Writing

A Stranger in Our Midst

512px-John_Everett_Millais,_The_Somnambulist
John Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
They did say that it was murder. A seaborn girl and a landed lad, how could it be any different, one might ask? They found him in the surf, howling with a rage and madness, and her limp and dead away in his arms. They said that he had drowned her. She never could become apiece to his people. They were of different worlds. She ran away, the poor dear thing, and when he caught her, he drowned her. They say.

He never said anything. They took him away again, his landed people, gathered him back to his big landed house, and no one did see him again, but as a brooding shape in a window casement. That’s the way these things go.

There were ships on the sea, hunting when the season was in, and they brought in a pretty haul, seal meat and pelts and her too, pulled in from the sea and half drowned. Well, she ended as she began. Some soul took her in and nursed her well, and then she was a pretty thing, and they said she bewitched the whole village, every man laid claim to her, and since it would tear the whole place apart, they put her out of town. But she lingered like a ghost there before the crossroads, and it was a cold night, and many at that, and she begged for a coat.

The innkeeper’s wife brought her in again, and fed her and warmed her, and put her foot down that no man who would breathe a word of bewitchery and foolishness should have a sip of ale in that house. That put an end to it, and the pretty innkeeper’s daughter became such a common sight it was forgot that she was pretty, and as well that she was no native daughter.

That might have been the end of it. She could have married some young local lad, one who knew the ways of the sea, one not so high and fine. But they traveled down from their hills in the summer months, to take the air, they said. And he, that landed boy, didn’t know that she was common now, and thought her as fine and precious as he, and so he asked to take her away, and so she went.

Then the storms came, and then the hunt, and then that highborn lad came tearing through town with others like him, color high in their cheeks, like landed Gentry, riding on horseback, and pillaged our catch.

“My wife would have her coat,” it was reported he’d said, with lightning crashing behind him and fire in his eyes. In truth it wasn’t a stormy night, and the flush in their faces gave truth to another rumor that they were all right sotted and had decided on a raid for the evening’s entertainment. They took piles of seal pelts away with them, and it was supposed our girl had a fine coat out of it. What could anyone do for it? The head man applied to the house, and they say some compensation was made.

Who could blame her for running away? In time it became a common sight to see her walking among the rocks and surf, her dress sodden and heavy around her legs. One night, as snow floated across the beach, she stumbled into town half frozen, begging for a coat. Her parents took her back to their hearth and she lay abed there at the inn with a galloping fever for some days. Her landed folk collected her again.

Then they came back, without her though, the lad and the lord of the manor, and a retinue of armed men with them. Door to door they went and demanded to see all the winter clothing, though they left with none.

She could not get warm, it was said, and she was desperately ill. And little wonder, the mad thing wandering through town of a night and wading in the surf the way she did.

That fateful night, she did just that, came stumbling into town in sodden skirts, and screaming and weeping, incoherent and clutching at the fishermen. Her husband came and roughed some of the lads, and would have seen worse himself, had not cooler heads understood that it did not do to strike a landed man. So they shoved him off, and her with him.

That morning they were found together as I have said. It was murder for certain. But landed folk never could know the ways of the sea, nor the cost to such a small town when young men are drawn away by call of a siren, how tenuous our hold through a long winter. And isn’t it fair to have some tribute back? After all, a seal pelt makes a very fine and warm rug as well as a coat.

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Writing

Hamelintown by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines — Enchanted Conversation Magazine Fairy Tales, Folklore & Myths

My short story, Hamelintown, was in Enchanted Conversation recently!

 

He wore a patchwork cape and carried a flute. He would help us, but his price was high… “It is 100 years since our children left.” Hamelin town chronicles, 1384… 1,253 more words

via SATURDAY TALE – Hamelintown by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines — Enchanted Conversation Magazine Fairy Tales, Folklore & Myths

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On Death – On Enchanted Conversation!

Happy Friday the 13th!

