Nothing Left But Crumbs

At the edge of time, in a small corner of the universe, a woman is baking.

It’s a simple kitchen of wood and stone and metal. There are bowls, of course. Many of them, in all different shapes and sizes. Some have the orangey-pink hue of copper, others shine silvery bright, distorted reflections twisting on their curved sides. There are spoons, spatulas, knives and cups. A rolling pin that is a cylinder of heavy, glossy rock. Boards made from well-scrubbed wood. The room is quiet, filled only with the small sounds of someone working. It smells of fresh bread and warm sugar, sea-salt and hot iron.

There is an oven, too. Huge and black, and glowing inside: red and yellow and even, sometimes, white.

The woman might be old, but what does that mean? Old compared to the stars outside her window? Old compared to others like her?

If there are others like her.

Either way, her skin is lined and creased with the marks of life. Deep grooves curve from her nose to her mouth, creases stand to attention where her forehead meets her nose, and the skin around her eyes is slashed with lines. Her head is covered with firmly-tied scarf covered in geometric designs, but the rest of her clothes are undecorated. Brown fabric, roughly woven. A white apron, brilliant in its blankness.

Tiny, blue specks burn in the centre of each of her eyes.

She is stirring a mixture, one strong arm cradling the heavy bowl almost as if it is a child. Her other arm moves the spoon round and round and across and round. The batter is thick and dark, and slightly oily. She examines it critically and adds other ingredients. Half a cup of this. A spoon of that. She stirs again and the mixture begins to shimmer.

Eventually she pours it half of it into a silvery pan, a perfect hemisphere balanced on a torus. There, she pauses, and takes something glossy and dark red from the pocket of her apron. She lifts it and turns it this way and that in front of her eyes, frowning a little. With the faintest of nods, she presses it into the centre.

She uses what’s left in her bowl to pile up and up. The mixture is firm; it holds its shape. She leaves the top slightly flat. Space for it to expand. Exactly how much space to leave is a judgement she makes from old experience.

She places a second, shiny hemisphere over the piled-up mixture and fixes it with wire. A perfect silver ball, ready for the warm depths of her oven.

While it bakes she mixes other things. One bowl contains something blue. Mostly blue. It also swirls with green and grey, and tiny peaks of white. Another is a darker green, rich and glossy, a third is ochre and rust, and a fourth is fluffy, barely there at all.

The woman pauses, places her hands into the small of her back and leans back, looking out of her kitchen window, at an indigo sky broken only by pinpricks of light. She wipes her hand across her head, leaving a pale smear across her skin.

The baking takes time. But she cannot rush this; the centre must be hot. Eventually the thin metal skewer she carefully slides between the two half-domes makes her wince when she pulls it out and presses it against her cheek.

Carefully, she removes the tins. The cake is not quite perfect. Despite her efforts, and all her experience, the shape is slightly distorted. She tilts her head to one side and examines it. It doesn’t matter, she decides. In fact, perhaps it’s even more beautiful for being less than perfect. Most things are.

She decorates her work with the cool blue-green and warm ochres, some of the darker green, and finally dabs of white. She breathes in the buttery-salty scent and turns her creation on its stand, checking each tiny section of its surface.

Finally, she reaches again into her white apron pocket and takes out a crystal vial. It sparkles in the light as she holds it firmly between finger and thumb. She removes the cork, takes a pinch of the contents and blows gently. Glimmering flecks of silver and gold, a little black and a few, sparse, touches of red settle on the surface she has made.

Finally, she is satisfied. She opens the door to her kitchen and carries her work outside. She is a master of her craft, and this is her masterpiece.

It sits, against the dark, star-pricked backdrop, turning slowly. It will stay there, for a little while, in this place where neither ‘little’ nor ‘while’ mean very much at all. It will stay until someone comes for it.

“It almost seems a shame to destroy it,” they will say.

But, they will.

And, in time, there will be nothing but crumbs.


Author’s notes
This story was written in response to a prompt about cooking. I started thinking about heat, and this year’s heatwave, and this is what came out of the oven…


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© Kat Day 2018

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The Wisdom of Scarecrows

(c) Steve Thompson

“The sky is a lovely colour,” said the scarecrow.

