She’d always remember that picture. The one that hung in the hall, visible when the guests walked in. Full of regal beauty, poise, and perfection on the day of her mother’s first principle role.
Odette spent her entire life trying to live up to her mother’s expectations. But her feet wouldn’t turn out just right, her legs were spindly, and coordination non-existent. And she hated her name – named for the white swan where her mother had always favored Odile, the black swan, despite the role being one and the same.
Time after time, day after day, year after year – her mother pushed her, prodded her, and scolded her in front of a class full of girls with the right figures, the right coordination and an actual ambition to dance.
In her twilight years, Odette’s mother wanted what her daughter would never be – a prima ballerina to take over the legacy, to continue the line of dancing royalty she’d created. And when it didn’t happen, Odette was shunned, locked away to think on her crimes, on her genetic failure to live up to her mother’s standards.
The bruises were easily explained away. No one thought twice about them considering Odette’s obvious clumsiness. Though they left no lasting external damage, the mottled purple fading through to green and yellow dug gouges in her psyche.
Until the whispers started.
At first Odette though they were from the other girls as she arched her back in a port de bras, but it didn’t take long for her to realize the voices were always with her. Soon, she began to take comfort in them, listen to them, and wish she could please them in ways her mother would never be pleased by her.
No longer alone, she bore the beatings with a smile, which only served to further infuriate her mother. Punishments lengthened and the ridicule became so nasty Odette could see the revulsion in her peer’s eyes.
She harboured the whispers, held them close, comforted them. Something would go her way soon, because she had a plan to be perfect – a plan to quiet everything once and for all.
The first thud of the golf club as it sunk into her mother’s skull had a sickeningly wet crunch to it. Sort of like a packed bowl of cereal with almost enough milk.
The second stroke resounded with a wet pop when she pulled it away from her mother’s head, the indent making a nest of blood and brains for that pretty brown hair.
The third stroke sprayed blood higher than Odette anticipated, coating her mother’s painting with an artful splash of red.
Odette stood there for a few moments as her mother twitched, as the eyes glazed over, and as the body finally lay motionless in a congealing pool of blood on the floor. She sunk to the ground, letting the golf club clatter beside her and smiled at nothing in particular. For the first time in her life, she found her mother’s favorite portrait appealing.
Everybody in the family knew what Cousin Lissy could do, but nobody talked about it.
Ma said that’s because there was nothing to talk about, that Lissy was just the same as any other of us kids and we weren’t to treat her any different.
But really, I think nobody talked about it because none of us could really pin it down. It was like trying to describe the sea. You could throw words at it, but the sea would just gobble them up, throw them against the breakers at the feet of the cliffs, and then change itself again.
When Ma weren’t around, my older brother John would say Lissy was touched, slow, on account of her having gotten tangled up on her way to being born, but it wasn’t really true. John just didn’t like trying to learn how to talk to Lissy right — said sign language was slow, and John always wanted to be fast. Fastest runner, fastest tree climber, fastest everything.
There were a lot of us kids running around, dodging between the family houses, spreading out across the connected yards — especially that summer. Lissy and me were the youngest two except for Bobby who barely had his first couple teeth. All the other cousins were bigger and louder. They ordered us around and talked over us and ran around outside on summer night way after the Aunts sent us to bed, so I didn’t really mind hanging out with just Lissy a lot of times — even though she was almost two years younger than me — because at least it was quiet and I got to say what I thought without someone elbowing me around and telling me to shut up.
Lissy actually liked to watch me sign, to hear about my day or the comic book I was reading. She told me it was a lot more fun to listen to someone who listened back
It’s why I was the only one who got to see what she could do.
The Uncles had made a fire in a pit back a little ways in the woods, this blossom of orange against a pitch-dark summer night, but they’d gone back toward the house, to grab more beers, to sit with the wives while us kids ran around in the dark. The other cousins had started a game of Cat-and-Mouse and scattered into the trees where the darkness could hide them. I wanted to go play, too, but Lissy hated Cat-and-Mouse because she couldn’t hear anyone sneaking up on her, so they always scared her halfway to hell. So I sat with her by the fire instead, listening to the shouts and laughter echoing all around us.
Lissy nudged me and signed thanks for staying with me, and I just shrugged because I wished I wasn’t the cousin stuck sitting with her and I hated myself for thinking that. I didn’t want to be a Bobby. I really didn’t.
She nudged me again. You want to see something neat?
I frowned at her, and she smiled just a little, with half her hair covering her face because she never bothered to pull it back. I shrugged again.
Lissy turned her eyes to the fire. She tapped her bare feet against the ground — bum, bum-dum, bum, bum-dum — and she nodded along with the beat she created. Her hands drifted in front of her, her fingers moving like she was signing things but they weren’t any signs I’d seen before and they didn’t mean anything as far as I could see and I thought maybe she might just be playing and that nothing would really happen. Nobody’d ever seen her do anything on purpose before — not even Aunt Beth and Uncle Arnie. It’d only always been accident.
