Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Sketch by Sketch
Jason Sturner

These I have drawn: a hillside of moonlit clover; creeks cradled by swaying heather; crumbling stone walls and pastures; a surly jackdaw’s favourite oak. And all just to get home; I’ve been gone so very long.

You might find me in the green layers beyond the sunless core of town, sidestepping the coiled corpses of men’s dreams, crossing industrial rivers where mechanical beasts gnaw on adolescent hearts.

For here dwell the kith of my childhood: the salamanders, foxes, rooks, and deer; even the sheep—their dull eyes forever sliding along my heels. Old friends are the mosses and ferns, the spirits of pollen, the ghosts of tree rings. All under the watchful eye of Pan.

As a youth I was enamored with mortals, would sketch them on peeled birch bark and hardened flows of sap. I read book after book about their adventures, dreamt of their heroes and maidens, envisioned hordes of treasure behind castle walls. To me, the human soul mirrored romance and wonder. Man dared dream of anything; it dared dream of us.

O how I longed to dance and love and sketch wildly among them! To escape the confines of Pan’s wild domain—to possess a soul!

Such desires led to secrecy, to a thousand sketches wrought in the abandoned swamps where not even the banshee will go. And then, at the pace of a snail’s whisper, the leaves of my face turned autumn and blew away. My wings shriveled and fell. I had somehow willed myself, sketch by sketch, into the abrasive, mortal light of Man.

Alas, the humans were not as I had expected. Romance played almost no role in courtship or marriage. Foreign to me was hunger, pain, deep sadness. Strange and worrisome were science and religion. Hardship overcame me, and I was led to the snickering god of apathy.

Soon my eyes turned the colour of winter. I broke apart as a flower petal in a storm. I do not know if I ever gained a soul.

But despite my disappointment, one simple comfort remained: my ability to sketch. Yet I no longer draw man or his dead dreams. Instead I lose myself in the mossy wood and wild heath, desperate to reveal the music and landscapes of my youth. Always I am trying my best to get the details just right. It is all I can do. I am at the mercy of human imagination.


Jason Sturner grew up along the Fox River in northern Illinois. He is of European and Native American descent. Of his many jobs, those he most enjoyed were naturalist and botanist. His stories and poems have appeared in Space and Time Magazine, Star*Line, Tales of the Talisman, Mythic Delirium, and Liquid Imagination, among others. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains. Website: jasonsturner.blogspot.com

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

The Body
Kathleen Kirk

I tried to care about the body
and for it, with amber lotions & creams,
with red scarves wrapped around the atlas
and other cervical vertebrae,
for color, or, in winter, for warmth.

In summer, I tried to wear shoes—
Open-toed, to paint the nails.
Still, my feet wanted grass, water, rocks,
sand, the trunks & limbs of trees.

Finally, late in life, I punched holes
in the lobes of my ears & hung jewels
& glass beads there, but it was no use.

I could only love science & the soul.

But your body, oh, yes.
Your body I loved.


Kathleen Kirk is the author of five poetry chapbooks, most recently Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012) and Interior Sculpture (Dancing Girl Press, 2013). Her work appears in many print and online journals, including Arsenic Lobster, Eclectica, Fickle Muses, Menacing Hedge, and Waccamaw. She is the poetry editor for Escape Into Life.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

If I Were the Cherry Wood Piano
Kathleen Kirk

If I were the cherry wood piano
I’d sit neglected

in heat and humidity, silent
most of the time.

I wouldn’t be able to disguise
the jangling if someone touched me

but I’d shiver and awaken, under
dust, unshaken,

just to spill a broken melody.


Kathleen Kirk is the author of five poetry chapbooks, most recently Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012) and Interior Sculpture (Dancing Girl Press, 2013). Her work appears in many print and online journals, including Arsenic Lobster, Eclectica, Fickle Muses, Menacing Hedge, and Waccamaw. She is the poetry editor for Escape Into Life.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Immortelle
Diane Dehler

I

I awoke
in the middle
of the night

To discover that
I was sitting on
a window ledge

Watching the
final ascent
of the moon.

It was disconcerting
for I remembered
the cool feel of

Pale satin sheets
as I slipped into
a skin of dream,

II

I turned
and suddenly
she was

Growing
next to me,
La Immortelle.

Haven’t I watered
you enough
I asked her

As she stepped out
of translucent
fuschia petals.


Diane Dehler is an American poet known for her postmodern lyricism who has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2014. She received a degree from the Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University, receiving the Outstanding Student of the Year Award. She has also received numerous humanitarian awards for her volunteer service to the community. She is an English Language poet in the international literary scene. Most recently she has published in: poeticdiversity, Moonbathing: a journal of women’s tanka, The Criterion: an International Journal in English, The Applicant: a Kathmandu based Online Journal, Munyori Literary Review, The Taj Mahal Review and Deepwater Literary Journal. She is known for flower photography, especially her studies of the lotus, orchid and chrysanthemum. Her blog Princess Haiku has received 200,000 + views globally and she can be found on Facebook.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

A Hundred Costumes
Jill Khoury

She plays that mirror game
in your room. First her jawline
slides into view. Then the eye
—longlashed, melting
butterscotch—who blinked
first, her or you? Styrene
wings affix to her back.
On her sleeve a ribbon
of glitter-gold rickrack.

She wears a hundred
costumes you have shed.

An ambulance siren scalds
the night. You turn your head
toward the reflected light.
Your mind’s run riot again,
because when you look
back, she’s fled. The mirror
frames its usual scene:
one little girl, cracked lips,
grass-stained blue jeans.


