At Least There Are No Shadows

The room is filled with the sorts of tiny sounds you don’t notice in the busyness of the day. The feathery sound of moving air, the almost-inaudible purr of something electronic. The soft, irregular peals of next-door’s wind chimes.

The blanket on top of me is a heavy, soothing weight. I burrow a little further under it. Just so that my mouth is covered.

It’s not dark in this room, either. That’s okay, I suppose. I’ve always felt that full darkness—the kind where you’re not sure whether your eyes are open or shut—is unsettling. On the other hand, the not-completely-dark creates shadows. There’s one near the window. I’m fairly sure it’s just clothes, left near the curtain. It’s just that it seems a little too tall. A little too narrow. A little too… limbed.

And there’s a gentle thumping. It might be my heartbeat.

I tuck my nose under the blanket. The air is warm, thick and heavy. I can hear the blood rushing in my ears. Come further, I imagine the blanket murmuring. It’s safe, under here.

I’m tired, but I’m also not. I need sleep, but I also don’t welcome it. I want to stay in this world, where I can see and hear and touch. A place where, if I do A, then B happens.

At least, usually.

My mind spins thoughts. Over time I’ve learned—oh, not easily, but I have—how to step away from them. To notice the feelings and hopes and anxieties but not be caught in the rushing, crashing storm of them. But sometimes, in the dark and the quiet, I do wonder… what’s outside the thought?

Isn’t it just another layer? I’m still caught, aren’t I? Like a fly that can’t see beyond the web.

My head is fully under the blanket, now, and the air is dense, turbid, full of the faded, creamy scent of deodorant, half-forgotten motes of laundry detergent and the redolence of my own body. That thick fug of molecules that all living humans produce. It’s reassuring, in a way. My chemical reactions are still happening. I’m still here. I’m still alive.

Yes, whispers the blanket. It’s good. Stay here, where it’s too dark for shadows.

It’s not that it’s hard to breathe. The motion is easy. In, and out. It works. But the air isn’t quite satisfying. Like sips of warm water on a hot day when you’re craving gulps of something tall and icy. I imagine the air above, outside. Cool and sweet. I can almost taste it.

No, says the blanket. No. There are… things out there. Stay here, where it’s warm.

In and out. In and out. If I sleep, I think, I won’t need so much oxygen, and then I can stay safe. Under the blanket.

There’s music. Just something caught in my head, a worm in my ear. Moving, twisting. Squirming. Thumping.

Funny, though, I don’t remember the tune. My mind trips along with it, soothed by it. Come with me, it croons. Drift with me.

The air is so dense now it’s like a blanket of its own. A blanket of air under a blanket of cloth. I can hear… soughing. Yes, that’s a good word. And that soft, thudding beat, ever slower. Slower.

Sleep, says the blanket.

It’s so dark, I can’t tell if my eyes are open or shut.

But at least…

…there are no shadows.


Author’s notes
A little slice of something unsettling in recognition of the fact that, through July, August and September, I’ll be acting as Assistant Editor at the horror podcast, PseudoPod. If you’re not subscribed, please do. Oh, and by the way: we open for submissions in September. Sleep well.


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© Kat Day 2021

We Have Now

I gaze at the jigsaw pieces scattered across the Formica table-top. All the pieces are marked with shades of grey and black and white, but enough of the image is there that I’m able to recognise it. It’s the birds across the top edge which give it away. Dad’s done the outside first, of course. That’s how you do jigsaws, isn’t it? You find the corners, then you put the edges together, and then you build inwards.

Dad’s head is bent over the table in concentration, sparse white hair forming a half circle around his scalp. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t often say much these days. But sometimes he comes back for a few moments, so I keep trying.

He’s always liked M. C. Escher. It’s a maths thing, I suppose. He used to tell me that there were Escher prints on the walls in his old school, and he would stand and stare at them for ages. Especially that one with the stairs that seem to be always going uphill. You see, Annie, he would say, it’s all about the way things repeat. The route might seem complicated, but eventually, we all end up back at the beginning.

I watch him now. His fingers shiver and twitch, but they still have just enough precision to pick up the pieces. The room smells of warm air and overcooked food and disinfectant. I’m sitting on one of the chairs that match the table. They’re old-fashioned, but not in a good way. Plastic, wipe-clean cushions and too-straight wood. I fidget, trying to get comfortable, and lean forward.

Dad slots another piece into place. It’s part of the small cluster of houses nestled next to the river on the left-hand side of the picture. The same cluster is repeated on the right, but in darkness. That’s the name of this print: Day and Night. At the top, the spaces in between the flock of black birds quietly morph into white birds, while the black birds fade into shadows.

A memory bubbles to the surface of my mind. “Do you remember, Dad, when I moved out of Brailsford Road? Into that little flat?” He doesn’t answer, but I didn’t expect him to, really. “There was no furniture in that flat,” I say. “Not even a kettle. I had some things, but I’d left a lot behind at the house. You took one look around, put me in the van and drove me to that big furniture store. We came back with a bed and that chest of drawers – we’ve still got those, in the spare room – and a wardrobe. Loads of things. Then you stayed really late helping me put them all together.”

