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

A Pocket Void

I close my eyes and put my face in my hands: the tips of my ring fingers pressed into the corners of my eyes, forefingers on my temples, thumbs resting on my jaw. I can feel the tremble.

I force myself to breathe.

After a while I reopen my eyes and stare through the blurry pink triangle, slowly focusing on the cupboard door in front of me. I push myself to my feet, open it, reach in, and pick up the only object sitting on an otherwise empty shelf.

The round, gold-coloured tin says Sour Cherry Drops on its lid. A smaller circle proclaims that the contents are made with real fruit juice.

It’s a little larger than my palm, just the right size to allow my fingers and thumb to curl around the curved edge and hold it securely. I pull off the lid.

It does not contain icing-sugar-dusted boiled sweets.

The inside edges are the same brassy colour as the outside, but the base, or rather, the thing on the base, is black. Not dull painted-metal black but really black. The blackness of absence. Of nothing.

I reach in, wedge a fingernail underneath, and extract it. A circle of darkness that unfolds to something larger as I put the now empty—or perhaps fuller—tin back on the shelf.

I hold the void’s edges where it forms a sullen, uncomfortable boundary with the light and colour of the world around it. It’s heavy, yet light. A closure, but also an opening.

An end, and a beginning.

I gaze.

There’s something pacifying about nothingness. All my spinning, whirling thoughts drain into it. The deadline I worry I can’t meet. The neighbour who parks on our front path. The pain in my right arm. The world I fear might be broken. The person who refuses to call me by my chosen name. The long-sightedness that is not quite bad enough for reading glasses, but not quite good enough to focus without strain. The colleague to whom I wonder if I said the wrong thing. The friend to whom I definitely said the wrong thing. The love to whom I did not say enough.

I open my mouth and make a sound. A howl, a screak, a scream. A long thread of a thing, that gets drawn into the void and pulled away. Dissipating into a place where there is so much emptiness that, no matter what you send there, it rounds down to nothing.

It fades away.

I fold up the void, place it back in its tin, and close the cupboard door.

My brain, of course, will make the thoughts again. But now, for a while, there’s peace.


Author’s notes
I missed August. So, yeah.


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© Kat Day 2020

MRS GREN

The book is heavy, bound with oxblood leather, thin pages the colour of clotted cream, letters remarkably black and crisp.

Let us consider that there are seven characteristics of life, easily remembered with the mnemonic MRS GREN. All must be present. The first, M, is movement.

The book does not move.

I could stop here, except, I feel the spine creak. I allow the pages to turn. On a short timescale, after all, one might imagine a plant does not move, and yet they gradually stretch to reach towards the sunlight.

So, let us continue along the list.

The second is respiration, which is not the same as breathing. Rather, it is the conversion of carbohydrates into energy. One could check for its occurrence by looking for carbon dioxide, but that gas is tasteless, colourless and odourless, and I certainly shall not be plunging the book into water to look for bubbles. This, we may have to put aside.

Sensitivity refers to environmental responses. Now, the book’s text does seem sharper when the light is brighter, but this only leads us to the perennial question of any good scientist: how does one distinguish changes in the observer from changes to the observation?

After MRS, we come to G, which stands for growth. I am certain the book has the same number of pages it had when I first found it, and is no thicker.

If it takes me longer to read now, well, it could be explained by my own reduced reading speed. The most obvious explanation is usually the correct one.

There may be more books on my shelves now than there were, but I very much doubt this constitutes reproduction, which is R. I daresay I have procured them.

Even if I don’t remember every acquisition.

Next is E for excretion… perhaps one might make a case for that. The scent of biblichor is  certainly present, although, my memory flags and I forget: is that inherent to books, or caused by some sort of secondary organism?

Finally, N, for nutrition. Plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars which they both store and use themselves during respiration. Animals consume those sugars when they eat.

The book does not eat.

It is not as if it could take ideas from my mind, and consume them, and use them to power itself. To flick its pages. Sharpen its text. Grow. Make new books.