Jill Khoury earned her Masters of Fine Arts from The Ohio State University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Sentence, MiPOesias, Harpur Palate, and RHINO. Split This Rock picked her poem “Certain Seams,” as a third place winner in their 2013 poetry contest. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net award. Her chapbook Borrowed Bodies was released from Pudding House Press.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

“And their legs were soft and the wheat was rough and everything sun-buttered brown and damp…”
Brianna Sulzener

Mary, the babysitter who chewed
her red lips raw trying to teach him
to tie his shoes. Mary of the rough looks.

Amy in the Everglades,
who taught him how to make
strings from rabbit skins.

She swam half-naked in a black river then he loved her.

When he says plain he means pretty.
He has a thing for milkmaids,
says they’ve got the sweetest cream.

Anna drew the Devil on the wall.
She drew it in glitter. She drew it in spit,
and then bled on it.

She said don’t count your pastries before they’ve puffed.

Gracie went out like a switch.
It was Christmas morning and
she was feeling sacrificial.

Dina joined the revolution in Cairo.
He hasn’t heard from her since.

She could never let anything go, then she went.


Brianna Sulzener is a Floridian living in Iowa City. Her poems have recently appeared in Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and Mirror Dance.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Advice from a Crone
Brianna Sulzener

Grab glamour and wed goodness.
Travel is a time for silence. Remember that
no man enjoys an unmade bed. Play games
in the grass with wild children. Drink water
each morning and swim alone. Forgive
yourself—even for that. Sacrifice your gods
to your garden. Care little for your own suffering,
and much for the suffering of others.
Wear hats. Be loyal to your secrets.
Spend your gold. Flirt with monsters.

One day it will be dusk—all the tea leaves
read, the poetry eaten. Death arrives
with her jar of venom. Greet her with wine-
hot cheeks and a heart still bleeding.
Say ‘good morning, stranger. I’m much obliged.’


Brianna Sulzener is a Floridian living in Iowa City. Her poems have recently appeared in Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, and Mirror Dance.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

The Assignments
Paige Ferro

The Smith and the Baker and all the People of the Village knew when the day of the Assignments came. They heard the soft march of our feet past the squat hutches and wooden fences, and everyone lined the road to watch us go by. Some of the men gave small smiles and encouraging nods while the Wives just stared with blank eyes or looked away. Our Mothers reminded us to keep our eyes down, tuck our hands behind us and not make a sound, but my cold fingers kept slipping and my eyes wandered. My hands shook, yes, but my heart also fluttered with a tight anticipation of what was next. I wanted to smirk and laugh but my Mother’s voice ran through my mind and I folded my clammy hands best I could and focused on the feet of the Girl ahead of me. The bare trees shivered and shook their spindly branches overhead as a stale breeze scuttled over us, and the pale curtains in the windows fluttered slow goodbyes. My exposed wrists prickled with gooseflesh. We plodded up the dirt path one step at a time and the Mothers followed after.

Finally, after countless steps, we reached the steps and even with my head bent firmly this time, I could see the hem of the Caretaker’s long white robes at the front doors of the House. Everyone fell hushed. Everyone could feel and just knew that today was special, but I knew this day was especially important for me above all others.

I could tell by the way that my Mother came in the dark before anyone else this morning, pushing my wispy hair out of my face and whispering frantically in the dark before the other Mothers came to wake their Girls. “Today you will get out of here,” she said. “Today you will be free.” She smiled at me there in the dark as she spoke. Then again, maybe she didn’t really. Maybe I just imagined that. The other Mothers soon trickled in to wake their Girls and so my Mother bent her head again and fussed quietly with my hair, not looking me in the eye, and I couldn’t see her face. But I still knew she was smiling for me today, because today was the day of the Assignments.

My Mother always did say I was special, always paid particular attention to me even when we both knew she shouldn’t pick favorites. I knew it made the other Girls jealous, but now all the suspicion and harsh looks I got from them would be worth it. I just knew it. My heart pounded but I kept my breathing calm and steady, repeating my Mother’s words in my head. Free. Free. Free.

 I could feel my glossy braid sway and shake minutely with the trembling rhythm of my square shoulders as I knelt in the cool dirt and waited for my life to change forever with one simple touch of the Caretaker’s hand. I could hear the rustle of his robes and see just the bare hem of white dance along the stone step as he stood in front of me and then turned and walked along the row of us Girls and out sight. I knew he wouldn’t be able to single me out right away, no, that would look suspicious. Instead he would have to go along the whole row and put on an act for everyone. The Assignments only came sporadically, and everyone was expecting an event.

Today the Caretaker would pick me. Today I would get out from being a lowly Mother or Nursemaid. My hands would not wrinkle and chafe from years of endless work. I would not watch each of my beautiful little Children grow into Girls and feel the scorn of failure if my Girl was not picked to become a Wife and only became another Mother or Nursemaid herself. I would be better than that, better than all the rest of the other Girls. Today, I would become a Wife, but not just any Wife. Today I would become the Caretaker’s new Wife.

Every day before School, us Girls would meet each other’s eyes in the hall and nod to one another that today would be the day of the Assignments, and each of the us would straighten our chins, smooth our frocks a little more, and hope it really would be tomorrow. The Caretaker was always watching us, everyone was always watching us, and we always had to be on our best behavior and obey. Every day before School, we would brush and brush and brush my long shiny hair once, then twice, then three times again for good luck, and kiss the Mothers’ white cheeks, then shut the doors quietly behind us, and make our way to School. Our Mothers would watch at the doors as we left, then glance at each other with quiet eyes and go to their dishes, ironing, and chores.