Dad frowns at the jigsaw. He’s making good progress. The boats floating in a neat line on the daylight side of the river are all in place, and he’s done a lot of the chequerboard field at the bottom. I pick up a piece with a windmill on it and slot it in. His head makes the smallest of movements. It might be a nod.

“Do you remember when you threw one of the Allen keys across the room?” I continue. “’I bloody hate this flat-pack crap!’ you yelled. It bounced off a box and landed in my mug of tea. And we both stared at it, and then I said, ‘bet you can’t do that on purpose’.

He looks up at me, then. There’s a flicker of something in his eyes. A tiny flame trying to find enough oxygen to burn.

“And you said, ‘tell you what: If I can, you have to pay me back for all this stuff,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to pay you back anyway, Dad,’ and you said, ‘is it a deal?’ And then you spent the next half hour chucking Allen keys across the room. You missed every time. And my tea went cold.” I laugh.

Dad looks down again. He picks up a jigsaw piece which is mostly black and drops it into place. I reach out and touch his hand. The skin is loose and marked with age spots, but for a moment I feel like a little girl again, wriggling my fingers in Daddy’s big, strong hand. He was my anchor, the thing that would always hold me safe.

He smiles. I’m not sure if it’s anything to do with me.

I lapse into silence and for a while we both study the remaining pieces in their different greys, looking for their rightful places. We pick them up and put them down again. Recreating order from the jumble. Until, eventually, there it is. The last piece. It’s mostly the wing of one of the white birds. It presses into place with a tiny shhnick sound.

Dad claps his hands together. “Done it!” he says, and then he looks at me, and the spark in his eyes really has caught light, for a while. “Oh, Annie, I didn’t know you were here,” he says. “Look, I’ve finished the jigsaw!”

“You have,” I agree, smiling.

He stares at the finished picture. It’s glossy, and the reflection of the overhead lights make white spots on its surface. The pads of his fingers dance over it, like a blind man reading braille.

He reaches the edge and I see him slide his hand under the fragile interlocking pieces. I reach out to stop him.

“No, Dad, don’t break it.”

“I have to, Annie,” he says. His voice surprisingly firm. “It won’t fit back in the box like this.”

“I know,” I say, blinking. “But we don’t have to put it away yet. Let’s look at it for a bit.”

My hand rests on his. Dad was wrong, I think. It’s not about going back to the beginning. It’s about appreciating the bit in the middle, when things are not quite one thing, but they’re not yet the other, either.

So we sit, and we watch the white birds turn back into the scenery around the black, and the black birds fade into the darkness around the white.

And we enjoy what we have now.


Author’s notes
The Escher woodcut, Day and Night, 1938, is here. This story was first published in the anthology 24 Stories: of Hope for Survivors of the Grenfell Tower Fire, three years ago. I’m so proud to have my name alongside some amazing writers, including Meera Syal, Nina Stibbe and Irvine Welsh. The collection was edited by the wonderful  Kathy Burke. If you enjoyed it, please consider buying a copy. Thank you x


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© Kat Day 2021

The Natural Selection

The middle-aged man was wearing a sandy-coloured shirt and a panama hat, but Caroline wasn’t really paying attention to his clothes. She was more concerned with the enormous white placard he was waving.

It read: “If you don’t teach your child to obey Jesus, the devil will teach them evolution, sexuality, psychology, witchcraft!”

He glared at her from the other side of the street, no doubt taking in her blue hair, visible tattoos and spiderweb-patterned facemask. He wasn’t wearing a mask. Big surprise. She turned and walked briskly in the other direction. Some fights just weren’t worth it.

At home she unloaded her groceries. Jennie, her fourteen-year-old daughter, sat at the kitchen table chewing a pencil.

“Mom?”

“Yes, sweetie?” Caroline slotted a container of fresh sage into the refrigerator on top of a punnet of blueberries. She picked up a packet of mustard seeds.

“D’you know anything about inherited characteristics?”

“What?”

Jennie gestured vaguely at one of the books spread out in front of her. “I have to write about inherited characteristics and how they change over time.”

Caroline shoved a tub of ice-cream into the freezer, judged the rest of the groceries could wait awhile, and pulled out a chair. “Um. Can I see the book?”

Fifteen minutes later, she had fallen into a hideous tangle of words and was, not for the first time, cursing the fact the schools were currently closed.

“Why don’t you go out to the backyard for a while?” she said. “It’s nice out. Maybe it’ll make more sense after a break.”

She watched as the door closed behind her daughter.

Caroline headed for the basement. It was a sparsely-furnished but clean and well-lit space. She started pulling supplies from a shelf near the dryer. Candles, chalk, spray bottles containing her own special mixtures, a well-thumbed book, salt.

She knelt down on the concrete floor and began to draw.

A little while later, she studied the sigil she’d created. Someone who’d watched too many bad movies might have been surprised. There wasn’t anything even slightly star-shaped, let alone a pentagram. This was all swirls and spirals that twisted and curled inward, forming an unbroken circle in their centre. The outer ring was, likewise, unbroken—and this she sprinkled liberally with salt. She placed candles at intervals around the edge and lit them, sprayed the air, and sat down on a small cushion.

Caroline picked up the book and began to chant.

