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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Writing

Kitty Dreadful

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I had a cat who was bitten by a werewolf. There had been attacks on animals in the area, and by attacks I mean that neighborhood pets had been eaten, and we’d find the chewed remains in the days following the full moon. I don’t know why my cat wasn’t eaten, but it came limping home, favoring its front right paw, half its face bloodied and swollen. It wouldn’t let me come near, arching its back and hissing and growling at my approach. I put down some food and water, with extra treats, and let it be, sure I’d have to corral it for a trip to the vet soon. It climbed into a sunny spot in the window and cleaned itself, and, rapidly, over the next few days, healed completely. I thought at first it had been involved in a scrap with a tomcat or stray mut. We had a little cat door in the kitchen so it could come and go as it pleased, and it often spent its time roaming the surrounds, so it wasn’t unusual for the cat to be out on particularly moonlit nights.

Contrary to common belief, werewolves can’t see in the dark any more than we can, and that is, in part, why the full moon is so important. They can’t hunt without the light.

The attacks on house pets became more prevalent, and the authorities recommended keeping them in, having some concerns about the cultish activity of the early 80s regaining in retro-chic popularity. I couldn’t find my cat. The next morning it came trotting back home and launched into its accustomed spot in the sun and began a vigorous bath.

The next month the animal shelter put out traps to contain any strays who might be at risk. Four terrified dogs were taken, two cats, a raccoon, and one trap was left broken to pieces. I locked the cat door and kept my cat in after that.

I remember driving home from a book club meeting, enjoying the way the moonlight cast the rolling fields in silver. Before I even pulled into the drive, I knew something was wrong. The house looked wrong, though I couldn’t say why. Everything was in perfect order at the front. I pulled my car into the garage, and stepped through the garage door into the kitchen.

The back door, the one with the cat door, was torn off and lay in the yard. Dishes, left neatly stacked in the sink, were now in fragments across the floor. The sink itself dripped from a bent faucet. The wallpaper beside the door was shredded and the wall beneath scarred. The police didn’t know what to make of it. It was ruled a burglary, though nothing was taken. Eventually insurance paid for the door.

There were no more animal attacks for a few weeks and we left a window open a crack so the cat could come in and out again. The poor thing had been in such a state of anxiety following the incident with the door, I determined not to lock it inside again. Another bright evening descended on us. I was making dinner, listening to the news playing from the next room, when I had a call. A neighbor had let her dog out into the yard. She heard a terrible yelping and when she ran outside, the dog was gone, and she only found it’s torn collar. I closed the window, and called from room to room, “Kitty! Here kitty! Where are you?”

When no answering meow came, even with the shaking of a treat bag and the running of the electric can opener, I resolved to go out after it. The night was cool and damp and I hugged myself as I went into the yard, calling for my cat. There was movement in the hedge, and I crouched down to peer into the greenery. Yellow eyes peered back at me. I reached in after my cat. It hissed and backed up. I followed and my hand nearly closed on it’s scruff, but the hiss turned to a growl, and then the growling became deeper and more guttural.

In the strange broken light filtering through the bushes, my cat’s snout appeared longer, and it’s teeth larger. I drew back, then looked again. This was a bigger animal than my cat, but I had been certain only a moment ago that it was my pet. I crouched low to the dirt and tried to get a better look. The silky striped gray coat was familiar, and knowing that there was a wild animal out here attacking pets, I reached into the hedge again and grabbed hold of fur. Teeth like daggers sank into my arm. I cried out and jerked back, and lay staring up at the night sky, clutching my arm for a moment. I heard a ruckus in the foliage and when I looked again, the animal was gone. The bite went deep, but there was less blood than the horror movies suggest. I went inside and washed myself up and bandaged my arm. I made a visit to my GP that week, though the bite had healed quickly.

My cat came back the next morning. It meowed and bumped its head against my leg, then took up it’s accustomed spot in the window. When I reached out to stroke its head, it groomed my injured arm. I took it as an apology.

My arm is almost completely healed now, just a few red marks remain. This evening I can feel a tickle in the back of my throat, like the start of a cold, but I have more energy than I think I’ve ever had. The air seems full, more alive with smells, and I’ve left all the window’s open. I couldn’t bear to have them closed up somehow. My cat jumps to the window sill, stares back at me, as if questioning, for a long moment, and then jumps out into the awaiting night. My skin feels tight, like shrunken clothing, and the bright moonlight is calling to me. After a moment, I follow my cat.

