internet connection, just to piss me off. It was him who suggested Facebook so they could keep in touch, when I had already said no.

And now he’s taken her name.

The security buzzer startles me and I wait an inconvenient length of time before letting Lauren up. When she arrives she ignores me and waltzes blithely into my kitchen, stands with the door open while the fridge beeps for a minute, takes two cans of my Diet Coke and then goes to Jane’s room.

            “Thanks Mrs. Connolly,” I call out after her.

“I don’t think she heard you, Mum,” Claire says, as she slides into the kitchen with a grin on her face. “I hear blondes are dumb and deaf.”

I wrinkle my brow at Claire because if I don’t, I know I will smile and I don’t want to encourage her.

“Dad says he can register me as an employee so I come under his work policy. Cool huh? He’s faxing the details now.” She is literally jumping up and down on the spot. “I need to go to the Town Hall so I can lodge all these forms? You’ll just need to sign them in black pen where I…”

I look away not wanting Claire to see the look of terror on my face at the idea of going outside. She talks a million miles an hour as shoves the bundle of papers into my hand with a pen.  When it goes quiet Claire’s huge amber eyes swallow me.

“Please?”

Claire and I are hot and flustered when we arrive home; my nerves are shot after being caught in the peak hour commute. There is loud whooping and giggling coming from the balcony and the kitchen is a mess of two minute noodles and empty Diet Coke cans. I smell the top of one–Bacardi.

            Stepping onto the balcony I find girls sitting in their bikinis, huddled over the screen of my digital camera.

“Oh yeah.  Seven swans are a-swimmin’ bay-bee, a-ha!”says Lauren like she’s channelling some trashy rapper’s girlfriend, and takes a long swig from the can nearest her.

“What the hell is going on here? Jane?”

They look up. Jane is mortified, knowing she’s not meant to have my camera. Lauren gives me with a haughty expression I’d love to wipe off her sunburnt face.

“You know not to touch my camera.”

“It’s OK Mrs. C, really. Alex told me and we made sure we backed up all the photos before we went down to the beach.”

“You took my five thousand dollar camera down to the beach!”

I tear it from Jane’s hands and begin to scroll through the photographs on the screen.

There are what seems to be hundreds of photos of athletic men in board shorts. One has all seven of them lined up at the surf break. But it is the one of Jane riding on broad, muscle-bound shoulders which makes me snap.

“Who the hell are these men?”

“They’re guys from the Swans, Mum.” Jane’s voice is barely audible.

“Who?”

“You’re so random Mrs. C.” Lauren treats me like a joke. “You live under a rock or something?”

I stop myself from grabbing her by the throat and instead wind the camera strap tightly around my hand.

“The Sydney Swans, Mum. The AFL team.”

“You were at the beach with football players?” It explodes from me with so much force my mind editorialises a shock wave, but it is more likely the sea breeze finally picking up.

“It’s OK Mrs. C.  They’re not league players.”

“Go… home… Lauren. I’ll call your mother later on.”

“Whatever.” She shrugs her shoulders. “You’ll be lucky to catch her. Better send a text?”

She sways for a moment when she gets up and hits me purposely with her shoulder as she walks past. I remember facing off against bitches like her in night clubs years ago, all mouth and passive aggressiveness, but slapping her won’t help the situation.

I turn my attention back to the camera screen, flicking back through all the photos until I come to the last one I took–Christmas Eve last year, a moment frozen in eternity. We were all smiling then.

 “What were you intending to do with these photos, Jane?”

“Put them on Facebook”

“Facebook!”

“It’s harmless, really.”

“Fourteen year old girls cavorting about with men twice their age is not harmless. And it is not harmless posting this sort of stuff on the internet where anyone can see it and use it.”

“Anyone but you that is.” The fight is back in her. She stands to square off against me. “This is you being pissed off because I won’t be your Facebook friend, isn’t it?” She tilts her head slightly to the side, which drives me insane and puts her hands on her hips.

“This has nothing to do with Facebook; it has everything to do with you going through my stuff, using my camera, making plans to hook up with men ten years older than you who have just as bad a reputation as their league buddies.” I turn to walk off but stop. “As for Facebook delete your account, now.”

“You can’t make me.”

“Try me Jane. Just try me.” My eyes narrow and I keep hold of the camera so I won’t hit her.

“I hate you.”

“I hate you too. I wish you’d never been born.” And immediately I want to catch the words and choke them back down inside of me.

“I wish you were dead,” she screams.

The apartment is dark and quiet when I open my bedroom door hours later. My mouth feels like it’s full of cotton wool. For a moment I hope the afternoon was a bad dream, as I rub my dry, itchy eyes and yawn. But it wasn’t.

The kitchen is tidy – the pots washed, rubbish binned and the cans taken out to the recycling chute. I gulp down two glasses of water and the life seeps back into my body as the water hits my empty stomach. My shoulder is stiff and painful.

When I walk out into the lounge-room there are tea-lights half-burnt on the coffee table. My copy of Love Actually lies abandoned. I vaguely remember Claire trying to lure me out of my room with a promise to watch it with me.

I go into the girl’s bedrooms, one by one and pull up sheets, open windows to the warm night air and turn off the air conditioners, iPods and bedside lamps. I bend down and kiss their foreheads, pushing back apple-sweat hair. And I linger next to Jane, wishing I could wipe away the last year. It is too easy to be angry with her because when I look at her, I see Oliver. And when I see Oliver I can’t forget. The guilt is like a python, strangling me slowly from the inside out.

I blow out the tea-lights and walk onto the balcony. The heat of the day has retreated only so far and the promise of the sea breeze hasn’t eventuated. I miss the humidity of home.

A group of teenagers walk by singing a fractured rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas. A bottle smashes and someone cheers. Across the road surfers are catching waves in the moonlight and an eruption of laughter fills the air from further down the street, where late-night diners are putting away alcohol they’ll regret tomorrow morning.

In this moment I realise I am in a holding pattern up here in this penthouse overlooking Bondi, waiting for the control tower to tell me it is clear. I’ve been waiting an entire year, warning lights flashing. Running on empty and waiting for a voice to tell me it is OK to come down now.

Up here, I have built my own prison, constructed it from guilt– the guilt which mires me in the present, so I find no peace in the past or any hope in the future. I’m Rapunzel in her tower being choked to death by her beautiful, long, golden hair. I may as well be six feet under.

Matthew’s promotion was an easy excuse to leave Gordonvale–to put the accident behind me. I thought if I was somewhere else I would move on. People wouldn’t know. I could start again. But I haven’t made a life for myself here–down there where life goes on.

I grip the railing and yearn for the molasses-sweet plumes from the sugar mill, settling over life instead of the foreign tang of salty air. This year the sugar crushing season happened somewhere else. Someone other than me was excited when the neon star went up on the steam stack heralding the start of the festive season.

I thought this was the way I wanted it to be, but I’m homesick. I don’t just want to go back, I need to.

And I want my Mum.

Cold glass on the back of my neck snaps me out of my thoughts. Matthew hands me a beer, kisses me where the skin has chilled and sits down, putting his feet up on the railing. It is surreal. His crisp white business shirt is soft now, unbuttoned, untucked and he’s looking more like he walked off the set of Blue Lagoon than in from the office.

I remember the last time Matthew handed me a beer.

We were sitting on our front veranda, an evening so clammy it was like being wrapped in a hot, wet blanket; Jack Johnson lyrics floating out from the lounge-room; feet up on the railing, looking out across the neighbour’s paddock stubbled with brand-new, month-old sugarcane.

Matthew urging me to quit the guilt trip I was letting my mother put me on, because I had stood my ground and refused to invite Oliver to Christmas lunch. It was our house. We’d invite who we wanted, not who Jane wanted. And not who my mother wanted. It was just a storm in a tea cup and Jane would see Oliver Christmas Night. All would be well in the world again on Boxing Day.

“I’m sorry about the picnic,” I say without the slightest hint of regret. “The kids rang you?”

“Jane did.”

I take a mouthful of beer, hold it in my mouth until it is warm and bitter, then swallow. My stomach churns, but I take another, and another.

 “She was upset,” Matthew says, “and worried.”

I turn my back on him and follow a line of waves in to the beach. I don’t want him to be Jane’s champion. He moves beside me and passes me a crumpled envelope.

 “What’s this?”

“Jane wrote it. She didn’t think you would read it if she pushed it under your door.”

I hand it back. “I don’t want to read it.”

“She’s hurting too, Lou…  Give the girl a chance.”

He tries to put his arm around my waist but I stiffen at his touch and move away, hugging the beer close to my heart. He sighs and sits back down, resting his elbows on his thighs. I stay standing, my hip kissing the railing, the beer dangling from my fingertips.

“Are you going to read it?”

I shake my head.

 “Then you leave me no other option.” He blocks my way back inside and I don’t even try. The best I can muster is turning my back on him again.

 “When you were in your room Jane rang her father. She wanted to go to him and he said no–point blank. Turns out he married earlier this year, without telling anyone and he’s too busy with his wife and her kids to have Jane.”

I don’t say anything, just drink more beer.

“Part of the deal was she took my surname instead of his. Jane just wanted to be Alex, so she agreed. She thinks the only reason he let her change her name was to get rid of her.”

