Pray the Red Sea [Short Story]

written by S. Zainab Williams
art by Robert Burrows

Pray the red sea art burrows

I watch the dragon larvae gyre in the salted earth, their pale bodies fat, submerged rings. I think about Nu’ala’s obsidian hands at the spinning wheel, working the worms’ silvery fibers into spun silk. I remember those same hands at her swan’s throat, blood molten jasper. Red as the sea closing in on the sect’s island. Pouring over her fingers and down her citrine robes. Disfiguring the pattern of flickering fans.

It was in Nu’ala that I chose to bury my secret. She pried it but tenderly, unwittingly from my gated heart. It was the High Minister who bled it out of her.

Nu’ala and I joined the sect in the same class of recruits, enlisted for our empty throats and still tongues. The voices of God are born without a voice of their own, so said the High Minister. Most in our class wrung their hands, smiling their excitement, but with eyes where fear gathered.

Our families raised us to expect the day of our enlistment after our thirteenth cycle. They taught us to meet this day with gratitude. The sect’s prayers called the water for the dragons, feeding them, encouraging the cycle of reproduction. Bringing about the larvae that webbed our desert with fibers during harvesting season. This was Sulta’s famed silk–supple star of the trade routes; our main export besides the red salt and dried eel meat that fetched small coin.

Mothers and fathers and grandparents repeated the story of the dry times when dragon scales rained down from the sky as the creatures grew sick and the exposed seabed crackled beneath the radiant planets. This was before the High Minister arrived from a faraway place with his wagons bursting with rolled parchment all blotted and inked by great plans.

He had heard of Sulta’s struggles and had traveled far to beckon God into our barren firmament. He unraveled his plans and formed the first sect with the blessing of our desperate mayor. God found his voice in the members of the sect. His song activated the High Minister’s secret machines running on holy ground in the caverns below the temple.

The people of Sulta felt the thrum of the otherwise obscure God machines deep below their feet. And then the miracle. Water flowed up from the depths. By the third day, the sea was full. Over time, the eel eggs seeded in mud cakes split open to unleash a new generation. The dragons ate and grew strong again. Once more, the desert teemed with their larvae.

While we understood our importance as members of the sect, we also understood the price of our faith. Separation from family and friends, hard work, chastity, a lifestyle founded on needs, barren of wants.

On the first day of my induction into the sect, as I and the other new recruits disembarked from the painted longboat to mark the sacred banks of our new island home, the High Minister reminded us that the world exists in a state of impermanence. The sea would disappear; the city would fall to dust without the sect. We were the strings that held our world together. And when the High Minister deemed us individually ready to command God’s voice, we would be allowed access to the holy ground and the God machines. We would leave the fold forever to join in God’s song and raise the sea from the land.

I looked at the faces of my adopted sisters and brothers to check their faith. I found the strength of my own convictions mirrored, glittering in another girl’s eyes. Nu’ala’s. That moment of shared ecstasy tethered our souls to a common anchor. We became friends and remained so even after accepting our oath to be as islands in the sea–a company of recluses living only to sleep, eat, work, and, above all, serve.

Without the secretive nature of my friendship with Nu’ala, I may not have entrusted her with my truth, but we became sisters of the shadow and night, drawing our thoughts into the twilight sand glowing white-hot beneath the jewels hanging low off evening’s neck. While our family slept, we gave darkness a home in the lines of our picture-words.

Through our silent language, Nu’ala told me she was born of privilege to a family of trade magnates. I knew of them from conversations between my father and grandmother, spoken low into the steam snaking from the thick, black khave they sipped as darkness warmed to day. I had also seen Nu’ala with her family before we joined the sect. The light caught in the stones encrusting their fingers and dripping from their ears as they walked the market and bazaar. But this was a rare sight. They had muslin-wrapped servants to buy their salted fish and flatbread, their peppery herbs and browned spices.

Traders visited their sprawling earthen home to deal in the finest spun silk. From the stout wooden box where grandmother stored the dried herbs and grains–where I hid to fill the cool, dry space with my dreams and silence during these infrequent conclaves effected by my father’s brief homecomings from the trade routes–I overheard him describe the lush oasis blooming in the family’s plaza. There, guests sipped cold, honeyed mint tea with polished gold straws while discussing business and sharing news from the outer lands.

