Iron Henry

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Henry swigged a melting mouthful of the hearth witch’s tea and clutched his chest. Eyes bulging, beet face glistening, he waited on the precipice. A grand suck of air. A glimmer of gritted teeth. The medicine took. After his affliction smoothed its feathers and he could breath again, Henry slid down the wall of the well and grated a coarse hand across his shining brow.

A bit of cold water would have gone a long way, but Henry knew better than to stick his hand into the iris of the well to freshen his face. And yet…Henry peered down into its mirthless depths for one look, but the frog was gone again. Plucked. Stolen. The well witch’s pincers had dragged him back down to her breathless underworld. Was his prince happier with that sea serpent? He couldn’t be. What a silly idea. Henry repeated these mantras as uncertainty sickened his mind with hypothesis and jealousy. He rapped on his chest three times with four knuckles like knots in birch and lumbered up from his seat wondering when his prince would appear again.

“Fool,” Henry said, the word lush with longing.

The next day Henry again squished through the rank marsh to the green-furred well and called down into the water, watching his pleas ripple across its glutinous surface.

“Prince! My prince! Your man calls you,” he sobbed. The forest responded first, laughing at poor Henry. Birds shrieking slurs, dripping hot white fervor to the forest floor. But a pale specter grew out of the well’s thunderhead. An emerald body rose. A horror. An extraterrestrial sun in the familiar night sky.

“My prince! Ah,” Henry said, doubling over as his heart swelled against its cage. His cry held the power of resurrection. A hand shot up thin and bare as a wintered branch to pull the frog down, down, down to the bottom of the well.

Henry slid to the damp grass and nestled his head against the mildewed stone, salting it with fresh loss. When a long time later he lifted his face to the darkening day, Henry found himself staring at the witch, her arms hooked over the sill of the well to pillow her brown, waterlogged cheek as she looked sidelong at the man and clucked.

“Poor Henry,” said the witch. “I am sorry.”

“You aren’t though,” Henry said, too weary to brew stronger poison. “You have him and you couldn’t be happier.”

“Oh Henry, it’s not that simple,” the witch said as she brushed a water moccasin away from her face to peer at the man with avian ferocity.

“I’m confined here. You’ve known love while I’ve known nothing so deep as my own well. My heart will never find home with another, but at least I’ll have a companion now.”

“So you have spoken. Now leave me be,” said Henry, clutching his heart.

“It was unfortunate that you and your prince came along, but that can’t be helped. I’ll not spend my centuries alone,” the witch said, trailing off. She studied Henry. “What have you done to yourself, Henry?” she said. “Something in you has changed.”

Henry grimaced. “I had the blacksmith cage my heart in iron,” he said. “To keep it from bursting.”

The witch sighed as Henry rallied. “What if I offered you a deal?” the witch said. “A chance to regain your beloved’s life.”

Henry’s spine snapped into place. “I dare not believe–” but the witch stopped him with one uplifted hand.

“Even if you succeed, you won’t get all that you want. But your prince will be free. He will recover his true shape and a life outside my well.”

Henry stood. “Tell me then. I have nothing to lose and my true love’s freedom to gain.”

The witch, leaning too far over her well, cringed back. Henry drew close to hear.

“There is a princess in the next kingdom. It was her ancestors who banished me to this well. If I find her a prince to marry, my spell will be lifted. Should you convince her to take the prince for a husband as he is, his spell too will be lifted. But you must not tell her his true identity and they must remain husband and wife or he will be called back to me. And if that should happen, your prince will turn frog again, never surfacing to see you.”

Henry said nothing for a long time. “It will be done,” he decided at last. “My prince will see the sun again, if not his faithful Henry.”

Iron-Henry-Icons-Frog-Final

The princess was out walking in a brightly scented meadow. Every now and then she slowed her step to toss a ball into the air. High above her the golden orb gleamed, dazzling the sky as its gems caught the sun’s fire. It would have put the queen into a spin to see the princess toss her hard-won golden egg, but the young woman knew her mother wouldn’t notice if it went missing for an hour or so each day, and she took wicked pleasure in using the priceless treasure as a plaything.

With a thrill of jubilation and daring, the princess flung the egg as hard as she could up to the sky and as she did a shadow fell over her. Before she could even sound her alarm a fury of feathers swooped down from the sky taking hold of the egg with precise talons.

“Oh no,” the princess cried, chasing the bird through the woods. She barely looked down from the hunt until something heavy fell on her shoulder and pulled her back.

“No, princess,” warned a low voice.

“How dare you,” the princess spat at the man who had clapped his hand on her shoulder.

“The well,” he said, and the princess looked back and saw it then. The chase had so consumed her, she had almost tumbled heel over head into the black pool.

“You saved my life,” she breathed. “But, oh, my egg,” she wailed.

“Your egg?”

“A golden egg all crusted with jewels. Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“But I think I have seen it,” he said, holding out his palm. The other hand held hawking gloves, but that was behind his back.

“Ah,” the princess gasped. It was the egg, as perfect as ever and even more so for having been found. As the princess reached for her prize the man pulled back.

“I will return your egg to you on one condition,” he said.

“I’ll give you my pearls and my jewels,” the princess huffed. “I’ll even give you the clothes on my back–just give me my egg.”

“I don’t want your pearls or your jewels. And I’d ask that you keep your clothes on. All I want is the promise that you will accept my prince as your companion. Let him sit beside you at your golden table and eat from your golden plate and sleep in your golden bed and promise to love and cherish him.”

“A prince,” the princess said, disguising her interest with coyness but too late. “Is he as beautiful as you?” asked the pouting coquette.

“He is,” said the man, and there was such sorrow in his voice, it drove the princess ravenous.

“I’ll have him,” she said and snatched up her egg. But when the prince, all green and gray brindled, rose to the water’s surface the princess shrieked her disgust and fled into the woods.

“Wait, princess! Your promise,” Henry called after her  gauntlets pressed to his heart. But she was gone.

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The princess was dining on pheasant with the king and queen when a knock traveled to them from the castle door. The king left their table to discover the meaning of the interruption and returned with a young beauty and a frog.

“This man says you broke a promise made to him,” the king said to the princess. “Is this true?”

“He tricked me into promising my companionship, my plate, my bed, and love to that creature,” she said and scowled at the intruders.

“What trick was this?” the king asked the young man.

“No trick,” said Henry. “I only recovered the princess’s golden egg when she lost it.”

“Golden egg?” said the queen. “Excuse me.” She left the table and returned with the golden egg. “This golden egg?” she said.

“The very same,” said Henry. And the queen gave the princess such a look as would make any daughter or son wish for the earth to gobble them up.

“And did you agree to the promise?” the queen continued.

“I did, but that was before I knew his prince was a frog,” the princess insisted.

“It matters not,” said the queen. “You have made a promise and you will keep it.”

“Father,” the princess wailed.

“Listen to your mother,” the king said, tucking back into his plate. “You will not besmirch our name with your dishonesty.”

The princess opened her mouth but one look from the queen snapped it shut. Henry felt the cord pressing the frog against his hand, pulling him back toward the well, snap beneath the princess’s surrender. He gingerly placed his prince near the princess’s plate and left their company gasping at the pain housed within the iron cage.

“Push the plate close to your companion so that he may share your meal,” the queen said with a tidy, icy smile.

Empty stomach and barren of appetite, the princess took the frog to her room under her parents’ orders. But when she felt the slimy skin against her own and heard the rusty croak of her bedfellow she cried out and flung the frog against the wall. So great was collision that the witch’s enchantment smacked clean off the prince and he was freed from his froggy form.