Angela adjusted her baseball cap against the May sunshine. She was leaning back-to-back against the scarecrow’s checked shirt. Bits of straw poked her.

“You’re lucky,” she said. “It often rains this time of year. It might’ve been pouring down for your one day alive.

Angela and her Dad had made the scarecrow for the village competition, to be judged at the May Day Fête tomorrow. They’d stuffed a pair of jeans and a shirt with straw and made a face out of papier-mâché. She’d painted it bright pink.

She’d been surprised when he started talking. Scarecrows, he’d explained, get one day of life once they’re made. Angela was sure most people didn’t know this.

“What’s rain?” asked the scarecrow.

“Water that falls out of the sky.”

“How does it get up there?”

“Um,” said Angela, trying to remember what her teacher, Mrs Pilady, had told her. “Something to do with bicycles, I think.”

The scarecrow looked, as much as someone with painted-on eyes can look, at Angela’s bicycle, leaning against the side of the shed. “Does someone put it in the basket and ride it up there?”

“Something like that,” said Angela. It probably didn’t matter. Mrs Pilady wasn’t likely to spring an impromptu test on them in the next few hours.

The scarecrow nodded. “Tell me again what happens tomorrow,” he said after a moment.

“Why do you want to hear it again? You won’t see it.”

“I know, but it sounds so nice.”

Angela smiled. “We’ll put you in Dad’s trailer and drive you to the fête. There’s a big display of all the scarecrows. The best one gets a red rosette. There’s a maypole that the preschool kids dance around. I did it a few years ago, but I’m too big now. There’s ice-cream and a barbeque and a coconut shy. And a bouncy castle!”

The scarecrow sighed happily.

The smell of smoke and crack of burning wood crept treacherously across Angela’s mind. There would be a bonfire in the evening. But why mention that? The scarecrow would never know.

“It’s beautiful here,” said the scarecrow. “I’m glad I’ve seen it. Even if it was just for one day. I’m glad I met you, too, Angela. If you hadn’t come outside, I would’ve spent all my time alone.”

Angela touched the scarecrow’s hand. The old ski glove was warm from the sunshine. “I think,” she said slowly, “that we should always try to enjoy days. They might run out for any of us.”

“Yes,” said the scarecrow.

They sat in silence, then. A bee buzzed by. Angela took off her baseball cap and rubbed at her nearly-bald scalp.

A few minutes later the back door opened. “There you are, sweetie,” said Angela’s dad. “It’s time for your medicine.”

“Hi, Dad. I was just talking to the scarecrow.”

“Were you now? Did he say anything interesting?”

Angela looked at the now-motionless straw man.

“Yes,” she said. “He did.”


Author’s notes
This story makes me cry every time I read it, which you might think is strange, because I wrote it. But as Robert Frost famously said: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” I’m proud to say that this story won the first ever BeaconLit Beaconflash competition in July 2018, and you can also read it on the BeaconLit website. Thanks to the lovely Steve Thompson for the image above (and the rest of the beautiful drawings which aren’t here to see… yet).


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© Kat Day 2018

A Change of Space

“Welcome!” said Captain Shepherd, as the door to the quarterdeck of the ship Starry McStarface slid aside. “Your grandfather’s told me all about you!”

Freddie Feghoot shook her outstretched hand. “It’s an honour to be invited, Captain.”

She waved her other hand dismissively. Her eyes sparkled. “Would you like to sit in the Captain’s chair?”

Who could say no? Freddie sat in the seat she indicated. It was smaller than he’d imagined. Glowing controls covered the arms. A screen floated in front of him, displaying a complicated pattern of intertwined, silvery strands.

“Strings,” said the Captain looking at the screen. “We use them to bend space, allowing FTL travel, you see. Neat tech. Only trouble is–”

“Captain! Anomaly on Zed!” called a middle-aged woman who’d been studying a display to the Captain’s right. “It’s a way off, but I think we’ll need to alter the knots.”

“Drat! Good spot, Lieutenant Motte. Out you get, Freddie.”

