Saturday Storytime: Witch, Beast, Saint: an Erotic Fairy Tale

It is as the title promises, and C. S. E. Cooney has more for you in her Witches Garden if you want it.

I put him in the cellar and fed him up until he was able to move about on his own. Then I began the arduous task of coaxing him outside to the wishing well and washing him, which took many days and a great deal of patience. Already the potatoes and last year’s apples and the onions greening in their barrels had begun to take on his dank and desolate stench. And really, he was so grateful for the attention.

Like many beasts, he found the sound of my voice soothing. So I told him the story of how he came to be.

“This cottage passes from witch to witch,” I said. “My predecessor was ancient by the time she mistook an oak tree for an open passage and drove her mortar and pestle right into it. They say mortar and pestles are safer than brooms. I don’t know about that. I prefer to walk everywhere, or maybe hitch a ride on a wagon. You have nice broad shoulders. Perhaps I’ll teach you to piggyback me, by and by. There’s a bit of a pig in you. Well, boar. It’s the tusks. Your nose is more stag. Soft and broad from bridge to tip. Those gently flaring nostrils.  But your horns are definitely bull. Anyway. What was I saying?”

The monster made a gesture like a pestle grinding something in a mortar.

“Right!” I cried. “My predecessor. Apparently in the last few decades before her terminal flying accident, she’d developed this habit of turning local boys to beasts every time they slighted her—or she imagined they did. The most famous case was that of our sovereign prince himself. He lives in a castle, in a stretch of forest not far from here. Don’t worry though. He found a local hedge-witch—much like myself—to break the spell. They say she was so beautiful she could shatter strong sorceries with a kiss.”

I shrugged. My hands were wrist-deep in his sudsy fur, the soap black with his murk.

“Could be. Or she might have been a scholar—much like myself—who knew the right incantations, under which phase of moon to utter them, how to transfer all that moonlight and magic words from her lips to his. It looks much like a kiss. All very standard, unless you slip in some tongue. Fact is she was probably tired of trading chicken eggs and goat milk for her minor miracles. Thought to have a go at the princessing business instead. Never have to pick nettles in a midnight graveyard ever again—unless she wanted to. And once a witch, we like to say, always a witch. Princess or no.”

Pausing, I regarded the monster, wondering what it would be to kiss him. The juncture at my thighs prickled, swelled, pulsed, grew moist. Then he exhaled and I stepped back.

His fangs needed brushing. Badly. Too, I wasn’t sure he was used to me yet. That he wouldn’t startle back in panic, catching my lip on one of his pointy bits and taking half my face with him.

His eyelashes were very long, coarse and curly. He would not yet meet my gaze. But when I stopped scrubbing, he knocked his large skull against the palm of my hand, urging me on.

“Beast, be still!” I commanded, and he was. Except for his tail, which swept around to brush my hip in shy apology. I ran my hand along it, muttering as I scrubbed, “Why I didn’t just shave you bare-ass naked so we could start afresh, I don’t know. Probably because my garden shears aren’t big enough.”

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Saturday Storytime: Chopin’s Eyes

I’m not usually a fan of the Victorian propensity to romanticize illness, but this story from Lara Elena Donnelly does things a little differently.

George courts Chopin like a terrier down a rabbit’s hole, teeth bared, tongue dripping. He flees, but every so often turns to look over his shoulder with liquid, changeable eyes. She lives for those glances, drawn into flashing moments when he is less than human and more than prey.

In early autumn, she corners him playing in the parlor, at a house party. George crosses the room, thick carpet quieting her riding boots. He does not notice her; his dark head is inclined towards the keys. The air in the room is electric. George swallows against a thickness in her throat, holds fast to a small sound trembling in her larynx. She dares not break the silence.

Kneeling by the bench like a postulant, she lays her cheek against his leg. He starts; his notes go sour, and the charged atmosphere dissipates. He holds his artist’s hands up high as if he is afraid to touch her, even to shoo her away.

“Madame Sand—”

“Angel,” she says. “You are an angel, sent from God. Please, don’t stop.”