 

This story was originally shared on Medium on October 8, 2016

Writing

Hamelintown

“It is 100 years since our children left.” Hamelin town chronicles, 1384

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Photo by Mika Ruusunen

“Where did the children go? Where did he take them?” my great-grandmother asked. She was in one of her fretful moods, and we would try to calm her, but she would work herself up into a state for the lost children. Why did no one go to find them? Where were they taken?

We were all familiar with her queries and the best that could be done was to try to keep her in bed and stroke her hand until she eventually cried herself to sleep. Sometimes she would get up and start for the door, or we’d find her in the kitchen, packing food into a sack already stuffed with a change of clothes, a thin and faded old nightgown, a sharp letter opener. “Gran,” we’d say, “where are you going?” She would start on about the children again, always the children. Why had no one gone to find them? Where had they been taken? An entire village of children did not simply disappear.

Gran’s young brother had been among the lost ones. There were two brothers and a sister who were lost as well, as I recalled, but this brother had been her favorite. She had cared for him as a baby, her mother never fully recovering from his, the last and most difficult of nine births. Or was it seven? It was hard to say, as so many records of that time had been lost, or destroyed. Records of the lives of the lost ones. Gran was young at the time, fourteen or fifteen, and she had a sister just a few years younger, and an older brother who also survived. Had there been another sister? Nobody knew anymore.

They came from a small milling town up in the mountains. The man had come. There was a famine, and the goats were dying. Or maybe it was a drought? They were hungry, she said, when the man came. The village stores were low, and illness was high. The rats were everywhere, in the grain, crawling over the sick, sometimes attacking the very ill before they expired.

“I woke in the night, I couldn’t breathe. There was a heavy weight on my chest, pressing the life out of me, and when I opened my eyes, there was the beast. A rat,” here she would spread her hands wide to the size of a house cat, “standing on my chest, pressing my breath out, staring into my eyes! With no fear! It tried to smother me, that animal. My sister knocked it off of me with a skillet.”

Straw mattresses were dragged outside and burned. Thatching was replaced on roofs. Holes were patched in walls and floorboards. Still the rats came. Still they remained.

“People were dying. People were dying,” she would murmur, almost consoling herself.

The man came to town. He was older than Gran at the time, though not as old as her father. He wore a patchwork cape, and carried a flute; all the accounts agree on these points. “We were desperate,” she’d say, her voice pleading. The man came. He would get rid of the rats. His price was high. More gold than the whole village had. There was the gold in the church, the candlesticks and chalice and plates and censers, the gold flake on the saints, but that was not to be considered.

Where did the man come from? Gran would wave her hand and give no other answer.

He set right to his work. The elders told him to get rid of the rats, and he set right to his work. Before long he was strolling down the street with a staff strung with rats, and whatever plague had summoned them seemed to pass; they stopped coming. He sat in the middle of the square, where he made camp each night, refusing the hospitality of any of the villagers, and would flay and spit and roast the rats, and tear the flesh from tiny bones with fingers and teeth. Then he would sit and play his flute into the night, beautiful lilting melodies.

Was he a stranger? Had he come from a far off land? Again, the dismissive wave. As though it hardly mattered.

There was something disturbing and almost sensual in the way he ate the vermin, savoring every bite, and licking his fingers when he was through. And, just as terrible, young Gran sometimes felt her stomach rumbling at the scent of the roasting meat. She never ate it! No, she never ate it!

When the rats were gone, eaten or chased off, it came time to render payment. The man, as he told them, was ready to continue on his way, and would have what was owed. The villagers gave him what they had, every scrap of gold, save a wedding band secreted here, or a chain passed down through the family, or perhaps just a few coins pocketed against future calamity. The rats were gone, and the village would give all they could, and that would have to be enough. But it was not the price demanded, nor what was agreed.

“He would give us a week,” Gran whispered, her voice trembling.

The man seemed to disappear then, though no one saw him leave town. Instead, he would be spotted, just in the corner of one’s eye, staring out of the shadows when daily chores were done, or following along on the lane, close enough to hear his steps, too far for any proper greeting.

When the week had passed, he went again to the elders. Again they offered him all the collected wealth of the village, though not the full price set for his services.

“His face went strange like a demon,” she said, “that’s what my father said. A face like a demon. And when he left, the church bell rang once, though there was no one to pull the cord.”

The next day, when the villagers had finished their church services, the children were gone. All of them had disappeared, all of those weaned and walking, and so had the man. There were no signs of struggle, no tiny footprints in the dirt, no dropped toy or scrap of cloth. The village was in the mountains, yet no one saw that lone man leading an army of children down to the valley. None of the children was ever seen again — one hundred and thirty children — nor was the man.