Freddie moved, and she slid into place. He stared at the screen. A red dot appeared, growing into something that looked like a child’s scribble. Captain Shepherd tapped furiously at her controls. Silver writhed around the red.

“Captain,” said Motte, “we need to change–”

“I know! Dammit!”

The floor shuddered. Freddie reached out to steady himself. The red scribble swelled. “What happens if we hit it?”

“Don’t ask,” said Motte, staring fixedly at the screen. “Captain, shall I…?”

Captain Shepherd cursed and pushed herself out of her chair. Motte took her place and reached for the controls. Freddie watched as the silver threads began to tie themselves into new knots which appeared, to him at least, to be pushing the red scribble off the top of the screen. He felt his heartrate slow down.

Then the floor lurched again. He looked and saw that the strands had twisted and slipped. “Are… they back to where they were?” he asked.

“Yes, dammit!” said the Captain. “Keep your eyes fixed on Motte while she tries again, will you? There’s a good chap.”

“Why?”

“Just do it!”

Motte jabbed at the controls again, gazing forward as both Freddie and the Captain stared at her. Freddie thought he could make out a flicker of reflected red in her eyes. Then it was gone. Her face relaxed.

“Thank goodness!” she said. “I thought we were going to collide with the wretched thing.”

Freddie looked cautiously away from the Lieutenant. The strings had adopted an entirely new pattern. There was no sign of any red.

“Well done, Motte,” said Captain Shepherd. “The pattern is dammed hard to alter once we’re underway.”

“Well, you know what they say,” said Motte with a wink, “a Shepherd can’t change her knots!”

“Haha, indeed!” said the Captain, slapping Motte on the shoulder rather harder than was necessary.

“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Freddie. “Why did we have to stare at the Lieutenant?”

Now it was the Captain’s turn to grin. “As everyone knows, Mr Feghoot, a watched Motte is never foiled!”


Author’s notes
I’ve always loved a shaggy-dog story. One the first I ever heard involved a chef called Gervais, a kitchen assistant called Hans and a small, green squid. If you don’t know it, I invite you to have a read. There’s a history of science fiction stories with these sorts of punchline endings, the most famous of which were written by Reginald Bretnor under the pseudonym Grendel Briarton and regularly featured a character called Ferdinand Feghoot. As you might have guessed, this is my little homage to those. I wrote it for the Escape Pod flash fiction competition. It got a smattering of votes but not enough to get through to the next round. Ho hum. But anyway, at the time of posting, you can still vote in the final of that contest – it closes on 27th June 2018. Go and check out the fabulous final stories!


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© Kat Day 2018

Will you Dance with Me, in the Pale Moonlight?

‘Will you dance with me, in the pale moonlight?’ asks the Devil.

I laugh, then, but I take his hand and let him lead me onto the dance-floor beside the marquee. His skin is warm, of course, but it no longer smells of smoke, as it did the last time.

That was so many years ago. But still the same time of year, late April, when the evening chill is softened by the smell of newly-cut grass and drifting cherry blossom.

The moon is full. A ball of silver and grey in an indigo sky. It seems to twirl with us as we sway and step to the band’s music.

‘Beautiful,’ says the Devil, and I’m not sure if he means the moon, or the music, or the bride, who whirls past in a blur of crystals and silk. He surely does not mean me. Life has marked me. There are lines, now, where once there was smoothness. My hair is thinner, my waist thicker. There are long-healed scars too, although they are mostly hidden. I wear these marks with pride, but it would be fanciful to claim they make me beautiful.

‘Yes,’ I agree, drawing closer. We are almost the same height, the Devil and I, and his eyes are liquid brown, so dark it’s hard to tell where iris ends and pupil begins.

‘Come with me,’ he says. ‘Be with me.’

It’s not the first time he’s asked. The last time I had a whole life ahead of me. There was more to do, more to experience. I couldn’t give myself to him. It would have been foolish.

Sometimes I think that we all end up losing ourselves, one way or another. It is only a matter of whether we choose it, a moment’s decision, or whether it slips away over years. Either way, one day we look back and realise that that person, the person we were, is gone. A memory. Did she even exist? I surely would not do the things she did. Perhaps I have acquired someone else’s memories; someone who once looked a little like me.