I start to shake, my heart breaking for my beautiful daughter who didn’t ask to be born into such hatred. The fury uncurling the serpentine guilt for the first time and I hurl my beer bottle over the balcony. It smashes on the road and I become someone I truly hate.

“I’ll kill the bastard!”

Matthew catches my wrist as I try to storm past into the lounge-room to get my mobile.

“Stop it, Lou.”

“No more!” I fight against Matthew. “It ends tonight.” I’m hitting him. “I hate Oliver. I hate him so much. It’s all his fault.”

I lash out, pummelling Matthew until the fight is gone and I slump to the floor crying. The dike of my grief is breached and I cry hard, so hard I can’t breathe. My chest feels as though someone has put hot iron bands around it and is both heating and tightening them, torturing the truth from me. Panic overwhelms me

Matthew talks me through it, rubbing my back, telling me he loves me. He tells me it is good I am letting it out. But I shake my head. I’m weak. I’m pathetic. And I’m guilty. I sink my nails into the flesh of my face.

 “Lou…”

My chest heaves but I manage to suck in some air. My face is punctured and bruised from my nails. I crawl away from Matthew, across the tiles and press my back into the railing, forcing air in and out of my lungs.

“I need to tell you something,” I gasp. The surf crashes behind me and below someone drives the length of the esplanade with their hand pressed on the horn.

There is nothing left. I give up. The battle is over.

“We were arguing on the way to the bottle shop,” I say finally when I trust myself to breath and talk. “And I didn’t tell the police.”

Mum and her bloody Father O’Leary’s Cappuccino Cream. Me the daughter never good enough, who forgot to buy it. And Mum insisting on coming with me.

They say most car accidents happen just five kilometres from home. We were 4.7kms at the only set of traffic lights in the town.

“She started on me as soon as we were out of the driveway. That was the only reason she wanted to come with me–corner me in there. She accused me of  being purposefully hateful to Jane, just to get back at Oliver. And I was furious. She said Oliver tried hard, he did his best but it’s always me compromising. Give, give, give. And Oliver take, take, take. Fucking saintly Oliver and evil, nasty Louise.”

A breeze picks up and cools the sweat on my body. I wait for more tears, or anger, but there’s nothing. I’m empty and it is a relief.

“We were yelling, the light turned green and I gunned it across the intersection. Had I looked…”

I close my eyes and feel the impact as the Landcruiser hits us doing a hundred, obliterating the passenger side, driving us through the intersection and into the culvert. Rolling once. Twice.

I’m upside down. The screech and whine of the jaws-of-life trying to cut Mum free. An ambulance officer pressing a pad against my head. A neck cuff supporting my neck. Lights flashing. People yelling.

And she was gone.

I walked away with twenty stitches in my forehead and a broken shoulder which couldn’t be set properly.

“You were hit by a drunk driver, Lou. This isn’t your fault. Or Oliver’s. Neither of you killed your Mum. The coroner –”

I shake my head. “What if we hadn’t been arguing? What if I’d looked and seen the four-wheel drive? Realised it wasn’t slowing down? What if I’d got the bloody Cappuccino Cream? What if I’d told her to stay home like I wanted her to? What if I’d invited Oliver to Christmas lunch? What if we’d left a minute earlier or a minute later?”

“And what if you’d died?” It is barely a whisper and I can’t look at him, see the pain he’s carrying. “What would I have done with you? What about the girls?”

How many times have I wished it was me instead of her? Believing I deserved it because I am ungrateful, selfish and hateful. Because I’m not good enough and she was.

How I have wanted to die, to be free of the guilt and the what ifs–knowing I would leave behind Claire and Jane and Matthew? And another wave of crushing, debilitating guilt because I want the relief.

 I choke up and Matthew drops down next to me.

 “She died thinking I hated her,” I sob, burying my head in his chest.

He puts his arms around me.

“You don’t have to make the same mistake with Jane,” he says when I stop crying.

He’s right. And I know it can’t wait because sometimes there is no tomorrow. I sit there a while with Matthew, then wipe away the tears which are nothing more than salt trails now and go inside to wake Jane.

Authors Note:

Bondi Beach is possibly the most famous of the Australian beaches, albeit not the most beautiful. The word ‘bondi’ is believed to be Aboriginal for water breaking on rocks.

Thanks go to Claire and Scott who gave me the original fodder for this story, taking it away from the sappy idea I had about ballet – though the original idea about death remained. Thanks also to the wonderful readers and writers who helped to shape ‘Bondi’ through numerous re-writes – Edwina, Jen, Rob, Diane and Rebecca.

Jodi Cleghorn is a writer, editor and publisher from Brisbane, Australia. She is the co-creator of Chinese Whisperings and eMergent Publishing, with business partner Paul Anderson  and is eagerly awaiting the launch of their first conceptual anthology The Red Book in 2010. When not working on Chinese Whisperings, Jodi has spent her time this year weaning herself off non-fiction writing, exploring new fiction projects such as her Fourth Fiction novella and investigating the submission process. You can read her weekly column at Write Anything, her personal blog Writing in Black and White or follow her on twitter.

A Goose’s Life

December 19, 2009

by

Suzie Bradshaw

There was a village in the center of the Opanawka Woods. In this village lived six geese. They laid eggs out of fear. Forced to spurt shell covered embryos every three days, they converged on a plan of escape and so began the story of how the six geese a laying turned into four geese a cooking.

“Mary, my god Mary,” Fat Sue said as she waddled over to her dear friend and fellow captor.

“I…I.Will.Lay.Nomore.” Mary went silent as blood oozed from her ears.

“Oh Mary,” Fat Sue cradled her head with her expansive white wings and tears slid down her face settling on her beak.

“We have to do something,” Sheila said positioning her eyeglasses to the tip of her beak and gazed down at the scene.

“We cannot let them do this to us. I can’t take anymore,” Bertha said swiping a wing across a table knocking plates and glasses to the floor with a loud crash.

“Shhhh Bertha, stop that. We need to think.”

“You scared Heidi. Come on dear, it’s okay,” Sheila said to Heidi, the youngest recruit into this horrid brothel of foul, as she cowered in a corner.

A loud cough echoed through the walls of their prison home and the ladies stood at attention.

“Here she comes,” Martha said as she fidgeted with her apron. She wore nothing else.

The door opened and there stood Madame Ruth. A wretched, strung-out, traitor to the goose family. Fat Sue looked up and knew by the wild look in Ruth’s eyes she just had a fix of goosenip. She wasn’t quite to blame. The men did this to her. Everyone knew one hit of goosenip and it was over. The rest of your years would be spent looking for your next fix.

“Ladies, they are not pleased with your performance tonight.” She looked at Heidi who trembled like a scolded child’s bottom lip, “You are not producing.” She pointed with a scantily feathered wing.

They all knew what this meant and Bertha spoke first. “Madame, please…let us work with her. She is new. She knows not what is fully expected of her. We will teach her. Give us a day and a night.”

Ruth thought about this and looked Heidi up and down. “You will be a good producer. Okay Bertha, it’s in your wings now.” She turned to leave and looked back at Bertha. “I don’t have to remind you what that means.” Out the door she swayed her boney tail-feathers.

“We have to get out tonight.”

“What do we do with Mary?”

“We must leave her. There is nothing to be done for her now. She is with our ancestors in Heaven.”

Sheila spoke up, “I heard tale of the ten lords a leaping. If we can find them they will help us.”

Fat Sue left Mary’s side. “Yes, I too have heard of them. They hold magic.”

The geese shook their heads.

“When Madame Ruth comes back we hit her on the head with that frying pan and we run. Got it? And no quacking…look I know it’s hard not to quack as we flee but you must keep quiet. Don’t forget last time.”

They all shook their heads, quacked and raised a wing to the heavens, “For Mary.”

“Pack what you must. Only necessities. You will want your knapsacks light, in case, it takes days before we find the lords.”

“Shouldn’t we try to save Ruth?” Fat Sue said.

“She is beyond saving now. She is as bad as them. Don’t forget it’s because of her that Mary is…Mary is dead.”

With a determined look in her eye Bertha began chanting. “Lay no more. Lay no more. Lay no more.” Soon the other ladies joined and with ruffled feathers it was do or die.

Lights out the ladies feigned sleep. Fat Sue was elected to frying pan duty for obvious reasons and took position just inside the door as they heard the hacking cough of Ruth approach. In the dark they each glanced at each other. They were ready. Ready for anything. They would fight to the death this time.

Clonk, clonk, clonk. Crash. Ruth fell into the dresser knocking over a lamp.

“Remember, quiet.” They filed out in a v shape with Fat Sue in the lead. They ran along the trail out of the village and into the woods. The lights from the village did not penetrate the woods and the geese were left in deafening darkness. They ran deeper and deeper still, tripping over logs and large tree roots along their way. When they came to a clearing they stopped. The starlight shone brightly and in the distance, in the shade of the trees they saw them. The lords a leaping.

Heidi gasped. “I don’t know about this.”

The geese simultaneously brought their necks in close to their bodies. “Something is wrong.” Sheila said.