But then the fire flared up high, throwing sparks like new stars, and the smoke curled thicker overhead. And Lissy stared, so I stared too, and I started to see…something. A butterfly made of flames. A circle of fiery faeries dancing. A giant wolf of orange and white, calling to his pack. The fire surged up, and the smoke twisted around, became a head, became wings, became an enormous bird with a comet tail of flames. It swooped down, brushing our heads, and I laughed. Which made Lissy laugh.
“Samuel Benjamin!” Aunt Beth’s voice was still loud enough to give me a jolt, even from all the way on the other side of the yard. “What’s going on over there?”
I tapped Lissy’s arm, and she took her eyes off the fire to look at me. The bird and the wolf, the butterfly and the faeries all disappeared. The flames dropped down into the logs.
“Nothing, Aunt Beth!” I hollered, my hands moving for Lissy so she could see what I was saying. “Just put too much wood on!”
There was a tense moment, and then she yelled, “Well, don’t do that again. You kids singe your eyebrows off, no one’s taking you to the hospital.”
“Okay. We won’t.”
“Fifteen more minutes, and then you and Lissy come back to the houses for bed.”
“Yes, Aunt Beth.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as silence fell again. Just the singing of night bugs and the crackling of logs burning slow. Lissy giggled a little, signed she was sorry she got us in trouble, and I told her don’t be because that was amazing.
She blushed a little.
We stared in the fire, the shouts of our cousins bouncing back and forth around us, and I swear I saw a knight charging through the flames.
When the standing stones called, you answered. Everyone in Heartwood knew that.
Edmund knew it, too, and when he was little, he waited to hear them. He was sure they’d call him young – the youngest of anyone in the village – because he was special. More special than the others. More special than Mother and Father knew. More special than any of his brothers and sisters.
They called him Moody Mundy, but they’d be sorry when the standing stones called and the villagers draped him in flowers.
But they didn’t call him when he was eight harvests old. Nor when he was ten or twelve or fourteen harvests.
He doesn’t hear them until he is eighteen harvests old and already a subject of gossip in the village. No interest in marriage as the village girls aren’t good enough for him. No trade or skill to speak of. Edmund couldn’t be bothered with the mundanities of life. He knew in his heart his time would come, and when the stones finally sing out – deep like the earth, sweeping like a windstorm – he feels a thrill of vindication.
Mother weeps. Father drinks. The villagers weave garlands for his neck and head and sing to his good name.
Edmund hears only the call of the stones, of his destiny.
He leaves in a parade, the stars sprayed across the midnight blue sky like festival lights. The villagers will celebrate all night – eating and drinking and dancing until the red sun chases them all to bed.
He strides forest, heady with the wet, green smell of meadow grass and flowers, feeling the soft, warm breeze brush across his skin. He drags his boots to rid them of the dust from the silly, staid village glowing behind him and takes big, heaving gulps of air until he’s so dizzy he giggles.
The standing stones call, vibrating in his bones.
Edmund runs into the trees, spins under their dark canopy with their twined and twisted fingers, and finds himself surrounding by mist. It clings low to the ground, dense and sinuous, flowing around his feet like a stream as it pushes him deeper into the forest.
The song of the stones is in his heart now, in his blood.
It draws him miles from home, miles from Moody Mundy, to a bare hilltop where they stand in a circle. Craggy sentinels with faces as old as the earth, staring at Edmund as he stumbles into their midst, panting and smiling despite the thin scratches that lace his arms from running through the trees.
The call of the standing stones rises until it almost hurts Edmund’s ears. Then it drops into sudden silence.
Which is when he sees the first light.
It drifts from the darkness, blue like the sky, flitting from here to there as it makes its way toward him. It hovers near his arm, and Edmund thinks he can see something in it – a little figure perhaps. It lands on him, light as an insect, tickling him, but he’s too entranced to move.
Until it pricks him. He yelps and raises a hand to swat it, but it floats away and hovers just out of reach.
Edmund looks around the circle of the standing stones, a little lost. He was here, where they had called him. Where was his destiny?
Two more floating lights appear from the forest – green and gold.
Then three more after that. And five more after that. Until there are dozens upon dozens upon dozens.
They glide toward him, closer and closer until they are a twinkling wall of sky blue, spring green, sun gold.
Quite pretty, Edmund thinks.
Three of them dive toward him, pluck at his skin and clothes. He tries to dodge away, but they rip him by cloth and by blood.
Edmund stares at his new wounds, at the glowing lights all around them, and panic squeezes his lungs.
He is too shocked to even scream as the lights swarm down and bury him under the watchful eyes of the stars.
No one expected the Shadows to rebel.