But he does not begin again. He closes his hands—soft, cool, uncalloused—over hers and lifts them from his knee. “Please, madame. This is most improper. Most distracting.” He coughs with his mouth closed, wincing against the sharp convulsion. “Please.”

“Please,” she repeats, breathless. “Yes. Please. Go on.”

When she does not leave him, he sighs at her stubbornness and slides his fingertips between the black ridges of the sharps and flats and plays: a single dark note that fades, then builds into furls of triplets and sixteenths.

George, with her cheek still pressed against him, feels the change in his body, the sudden strength in the long, lean muscles of his thigh. He is fevered, and where she touches him she can feel currents moving, sliding like a great cat through a shadowed jungle. Her hands climb the contours of the piano leg, skip from the varnished wood to the give of Chopin’s flesh, grasp at him as the music swells. He is hard with need beneath the soft summer wool of his trousers, but ignores her in favor of his impromptu.

Chopin’s left hand strokes the lower octaves. His right climbs in rolling arcs towards the high reaches of the keyboard. George has made love to many men in her life, but never experienced ecstasy like this. Her orgasm crescendoes, and she sinks back into her body, dizzy and prickling with sweat.

The piece finishes with a gentle undulation and chord that is little more than a suggestion of sound. Chopin lifts his hands from the keys and looks down at George. He seems surprised to find her there, surprised to find himself at the piano. He draws breaths to speak. It catches somewhere behind his breastbone and he doubles in on himself, wracked with coughing.

George pulls his mouth to hers and kisses him, seeking mysteries in the darkness of his mouth. She does not find them. His breath is sharp with the iron tang of tubercular blood. Nevertheless, she knows what she has seen: something lives within him, uses him, and she wants it.

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Saturday Storytime: Blessed Are the Hungry

Apex Publishing has been bringing good science fiction and fantasy to American authors for several years with its Books of World SF series. This is a tradition Apex Magazine follows as well, as with this story from Victor Ocampo.

That afternoon they flushed San Carlos Seldran out the airlock. Everyone on Cabra Deck was required to watch, even the little ones.

Despite what old people tell you, in the vacuum of space your blood won’t boil. Your body won’t explode either. In less than a minute you’d simply die from a lack of oxygen. There wouldn’t be time to scream.

His was a humane execution — quick, clean and painless.

“The Lord preserves all who love him but all the wicked he destroys,” growled the ancient Holosonic, droning the day’s lesson with great pomp and solemnity.

My family and I watched as our former parish priest drifted away towards infinity. The void swallowed him up with a deep hunger, deep as the ever–present darkness. I wanted to close my eyes but I just couldn’t look away. None of us could. Instead we just watched him die and committed his soul quietly to Our Lady of Gliese.

The people of Cupang couldn’t let him go without a send–off. We removed our bracelets and dropped them to the floor discreetly, at random places, beneath the notice of the ever present Domini Canes. We’d made them from old cable ties and plastic bags, recycled colour against the blackest of blackness. Each one a secret funeral wreath for a good man we’d all loved and respected.

After the ceremony, mother hugged my youngest brother tightly. It was Bino’s first excommunication and he was understandably quite upset. He buried his head deeply into her bosom, sobbing quietly. We all turned away, to let my mother console him privately.

The sooner that Bino got inured to executions, the better it would be for him and the easier it would be for the rest of us. Life was hard enough as it was without the tears of a child.

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Saturday Storytime: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

Y’all probably know who John Scalzi is. What you may not know is that he has a prequel of sorts for his new novel Lock In available to read online. It’s worth it.

It was clear this wasn’t the H5N1 variant so we started breaking it down to see what we had. What we had was a virus that had a widely variable but long incubation period—that’s the time between when you get the virus and when you start showing symptoms—but a short latency period, meaning the time between when you catch the virus and can start spreading it to other people. Long incubation plus short latency means there’s a fairly large window for subclinical infection—people infecting each other before they feel sick themselves.