Here, again, someone expecting mist, banging and general flickering would have been underwhelmed. A figure simply appeared in the central circle with a gentle pop. Slightly smaller than a man, bat-like wings folded neatly against his back, wearing spectacles.

“Ugh,” he said, peering down at the sigil. “Fine. Fine. You clearly know what you’re doing. Let’s forgo the nonsense. What do you want, witch?”

Caroline smiled.

“Well,” she said, “I really need someone to teach my daughter about evolution.”


Author’s notes
A little something I threw into a flash fic contest. It’s dating quickly, but then, I guess, that’s change for you…


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© Kat Day 2021

A Cup Full of Sprite

‘Forty-two!’ The woman holding the piece of pink paper turned it over and squinted. ‘Janet?’

Janet’s heart thumped. They’d been raising money for the school and, well, you bought raffle tickets, didn’t you? She hadn’t expected to win and have everyone stare at her.

Limping slightly thanks to her dodgy hip, she approached the table which, at this late stage, held a golf voucher, a hand-painted mug, and a bottle of red wine that would probably strip paint. Janet grabbed the mug, plucked out another ticket and headed for the door before something awful happened. She had paid for more than one ticket, after all.

#

She washed her prize when she got home. It was made of heavy white ceramic and decorated with frogs: the bulbous, glossy kind with wide mouths and yellow, flat-pupilled eyes. The creatures hopped and sat both on and in the walls. The bottom of the mug had been painted to look like water, with rocks so realistic that Janet almost expected them to feel rough under her finger when she put her hand inside.

‘Shame,’ she muttered to herself. ‘Put tea or coffee in this and you’d not see it.’

She turned on the tap, letting fresh water rinse out the last of the bubbles. Afternoon sunlight rippled the water with gold.

There was a soft croaking sound. Janet froze. Half-full of clear water the pond-like effect was uncanny. And… she was sure one of the frogs had just moved.

She put the mug down carefully.

It shivered, rattling against the worktop.

‘I’m losing me marbles,’ whispered Janet.

Long, viridescent fingers curled over the rim. Janet’s hand flew to her mouth, and she took a step back. The fingers were followed by a tiny head, covered in messy, turquoise hair. It had black eyes, a flat nose and a very wide mouth.

‘You’re not Zambini,’ it said.

‘Um, no.’

The creature balanced itself gracefully on the rim of the mug. Its legs were oddly-jointed, and ended in long, webbed toes. It looked around curiously.

‘Where is this?’

‘Three Bakehouse Lane,’ said Janet, uncertainly.

‘Where’s Zambini?’

‘I don’t know anyone called Zambini. I won you — your mug, I mean — in a raffle. I had no clue it weren’t just a mug!’

‘Oh,’ said the creature. ‘What’s a raffle?’

‘You buy bits of paper with numbers on,’ said Janet stuttering to a halt halfway through an in-depth explanation of the niceties of school raffles. ‘Er. What’s your name?’

‘Shellra.’

#

Janet had always been one to keep herself to herself, but Shellra — who explained she was a water sprite — was a surprisingly good conversationalist. The situation was unbelievable yet, somehow, it wasn’t long before the old woman had made herself tea, in an ordinary mug, and they were chatting like old friends.

‘Just scooped me out of the pond she did,’ said the sprite, in between licking aphids from the sickly-looking orchid on Janet’s sunny windowsill. ‘In this cup, which she spelled herself. But I liked her. Goody Clamtrip her name was. She used to say it was funny, because it was a coincidence, really, but Clamtrip sounds like cantrip, which was just about right, for a witch.’

Janet, who had never heard of a cantrip, nodded.

‘She used me for fortune telling and minor healing magic. That was all. I didn’t really mind. She had a nice big water barrel out the back of her house that she let me swim in. Anyway, she lived a long time, but she was basically human, you know.’

‘Mm,’ acknowledged the old woman, rubbing her hip.

‘There was a gap, after that, because when there’s no water in the cup I sort of… disappear.’

Janet stared. ‘That don’t sound nice.’

Shellra shrugged, her skin glittering in the light. ‘It’s all right, I don’t know anything about it. I’m there, and then I’m not, and then I am.’ She blinked up at Janet. ‘Anyway, next thing I know, I’m in the Great Zambini’s back room. Well, that’s what he called himself. His name was Geoff, really. He… wasn’t cruel, but he wasn’t particularly kind, either. Let me out to do things, put me away afterwards.’

‘Like a… like a tool? A thing?’

‘I suppose,’ said Shellra, chewing on an aphid. ‘He didn’t want people to know about me. He wanted them to believe in the power of the Great Zambini.’ These last few words she said with a theatrical flourish and a bow. ‘I’m not quite sure what happened, in the end. He got older. I suppose he died without telling anyone about me, and the mug’s been stored somewhere.’

‘Until someone gave it to Chellmarsh Primary School, an’ it ended up in the school raffle.’ Janet reached for a biscuit and chewed slowly. ‘You can see the future?’

‘A bit,’ said Shellra. ‘It’s not always specific, but a lot of the time it’s close enough. Zambini did all right. He was always busy. Sometimes he just made stuff up, mind you. And like I said, he wasn’t cruel. If I did see something… difficult, he didn’t usually mention it.’