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The first story in which I remember reading about a personified Death, and one I still love, is The Appointment in Samarra (or Samarkand). It’s a very old tale, said to be from Mesopotamia, and is included in the Talmud and collections of Sufi wisdom, and is sometimes also called When Death Came to Baghdad. In it, a man sends his servant on a long journey to avoid Death, only to find that Death had expected him there, in that other place, all along. I remember feeling that there was a certain injustice in that – if only the man had stayed home! How unfair that the man’s fear of dying drove him to flee straight to the place of his death. Yet, how foolish to try to run away, only to spend his final days on a long journey to a distant land, far from all that he knew and loved. That is where Death brings us in the end anyway.

In many old stories, Death is portrayed as a neutral, or even benevolent figure. Not frightening or evil, but someone who is just doing a job. These stories represent a way for us to make peace with mortality. Not to say that we shouldn’t cling to the beauty and joy and connection presented by a life well lived, or mourn the finality of separation from our loved ones. Rather Death represents everything that is unknown, and our complete inability to return to what was before – that is to say, death, (with a little ‘d’) in a very literal sense, or any process of change or transition. Not bad, and maybe not good, but inevitable just the same.

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Writing

Where the Bones Lie

'Woman_with_a_Harp'_by_Elizabeth_Nourse,_Cincinnati_Art_Museum
by Elizabeth Nourse

My sister, God keep her, was a troubled girl. She was beautiful in every way, as you have heard, but fair doesn’t always mean fair. You look at me now, all of you, with your wide eyes and your shock and horror at the things you have heard. I’ll not tell you that they’re lies, but the truth can have a way of shifting and stretching and spreading like silt in water before it finally settles out, and you can see clearly what’s at the bottom of it.

When my sister was a little girl, she would follow me around. I was barely older, but it was enough, and with a new baby, my mother put me to work while she coddled the young one. So I did make her eat dirt, and I did run away from her. I felt she had stolen my mother’s affections, and was only little yet myself.

As we grew older there were little pranks, the things children will do, none of it intending real harm. But didn’t she take a swipe like a punch, and fold herself over, always just when my mother came near. My own scratches and bites and bruises were left untended. I brought them on myself I was told. But I learned, and so I stopped fighting back, thinking that would show my mother. But still she said I brought it on myself, if not for what I did today, then yesterday or last week, or some other time wasn’t too long ago to warrant reprisal still. And didn’t she feign faintness and tremors at the wisp of a cough, to be bundled into bed with me to wait on her, with none to nurse me on my own sickbed, for she would be too fragile, and I was decided to be the one who would stretch my illness for laziness.

Meantime, if I wasn’t married, I was to be working to keep myself, and she, my sister, would only talk herself blue in the face. Being younger and now fragile my mother didn’t press her. So it was I who sat in the yard to get the better light to finish my work, and I who lost a thimble and followed it down into the well. She did lower me down to get it, and in the waters, I did find a gift, which she demanded a share of if she would pull me back up, and so I agreed rather than be left to drown in the well.

When I came up, this young man was there with her, and there we both stood, one dry and one wet, and she made jokes to humiliate me, and then she showed him both of our work, mine nearly completed, and her few, precise stitches, which were indeed smaller and more even than mine, but which she said she had just started on. Tell me, with such an introduction, what chance would any young girl think she had, even if she wanted to steal away such a suitor?

I took my work and my thimble and the treasure and made for home, but, “Ah-ah!” my sister called after me. “I believe you have something that is mine,” she said, and put out a hand. So I handed over what she had asked for, and as I left, she related to the young man that not only was I slovenly and unindustrious, but also a thief.

My mother wanted to know how I came to be wet, and so I told her of my shame and humiliations, and she remarked that she supposed a young man could choose whichever girl he preferred. But it wasn’t about the young man. It was about the unkindness. I would do the same, my mother assured me, though I may assure you that I would not have.