So that’s what happened here. The Haden’s virus is transmissible by air, which makes it easy to catch. By the time the International Epidemiological Conference winter meeting had adjourned, roughly eighty percent of the thousand or so attendees had been infected. They had been in close contact and breathing in each other’s air the entire three days. And then when they dispersed they traveled back to several hundred points of origin on six separate continents, traveling in airplanes packed with other people. From a virus’ point of view, you couldn’t have asked for a more optimal transmission pattern.

Now, that’s optimal for the virus. It’s not optimal for us. When it came to the Haden’s virus, by the time we knew what we were dealing with, we also knew that it had potentially already spread to millions and possibly billions of people. What we didn’t know was how serious this new virus would be. We had half of New York throwing up in ER rooms, but we didn’t know how long it would take for the virus to resolve itself, and for the body’s own systems to beat it.

We did know we didn’t have a vaccine. The Haden’s virus initially presented like an influenza virus, but when we started looking at it we realized we really were looking at something new, so the sort of antivirals we use for flu—the neuraminidase and M2 inhibitors—weren’t necessarily going to have the same effect on Haden’s.

So no matter what, we were in for a rough time.

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Saturday Storytime: Toad Words

Ursula Vernon has, among many other things, won a Hugo for her graphic novel Digger and created the lovely, wonderful Morally Ambiguous Honey Badgers. This week, she did this.

Frogs fall out of my mouth when I talk. Toads, too.

It used to be a problem.

There was an incident when I was young and cross and fed up with parental expectations. My sister, who is the Good One, has gold and gems fall from her lips, and since I could not be her, I had to go a different way.

So I got frogs. It happens.

“You’ll grow into it,” the fairy godmother said. “Some curses have cloth-of-gold linings.” She considered this, and her finger drifted to her lower lip, the way it did when she was forgetting things. “Mind you, some curses just grind you down and leave you broken. Some blessings do that too, though. Hmm. What was I saying?”

I spent a lot of time not talking. I got a slate and wrote things down. It was hard at first, but I hated to drop the frogs in the middle of the road. They got hit by cars, or dried out, miles away from their damp little homes.

Toads were easier. Toads are tough. After awhile, I learned to feel when a word was a toad and not a frog. I could roll the word around on my tongue and get the flavor before I spoke it. Toad words were drier. Desiccated is a toad word. So is crisp and crisis and obligation. So are elegant and matchstick.

Frog words were a bit more varied. Murky. Purple. Swinging. Jazz.

I practiced in the field behind the house, speaking words over and over, sending small creatures hopping into the evening.  I learned to speak some words as either toads or frogs. It’s all in the delivery.

Love is a frog word, if spoken earnestly, and a toad word if spoken sarcastically. Frogs are not good at sarcasm.

Toads are masters of it.

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Saturday Storytime: The Case of the Passionless Bees

Another from the Women Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed Magazine. I’m glad this, by Rhonda Eikamp, is one they chose to make publicly accessible, and not just because I’ve been reading Holmes pastiche lately.

“Your televoice mentioned bees,” I began.

“Miss Segalen was highly sensitive apparently. She’d said nothing about it, and her death would have been written off as a terrible and tragic accident if there had been only a single errant bee involved, rather than what one must assume was a basketful introduced into the room deliberately. And if the door had not been locked from the outside.” The servos of his mouth ground through their tracks, clenching his jaw. A sigh of steam escaped his neck-joint. “The stings on the corpse were too many for Dr. Culpepper to count. I believe that with her last air before her throat closed up entirely, Katharina Segalen had hoped to smash a window with one of the pots and make her exit or at the least draw someone’s attention to her plight. A handsome woman, Watson, though you would not have known it had you seen her in death—the swelling had disfigured her so. And intelligent. She would have known she had but seconds to live after the first few stings.”

“And your housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, you say, has been detained. But that is surely absurd!”

“Mrs. Hudson found her. She touched nothing, assessed that Miss Segalen was dead, and came directly to me. Not one to seize up in the face of death, Mrs. Hudson. Years of service with me have conditioned her and—well, I’ve made a few changes to her programming over the years, removed the worst of the housekeeperly fluttering her line’s manufacturers insist on adding. I require reason and nerves of my servants above all else. Strictest confidence, eh?”