Eyeing the prince in true flesh, the princess flew to his aid, her heart pounding with new love. The prince, seeing himself in her looking glass, pushed the princess aside and escaped the castle in search of Henry. He found him pale and clutching his heart by the well, the witch stroking his auburn hair. They started at the sight of the prince.

“My prince! You’re whole again,” Henry said embracing his other half.

“The spell was lifted when the princess threw me against the wall,” said the prince.

“Threw you,” Henry raged.

“Ah,” said the witch. “Tricky business, spells. I’m sorry to say that you’re still tied to me, frog or not. Even now the enchantment pulls you back to my well.” And the prince had moved incrementally closer to the witch and the water.

“Wait,” cried Henry. “I have a proposal.”

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The princess heard a knock on the castle door and flew to the window. Just as she’d hoped, it was him. She flung the door wide and embraced her prince on the doorstep.

“You have returned. I knew you would. There is no princess–or otherwise–fairer in the land and now you know and I forgive you,” she said, pulling him in.

“Wait, princess. First you must sever my ties to the well witch. I cannot be yours until you do.”

The princess squared her shoulders. “Then sever your ties I will,” she said. “I have no fear of well witches. Let us go directly.”

They found the witch waiting, hooked to the ledge of the well by her chin, which rested on a soft bed of moss.

“What do we have here?” the witch said through her teeth.

“The princess has come of her own volition to sever my ties,” said the prince.

“Then so shall it be,” said the witch. “Come closer, my dear, and let me tell you how it’s done.”

The princess looked at her prince who nodded encouragement. She lifted her chin, strode to the witch, leaned over the well and splash! In went the princess and off went Henry and his prince to live happily ever after.

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Chapter 6: Bears to War

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.


Ghost-C6-Spies-webCrows burst into the air like fireworks and disappeared as quickly, finding distant stations on the fringes of the town where they ruffled their feathers in baffled misery. The feathered, fluttering slips of gold that had driven them off now cooed as a hulking pile of patchwork fabric lifted his hands skyward with offerings of sweat-salted seeds and black breadcrumbs.

“Hey. Hey d’you know it’s called a murder of crows?” Parker rasped.

“Everybody knows that, Parker, so shut up,” Darla hissed.

Ghost curled her fingers around the crumbling edge of the brick building and held her breath. She smelled the corn chips on Darla’s breath before she felt her lean in.

“Move back a little,” Ghost whispered. Heat radiated from the buildings sandwiching them; the pavement exhaled the oily spirit of a merciless noon.

“I wanna see,” Darla complained.

“Well here then,” said Ghost. She moved to let Darla take her place, attempting cat-like stealth only to trip over her feet. She had to grab onto Parker’s hair to avoid a noisy fall and thought he’d squeal. But Parker brayed mutely, too surprised to find his voice.

Now Ghost leaned over Darla’s shoulder. “What’s he doing?” she asked, blowing brush-ravaged curls out of her nostrils.

“I dunno. He’s swaying or something. Wait. He’s singing–no! He’s humming.”

“Humming?” Parker crinkled his nose in offense.

Ghost and Darla shushed him. Parker didn’t seem capable of dropping below a nasal shriek most of the time and whispering was against his beliefs. As they feared, the man’s head jerked up. Everyone froze except Jo-Jo who continued to read his book, leaning back against the molten building.

The man’s back faced them. His nose was a brindled sliver. His hair was a matted pile stacked atop his head. Gray, red, brown, white, black, every color shot out from his scalp and mushroomed around him with great violence. That hum Darla had caught in the momentary breeze–that low, throaty chant like something Ghost had heard before–stopped suddenly as he stared at the dusty red wall three, maybe four feet from where the Conundrum Council hid in the alley. The buildings surrounding the small square where the man roosted with his birds were windowless. Their ivy-covered faces saw no one, but Ghost, Darla, Parker, and Jo-Jo had found the man.

The Council had schemed to leave Pip behind. “Official business,” Darla had told her mother with grave bureaucracy. Mrs. Pumpernickel had peered at the Council dubiously, but then she said, “Have it your own way this time, girl. But don’t get used to it.”

Darla could be pretty clever sometimes. She was the one who had come up with a possible solution to their first conundrum. And so Ghost’s proposal to figure out who had lived in the shack that now served as their clubhouse had turned into the mystery of the bird man.

“I’m sure he used to live here,” Darla had said. “He arrived with a traveling circus. Or, wait wait! He used to work at the arcade.”

“Yeah, uh-huh,” Parker had chimed in through a mouthful of candy as he hopped a hydrantGhost-C6-BirdMan-web outside of Mr. Coffee’s Toffees. “I think I saw him at the arcade too. Nah, hold on–it was at Lumberg’s Fine China Depot with my granny. That’s where I saw him.”

Jo-Jo lifted an eyebrow, frowned, and said nothing. Ghost shot him a knowing glance. “A minute ago, you said he could control birds,” she argued. “What would someone with that sort of power be doing at an arcade or a china depot? Maybe a circus,” she trailed off.

“What are you some expert on the subject?” Darla asked, lifting her nose even higher.

“What if I am?” Ghost said.

“Look there,” stuttered Parker. Four chins lifted as the first round of crows evacuated the alley.

Now, almost half an hour later, the bird man resumed his feathered lullaby.

“I don’t think he saw us,” Ghost said.

“Let’s go,” Darla whispered. “I’m over it.” Ghost heard the tiny crack in Darla’s voice and decided to keep her mouth shut and make for the exit.


“You shouldn’t spy on people like that.”

Ghost had been excited to tell her mother about the Conundrum Council’s first mystery but now she felt deflated and shame-faced.

“People aren’t mysteries for you to solve–they’re people,” her mother continued. “And people have complicated backgrounds that land them in circumstances you may not understand. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. I hope you’ll keep that in mind when you’re looking for entertainment. You and your new friends.”

Ghost’s mom paused and turned around with an apologetic smile. Ghost had decided to look out of the window, keeping her face turned as far from her mother as she could without spraining something. But she listened as her mother continued.

Ghost-C6-ChitChat-web“I am happy that you’ve found friends, sweetie. I know you understand that I’m not trying to discourage you.”

Ghost did know. But why did it always seem like she was doing something wrong? It was like her parents were sifting through her chatter for anything to criticize these days.

“You look nice,” Ghost said, ready to change the subject.

Her mother kissed her on the cheek. “Thanks, sweetie. You’ll be alright at Matilda’s? Dad and I should only be a couple hours.”

Ghost’s father was downstairs, playing music, getting into the spirit of going out on the town for an evening. Her parents explored every town they had ever lived in through its culinary scene. It was easy to find new places to try as much as they moved around.

“I’ll be fine,” Ghost promised.

“Okay. Well, now that I’ve got your vote, I think we’re ready to go.”

Ghost’s parents walked her next door and rang the doorbell. Matilda’s door swung open venting a haze of sage and cat litter into the cool evening.

“Thank you so much,” Ghost’s parents said until she grew cross.

When they were gone, at last, Matilda shut the door and clapped her hands. “Well. I hope you like bolognese,” she said.

“Does it have bologna in it?” Ghost asked, knowing the answer.

“No–it’s just pasta with meat sauce. Ground beef,” Matilda shrugged. “But really good pasta with meat sauce,” she added with gravitas.

Ghost eyed her suspiciously, wondering if Matilda thought she ate spaghetti from the can. “I like pasta,” she said.

“Good. I just need to hover over it awhile. Would you like to keep me company in the kitchen?”