Fat Sue was too mesmerized by the leaping men to say anything or breathe even. They were surrounded as they watched the men jump from shadow to shadow.

“Are you the Christmas geese?” Spoken from the shadows seemingly echoing from shadow to shadow and invading the circle of openness the ladies stood in. They looked at each other not quite knowing how to answer.

Finally Bertha spoke. “Maybe, do you eat goose eggs? Because we will lay no more.”

Echoing again, as if all ten lords spoke in tandem. “We do not eat goose eggs.”

An audible sigh of relief could be heard. “Can you help us then?”

“Come,” they said and leapt away. The geese took up their positions and fled behind the men. Trying to keep up the best they could.

It was morning and snow began to fall by the time they reached the lords village. The geese stared in amazement. It was beautiful with all the baubles of red, green, silver and gold. Wreaths adorned shop windows and a light smattering of snow covered the brick roads. Garland hung from street light to street light and a large sign welcoming them, hung above the city square.

“How did they know we were coming?”

“Today must be Christmas.”

“Yes, it must be.”

“What do you make of the sign?”

“Well, somehow they knew we were coming. Maybe they rescue geese a lot.”

“I told you they would help and look how friendly.” Fat Sue sighed heavily, releasing all the stress that had built over the years at the brothel.

“Wow, this is going to be nice,” Heidi said and they joined wings as they read the sign of their new village and home.

“Welcome Christmas Geese. The kitchen is that way.”

BIO:  Suzie loves speaking and writing about herself in the third person. She doubts that light is really the fastest thing in the Universe and in her next life she will prove Einstein wrong. But in this life all she wants to do is write. Is that a song? She’s had stories published on Microhorror.com , SNMHorrormag.comhttp://newfleshmagazine.blogspot.com/ , http://www.houseofhorror.org.uk/#/book-shop/4535143845 and http://www.themonstersnextdoor.com/   She’s never been happier in her life and would like to thank you for reading. You can find her on facebook and myspace under Suzie Bradshaw.

Royal Flying Mounties

December 19, 2009

by

Cindy Mantai

“Jerry, can you see anything?” Max cried to his lead navigator, who was flying some 50 yards ahead of the rest of the formation.

“No, I can’t see a bloomin’ thing, sir,” Jerry replied over his shoulder, wiping the high-altitude condensation from his eyes. “This Nor’easter is making visibility near impossible, eh.”

The squadron had been flying for near on six hours straight. Christmas was coming in four days, and it was their job to make sure the final details had been set up for the Canadian leg of Santa’s ride. With 3,000 miles of territory to cover in just under three hours, Santa relied on Max and his team to ensure all routes from Halifax to Vancouver were clear so that nothing would delay the most important delivery day of the year.

Ronald, chief strategist, flying to Max’s right, honked out a command to the 24 other privates spread out behind them in a perfect V formation. “Remember to keep your eyes open for any unusual activity on the ground,” Ronald said. Many of the men were brand-new recruits and Ronald didn’t need there to be any holdups as a result of their inexperience. “Santa is counting on us to secure this mighty nation of ours. Let’s make him proud, eh.”

The privates, their beaks above their white chinstraps wet with perspiration, called out in unison, “Aye, aye, Sarge, eh!”

From his vantage point, Jerry thought he could see in the distance a patch of brilliant blue sky where the storm clouds had dissipated. “Major, clear air space ahead, eh,” Jerry bleated excitedly, hoping Max could hear him above the thrashing, snow-laden wind. Valiantly flapping his exhausted wings, Jerry quickly closed the distance between his body and the blue. Jerry, like his father and grandfather before him, had led exploratory missions for Santa for years. Navigation was in his blood, and not just because he was a Canada goose.

When Jerry reached the blue expanse, he looked down toward the wooly, pine-green landscape below. His eyes could make out familiar landmarks and he knew that in several seconds he’d be flying over frozen Glimmer Pond, known to generations of geese as the halfway point across Canada. Sure enough, there lay the pond in pristine whiteness, its flat surface marred only by six small black specks. Wanting to confirm that the specks posed no danger to Santa’s impending ride, Jerry caught a bit of tailwind for his sideslip and nosed downward to investigate.

What he saw when he neared the pond was something he had only encountered once before in his 34-year flying career. He knew he had to reach Max and the squadron fast, so Jerry down-stroked as he never had before, reaching a lift speed of 20 knots in just under five seconds. “Grandpa Joe would be proud, eh,” Jerry thought to himself as his flapping wings propelled him like a bullet toward the V-shaped gaggle he knew was somewhere just inside the clouds. His unidirectional pulmonary system churning out ragged gasps, Jerry squinted through the wind and saw Ronald and Max flying directly toward him, with their privates spread out evenly behind them.

As soon as Max saw the look on Jerry’s face a sphere of grass-infused dread balled up in his belly. “What is it, eh?” he demanded.

“Sir, you’re not gonna believe this,” Jerry began after quickly saluting Max with his primaries despite the resulting frictional drag. “Up ahead, where that section of blue is, I looked down over Glimmer Pond…”

“Yes, yes, spit it out, eh,” Max honked loudly to make his voice heard above the cheerily cackling privates.

“Well, sir, there were several unidentified spots on the surface,” Jerry continued, “and upon approach I was able to ascertain what they were, eh.” Jerry looked from Max to Ronald and back again, struggling to keep his composure. “They were, they were…”

“HONK!” Max called out in exasperation. “Finish your report or I’ll have you court-martialed, eh!”

“Well, sir, they were six geese a-layin’ facedown with their beaks frozen solid to the surface of Glimmer Pond,” Jerry finally was able to bark out. He paused and gathered the final bit of courage he needed to deliver the rest of the news. “Surrounding the corpses were numerous telltale three-pronged tracks. The gang known as Poules Espionne, Major, headed due west toward the Northwest Territories, from the looks of it.”

Max’s dark face blanched but he puffed out his downy chest and announced over his shoulder to the squadron: “Men, we’re going to set down on Glimmer Pond. Our task is to give six of our fallen brethren a proper burial.”

The ranks immediately went quiet; the rushing of air through swiftly flapping feathers was the only sound heard since the privates dared not breathe as their leader prepared to speak again.

“After that, we fly toward Yukon,” Max continued. “Our mission is to seek and destroy a fowl trio of French hens from Quebec who’ve escaped from the Pen.” Max paused a moment for emphasis. “We believe their intention is to assassinate Santa Claus.”

BIO:  Cindy Mantai is a freelance writer and editor from sunny Buffalo, NY. She loves birds, especially Canada geese. Visit her website at http://cindymantai.com.

The Moonfairy, the Angel and the Puca

December 18, 2009

by

Nishida C.

He fell. He knew not for how long or how far. Worlds slipped past him: the human world, blind to magic, focused only on what it could see and hear and touch. The fairy realms, steeped in magic and moving to their own rhythms, so different from those of mortal men. He fell until the sun faded and the five golden rings over Aurolwyn shimmered, bright against the distant stars.

He was not sure when he finally hit the ground. He felt neither warm, nor cold. Nor could he feel the rain. On some days, the blinding sun shone on his face. His only companions were the birds that perched on his wings. At night, the wolves came out with the waxing moon. He lost track of time. How long had he lay there, broken, unnoticed, a silent figure of stone? All he could do was watch and wait.

He had no choice.

__

“Come on, L’ree, we’re late!”

The little Moonfairy sat upright in bed, rubbing her eyes. “Oh, nettles!” she said, when she saw the sunshine streaming through her windows. “We’re late. Why didn’t you wake me up on time?” She shook her head at the dozing cricket in the corner of the room.

She quickly pulled on her new clothes, dusted her wings and ran to her mother, Mila, who was busy in the kitchen.

“No time for breakfast,” said her mother. “We’ll eat something once we get there. Here, make yourself useful. Will you carry these for me? And please do something about your hair. It’s all over the place!”

L’ree tied the two little bags to her belt, and meekly stood by her mother.

“Right, that’s it. Let’s go.” Mila hoisted two large rucksacks onto her shoulders and nudged L’ree ahead of her out the door.

“Wow, that’s a lot of people,” said L’ree. Hundreds of fairies spilled out onto the woodland paths and fluttered to the skies. The forest shimmered in their wake.

It was the Annual Winter Solstice Harvest Fair. Magic creatures from all over the world came to set up their trades there, in time for the festive season. L’ree was going for the first time. She had been too young before. Strange people came to these fairs, including certain dangerous folk who would bewitch little children and spirit them away. So, the younger ones were not allowed to visit the fair. They could go only when their wings were as long as they were tall.

L’ree waved at an enchanted carriage that hurtled by, filled with chattering StarSprites. She and her mother walked together towards Everglade at the Northern edge of the woods, where the fair was happening.

“Remember what I told you, L’ree?” her mother said, fussing with L’ree’s hair. “You must stay close to me. Don’t wander off on your own, be polite-”

“-and don’t talk to strangers. I know, I know.” said L’ree, “I can take care of myself, Ma.”

“That’s what I am afraid of,” sighed her mother. She gave her daughter’s raven hair an affectionate tug as she finished braiding it.

It was the end of autumn, but not yet winter and the forest was lush and alive. The trees were green and gold, their branches hung heavy with fragrant blossoms and ripe fruit. They sang songs only the Dryads could understand, but L’ree felt the soft music fill her with a deep contentment.