So this man indeed came to call, and seeing me dry and presentable, he approached to apologize for his laughter and then inquired about my new piece of work, and saw that my sister’s few stitches had not progressed. She complained to my mother that I was ruining her chances and spreading lies to turn her suitor against her, and I was thereafter relegated to the kitchen when he called. His interests were his own, not persuaded by me, and this you may ask him yourself.

In time as you know, yes, his affection turned to me, and I found much enjoyment in his company as we walked together about town.

My sister became dissatisfied with the part I had given her of what I found in the well. She wanted me to go down again, and I would not. She threw my thimble in for spite, and I told her she would have to go after it. She would not do it, and this time our mother came to my cause and told her she should. So I lowered her into the well, and I did pull her back! And I have the thimble to prove it. There was nothing but frogs down there anyway, she told me.

After that I can’t say with any certainty what happened to her. I was planning to marry, you see, and my mother, happy enough to go to much effort on behalf of my sister, would not do so for me, as she said I had stolen my sister’s chance. So I was on my own, grateful merely to have not been put out of the house. I did not see my sister. I did wonder after her, but determined she would not be seen as she did not wish me well.

Then we did notice her missing, my mother first of course. We all searched. We were all there.

And then someone went to the well. My wedding was delayed, of course, and it is only now that we are all gathered here, and this young man still beside me.

How this bone harp was made, I cannot account for, nor how this musician came to have it, a piece of my own dead sister. Yet, some part of what was left down there, some part of what I found in the well, caused this spell, and now we know what happened to her, and her own accounting of it.

But I did not push her into the well, and I did not leave her there, nor do I have any knowledge of how such things came to be. Now, you good folk, I tremble here as I say it, yet surrounded by you, now you must judge between us.

 

The Twa Sisters

Judge between the two sisters and give your verdict

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Writing

Someone Else’s Story

My latest short story appears in Enchanted Conversation this week!

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Sometimes she woke and didn’t know where she was, stuck in that strange space between dreaming and the rest of her life. The man beside her, wrapped in the rumpled sheets, would seem a stranger, and she would try to piece together just how she had ended up here and who he was. She would either fall back asleep, or struggle to wakefulness, and the familiar would settle over her again.

Day to day passed with little change, but she found she was more or less content. Her home was modest, but clean and orderly. The garden plot was neat, and the animals well cared for. She had a good life. In the distance, on a clear day, she could sometimes see the parapets of the castle, the colored flags unfurled in the wind on their narrow stilts. Sometimes, unaccountably, the sight of them would leave her feeling melancholy, and she would sit inside at her spinning wheel, instead of outside enjoying the good weather.

Strange sensations, like memory, would sometimes come over her when she sat spinning. A room, empty, but for a wheel, and piles of flax. A door barred, walls bare, and only a narrow window, high up, so she could see nothing through it but a sliver of blue sky. The skin of her hands was dry from working the fibrous material. And she despaired of escape.

The man, her husband, knew about nature and humors and the elements that made the world. It was a point of pride for him, but she only felt disgust at the work. Confused, she called it piety. There were some things that it was not for man to know, that were not to be meddled with, she reasoned. It brought in coin, though. They were not wealthy, but they had enough. He reminded her of this, to know her place, that she was no grander than he, and that his work had saved her life.

Yes, that. She did not remember that. Or rather she did, but it was more like a story she had been told than something she truly recalled. Pricking her finger, the infection that followed, a delirious fever, the herbal remedies that cured her. It was all so long ago now. The skin opened up, there must have been blood, and she imagined the long, narrow spindle, stretching up like a stilt overhead as she collapsed to the floor, her dress rumpled beneath her. Yes, that must be what happened. Who had found her? Her father? No, he was long gone. Her mother? Her mother had sent her away… Something nagged at her. Her mother had sent her away. She felt anger at this, mingled with despair.

 

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Writing

Travelers’ Sickness

TravelersSickness-GAINES-CoverABergloff

Susannah wasn’t herself anymore. She wanted blood, and the blood soup and the raw meat dishes she’d been satisfied with until recently would no longer sustain her. She had come to this place for a change. She needed a break, to get away. She thought she would reconnect with the rituals of her childhood, and make a sort of pilgrimage to the many temples in the area.