In the face of limited evidence, I must conclude that the book is not alive.

It is not alive, and thus it is safe to open it again. Smell its scent. Feel the spine creak. Allow its pages to turn.

There are seven characteristics of life.

The first,

is movement.


Author’s notes
A creepy little piece of science-themed flash fiction. You won’t forget MRS GREN now, will you?


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© Kat Day 2020

Aural Fixation

Humans have been imagining creatures from other worlds for years. They were usually grey. Metallic ships. Spindly, grey lifeforms. No one expected something shimmering with all the colours of the visible spectrum, plus some only visible to mantis shrimp—who were, ironically, largely oblivious: tucked into the burrows they had carved for themselves in the ocean depths.

Humans have also long been fascinated by lights in the sky—devoting a lot of energy into reproducing same in the form of fireworks and the like—so most of the world’s population turned their faces upwards and gasped. And when it comes to communication, much of humanity has an aural fixation, and there’s no appropriate verb for ‘concepts transmitted directly into every human’s angular gyrus.’

So, let’s say that the alien invaders spoke.

‘This,’ said the voice, which to some sounded like heavenly choirs, and to some sounded like endless screaming, and to others sounded a parent who’s just watched their child do something unspeakable and is twenty-five seconds away from infanticide, ‘is a perfectly nice planet. Lots of water. Really, lots. Do you know how unusual that is? Not to mention all the plants. Photosynthesis is fucking amazing.’ (Powerful alien sentiences don’t swear, as such, but there was something there that implied emphasis, and most human minds filled in the gap.)

‘And here you are,’ it continued, ‘literally setting fire to the place. Never mind all the wasted metals. And the helium. You do understand that you can’t make that? If you keep putting it into thin-walled polymer-based containers and launching it into the sky you will run out.’

By now, some humans who’d convinced themselves they had power had started to collect in brightly-lit rooms with very thick concrete walls, where they were arguing.

Some said they should attempt diplomacy. They were naturally ignored in favour of the ones pushing for their own, rather more destructive, version of shiny lights in the sky. Missiles were shortly launched, plus some weapons the existence of which was only known to the humans huddling in heavily-concreted buildings, well away from the consequences of said weapons.

They all passed through the aliens harmlessly, like sand through a sieve, or neutrinos though miles of rock.

‘You’re ridiculous,’ they said. ‘The resources here are excellent. There are multiple intelligent lifeforms who’d be so much more grateful.’

‘What does that mean?’ thought several billion humans, more or less as one.

‘You’re toast,’ said the aliens. ‘But don’t worry, we’ll be selective. Some of the other primates are probably doomed, but most lifeforms will carry on. Maybe the next half-smart one to evolve will be less destructive.’

There was rage. There was frustration. There was helplessness.

And then, there was something else.

Something ancient.

It uncoiled itself from the depths of the ocean, inconceivably huge, a slick body covered in spines, each taller and thicker than ancient redwoods. Where the aliens had all the colours, this had none. It was blackness. The void. The absence of all light. It lifted a head the size of an island and spoke with a voice of thunderstorms and crashing waves.

It said: ‘Bugger off.’

The aliens considered. ‘What,’ they asked, ‘are you?’

‘What I am,’ said the great beast, ‘is here already.’

‘But,’ said the aliens, ‘it’s just them we object to. ‘

The creature rumbled. Huge waves rolled across the surface of the ocean. And the beat it created resolved into something that became…

Mozart’s Requiem, Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang’s Butterfly Lover’s Violin Concerto.

The sounds twisted into more recent pieces. I Got You, Bohemian Rhapsody, Experiment IV, too many others to recognise. There were words too, and not just songs: words of poets, playwrights, scriptwriters and novelists. Every beautiful sound the humans had ever created, compressed into a few minutes.

The final chords drifted away, wrapped around words:

 

But, spite of heaven’s fell rage,

Some beauty peep’d through lattice of sear’d age.