The fair was bustling with throngs of families. People were laughing, talking and bargaining, all at once, and the commotion was terrific. Merchants shouted their wares above the din. Street performers and musicians entertained at every corner.

“Step right up for a bottle of Star Dust! Make your eyes sparkle like diamonds! See in the night! Get your Star Dust!” shouted a wee Bottle Elf from a stall.

“Freshly pickled eyelash of Newt! Salve of Salamander! Dragon tooth! For weak chests and the faint of heart!”

“Meteor Showers, just the thing! Make your skin glow & shine! Want a bottle, little girl?” asked a wrinkled hag, looking pointedly at L’ree. L’ree held her mother’s hand tighter, alarmed.

“Enchanted Lilies,” sang a chorus of tinkling voices, “Shake a little, wave a little and they sing and dance for you!” They were Kalla elves, tall and graceful. They were selling white Kalla lilies that looked like miniature ballerinas, in glass bubbles, that danced to the rhythm of their song.

L’ree stopped to watch, fascinated, but her mother tugged her hand again. “We’ll come back later, dear, to see them. We have work to do first.” They walked quickly through the maze of stalls and finally stopped outside a very morose looking tent. A sign on one side said “Barter Office – Trade your magic for money”. Another board displayed all the latest rates for starlight, moonbeams and more.

“We’re here, L’ree. I’ll just pop in and exchange all of our moonbeams for coins.” Her mother made her sit on one of the toadstools outside the tent. “See? There are other children waiting here too. Remember, this place is not like home. It can be dangerous. Don’t wander off. Don’t even get off this stool. Do you understand?”

L’ree nodded distractedly. A little red haired Imp on another toadstool stuck his tongue out at her.

“I will be back soon and then we’ll find something to eat. Stay where you are, alright?” Her mother took the little bags from her and went inside the tent. L’ree leaned back on the soft toadstools and waited, swinging her little legs impatiently. She desperately tried to ignore the imp who had progressed from making grotesque faces to rude noises.

All of a sudden, her skin started to prickle, as if someone was watching her. She looked around but she did not see anything. The Imp felt that it was an appropriate time to let out a long burp, frightening two young pixies nearby.

“Eww, disgusting!” she said, and jumped off the stool to look at the stall closest to her. Suddenly, L’ree saw an orange flash out of the corner of her eye. Half prepared to make a run for it, she turned around. She was startled to see a small, dark haired fox with bright orange eyes looking at her. It had a curious expression on its face. It had been standing half hidden behind a corner of an Alchemist’s stall. Then, in a poof of dust, it disappeared. She tentatively took a step forward, wondering if she was under a spell. The fox reappeared – and beckoned. She blinked and gave herself a little shake. Whoever heard of a fox that could beckon?

She jumped when a voice sounded in her head. “None to fear, as long as I am near, follow me close, dear, around this corner here.” The little fox winked and nodded at her, reassuringly. “Am I not handsome, am I not fine? Follow me, lass, for a meeting divine!” the voice swirled through her head. Images, alien to her, flooded her mind and she was hypnotized. Hardly realizing what she was doing, she followed the fox as it led her along. With its song in her head, she followed blindly, forgetting her mother’s warnings.

When L’ree came to, she was far away from the bustle of the fair. She was lying in front of a decrepit marble fountain. Beside her was a broken statue of a tall fairy. The figure lay on its side, its right arm was broken off and the wings were chipped.  Vines twirled around its limbs and neck. Strange runes were etched into its body. L’ree saw that it had the most beautiful face of any being she knew, but also the saddest. Somehow, she felt comforted just by looking at its face.

She looked around her to see where she was. It was a deserted garden that had been left untended for a long time. The little fox was up in a tree, flicking its tail lazily. It smiled at her and nodded. L’ree smiled back. She leaned forward to clear a vine from the statue’s face. To her shock, the eyes of the statue opened.

“Oh my flying nettles!” she cried, terrified. She stood up, wondering whether to make run for it. The fox did not miss a beat. In a flash, he had jumped down from the tree and turned into a huge, dark horse. He stood in front of her, blocking her escape. His orange eyes glowed menacingly. L’ree stumbled backwards over rocks and vines. “No, please, don’t hurt me. Wh-What do you want from me? Why have you brought me here? Please, take me back to the fair. My mother will be worried. Don’t hurt me. I – I just want to go home!” L’ree sat down and began to sob.

It was a heartbreaking sight to see a fairy weep, and even more so, when it was a child. A single tear ran down the statue’s porcelain face. L’ree, astonished, forgot to cry when she saw that.

All he wants is to go home too,” said the voice in her head. “Will you help him?

The next moment, the horse had turned into a charming hobgoblin. “I promise, by the Keepers of Faerie, that neither will I hurt you nor let any harm come to you. This, I solemnly swear or let my life be forfeit. We only seek your help. Will you help us, little Moonfairy?” He spoke with his own voice now, not to her mind.

“What or who is that and why is it crying? Is it alive? What or who are you? Why have you brought me here?” L’ree had calmed down, despite her confusion, for no one could invoke the names of the Keepers in vain. Nevertheless, she wanted answers.

“Ah, wee lass, I apologize for my rudeness, but there was no other way to get you here, was there? Would you have followed me of your own accord? But first, promise that you will help us, for it is a task only you can do.”

“But, why me? I am just a child. I cannot do much of anything.”

“You are a fairy that harvests moonbeams from the light of the full moon. It is a task only a Moonfairy can do. Moreover, you were the only one we could find. Will you help us? Will you help him?”

The statue looked at her with his eyes, beseeching. She felt sorry for him. “I cannot promise,” she said softly, “for I am small, but I will try my best.”

“That’s good enough for us. You are brave and kind,” said the creature, bowing low. “I will answer your questions now. The name’s Keegan and I am a Puca, a shapeshifter. I can take on the forms of a horse, a fox or a rabbit, but most of the time, I am a Hobgoblin, as you see me now. As for the statue, his name is Ahron. His kind live on Aureus, the tallest mountain in Aurolwyn, in the city touched by the five rings.

“An Aurean! From the Golden city!” said L’ree, “I have heard stories of them. Celestial beings, they are. I thought they never come down among us. How did he get here?”

“I cannot speak of how he came to be this way, for it is not my story to tell. I can only say this much, that I am bound to him as long as he is alive. Yes, he is alive, but trapped and broken. It took me many years to find him here, after he disappeared. We talk to each other through our minds. Now that you are here, you must help release him from his curse.”

“You still haven’t told me what it is that you need me for. Is it dangerous?” said L’ree, a little dismayed at being called brave. What was she getting herself into?

“Tonight,” the Puca said, “a very special moon rises. The path of the moon across the sky will cross the five golden rings. The moonlight that reaches us will have passed through the rings and will contain golden ring dust. We must gather the light where it falls and bring it back here before the morning light. For that, you must show us where you harvest moonbeams. Could you do that, little one?”

L’ree beamed. “Oh, that’s easy! We grow meadows of Solunae flowers on Azure Mountain, where the Crystal Falls are. But-” she hesitated, “you can’t go there. It is too difficult for anyone but a fairy to reach the mountaintop. Even if you do, you will not be able to see the moonbeams, let alone harvest them. That is a gift that only we have….”

“That’s why you must do it, Moonfairy. I will come with you. We would not ask you to do this alone.” Keegan said.

“Feathers and flying nettles!” L’ree exclaimed. “You want me to come with you? Tonight? I can’t possibly do that!”

“Why do you worry? What do you fear?” said Keegan, looking concerned.

“My mother! What ever will I tell her? She will have a fit. In fact, she will probably have one right now when she sees that I am missing!”

“Your mother? Is that all?” Keegan began to laugh.

“Don’t laugh!” said L’ree, looking distressed.

“My apologies, lass. We are most indebted to you for your kindness. Now, hop on,” Keegan said, changing into a horse. “I will take you back to your mother now.

L’ree turned to look at the statue. It seemed for a moment that he smiled.

The dark horse raced wildly through the streets with L’ree on his back, clutching his sleek black mane. Before she could even blink, they were back at the fair. L’ree fluttered down. She stroked the Puca’s black coat as he changed back into a fox.

Be ready as the sun sets,” he said, “I will come to your house when the woods have fallen asleep. You will know it, when the owl flies. Do not fret; your mother will hardly know that you’re gone.

“But, wait, you don’t know where my home is!” she said. The fox winked at her and disappeared.

She returned to her spot on the toadstool. The Imp was there still, frightening the pixies. It was as if she had never left. Her mother came out and they explored the fair. However, L’ree was too preoccupied with the bizarre events of that morning to enjoy anything. Thoughts of the broken statue, the telepathic Puca and their unusual request filled her mind. Her mother brought her a dancing lily for being so good, but L’ree took no interest in it.

Back home, L’ree prepared for the night ahead. She packed her rucksack with a little fairy food and dew in a bottle to drink. She also took a few crystal tubes to store the moonbeams. At dusk, when she looked outside her window, she saw the fox up in a tree. She wrapped her fairy cloak around her and gently crept down the stairs.

