Circle Dance

No one thought they were really making Jessalyn lighter when they chanted ‘Light as a feather, stiff as a board’ at Alison’s birthday party. No one thought they were really contacting the dead with a Ouija board made by the same guys that make Monopoly at Becky’s. So when they concocted the plan to summon a demon at the town’s Halloween bonfire, Alex didn’t hesitate. He was in.

They’d sneak out after their parents had told them good night. Out their sparkling clear windows, across their solid grey roofs, down the white drainpipes or the gnarled oak trees, across the meticulously arranged flower beds their mothers planted and perfectly manicured lawns their fathers trimmed and raked clean.

All but Alex. He waited, waited for the shouting to quiet and the doors to slam. Then he picked his way across carpets with hairballs on it her cat had left and no one had bothered cleaning up. He didn’t flinch when he knocked an ash tray off the corner table. His parents wouldn’t care. He doubted they’d even notice until they went to snuff out a cigarette and couldn’t find the ashtray. They’d probably blame the cats.

He didn’t have a key, so he just left the door closed but unlocked. There wasn’t anything inside worth the effort of carrying it away.

The bonfire still smoked against the cloudless night sky, but the crowd of revelers had thinned like the leaves overhead when Alex joined the circle of children. Their hands grasped for one another, sweaty in the lingering Indian summer. Grins flashed, excitement catching faster than the flu when silence is called.

Words were chanted, forgotten the moment they echoed from lips as they spun and whirled around the smoldering fire. Faster and faster they twirled, arms stretching-feet stumbling- lungs aching-colors blurring until-until-until… They all fell down, laughing and panting and wasn’t it all thrilling and exciting and a bit silly.

Until they looked up.

A bird hovered in the smoke, a river of plumage dangling like a peacock to the now smoldering logs beneath. A long neck turned to look at each child in turn, sending them screaming into the night.
All but Alex. When the bird met his eyes, he didn’t flinch. He stared back, firm against the horrors the smoke showed, for he saw worse every day. The crack of skulls and clatter of bones was nothing compared to the sounds his father’s fists made on his mother’s face, and the strange creatures the others fled from seemed far preferable to a house teeming with unwashed, underfed cats.

While the others cowered safely under their neat blankets back at their neat homes, with parents who noticed they’d snuck out and would punish them in the morning, Alex climbed upon the smoke bird’s back and flew and flew through the worlds. He doubted his parents would ever notice, except that he left his body behind on the bonfire. There wasn’t anything inside worth the effort of carrying it away.

July Prompt Discussion

KT: What were your first thoughts upon seeing this prompt picture choice?

Becca: Honestly, at first I thought, “Crap. It’s very pretty, but I’ve got no frakking idea what to write.”

Leigh: That’s pretty. I don’t really have a story for it though.

KT – I just thought it was so pretty. And it reminded me of Giselle. I love that ballet. I’m not sure why this picture made me think of it.I think I’m the only one of us who prefers setting pictures.

How did you progress to your story idea from those first thoughts?

Becca:When I buckled down and really started to focus, I was drawn to the rush of the fog/water around the rocks and to the one little stone standing on end in the middle. Standing stones have such a connection to lore and ritual, and I just started playing with the idea from there.

Leigh: I actually resorted to word association, and started listing the elements of the picture – Mists, moss, stones, etc. Then for each, I did word association, so like Stone went to permanent, altar, frozen, grave, and I came up with about 10 different ideas I started working with. Some were really trope, and I dismissed those quickly. I’d loved the Doctor Who episode The Tombs of Akhaten, and the setting just screamed an Asian influence, so I decided to riff off that.

KT: After my initial Giselle thought, I decided to challenge myself and do a 2nd person pov story. I’ve never written 2nd person before and really wanted to. Since my story was inspired by Giselle – I already had the story, I just needed to trial and error the point of view.

Did you encounter any difficulties while writing this prompt piece?

Becca: Trying to toe that line between the close perspective of this one, arrogant character who thinks he knows exactly what he’s getting into and also dropping these tonal hints about the truth of what was waiting for him. I mean, I’m not sure I succeeded necessarily, but it’s what I was angling for, so that was a challenge.