 

A version of this story was originally published at medium.com/@kiyomi.a.gaines on November 8, 2016

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Talia’s Queen

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Artemisia Gentileschi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
My lord, king and husband,

Though you have put me aside and confined me to these estates, know that I humbly accept your wisdom and obey your decrees in these, as in all matters. I pray only for your Majesty’s health and happiness, and hope that you may yet remember the happiness we shared together so recently. The love I bear you has never waned nor shall. In my clumsy seeking to know more of the young woman brought so recently to court, I wished only to please you, that I might love as you do and extend every warmth and welcome of the good charity that your Highness and your kingdom have always been known for, and in my meager ability, to extend that hospitality of your Grace’s court to all your favored guests.

I see that in your wisdom you have separated me now for this time, though in my smallness of mind I am unable to comprehend your noble thoughts. I mean neither to rebuke nor question your rights, and accept humbly your Grace’s command, but I beg you to educate me in where I have erred. I await your letter with eagerness and affection, and remain your most loyal and loving servant.

The Queen

 

Most noble lord, my beloved husband and king,

I have heard strange reports of the young woman who so recently has joined the court. I do not say that I believe them nor wish to repeat any slander, but only to faithfully report to you and seek your good counsel in the matter.

It has been told to me that in your most recent and successful campaign your company came upon an abandoned tower, and in that tower found an entire court of lords and ladies at table, all in the deepest sleep, covered in dust, and cobwebbed. It has been said, that upon climbing to the top of that tower, one among your number did chance to find a little room, locked, and on opening the door, found a most beautiful young woman, also asleep. This man – it was said, and I seek your instruction on what I must make of these matters – this man was taken by the woman’s beauty and immediately fell upon her in the raptures of his great affection. He was as a man bewitched. No, I forget myself, my dear husband, and know that you will forgive me my feminine weakness. There was no witchcraft nor any mention of it. No, it was told me, though, that the man seemed not himself, and in a daze, and as if he too might slip into that deep slumber if allowed to remain in that tower, and so his companions withdrew and brought him out again.

It was said these occurrences were a year and more ago, as I said, in your last campaign. I humbly beg your advice and guidance in this matter. I ask also that you would have my furs and heavy cloak sent, as the cold is beginning to set in here, though I am ready at your soonest pleasure to return to court, and to your side, where it remains my fondest wish to be. Until then, I remain your most obedient servant.

The Queen

 

My dearest lord and king,

I beg you to remember the friendship of our earlier days, and to recall the love you once bore me, that I continue unceasingly to have for you. You raised me from such lowly estate and laid upon me such great honors as to grant me titles and lands of my own – unsought and unrequested – and to call me lady and to name me queen, and most precious to me, give me the title of your most beloved wife. If ever you have loved the name of your forlorn and sorrowful wife, if ever any humble word or deed of mine has brought you any joy or bestowed any mirth to your noble personage, I beg you now to consider these ugly and vicious rumors in light of that friendship we so recently shared.

Any child of your Grace, even though it be not my own, is precious to me for that noble and beloved parentage. Yet I have not seen the young woman at all these long months of my seclusion, and certainly never have sought any harm or injury to her children. It pains me, I will not lie, to know that her children are also yours. Yet I love them for it, as I love you, and will welcome them at court with all the warmth and affection they are owed as your own when you will have me return, which it is my fondest wish to do.

I know that the tower happened upon by your company had a strangeness about it and I bare you no resentment nor reproach for any happenings on the occasion of battle. But what strangeness has there been here in our own country estates, where we have long walked side by side among our own beloved hills? What strangeness to compel any woman to order a child cooked as meat, as it is so cruelly rumored of me? In your recent absence, may I be judged if I write untruthfully, I never have set foot at court. And though I may have yet some few friends in your company, and though I pray they may remind you of our happier days, they do not write to me. Which I would never desire them to do if it might bring you the least displeasure, as surely their greater duty and friendship are owed to your Grace, whose love and generosity make all our joys complete.

I swear to you that I do not know what has become of the child. I pray for its safe and healthy return to you and to its mother. I pray you remember your faithful and loyal and loving wife, and allow me to return that I may defend myself against the slanderers who have sought to make me odious in your eyes. I pray you put aside the simple desires of the flesh and remember your true companion and friend.

I am ever your most loyal and obedient servant, and your most devoted and loving subject.