Keegan was waiting for her at gate.

“Hello Keegan,” L’ree smiled at him bashfully, for he was quite a charming looking Puca, despite his orange eyes.

“We do not have much time, wee fairy. The moon has already begun its travel across the sky.” Keegan said, gesturing towards the rising full moon. “I hope you have everything you need to collect the moonbeams?” He motioned for her to start walking.

L’ree took out one of the crystal tubes and held it up. “It takes us fairies more than half a day to get to the Azure Mountains. We fly with the wind. How will we get there now?” she asked, as she walked beside him. She returned the tube to her bag.

“Ah, that is the easiest part of this lark. I have a shortcut,” said Keegan. They soon reached a clearing in the woods. He took out a transparent gem filled with stardust and threw it in the air. The gem caught a ray of starlight and burst into a million sparks. They realigned to form a narrow ribbon that settled down on the forest floor, weaving a glittery path through the trees. L’ree gasped.

“Aye, a pretty sight, isn’t it? Jump on up and sit tight!” Keegan said, transforming into the dark horse. He took off at a wild gallop down the road of stars as soon as L’ree climbed on. She held on for dear life, her wings flat on her back. The wind whipped at her face, and the trees were a blur as they rushed past. On they ran and soon they left the woods far behind. They galloped across fields, brooks and streams, never stopping for a break. The mountains loomed closer. The golden rings arched across the night sky. Keegan came to a halt at the base of the mountain near the Crystal Waterfalls. She got off and he changed into his two-legged form.

“The meadows are up there,” L’ree said. “I can fly. Will you wait for me here? I will collect the moonbeams and come back.”

“You go on ahead. I will join you. There seems to be a way up.” said Keegan. He was looking at the ribbon of starlight snaking up the side of the mountain.

“You are going to climb the mountain? But it is high and far too dangerous. That path is too close to the waterfall. What if you slip and fall?”

“Don’t you worry about me. I cannot let you go alone. But we must not waste any more time. At any rate, I cannot grow wings and you cannot carry me. Therefore, I must climb. Fly up and wait for me. Keep an eye on the moon. Go now.” He said.

L’ree shook her head and flew up alongside the waterfall. She fluttered and landed on the soft grass when she reached the top. On either side of the river were meadows of Solunae flowers. They were special flowers made to store moonbeams, created by the fairies from evening primroses. They bloomed when it was time to gather the falling moonlight, and stored the light until harvest time.

The moon drew closer to the golden rings. L’ree stood near the edge of the waterfall, taking in the beautiful sight. Suddenly, she heard a yell. It was Keegan. She looked over the side of the precipice and saw him hurtling down towards the pool of water.

“No,” L’ree said. Without stopping to think, she flew after Keegan as he fell.

“Keegan! Hold out your hand!” She screamed against the wind as she strained to reach closer. “Turn around and give me your hand or you’ll crash!” Keegan twisted around in midair and reached out for her.

Just as L’ree closed her hand around his, he hit the water. She realized too late that he was too heavy for her. She had only managed to slow his fall. L’ree was pulled under the swirl of rushing water as Keegan crashed in. But she did not let go. She struggled, swallowing mouthfuls of water. Keegan had sunk like deadweight with the shock of impact. The combined weight of him and his wet clothes dragged her under. She took a deep breath at the surface and plunged into the pool to get a better hold of him. Wrapping both her arms under his, she hauled him back up with every bit of strength she had. Soon he came to and released himself from her hold.

“I can swim,” he gasped.

L’ree too exhausted to speak, nodded and released her hold. They floundered onto the grassy bank, panting and sputtering.

“Are you alright, L’ree?” Keegan was the first to speak.

L’ree was sitting up, catching her breath.

“I am fine, she said softly, “Just a little startled. You?”

“A little shaken really, I hate heights. But no harm done. Thank you for saving my life. I owe you-”

“Oh, nettles and thimblegums,” L’ree interrupted him. She felt awkward and could not think of anything appropriate to say. “It’s no big deal. But we need to go now. The moon has almost reached the rings. Now, how will you come?” She shook the water off her wings.

“Sometimes, I don’t think when it is required of me. I am heavy for you as horse or a hobgoblin, but I might be quite manageable as a rabbit. Easier to carry, don’t you think?” Keegan said, changing into a black bunny rabbit.

L’ree smiled and held her arms out for the little puca. He was soft and light. She held him close as she flew up again and set him down among the flowers, where he changed back.

They were just in time. The moon touched the rim of the first of the five rings and a narrow beam traveled down to the ground. It was like a sliver of gold falling from the sky. L’ree watched as the thousands of Solunae flowers that had been soaking in the moonlight began to close and go back to sleep.

“They are not supposed to do that,” she said, confused. “We have to harvest the falling moonbeams from them. What do we do now?”

Keegan, who could not see the moonbeams, shrugged his shoulders. “We wait and watch. They might open up again?”

The first flower hit by the moonbeam began to grow and transform itself. As the moon crossed each of the rings, the golden rays falling down grew more numerous and brighter. The flower turned a deep yellow gold, shining brilliantly as it drank in the golden rays. The moon crossed the fifth and final ring. The golden light slowly faded away. The Solunae began to bloom again, soaking in the silver moonlight. The Golden flower stopped shining and pulled its petals shut. It was all over in a matter of seconds.

L’ree touched the drooping yellow flower and exclaimed “Why, it is gold! Solid gold!”

“Well, there you have it,” Keegan said, breathless with excitement.

She held a crystal tube to the mouth of the bud to collect the Moonbeams. Nothing happened. It was solid and closed tight. The next moment, the stem snapped and the flower fell to the ground.

“Take the flower with you,” said Keegan, “We don’t have time to spare.”

L’ree placed the cold yellow flower in her bag and took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

Keegan galloped like the wind on the return journey. L’ree dozed off on his back, as it was late and she was still a little fairy who had stayed up past her bedtime.

When they finally reached the deserted garden in Everglade, the moon hung low in the sky. Keegan realized that he had a fairy child fast asleep on his back. He lowered her gently onto a soft patch of grass in the alcove and covered her with her cloak. He took the Golden flower from her bag and placed it on the statue’s chest. He did not have to wait long. Keegan held his breath as the flower began to throw delicate golden vines around the statue. It sank thin roots, like rivulets of gold, into the ground and sent thousands of wisps into the air, rippling and pulsating. A burst of fiery yellow light surged through the garden, and for moment all was as bright as day.

__

An owl hooted close by. L’ree opened her eyes and found herself wrapped in her cloak. A roaring fire danced merrily against the night sky.

As she rubbed her eyes, she saw two figures on the other side. One was the familiar figure of Keegan. The other – L’ree sat up, speechless. The Aurean sat there, whole, unbroken, and alive. Wrapped in a cloak and drinking from a cup, he smiled at the Puca. When he realized that she was awake, he came and sat next to her. His eyes were the same, beautiful and sad. He took her hand and pressed it to his lips.

“My child, I greet you. Will you accept these words of gratitude?” he said, softly “I am Ahron of the Golden City, yet I find myself too poor to repay one who has saved me. Thank you for releasing me from my miserable fate. I am in your debt for as long as I live.”

L’ree, overcome with emotion, could not bear to meet his piercing gaze. She just shook her head.

Keegan came around and sat next to her. He said, “There was a story that was not mine to tell.”

“Ah, the curse of the broken statue,” said Ahron “Will you listen to my story then?”

“Yes, I will,” said she.

“Then I must start from the beginning.” Ahron lay down on the grass and stared at the skies. “As you already know, I come from Aureus, The Golden City.

“The Aureans are a strong race, peace loving, but proud and just. It is a beautiful city, so named for the golden sheen that bathes it. The celestial rings are so close that if you climbed to the highest point in our city, you could touch them. The colour of the city comes from the dust that falls from those rings. This dust runs through our veins and permeates our skin. It is what keeps us alive.

There is a world outside of our fairy realm, hidden to us. It is called Earth and their people are called Humans. They are lot like us. They do not possess our magic or our camaraderie with nature, but they are resourceful and inventive. The most powerful among them seek to bend nature to their whims and turn it into monstrous things of utility or terrific objects of beauty. They once possessed the gift of magic, but they did not use it wisely. In their quest for dominion over nature, they lost that gift.

What I have told you now is a closely guarded secret. Only a select few of the wisest Fairy folk know this. They are called the Chosen and I was one of them. We are bound by a common oath. We are the guardians of the Arcane Knowledge and the protectors of our realms. We keep the barrier between the realms intact and stop people from crossing over. If they do chance upon a meeting, we remove all traces of it from their memories. The basis for these restrictions is explained in our history. You only need to look at the volumes describing the wars fought between Faeries and the Humans, eons ago.

We walked freely in the human world, as long as we remained invisible to them. But that was the beginning of my downfall, for I fell in love with one of them. Her name was Beth. She was human but was possessed of an ethereal grace. I was drawn to her from the moment I saw her, I could not keep away. She was a Healer in their society. I would sneak out just to watch her work with the wounded and the broken. However, she was not wholly accepted by her people. She believed in treating their sad souls and broken hearts, not just the visible injuries. For this, she was shunned and disrespected. In my eyes, their behaviour was an injustice. I decided to help her, by using healing magic from our land. She only had to touch a person and he would walk away healed – heart, body and soul. It was something she could not do before. She could not see who helped her, of course, nor did she understand it. And everyday, I fell more deeply in love.