Janet looked thoughtful. ‘Maybe best not to know.’

‘That’s true.’ The sprite studied Janet’s face. ‘You’d make a good fortune-teller.’

Janet had a brief vision of herself, head wrapped in a scarf, pretending to stare into a crystal ball. Having to meet and talk to an endless stream of people. ‘No! I don’t think I want to be doing that.’

‘I could show you things. You could win more than raffles.’

Janet looked around her kitchen. The walls needed repainting, and the kettle was old and spotted with limescale and could probably do with replacing. But the room was quiet and warm and safe. She sipped her tea and smiled. ‘I reckon I’ve got what I need.’

The sprite looked sad. ‘Then I suppose you’ll empty my mug out again, and I’ll disappear.’

#

The sun was just beginning to set as Janet walked away from the stream that ran through her village, an empty mug in her hand.

‘You promise you’ll come and visit? For a chat?’ Shellra had asked.

‘Course I will.’

‘All right. Drink the water in the mug,’ she’d said with a wink, before jumping into the clear water. Finally free.

Janet had. Her hip was, she realised as she strode, completely pain-free for the first time in years. She began to whistle.

The sunset lit up the sky with pink and gold as she let herself into her cosy kitchen, where an extremely healthy orchid sat on her windowsill.


Author’s notes
Something I wrote ages ago for a writing prompt involving a cup with a fish pattern. Dug out of storage, tweaked a bit and… finally free.


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© Kat Day 2021

Instructions for the procurement of emotional supply from the sorcerer Ronald Vito’s personal notes, as uncovered by Ms Viola Arviragus, journalist

1) Choose your source. Intelligence is desirable—the larger the mind, the more to manipulate, and the better the supply. Resilience and a strong imagination are essential. Articulacy and a sharp sense of humour are good markers, and readily identified without the need to listen overmuch.

2) Collect five two-ounce candles, a shot glass of water, about three tablespoons of cornflour, two glass marbles, and a large piece of square paper.

3) Offer your source something. It need not necessarily be money or goods—indeed, this may be too obvious and arouse suspicion. Consider information—everyone wants to know something. Ideally, acquire several titbits that she has no way to access. It is easiest if it happens to be something involving your daily work—that way, you won’t have to spend valuable time reading or listening.

4) Fold the paper into five-pointed star. Instructions can be found on the attached page.

5) Offer your source the information. She may be initially cautious, but you must feign patience. When she inevitably bites, drip-feed. Something small each day for a week, perhaps.

6) Place one candle at each point of the paper star. You should allow them to burn for thirty minutes each day until they are used up. This will take approximately a month. You must pay close attention to your source during this time.

7) Converse often and be sure to mirror her words. If she says she likes something, claim to like it, too. Childhood memories are powerful—if she recounts a formative experience from her youth, you must immediately reply, “oh, me too!” Seem vulnerable. Imply that her thoughts are infinitely interesting, her ideas nothing less than genius.

8) Continue to light your candles each day. Observe as the flame gradually consumes the wax.

9) Talk to your source about the future. Simple, but definite, statements such as, “when I show you,” or “when we meet [important person to whom you have access],” or simply, but powerfully, “when I see you.” This will encourage her to imagine a future that includes you.

10) When the candles are almost exhausted, mix the cornflour and water to make a thick slurry. Place the marbles on the surface of the mixture. Watch as they sink, gradually lost from view.

11) Sprinkle plenty of obvious, but inconsequential, lies into your conversation amongst clear truths. For example, jokingly insist you know something you clearly do not. Claim to be travelling when you could not possibly be. Imply your prize stallion was custom-bred for you at great expense, rather than, for example, admitting that you traded in your chestnut mare to buy it second-hand from a questionable dealer. The puzzle of why you’re lying about trivialities will keep her awake at night, and anything that keeps you in her thoughts serves your purpose.

12) Tell her you love her. Mixed with your other lies, this will cause both delight and confusion. Dispose of the cornflour and water, and burn the paper star. You can introduce a sexual component at this point if your preferences lie in that direction.

13) By now, if you have played your part with flair, she will be hooked. If you have other sources lined up, by all means withdraw. In fact, regular, mysterious disappearances, so long as they are terminated with warm and affectionate greetings, will only serve to strengthen the bond.

Your source will now be providing a regular flow of energy and will require little maintenance. Make contact every few days or so, but do not overdose. Naturally, you do not care about her mental well-being, but if you completely drain her she may respond by cutting off contact, which is contrary to your needs.

ADDENDA

  • It is most important that sources of supply remain unaware of this method, as prior knowledge will significantly reduce effectiveness. You must, of course, never mention sources to each other. Keep notes. If they know of each other’s existence, they may start talking.
  • Even-numbered steps are largely optional. If one finds oneself lacking in resources they may be omitted with only a small reduction in effectiveness.
  • It is to be noted that whilst intelligence is important, one must strive to avoid attempting these techniques on a witch, since they have a habit of seeing what isn’t shown and hearing what isn’t said. You must endeavour to listen, as this is the only way to identify warning signs such as a refusal to be interrupted, disregard for your brilliance, and querying your impeccable logic. Be aware that some witches engage in alternative occupations, for example, as journalists. Apply caution.