The music begins to fade. The Devil grips my fingers. ‘This time,’ he says, ‘come with me.’

I look around at the people drinking and talking. At the other dancers, laughing and glowing. Would they miss me, really, any more than the silvery moon, eternally dancing across night skies?

I know the answer to my question. And so does he.

‘They’d get over it,’ he whispers, his voice a cool breeze on a hot night.

‘No,’ I say, a touch wistfully.

He lowers his thick eyelashes and dips his head in the slightest of nods. ‘I should have persuaded you the last time,’ he says.

‘Perhaps,’ I murmur, glancing at my daughter, the bride. ‘But if you had, this wouldn’t have happened. And who knows what’s still to happen?’

The Devil laughs, then, and drops my hand, and walks across the dance floor, into the night.


Author’s notes

I suspect this is one of those pieces which will cause some readers to say, “eh?”

But I don’t care. I love this story.


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© Kat Day 2018

Scribble-Eyed Girl

Xartimon skipped across the pavement, finding little to amuse him. It was night by name but not by yet by nature; the sky remained the colour of bloom-dusted blueberries.

A dog-walker who’d paused to study her phone yelped as she realised her dachshund had decided to warm her shoe. The imp giggled and let the animal’s mind go. Then he sighed. Scents of warm dog and tarmacadam filled his nose, making him want to do something different.

That was when he found the clear rubbish bag outside a house with amber light dripping from its windows. It was full of a child’s paintings.

Xartimon’s eyes glowed as he sliced the plastic with a fingernail. A rainbow. Handprints. Something, perhaps a whale, drifting in a black ocean.

A door slammed in the house but he didn’t turn, engrossed in the treasures.

He flicked a hand and a swarm of jewel-bright butterflies lifted from the paper, scattering into the night. He watched them for a while, their wings gradually becoming monochrome as they flittered further into the orange light cast by the streetlamps.

Xartimon turned his gaze back to the torn bag and absently clicked his fingers.  Seventeen puffs of dust fell from the air. The dog-walker cursed and brushed at her arm, then frowned as the glittering residue faded under her gaze. She looked around but saw nothing, of course. People rarely see anything that doesn’t fit into the world as they know it.

The imp continued flicking though the papers in front of him. The next picture he stopped at was recognisably a girl. The image had wild hair and black scribbles for eyes. A straight smear of pink formed her mouth.

A moment later she was sitting up, flexing her stick wrists and wriggling her fingers.

Now, something for her to do…

Paper on the ground caught Xartimon’s eye. Brown and gold on a black background. Red fingerprint eyes. A wolf, maybe.

The scribble-eyed girl looked around as the newly-animated creature made a crackling, crunching sound. She took a step backwards.

Xartimon sat on the low wall that bordered the garden of the amber-windowed house, balanced his left foot on his right knee and tipped his head to one side.

The wolf snapped. The girl dodged and made a whistling sound like someone blowing across a piece of paper. The wolf dropped back, tail low.

Xartimon clapped.

The girl picked up a stone and threw it awkwardly. The wolf caught it in its jaws as though it were a ball.

Xartimon shook his head. Stone never beat paper.

The beast charged, gaping mouth revealing sharp, white triangles. It caught the girl with an unpleasant tearing sound. She squealed and pulled, losing her left arm. She lurched to her right and grabbed for the wolf’s tail.

It slipped through her fingers and the creature snapped again, catching her head. She pushed and kicked, but it was no use. This time there was no tearing. The beast pulled her into its mouth, chewing and mashing the paper until it dissolved into fragments.

Silence fell and the wolf looked at Xartimon, hopeful expectancy in every dry breath. As one, they looked up at the perfect half moon. There are those that believe that full moons are magical, but there’s nothing magical about something which can only go one way.

A high-pitched sound emanated from the house behind them. Not quite a scream. Not quite.

The imp pointed a finger at the child’s monster.

The jet of blue flame left nothing but specks of ash drifting in the air. Xartimon glanced at the amber-windowed house.

His game was mischief. Evil, well.

That was the business of others.