I pined for her, I longed to know how it would feel if she loved me too. If there had been a way to shed these wings and become human, I would have done so. It is forbidden for us to reveal ourselves to any human. But I was foolish and my love was blind, insane and selfish.

The day I showed myself to her, I still cannot forget. She smiled the moment she saw me. She told me she knew I was there, all along, that I had appeared in her dreams once. She called me her “Angel”. She asked me the reason why I had waited so long to reveal myself to her. She had been hoping desperately, for a sign, a reason to believe, to know that I was real and not just a part of her imagination.

We cherished our time together for we knew it was not going to last. In the end, I was betrayed by one of my own. Although, I realize now that it was I who had betrayed them, by defying every rule that we had sworn to keep. He was correct in doing his duty. I was sentenced to be stripped of my position in the Chosen and all my memories of her were to be obliterated. She would be charmed to forget me, led to believe that it was all a dream. But I refused to forget her. For my refusal, I was sentenced to an eternity in this stone prison. I was cast off from Mount Aureus, broken in body, heart and spirit.

Until Keegan came in search of me, I believed I was alone in my suffering. You ask how he came to be with me. I saved his life once, and from that moment on, we were bound to each other. It was an unbreakable magical contract. Years want by and he remained alive, even after everyone he knew had died. That was when he realized that I was still alive. It took him many centuries before he discovered my stone self fallen here. Once he found me, he set about looking for ways to break this curse.

The answer was simple. Aureus, my home, pulsates with the Dust from the five golden rings. I was born of the golden dust, and only the golden dust could release me. The flower that you brought me had imbibed the dust and its life force. That was what broke the curse and set me free.

You ask what became of her. I wish I knew. It has been so long now. She would have passed on like the rest of her short-lived kind. I only hope the Chosen were kind enough to make her forget me before she died.

Now I am free, I am forgiven and I can go home.”

He kissed L’ree gently on her forehead.

“Goodbye, my angel” said he, and he flew away into the sky. L’ree and Keegan watched as he disappeared.

“Where will you go now, Keegan?” said L’ree.

“You saved my life today. I am indebted to you. From now on, I am bound to you as I am bound to him. I will remain your faithful friend, for as long as we live.”

L’ree laughed, so did the Puca. They walked back home, hand in hand.

BIO:  Nishida C. – Poet, writer, thinker, recluse, perfectionist.  I am @CafeNirvana on Twitter

“I love anything to do with art, literature and science, especially astronomy. I dream of writing science fiction and fantasy books for children and hope to see a few well-worn books of mine on a library shelf one day.”

The inspiration for this story was from the lovely and immensely talented novelist Teresa Frohock [@teresafrohock] who tweeted the idea of a stone angel that came to life. I could not have written any of this without the expert penmanship of my partner in crime, Angie Capozello [@techtigger] and my parents who were my test audience. Much thanks to Alison Wells [@alisonwells] for picking out the title and to Jim Wisneski for being the most patient man in the world.  We all wish to be published and ridiculously famous in the near future, so wish us good luck.

Five Golden Rings

December 18, 2009

by

David C. Sobkowiak

            The team was pushing themselves hard that year.  The trip over Greenland was brutal.  Blizzard conditions battered not only the team, but the sleigh itself, tossing me back and forth like one of the dolls that was safely tucked away in the giant sack fastened to the rail behind me.  I had lost toys before, usually having them end up landing in empty fields, found by farmers or their children.  It was a small price to pay knowing that they still brought happiness to those that found them.

            Crossing over the Hudson Bay, the storm was just too strong and I made a decision to skirt the outside and follow the frontal system along the eastern coast of the United States,  Rudolph was still the youngest, but even he was getting on in reindeer years and his nose just wasn’t as bright as it had been in year’s past.  Soon it would be necessary to find a new team lead, a task I knew would be all the more difficult given the way Rudolph made the team. We swooped and slid across the night sky, making stops at all the houses. Despite the stories, I don’t give coal any more.  Kids these days have so much going against them that I think it’s just too low a blow to deliver to any child, naughty or nice, to be excluded on Christmas.  I’m not saying that giving an etch-a-sketch to a gang banger is going to stop gang violence, but gang-bangers aren’t really kids anymore are they? 

            Preparing to leave Manhattan, I headed across Central Park. The lights of the city were beautiful that night.  That’s one of the things that I really enjoy about my flight every year. I get to visit everywhere in the world and see everything that has changed over the year. You’d be surprised at just how much can change in one year’s time.  Enjoying the park’s ambiance, I slowed our progress and let the team fly low, skimming over the Jackie O reservoir. They love to do that, brushing their hooves on the surface of the water like a child holding their hand out an open window, allowing the wind to rush over it like a mini airplane. Riding the wind.  Free.  Freedom is one of the most precious gifts anyone can receive, and unfortunately, not one I can give to everyone.  I’ve helped people out of tough situations over the years, to be sure, and I’ve recently set all my reindeer free during the off season.  There’s no reason to keep them penned in the barn.  Those that want to can come and go as they please.  Those that don’t, stay around and get the same attention they always have.  Comet is one of those. Choosing to be pampered and brushed.  I don’t blame him. He’s a good friend and a valued member of the team.  He’s earned his rest and relaxation during the year.  Coming up on West 86th, I started to pull the team back up. It was then that everything went south for us that night.

            The storm had come up on the city quickly. We were keeping just ahead of it the whole time, but with the short dalliance over the water, we were caught in the first gusts that were to hammer the city under a blanket of ice and snow.

            One of the things you need to understand about the team is that they are all harnessed together as a single unit, by five rings.  Five Golden Rings.  These rings bind the team together linking harness sets at a midpoint between each set of reindeer. I wasn’t worried that the rings would give way, they were forged with elven magic.  What I worried about was the sounds I was hearing coming from the harnesses.  Stretching and straining under the pressure of the gale and the combined effort of the team and me trying to stay on track proved to be too much for the aged leather straps.  One by one I head them pop like guitar strings being plucked too hard after being tightened too much.  Freedom is a wonderful thing until you’re free to fall straight into a grove of pine trees are one hundred plus miles an hour.

            The impact was hard. Harder than any other I can remember over the years.  The layer of ice covering the last snowfall was thicken by recent rain, and one of the rails flew from the sleigh and lodged deep in to a mound of ice and dirt some forty feet away from where we came to rest.  Rudolph was the first to return to the sleigh, prancing gently through the gusting wind as if it were only a breeze.  One by one the others returned as well and I thought we’d be underway in just a short time. The elves were already on their way I knew, the emergency beacon installed in the sleigh allowed them to track our progress anywhere in the world, and also enabled them to find us in situations just like this. There had only been a handful of accidents over the years. No serious injuries, no broken bones, but the elves were always trying to get me in to a new fangled sleigh. One model reminded me too much of the Pope-mobile, and I finally put an end to the development team’s efforts to find a new age replacement for my relic of a conveyance.  I got them to upgrade some systems on board like the emergency beacon, as well as something I liked to call the Elven On-Star which gave me access to a support team anytime, anywhere. 

            I set about gathering the presents which had been tossed about in the snow and ice to make the time go by while I waited for the elves to arrive. Once finished, I began to round up the team.  Dasher made his way to the sleigh with a bit of a wobble in his walk, but it didn’t appear serious enough to need attention.  I pulled an extra set of reins from the sleigh, bracing myself against a strong gust and ambled over to where the team had huddled together, beside a grove of trees.  Working with these reindeer all their lives has been a blessing. They are truly wonderful creatures.  They aren’t pets, don’t get m wrong. They are headstrong, determined animals who don’t do anything they don’t want to, but they want this yearly ride, almost as much as I do.  We are of the same mind that way.

            Seeing me approach, they began to settle in to a rough formation.  I began swapping out their broken reigns for the newer pair.  Two by two by two I made my way up the line from the rear of the group until all that was left was Rudolph and then to reconnect the team together and wait for the elves. I can’t do this sort of work with my mittens on, so by the time I finished unfastening and refitting all of the team, my hands were raw, numb and stiff.  Arthritis isn’t something I’ve had to deal with much over the years, but the sheer strength of the storm and the bite of the air gnawed at my joints and chilled me to the core.  All those years at the North Pole, you’d think I’d be immune to these sorts of things, but some things affect everyone the same.  A human is a human, mythological or not.

            From a distance I heard the familiar jingling bells of the S.N.O.W. The Santa’s Next Option Wagon.  I waved to them as they made their approach and slowly made my way to their sleigh, which was much larger than mine, and offered shelter from the cruelest of elements.  I was greeted by Timothy, the lead elf of the S.N.O.W team.  As I informed him of the damage and circumstances of the crash, his team set to work straight away.  The Reindeer lined up immediately at the approach of several S.N.O.W. elves, and waited for their final bridle adjustments while other team members began the rapid repair work on my sleigh. It’s really an amazing site to behold.  Little blow torches sparking in the night air, hammers pounding out the dents.  By the time they were finished the feeling had returned to my hands, I had spoke with Mrs. Claus over the Sat phone, and I was ready to hit the skies again.  As I left the comfort of the sleigh, Timothy approached me with grave intent written across his boyish brow.