This last of course was in reference to the prohibition against any amalgamated meddling with the programming of another. I would never have betrayed him. The very fact that Gearlock Holmes, out of all the amalgamated with which we surround ourselves in our homes and stables and coaches, enjoyed special status by royal decree, was allowed to own property and employ amalgamated servants of his own, namely a housekeeper and a gardener, was due to his unique cogitating skills in service to Her Majesty. Holmes’s creator Joseph Bell had left no notes before his death as to how he had obtained this altogether greater level of cognizance in the one amalgamated designed by him. I only know it left Gearlock Holmes, in spite of his blank metal face and shiny limbs, closer to a fleshly man than any amalgamated I had ever met. And if he was a breaker of rules that had not been made to apply to the likes of him, I would certainly not out him.

“No,” Holmes continued, “I’m afraid I am at fault for suspicion falling on poor Mrs. Hudson. I was too fastidious in my investigations, Watson.”

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Saturday Storytime: A Word Shaped Like Bones

The Women Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed Magazine is out and being praised and vilified in (I am happy to say) decidedly unequal measure. A few of the stories are available online. More will be Tuesday, though much of the content is available only with purchase of the issue.

I find it in equal parts amusing, frustrating, and unsurprising that the author of this story, Kris Millering, wasn’t sure her tale was ready for publication. Oh, impostor syndrome.

Maureen works on her sculptures, trying to ignore the dead man. “I was supposed to be alone,” she says to the pliant material in her hands. It’s a model, only a model; it will be cast and perfected when she reaches the planet that humans call Hippocrene. She makes the model out of a lightweight foam clay; it stays flexible for only a few hours once extruded, so she must work quickly and work small. The foam clay is not her favorite medium, but she is in space. There must be no fumes, nothing that crumbles easily, nothing that must be fired or melted. It would not do to put anything poisonous in the air that she might breathe. She usually works in materials much less forgiving, lunar basalt and glass.

A stunt, her critics said before she left. She holds her ears and buzzes her tongue against her teeth to block the voices out as she has been taught. It is not a stunt. It is a fellowship. Won, by the merit of her work. There are people who understand her work. The universe is not filled with critics!

She thinks the dead man in the corner might be a critic.

Maureen has done nothing interesting in the last few years other than win the fellowship that placed her on this small spaceship. Her sculptures sell, this is true; but selling is nothing, some of the greatest artists of the 23rd century have never sold anything. Commercialism is out of fashion. She longs for the 22nd century, when you couldn’t tell the difference between any of the genders without asking, people dressed like people, and you were only successful if you sold.

She could have been something, in 2165.

Instead she is hopelessly banal, striving for beauty in form. She sculpts the shapes she finds in her mind, all smooth curves and edges that catch at the fingertips, demanding attention. Her work does not feature a thousand flickering holograms each reciting a passage from On Hills of Steel; it does not assault anyone with the smells of the lunar landscape or the taste of needles. She regards the Synasthete movement as crass sensationalism. She never wanted to know what yellow sounds like. Yet she does, and it is something she cannot un-know.

Oh sweet breath of the divine, there is a dead man in the corner and she cannot un-know that, either.

She works. She continues to work. She is always working.

The dead man decays at her in what she feels is a possibly reproachful fashion.

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Saturday Storytime: Going After Bobo

One of the great things about reprints in our digital age is that they continue to extend the reach of these stories going forward. People don’t need to collect back issues of a magazine in order to discover stories they like. I’m glad to see this story by Susan Palwick get this treatment.

So I had five days of not knowing where Bobo was, while Johnny and Leon baited me at school and Mom and David yelled at each other at home. And then finally the satellites came back online on Friday. The GPS people had been talking about how they might have to knock the whole system out of orbit and put up another one—which would have been a mess—but finally some earthside keyboard jockey managed to fix whatever the hackers had done.