In School, we didn’t fidget or fuss in their chairs but sat up straight and tall, and didn’t blurt out answers but raised our small hands. We kept polite eyes down on the wood grain of our desks until Teacher called on me, or her, or that one ahead at the front of the class, or the other one sitting in the back. We had been taught always to pay attention in School, never to miss a word from the teacher. The School would teach us everything we would need to know right now. We only had to obey. I made sure to try very hard and be the best student, even though the teacher never would tell us who was best, and we were told never to compete with one another. Everyone knew, though, that I was better than the other Girls were, and that was why the teacher made a point not to look at me sometimes, to ignore my hand as it raised time after time and call on the other quiet Girls as well. The teacher must never show favor even more than our Mothers were not supposed to, and so that was why how I knew that the teacher liked me best of all, because she tried so hard to deny it.

The Village was a peaceful place, with no room for violence or competition, or so they said.

The Assignments and the Caretakers would decide the rest for us, and we would become Mothers, the librarian, or the teacher for the next group of Girls who came after us or maybe a Wife to the Caretaker or the Smith or the Baker. The Girls all secretly hoped to become a Wife to the Caretaker. We would be taken care of that way, and birth Children for the Caretaker. The Wives would birth boys to run, play, grow strong and then become Caretakers or the Smith or the Baker and other People of the Village. The boys the Wives birthed would keep the order. They would watch the Girls every day as they marched to School, keep the sallow-skinned Mothers to their chores and cleaning, make more Children by the Wives until there were more Girls and Caretakers and Smiths and Bakers and People, and the boys and the Caretakers would keep the People safe.

The Caretakers always watched over them and kept the People safe, and so the Girls did not fear becoming even a Mother, the Girls of the future who faded away to become the Girls of the past. The Mothers spent endless days scrubbing, cleaning and attending to the next Girls, and the next after them and the next after them. The Mothers hovered at the bottom of the social-ladder as virtual slaves from the moment the next Children matured into Girls, and those Girls clasped the Mothers’ hands and so the Mothers would raise the Girls and yet never feel anything but repugnance for them, the next prettiest young things they too had once been. The Mothers secretly loathed the Girls with their shining braids of wispy hair and hands soft and pale as cream. But the Mothers took care of the Girls and on the day of the Assignments, no one hated anyone in the Village. All the People hoped and wished for the Girls to remain Girls and never to grow or birth Children or become the Caretakers’ Wife, or the Smith’s or the Baker’s. Because on the day of the Assignments, the Caretaker could hear the thoughts of the People as they stood and watched, and this would help to decide each Girls’ fate. The Girls might not be thought virtuous, fair, obedient, and if the Caretaker doubted any of the Girls, he would loose her braid and let her shiny hair fall to her shoulders, and the Caretaker would cut it off. As much as the Mothers despised their state and the Girls’ pretty faces and long hair, no one would wish them to become a Sister. Because even as the Caretaker kept the People safe, he did not do so for the Sisters or Brothers who lurked on the edge of the Village.

Now the future stood before them in white robes, and the Caretaker looked over the tops of the Girls heads and raised his wobbly hands. This Caretaker had seen these Girls grow from toddling Children, had placed their chubby fingers in the hands of their Mothers, had sat in his window above the School to watch every day as the Girls with their bright braids tiptoed into School and always had kept them safe. Those days of School and Mothers and leisure were over now. Today was the day of the Assignments and the Girls were no longer Girls anymore.

Each one raised her head in turn as the Caretaker stood before her, and rose to stand before him. Here at the Assignments, each would look deep into the eyes of the Caretaker and would see her own future reflected from her eyes into his and they would become one of the People today.


Paige Ferro is currently an undergraduate student studying Creative Writing, Literature and Spanish at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana. She has always had a great appreciation for fairy tales, fantasy worlds, and distopian environments, as well as magical realism, and she often employs similar themes and subject matter in her own works. She one day hopes to join other fantasy writers on the hallowed library shelves as well as in the hearts of her readers, but for now her biggest fan is her wonderful cat and greatest Oliver.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Rufus, Sorcerer
Linda Kirk

Part I.
Rufus, sorcerer

For the first time in decades, I dream-traveled, a cloudy avalanche of smoking trice and heart’s-blood opening the path to the cursed princess’s dreams. I found a smiling teenage girl dreaming of dancing in a blue dress, golden shining hair loose down her back. I took her partner’s place. Instead of medium-tall, fair-blond and beardless, she blinked and found me: lanky-tall, black-bearded and thick-haired as a horse. She was very pretty, with feathery eyelashes, wide full mouth, and sturdy expressive brows. She looked up once after the chant had taken full effect: I saw deep down into her eyes, blue and grey and green like the edge of a stream, transparent and trusting. When she awakened in a strange bed, taken by dream from her home to mine, she would fear me and despise me.

No one would suspect she was taken by a dream-traveler. I was, as far as I knew, the only sorcerer alive capable of it. That was the genius of the plan, concocted by my master. He had bullied me into agreeing to it, and then promptly died. Dream-travelers are rare to begin with; the innate ability and deeply-practiced skill needed to take someone out of their dream into another is rarer still. My master hoped that hiding the princess would force the fairy that did the cursing to panic, to amend her plans, perhaps even to stumble in the final days. It was not unusual for lesser fairies to blunder with clumsy counter-curses when confronted with difficult circumstances.

I woke the next morning with the sleeping princess pressed to my side, seeking my body heat. She slept in a thin linen shift, fine and smooth. Her blankets must have been thick to keep her warm in the castle, because she was cold in my chilly northern mountain bed. I passed my hand over her head, murmured a few words to keep her asleep longer, nothing heavy. I could smell her scent on me all that day – expensive perfumed soap, sweet hay, and apples.

Poor Princess. She woke to a nightmare. She tried to escape the compound that night, but wolves and darkness drove her back. She huddled in the kitchen next to the fire, shivering, waiting out the one full year until I would take her back to the comfortable warm castle and the royal family that spawned her and couldn’t, despite all the magic of a kingdom, keep her safe.