Ghost followed Matilda into a warm kitchen of saffron walls and pleasing clutter. The smell of oregano made her mouth water. Matilda looked a bit lost flitting from her cookbook to her pot and back to her cookbook. She frowned.

“I live off of takeout,” Matilda admitted.

“I would’ve eaten takeout,” said Ghost.

“No way,” Matilda shouted. “This is my first babysitting gig–I need to impress.”

“I don’t know, babysitters always order pizza in horror movies. And then they invite their friends over to do stupid things.”

“Your parents let you watch that stuff?”

“Sure,” said Ghost.

“It’s a long time since I was seventeen and my cats aren’t keen on large parties, so there will be none of that.”

One of Matilda’s cats was lying on her side under the table, trying to shred Ghost’s boot.

“Good because it usually leads to bad times,” Ghost said, smiling down at the cat. It gave her one look and darted away.

“So your mom said you made some friends.”

“Yeah, I’ve been hanging out with some kids from the neighborhood. They’re cool. We have this sort of secret society.”

“Tell me all about it,” Matilda said, shutting the cookbook and tossing hot peppers into the pot.

“It’s secret,” Ghost said snottily, and then, “It’s called the Conundrum Council and we solve the town’s mysteries.”

“Ooh, that does sound exciting. What mysteries have you solved?”

Ghost cradled her chin in her palm. “None.” Matilda lifted one sharp eyebrow. “I mean, not yet,” Ghost added. “Actually . . . ” she considered a moment. “Have you ever met someone who could control animals?”

Matilda’s spoon stopped stirring. “Hmm, you mean commanding a dog to sit or a cat to use the toilet? Or more like leading your bear minions to war?”

“Bears to war,” said Ghost.

“I’ve known of that sort of thing.” She said nothing more for a while. “I mean, there’s that guy on TV with the dogs. I always thought he might be secretly training everyone’s pets to eventually overthrow their owners and join him in some unholy battle.”

Ghost snorted. “Never mind. Silly question.”

“What makes you ask?” said Matilda.

“Just Council business.”

Matilda nodded sagely. “Council business. Right. Well, my mysterious friend, I hope you’re ready to eat, and I hope you like heat because I think those were habaneros and not mini heirloom tomatoes.”

“I’m ready to suffer. Can I use your restroom first?”

“Go on then. Down the hall and to your right.”

Ghost wandered down the hall. Embarrassing family photos decorated the walls of Ghost’s home but at Matilda’s it was cat photos. Here was the tabby wearing a cowboy hat and a scowl; here was the butterscotch ball of fluff wearing a top hat, bow, and scowl; here was the rotund, immobile Scottish Fold wearing a tiny elf’s hat and a lolling tongue. Ghost preferred these photos to her own wrinkled infant face nailed to the wall like evil eyes warding off spirits.

She stopped in the middle of the hallway. Matilda had said, “down the hall and to your right,” but she counted three doors along the hall to her right. Ghost didn’t want to be caught looking like a snoop. She decided to try the first door. Matilda would have told her which one if she didn’t mean the first.

Proud of her ability to sift logic from the vague, Ghost turned the door handle, opened the door, opened her mouth, and screamed.

Chapter 5: The Tale of Minoned

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.

Tale of Minoned 1On a warm island all furred with olive trees lived a farmer, a shepherdess, and their daughter. The three led a mostly placid life, but one day The Blight crawled up from the Underground full of boredom and ill intent and threatened to squander their crops and the feed for their sheep. The farmer and the shepherdess begged for mercy. The warm season was ending and they would not survive winter without olives and sheep to trade the sea merchants for salted kraken and the whale fat that kept their hearth lit all the months long.

But The Blight would only agree to keep his nubby fingers off the crops if the farmer and the shepherdess gave him their daughter to take as his wife. As the couple thought their daughter terribly dull and without aspiration, and as the task of making a baby would curtail the boredom of the lengthening nights, husband and wifey quickly-quietly made the exchange.

The girl—

“What was her name?”

Nix pursed his lips. “Harbo, not that it matters. Anyway—“

Harbo found herself in the Underground with The Blight who, as it turns out, had one million bartered wives. One of many, Harbo moldered for near a century within the smelly caverns of The Blight’s home. The Underground isn’t a place for mortals. It’s lousy with monsters and angry gods—not that there aren’t some good ones. Harbo could safely go no farther than the river that sloshed past The Blight’s caverns and throughout the Underground, and it was there that she came across the goddess Minoned while throwing rocks into the frothing waters.

“You shouldn’t do that.”

Harbo looked up from the dark water to find a young woman watching her from an idling boat.

“Do what?” asked Harbo.

“My sea serpents swim in there. I imagine they don’t enjoy taking rocks to the head, though I can’t be certain since they’ve never said as much.”

Giving the woman a once-over, Harbo asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m the goddess Minoned. I tend to the beasts of the Underground,” Minoned shrugged. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you around.”

“I’m Harbo of the Olive Isle, wife of The Blight. Well, one of them. And I don’t get out much.”

Minoned made a face. “The Blight? He smells like thousand year-old unwashed underpants.”

Harbo couldn’t disagree.

“Want to paddle downriver with me?” asked Minoned. “You’ll be safe on my boat.”

Harbo gladly accepted the opportunity for a break from the caverns and the nonsense chatter of the million wives. She’d spent half a century in their company and she still had no idea what any of them were saying.

“Half a century?” said Ghost. “Harbo must’ve been ancient by then.”

“Aside from the fact that at sixty-seven one is not ancient, everyone knows that all living mortals who enter the Underground stop aging,” said Nix. “The entrapped don’t die either, much as they wish it.”

“If they don’t die, why would they worry about monsters and mean gods?”

“I said they don’t die of old age,” Nix snapped.

“No you didn’t.”

Nix gave Ghost a long, but weary, stare. “Alright, a mortal can die of unnatural causes, which may include being swallowed whole or having her atoms dispersed by a god. But if that happens, her soul doesn’t get to slum the world sniffing freshly baked bread or scaring children or whatever it is the departed enjoy doing. She gets to wander the Underground eternally, except it’s like one of those bad dreams where your body can only float a millimeter above the ground–where you move at such a crawl even a squashed snail would beat you in a race. Now,” Nix cleared his throat.

Minoned 3Minoned and Harbo had a grand time herding the colossal lantern fish, scattering them all through the river system. They lit the dark spaces so that the gods wouldn’t bark their shins on stalagmites or fall into one of the bottomless holes that pocked the stony floor.

“It must be thrilling to go where you please and ride giant cave spiders up the walls,” said Harbo as she touched a fingertip to a fish’s lantern.

Minoned dipped a lazy oar into the water and considered Harbo’s words. “It’s alright,” she said. “It’s been my life for all of time. But this is fun. I don’t get much company down here. Sometimes, I have to chatter to my beasts because I forget the sound of my own voice.”

“I get lonely too,” confessed Harbo.

“You have the other wives.”

Harbo explained how the million wives all came from different places and times and how they struggled to understand each other.

“I’m kind of, sort of getting the hang of one of the languages, but the wife who speaks it is covered from head to toe in hair and throws sticks at me sometimes. I always end up fleeing before I can get to the bottom of her hooting and hollering.”

“Just say it. I can see that you have something to say. Just say it now before I—“

“I was going to ask how Minoned could understand Harbo if they weren’t from the same place. But let me guess: gods can speak all languages.”

“Good. I’m glad we’re making progress here. I should say that fluent as the gods are in the languages of the universe, they can’t seem to make heads or tails of body language.”

Ghost feigned shock. “Are you admitting to ignorance?”

“I am a demigod and a master of body language.”