The Queen

 

Most noble king and husband, dearest to me of all mankind, my good lord,

You know these things said of me to be despicable lies. You must know the impossibility of such cruelty to be in the nature of one you once held in such affection. Further, you must know the impossibility of my travel from my place here to court and back again, and to undertake such journey unnoticed, and to steal away and murder your young children in secret, and further to conspire to have them served at your table. Your Grace will know the utter impossibility of such an undertaking, even were such not abhorrent to me, and sickening even to write of.

Yet still if I am indeed guilty of such heinous crimes as I have been accused of, let me be brought before the open court and have my guilt laid plain before all. Let the evidence against me be made clear, and my guilt be made known, or let my innocence be proven! Your Majesty will show yourself a just and evenhanded ruler, as I have always known you to be, and either you will see my innocence, and expose those who have slandered the name you have raised up, or my guilt will be established for all to see. I will accept any lawful ruling, only let me stand trial as any faithful and loyal subject might expect. If ever my name has brought you joy, or if you have gained a moment’s comfort from my company, I ask you to grant my humble request.

Only if your heart has been so turned and hardened against me in these long – few though they have been, to me they have been long – months, I pray only that you will not be held to full account for the grievous sin you commit in such cruel usage of your pitiable wife. I am told the young woman seeks my death at the stake. I will not curse the name of Talia even now, for your sake and for the sake of the love we have shared. Only let an archer be brought that my suffering may not be prolonged. On behalf of my household, I seek their wages, and release or good references, as they may prefer.

I await your word, and remain your most faithful, loyal, and obedient wife.

The Queen

 

Read Sun, Moon, and Talia

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Happy Women’s Day!

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Photo: Daria Głodowska

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day. This month we will #readmorewomen!

Right now, I’m alternating between Julie Dao’s darkly sparkling fairy tale Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls, inspired by true stories of the horrors of Ravensbruck. Both are tales of strong women learning and navigating that strength, and finding their way in a world that seeks to overpower them.

If you’re looking for a shorter read, these are some of my favorite short stories that I’ve discovered in the last few months, all by women!
You can find more great reads at Enchanted Conversation!
Happy reading!
Kiyomi
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.
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Zen by Yaoundé

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Photo: I. Jack Gaines

We live in Cameroon. And it sucks. But it’s good.

I’m on an interminable bus ride, trying to meditate. Make productive use of the time, I figure. Turn a frustration, or at the very least a waste of time, into something useful, beneficial even. I try to take in the verdant landscape, the subtle grace and strength of the mama we zip past with a huge sack on her back, the simple elegance of the mud brick homes. I will achieve zen by Yaoundé. I outline the entire article I will write about this, turning a bus ride, a necessary evil, into a meditation that will make all more peaceful and productive.

We stop and are surrounded in seconds. It’s the third or fourth stop of the day. “Sheeps! Sheeps!” a woman screams through the windows, previously closed against dust, now shoved open, arms and sometimes half-bodies pressing in on us, dangling bags of plantain chips, peanuts, cut fruit, things I can’t name. I breathe, undisturbed. Shake my head, “Non, merci.”

A sway-backed girl is watching through the window, her mouth undulating vigorously around a sucker, obviously one of many from the shape of her teeth and the pinky-orange scum clinging to their surface. She waves her wares and we shake our heads no. Still she stays. Then, like a hit and run, her hand is through the window, swiping down my husband’s arm, and gone again. She stands, staring at us, giggling. I am indignant at the rudeness.

Deranging is my favorite frenglish word. It captures so exactly what it means: harassment stemming from a basic lack of regard and respect for another person. The shouting and lip smacking and hissing I generally can ignore, but breaching the barrier of physical touch still gets my Irish up, and I don’t mean potatoes.

I give her a dirty look, grumble, “How rude,” and breathe. I will be unmoved. The bus sits. We’ll be going soon though, I’m certain. The sway-backed girl giggles and drags her friend over, pointing as though we are the first volunteers ever to appear on a bus through this town. As though our fair skin somehow makes us a spectacle.

Landscape. Subtle grace. Elegance. Breathe.

Giggling, she weaves her hand through the window and swipes her fingers down his arm again, quickly as though snatching away something precious, something she knows she shouldn’t take.

“Notice: Our volunteers may be cute, but they will bite! Please do not put hands inside the enclosure.”

I can feel my temper flood up in me like water in a glass. “Touche pas!” I shout.

She and her friend giggle hysterically, and still the bus sits.