On her journey through the country to visit temples, old and new, she encountered others who were not on any pilgrimage. They were loud and self-involved, and disrespectful of the places and traditions, and they left things a mess. She took an extra breath and a moment to extend compassion toward them, but still she was angry.

A week in, her stomach ached. The pharmacist told her it was traveler’s sickness, and gave her some tablets to take. She didn’t improve though, and it seemed to spread from her stomach to the rest of her insides. Everything felt tight and confined, and sharp stabbing pains prickled down her sides. Then her neck began to hurt. The pain was sharp and went down either side of her spine, between her shoulder blades into the very root of her neck. She took her tablets and lay in her room, unable to turn her head without pain. Traveler’s sickness, the stress of everything was just catching up to her. She would take her tablets and rest.

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Happy Short Story Month!

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Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

May is Short Story Month!

I remember the first time I discovered Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber in the stacks of my university library while I was supposed to be studying or researching for some paper. I found it both compelling and disturbing, and so much more valuable as a narrative than the sanitized childhood versions I was familiar with. I think it was about that same time that I discovered Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples, the chilling turn of which still stays with me.

I recently read Norse Mythology, also by Gaiman, which is a sort of short story collection, and am now working my way through Beyond the Woods, edited by Paula Guran.

Short stories are like finding yourself in a chocolatier with a tray of samples laid out. You can try all the varieties and find your favorites, without it costing anything! Done well, short stories captivate and delight, and linger, even changing the way you think about things, without demanding too much in return. Five, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, and a world of wonder can open out in front of you, a break in routine, a respite from work stresses or unfinished housework.

Some of my favorite recent reads are:

Memories of Monsters – Mari Ness

Red as Blood and White as Bone – Theodora Goss

Them Boys – Nora Anthony

And of course you can find so many wonderful new stories on Enchanted Conversation!

Not long ago – maybe a year or three now – I found a mysterious tale about a young slave who escaped, and was captured again, and then turned over by her merciless master to a temple that he determined would do worse to her than he could. So she lived there, fearful at first, but then came to understand her fellow nuns who offered the sacrifice of their pain to their god, in physical injuries that could never heal. Eventually, she moves from acolyte to devotee, each pain bringing her clarity and insight, as each of life’s challenges and traumas may do for any of us.

I thought it was a beautiful story, well written and compelling, and I favorited the link. But somehow it was lost. So now I am searching for that story again. If you know it, please send it to me!

Happy reading!

 

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Writing

The Woodcutter’s Daughter

This has been one of my most popular stories this year, so I thought I’d reshare it! I wrote this while I was in Thailand this winter for Enchanted Conversation! Watch for more in EC soon!

 

WoodcuttersDaughter-GAINES-ArtAmandaBergloff

There was an old woodcutter and his wife who, more than anything, wanted a child to call their own, to love and raise, to care for them in their old age, which was fast approaching, and to carry their name and line into the next generation. One day while he was in the forest, the woodcutter heard a high, small mewling and he followed the sound to the hollowed out trunk of a tree he had felled the year before. Inside he found a tiny baby girl – left to exposure, he and his wife would assume, no doubt because she was a girl – yet they had for so long wanted a child that the woodcutter brought her home. That is the account he gave his wife when he passed the child into her arms. The woman put the child to her barren breast to soothe her, and in the morning sent her husband to buy a goat. And though she fed the child on milk and porridge, still she pressed the small girl to her breast, though whether for the child’s comfort or her own became less clear.

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Writing

Andromeda Ourania

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Art: Edward Poynter

The city was flooding again, as it had always done. The waters rose up annually, but then they rose higher from time to time, ever since the cataclysm. Ever since that first flood that pushed the sinners, escaped in their little boat, to this safe harbor. A natural port in a storm, crafted by the gods. The waters were calmer in the little bay. It was a safe place. Until it wasn’t.