Which was great, except that down here in Reno it had been snowing for hours, and according to the GPS, I was going to have to climb 3,200 feet to reach Bobo. Mom came in just as I was stuffing some extra energy bars in my pack. I knew she wouldn’t want me going out, and I wasn’t up to fighting with her about it, so I’d been hoping the snow would delay her for a few hours, maybe even keep her down in Carson overnight. I should have known better. That’s what Mom’s new SUV was for: getting home, even in shitty weather.

She looked tired. She always looks tired after a shift.

“What are you doing?” she said, and looked over my shoulder at the handheld screen, and then at the topo map next to it. “Oh, Jesus, Mike. It’s on top of Peavine!”

I could smell her shampoo. She always smells like shampoo after a shift. I didn’t want to think about what she smells like before she showers to come home.

He’s on top of Peavine,” I said. “Bobo’s on top of Peavine.”

Mom shook her head. “Honey—no. You can’t go up there.”

“Mom, he could be hurt! He could have a broken leg or something and not be able to move and just be lying there!” The signal hadn’t moved at all. If it had been lower down the mountain, I would have thought that maybe some family had taken Bobo in, but there still weren’t any houses that high. The top of Peavine was one of the few places the developers hadn’t gotten to yet.

“Sweetheart.” Mom’s voice was very quiet. “Michael, turn around. Come on. Turn around and look at me.”

I didn’t turn around. I stuffed a few more energy bars in my pack, and Mom put her hands on my shoulders and said, “Michael, he’s dead.”

I still kept my back to her. “You don’t know that!”

“He’s been gone for five days now, and the signal’s on top of Peavine. He has to be dead. A coyote got him and dragged him up there. He’s never gone that high by himself, has he?”

She was right. In the year he’d had the transmitter, Bobo had never gone anywhere much, certainly not anywhere far. He’d liked exploring the neighbors’ yards, and the strips of wild land between the developments, where there were voles and mice. And coyotes.

“So he decided to go exploring,” I said, and zipped my pack shut. “I have to go find out, anyway.”

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Saturday Storytime: If God Is Watching

If you’re on Twitter, you probably know Mikki Kendall as Karnythia, one of those people who can manage incisive social commentary in 140-character chunks. You may not have read her fiction, though. You should do that.

I killed a man when I was 13. Not on pur­pose or noth­ing. But he still died. Mama went over to see about Mrs. Johnson’s new baby after church, and I stayed home because I had a cold com­ing on. Mama is real par­tic­u­lar about sick peo­ple and babies, so I didn’t even ask if I could go vis­it­ing. Daddy went out fish­ing with my broth­ers, and after I got out of my church clothes I stretched out on the porch swing with a book. It was good too, all about pirates and buried trea­sure. It was a hot day, sunny, but not too bad if you were sit­ting in the shade. The breeze was blow­ing just right over Mama’s lit­tle flower gar­den, and it felt so good to sit there with the screen keep­ing the bugs out and the cool in, while I nib­bled on a slice of cake.

Our house wasn’t fancy exactly, but Daddy was always good with his hands and my uncles all knew a fair bit about build­ing because that was how they earned their money instead of farm­ing like Daddy. So when Mama wanted some­thing added onto the house they come over and do it for her. Folks said she was spoiled and I would be too since we were both the only girls in a fam­ily full of men. I don’t know about spoiled, but I was almost always happy. Daddy could grow any­thing he wanted no mat­ter how bad it might be doing for some­body else, and Mama knew about tak­ing care of sick folks and deliv­er­ing babies. Folks always needed some­thing and always had some­thing to trade if they didn’t have cash money.

I don’t know how long I was out there, but I was just get­ting to the end of my book when I heard somebody’s Model T rat­tling away. The road up to the house was longer than most, but it sounded like the car was com­ing on fast so I got up real quick and slipped in the house. Mama says that peo­ple shouldn’t be able to just walk up on us, at least not with­out us look­ing like we came from some­body, and we’re going some­where. So I took off the raggedy over­alls I had on, and put on a dress and a pair of shoes.

Mama made most of my clothes in those days, some­times dye­ing them for me so I wouldn’t be wear­ing the same thing as all the other girls who got their goods at the mer­can­tile in town. My dress that day was dark blue, with a lit­tle black flower pat­tern worked into it. It didn’t fit like it used to. Mama kept threat­en­ing to pass it on to some­one else, but I loved it so that she said I could keep it until she had time to make me a new one.