Hell, no one even knew that there was anything even inside them – they were just shallow silhouettes, right? There with the sun, gone with the night. Dark mirrors there just to prove our concreteness. Insubstantial.
But we thought the Earth was flat, too, once.
When scientists discovered what they really were – living, breathing, aware, chained to every one of us against their wills – social foundations split apart. Fringe extremist groups popped up almost immediately. Groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Shadows (P.E.T.S because, of course, that wasn’t fucking confusing) picketed and staked out government buildings and decried public figures in blistering vlogs. Then the anti-Shadow Humans First organization that poured money into politicians and streamed an impassioned feed asking us to keep Shadows in our place for the good ourselves and the safety of our children. Everyone else started to drift to one side or another – pro-Shadows, anti-Shadows, pro-Shadows-as-long-as-I-don’t-have-to-see-them-walking-around-because-they-creep-me-out.
No one actually asked the Shadows what they wanted.
A Midwest senator was making a speech on the presidential campaign trail, talking about getting back to the traditional roots of our great country, when his own Shadow killed him. Split him apart from the inside. On national television.
The rest of the Shadows rebelled. Sometimes by killing. Sometimes by just leaving.
We lost 43% of the world’s population before things settled down. The rest of us stay low. Watch what we say. Who we talk to. What we watch. We’ve learned to sleep with all the lights on.
No one expected the Shadows to rebel.
No one was even watching them.
The taste of honey lingers on my lips as I stumbled from the bar, Benu bashing me on the back with a roar of laughter. I didn’t hear what he said, but I laugh along out of old habit. I’d say I’m drunk, but I only had one cup. It was the dancing girl’s eyes, rounds of copper sprinkled with gold flecks, ebony pupils dark as night. She tingles in my mind, effervescent. I will have her. I decided that the moment I laid eyes on her, wrapped in layers of fabric and a soft, supple mask almost as dark as her eyes. Her arms twisting above her head, her hips gyrating, her name… well, her name. I didn’t catch it before she disappeared into the crowd and my friends began pulling on my arm to leave.
I can’t sleep for thoughts of her. Food tastes of sand. I must find her again. I stumble through every drinking hole and gambling den, looking for her. Just when I began to think I’d imagined her, I spot her in the market.
I knew in an instant it was her. Even though her clothes are proper and demure, perhaps even too chaste for the weather. Even though her hair’s tied tightly beneath a scarf that hid more than it needed. But her eyes gave it away, glancing up at me only long enough to widen in surprise and recognition before darting back to the wares displayed on the booth’s table. I take my time, lingering as long as I dared, inspecting an amulet with Tesha, the goddess of hearth and home graven on it.
“How much is this one?” I ask her, hardly believing my daring.
“Twelve shians, diat.” Her voice is hardly louder than the desert wind blowing around us.
I hesitate. If I don’t at least bargain, she’ll know my intentions are false. Her starting price is far too high for this trinket. “Mian! It’s only ivory, not gold. It’s hardly worth six.”
A flash of fire in her amber eyes, in the sudden set of her jaw. “Ten, diat. it’s the finest ivory in the Shakarian province, engraved by the newest methods.”
“Eight, and not a chian more. Unless, of course, you’re the one who engraved it, mian-sa.” I shouldn’t add the superlative, I know, but I couldn’t resist.
One eyebrow twitches, and I know I’ve caught her out.
“So, not only do you dance, but you carve as well. What other talents do you hide?”
Her face goes moon pale. “I… I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. I merely sell the charms my mother makes.”
“Surely such charms could only be made by one with a steady hand gifted by Tuop and a clear eye gifted by Sial.”
“You overreach, diat-sa. Enough, lest the gods strike you for blasphemy.” She holds up a hand, as if to make a warding gesture.
I take her hand.
For a moment, the market banners and colors and smells and noises all fading away, lost in her eyes. For a breath, there is nothing but the two of us in a world gone silent and flat.
A single shout breaks our world into shattered glass.
I pull her hand towards the barriers, towards safety. Her hand goes stiff in mine, but she stumbles along behind me. We plunge into the barriers just as the wind crests the breakers, lashing behind us like a wall tumbling down.
Then there is nothing but sand and wind and the screaming of demons in the day gone night. Words whisper in the shrieking wildness, murmuring of power and of control.
Then a laugh, haughty and certain.
“You think you could upset my day, do you? I’ll have you know, I had plans this afternoon that didn’t involve you, so if you’ll kindly get on your way, that’d be perfect.”
I risk a glance at the woman who would cast aspersions on a sandstorm so fierce. She’s smaller than I thought she’d be, hardly larger than a half grown child. But the tumble of white hair tells me she’s no child at all. There’s only one woman that small in our village; The witch.
The witch shouts words in a guttural tongue I don’t understand at the sandstorm, and it demurs to her, sliding softly into nothingness.