When time came for Harbo to return to The Blight and the million wives and the caverns, she pleaded her case to Minoned.

“Don’t make me go back there,” said Harbo. “I can help you with the beasts. I can be your apprentice.”

“I’m not hiring,” said Minoned. But Harbo looked so unhappy, Minoned agreed to let her stay a little while longer.

She brought Harbo back to her temple and fed the fell dogs standing guard outside while Harbo wondered at the glowing structure of flickering candles and dripping wax.

“Minoned,” someone snarled.

Minoned turned from her task to find The Blight striding toward her, tracking a foul cloud behind him. She lit a stick of incense and stood her ground.

“Where is my wife?” he growled. “The Damp said he saw you with her on the river.”

Minoned took one look at the green thread of spit dangling from The Blight’s cracked lower lip and knew she couldn’t return Harbo to him. She glanced behind her to find the fell dogs dividing. Harbo stood on the other side of them. If the dogs continued to wander, the girl would be exposed and dragged back to the caverns never to be allowed out again.

Minoned sighed and did what she had to do. The Blight pushed past her, calling out for Harbo. A dog snapped at him as he passed.

“Where is she?” he demanded again.

The impassive Minoned watched The Blight glare beneath the surrounding rocks as if expecting to find his wife under one. “Who knows?” she said.

When it became apparent to The Blight that he had somehow been tricked, he left at last, still shouting Harbo’s name into the tunnels, pausing often to curse and kick stone rats.

“I’m a dog,” Harbo barked, wagging her black tail.

“Yes, you are and a dog you’ll have to stay if you don’t want The Blight to come back for you,” sighed Minoned.

“Why are you sad?” asked Harbo. “I can stay with you now, and we can be friends always.”

“Soon you will forget all words and all memory of your former life. You will be a beast.”

Harbo was quiet awhile, then said, “I think I’m okay with that. I’d much rather lead a dog’s life and go where I please.”

And Harbo did have a mostly happy existence running with her pack, tearing other beasts apart. Harbo also forgot her words and her old life and Minoned’s friendship, just as the goddess said she would. And that is the tale of Minoned and how she lost the only friend she’d have for a long, long time.

“What?” asked Nix.

But Ghost, having by now made it across the neighborhood to her own front stoop, could only continue shaking her head at Nix in disbelief. “That was your story? She lived miserably ever after? You know, if you were sent here to make me feel worse, I don’t actually need help with that. I’m doing fine on my own.”

“It’s just a story,” Nix called out. But he couldn’t be sure she’d heard past the sound of the door slamming in his face.

Minoned 4

[Fairy Tale] East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)

retelling and pictures by S. Zainab Williams

art by S. Zainab WilliamsHis hair was thick and white as the pure snow that frosted the ice kingdom. His mouth was a slick black line opening to reveal white fangs and pant smoke into the frozen air. But it was his eyes the king saw; the half-lidded gaze of wan defeat that gave the king hope enough to cry out.

“Mercy! Please!”

Somewhere in the distance his black mare cantered through the powder white-eyed and homeward-bound. Somewhere much farther off, deep in the cloud bank, his hunting party gave off chasing the white buck to search for their king. The bear grunted and sloped his thick skull to sniff the air around the king. Was it defeat, the king now wondered, or dire hunger that dulled the bear’s eyes?

“I have three daughters, and a queen, and this kingdom to protect. Spare me and I will give you what I can,” he cried.

The bear rose up on his hind legs and unhinged his massive jaws and the king’s hand flew to his ears to protect them from what would surely be the last sound he heard—a deafening roar that would shatter his icy stronghold.

“A bed.”

The king unscrewed his eyes to peer up at the bear.

“A bed,” the bear said again. “And a roaring fire. And a seat at your table. This is what I want.”

When her father broke free of the forest and the clouds borne on the back of a great white bear, the youngest princess left her sisters’ and her mother’s company to race across the packed white earth stretching out from the castle to embrace her broken father. The middle and eldest princesses and the queen held back, uncertain and afraid.

When the king recounted the story of how he had been lost to the cloud, how his mare had startled and thrown him off, and how the bear had saved him, the youngest princess thanked the bear.

“You are a welcome guest in our home. You will have your bed, and your fire, and a seat at our table, and we will be joyous in your company,” said the youngest princess.

But the middle and eldest princesses were not joyous in the bear’s company and the king was only anxious. The six sat around the great table by the roaring hearth. The red and orange light colored the castle walls made brick by brick of ice, but the waterstone neither melted nor wept so cold was the ice kingdom. The six ate in silence, swaddled in thick fur cloaks, a company of bears.

The youngest princess lifted her eyes from her plate to watch the bear eat with knife and drink from a goblet, but looked away again when he caught her gaze.

That night as the house slept, the bear pulled the curtains around his bed and lay back on the feather mattress. But the door creaked and pale yellow light spilled through a gap in his bed curtains. The bear feigned sleep and when the light washed over his face, illuminating his eyelids, he opened his eyes to find the sleepy face of the youngest princess.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I cannot sleep. I never can sleep. The castle is too cold and my fire never warm enough. The halls are too still and lonely always. The peasants keep to their cottages where they are safe from snow and ice, never braving the frozen climb for balls and banquets. So I shiver alone,” said the youngest princess.

The bear stared up at her with his wet sad eyes and the youngest princess stared back with curiosity.

“How is it that you eat and drink and sleep like man? How is it that you speak?” asked the youngest princess.

“That is a long tale and the moon will rise soon. My coat is warm and soft. You may stay and take comfort, but only if you promise to be asleep before the moon rises above the mountain peak.”

The youngest princess promised. She curled beside the bear and fell into a long deep sleep before the moon rose above the mountain peak. And when it did, the bear snuck a slender arm around the youngest princess and pulled her close to keep her warm.

This continued for many more nights. The youngest princess crept into the bear’s bed and slept before the moon rose above the mountain peak.

But one night the queen spied the youngest princess slipping into the bear’s room and put her ear to the door. She heard the youngest princess tell the bear stories about her childhood in the ice kingdom and she heard the bear tell the youngest princess about his childhood in the forests of a faraway sunlit kingdom. When their voices faded, replaced by long, deep breaths, the queen snuck into the room and pulled back the curtains.

As the moon rose above the mountain peak, the queen leaned over the sleeping pair and jumped to see that a young man had replaced the bear. And as the queen jumped, three drops of melted tallow fell from the three candles on her candelabra, dripping onto the young man’s bare arm.

The young man awoke as did the youngest princess. Seeing what had happened, the young man rose and pulled a great white fur around him.

“I must leave,” he said.

“But why?” the youngest princess cried.

“I have been seen by the light of the moon and so the troll princess now knows where I am. She will find your kingdom, gobble your family, and steal me back,” said the young man.

“We will fight her,” said the youngest princess.

The young man smiled with great sadness in his eyes.

“I was once a young prince in my sunlit kingdom east of the sun and west of the moon. But the troll princess and her mother came in the night to kill my father and mother. I tried to fight them but they stole my kingdom and the troll princess claimed me for herself. She cursed me so that I would turn into a bear by day if ever I fled the kingdom. By the light of the moon, I would become man again, but if anyone spied me in my true form, the troll princess would find me through their eyes.”

“So now you must go,” whispered the young princess.

And the young prince smiled sadly again, flung the white fur over his head, and disappeared out the tall open window as a great gust of wind drove a flurry of snowflakes past the castle.

Gray smoke and white clouds curled around the youngest princess’s brindled mare. She pulled the thick gray fur hood over her head to protect her ears from the swirling snow. Her sisters called out in the distance, but she moved deeper into the forest, deeper into the clouds.