Leigh: It was really hard to figure out what to write on. Our other prompts had people in them, so there were clear subjects to focus on. With this one, I flailed around for a lot longer before figuring out details.

KT: 2nd person pov is much harder than I thought it was going to be. It took me several tries to get it right. I actually find settings far easier to write for. When there’s a character in the picture I find it far more difficult because I like to make my own. So, apart from getting the pov own, I didn’t really have any troubles with the prompt.

Any other thoughts on the picture choice and story meshing together?

Becca: Not a thought, really, but a fun fact: I gender-switched the MC. Originally, I wrote it as a female character, but I wasn’t liking how it sounded and couldn’t get it together. I decided to flip the hers to hims, and everything fell into place.

Leigh: I think by having just the setting, we did end up with very different stories, even more so than usual.

KT: I love settings. They inspire me in a way words, songs, and pictures of people don’t. This picture sort of called to me, in a melancholy way. Probably why I chose it.

Do you feel writing prompt fiction challenges you as a writer?

Becca: It’s definitely making me think differently. I’m such a planner usually when I write novels, so these shorter pieces have really been helping me learn how to just take a line or a glimmer of an idea and spin it out and see where it goes. It’s been fun.

Leigh: Definitely. I used to do a lot more short stories when I first started writing, but once I started doing novels, it was hard to go back to short stories. This forces me to really focus on the smaller things like sensory descriptions. Plus right now, while things are so hectic, it’s nice to take a little bit to work on the short stories.

KT: Absolutely. It helps me refine my process and I love some of the ideas we’ve come up with. With every short story I write, I feel like my writing is improving. Short stories are a great break from the way I plan my novels. I’m loving these prompts.

Taiya no Uta

Ferns crunch under my feet in the pre-dawn shadows as I step with practiced ease to the grave, following the swirls of the water around until I reach the right spot. I kneel on the mossy stone, imprints from my knees and those keepers before me fitting just right. It’s how they knew I was meant to be here. Our knees are identical, marking us before the first tattoo is laid upon them, the sacred runes the keys to the gate.

Ishi no kyoryokuna mono suimin,” I sing the first notes of the lullaby right as the sun rises, as the women here have for so long. It is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, and the Stone Sleepers are in danger of waking. I repeat the line, soft as a rabbit’s fur and loud as thunder overhead, short as a sneeze and long as a wolf’s mournful cry. My eyes sting from staring at the shadows and the light for so long, but it will not do to falter.

Mizu wa anata no tamede wanai jikko.” A crack like ice breaking in the spring startles me, and the last note comes out a squeak instead of the long note it should be. My stomach clenches. Something is not as it should be. The birds are all gone now, gone in a flutter of notes and wings the moment I started to sing. They know what’s coming. They know better than to be here.

I take a deep breath to steady myself. I am Yuina. I chose the name for what I do here. I bind. I tie. I restrain. Time, always too long on this day, stretches even further as I repeat the line time and again until the shadow of the stone reaches the next mark.

Yasumu, yasumu suru,” I urge, raising my voice in as strong a song as I can.

The ground beneath me rumbles half-heartedly, like a giant rolling over in his sleep. Or a monster.
I can do this. The shadows crawl across the stone scraped clear of moss in the ring immediately around the stone with aching slowness, languid in the heat of the day no spring water will soften.

Yoru wa sugu ni kite iru. Yoru ni modorimasu.” The ground bucks as if knowing I’m nearing the end, as if it can hope to throw me off. I cling to the stone finger in front of me, keeping my knees firmly pressed to the moss.

Makuragi wa me o samasubekide wa arimasen.” A crawling sense of ice down my sweaty back alerts me, and I glance at the stone’s shadows. An extra shadow, almost hidden in the moss, reaches towards the stone, disguising it. A demon lays over the sundial, and know I know to look, I see the true shadow. The true time.

I’m almost out of time.

The words tumble out, barely in the key, definitely off rhythm. “Watashi wa anata ga me o samasu koto wa dekimasen. Neru. Neru. Neru.” I add in the extra line as I feel the ground begin to still, to sigh back beneath my touches. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.

The sun touches the horizon, and I collapse to stone and moss, insensate in exhaustion. Another year is safe from the Akumu.