Author’s notes

This first version of this dark little tale was written for the 2017 Podcastle flash fiction contest. It didn’t win, but it did get a good handful of votes. There were some truly amazing stories, by extremely talented writers, in that competition, so any votes at all was an achievement! You can listen to the winning stories here. At the time of writing there’s still time, just, to enter the Escape Pod flash fiction contest for 2018 – you need to submit your up-to-500-words Science Fiction story by the 30th of April. If you’ve missed the deadline, never mind, sign up for the forums and come and vote for your favourites anyway. See you there!

If you’ve enjoyed this story please considering buying me a coffee at ko-fi.com. The more coffee I have, the more likely I am to write more stories! 🙂
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© Kat Day 2018

Lessons from Madam Hyacintha

Daisy dug her fingernails into her scalp as she stared at the puzzle pieces scattered over the kitchen table. Each was a lump of smooth stone, roughly cubic. They had the colours of autumn leaves: warm oranges, yellowish greens and rich burgundies.

“How are you getting on?” asked Madam Hyacintha, looking over Daisy’s shoulder.

“Hmm,” said Daisy, distractedly.

“Well, let me know if you need anything,” said her mentor.

#

It had been an autumn day when Daisy had first arrived at Madam Hyacintha’s red-brick town house. Inside, the building had smelled of a peculiar mixture of turpentine and burnt sugar.

“What would you like me to do tomorrow?” Daisy had asked enthusiastically as they sat at the kitchen table drinking tea. “I don’t mind if it’s boring! I could clean the floor? I know that certain movements,” she waved her arm in a circle, “are important to practice!”

The wrinkles around Madam’s eyes had twitched, making Daisy think of sycamore seeds. “Ah? You’ve heard stories?”

“Yes! There’s always something like that to start with, isn’t there? Jumping into a puddle without splashing. Painting a wall. Catching flies with forks. It seems pointless, but it turns out it’s all about reflexes and technique!”

“It seems that you’re ahead of me,” said Madam, producing a small, leather-bound book with ‘Abecedarian Magicks’ embossed on the cover. “Read chapters one to four this evening. We’ll discuss them tomorrow.”

#

Daisy picked up the darkest stone piece and turned it over in her fingers. It was slightly warm to the touch. Two of its sides had been carved into the shape of a scroll, with a deep groove through the centre. Madam had told her that all the grooves should line up, making a continuous line. There were twenty-five pieces; perhaps they formed a five by five square? But no matter how Daisy moved them around, she couldn’t make it work.

She wondered why Madam had given her this task. Was it to teach her persistence? Patience? Maybe she was supposed to use some sort of magical technique? She had learned several already. Madam had even allowed her to help with some quite advanced spells.

“You are more than capable of doing these things, with practice and care,” she had said. “But I want you to appreciate the complexities.”

Daisy had felt this was not the way things should go. Surely she should be absolutely forbidden from dangerous magics until she had somehow proved her worth?

As if reading her mind, Madam continued: “Do not feel that you need to creep around and experiment behind my back. You are welcome to try anything, with supervision. I am merely trying to avoid having to clean up a flood, or untangle a misapplied metamorphism, or possibly both. I will not withhold information from you if you request it.”

Daisy stirred the disassembled puzzle pieces with her finger and frowned.

#

A week after she’d arrived, Madam had produced a sketch. It was a woman with pale skin and pulled-back hair: a single, dark strand falling across her face. The iris of one eye was the colour of lavender. The other was white; nothing but veins crawling across the sclera.

“This is Lady Aniya Aston,” said Madam. “She is extremely dangerous. Should you meet her, I advise that you run the other way, quickly.”

“Aha!” Daisy had said, “But I expect you can’t tell me anything else about her, because it would be too dangerous for me to know! I expect you feel you must protect me from the truth.”

“Not at all,” said Madam Hyacintha. “In my experience, that sort of approach always ends badly.” She had proceeded to tell Daisy absolutely everything about Lady Aston: the prophecy, how Daisy’s parents were involved, and even, much to Daisy’s shock, all about her own past entanglements with the woman. “It is usually best,” Madam had said calmly at the end of her lecture, “to have all the facts from the start.”