 

*

Dreams are strange things.

Dreams for me were always places to be explored, best described as walking through doors, sometimes closing them behind, sometimes finding them already closed, discovering what each new room could teach. Sometimes, depending on how heavily I slept, I could shape my dreams, swim upstream perhaps instead of merely floating with the current, to use yet another metaphor. I have learned that metaphors are the best way to describe dreams and dream-travel.

 

*

 

Are you all right, Princess? It was the cook speaking, her words punctuated by thumps of kneading dough. I paused outside the door to listen. The princess had been avoiding me, huddling in the kitchen next to the fire and talking to the cook, when we weren’t eating. She wouldn’t look at me during meals either.

Yes, I’m all right, I heard a weary voice say. Another day.

At least you can’t dream during the day, the cook said.

Yes, she said. That’s true. Last night I dreamed I woke in another strange cold place. Rufus was there and angry with me of course. That’s not too different from being awake, really. Sometimes it’s better and he looks at me like I’m nothing. An annoying nothing.

He’s not angry, or annoyed with you, Princess. He’s just that way.

Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m nothing but trouble to everyone. My parents were the same way.

Angry?

No. Looking at me like I am nothing but trouble. It’s not my fault I was cursed.

I heard a petulant note in the princess’s voice. Of course, I couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t her fault, fairies being what they were. The curse itself was bad enough; no one would ever quite remember the details. No fairy ever laid a curse without adding a spiteful confusion. The fairy had touched the infant princess’s silken head with spider fingers and spat out the curse, marbled her bile with air and memory. Something about true-love’s kiss, something about her twentieth birthday. Some said a prick of her finger would start the curse, others said the kiss. Most agreed on a magical sleep, usually a hundred years in length, though a stalwart few said death.

I left then. Dreams, she had said. Perhaps I could help with that.

I decided to dream-travel to her that night. It involved staying awake later than I would have liked, but I stifled my annoyance as I lay down exhausted in the darkness. It was the least I could do for the poor little bitch, stuck here in the freezing cold dark with a prickly bastard like me, and a superstitious elderly cook for her only friend.

It took awhile, but I finally found her dreaming of a dark dusty box of a room, not one I recognized. She was trying to light a candle, crying as she fumbled with the tinderbox. I took it from her hands, and lit the candle easily. She looked up from the flame, wiped her face with her palms. Thank you, she said.

You are welcome, Princess, I said.

Can you take me home, please? Her voice was tiny and hopeful, eyes huge in the near darkness. She was wearing the blue dress of the first dream, feet bare. I knew she was nineteen, but she looked all of twelve.

No, Princess. Let’s leave this room. I held out my hand to her and she just looked at me. I dropped my hand, tipped my head instead. Come.

I tried one door and it opened to empty blackness but the next was warm before I opened it. Sunshine burst in. Behind me the Princess gasped, gave a little shuddering cry, and passed me at a run.

She didn’t get far. The door had opened into a hillside meadow, late summer. Butterflies, bees. Deeply blue sky like an unending dome, thick smell of dry grass rising from the earth, crickets chirruping. The princess sank down to her knees with a sigh.

I’m never going to leave, I heard her say, but she wasn’t speaking to me. I left her there. She didn’t notice me leaving.

 

*

I was careful to not look at her any more than usual the next morning, but she seemed a little better the next few days. Curious, I gave into temptation and intruded another night. She was in the meadow again. The dream princess already looked better – had she spent the entire past week in that meadow?– with color in her cheeks and mouth. She was on the other side of the expanse of grass, closer to the bottom of the hill, wearing shoes this time.

Princess, I said, taking her arm. In daytime, her pale, nearly colorless eyes were the blue of thin skimmed milk, but in her dreams, I saw bright eyes, forget-me-not blue. Was this her doing, or mine?

I asked her: are you afraid of me?

No, she said. I’m cursed. There’s nothing else to be afraid of, you least of all. And then she smiled. I hadn’t seen her smile since the dream when I took her.

I told her so, the next time I came to her in dream, told her she was not at fault. She seemed to appreciate my telling her, and my continued presence in her dreams. She unbent. We talked. We walked, most often in the meadow of her childhood, near the castle, bordered by trees with branches like the arms of strong men. She told me of growing up a cursed princess, prized, protected, never loved by those to whom she meant the most.

Short winter days, long nights, and the dreams. I grew to look forward to them. To her. This person growing in my mind. She’s not real, I kept telling myself, and then looked hard at the wan sunlit princess who ate her meals in silence across the table from me, looked for the princess I thought I was beginning to know.

I told her about being a sorcerer, taken from my family at a young age to the capital city. Told her about fairies that I’d met and sorcerers I’d bested, told her more than I intended. How I’d ended up at the northernmost border of the kingdom, a secluded hermit, because I hadn’t known when to shut my mouth and silence my pride. She listened, we walked, and sometimes, she would raise one warm palm, and take my hand.

 

*

My dream princess was the loveliest thing I’d seen in a very long time and I was, in an eyeblink, infatuated. I’d had many women over the decades, and this was the first one to make me ashamed of loving none of them.

Then the day–no, the dream, though by this point dreams seemed more real than waking –we were lying in the meadow near the compound, not the meadow near her home. Nineteen, I was saying. You are a child. And I am ancient.

Ancient, she said laughing. You can’t be thirty.

I pulled my hand through my hair, drew it away from my temples in a fist. Grey hairs, I said. It takes many more years for a sorcerer to get them. You know that, don’t you? Magic changes us. We age less. Those near us, as well. If you stayed longer, you too would age . . . differently.