As their voices faded, new sounds came to replace them: the howling wind, snow shifting on tree limbs, a wood fire crackling in someone’s yard, small feet crunching the white floor cover—wolves, deer, or maybe even the boar she and her sisters had been hunting in place of their father, still bedridden by the injuries from his fall.

And then other sounds still: water gurgling, birds chirping, the swoosh of a warm breeze melting the clouds away. The youngest princess emerged from the forest into a springtime town dotted with windmills and tulips. A smokehouse branded with silver crescent moons blew fragrant smoke from its chimney and someone beat on its door from within.

“Help me,” cried someone from within. “I have been trapped in my smokehouse by two plump children!”

The youngest princess gathered all of her strength to break the door down, freeing a gray crone all red from the smokehouse. The youngest princess peered through smoke fragrant from timber and flesh for a glimpse of plump limbs red as the crone’s face. The crone invited her to step into the smokehouse and take a haunch of her own choosing, but the youngest princess could see what she was up to and took up her reins.

“You have saved my life and for that I owe you a gift,” said the crone.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I do not, but I will give you a bag of golden baby teeth and a boat to cross the fjord,” said the crone.

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and stroked across the glassy blue waters of the springtime fjord. A fiddle all lacquered and fretted with silver stars swept down a channel of rapids near the shore. The youngest princess gathered all of her nimbleness to navigate the rapids and rescued the fiddle from the river. Near a white-bearded waterfall, the youngest princess came upon a comely fossegrimen weeping into the foaming waters. His pale yellow hair pooled around him and curled around the kelp.

“Why do you weep?” asked the youngest princess.

“I have lost my fiddle to the rapids,” said the fossegrimen.

“Well here it is,” said the youngest princess and presented him with the lacquered fiddle.

The fossegrimen took up the fiddle and played a tune so sweet and haunting, the youngest princess was almost moved to slip out of the boat and remain in the pools forever. But the youngest princess could see what he was up to and took up her paddles.

“You have saved my fiddle and for that I owe you a gift,” said the fossegrimen.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I do not, but I will give you a golden fiddle string and a strong stick to hike the mountain,” said the fossegrimen.

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and hiked up the tulip-speckled climbs of the springtime mountain. A young goat-herd dragged from a mountain cave a beautiful huldra dressed only in irons chased with silver comets.

“Free me,” cried the huldra, her cow’s switch twitching behind her. “He will take me to the church and chasten me. And I will grow old and ugly.”

The youngest princess gathered all of her courage and drove the young goat-herd away with her stick. Free of her chains, the huldra pet the youngest princess and entreated her to a glass of akvavit in her cave. But the youngest princess could see what she was up to and took up her hiking stick.

“You have saved my fiddle and for that I owe you a gift,” said the huldra.

“Do you know how to reach the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but the East Wind may know,” said the huldra. “I will give you a sturdy kite to catch the wind and a golden vial filled with a golden potion to cure any curse.”

The youngest princess accepted these gifts and scaled the mountain peak. She let out her kite and caught the East Wind as he drove the springtime breeze.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the West Wind might,” howled the East Wind.

So the youngest princess let the East Wind carry her across the sky until they met the West Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the South Wind might,” howled the West Wind.

So the youngest princess let the West Wind carry her across the sky until they met the South Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I cannot, but my brother the North Wind might,” howled the South Wind.

So the youngest princess let the South Wind carry her across the sky until they met the North Wind.

“Can you take me to the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?” asked the youngest princess.

“I blew a flurry of snowflakes there from the ice kingdom once. I will take you to the castle,” howled the North Wind.

So the youngest princess let the North Wind carry her across the sky, beyond the springtime into summer, east of the sun and west of the moon.

art by S. Zainab Williams

A towering castle of stone and glass formed the peak of a forested mountain Goliath. Standing on the warm, cobbled stone of the castle courtyard, the youngest princess knocked thrice on a heavy oak door with its hooped brass knocker.

“Who knocks at the door of the troll princess?” called a voice from within.

“Only a girl come from a land of ice far away to behold the wonder of the troll princess and her kingdom,” said the youngest princess.

The door creaked open and a piggish eye the color of a dead toad stared down at the youngest princess from a great height. And when the door swung wide, there stood the troll princess, a massive beast formed of rock and algae and meanness.

“What would you have with me?” the troll princess frowned. “Tell me now or I’ll spit you, and roast you, and eat you whole.” Her voice boomed down the empty halls of the castle.

When the troll princess smiled a wicked smile, the youngest princess said, “I come with a gift of golden teeth. Take me in as your guest and I will set them in your mouth.”

The troll princess’s horny hand flew up to cover a mouth filled with rotten teeth. She looked to eat the youngest princess right there and then, but the youngest princess opened the crone’s bag of golden baby teeth and presented them to the troll princess on her palm.

“Come in, come in,” crooned the troll princess then. “You are welcome here.”

The youngest princess could see what the troll princess was up to, but she followed the troll princess into a large room with tall, open windows from wall to wall. The troll princess lay back in a chair that creaked and groaned beneath her weight and let the youngest princess pluck tooth after tooth from her rotten mouth.

The troll princess raised a looking-glass to see her golden smile and pulled the mirror’s handle away to reveal a cruel knife. But the youngest princess had moved behind the creaking chair to grab the two ends of the golden fiddle string she had laid across the gray-green neck while she worked. The youngest princess pulled back with all her weight until the string jerked back. The troll princess’s head rolled across the warm stone floor. Two dead toad eyes gaped at the youngest princess.

The troll queen swung the door open to see why her daughter screamed so. When she saw what had been done, she flew at the youngest princess. But the North Wind had been watching from the tall windows and he called for lightning to scare the troll queen away. And the troll queen did flee, and such a mighty and thunderous storm did the North Wind inspire that all the trolls in all the world fled and were never seen from again.

The North Wind carried the youngest princess up, up to the highest room in the tallest tower where she found the young prince asleep under a deep spell. The youngest princess poured the huldra’s golden potion down the young prince’s throat and he awoke from the spell, no longer a beast.

And they lived together in the summer castle until the sun and the moon fell from the sky.

☽☾

[Poem] icy HUGH

icy Hugh

words and pictures by S. Zainab Williams

i see dead things all around,
from the blackened red stain on the frozen ground
to the campfire badge all charred and browned.

i see tires on the jagged stone row,
them frayed, ragged feathers like a broken crow,
the gutted parcels and the little pink bow.

i–i see rags ‘mongst the salt and rust,
about the glistening innards of a decayed sea bust
what cracked its belly open, paid the fathomless trust.

i see no one in the cooling beds,
here the presents stay wrapped; there white snow, motley red,
ho! deep troughs, not of sleds.

my dead eye sniffs them out
what my shorn tongue never will shout.

But
Once I saw
A moon maiden’s grove
Where the silvered oaks shimmered and no man would rove,
Where the stars swayed, bright flowers in the quake
Of fine-boned feet skimming, scattering the lake.
Toward me, toward me, ah the lovestruck fool
Wrapped warm and unaware in summered tulle.
She reached out her hands to beckon me in

then i saw the hook took my dazzled eye
oh i saw my tongue from its home she did pry.

i see dead things all around,
from the blue-black temple tween the mother crowned
to my own black hole where i make no sound.

[Short Story] Bird of Prey

First a word of warning. This story isn’t YA fiction. It’s horror written for a mature audience, whatever age you may be.