 

‘Oh,’ said the aliens. ‘That is interesting.’

‘They like sounds,’ explained the oceanic monstrosity. ‘Bit of an aural fixation.’

‘Fine,’ said the aliens, ‘all right. We’ll leave them to you. But do have a word about the fires and the ice caps, would you?’

And with that, they left, and the Earthly sky returned to its normal shades of mostly blues and greys.

The great beast rumbled again, but gently. ‘Sort it out, you lot,’ it said. ‘Else next time, I’ll join them.’

And with that it sank, far beneath the blue-black waves.


Author’s notes
June 2020 has been a bit rubbish, hasn’t it? Here’s a little something to brighten it up. Roll on July.


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© Kat Day 2020

How do you Sense the Sea, Child?

Stand at the shoreline. Curl your toes into damp sand, dip your fingers in the water, feel cold rush over your skin. Listen to the rumble, the roar and the hiss. Taste the air in your mouth. What colour is the sea, would you say?

#

Once upon a time the sea was a pale thing, clear as water in a glass. It was sweet, too, and good to drink. The ancient Viking sea-kings could sail for monthsso long as they had cured fish and dry bread and barley for porridgebecause there was plenty of water to drink.

The sea-king known as Mysing was a trader and a warrior, with grey eyes and the nose of hawk. Many said he had the mind of a hawk, too: sharp, opportunistic, and sometimes cruel. Mysing and his men invaded the lands of King Frodi, drawn there by a low rumble of song. A melody of pain and torment and misfortune, blood and tears and separation.

Upon Frodi’s inevitable death, Mysing discovered a mill and, chained to the wooden beam that moved the huge millstone, two giantesses with ugly red marks under the iron cuffs that circled their wrists. The muscles on their arms and legs were sharply defined from the unrelenting work of pushing the heavy stone.

They were dressed in blue rags, and it was this which first caught Mysing’s attention. These days, of course, blue dye is no great thing, but then it was rare and valuable, something only the wealthiest would have, so Mysing knew the enslaved women were important. He wondered if he could gain some advantage with the giants’ clan.

And then he learned that the mill was bewitched, and would grind anything one desired so long as the stone could be made to move, and his grey eyes glittered with greed.

Mysing poured a smile onto his face and spoke kindly to the giantesses, whose names were Fenja and Menja, promising freedom and safe passage if they would join him on his boat. They were so relieved to be free they did not ask questions when Mysing broke their chains but left the cuffs on their wrists.

Fenja and Menja walked willingly onto Mysing’s boat and drank the cups of spiced wine they were given. Exhausted from many weeks of hard labour, they slept.

When they woke, they found the millstone had also been transported, and their chains had been repaired.

They roared, then, so loud it might have been thunder, and pulled at their bonds, but it was no use. Mysing laughed and bade them grind salt which then, you understand, was more valuable than gold, for one cannot preserve food with gold.

When they refused he had his men turn their longbows on Menja alone, telling Frenja that he would kill her companion and leave her to live. Mysing recognised love when he saw it and, if you’ll recall, his mind was sharp and opportunistic and, sometimes, cruel.

The giantesses turned their dark eyes to each other and an unspoken word passed between them. They began to push, and Mysing smiled as salt started to pour from the millstone. They moved faster and he laughed, imagining his retirement as a wealthy man.

Then, in little more than a few breaths, the salt began to fill every space on the boat. His laughter died. With the millstone and the giantesses, the boat already sat low in the water, and now the weight of the salt pulled it lower.

Menja and Frenja began to sing a song of pain and torment and misfortune, blood and tears and separation, and Mysing’s eyes turned to horror as he realised it was the same song which had led him to destroy King Frodi.

Fingers of white lightening caressed the sky, the wind screamed, and waves of icy water breached the sides of the boat. They say the giantesses clasped their hands together and stared into each other’s eyes as the boat, its crew, the mill, and all the salt sank beneath the churning sea surface.