Still, you are getting awfully shaggy, she said. She scrutinized my mouth, half hidden by untrimmed beard. I smoothed the rough hairs with my thumb, pressed them down. Then I reached to her with the same thumb, touched her upper lip in the same place, traced the smooth curve of her unkissed mouth.

I thought to myself: this is a bad idea, for all it is only a dream.

She turned onto her stomach in the warm grass with her eyes closed and was quiet as I stroked her back through her thin blouse, traced the bones I could feel through the covering of soft flesh and skin: backbone, shoulders, ribs. I leaned close. Princess, I whispered into her hair. Come back to me. She turned onto her side, facing me, unbuttoning and sliding the blouse to the grass, and I breathed out a chestful of air onto her neck in a sigh. My princess. Her hands in my clothes, tangling.

I wanted to kiss her mouth. Wanted to breathe her in, devour and be devoured.  I turned my mouth to her ear instead and then sat up, away from temptation.

She opened her eyes and smiled. She stretched her arms up above her head, a languorous, content movement, and at that moment, a grasshopper lit on her breast. Our tender moment was interrupted by her little jump and startled scream. I brushed it away with a flick, and we laughed as we made love.

I woke repulsed. She’s not real, I told myself. I left the compound before mealtime, and avoided her as best I could all that day. We slid past each other, silent as an underwater current. I didn’t see her that night, I stayed away. Solitary dreams didn’t last long, though. I searched her out, and found her waiting. Though I spent my days conflicted, that dream of loverlike abandon became another, and another. The year of the princess’s safety passed in this lopsided fashion.

 

*

 

All was a rush of surprised voices and curious eyes and grasping hands when we returned after the year of solitude was finished. The princess home, at last, from the safety of anonymity to the safety of a castle bound in a filigree of spells from scores of sympathetic sorcerers and fairies. Fingers caught in the tangles in her hair, the King and Queen bowed to me, murmured their gratitude. She was pulled from me and I stood alone. Alone and exhausted after our journey. She looked back at me from over her shoulder, and that was all.

The party celebrating the last day of her nineteen years had finally arrived, and I entered the castle with the well-dressed throng, feeling only a little out of place. I was not the most oddly dressed for once since it was a great, motley group, though I was, as always, the tallest. I had shaved off most of my beard, trimmed my hair. I felt lighter, and a stranger.

She was wearing white, a dress smooth as gull’s wings, its brightness broken only blue stones on a silver chain that fell to her waist. Blue rings on her fingers. Her hair braided and bound. Someone had stroked her cheeks with color, brightened her lips. She looked like my dream princess. She looked so beautiful my chest ached.

I was struck by the remembrance of one particular dream: lying in a bed for once instead of a meadow, thick warmth between our bodies, her hands tracing the space in the middle of my chest. Sweet silken skin, the spot for my hand on her waist where my fingers slid back so naturally to her backside. Pulled her close, drew her leg over and I entered her again, entered this place inhabited by her, inhabited now by me too, but only for a small time. I would always have to leave. I would want always to go back. I had traced her forbidden lips with my forefinger, her breath on my palm, before we woke.

I bowed to the handsome betrothed hovering at her shoulder, knelt and received her cool hand, heavy with rings, to kiss. Looked up and saw her face, stilled by the awareness of onlookers. They watched, I knew. They spoke in undertones of our journey, wondered, whispered. But then they turned to the prince, of course. Who else would choose this strange sorcerer, this odd hermit lucky enough to bring their princess home? Well done, but no match for this royal child generations in the making. After so many sons, a queen. A queen for alliances, a queen for beauty and grace. At long last, a beautiful queen for no one else but a handsome prince.

I felt the music falter, felt the stillness of attention as I knelt before her, too long. My knees began to ache but I was caught. Rufus, she said. I owe you my life. Her voice was meant to be loud enough to hear nearby. The tension eased.

No, Princess. There is no debt.

She took my hand and raised me to my feet. I noticed that she was standing on the first step of the dais. She still had my hand in hers. She tipped her head.

Rufus, she whispered. They want me to marry him.

Words like sand in my mouth. Yes, Princess.

She leaned further forward and so her forehead almost touched mine. Lowered her eyes and sighed, her spice-scented breath a warm cloud between us and the throng, and we were alone.

I must.

Yes, Princess.

I could hear her heart beating. I could hear my own.  She said, I can if – if – and she faltered.

If what, Princess?

If I can still come to you in dream, Rufus. Please, let me come to you. I could even bear royal heirs if I can be yours when we dream.

I jerked my head back, to look at her, the cloud around us remaining. Her face with the thinnest of nothingness over grief. It was her, the whole time.

How? I asked. How did you do it?

I didn’t realize what I was doing, she said. After you brought me in your dream, I would search, until I found you. I thought it was just me. I thought I was just dreaming.

I should have known. I should have known that she was another dream-traveler, but we are so very rare the idea was ludicrous. We were considered by many to be extinct, or a folk tale of ale origins.

It was her. Always her. I’d found my match, only to lose her to my greatest gift. I could never have her in real life, only in dream. I wasn’t sure that could ever be enough now.

The clock stirred, chimed, began its sounding. Midnight. The curse would fail at midnight when she turned twenty. So most said.

We all stood silent and unmoving until the chimes ended and in the tumult, I heard her say, I am free. The curse is done. Shouts and cheering loud as fireworks. Deep within the echo of the voices, there was silence between us. She tipped her head a little, curved one shoulder, lowered her eyes, and kissed me.

 

*

Part II.
Princess

 

There was a flash of understanding in his eyes before he slumped to the floor, mouth askew from my cursed kiss. Voices silenced. Around me, the quiet sodden thumps of hundreds of bodies, punctuated by the claps and bangs of instruments and plates and silverware, all hitting the floor. I was circled by sleeping souls, settling in to sleep for a hundred years. Because of me. My stupidity.