She glances around, and her eyes focus on me.
No. Not me.
On the girl.
“Come Arista. It is safe now, and I will need your help to set things aright,” the witch says, gesturing at the girl, not noticing me at all.
Her hand lingers in mine for a moment, before falling away. “Yes mother.”
I would have been safer in the sandstorm.
Still, my money-purse grows thin with my purchases. Soon, our banter is more talk than haggling, and her laugh becomes my favorite sound. There are fewer storms this season than any I remember before, and it feels like the summer will never end. All the water I need is in her smile. All the fruit I can take is in her eyes glinting in the sunlight. All my world is in the nights where her mask disguises her from the world, and she dances in the shade of the daruian trees for me alone.
Until one day, Arista’s stand is not there.
I know where the witch lives. Everyone does. The tent set apart from the others, the tent with the impossible garden behind it. Now, I suspect why the garden is there, surrounded by barrier fences, mud daubed walls – not to keep out the shredding sands, but to imprison the loveliest flower of them all.
It’s simple to slip over the walls. It’s simple to step silently in the darkness, willing Arista to hear me.
It’s simple to stop when I see the witch, holding Arista chained and bent down. “Honored Akta-Sa…” I begin, my mouth going dry as the deserts surrounding us.
“Save your honeyed tongue for my disobedient daughter,” the witch spits. “I will have none of it. She is not for the likes of you to trifle with.”
“Mother, I love him! Don’t do this!” Arista cries out, a slap resounding as the witch turns her attention back to her daughter.
“Fine. If that’s the way you want it, then you will stay together, and to the desert with you!” The witch shouts, a whirlwind blowing from nowhere.
If I’d thought the sandstorm was bad, it was but a spring breeze in comparison to the gale blasting me now. Arista’s screams fill my ears, mingling with my own, and for a moment, there is nothing but pain as I fall to the ground. I force myself up, pushing to try to reach her, but my muscles freeze halfway. I’d scream if my throat worked, but instead the screaming stays in my head.
“I love you, Kerat!” she shouts.
The world blurs, and all I can see is her eyes, golden and beautiful and calling my name. Her skin is ivory, not just in metaphor now, but firm around her. My own half outstretched hand blends into the night. Flowers blossom in the desert around us, flaming sentinels in the shifting sands.
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.
BECCA: Okay, so I’ll start this out: I know why I chose this picture, but what first struck you guys about it when I posted it?
K.T.: At first I thought. Wow, that’s pretty. And then I wondered how she got underneath the fish. Which was followed by: oh, she was murdered. Because my brain does that…
LEIGH: My first thought was actually, “Ooh, she’s pretty, I bet she’s a mermaid.”. For a while, I played with a more solidly mermaid idea (Which I’m holding in reserve because I think there might be more use for the twist I put on it later!) before picturing a little girl running along a jetty. Those things terrified me as a kid, the crevices between the rocks always seemed enormous! I ended up pulling it back into the pond kind of idea, when I remembered the gold fish, and modified the scene to go with them.
BECCA: For me, it was the dissonance in it. When I first looked at it, it seemed like a fairly straight-forward portrait, possibly with flowers in the girl’s hair, but then I noticed that the flowers were fish. And I really liked that switch-up, how the artist played with perception.
How’s about a follow-up question! How did you go about building your stories?
K.T.: The chinking shovel. I kid you not. And then I went oooo chinking shovel digging pond to cover her… And that was about it
LEIGH: The first line popped in my head when I sat down to write. I decided to keep the pattern throughout, and the rest just fell into place.
BECCA: I’m with Leigh – it was the first line for me, and then I followed it from there. Which is very, VERY different from how I construct longer works. I never pants it. Okay, last question: Do you guys have any other thoughts you want to share about this prompt? Anything you learned from the first go-round?
K.T.: I learned that if I have the picture to look at and no immediate inspiration, I just need to look at it a few more times and say what I see. Once I did that, the idea took off and the rest was easy to do. I adored Leigh’s and loved the voice in Becca’s so much. I feel like this is pushing us to write tighter and more varied pieces than we usually would. Not to mention it’s a lot of fun!
LEIGH: I learned I need the picture in front of me when I’m working on it. I was working on it at work, and totally forgot about the goldfish until I went to edit it, then had to modify it to fit. I’d just had the image of the little girl under water in my head. But so far, so good. I love seeing what you guys come up with too! I was creeped out by KT’s, and Becca’s was utterly amazing. I think it’s great that we’re breaking out of some of the boxes we tend to land in with novels.
BECCA: Personally, what struck me most are the different directions all of us took, which shouldn’t be surprising but still kinda is. I loved seeing that and seeing where you guys took things. And I learned to loosen up a little bit, to let a first line and a single image take me someplace without planning it out so religiously first. It was a good exercise.
STAY TUNED FOR THE JUNE PROMPT!