Bird-of-Prey-Woman-WebBird of Prey
words and pictures by S. Zainab Williams

Rags and alligator skin shouted at the sky in an angry language before turning heels on the celestial offender. A filthy sheet fluttered around the man’s shoulders as he staggered over to a gleaming, beige car. He shook a tin can at the tinted windows, but abandoned the unpromising scene to give chase to a stray dog.

Hamilton peeked over his dashboard to make sure the man was gone. He downed a few pills and wrestled with his conscience again. He considered leaving her alone, going back to his safe, familiar home and buying another ticket to the bird show. But he raised his binoculars to watch the woman enter the motel with a man.

He noted her time of arrival in his diary where it mingled with information about her purchases from the liquor store–mixer and tequila. Always the same thing. In a margin, he had scribbled a note about the way she twitched when she was swept up by large crowds. He hypothesized in neat and frilly script. Nervous disorder? Xenophobia? Drugs?

The illustrations of hawks and sparrows had thinned, giving way to the rise of this new subject. She hadn’t made it easy. Her gypsy lifestyle was hard on Hamilton. She always traveled by night. The woman and her two suitcases. Hamilton, used to a ten o’clock nightcap of tepid milk and vanilla extract, had almost lost her a number of times during these twilight transfers. Sometimes she’d shoot down an alley and Hamilton would have to find the outlet in time and without appearing obvious.

Then there was the bevy of lovers, or dealers, she brought to her ever-changing residence.

But Hamilton worked hard at prudence and patience, aided by foxed copies of The Vigilant Owl in the passenger seat. He flicked open his favorite issue and sipped cold coffee, determined to keep his eyes open and see this new man leave.

Because he never did see them go. Inconvenient coincidence chaperoned them out onto the shadowed street to disappear while he catnapped. Hamilton felt ill when he awoke with the certainty that they were gone, but this time he’d stay awake, he thought as his head lolled.

#

Heran squatted between two empty cars in the zoo’s parking lot and fished a small bottle out of her purse. She emptied it into her mouth, closing her eyes as the hot liquid raced down her throat.

The empty bottle shattered below the undercarriage of an SUV. Heran weaved through the packed cars, meandering on her way to the end of a snaking line. She let her thick black hair obscure her eyes as she shuffled toward the entrance with the crowd. Once through the gate, she stumbled out of the throng. Long legs took her up an incline where the crowd thinned.

In front of a glass structure, Heran pressed her hot face against a cool panel and closed her eyes. The arrow tip of a whistle startled them back open. Beyond the glass and upward, flocks of birds stared back, silenced.

She turned away to rest her back against the glass and fished a wad of paper from her purse. It received a cursory glance before being reburied deep in the battered handbag’s cavity. Heran almost turned her head back toward the birds but changed her mind and continued down the path to the stage.

#

A peal of applause echoed around the small stadium. The handler had been going on about the jungle expedition, but now that the cricket-creak of chairs had exacerbated into a froggy groan, it was time. She outspread her arms with a flourish and rotated her square, porcelain smile full-circle.

“Without further ado, I introduce you to the Staggerwald hinksy,” she said.

A thunderous flapping of wings, a sudden rush of air, and a bright fan descended to scatter light across the spectators. They peeked through splayed fingers to gape at the camouflaged cage above the stage. To watch the beast float onto the gnarled branch of a painted steel tree where the rope around its leg ended in a strong knot.

The audience took a sharp suck of gamy air and held it until the hinksy settled. The bird’s eyes darted around before roosting straight ahead.

The handler chose a child from the audience and allowed him to pet the bird. The hinksy’s head jerked back as the child’s sausage fingers pushed down its feathered flank. The handler smiled back at the audience as the child continued to explore the muzzled bird’s soft planes, rousing another round of applause as she gestured at the spectacle.

Hamilton popped a couple of pills and cursed the handler under his breath, crumpling the soda cup in his hand. He had almost made contact. For a split second, just as the hinksy had settled into itself, it had caught Hamilton’s pointed stare. Not only caught, but perceived. Understood.

He was on the cusp of recapturing a moment that had escaped him so many years ago. But now it was being suddenly and cruelly intercepted by audience participation. Hamilton crossed his arms and shifted his gaze as the child clambered onstage.

#

“Doctor says no,” said Hamilton’s mother.

He had heard this coming before he even asked to go outside to play with the other kids. Hamilton shuffled back to his perch on the window seat in the spacious living room, where he could watch the crows caw and swing above the adobe-tiled skyline. A white circle puffed into existence around Hamilton’s nose pressed up against the glass. He waited for the diminishing rustle of satin against suiting.

And he did hear the rustle, but then a grunt. A cold hand wrapped around Hamilton’s wrist, pulling him off the seat and into three layers. Sweater, vest, jacket. His mother clenched her jaw the length of the drive, but she bought him a red balloon from a cart at the zoo and succumbed to his appeals to see the bird show with only the pretense of a fuss.

Hamilton rested a feverish cheek against his mother’s arm, clasped her hand, and nestled into her powdery musk when the condor appeared. And when the handler coaxed the bird into showing its wingspan, Hamilton thought his heart would stop. His hand jerked to his chest and he lost hold of his balloon.

The condor’s head ticked in the direction of the airborne object and then down at the slack-jawed boy. A chill shivered across Hamilton’s skin as his eyes locked with the bird’s. Hamilton lost himself in sinew, muscle, power. He dropped his mother’s hand and prepared to take flight. But the handler signaled to the bird and it turned away, leaving him empty-handed. Grounded.

#

Heran’s incubated anger threatened to break loose. She felt herself rise to stand above the crowd and see the child’s hand on the hinksy. It had been hard enough to stare into the glassy eyes, to watch the graceful neck droop, note the struggle against the muzzle. To witness the handler bare her teeth at the cowed god.

Here was the last thread of Heran’s self-control flapping from the fat grip of the child onstage. He held a feather, a shard of sky above the Aegean Sea, ripped from the being’s wing.

An itching, a burning, lit under her skin. Something dark and wet peeked from a cluster of pores edging one shoulder blade.

There wasn’t anything to be done now. She couldn’t help the creature. She could only run.

#

A long time ago, when Heran was a young woman wading in the golden tide pools on Shillkrik below the gliding forms, she told her mother she was leaving home.

“There are so few of us left,” her mother had said, looking ahead at the great rock snowcapped with bird dung and bristling with clammy, graphite quills.

“I know,” was all Heran returned.

Heran watched her mother’s regal profile disappear as the woman turned to kiss foreheads. A gull cried overhead as a tall pane of water dashed into a thousand pieces against the corroded rock.

#

Hamilton was staring but the hinksy was forgotten. Something else transfixed him. A woman seated toward the back had stood up; remained standing even as the show continued and those around her half-turned their dismay in her direction before retreating from the sharpening specter of her indignant beauty.

But Hamilton couldn’t look away. He wanted to give the hinksy another try, except her eyes had found his. They were locked there. And he saw. But she was off. Climbing over legs, picking over feet, flying through the exit.

Hamilton limped down the front row aisle, aware of the unguarded annoyance turned at him. His sweat glands were in full bloom by the time he reached the exit.

#

“Excuse me—“ Hamilton tripped on the uneven concrete outside of the zoo as he reached for the woman.

She pulled back, glaring as he lurched at her. Just before Hamilton recovered his footing, she raised her hackles and he brought his arms up to shield his face, but her shoulders dropped when she spotted the object in his hand.

Hamilton followed the direction of her gaze and gestured for her to take the tiny bottle of tequila.

“It fell out of your purse,” he offered.

The sun expanded and intensified in the charged sky over Hamilton’s head as the woman stared at the bottle. He put a hand in his pocket and let a fingertip brush the reassuring ridges of a pill bottle cap there.