Author’s notes
This is speculative fiction. Unless it isn’t.
Eventually, they will start talking.


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© Kat Day 2021

The Practical Differences Between You and Me

“Damn.” Sam put the knife down he was using to chop a red pepper and examined his finger. “Slipped.”

“Let me see.” Yann got up from his seat at the table, took Sam’s hand and examined the damage. The tip of his left index finger was sliced through. “I’ll get some glue.”

“I can get it, there’s no need—”

“Let me. You sit down.”

Sam’s silvery eyes crinkled at the edges. “I don’t bleed. I’m not going to faint.”

“Yes, I know, but…” Yann pushed his fingers through his hair. “Please, let me do this?”

Fully smiling now, Sam sat down. “Okay,” he said.

###

Hours later they sat on the sofa together, watching an old film in which someone jumped around wearing a lot of red leather. Sam sipped from a glass of glucose, salts and ethanol. Yann drank wine. After a while, brain humming with a gentle alcoholic buzz, he dropped his head to Sam’s shoulder.

Sam slid his arm around his waist and pulled him closer. After a few minutes, he dipped his head and kissed the top of Yann’s head.

Yann pulled away, staring at him.

“I’m sorry,” said Sam. “Weird?”

“Uh. No. It’s… sorry. I…”

“It’s okay. I understand. I’m not human, it’s—”

“No! No. I mean, I’ve thought about… and… that’s not… it’s more. Uh. Is it… a… a choice?”

“What?”

Yann’s words came out in a rush. “Is it something you’re doing because you think I want you to?”

“I’m fully self-actualised, Yann. You know that. I learn and make decisions.”

“Yes, yes, but. But. If I said ‘do this’ would you… would you do it anyway? Because I said so? Could I… force you?”

“You could force a human,” said Sam, reasonably. “You’re one-hundred and ninety-one centimetres tall, you have enough muscle mass to generate power and leverage and your balance is excellent.”

“I don’t mean like that!”

“You have above average intelligence and good emotional awareness. You could psychologically manipulate someone, if—”

“It’s not the same thing!”

“How is it not?”

Yann made an exasperated noise. “I mean, can you say no?”

“Of course.”

“Would you?”

Sam gazed at him. “I wouldn’t.”

Yann gazed back. “Why?

“I don’t want to.”

“If… you changed your mind and did want to, you’d say?”

Sam reached out and touched the edge of Yann’s jaw. “I promise.”

Yann leaned into his fingers and sighed. “All right, then.”

###

Days later, they lay in bed, limbs tangled.

“Your skin is so warm,” whispered Yann. “And it tastes of salt and… and skin.”

Sam smiled. “It’s designed to. So does yours.”

“It evolved to, I suppose.” Yann traced circles on Sam’s chest. “I love you.”

“You’re only saying that because your brain is full of endorphins and oxytocin,” said Sam, chuckling. “I love you, too.”

“You’re just saying that because of… programming and electrical signals,” retorted Yann.

“Mm. Do you think it makes any practical difference?”

Yann considered it. “You know,” he said, “I don’t think it does.”


Author’s notes
Something soft and fluffy, because we need that right now. Also informed consent is good. Do the consent thing. Check the consent thing. If everyone’s motivations are good, it should be easy. And if not, well.


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© Kat Day 2021

The Comforting Silence of Deep Water

Art by @KatNoggin

The music twists around me, notes impossibly fast. The bow moves as though it’s part of me, which, in a way, it is. The melody speaks of love and want, the never-still nature of a river and the heavy, comforting silence of deep water. It’s complicated and lovely like, I suppose, so many things in this world.

My eyes are downcast, lost in the feeling, and that’s why I don’t see her. It’s the dog that causes me to look up. It sits on its haunches and barks at me, shaggy, grey-brown head tilted to one side.

The bow stills in my hands. ‘Oh, shit.’

The dog’s owner, a young-looking woman with fair skin and a blue scarf, is staring at me, her eyes glassy. ‘You’re beautiful,’ she whispers, tonelessly.

I grit my teeth. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘It’s not real. It’ll wear off.’

‘You’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen,’ she murmurs, and takes a step forward. The dog whines. I realise that, even though I’ve stopped playing, she’s going to walk right into the water. With a groan, I let myself fall backwards off the rock where I was sitting, my hair fanning out as I sink under the green-blue surface.

I stay down. I can’t live underwater, but I can stay under a lot longer than most humans. The pond is deep—I can touch the bottom, but crouching as I am I’m out of sight. I’m still gripping the fiddle and bow. It’s not as if water will damage the damned thing.

My eyes are pretty good at dealing with different refractive indices—a thought that almost causes me to smile at the incongruous clash of magic and physics—and I watch the woman through the water’s surface. She stands motionless, hands slack by her side. Her dog circles her every now and then, then wanders off, sniffs about a bit, and returns, nosing at her hand.

Just when I’m starting to wonder if should’ve considered a contingency plan, she gives herself a shake and crouches down to scratch the dog behind its ears before turning around and striding away, the dog happy again at her heels. I wait until she’s well out of sight before I surface, wringing out my hair as I head for the water’s edge.

