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

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