My father claimed that, so immense was their house, a dragon once stretched herself out, snout to tail-tip, across the warm, clay shingled spine of the family’s northeast rooftop to enjoy the breeze from their garden, and had room to spare.

Nu’ala confirmed all of these tales but claimed not to miss the luxuries of her past life. She had led the lonely existence of an only child. She lacked an Anan’kin as sister and friend. I wanted to tell her the same was true for me, but some words existed without need for expression, and Nu’ala had eyes that searched out souls. Eyes so black, they could not help but take in more than you gave. They showed me then that she knew my feelings already. She had seen love lying in wait when our eyes tugged toward each other to meet above the heads of our siblings that first day on the island.

Nu’ala’s eyes learned the truth about the High Minister while I and the others blindly trailed after him.


Read the rest of the story at my new site,

I Heart Tyrion Lannister, or Why Wit Wins the Panties


Jon: Why do you read so much?

Tyrion: Look at me and tell me what you see.

Jon: Is this a trick?

Tyrion: What you see is a dwarf. If I had been born a peasant, they might have left me out in the woods to die. Alas, I was born a Lannister of Casterly Rock. Things are expected of me. My father was the Hand of the King for 20 years.

Jon: Until your brother killed that [k]ing.

Tyrion: Yes, until my brother killed him. Life is full of these little ironies. My sister married the new [k]ing, and my repulsive nephew will be king after him. I must do my part for the honor of my house, wouldn’t you agree? But how? Well, my brother has a sword, and I have my mind. And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.


That was the moment I fell for Tyrion Lannister/Peter Dinklage and he became one of my favorite Game of Thrones characters, alongside Arya Stark. Although I’ve been given “the look” when admitting to my crush, I’m not alone in it.

On April Fools Day, HBO posted a fake announcement that Dinklage wasn’t returning to GoT; that he would effectively be replaced by Warwick Davis who would bring more comedic elements to the Tyrion character. The article was studded with clues that gave it away as an April Fools joke (the first clue being that it was April Fools Day), but my rage momentarily blinded me and I came to only when my computer screen was millimeters from my knee. At least I wasn’t numbered among the many outraged fans who memorialized their rage-ignorance in the comments thread.

What is it about that diabolical combination of wit and sarcasm that makes a character so desirable and worthy of fandom? Are smart-ass underdogs the champions of our generation?

Well, Daria was my and many other girls’ role model throughout those awkward change-y pubescent years, and angst and introspection hung over the 90’s like a soupy Seattle fog, so I’d say there’s a good chance a chunk of us in our late twenties and early thirties were suckled at sarcasm’s teat.


Daria is a good example of why deliciously sassy sarcasm can be so valuable in a character. While she often spoke harsh truths about youth culture, parenting, etc., the commentary had a dry comedic finish. And Tyrion’s baldfaced, often insulting honesty breaks up what could otherwise be an oppressively heavy drama. I wouldn’t call Tyrion comedic relief but he does have the ability to present us with the worst kinds of truths, and those truths that must be exposed in order to aid story development, in a palatable form that provides relief from the ungodly horrors taking place or building up around almost every other character.

It’s a promising sign that so many frothed at the mouth at the idea of turning an intelligent (yes, also lascivious and foul-mouthed) character into the court jester. Sarcasm and wit require intelligence and an analytical mind. If we are a generation that throws its panties at sarcasm and raises high the smart-ass, we’re also a generation that values smarts. So, I’ll say it again: I Tyrion. (Have you seen that jawline?)

P.S. And while Olenna Tyrell may not have my panties, she certainly has my vote for best new character of the season.

Olenna_game of thrones_gif

Roll Call! First Quarter Reading List

Book Meme Abibliophobia

I do not have this fear. Is there a phobia for the fear of having too many books on one’s reading list to fit into a single lifetime?