#

So, what colour is the sea, child? They say that on a still day it is blue, stained forever by the dye that seeped into the water from Menja and Frenja’s ragged clothes. While on a stormy day it is grey-dark, to remind us of the folly of a cruel, greedy man with grey eyes.

Now touch your finger to your tongue, child and tell me.

Do you taste salt?


Author’s notes
This is a retelling of a Norse story/poem called “Gróttasöngr” (The Mill’s Songs) with a few extra twists of my own. The character names, however, are unchanged.


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© Kat Day 2020

The Trickster

Said the trickster, here’s the game, if you’re able,

remember all the things upon the table.

I’ll take one and hide it away, he explained,

and if you can tell me what I’ve obtained,

then you’re the winner! And I’ll return it,

and I’ll also give you this nifty outfit.

 

He held a dress, midnight black and glitter,

belonged to a witch, he said–never fit her.

I admired it, imagined how it would look,

And if I lose, I said, you keep what you took?

That’s it, he replied, are we in accord?

Very well, I agreed, consider me on board.

 

It was my desk, after all, I knew it well:

Skull, wand, phial and ball. Cards, scroll, mirror and bell.

Turn your eyes, then, said he, and I’ll make my choice,

and I faced away, only hearing his voice.

A handful of moments, he bade me return,

Well, he said, eyes flashing, what do you discern?

 

Skull, wand, ball and phial. Cards, scroll, bell and mirror.

Seemed untouched–moved neither further nor nearer.

He was a trickster, though, and so I thought hard.

What was gone? A drop from the phial, a lone card?

A word from the scroll? The swirl inside the ball?

The blank smile of the skull? The bell’s ringing call?

 

It was none of these, and I heard his laughter.

He had me, I’d lost, and what would come after?

I looked in the mirror and saw my own face,

bright, sharp and clear and… it fell into place.

My mouth curved then, and his attitude shifted,

cursing as he understood he’d been grifted.

 

I reached out my hand, nails sharp, pale skin blistered,

Give me what you took from the glass, I whispered.

He tried to argue, deny, make demands and lie,

I gestured; he produced the walnut with a sigh.

Cracked it and nestled within that dark, dry space,

my fingerprints, took from the mirror’s surface.

 

Did you expect to bind me, foolish trickster?

I’m older than old, and my blood’s a mixture,

my magic is human and infernal, too.

Now begone, before I use your bones for glue.

And he ran, but of course I did keep the gown.

Monster I may be, there’s no need to dress down.


Author’s notes
One last poem from the Victory in Verse contest at the Codex Writers’ Forum (check out D. L. Davitt). I enjoyed playing around with rhyming couplets, and I think we could all use a bit of fun right now. Speaking of which, if anyone would like to see any particular type of story over the coming weeks, hit me up. I’ll do my best.


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© Kat Day 2020

Blue (a found poem)

Superimpose, other place

outside normal, beyond seas

fantasy, depression

mysterious consciousness

blew, doldrums, breezes

journeys, thinking days

waiting quietly, rebelliously

lapis lazuli, shop windows

travellers’ treasures.


Author’s notes
In honour of World Poetry Day (turning off my customary italics for author’s notes, because ugh)…

Looking for something fun and vaguely educational to do with the kids? Found poetry is really easy and definitely… something something literacy skills. This is, specifically, an erasure poem, and I have shamelessly taken the idea from D. L. Davitt (who’s currently running the Victory in Verse contest at the Codex Writers’ Forum). I’m certain she won’t mind: her enthusiasm for poetry knows no bounds. You should check out her work. Anyway, to create your own poem you either pick up a book you’re interested in, or you go to Google books and find something random (e.g. by typing in random search terms), choose a page, take a picture or screenshot (Microsoft’s snipping tool is perfect for this) and start blocking out the words that don’t particularly interest you. Five minutes later you will have a list of interesting words, which you can shuffle around until you are suitably pleased with the result.

This poem came from “Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox,” by Victoria Finlay.