            Santa he said. We have a problem.

            Making my way back to the team, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  All of them were missing. All five of the golden rings which bound the team together were gone.  The S.N.O.W. elves began a rapid fire list of options for the completion of the night’s run, but I knew that without the rings to hold the team together, any solution offered would only be a temporary fix, requiring the S.N.O.W. team to return for more repairs in a matter of hours. Those five rings, forged of elven magic centuries ago, were the lynch pin to the entire flight.  They didn’t give the Reindeer their ability to fly. They didn’t provide extra lift to the overloaded sleigh.  They only served one purpose and one purpose alone.  They hold us all together.  They make the flight possible through their strength and their symbolism, something even the Reindeer seemed to understand. Each ring worked in unison with the others, and each one had a specific place in the team’s configuration.  There were more back at the North Pole, but given the storm, the distance and the fleeting time, that wasn’t our best option.

            After a brief consult, the S.N.O.W. Team split up to search for the rings. Time was of the essence, and the situation was growing dire.  Even in the heart of Central Park, in the middle of the night, on Christmas Eve, someone would be about.  It was only a matter of time before we were seen.  Occasional glimpses aren’t a big deal, especially by children. I rather enjoy the the astonishment and beauty that lights up their face when they realize who they’ve just seen.  Adults are a little trickier, but most of them keep the sighting to themselves or their immediate families.  Being found, broken down and grounded in New York City was just a problem I didn’t want to try to work my way out of.  It’s not that I don’t like the city. I love it there.  I just don’t want a news team rolling up on me in a situation like that.

            I began to review the brief meeting in my head as the others made their way out to begin the search.  Somehow the rings had broken loose from their mounts on the sleigh and the reigns, and had scattered through out the park on our way down.  The team had mapped out the likeliest trajectories based on storm strength, angle of decent and my approximate position at the time.  All quite an amazing thing to complete in the back of an over sized sleigh, even one that was a marvel of technology.  I placed another call to Mrs. Claus to explain the situation and assure her that everything would be alright, but for the first time in nearly a century, I was beginning to doubt that even good old Santa could pull this one off.  I stepped back in to the frigid night air which bit at my face and stung at my eyes and tried to see what direction I could go in that would prove to be the most helpful.  Normally in situations like this, the elves and the S.N.O.W. team in particular would rather that I just stay out of the way.  While I’m nimble on a rooftop, and spry popping up and down a chimney, my size, age and general dexterity do prove to be somewhat cumbersome at times like this.

            I knew that we had to make quick work of the search.  I heard screeching coming from the direction of West 86th and winced while I waited for the sound of impact. Nothing came but the typical cheerful New York greeting of a friendly cabbie wishing some member of the S.N.O.W. team a Merry Christmas in his own way.  I was hopeful that the team had recovered one or more of the rings.  They have a rule about not allowing people to see them, unless there’s some urgent situation.  This was a pretty serious situation, and the cheering from the group reassured me that we were making progress.  As the cabbie drove off to a symphony of horns and shouts, I thought to myself that it’s good that adults don’t generally receive presents from me.  There’d be a lot of disappointed people on Christmas morning.  A few minutes later another cheer broke through the muffling wind from the direction of the Turtle Pond. We might just have the situation under control after all.  There’s a lot of luck to being Santa, and I was beginning to chastise myself for ever doubting the strength of the Christmas spirit.

            After another hour of search however, even the typically jovial S.N.O.W. elves were showing their concern openly on their faces.  Four of the rings had been recovered and mounted back on the team, secured by elven tinsel.  The really good kind.  Timothy had sent out another search party to search in a grid pattern, but we knew that things were becoming desperate.  Without the final ring, the ring mounted to the sleigh itself, there was no easy way to control the team, and no possible way to complete the ride.  To keep from showing my distress to the others, I sung a happy holiday tune and rallied the group as best I could.  Afterward, I decided to go for a walk near Belvedere Castle.  The area was searched pretty thoroughly, so I wasn’t expecting to get anything more from it than a clearer mind for the next decision to be made.  The final decision came down to me of course, and though I was the man in charge, I dreaded what delaying our flight for another two or more hours would mean for the children of the world.  I’ve cut it close in the past. Skimmed over the horizon as the sun began it’s morning climb, but with time flying by, and our options dwindling, there wasn’t much hope in hitting every house in every country without making a spectacle of myself.

            I sat down for a moment on the granite steps to try to fathom how to best handle the situation when a noise caught my attention from an outcropping of trees just to my left.  I shuffled to my feet, and dusted myself off, looking and feeling foolish for the effort and came face to face with a small, waif of a girl. No more than eight, she was bundled up in a Hodge-podge of winter and summer clothing, most too big for her slight frame.  Despite her shivering, her eyes were wide and the most precious smile lit her face. She was a beauty to behold and I opened my arms to her and she ran to me, embracing me with a hug so strong it forced the air from my lungs and had me staggering back to the railing for support.  Through her gasps, I heard her crying.  Joy, surprise, disbelief? All of them I supposed as I gently pushed her back a few steps to get a better look at her.  While I made it my business to know every child, everywhere, I regularly relied on technology to keep everyone straight in my mind these days. I was pulling multiple petabytes of storage these days to keep the “List” in order, but my mind was blank and she could read it in my expression. It broke my heart to see her so crestfallen at that moment.  I removed my coat and draped it across her shoulders to help hold back the wind, if only a little.

            “I’m sorry my dear. Even Santa can be caught off guard.”

            She shrugged her shoulders at that and simply held my hand.

            “Where is your family tonight? Why are you out on such a night as this? Surely you aren’t here alone.”

            “My family lives in the trees just over there” she began pointing toward the grove from which she emerged.  “My daddy lost his job and now we don’t have anywhere to live.”  She began to cry again and I pulled her close to me. 

            Holding her, my memory cleared and her name, and her family flooded back to me.

            “I understand Anastasia.  Sometimes things can be so difficult, especially for someone so young as yourself.  Let’s get you back to your family and see if there isn’t something I can do to help.”

            She brightened at this and began to pull me along behind her.  I noticed Timothy watching me from the stairs as I was led away.  I held my hand up to him in a reassuring gesture and he nodded. I knew he would be close behind me, no matter where this little girl led.  AS we made our way through the trees, I recognized the shape of a make-shift lean-to, providing minimal shelter to a small yellow tent which was crusted with snow. The flap was open and I could hear noise coming from inside.  Her parents had noticed her missing and were afraid for her well being.

            As we approached the tent, her father, Jacob, stepped from the opening holding a baseball bat.  One look at me, and then to his daughter caused him to falter in his resolve.  I took that time to reacquaint myself with him.

            “Jacob, my old friend. I’m glad i have a chance to see you again after all these years.  I’m sorry it’s under such unpleasant circumstances, but it would appear that your daughter, has a knack for catching me off guard as you did several times as a boy.  We never had a chance to properly talk back then, but I know that you were a good boy, and I expect you’re an excellent father.”  

            He stood, baffled by my somewhat rapid introduction.

            “How, who, What?”

            “It’s Santa Daddy!” little Anastasia nearly yelled to him. “It’s really him!”

            “Go on back to the tent now Anastasia.  Check on your mother and your little brother.  Zachary, isn’t it?” I asked to Jacob, who still stood transfixed by my mere presence.  The sweet girl didn’t want to let go, but with a gentle push I wished her a Merry Christmas and watched her reenter the tent to be smothered in hugs and kisses and tears from her frightened mother.

            “We have some things to discuss Jacob.  Let’s start by getting a warm coat on you.”  Timothy appeared at my side with a parka for him, and stepped back to my side.

            “Any luck with the final ring lad?” I inquired.

            “No sir. I’m sorry.  We just can’t locate the final ring.”

            “That’s fine Timothy.  I’m going to stay here and have a talk with Jacob to see if there is anything we can do to help him and his family out tonight.  You go on back to the team and get ready to set off for a replacement ring.  I’ll make due for now and head off for Chicago when I’m done here, and you can meet up with me along the way.”

            Timothy didn’t argue, and didn’t protest, though I could see in his eyes he was still weary of the Louisville Slugger in Jacob’s hands, even though it was resting on the ground for the time being.  After he was gone, I spoke with Jacob about his present situation and if there what the outlook was for him.  I knew I could give him a warm place for the night and a bright and cheery Christmas morning, but even the best of gifts can’t completely wipe away the sting of reality after the presents have been opened and the carols sung.  He told me of his woes. He cried and I held him as I had years ago as a boy.  He didn’t ask me for anything, not even for a hotel for his family and it broke my heart.  So many families are homeless, in the midst of so much wealth. It was something I just couldn’t understand about humanity, and something I knew would have to change someday.

            As I passed him a gift box the size of a wallet, and a pass key to the Excelsior, he broke down and hugged me again.  There wasn’t much in the way of cash in the wallet, but there were a few gift cards to local restaurants, and a credit card with a sizable limit to hold them over for several weeks.  I also gave him a business card of a local merchant who I regularly did business with.  Give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day, but teach a man how to fish…it was the least I could do for the moment.