The streets were flooded, and monsters were swimming along the streets, between the garbage and the wreckage of market carts and lean-tos and fishermen’s shacks. They were deep things, with dead eyes and bladed teeth, things with too many arms and no hands, things that did not exist in the real world, the dragons of old come to purge the city with cleansing waters.

Their leader, called Defender, descended of Titans, would annually offer herself bodily to the sea, and the waters would recede.

Cassiopeia knew that her role would be to defend her people from the rising tides, and the monsters they carried in them. Each year she would make her offering, dive to the bottom of the bay, return with the Aphrodite shell, the mollusk’s glowing blue eyes peering out, all-knowing, at the awaiting crowd. She would bring it out to much celebration and the feast would begin, and the ritual cleaning of the city would be done, old women dragging out their washing to be purged by the salty brine, and then heated to stiffness in the sun. Children would be baptized in the waters, ritually plunged into the bay to represent the annual flooding of the city, and that they were of, and indeed were the city itself. And the waters would slowly recede. And she would return the shell to it’s home on the sandy sea floor.

But this time, the waters continued to rise. This year the Aphrodite shell was hidden. She dove down again and again, searching for the large bivalve with it’s lip rimmed in vibrant blue, delicate strange strands reaching out for her. But it was not there. It seemed ill-omened to continue the celebration in its absence. The people departed. There was no bathing of linens and bodies. No feast, no sweeping out of the old year’s luck, no room made for the new. The spring came and the waters rose, and they had no place to go. The people were trapped, the water was polluted, and food was running out. What had been done, some asked, or left undone? Not Cassiopeia, who asked instead, what could be done now?

They called her proud. She was proud. She had raised this city from the roiling tides and protected it. She had built it up, made it prosper. She made the ritual each year that kept the tides in check. She was proud of that, proud of her city. Proud, too, of her daughter who would be not only the Defender of this port, but the Ruler of Men.

This was what the jealous gods did not like.
They went to the oracle, the wild eyed girl, her wispy white-blond hair floating around her skull like a corona, driven to madness by the fumes that rolled up from the cracks in the sacred Volcanic caves. Mad, yes, but more than that. Mad, yes, but also wise. The virgins who cared for her stood aside in the temple as she staggered forward, arms twisting and undulating as though she, too, was under water.

“You must not argue,” she murmured, “you must not argue.”

“How do we make the waters recede?” Cepheus demanded boldly, ever bold with his armor and spear.

“The consort must be silent!” the girl yelled in a high, unnatural tone. Then she staggered closer, eyeing the leader. “You have been proud, Defender. Your power offends, daughter of Cronos.”

“I am the daughter of Titans,” she answered, “the daughter, also, of the ocean. My daughter bears the line of the sea and the river here. I have born her. I come here by right.”

“Cassiopeia, to save your city,” the oracle of Amun told her, a god of a strange desert land, far away from the coast. a god of the flooding river though, and so one who might know the tides, “If you would save your city, you will lose all else. Your pride has gone and now you fall.”

But the city was her all. What had she left if Iopeia was lost?

“Poseidon finds you monstrous,” the youth whispered in a crone’s voice. “He would have your daughter, and then you will have the shell.”

“What must I do?” she asked. Andromeda, Ruler of Men so-called, would learn what ruling meant. She must protect her people and lead them. If Poseidon would have her child, Cassiopeia knew Andromeda would best him yet.

“She must be bound and offered to the ocean,” the oracle wheezed.
So she found herself out on a jut of rock, binding her daughter while a storm rolled in, the angry waves reaching out, greedy and eager for their prize ahead of their time. Yet Andromeda had grown on these shores, and trained beside her mother, diving into this bay all of her life. She knew these waters, and it was her strength that was her mother’s pride. Andromeda showed no fear, though she knew the water to be treacherous. She was naked, as they always were when diving, save the knife sheathed at her calf, and net tied at her waist. She was bound like an offering, like a sacrifice before the feast, and she knew what she would do. Let him take her, this angry god, and once he had her in the waters, her own waters where she had grown from childhood, she would cut her bonds and find the shell that had eluded her mother. She would prove herself the rightful heir of this land.