#

It’s late morning when I get home, but the early spring sunshine isn’t quite strong enough to have dried me off completely. Camron is sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee by one hand, his phone in the other.

‘Oh, thank Gods,’ he says when he sees me. ‘Where have you been, Stefan?’ He stands up and puts his hands on my shoulders. ‘Your hair is damp.’

I wave the fiddle. ‘I went out to play,’ I say. ‘Caught a blasted dog walker. Had to hide underwater.’

‘You need to dry off. You’ll catch a chill.’

‘Water spirits don’t catch chills.’

‘You’re only half water spirit. And I distinctly remember having to feed you chicken soup and painkillers before Christmas.’

‘That was a virus. It had nothing to do with getting wet.’ There it is again, science and magic, clashing. I throw the fiddle down by the door. I’d destroy the stupid thing if I could, but it’s part of what I am, and who knows what would happen? I’m scared it might be like cutting out my stomach to make sure I never throw up.

Camron hands me a towel and I rub it over my head, looking at green-black strands against the white. ‘You could play here,’ he says, glancing through the kitchen window towards the stream in the garden.

‘I can’t.’

‘You could. It’s not as if we have a lot of passing traffic. No one would hear early morning. Or late at night. Anyway, there’s a lock on the gate.’

‘No,’ I say.

He pulls me close and wraps his arms around me. ‘Does it even matter if I hear at this point?’

I think of the woman’s glassy eyes and shiver. ‘It does, yes.’

He rests his forehead against mine. His eyes are hazel, flecked with gold. ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he says quietly.

‘But I need to know that you could. If you had to.’

‘I’ll never have to.’

‘Nevertheless.’

He sighs, and presses his lips against mine, warm and soft, and I lean into him.

This won’t wear off, I know, because it’s real. Complicated and lovely.

Like so many things in this world.


Author’s notes
I wrote at the start of 2020, before all the *waves hands* really kicked off, as part of the Codex writer’s group’s annual Weekend Warrior contest. I kept meaning to do something with it, and I kept not doing something with it. And you know what, it’s another lockdown—we all need something nice. The artwork was drawn by the revoltingly talented Kat Noggin—give her a follow (thank you, m’dear!) If you have a moment, leave me an encouraging comment, and maybe I will, finally, do something with it. Stay safe.


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© Kat Day 2021

‘Twas, by Samuel Poots

It is a strange fact that any story about Christmas worth its cracker should always start with “‘Twas.” There is no reason why this should be; if anyone were to use “‘twas” in conversation you would know there is no hope for them beyond a swift ding around the head with a frying pan. But such is the convention and so…

‘Twas the night before Christmas. And two elves were standing on a rooftop. You could tell they were elves, because they had pointy ears and pointy hats. They would have had pointy shoes too, but you had to draw the line somewhere. Currently, they were both staring down the house’s capacious chimney.

“He’s late,” said one.

“I know.”

“He should have been back out ages ago.”

“I know.”

“You don’t fink he’s…” The first elf made a glugging motion.

“Nah. I made sure he didn’t have his flask on him.”

The two continued staring down the chimney for a moment.

“What if he’s –”

“Jesus Christ, Bill, let it be will ya? You’re making me nervous.”

“Alright, Mick, no need to—”

“Hide!” Mick cried. He grabbed his companion’s head and shoved it down behind the chimney. A second later, there was the crunch of tyres on gravel. The still, winter night was broken by the brief flare of a siren.

“Is it the police?” Bill asked.

“Well, those lights on their car don’t look like bleedin’ Christmas lights, do they?”

A door slammed shut. Moving cautiously, the two elves peered down over the edge of the rooftop. They were just in time to see a man, dressed all in red, being led out of the house. He was bundled into the car, which took off down the driveway, its blue and red lights painting the night in disco colours. Bill thought he caught a glimpse of a mournful expression looking back at them through the rear window.

The still of the night flowed gradually back into place. Bill looked over at his companion. “Well… shit.”

“I guess that’s it then,” Mick whispered.

Bill started to nod. Then froze as a thought occurred. “’Ere, did he have his sack with him?”

Mick frowned. Then horrified realisation spread across his face like a sunrise. “Oh. Hell.” They both peered back over to the chimney.

Mick could feel a certain inevitability forming about his near future. It loomed ahead of him like… well, like the chimney stack stretching up towards the night sky. He could already feel Bill’s eyes on him and it took all his will not to push the bugger off of the roof. “No.”

“I didn’t even say –”

“Doesn’t matter. I am not going down after that sack.”

“Oh, so you want them to find it all, do you?”

“You go and get it then.”

Bill stretched dramatically, both hands pressed into the small of his back. The gesture set the stupid, little bell on the end of his hat to tinkling. “What, with me bad back? And me asthma? And me dicky tummy? And me—”

“Alright, I get the picture.” Mick looked down once again into the blackness of the chimney. The knotted length of rope they had lowered was just visible in the gloom. But it was as Bill said, they really didn’t have much of a choice. He shuddered to think what would happen if anyone opened that sack and found everything in there. He swung his legs over the lip. “You better pull me up sharp, you hear?”

“Yeah, yeah. Get your arse down there.”