Here’s my reading list roll call for the year so far (heaven help me it’s bound to expand by the second):

The Halloween Tree Bradbury

The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury

I’m saving this one for October reading. I saw the television adaptation ages ago as a kid and was thoroughly creeped out. It was one of those television shows I randomly stumbled upon, so I only recently realized it was based on a book–and by Ray Bradbury no less. Shame on me!

The Halloween Tree is a spooky tale about a group of boys who have to search the past for their friend who is whisked away by a dark force on Halloween. Traveling on the tail of a kite on the hunt for their friend, the kids learn the true meaning of Halloween.

A Game of Thrones Martin

A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

This is something I should have read last year. I’m possibly spoiled by the HBO series. But I’ve heard enough times that the book is better than the series (and I am obsessed with the series) so I think I need to stop kidding myself and get to reading these books.

If you live in a hole and know nothing about A Game of Thrones, it’s a sprawling fantasy with political feuding, dragons, magic, dragons, epic battles, romance, dragons and dragons.

Best of Roald Dahl

The Best of Roald Dahl, by Roald Dahl

I need more children’s books in my life and who better to turn to than Roald Dahl, writer of one of my favorite children’s books of all time, Matilda. By getting The Best of Roald Dahl, I feel I’m ordering a delicious burrito full of ingredients I’m sure to love.

If you haven’t read any Roald Dahl, I’d suggest starting with Matilda, of course, and James and the Giant Peach–oh! and The Witches…and don’t forget The BFG!

Days of Magic Barker

Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War, Clive Barker

I read the first Abarat book early last year and it’s time to get to the second. I have a reason for biding my time on this one. I went a little faint when fellow blogger Jacqui Talbot informed me that Barker has not finished writing the series and has, in fact, taken ten years to write the three books that have been released. So I’m taking my time as well, hoping to catch up right when the next book is published.

The Books of Abarat series is Young Adult fantasy that takes place in a strange and wonderful world and features a plucky and interesting protagonist, Candy Quackenbush. Here’s my book review of the first book of the series.

The Tooth Fairy Joyce

The Tooth Fairy, Graham Joyce

This one was recommended to me by a friend who is convinced I will enjoy it, perhaps because of my morbid taste and love of YA books. I’m actually clueless about this author and have never heard of this book. I’m kind of excited about going into a book blind.

Tell the Wolves Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt

I’m a sucker for coming of age stories and (artfully) plop a shy female protagonist into the book and I’m a goner. I think I first heard about Tell the Wolves I’m Home on one of the many websites I, the co-dependant book addict, visit to receive encouragement for my addiction. And I guess the novel has received much acclaim so that’s not a bad thing.

I bet this book is going to make me cry.

Small Gods Pratchett

Small Gods, Terry Pratchett

After reading Good Omens many moons ago, I decided I had to read a Neil Gaiman authored book and a Terry Pratchett authored book. I read American Gods and now it’s Pratchett’s turn. Reading Terry Pratchett is long overdue.

Almost everything on my list so far feels long overdue.


What do you absolutely have to read this year?

Why Write Fantasy?

I’ve been seeing a lot of these “Why I Do Such and Such” blog posts lately, so I decided to add my own thoughts as to why I write fantasy.

In addition to being a self-absorbed writer who thinks you’ll find all of this interesting, I am a world-class escapist. Some of my closer friends and boyfriend wonder why I’m severely oblivious. The fact is, I spend more time in my head than I do in the real world.

As I leave important belongings like my cell phone and keys at a friend’s house, I’m not thinking, “Hm, I should check my bag to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.” No. I’m watching already-famous and wildly successful writer S.Z. being interviewed by Jon Stewart. Or creating a diabolical robot servant and considering the many ways it will turn on me. Or fashioning a zombie apocalypse strategy and then watching my leg being ripped off my body like a turkey drumstick on Thanksgiving Day after my plan fails.

To an escapist like myself, books are dependable portals into oblivion, and fantasy is the ultimate destination. No passport required.

SZW the Witch

Faeries and Witches and Gods, Oh My

I’ve been nestling my brain between the cracked spines of fantasy and mythology books since I could read, starting with fairy tales illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, selected works in Cricket Magazine, and The Illustrated Bulfinch’s Mythology. As a teen, I turned into a hippie of sorts. Faeries (I used to insist on spelling it that way), elves, nature gods, etc. were right up my alley.