Cassiopeia checked the bonds and kissed her daughter, and returned along the rocky spit to the shore, where she would watch. The storm moved in and the waves grew more angry and hungry, lashing Andromeda with icy fingers. She pressed back as far as she could. The rock grew slick. The waves began to stretch higher. Poseidon’s own hand reached out. Still she waited. She drew a breath, and another, and as his grasp stretched forward, she ran and threw herself in to meet it.

The water was cold, but peaceful beneath the surface. She twisted and balled her body to reach her knife as she sank. She pulled it loose, scored a line across her leg as she did, but maneuvered to sever her bonds. The water was murky, and carried her first toward the shore and then away from it. She fought against it, and pushed herself along the bay’s sandy bottom in search of the blue eyed scallop. She was Andromeda the daughter of Cassiopeia, who was herself the daughter of Titans, and in no way lesser than Poseidon. Andromeda would complete this task. She would restore the sea to its rightful bounds. She would save her people, and prove worthy to rule them.

But her leg bled, and in the salty water the wound stung and slowed her, and in the cold and rough waves, she felt her strength wane before she found the shell. She gathered her strength to return to the surface, to take a breath, to return to her quest. She pulled herself up with long strokes and swift kicks. As she reached the surface, just there before her head crested the air, a flash of blue caught her eye.

She gasped for breath, and turned to descend once more, when the sea monster surged from the depths and surfaced after her. Andromeda slashed at it with her knife, but the creature was not dissuaded. She swam, and it followed the trail of her blood in the water. She could see the glint of blue through the angry chop, and knew she had only to be faster than the beast. As the waves closed over her, she launched herself again into them, dropping as fast as she could. Once landed, she dragged the weighty shell from it’s berth, bent her knees, and kicked off again toward the surface, the shadow of the beast looming toward her.

It moved like an arrow, true to its mark, and clamped merciless jaws on her leg, and she cried out and lost her breath. Desperate, she stabbed at it, and she found she was being propelled up to the surface in the creature’s jaws. It breached, triumphant.

And there, Poseidon’s man stood out, victorious, on Andromeda’s rock, thrusting forward in hand the severed head of another woman called monstrous, her gaze wielded by him now as a weapon, while with his eyes he took in her nudity alone. The creature fell back, a statue now, sinking to the bottom of the bay, her leg still caught in its teeth. As she sank, her eyes met those of friend and ally, the gorgon.

In Iopeia the waters receded, and Cassiopeia submitted to her cousin’s rule, and from then on the port city made offerings in tribute to Poseidon’s liege, called Zeus-Amun. But the people were saved, and this is the sacrifice that is sometimes demanded of those who rule, whose call it is to protect and prosper their people.

In time a most remarkable scallop was found near the island of the Cypriots, and inside it is said they found, fully formed, the most beautiful woman in the world. “I am reborn,” she said, “Risen from the sea.”

She left the shell behind. The gods were offended by her strength, her mother’s pride, and would go through such permutations to undermine a woman of power, to reduce her to a monstrous and pretty thing. So be it, she thought, and knew the way pretty baubles could distract and obscure, and what gains might be traded for the favor of beauty. She would make her own mischief of them. All who saw her were struck by devotion to her. With her walked grace and justice, abundance and peace. She was most persuasive in her charms, yet was also lightly armed with a knife at her side. From that day she fought to rule the hearts of mortals, whom she would defend from the manipulations of the fickle and jealous gods.

 

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I have a newsletter now! If you enjoy my stories, if you want to support my writing, please sign up. If you subscribe to my Tiny Letter, you’ll stay with me, wherever I end up writing in the future, and I’ll send you previews of what’s coming up here.