            I helped him gather their meager belongings in to their bags and helped his sweet wife Laura with baby Zachary when Anastasia tugged on my coat.

            “What is it little one?” I asked, gazing down in to her deep blue eyes.  So much life and love it was held in her gaze that it filled me with Christmas Spirit anew.

            “Santa. I heard you talking to my daddy before. I want to thank you for everything, but I was wondering.” she trailed off and stared at the ground for a moment.

            “What is it dear. You can ask me.”

            “You talked with the other man, about a ring.  What does it look like?”

            “My darling child.  It’s a great Golden Ring that sits a top my sleigh. I lost it tonight in the storm, and my elves were searching for it in the park, but you need not worry about it. There is another like it back at the North Pole.”

            She smiled then and bounced away back in to the tent to help her mother or so I assumed.  As I was loading up their belongings on to a small skid my elves had brought by for me, I felt her tugging at my coat again, and I heard her giggling.

            “Yes my dear. what can Santa do for…” I stopped in mid sentence, for in her hand she held the final ring.  The great golden sleigh ring we had spent so long searching for was right here. A tear ran down my face and I knew that everything would be alright. Not only for my ride tonight, but for this family as well.  She told me of how it fell to the snow as she was getting up to search the skies for me, and had thought this might be her Christmas gift, though she couldn’t imagine what it was for. I gave her a great hug and a kiss on the cheek and told her that if she would give it to me, I’d make sure there was something special under the tree for her in the morning.  She only smiled when she handed it to me and said Merry Christmas.

            With that, a group of the S.N.O.W. elves led them away toward their new lives, and I made my way quickly back to the team.  The S.N.O.W. sleigh was preparing to leave for the North Pole but I was able to catch them in time.  Within minutes the ring was mounted and secured and I was ready to leave.

            As we made our ascent out of the park, I watched as the little family made their way across Central Park West.  Anastasia was looking to the sky and waving and I found myself crying and waving in return. Such a small gift from such a young child reminded me again of what the season is truly about. 

            A Child is born in Bethlehem…

BIO:  David Sobkowiak is an audio producer and script writer for an online production company with writing and production credits for several audio adaptations and original works.  He is presently finishing his first novel. He resides in Central Virginia. Contact Mr. Sobkowiak by emailing him at dsobkowiak@gmail.com.

Chuck and the Four Calling Birds

December 17, 2009

by

Jack Roth

            Chuck loved hot showers.  Beyond hot.  So hot that his skin would actually burn, maybe almost sizzle.  The bathroom would fill up with a think cloud of steam and Chuck never, ever turned on the overheat vent.

            Hot showers washed things away.  An aching muscle could be soothed and relaxed.  A bad day could be easily erased by putting his head under the water for a few minutes.  Then of course there was dirt, the whole point of showers.  And once in a while, only once in a while, some blood.

            “Number four,” Chuck said wiping the mirror with his yellow towel.  Yellow was his favorite color.  Some of his towels though had orange spots on them where colors mixed.

            As Chuck was plucking a few nose hairs, panic set in. 

            “The damn sheets!” he yelled and threw the tweezers into the sink.

            He stormed out of the bathroom, down the short hall to the laundry room, and ripped open the doors.  He dug through the one shelf to find he had three sheets on it.

            “Blue, green, white,” he said.  “White?  I hate white.  White doesn’t absorb.”

            Chuck left the laundry room and went into his room.  Suzie was on the bed, peacefully resting.  Chuck quietly snuck to the computer desk and found pen and paper.

            More sheets.  No white.

            He clicked the pen shut and shuffled his feet over to Suzie.

            “You asleep?” he said slapping her foot.  “Ah, come on, don’t be so quiet.  You couldn’t shut up ten minutes ago.”

            Suzie lay on a dark green sheet, Chuck’s favorite.  It showed nothing but wet spots.  And the untrained eye wouldn’t realize those wet spots were blood.

            Suzie lay with her head titled to the left, mouth open, eyes shut.  Chuck could still hear her talking. . .

            “There’s something wrong with you.  I touch the closet door and you scream like that?  You think I’m going to stand for that kind of treatment?”

            Chuck had no choice at that point in time.  She had touched the closet door AND had talked back.  In Chuck’s baseball game there were only two strikes . . . then death.

            The funny thing about blood is that it doesn’t take much to stain things.  Chuck knew he had to move Suzie because if she bled through the sheet, she’d hit the bed set and then things would get bad.  Chuck didn’t have a spare bed set . . . he pointed at Suzie:  “Don’t move,” he said smiling.  He walked back to the desk and wrote bed set – dark green – maybe – not so dark.

            “Suzie, oh Suzie,” Chuck said lying down next to her.  “What could have been for us.”

            He moved the bloody hair from her face behind her ear.  He kissed her forehead and then licked his lips.  The rough taste of iron tasted so good.

            “Well, no use crying over spilled milk here,” Chuck said rolling over and looking in the mirror. 

            He stood up straight and turned sideways.  He slapped his “half-kegger” belly as he lovingly called it.  It shook.  It was never this big.  Time was winning.  From the smells from the closet to the fat hanging off his stomach, time was definitely winning.

            “Okay Suzie, let’s go,” Chuck said grabbing a shirt.

            He wrapped Suzie up in the sheet and picked her up.  He felt his hands and forearms getting moist.  He smiled – another hot, super hot shower would be needed.

            “You know what Suzie?  I thought of a great name for you.”

            Suzie didn’t respond, she just bounced with each step Chuck took towards the closet.

            “Eh, hold on,” Chuck whispered as he reached out for the door knob.

            He twisted it slowly and the closet door opened.

            The light from the room was enough to cast a shadow on the other three bodies in the closet.

            “I’m going to call you the four calling birds!” he yelled. 

            With a soft grunt, Chuck threw Suzie on top of the other bodies. 

            “The four calling birds because none of you would stop talking . . . unless I did something about it.”

            The door bell rang.

            Chuck looked at the clock. 

            “Fifteen minutes early,” he said shutting the closet door.  “Not a good way to start a new relationship.”

            Chuck rubbed his arms and hands on his dark pants and grabbed the knife that was next to the pen and paper.  He took a deep breath and began to walk down the steps as the doorbell rang again.

            “When will I ever find the right one?” he said with the knife behind his back and his hand on the door handle.

BIO:  Jack Roth lives in Shelby, Nebraska.  With his dog, Boomer.  He reads and writes.

Heirloom Birds

December 17, 2009

by

Laura Eno

Jim adjusted the calling birds on the tree – again. They wouldn’t hang right. What was the point of spreading all this work out over twelve days anyway? Why not just hang all of the ornaments at one time, like normal people?

He sighed. Marcie had begged him to follow her family’s tradition of hanging each set during the Twelve Days. She even presented him with the traditional ornaments handed down through her family.

This was to be their first Christmas together as a married couple and Jim wanted to please her. Maybe next year she’d let him go back to the tried and true way.

Another bird fell to the floor. Grumbling, Jim picked it up, examining the hook. He felt eyes watching him through the front window.

Turning to catch whomever had the temerity to spy on him, Jim found the front lawn empty. The world outside held nothing but graceful, snow-covered trees and a white lawn, while one desperate bird scratched for a meal.

He wondered if he’d filled the birdfeeder recently, then went back to his onerous chore. Who would have thought that four lousy birds would give him so much trouble?

Marcie had mentioned something about hanging them with reverence, or some such nonsense. She’d even taught him a silly little poem to say as he adorned the tree each day.

The first three days he’d recited it, feeling silly each time he did so. This morning Jim decided to forego the rubbish, refusing to utter the words lest he become as batty as her relatives were by the twelfth day.

A second calling bird fell off while he’d been gazing out the window. What was with these damn birds? He looked at the partridge gracing the top, the two turtledoves nesting side-by-side, the three French hens. They were just as he’d left them.

While contemplating whether he should just step on the fallen ornament, Jim felt the eyes again. Spinning back to the window, he found no one. A second bird had joined the first, calmly pecking in the snow and paying him no mind.

A clatter behind him caught his attention. Bird number three lay on the floor, its little claw feet pointing skywards, much as if it were dead.

Jim felt the blood of anger pounding at his temples. He was going to have a vicious headache by the time he was done. Stooping to grasp the wretched bird, he felt the prying eyes pull at him.

Looking at the window from between his legs, all Jim saw were three scrawny birds, hopelessly digging for a frozen worm. Straightening, he stomped over to the window.

“See if I ever fill your feeder again.”

Clank. Jim knew without turning that the fourth bird now lay on the floor. Fine. They could stay there for all he cared.

As he continued to watch the miserable birds outside, a fourth flew down to join the others. As one, they turned to look in the window, fixing their beady little eyes on him.

Jim was so mesmerized by the birds outside, he never knew what hit him when the attack came from behind.

BIO:  Laura Eno (http://lauraeno.blogspot.com) has written two YA fantasy novels and a paranormal romance.  Her flash fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Twisted Dreams, The Monsters Next Door, Flashes in the Dark, 10Flash, House of Horror, The New Flesh, Everyday Weirdness and MicroHorror.

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