I jumped when the windows groaned. The walls scratched and screeched as if an enormous cat was working its claws, but from the floor up to the ceiling. One crimson glass pane burst and the branch of a plant entered. It snaked up the curtain, growing quickly to the thickness of a wrist. Then it burst into bloom, and stopped growing, and the echo of the enormous horrible something outside stopped as well. Roses, I saw. The fairy had bordered the castle with rosebushes. So no one could escape. So I could not escape. I sat too hard on the stair, my knees sagging.

I knew without looking that I was not alone. The fairy herself – who else would it be? — stepped from a curtain shadow. She used her wand as a cane as she tottered her way between the sleeping piles. She stopped to grin at a snoring man in a golden shirt, bent backwards over a table, mouth agape.

This is unexpected, she said, still smiling, moving loser and closer. She had black curling hair wild with white streaks and wide black eyes. White skin, folded like white roses. A pointed chin, cheekbones draped with drooping skin. Mesmerizingly ugly, but at once hauntingly beautiful.

I figured the man was going to do the kissing, same as always, the fairy said. But you turned things around, girlie. You aren’t one to take a curse lying down. Now, who is the lucky man?

Her dress rustled like book pages as she bent to turn Rufus’s face toward her. She worked his cheeks thoughtfully with thin fingers like vines, pulled his chin this way and that.

Very handsome, she said finally. I know him. She looked up at me, straightened with a smirk on her lovely sour mouth. So. True love with Rufus, the infamous sorcerer womanizer that the council banished to the northern border because he was too hard to handle. But apparently not for you, sweetheart.

The fairy leaned back her head and laughed through echoes of her own laughter, loud for such a tiny, wrinkled creature. True love, she cackled. My favorite curse of all. No one can resist.

She reached, touched my nose lightly with one forefinger, and winked.  You look so tired.  Almost as tired as me. But then, it’s been a long day for you. Sweet dreams, Princess. Sleep well tonight.

And she was gone.

I shuddered. She couldn’t know. She didn’t. But still.

It was getting dark already, with the windows blocked. I curled next to Rufus before it got too dark to see. And slept.

And dreamed. I found him in his dream, far away. This was the hardest dream of all: he was very far away but finally I found him in the meadow at the northern border, sitting in sunshine. Where we made love for the first time. He adjusted his legs so that I could lay with my head in his lap and cry as long as I wanted.

Princess, he said. The curse will never be broken. There are times when one must concede defeat. You are young, Princess, but you are old enough to know this.

I was sitting up now, but I had my face against his neck. I’d pulled apart the edges of his shirt so I could press my cheek to his naked skin.

She doesn’t know you are a dream-traveler. She knows that you are a princess and therefore you have never been taught magic. But you can save yourself. I can teach you.

Teach me what?

Teach you how cast a spell to sleep for a hundred years. You will survive, and wake, and live, one hundred years from now. It will be complicated, Rufus cautioned. There is the incantation. And the herbs, which I hope you can find there in the castle. And then there is you.

Me?

Yes, Princess. The food will spoil very soon. And you can’t leave to get more. If this doesn’t work, you will starve to death.

The next day the fairy re-appeared, but she was visibly weaker, her visit short. Good, Rufus told me that night. She’s dying, the hag. She’s about a thousand years old, it’s about time. The curse weakened her. Curses require energy to continue. This was a tough one to keep going for almost twenty years.

The following day, her visit was shorter yet. She never came back.

So I searched boldly for the herbs I needed: cheering moth weed, trice, among others, hunger growing in my belly. I tired of apples, which outlasted everything else. Days and nights, awake and asleep, alone and with Rufus, I reviewed, I practiced, I memorized the incantation.

And then the night I lit a fire from my carefully preserved coals under a bowl. Smudged the smoking herbs and curled up next to the prince’s sleeping side. Said the incantation twice as required, and partway through the third, I fell asleep.

For one hundred years.

 

*

 

When I woke, it was my fiancé’s–the prince’s–face I saw. He had woken already, was on his knees next to me, holding both my hands, tears in his eyes. His hair dropped over his forehead, a silken brown wave like a sparrow’s wing.

I dreamed of you, he said. I dreamed you were dead. I dreamed it for one hundred years.

I felt my chest tighten. I’m not dead, and neither are you, I said, pulling away, standing up.

No, he said, stepping close and taking my face in his hands. We were standing on the dais, above the waking crowd. The prince stroked my hair with one hand, held my face with the other. He looked into my eyes, and I into his. He had brown eyes, faceted with bright sparks of gold and green.

I will never let you go again, he told me. It was an announcement. A promise. He went on: I will never let anything hurt you, ever again. He kissed me, and the crowd around us roared. The handsome prince has kissed his bride, they screamed. The fairy’s power is over. The curse is truly broken.

There was morning light streaming through the opened windows. The roses were gone. I had a whole day to decide. I looked my handsome prince in the eyes again, and to his surprise and mine, I kissed him back.


Linda Kirk has had work published in the online journal The Apeiron Review and by Running Press. She lives next to a river and she bakes muffins at least twice a week.

Issue No. 8, Spring 2014

Upon These Wings
Eliza Hirsch

Taking the angel’s wings was supposed to be easy. The elders said the motions would come as natural as breathing, or praying. I had years of training, they said. They told me their stories, they told me about the angel’s cold blood and the way bone grates against blade. They told me it would be easy.

They lied.

The room was dim, lit by sun coming through cracks in the walls. Five paces wide, five deep with dirt for flooring and branches for roof. The angel squatted in the far corner, broad shouldered and flat-chested like a man. Rope secured his hands to his ankles. He hid his face the fold of his great white wings, but I think he could see me, if angels can be said to see. Hard to tell what strange visions happen in those glossy black eyes.