Some white man knocked on the door a few min­utes later. He was big­ger than my mama’s biggest brother, Uncle John, but not as big as my Daddy and wear­ing a shiny gray Sun­day suit and a funny look­ing white hat. He even had on shiny shoes, like a woman would wear to church if she wanted to get talked about for a month of Sun­days. He had a face like a skinned hog, all wet and red look­ing, but meaty. And he had too many teeth in his mouth. Looked like he was one of them bad sales­men that I heard peo­ple com­plain­ing about when­ever we stayed late after church and the adults would for­get that us kids were lis­ten­ing. He was grin­ning and yam­mer­ing away before I even got to the door good.

How are you today young lady? You look­ing mighty pros­per­ous on this Sun­day after­noon aren’t you?” Up close he smelled like he bathed in cologne, but not in a good way. More like per­fume over funk.

He had his hand on the door knob like he was about to pull on it, and I stared at his hand until it dropped. I can’t rightly fight, but my eyes make peo­ple think they don’t want to fight me. My broth­ers are the only excep­tion and even they don’t fight me to hurt me, just to teach me how to defend myself. Daddy says my eyes are just a darker brown than most peo­ple have ever seen, and Mama says I have eyes like her great-grandmother who was a con­jure doc­tor down in New Orleans. I don’t know which one of them is right, but most peo­ple don’t like my eyes because they’re so black they look like two holes punched in my face. At least that’s how Ms. Viola at the church describes them, and she’s been all the way to Lon­don and back so I fig­ure she knows best.

Can I help you?” It’s my best grown up voice, and I can see him look­ing me up and down when I use it. I can’t help but cross my arms across my chest when his eyes linger on it. I can see what Mama meant about my dress being too snug to wear out in the street.

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Saturday Storytime: Falling Leaves

Liz Argall, among other things, plays roller derby and writes “A comic about creatures who are kind“. Don’t let that fool you, though. This story is one of the hard ones.

Charlotte and Nessa met in Year Eight of Narrabri High School. Charlotte’s family were licensed refugees from the burning lands and the flooded coast, not quite landed, but a step apart from refugees that didn’t have dog tags.

Charlotte sat on the roof, dangled her legs off the edge and gazed at the wounded horizon, as she did every lunchtime. Nessa, recognizing the posture of a fellow animal in pain, climbed up to see what she could do. The mica in the concrete glittered and scoured her palms as she braced herself between an imitation tree and the wall and shimmied her way up.

She had to be careful not to break the tree, a cheap recycled–plastic genericus — who’d waste water on a decorative tree for children? The plastic bark squished beneath Nessa’s sneakers, smelling of paint thinner and the tired elastic of granny underpants.

Nessa tried to act casual once she got to the top, banging her knee hard as she hauled herself over the ledge and ripping a fresh hole in her cargos. She took a deep breath, wiped her sweaty hands, and sat down next to Charlotte.

“’Sup?” said Nessa.

“Go away.” Charlotte kicked her feet against the wall and pressed her waxy lips together.

“You gonna jump?”

“No. I’m not an attention seeking whore like you,” said Charlotte.

Nessa shrugged her shoulders, as if that could roll away the sting. Rolling with the punches was what she did. “You look sad.”

Charlotte bared her teeth. “I said, I’m not like you. Leave me alone.”

Nessa wanted to say, “Fuck you,” but she didn’t. Nessa wanted to find magic words to fix Charlotte in an impatient flurry. She couldn’t. Nessa scratched her scars for a while and felt like puking, but she didn’t think that would help either. Neither would hitting Charlotte’s head against a wall and cracking Charlotte’s head into happiness, although Nessa could imagine it so violently and brightly it felt like she’d done it. Nessa had banged her own head against walls to get the pain out of her head and chest, but it never worked — or rather it never worked for long enough, leading to a worse, moreish pain.

Nessa didn’t know what to do, so she just sat there, feeling chicken shit, until the bell summoned them into class.

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