Sleep in stone powerful ones. The water runs not for you. Rest, rest easy. The night is coming soon. The night will return. The sleepers must not wake. You must not wake. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.

His Eyes

I remember his eyes, alabaster against ebony skin.

We vacationed there every summer, our family trip. I knew, if I snuck out into the garden at night when the moon was high and bathing the plants in just enough light to see him by that he’d climb down from his pedestal and run around the courtyard with me.

His dark form and chasing shadows made playing hide and seek fun, more difficult and sometimes spookier than any game played in the sunshine. Each night before I left, he’d smile at me and tell me that one day we’d see the daylight together. It always made me laugh because he never moved during the day.

I know because all he did during when the sun shone was follow me with his eyes, body held in perfect stone like semblance. It filled me with wonder the way he stood on one leg, always leaning at the same angle amongst the grass and flowers in the sun, his black skin hard as stone while his eyes held so much life.

When I started high school, family vacations became so passé. Any excuse, every excuse not to be seen with my parents. I forgot all about my childhood playmate until recently, flipping through the album and seeing him there, so alone, so real, so intense.

I wonder if he remembers me.

And then I realize how silly that is. But something reminds me of the fun I once had there, of the childhood memories I cherish even now and I think that maybe I should go and visit my old friend even if I’ve outgrown him.
Besides, one day it might be nice to take my future children to see him.

When I disembark from the ferry it’s surreal, everything just as I remember it, like I’ve traveled back in time. From the trees to the gravel path I walk on as it crunches underfoot and I remember how many scrapes and bruises adorned my legs from tumbles down it.

It’s all so real I can almost feel the pain and I glance down at my legs just to be sure. For a moment the shadows refract and I gasp involuntarily, then laugh at myself when I realize the grazes were just a trick of the light.

Even the people are the same. I would have thought time stood still except for the greyer hair.

The decor in the room is fresh and modern, at complete juxtaposition with the memories I hold so dear and I wonder if maybe other things have been modernized. Maybe he’s not here anymore.

Almost scared, I approach the window, my window, the one I remember clambering out of as a child. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I let it out in relief. He’s there, amongst the greenery, red flowers popping up around him. Maybe a little more weathered than I remember. Part of me wants to say hello right away, but we always had the best times after dark. Though I realize the imagination of a child was at work, the night still holds special memories.

When the moonlight hits the courtyard, it’s just the way I remember. It takes me back to the times I had not a care in the world and I run, knowing that this time he won’t move and come play with me, because I know he’s a statue.

But my knowing this means nothing when he blinks, steps off the pedestal and speaks to me as if I never left, eye glinting in the light of the full moon.

“Let’s play.” He says with that mischievous grin and I’m transported back to my childhood where we run and play and seek each other all night. It’s tiring and exhilarating, thrilling and creepy and I barely notice it as the time passes and my limbs grow heavy with exhaustion.

It’s the perfect memory and the perfect place and I vaguely remember his words before I fall asleep – the promise he always made me dancing on my lips. That one day we’d see the daylight together.

When I wake my body is heavy and I curse the muscle pain I’ve inflicted on myself, gallivanting around the night before. My legs are so weighted I can’t move them. My arms are stiff and rigid. Slowly, I open my eyes and want to blink away what I see. I can feel a scream building in my throat but there’s no way for it to escape.

It echoes in my head as I look out at the world through his eyes.

The Pond

The chink of metal against stone woke Charlie early one Sunday morning. Before church. Before the dog decided it needed to go outside. Just as the sun was cresting the horizon.

Her father hated fish, so his trenching for a goldfish pond took her by surprise. Even when he told the family it was for the children, she had her doubts. Not with the way the veins stood out in his neck, like he’d run too hard up a hill. And she’d seen him run up hills. It was never a pretty sight. She’s also seen him lie enough to know it elicited the same response.

Not until the shallow pond was filled with plants, water and tiny o-mouthed goldfish did Charlie notice something strange. Whenever the sun rose, just before the first rays drenched the world, just for a few seconds she could see her; the girl in the pond; an uneven outline against the black tarp that served to contain the water.