I squatted with my back against the door, knees tucked around my ears, knife tight in my left hand. The hilt– carved from the leg bone of one of the first angels–dug into my palm, splintered in places from age. Not half so sharp as the blade, though.

I stood and shook the tingles from my feet. The angel shifted, too, stirring up a wave of scent. Dirty, like an unwashed sow, and the peppery tang of musk. I clenched the knife. The elders warned me the angel would try to seduce me. I asked them how? I am a man and the angel is sexless, but they insisted.

You’re strong, they’d said. But the winged ones use any trick to escape.

I told them I would be on guard, but it wasn’t lust I felt for the angel now. No, the sour in my stomach tasted like pity.

He’s less than a yard from me. With a move I could tear out a handful of feathers from those wings. Would that be enough? Could the elders craft me wings from a dozen quills?

I laughed aloud at the thought of such tiny, worthless appendages, and the angel raised his head. His hair, which might have been yellow once, had dulled to an ugly brown with dirt and sweat. The angels didn’t need to eat and didn’t deserve to bathe. This one’s skin was coated with a thick layer of grime. Filth like that would have given even the most stalwart soldier sores, but the angel’s skin shone smooth and luminous through the layers.

Late the night before I caught a glimpse of the elders bringing this one through the jungle. Only elders and acolytes on transition day were allowed near the huts, so I hid in shadows and spied. He’d given no fight when they threw him into the hut.

“Do all angels come so willingly?” I flinched at my voice, so loud after the silence. The angel raised his head, unable to answer. The skin where his mouth belonged was as plain as the skin between his legs. I’d expected as much.

I was not prepared for how much he looked like me.

Not a twin, but the features were similar. Skinny angled nose, thin arching eyebrows. He even had the receding chin most of us in the village have. It was unnerving.

The elders had told me not to look at him. Was this why?

I turned so my eyes were on his wings and not his face. They attached to his back with a mound of lumpy skin and soft, tiny white feathers. A strong bone, covered in skin and down, jutted out from his back, with a joint at the apex. Just like a bird. I ran my hand over the bone, from his back to the top joint. His feathers were clean, and soft.

The angel shivered under my touch, and the smell of its musk grew stronger. I gripped the knife harder and pressed the blade to the base of his wing. The angel didn’t move.

Neither did I.

After a long, breathless moment, the angel curled his fingers around my calf. I swallowed hard, the taste of his musk thick on my tongue. A sound unlike anything I’d ever heard, yet eerily familiar, grew in the little room. Almost a melody, almost a voice, it sounded like water trickling down and rocky brook, and like the bells hung outside our home tinkling in the morning. It sounded like my mother saying I love you, and like my baby sister snoring in her sleep. Like all of these things, and none of them.

I jerked from the angel’s grip, and the sound evaporated. For a long moment the angel and I stared at each other. His dark eyes drank of me, pulled at my core. With a shudder I turned away and dropped to my knees, swallowing back the remains of my breakfast. Bile burned my throat, tears stung my eyes.

Behind me, the angel shuffled, drew near. He placed a hand on the small of my back, just above the band of my drawstring pants. Cool skin and rough hempen rope. He felt like ice, melting in the sun. Slippery and cold. Bitter melody poured into me. Not through my ears, but through my body. The angel’s voice. Unbidden, a sob tore through me. So much pain in the sound, so much longing.

I pressed my forehead to the earth and prayed for my triplet gods to deliver me from this evil. To no avail; the gods listened to the elders, not weak acolytes.

I rolled to my side, away from the angel. He hunched like a stalking cat, reaching toward me. I recoiled from his hands, those fingers too long, too slender to be human, and brushed away the tears wetting my cheeks.

“Turn around.”

The angel shook his head.

“Turn around.”

He bowed his head, but did not move. I got to my feet, knife in hand, and tried to stop the tremors his song had induced in me. I edged around him, inch by inch, until his wings were before me.

It wouldn’t be hard. It shouldn’t be hard. But when I moved in, pressed the blade to the joint on the angel’s back, I could not cut. The shaking of my hand drew blood, dark spots wetting the down feathers covering bone and skin.

“I can’t.” The words were a whisper, lost in the hut.

Or so I thought.

A pounding on the door made me flinch.

“Looten!” Freyo, muffled by the wood. I stepped nearer the door. “You’ve been too long. Take the wings and emerge, child.”

Child. I frowned. I was no child. At fifteen I was nearly a man. Otherwise they wouldn’t have allowed me to come here and take my wings.

You can’t, a secret voice reminded me. With my wings I would become an elder, in time. Once Poluy, the eldest, passed on, I would be one of the three. Powerful. Meaningful.

Without my wings, I would be less than a child. Years spent learning the prayers and the rituals, wasted on a boy too weak to take what was his.

“You are strong,” Freyo said. “Use that strength. Take the wings.”

I was strong. Out of all the youth in my village, they had chosen me.

I strode forward, pressed the blade to the bone and began to cut. I expected a surge of righteousness, or belonging. My stomach clenched instead, and I collapsed against the angel. Skin touched skin. The angel’s song filled me, seeping into the holes where my devotion to the triplet gods once belonged. For the first time since entering the hut I felt secure.

Until the door flew open, and Freyo dragged me into the blinding sun.

#

I twisted, hoping to see the angel one last time. The black wings of an elder disappeared through the doorway. Tylf, the third elder, likely going in to cut the wings off herself. Freyo wrenched me forward.