#

Daisy narrowed her eyes. “Madam?” she said, as her teacher was about to leave the kitchen.

The older woman stopped. “Yes?”

“Are you sure,” said Daisy slowly, “that all the pieces are here?”

Madam reached into her pocket, produced two more stones and placed them on the table. Suddenly the solution was obvious. Daisy pushed the pieces into a cube, three pieces along each edge.

“Very good,” said Madam Hyacintha. the corners of her eyes twitching upwards. “Remember, Daisy, you only have to ask.”


Author’s notes

We know how it is with mentors in fantasy and science fiction stories, don’t we? Mr Miyagi, Professor Dumbledore, Obi Wan Kenobi, even, I noticed, Odette in the recent animated children’s film Ballerina. They teach via obscure methods, withhold critical information, and generally frustrate their mentee until he, or she, does something stupid and gets into trouble. Then they die. Or get critically injured. Or just disappear.

Well I’m a teacher and I say: bugger that. We’ll have a properly structured curriculum and the teacher isn’t going to die at the end of it, thankyouverymuch.

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© Kat Day 2018

Key In

I wedge my palms over my eyes, trying to block out the glare. The room has no comforting shadows, no dark corners. Nothing but coruscating white. Makes me think of that nightmare where I’m in a spotlight, but I don’t know my lines and can’t see the audience.

How in hell did I get here? More to the point, how do I get out?

I move my hands and look at them. My skin looks almost dusty in this light, like chocolate that’s been left in the fridge too long. Not that I see that often.

I don’t know my name, but I know I eat too much chocolate?

There’s nothing on my hands or – I touch my face – my head. But I have a feeling that there should be. Or… there was.

I try to think, but the music makes it difficult.

It’s the one feature in this blank space, and it’s a jarring one. Synthetic and repetitive. And there’s something wrong with the tune. Every so often there’s a gap. My irritated brain desperately tries fill the space. Two beats, I think. I’ve never had an ear for music – I literally don’t know ti from tea.

~~~

“Everyone knows girls are useless at games, anyway.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“I need the computer. Go and do some cooking or something.”

“Shut up, I’m finishing this level.”

“You’ll never beat my score.”

“Already did. Why don’t you do your piano practice? Mum’ll only nag you.”

~~~

Da-ding, da-ding …………………………..  ding, da-ding da-da-ding

I recognise the tune, now. It’s from an old computer game.

I walk around, trailing my fingers along the walls. The room isn’t square. It’s sort of oblong, with a narrower section at one end – a corridor that doesn’t go anywhere.

~~~

“You need the key to get past this level.”

“Stop distracting me! What key?”

“THE key.”

“Very helpful. Go away, Aaron.”

​~~~

My idiot brother. I drop to the floor, cross-legged. Key. It has lots of meanings. Keyboard keys, door keys, piano keys, answer keys, even – if you’re not bothered about spelling – dockside quays.

My shoulders shake as I start to laugh.

“Aaron, you asshole!” I say out loud. “Piano key? You know I never got past two-finger chopsticks.”

There’s no response that I can hear, but deep in my belly I can feel him laughing.

I stand and walk back to the widest part of the room. Then I wait.

Da-da-ding, da-ding, da-ding… goes the music and right there, I jump, landing feet flat on the floor, as hard as I can. The floor lurches and I’m rewarded with a dooong. Without pausing I do it again. There’s another sound and then the tinny music continues.

Did I fit the two notes into the gap?

The answer comes as the wall at the end of the narrowest part of the room slowly disintegrates until there’s nothing but blackness. It’s inviting after all this glaring white.

“Press any key to continue,” I chuckle, as I walk onto the next level.


Author’s notes

This story was written in response to a challenge to write a story in which the main character wakes up in a featureless, white room (in 500 words). Writers are often advised to avoid the cliché of starting a story with a character waking up in unfamiliar surroundings, so this was always going to be tricky to pull off with any finesse. Does it make any sense? I’m not entirely sure! This story definitely has its issues, not helped by the short word count, but I’ve left it in its original form.

© Kat Day 2018