But he pulled his hand away from the pill bottle when the woman’s shoulders began to shake. Hamilton thought she might cry, but she snatched at the tequila bottle, scratching his palm with a sharp nail, and walked away.

Hamilton, palm tingling, stared after the woman, watching her down the liquor like water.

#

The rest of Heran’s day hung on the verge. She spent it recovering in her motel room. A woman splashed and laughed in the pool below. For a while, Heran sat at the edge of her bed, listening to the woman and her male companion, and the smacking, jingling of the upset water. She watched the light and the moving shadows in the cracks of her door.

She shouldn’t have gone to the show. Should have stayed indoors where it was safe. But from the minute she had found the ad in the magazine she’d pretended to read while stalking that man, she’d been unable to stifle the urge to see the discovery.

The great predatory bird from the unexplored shock of subterranean jungle. Only now, in her room, plugging her ears to the squeals of breathless joy coming from the pool, could she admit to knowing all along what she’d see in the hinksy. Her self-deception might have exposed her, but that man had come along.

That man. She didn’t like the way he’d looked at her. But if he hadn’t stopped her. Hadn’t returned that bottle. She’d needed it badly.

Heran cradled a drink in her hands and frowned at the stark, white walls.

#

Tequila slithered down Heran’s neck and trekked the ravine between her breasts—a cold-bellied snake making for the warm, salted water. She turned her head away from the cracked door, from a snippet of clothes covering the stained carpet and tousled bed, cigarette butts drowned in beer bottles, tired synthetic curtains sagging from their rods.

In the bathtub with a margarita, Heran tried to relax. Milky tendrils of tobacco smoke slunk into the bathroom. She breathed them in and, on the exhale, closed her eyes and let her body sink deeper into the tub.

The Gattling gun ululations of a man clearing phlegm from his lungs nearby stilled the steady rise and fall of her chest.

“Watcha doin’, baby?”

Heran’s mind slurred as she pinched a sip from the rim of the same plastic water cup left by the sink of every motel room as far back as she cared to remember.

She opened her eyes to a young man blowing a cloud out of his nostrils. Heran took a good look at him. He was nothing like the usual catch. Rough types with strong bravado and insurmountable weakness. The kind of weakness that drew them to someone like her. No. This one was all peach fuzz and uncertainty. Was it laziness or hunger that had compelled her to take him home?

Was she getting sloppy? Heran gritted her teeth against an ice cube. A finger dented her cup.

“Hey, come on. Why don’t you come to bed?”

Heran cracked the ice between her teeth and closed her eyes again. She waited for his retreating footsteps. Something dropped to the floor with the heavy whoosh of curtains falling. She looked at him, now with his pants around his ankles and a nervous smile flickering across his mouth.

Her muscles twitched, mindless of the Epsom salts.

With a swing of her arm, she sent the dregs of her margarita flying across the room to dash against the wall.

In the blip between his shock and fear, Heran swung herself out of the tub. The orbit of her outstretched legs met the crease behind the man’s knees and sent him off his axis. He fell back, swallowing air, reaching out into empty space for something to break his fall. The back of his head cracked against slippery tile.

His eyes rolled around in his head. A black, slick crown rose from the red darkness beneath the surface of his sickening spiral. A brief moan shook out of his throat.

As his eyes stuck on Heran’s engorged pupils, a fan of daggers flickered into the revolving periphery around her face.

Heran’s talons punched through skin, muscle, and bone. Her fist sucked up out of raw, wet flesh then unfurled, talon by talon, to display a glistening red muscle, a geoduck plucked from the sticky soil. Its viscous fluids pumped out of torn ventricles.

Heran brought the man’s heart to her mouth and sank sharp, white teeth into its luscious center. His blood, rich and thick and curdling like custard, oozed down her chin. The bow of Heran’s back bent deeper over her meal. She tore into the muscle as fine, black feathers burst from her angry skin.

She dropped the meat to grab the tub’s sill as the seams along her shoulder blades split, allowing two black icebergs to emerge from each. Saliva threaded down from her open mouth. Her wings broke free with a fine spray. Heran’s hand reached out to explore the tattered, ruined relics before she could stop herself. She lowered her forehead to the ground and bit down hard on her lower lip to stave off a sob. Heran grit her teeth, squeezing her shoulder blades, retracting feathered bone.

After, she let her body quake against the tile. Her lips curled, baring fangs as she cried soundlessly. She pushed off the floor and crawled to the nightstand. A screwcap plinked against the chipped tabletop. Heat shot down Heran’s throat, mellowing to warmth, dulling the razor’s edge of pain and memory.

#

A doorbell bleated above the country ballad playing in the near-empty convenience store. At two in the morning, it was empty except for the cashier, the man making his way in from the door, and Heran prowling the aisles with a large box of heavy-duty trash bags and a bottle of lighter fluid in the crook of her arm.

Heran pretended to read the ingredients on a bottle of margarita mixer as she watched the man approach from the corner of her eye. He hesitated a little ways down the aisle so she flashed a smile at him.

“Let me get that for you,” Hamilton stuttered.

Heran glued the smile to her face as she studied him. She surrendered her items and a bottle of mixer and he walked her down the aisle. The light brightened around Heran. The lines sharpened.

Hamilton paid and they left the store together.

“Are you walking? I can drive you home,” he said beneath the flickering neon clown looming over the parking lot. His car was beige and familiar.

Heran’s wide eyes rested on Hamilton’s until he surrendered his to the gritty pavement. She was standing by his car door when he looked up again.

#

Heran got lost in the passing scenery and the night smells ripping through the car windows. She came to as Hamilton exited the highway. The urban streets gave way to narrow passages lined with track homes and defeated storefronts. They pulled into the motel’s horseshoe parking lot.

Hamilton took three pills while Heran shut the car door, downing a travel bottle. She fell back as they walked past room after room. He stopped at her door. She kept her eyes and smile on him as she fished her keys from her purse.

All of the lights were on. The room was unpretentious in the raw glare. Hamilton dithered in a rare unoccupied circle of space.

Resting her back against the door, Heran turned the lock behind her and relaxed the muscles in her face until her eyes were slits and her mouth a frown.

“You shouldn’t have followed me,” she said with a voice supple as oiled skin.

Beads of sweat pearled above Hamilton’s brow. Heran scented the sour, earthy odor radiating from his body.

“No…” said Hamilton.

“You tried to trick me.”

Hamilton’s cheeks juddered as he shook his head.

Heran’s frown deepened. “This was a trap,” she said.

Hamilton raised his hands to face his palms at her. His scratch had healed by now. His breath came out in ragged gasps. “I just wanted to know you,” he said. “I-I wanted you to know me.”

A tear tracked down Hamilton’s cheek, gathering sweat. “We belong together,” he croaked.

“I see.” She cocked her head. “You want to take me into your nice home. Feed me and care for me. You want me to show you the world. Free you from yourself.”

Hamilton choked out a breathless laugh. “Yes.” He took a step forward. “Yes.”

Heran’s frown broke. Hamilton thought she might cry.

She opened her jagged mouth. “I don’t belong with anyone.”

Hamilton experienced a moment of confusion before the pain overwhelmed everything. Then came a sensation so foreign and deep–sharp, and sweet, and total. Hamilton was awash in the mute power of Heran’s eyes. The world expanded infinitely and she disappeared in a supernova of black feathers.

#

The room reeked of bleach. A garbage bag bulged out of a large suitcase lying open on the linoleum floor. Heran stretched her back and rolled her neck before standing. She tore a wad of cash from Hamilton’s wallet before dropping it on top of the plastic bag. Hamilton’s pocket change amounted to five nights in a new motel.