“I knew it would be you.” He steered me across the clear-cut surrounding the hut, and onto a narrow trail. Broad-leafed trees towered over us, vines dripping from their branches. Top growth all but blotted out the sun, though the shade did nothing for the heat. Sweat dripped down my back.

The trail ended at the entry to another hut. Roughly the same size as the transition room, this structure boasted clay walls and a thatch roof, though the door was made of the same wood planks. Freyo pulled on the handle and shoved me in ahead of him.

Smoke hung in the air, a storm cloud of sweetgrass curling up from Poluy’s pipe. The first elder sat atop a sturdy cushion, facing the door. Beside him a small brazier heated the air. Black wings curled over his head, silk rope wrapped around his shoulders to keep them in place. Age had wilted both the wings and the man. Poluy had time enough left to train an acolyte, but not much longer. I went to one knee, head bowed. Between the elder and I sat an earthen bowl, full of a dark, grainy mixture. The smell stung my nose. Pepper and mold and vinegar.

Freyo squatted on Poluy’s right. Behind me, the door swung open, and Tylf slipped in. As she crossed to take her place on Poluy’s left, I noticed a spatter of blood darkening her ankle. Fear twisted inside me.

“Looten, son of Olen and Glorri, we meet under dark circumstances.” Poluy tapped his pipe against the edge of the bowl, adding his ashes. “Your training was designed to test your spirit, break your will if it was to be broken. Somewhere along the way, we failed you. It is only natural that you, in turn, failed me.”

“You haven’t–”

Freyo popped forward and slapped me with a cupped palm. Not a hard strike, but the shock made me tumble sideways.

“Freyo.” Poluy handed the second elder his pipe. Freyo nodded and set to filling the bowl from a bundle of sweetgrass beside Poluy’s cushion, brows furrowed. I got the sense he would hit me again, and gladly. I pressed my lips together.

“To most acolytes, taking the wings of an angel is considered a good and proper thing. As you were told, this process should be natural, infused into your very self, and yet…” Poluy shook his head. “There are exceptions, which are necessary to the course of our world, though much less a reason for joy.

“You have not met one who turned away from their wings, Looten, because we do not allow such people to remain with us. If you can betray the three gods, you can betray anyone.” Poluy took his fresh pipe from Freyo, letting the second elder light the sweetgrass using a smoldering stick taken from the brazier. Coils of smoke spilled from his weathered lips. “You lost your village, my child. And your people.”

My eyes burned, from the pipe and from his words. I didn’t want to lose my family. I didn’t want to lose my friends, or the future I could have here amongst the elders and their jet-black wings. Why? Because I couldn’t take the wings of the angel?

“No, let me try again,” I said, half-raising up on my knees. “I can take the wings.”

Freyo glared at me until I sat back down. Poluy only shook his head again.

“A new life awaits you.” He gestured at the bowl between us. “Drink this. It will make the transition easier.”

“No, I don’t need to–”

“You will change, Looten. None of us can stop that now, especially not you.” Poluy nudged the bowl closer to me with the end of his pipe. “Drink, Looten. I do not want to pour this down your throat.”

I picked up the bowl.

“What’s going to happen to me, Poluy?” I sounded like a little boy, pleading with his mother, and it made me burn with shame. Poluy smiled, and gestured for me to drink. I did.

“You’re becoming an angel,” he said, once I had finished.

Moments later my ribs began to shift. Tiny prickles of pain exploded on my back, above my shoulder blades. I lost grip of the bowl and it fell–just as my knife had–to the ground. The mixture splattered, turning the dirt to a viscous mud. My skin tightened like the slack being pulled out of a length of rope. My ribs moved again, cracking and changing to make room for a new thing growing inside me. Bones that would carry the weight of a thousand feathers.

Strong hands grasped my shoulders and dragged me from the hut. Dappled sunlight broke over me, and I inhaled greedy lungfuls of clean air between the spikes of torment. Over roots and undergrowth, past trees and the transition hut. With each step the world blurred a little bit. Each footfall brought darkness closer. My thoughts were fire and lightning. My body was heartbreak and rage. And soon, my world narrowed to a pinprick of light.

Then, nothing at all.

#

Water gurgled nearby, a gentle rushing sound coaxing me drop by drop back to life. I was lying on my belly, roots pushing into my thighs and one of my arms. Something moved under my chest, an insect or a snake or my imagination. A nasty, bitter film coated my mouth. I opened my eyes a slit–any more was too much work–and dragged myself over to the river.

The water felt strangely hot. I brought a handful to my mouth–but I had no mouth to drink. Nothing but smooth skin. I tried to lick my lips, and my tongue met with unbroken flesh. My teeth were smaller, my jaw tighter. This was no dream.

I slid my hand over my belly, past the waist of my pants and between my legs.

They had robbed me of my manhood, before I’d known a woman.

I craned my neck, looking for my wings, but my eyes caught on the world around me. A dark, angry sky, a blood red sun, and the trees grew leaves of white laced with purple. Heat pressed down on me, as heavy as my wings. I’d woken in an alien land, one that pretended at familiarity. Only the scent of the jungle–earth and sweet blooms and my own sweat–remained the same.

I rose and grabbed hold of a tree for balance, breathing deep. It was all I had left. They’d stolen everything else. My little sister, who would learn to walk and talk and live without me. My mother, and her high hopes for my future as an elder. The boys I’d grown up with and the girls we’d adored. Gone. Because one day, and possibly one day soon, the elders would come hunting. I don’t know why the other angels never fought back. Or, if they did, I don’t know why they lost.

I intended to be ready.

I intended to win.

I had a feeling it wouldn’t be easy.


Eliza Hirsch is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in the Seattle area. She is a Clarion West alum, loves cats of all kinds, and collects deep thoughts about serial killers. You can find her online at exploringeliza.com.