At first she thought her father hadn’t smoothed out the bottom properly. Yet, as days passed and the tarp stretched out completely under the continuous weight of the watery world it held above – the shape became clearer.

Until it was a profile with closed eyes and shallow cheek bones that tugged at Charlie’s memories, though she couldn’t place it. Only visible twice a day.

And then it visited Charlie at night, in her dreams, haunting her. She screamed at it to leave her alone and woke, gasping for air and sweating with exertion. Her sleep grew short and fitful until she was too scared to close her eyes. Charlie fought, but exhaustion won the battle and then the cycle started all over again. Every night it beckoned to her, like she should know it.

Three Sundays later Charlie waited for the sun to rise, gaze intent on the pond, fingers brushing against the early morning paper delivered moments earlier. She leafed through it in the light of the porch to stave off the nightmares trying to claim her. Or maybe it was so she didn’t have to think.

The page she landed on as the sun rose reflected the face back to her. Charlie frowned, skimming the words, fixating on the picture. Not only under the water but in her hands as well – the perfect profile match. Same cheekbones and nose. Three weeks gone from a home two blocks over. Three weeks missing.

The pond beckoned to Charlie, screaming the secret she now held in black and white print. The secret she should have understood weeks ago.

Charlie stood, pages falling from numb fingertips as she gulped down air to stop the shakes that wracked her frame. She knew what she had to do. Clenching her small fists she turned around, resolved to call the police.

Only to find she wasn’t alone.

Third Time’s the Charm

The first time I drown, I am five and brave with the confidence of never knowing failure. I fly from rock to rock along the edges of my grandmother’s goldfish pond, slime filled fissures dark beneath me, the water clear and bright on this spring day. The wind chills my skin, but it doesn’t slow me as I leap skip dart along. Suddenly I’m airborne for a moment of weightless flight. The world slips sideways upside down inside out. I open my mouth to shout, but the water closes over my head, roughly dragging me under.

I try to hold my breath, watching the bubbles twirl like dancers above my head. My vision spins with them, and I hang there for an eternity.

I let the air go, sucking in water, my body knowing before I do what’s going on. It feels funny, like being tickled from the inside. Maybe I swallowed a goldfish.

I wait for an eternity as fire burns through me, not my lungs like I expect, but everywhere else. My legs are the worst. A scream bursts out with the last of the air leaving my lungs. My legs pull together. I glance down, thinking I’m caught in something, and see a flash of green.

Arms pull me and lift me and the world is a whirlwind of sudden feelings that don’t make sense.

My mom tells me I was under for less than thirty seconds, that she was watching me the whole time.
She tells me there’s no way I had a tail. I know better.

The second time I drown, I am nine and foolish with pride, the jeers of the other children stinging my ears. I perch at the edge of the sun-bleached diving board, my knees liquifying, my stomach hard as the concrete of the pool.

Hands shove me before I’m ready, and I hear their laughter even beneath the churning water. Even if I could swim, I wouldn’t want to surface now. I suck in a lungful of the over-chlorinated pool water. It burns, but my legs burn more, almost as much as my eyes. This time I look through my tears to watch my legs grow scales and fuse. Hands grab me and force me back into the cold air just when I’m expecting fins to sprout at the tips of my toes.

They said I must have hit my head when I was pushed in the pool, but Missy Jenkins avoided me for a month after that, calling me fish breath.

I know what I saw.

The third time I drown, I am fifteen and needing to escape, this small town nothing more than a jail cell with fields for bars. All my questions hang unasked on my lips. I stopped answering them for others, their fears and questions expressed in glances and whispers that cut through my heart every night. If I don’t get any answers, neither do they.

Waves wash sand from my bare feet in the ruby ends of sunlight, as I walk until I’m far enough out to swim, having learned just for this. Everything-just for this. My bathing suit peels off easily. I leave it to wash back to shore. Maybe my mom can bury it when they declare me dead. She can hardly tell them I’m a… whatever I am.

I swim until I can’t see the shore, until my legs assure me humans aren’t meant to keep going. When the waves push me down, I let them. For a moment, I hesitate. What if I’m wrong, if it’s nothing more than childish fantasies, I don’t want to die…

My lungs decide for me, and the burning consumes me as the sun finishes setting and the moon rises.