“It’s not rudeness,” I can hear our training director saying, “they just want to know you.” No, it is rudeness. We’re not zoo animals.

Determined not to be bothered anymore, I glower at the back of the seat in front of me.

A boy walks up to see what the commotion is, waves his wares at us, then looks me in the eye and addresses my husband. “I’ll trade you, this one for yours,” he gestures at the sway-backed girl. Deux, deux cents.

I try to murder him with only my gaze and my mind. He doesn’t even shift his weight back from the window.

The sway-backed girl somehow extends her bust and hips even further from her waist. Still, the bus sits.

“It’s a bad trade,” my husband says.

The girls giggle maniacally.

“No, it’s good,” the boy says, “I like her.”

“Bad for me,” my husband clarifies.

“No, one for one,” the boy explains the math. “It’s good.” The sway-backed girl twirls her sucker, like there’s only the details to work out now, like there’s some possibility of me getting off the bus and she taking my place.

Finally, the bus inches forward.

“No, she’s too good for you,” my husband calls as we pull away. In what sounds to me like flawless French.

The woman seated in front of us laughs and nods.

He is relaxed, laughing, unperturbed, and throws an arm easily across my hunched shoulders. “That was fun,” he says, giving me a squeeze. There are so many reasons why I love him.

“I hate this place,” I mutter, beginning to consider the possibility as the little town fades into the horizon and memory, that I might have over-reacted.

At this rate, I will not reach enlightenment on a bus.

He smiles and everything shifts a little toward its proper place. “Nah,” he assures me, “it’s good.”

I breathe and somehow, it is.

 

 I served in Peace Corps Cameroon from 2011-2013. Zen by Yaounde was first published during my service on 2/21/12. Happy Peace Corps week!

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Reading · Writing

Happy Tell a Fairy Tale Day!

Cinderella

Happy Tell a Fairy Tale Day? While the origins of this holiday are not very clear, any reason to reconnect with our favorite stories and share them with others, is good in my book!

Today is also my birthday! In honor of both, I’m asking you to share one of my stories with one other person.

Find a complete list of my published stories on the blog here. But if you’re not sure where to begin, I’ve got some suggestions for you!

Like the tale of The Pied Piper? Read Hamelintown.

Here’s Snow Fell, my version of Snow White.

In more of an Anderson than a Grimm mood?

Check out my tale inspired by The Steadfast Tin Soldier and Frankenstein, John Soldier; or if you’re more in a listening than reading mood, you can play the audio version here.

Or my take on The Emperor’s New Clothes, Re-covered.

For stories from the perspective of the princess try:

How He Found a Wife, which tells the story of Godfather Death,

Or Moon Rising, a new story of Aladdin.

For a thoroughly American tale, read my take on The Prince and the Pauper, The Complications of Rule.

The Tale of Anchin comes from Japanese fairy tales, and Like a Preyer was inspired by the Mr. Fox story.

Check here for other ways to celebrate!

And be sure to check out Enchanted Conversation for many more stories, interesting articles, and to watch for my forthcoming tale, Travelers’ Sickness, inspired by the Thai myth of the krasue.

Thanks for reading!

Kiyomi

 

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.

Writing

Like a Preyer

Danae_Gustav_Klimt_010
Danae, Gustav Klimt, Public Domain

The man killed my sister. She was a little thing yet, barely grown. Kit. He chased her down with his dogs, laughing madly, his bloodlust spurring their frenzy. She scrambled into a tree, but there was no escape. I heard her screaming, the gunshot, then silence. Mother was inconsolable, pacing by the door, up the path, calling for Kit, and back again. I didn’t say what I had witnessed, but even then she knew. Still she would pace to the end of the lane with a hope that faded as the days went by. Then she took up such a terrible keening, it frightened me, a sound to summon all the dead and bring worse and more down on us.

I told her not to go by the high manor, always to take the main road, though it was the longer way around. I told her he was a madman, that’s what I’d heard told; with a penchant for red-haired girls like us. I told her girls would go in and never come out, that there had been found heads or feet or other gruesome bits and pieces. I told her the law cares nothing for the likes of us, and a nobleman would never pay for his crimes besides. That’s what holding all those riches means. But our tribe are all sunny coppers and rich autumn reds, and though the high lord would never care to tell one of us from another, he always wanted whichever of us he saw. Still I must have told my warnings too well, for she didn’t believe them, didn’t heed them anyway.

“You worry too much, Vic,” she said, with a flash of teeth and swish of her hips. She was a saucy one, and beautiful, and young. She didn’t understand yet, the way things are, and now she never will.