Around 13, I went through a phase where I desperately wanted to be a witch and read every young adult witch novel I could get my hands on. Witch Week, Witch’s Sister, and The Letter, The Witch, and The Ring were some of my favorites. When I was 17, I shoved the first H.P. book in everyone’s faces like I’d discovered the cure to cancer, only to be told I was reading a kid’s book. Little did they know!

I was also reading adult novels, but young adult has always been my favorite. Possibly because, like so many teens, I had severe identity and self-esteem issues growing up. I really relate to that sort of struggle. When I read those books, I felt like the underdog could succeed. I felt like someone understood what I was going through, and that amazing things could happen to the flawed and overlooked.

It was also easy to ignore everything around me, the judgments I imagined, the loneliness and insecurities, when I was living vicariously through characters so like me in a world so unlike my own.

 A Perfect Fantasy

I was always on the lookout for a great fantasy novel. With each visit to the bookstore, I’d tell myself, “Today, I’m going to find the perfect book.”

The perfect book was a vague idea I’d fashioned, and in which I’d placed implicit faith. It would have everything I wanted: the fantasy, the intrigue, the main character I’d always wanted to be, breathtaking scenery. I scoured the aisles like a starved bookworm, but I could never find this book (H.P. is still the closest I’ve ever come to finding it).

One day, I decided I had no choice but to write this book myself. So I started working on it. In the ninth grade, I wrote a short story about a girl who finds fantastic creatures in her own backyard only to wind up in the nut house. Nope, not it.

I started writing a novel that was mostly flowery description of another world. A friend said it was “gay.” Still not it.

I wrote tons of flash fiction and novel beginnings that glided off the path to nowhere onto a mountainous trash heap.

I realized that writing the perfect fantasy novel was not going to be easy. But I’m still trying my hand at it, and I’ve come closer than ever with my current project.

At this point, I realize there is no such thing as the perfect book because everyone’s perfect book is unique. Now, I’m determined to get my version of the perfect book out there; to share my vision. The best part is, there isn’t just one vision. There’s a world of them.

And who knows? Maybe some introverted, acne-ridden, socially awkward kid will pick up my book and find comfort in its pages like I did with so many novels.

The Truth about Editing

After NaNoWriMo ended, I put the first draft of my book out of sight and out of mind for a month so I could revisit it with new eyes in January. But, every now and then, it would pop into my thoughts for a moment and I’d buzz with excitement. I’d convinced myself that, this time, editing would be a breeze; it would be an enjoyable process inevitably resulting in perfection. Maybe I got this idea because a month’s distance gave the process an uncharacteristic appeal, or maybe I was suffering from “greener grass” syndrome while toiling with my short story edits. Whatever the cause, these joyous feelings began to evaporate as January approached. Suddenly, I had to finish the short story, then I needed to give myself a break from writing and focus on reading for a weekend, then I needed to organize the craft room. And then I realized that the idea of revisiting my novel terrified me.

Euphoria lifted, I was left with the truth about editing: it’s not fun, it’s not easy, and it forces you to confront your less-than-perfect writing.

This weekend, the pressure of my first-round editing deadline forced me to take out the draft. I’ve committed to editing one chapter a day for initial revisions and notes so I can devote February to major revisions and then submit my draft to a writer’s workshop by the March admission deadline.

I broke out the smelling salts, cracked open my binder, and read through the first chapter. Something amazing happened–I liked what I was reading.

I’ve been a bit bummed out ever since I submitted that short story. I was writing outside of my genre to challenge myself and I wasn’t satisfied with the way it turned out. I started to feel like a bad writer and it was fear of further disappointment that kept me away from my novel draft when January rolled around. Reading the first chapter of my novel reminded me that I can write. I may not be the next Stephen King or Clive Barker, but I can do fantasy, and I enjoy writing fantasy.

So, I’m back at it. Editing still blows, but I really do like this story and the characters, and I’m happy to be reunited with them.