It was time to pack again. She would burn the suitcase in an alley along the way to somewhere else. Heran sat at the edge of the bed and rested her gaze on the bag. She felt a pang of something. She reached for the bottle of tequila on the nightstand and swirled it around. Saliva washed through her mouth. It carried the taste of Hamilton.

Heran put her ear to the bottle to hear the amber liquid crash against the glass. It took her back to the sea. To a time long ago and a place unreachable.

Bird-of-Prey-Bird-Web

Chapter 4: The Conundrum Council

Ghost and the Daemon is a serialized young adult fiction work I’m posting here, chapter by chapter, as I write it, along with my occasional doodles.

Fize_C4_webrev“Scum!” Black sand flew. “Snee’s spit!” Thunder rolled. “You will not deceive me,” Fize snarled.

Nix gave the signal anyway and Lo-Ket coaxed a pale red spark from Freyja’s hearth fire just before Fize’s minion, Sooxa, scratched a green one out of a pane of sea glass nearby.

Freyja shook with a brief chuckle and stirred the fire.

“Once more,” spat Fize. “Winner takes all.”

“Thank you, but no,” said Nix. “Between Lo-Ket’s animas seeds and Sooxa’s, my minion will have enough to carry her through another lifetime.”

As Nix turned to leave, he heard a piece of driftwood shatter against the cliff face. The clatter wasn’t loud enough to drown out Fize’s curse, much less Sooxa’s banshee howl.

A giant dripping with kelp and and studded with barnacles and clams materialized from the wisps of chalk and charcoal fog crawling across the beach. The man joined Nix on his stroll. Drifting tendrils of fog caught on the curl of the giant’s massive green beard as they moved.

“Why do you play with Fize when you know it will only inflame his anger?” asked Meer.

“It’s only a game,” said Nix.

“But you know it’s more than that to him. And to you.”

Nix tossed out his hand. Lo-Ket vaulted off his wrist and flew into the smoky day to roam and hunt. He watched her go as he said, “It’s not my responsibility to keep the peace with Fize.”

“But it is your responsibility to attend the gatherings,” said Meer. When Nix tensed but said nothing, Meer fell to the task that had been asked of him. “You’ve become distant recently. Even more so than before.”

“You’re always over-analyzing things,” said Nix.

“I’m not the only one who has noticed. We all notice. Tristus asked me to speak with you about your absence.”

“Tristus did?”

Meer nodded. Not good, thought Nix.

“The circle is unaware of your activities, but I can guess where your time is spent.”

“I don’t want to hear it, Meer. If they want me to be more active—to ride infinity on the back of petty arguments with the rest of them, so be it. But I’m not interested in discussing what I do in my private time,” said Nix.

“You exist behind the curtain, not beyond it, and yet you waste yourself in that other world,” said Meer.

“If my hobby gives me even some small amount of joy, how is it a waste?”

Meer sighed. “You’ve let your friendships go to seed. You have made no home for yourself. The rare occasions you are physically here, your mind is elsewhere. Or, worse, you are off picking fights and generally trying to show everyone how much you dislike your own world and kind, which is by now unnecessary as you have proven your point many times over.”

“We’re the same as we’ve always been. I’ve made my memories. This place is unchanging, don’t you see?” Nix searched Meer’s face but found only disappointment in the lines there.

“You still live in those memories. You need to let them go,” said Meer, but Nix was already walking away.

**

Conundrum-Council_C4_webrev“This meeting is now called to order,” Parker whistled through the gap in his front teeth.

Ghost plopped down on one of the floor pillows she’d brought from home. By now it proudly bore a fine layer of dry earth. Darla made her way around the shack with a spray can of insect repellant as she did every time they hung out in the makeshift clubhouse. Jo-Jo, cradling a heavy book, made himself comfortable in his low beach chair next to Ghost.

Pip was quarantined in the chicken coop they’d brought in from outside the shack. Mrs. Pumpernickel had insisted that Darla bring him along after he made a strike with his toy car and some bowling pins that were actually his mother’s souvenir wine glasses. In the coop, he made clucking noises in between bites of black licorice.

“We’re not even a real club,” said Ghost.

“First order of business,” shouted Parker. “Come up with a club name.”

Darla gave the last floorboard crack a shot of acrid fumes and joined the others at the center of the square space. Old wood paneling and not much else surrounded them. Ghost had broken the lock after her new friends showed her the shack in the woods a short walk outside of town. The windows had been blacked out and the walls were covered in scratched words and symbols, but it didn’t frighten Ghost who was used to more foreboding signs.

The worse they found inside was a dead opossum. It’s sour odor was now obliterated by a few weeks of absence and Darla’s chemical warfare. They’d all had a hand in cleaning the space until it was suitable enough to be called their clubhouse.

“I was supposed to start a horror club with my friend, Poojah, back in my old town,” said Ghost.

Darla frowned at her. “Nobody else likes horror. Besides, that was your old town and your old friend. This is your new town and we need a new club idea,” she said. “We could solve mysteries or something. Truth Seekers Anonymous.”

“Too clunky,” Ghost said with a shrill note of irritation.

Parker squinted into space and stuck a finger up one nostril while he considered the challenge. “How about the Mystery Society?”

“Bet that’s been done a million times before,” said Darla.

They sat in silence and cool resentment.

“The Conundrum Council,” someone said. Everyone looked at Jo-Jo, who had only glanced up from his book to make the suggestion and had already returned to its pages.

“The good old CC,” said Parker.

“It’s settled then,” said Darla. “We’ll solve mysteries and learn every secret in this town. We’re already off to a good start with the clubhouse.”

“Secrets? Ha!” said Parker. “I’ve lived here all my life–nothing interesting ever happens.”

“Every town has secrets, Parker. Maybe you’re just too dumb to figure them out,” said Darla.

“Hey,” said Ghost. “I think I have a mystery we can solve.”

The others were all ears (even Jo-Jo though who could tell).

**

Ghost waved her goodbye to Darla as she headed homeward on her own. They’d spent most of the day at the clubhouse, making CC plans and planting a little garden with seeds Ghost’s mother had bought them after Ghost said she wanted to show Darla how to grow plants from scratch. She had consciously failed to mention that the seedlings would be planted around an abandoned shack in the woods but, Ghost guiltily repeated to herself once in a while, it wasn’t exactly a lie.

“What a sorry group.”

Ghost jumped a few inches off the ground. Nix was walking beside her.

“You scared me,” she said with a frown, but she was actually glad to see him. She had almost begun to question her sanity again.

“Making new friends, I see.”

“Oh. Yeah, they’re the best,” said Ghost.

“Strange choice of words,” said Nix. “They’re kind of off, aren’t they?”

“What do you mean, off?” asked Ghost, knowing exactly what he meant.

But Nix shrugged. “Nothing. I’m surprised you didn’t offer up my sighting as a mystery.”

“You’ve been spying,” said Ghost. She crossed her arms. “I didn’t tell them about it because you could be nothing more than a hallucination. My doctors said I might experience symptoms like that.”

“You’re right. I could be an illusion—that was a good decision.”

Ghost slowed. “You don’t have any way to prove that you’re real? Can you at least tell me about the place you come from, or is that secret?

“It’s a big place. That would take forever, and you would be bored,” said Nix.

“So you can’t tell me anything? That’s no fun.”

Nix looked at Ghost who stared back expectantly.

“Well. I can tell you about things that have happened over there.” Nix looked off at the reddening sky. “I can tell you a story.”

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