This is what it means to be a prey animal, to cower in shadow, to take the long way because it’s safer, to hope not to be noticed, to hide your beauty and to swallow your voice. Of course it rankles, it’s as unnatural as it is unjust. But it’s how to survive.

Our mother took pity on me and took me in when I was young, my own mother having also been taken by the man, brutalized and lost to us; and Mother had just lost her own young one, just my age. We needed each other and she fed and cared for me and taught me everything just as if I was her own. I tried to warn my sister. It made her angry.

“Why should we have to live like this? Why should we hide like criminals and cower when he is the monster? Let him hide!”

Mostly it ended with her shouting and running to the woods to burn through her rage. Then she would come home. But that day she must have been in a hurry. She was impatient or distracted or careless. It was a beautiful day. She must have felt safe when the sun caught her red hair. When I heard the bugle and the baying of the hounds, I fought my instinct and ran toward the sound, not away, thinking there would be some way I could save her.

Looking down from the ridge, I saw her pass below. She never looked up, never saw me. She ran for her life, and the dogs were right on her. I tried to follow, tried to keep pace, running along the ridgeline and angling down to try to meet her. I skidded to a stop when I ran into the path of the dogs and scrambled back to hide myself in the brush. This is what it means to be prey. They were so focused on her, they didn’t notice me. I heard her screaming. I heard the gunshot. I told her that he was a madman, and that foxes must be madder still.

 

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Writing

Save Me

Albert_Lynch_-_Jeanne_d'Arc
Albert Lynch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
She felt like she had been here before. The room was like a grand audience chamber, white stone walls and floors. It was burning now. The heat pressed in like a physical force on all sides and she almost staggered in the doorway. But she had to continue forward. Whatever else might happen, the mission came first. The demon came toward her, clawed hand raised for a strike. She raised her bow, aimed, drew back on the bow string. Released. Missed. The creature closed the distance between them and struck, and she fell.

 

She felt like she had been here before. The room was grand, like an audience chamber, white stone. It was burning. The heat pressed in like a force on all sides. She almost stopped at the door, but she had to continue. The mission came first. The demon came toward her. She fired an arrow. Another. Another. The creature took each hit, slowed but still advancing. It raised a clawed hand and struck. She fell.

 

She knew she had been here before, the heat pressing in. The room was white and hot, burning. But she had to continue. The mission was everything. The demon came toward her. She shot it, once, twice, three times. It took the hits and kept advancing. She dropped her bow and drew her blade. It raised a clawed hand and struck. She raised her sword to meet the blow. The demon recoiled and struck again, its claws grazing her shoulder. She could feel the venom weaken her instantly. It struck again, and she fell.

 

She had been here before. It was hot. The demon came toward her. She raised her bow and shot, dropped it, drew her sword. She lunged, meeting the advancing creature with her blade, struck again, landed a hit; again, and she missed. The claws grazed her shoulder, and she felt the venom course through her body. She remembered the flask of antivenom attached at her hip. The creature struck again, and she raised her blade to meet the attack. With a free hand, she grabbed the flask, pulled the cork with her teeth, and drank it down. The potion did its work, and she knew she was restored. The demon swiped a clawed hand at her, and she dodged the attack, struck back. A miss, a hit, a hit, miss, miss, hit, hit, hit. The demon groaned and staggered, clutching its middle, and fell. She felt relieved, victorious, but more than that. This moment was significant.

 

She had been here before. It was hot. The body of a demon lay at her feet. She wanted to sit, to rest, to catch her breath, but felt compelled to race around the room, looking for… she wasn’t sure. There was nothing. She returned to the demon. The body was unimpressive, strange, not quite real, though her heart still raced from the battle that she could not quite remember. The creature had a sword. It was huge, but seemed to shrink as she lifted it so it was the size of her own weapon. Intuitively she understood that this sword had magic, that it was stronger than her own. She dropped her own blade into her backpack, where it disappeared neatly, and she swung the demon sword in arcs, testing its weight. Then she ran across the room to another closed door. The mission continued. Another battle awaited on the other side.

 

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Writing

How to Save a Village — Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine

“She will give you what you ask for,” they warn each other, “exactly what you ask for.””If you’re a very good girl,” Mother said, “they won’t get you.”Yet she taught me things day to day. How to grow living things, plants and insects, and how to harvest them. The ways to read a person’s face, and flesh, to…

via Story: How to Save a Village by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines — Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine

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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.