Mick pressed himself up against the sides of the chimney. Everything stank of smoke and toasted sparrow nests. It was a bit of a tight fit and the brick-work was crumbling a little, but if he just jammed his foot up like so, and his elbow like so then he could –

The brick gave way.

Mick had just enough time to yell “Oh, bugg—” before he disappeared down the chimney in a cloud of coal dust and profanities. He landed in a heap in the fireplace, looking for all the world like the angriest yule log that had ever existed.

Trying to smother his coughs, Mick stood up and brushed the soot from his pointy hat with his sleeve. Since it too was covered in soot, this just succeeded in moving the soot about a bit for a change of scenery. After a while he gave up and looked about him. The living room looked like something out of a Christmas movie. Tinsel hung from everything, somehow endeavouring to sparkle in complete darkness. Little comedy reindeers with idiot grins sat upon every surface, fighting for space against snow globes, Christmas cushions, and, for some strange reason, a giant stuffed pig wearing a santa hat. At the centre of it all lay the tree.

It was easy to see how their guy had got caught, Mick thought. He wasn’t exactly known for his grace at the best of times. Three households with three accompanying glasses of whiskey; it had been a miracle he made it down the chimney at all. A large tree standing on its own had apparently been too difficult an obstacle for the big idiot. The thing now lay on its side, shedding baubles and strings of lights everywhere. And there, tucked down beneath the branches, was the sack.

Mick made a grab for it, but just as his hand closed around the rough hemp a light flicked on upstairs. A shadow appeared. “Hello? Anyone there?”

Footsteps. Mick looked around. Despite all the clutter there wasn’t anywhere to – Ahah!

“If it’s another of you buggers, be warned; I have a gun!”

A torch beam cut through the dark of the room. It passed over Mick, just as pushed himself into the fallen tree’s branches.

The footsteps started again, the soft slip-slap of slippers sounding like the tread of doom. “I swear, if I find anyone in here the doctors will have to feed them via suppository!”

The sack was right up against Mick. He could feel its reassuringly full weight. The chimney beckoned, his one way of escape if only this bastard would leave him alone!

“Come out, come out wherever you are.” There was the click of a gun being cocked. “I’ve got some nice Christmas cake for you.”

A branch kept poking Mick in the back. He tried to move a little and the bell on his hat gave a treacherous jingle. At once, the torch beam swung towards him.

Slip-slap came the slippers. Mick could barely hear them over the hammering of his heart. Desperately, he scrambled around for something, anything he could defend himself with. His hand closed on something round.

“Let’s take a peek behind here—”

Mick threw the bauble. It bounced away, setting up a satisfyingly loud clatter. The torch beam swung around to follow it and Mick was away, scrambling up the chimney as fast as he could, the sack dragging behind him. There came a loud BANG, followed by the splintering of brick, but Mick was free. He flew up the rope so fast that he shot out of the chimney like a cork from a champagne bottle.

“Mick!” Bill hurried over to him. “Did I hear a gun there?”

Mick spat out a mouthful of soot. “No, it was a bloody big Christmas cracker, what do you think?”

“Oh, that’s alright then.”

“Yes, it was a bloody gun!” Mick hissed. “Come on, we’ve got to get out of here.”

“Right, right.” Bill pointed at the sack. “It is all in there though, yeah?”

Mick opened it up and peered inside. “Let’s see…TV, radio, blu-ray…Yup, looks like he got it all.” He threw the sack at Bill. “Get this down to the van. And if you ever come to me with an idea this daft again, Bill Hackett, I will stick you on top of the damn tree!”


Author’s notes
Something a little different for Christmas: a story from a guest author – thank you, Sam! And Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our lovely readers.

Samuel Poots is a writer from N. Ireland who communicates primarily through Pratchett quotes. He can usually be seen clambering around the north coast muttering about dragons. If found, please give him a cup of tea and send him home via the nearest post office. Follow him on Twitter at @pootsidoodle


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The Magician’s Christmas Tree

The distant sound of carol singers caused the magician to look up from the silver bauble he was holding. Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly

He smiled. He liked that one.

The old man huffed on the sphere and rubbed in on his robe, then held it close to his face. The curved surface distorted his reflection, making his hands seem huge and his head tiny. Something inside the ball made a sound like a fox in the night.

Still smiling happily, the magician hung the bauble carefully on a branch.

A log hissed and popped in the grate. He paused in his tree decorating to stir the liquid in the cast-iron pot hanging over the fire. The smell of oranges, cinnamon and peppery spices filled the room. He sniffed appreciatively and added a generous measure of clear liquid from a glass bottle.

Returning to the tree he examined the lights which he’d wound around the branches. One sputtered and he flicked it impatiently with a fingernail. It squeaked faintly, then returned to producing its greenish light.

Humming fa-la-la-la-la he rummaged in the dusty wooden crate on the rug next to the tree. Over several branches he hooked curved, white objects which might have resembled candy-canes, although they lacked the traditional red stripes.

He let out a happy exclamation when he discovered the string of pearlescent, squarish objects with curiously sharp edges. These he draped all around, so that they shimmered in the firelight.

Then came a series of miniature figures. Reindeer with branching antlers twisted on their strings and butted at pine needles. The magician wagged a finger at them.

A selection of elves with curling shoes hung rather brokenly. At these, he sighed and shook his head sadly.