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© Kat Day 2020

Contemplations of the Human Mind by Sophist Drazav of Lithios Prime

They saw crimson blurring into yellow shifting into green into cyan into violet and they imagined. In one story it’s a bridge, a link to a galaxy no more than sparkling dust in their night sky. In another, there’s a green-clad creature, guarding gold, stirring mischief with wishes.

Their later stories used other words. Human creativity pushed so far it became truth. Meteorological phenomenon. Optical illusion. Refraction, reflection, dispersion. These have their own solid, ringing beauty. Imagination blurred into reality shifted into science into physics into mathematics.

The minds of humans hold all these truths, and that

Is truly wondrous.


Author’s notes
A drabble in honour of my birthday, and also, I learned today, 9th Doctor Christopher Eccleston’s birthday! ☺


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© Kat Day 2020

Sympathetic Magic

I turned the book over in my hands. It felt all wrong.

A book like this ought to be bound in oxblood leather, with embossed lettering and crinkly pages that smelled of old chocolate. Mystical grimoires should not be heavy paperbacks with razor-cut pages and glossy covers.

Frowning, I opened it and studied the contents page.

#

My big sister is five years older than me, which doesn’t seem like much, now. But when I was four and she was nine, it was huge. It snowed that winter, and we were both desperate to go outside. Mum said she had to look after me. I wanted to throw snow and crash into things, because, hey, four. She wanted to make the perfect snowman so that she could take photos and post them on some social media thing.

Know what she did? She told me to lick the signpost near our house. And I did it, because, hey, four.

She left me there until she finished that blasted snowman.

#

I looked at the figure I’d been working on. I did a hand-building pottery class for a while, so it wasn’t terrible. Okay, it wasn’t going to win any awards: the legs were too thick, the shoulders were boxy and no matter what I did, the armpits weren’t quite right. But it was recognisably human, even somewhat feminine.

I picked up a wooden tool and cut a hole in the figure’s belly. I prodded strands of hair into the space, then pushed a piece of well-chewed gum in after them. There was nothing about chewing gum in the grimoire, but it had been in my sister’s mouth so that had to be a ‘link to the target,’ right?

I jammed the piece of clay back into the hole.

My sister told me Santa didn’t exist when I was five, stole the baby tooth that fell out when I was seven, broke my games console when I was nine, spilled red wine on my favourite jeans when I was thirteen.

I used the wetness from my eyes to damp the clay and smooth the edges.

I checked the time on my phone.

Then I picked up the old kitchen knife I’d been using and, glancing at the book, cut off the figure’s left breast.

My sister gave me her favourite doll when I was six, and money to buy cake at the school bake sale when I was eight. My eighteen year-old sister bought me fabulous new jeans that Mum hated. She spent a week teaching me integration before my maths exam. Whatever she said to that that boy who was hassling me, I never saw his face again.

My phone beeped.

My sister was out of surgery.

Again, I used the wetness from my eyes to smooth the clay over the cut and placed the figure in a shoebox filled with cotton wool.

Then I found my sister’s favourite song in my playlist and left it playing nearby.


Author’s notes
I had high hopes of selling this story but… it kept coming back to me. So. Here you are, lovely readers, you can have it. It’s too nice to keep in a box, I think. Coffee is, as always, very much appreciated ☺


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© Kat Day 2020

The Unexpected Gift

Crumpled paper, smeared plates, persistent babel of television. A wistful look at an unopened book.

Pause. There, under the tree, amongst scents of pine and cloves. Something shimmering with liminal light; discarded, or perhaps, forgotten.

Take it; feel its edges, solid and smooth. Sit down, pull air into your lungs, listen to the second hand of your watch.

Unseal the thing. Let its contents flow over you. Hear the voices flow to silence, feel the tick between seconds stretch. An hour of time, cherished and stored. Wrapped and given.

Open the book, sip something warming, and savour the unexpected gift.


Author’s notes
A little festive drabble. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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© Kat Day 2019