Another figure drawn from the box was an ugly thing; two pointed horns had been stuck to its forehead and it was dressed in dark, coarsely-woven clothing. It had baleful, light-brown, almost amber, eyes and carried a switch of wicked-looking branches. It hissed as the magician gently stroked it. He stared at it for a moment, looked back at the crate and then, cocking his head to one side, placed it towards the back of the tree.

Last was the figure of a man, dressed in red and white and carrying a lumpy, hessian sack. This one made a soft sound that was almost a groan. The magician gazed at it as if it were a much-loved grandchild, and then hung it carefully on a branch at the very front.

He took a few steps back and examined his work. The figures swung gently on their strings and the lights twinkled most prettily. Faint groans and hisses filled the tree like the wind winding its fingers through a forest. It was, he decided, almost perfect.

Almost.

He reached into the box and drew out a silver star. He turned it over in his hand, frowning. What were stars, after all? Huge balls of flaming gas, seen from such a distance they were nothing more than dots. He would, he mused, much rather have a fairy on the pinnacle of his tree. He glanced at the string of squarish objects he had draped through the branches.

Yes, a fairy with pretty golden hair and glittering wings. That would be so much more in keeping with the true origins of the mid-winter festival.

The magician cocked his head. The singers had started up again, and they were louder. Very loud, in fact. Almost as if they were just outside his door.

They fell silent and their song was replaced by knocking.

Fa-la-la-la, hummed the magician.

He opened the door. Three women stood there, cheeks flushed from the cold. The middle one pushed a lock of blonde hair away from her eyes as they all burst into song.

The magician listened, a beatific smile on his face.

He clapped his hands as they finished. ‘Oh, that was wonderful. Wonderful! Why don’t you come in for a moment? I’ve got some mulled wine warming in the other room.’

They smiled at the kindly old man with the eyes that spoke of warmth and safety, and thought how bitterly cold it was. The carol singers agreed that, yes, it would be lovely to come inside. Just for a moment.

The magician ladled the dark, cinnamon scented liquid from the pot over the fire into cups and passed it to the singers as they admired his beautiful tree.

Yes, he thought, as they sipped. A fairy with beautiful golden hair. Perhaps she would even sing.

And he could always find room for more elves.


Author’s notes
COVID-19 has probably put an end to door-to-door carol singers this year, but just in case, beware kindly old men with strangely active Christmas ornaments… 😉


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© Kat Day 2020

That Which is Kept Locked Away

‘Go anywhere,’ you said, ‘but not there. That’s all I ask.’

The door was unvarnished wood. Tucked under a stairway, slightly too small to enter straight-backed, locked with cast iron. You kept the plain key in your pocket, always.

I wondered, of course. Sometimes I thought of little else, my mind swirling with possibilities, bright and grim. Did the room contain valuable rarities? Scandalous documents? Evidence of black deeds? I could have forced the door. Perhaps have picked the lock. Even stolen your key. Sometimes I thought it might be best to do so. Calm the churning waters of my thoughts, reassure myself that there was no monster hiding in the depths.

But you had asked me not to go there, so I did not. I could give you that, I thought. You gave me so many other things. Music, food, friends and stories. Your determination, your smile. Your solid presence.

I never forgot the door, but I let my gaze slide past it. Almost stopped seeing it. Until the day you took my hand and led me to it.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

‘I am,’ you replied as you turned the key and looked back at me, your expression soft. ‘Are you?’

I hadn’t expected you to ask. But I was glad that you did.

There were no horrors when you opened the door, only a rosewood chest inlaid with brass.

You reached out, raised the lid, and a sound met my ears. A susurration of thousands of words, babbling and tripping and harmonising with each other. They were caught, I saw next, in precious stones of every known colour, and some beyond known.

I looked at you, and you nodded.

When I plucked out the diamonds, I heard the voice you used for work and strangers—firm and bright, all clear, faceted vowels. The pearls, by contrast, were warm and smooth—gentle wisdom ingrained in their shimmering layers—while emerald and peridot hissed bitten-back, jagged-edged words to cut the tongue that never spoke them.

Lower, amethyst and tourmaline giggled and chuckled, while sunny citrine sang childlike and joyful, near flat pieces of amber whose golden colours hummed of lazy contentment.

A black, velvet bag of spinel, ruby and garnet whispered deep and low and dark. You murmured that we would save that for later, as you took the pouch from my fingers.

At the very bottom of the box was a stone larger than the others, tapered at one end, indented along its curved top. I held it in my palm and its surface shivered crimson, buttercup and lime, smoky blues and violet.

‘They say,’ you said, ‘that opal which is kept locked away will dry out and eventually crack and break. It fares better given to someone who will keep it close.’

I smiled, then, as I closed my fingers around the stone, brought it up to my ear, and listened to its short and simple words.


Author’s notes
I wrote this for the Cast of Wonders flash fiction contest, and it didn’t make it past the first round. Sniff. BUT, the good news from that is that, if you’ve enjoyed this, there are lots of better stories coming up in the semi-finals which open on November 2nd. You can register, for free, to read and vote here.

Oh, and also, October is the birth month for opal. So this seemed like a good moment for this one.


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© Kat Day 2020