Wish Missed

Fariha soared through the sky, her glossy feathers drenched in gold light and violet shadow. The sun would soon drop below the horizon. It was her favourite time of day, not because of the sunset — she had seen many sunsets, and she had grown rather bored of them — but because it was a time of change.

Change was interesting.

Two eagles glided on the thermals ahead of her, working together to hunt. Fariha could feel their prey below, a rock rabbit, ears twitching as it sensed danger. The eagles separated, the female hugging the cliff edge while the male soared in the light of the dying sun. The tiny creature stared at it, transfixed. It was not blinded by the light, but it was distracted as the female eagle circled behind and prepared to dive. Fariha watched, fascinated, and then hissed a word. The rock rabbit suddenly turned and let out a high-pitched, shrieking, chucking sound, many times louder than its tiny lungs ought to have been able to produce. The female eagle, spooked, missed her target and rolled into a ball of feathers and screeching frustration.

The rock rabbit, shocked by the sound it had just heard itself make, froze in place and was bitten by an opportunistic puff adder.

Fariha cawed with delight and soared higher.

She continued to drift on the thermals, skimming over the boundary of a small town. Houses lay below her, whitewashed U-shaped buildings that curved around small gardens. At this time of day, most people were beginning to retreat indoors, but something below snagged her senses. Longing. Clear and sweet as the note of a bell.

Humans who wanted things were so much fun.

She tucked her wings and began to descend. She found the girl quickly enough, sitting in a small garden, fingers working a lump of clay. She wore a dress of muted greens and browns, her dark hair tightly braided. Her face was smudged with dirt.

Fariha landed, clawed feet scratching the hard earth. The girl looked up and then scrambled to her feet, eyes widening at the creature before her with gold earrings and human-like eyes and a nose-bridge that stretched and curved into a brutally sharp beak.

Fariha folded her dark wings around her body and said nothing. She wasn’t tall, but neither was the girl, and they gazed at each other eye-to-eye.

‘Who are you?’ asked the girl, after a moment.

‘Fariha, goddess of the winds, mistress of machination, sovereign of schemes, arch of artifice, at your service,’ said Fariha, sweeping one wing in front of her and dipping her head.

The girl stared. ‘My father told me stories,’ she whispered.

‘Did he indeed? And what did he tell you, child?’

‘That the bird goddess Fariha is… clever.’

‘Hah. And appreciated flattery, no doubt? An astute man. There are some. What is your name?’

‘Elissa, and I am pleased to meet you,’ said the girl, nodding her head. ‘But if I may ask, why are you here?’

Fariha looked around. The house to which the small garden was attached shared walls with both of its neighbours. The doorway was dark, and spoke of damp coolness. The air in the garden was heavy with the scents of late-blooming flowers, long shadows stretched over the gum trees and red yucca plants. A small, wooden stool lay overturned at Elissa’s feet. She had not dropped her clay.

‘You have a pretty garden,’ said the bird goddess.

‘Thank you. I have worked hard to make it so,’ said Elissa.

‘But your house is very small. Perhaps you dream of something richer. More opulent. With servants to bring delicacies and cool drinks?’

‘Not really,’ said the girl.

Fariha clucked. ‘No? Then…’ she twisted her head to the south, where there was the beat of distant music and lights were beginning to mark the darkening sky. ‘Perhaps the party? You yearn for the music, and dancing and song? The hand of a handsome prince?’

Elissa giggled, then clapped a hand over her mouth. ‘No!’

Fariha’s brow creased. ‘All young girls want to go to the party, surely?’ She looked Elissa up and down. ‘The dress is easily remedied. And the hair. And I’m sure there’s something around here that would do for a coach…’ Her eyes stopped on a lizard skittering up one of the whitewashed walls. ‘Certainly, attendants would not be a problem. And shoes, yes, I could make the most beautiful shoes,’ which, she mused silently, would pinch and stab and fall off at the most inopportune moment. She had heard the prince had a thing for shoes.

‘No, please,’ interrupted Elissa. ‘I don’t want to go to the party. My sisters went. They will tell me about it when they return. I would rather stay here.’

Fariha buried her fists into the feathers at her waist. ‘Well, then, child. I felt your longing, and it was strong. Tell me, what is it that you want?’

‘Honestly, there’s nothing,’ said Elissa. She paused. ‘You must be tired. Would you like some tea?’

‘Tea?’ Fariha found herself disconcerted. Usually, when she found a human who wanted something, she offered it to them, and they took it. And more. Their avarice tangled them like fish caught in nets, and she took great joy in watching them flap and flip and try to squirm out of the predicaments they created for themselves. They never offered her anything. At least, not until it was far too late.

‘I’ll make some,’ said Elissa, darting through the dark entrance of her house. She returned a few minutes later with a pot and cups. The scent of cardamom drifted across the garden.

Fariha sniffed cautiously. A beak was not the most conducive thing for drinking from a cup, but if she allowed the liquid to cool a little she could pour it into the bottom part of her bill and swallow it from there. It smelled deliciously sweet.

‘I think,’ said Elissa after they had both taken cups, ‘that you came to my father, once.’

‘Perhaps. I have seen a lot of men, in my time.’

‘He was a good man, my father. My mother was pregnant. Her time was near and he had only one thought on his mind. He wished for a healthy child that would live a long life.’

‘And you’re here, I see.’

‘Yes. But he never wished anything for my mother. She died a week after I was born.’ Elissa looked up from her teacup and met Fariha’s gaze. Her eyes were challenging.

Fariha shrugged. ‘That was not my doing. Human childbirth is a difficult business.’

‘You could have saved her.’

‘I could have. I wasn’t asked to.’

‘He blamed himself. ‘

‘Again, that is not my doing.’

Elissa looked down. ‘No. I suppose not. He loved me, of course. He was happy that I was healthy. But I know that in his heart, he always wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t taken that wish. If he had refused it.’

‘If you’re asking me for the answer to that, I don’t know it. I can move a thread in the tapestry, but I cannot tell you how the pattern would have looked if I had not done so.’ Fariha paused, fixing the girl with a beady stare. ‘Unless, perhaps, that’s your wish?’ Yes… she thought, and the knowledge will burn inside like you a parasitic grub, eating its way through your flesh until it utterly consumes…

‘No,’ said the girl thoughtfully, ‘I think it is better not to know.’

Fariha huffed. ‘Well, then. What is your desire? I felt something. Tell me.’

Elissa laughed, and looked at her ball of misshapen clay. ‘Probably that I wanted my sculpture to actually resemble something.’

‘Is that all? That’s simple. I can make you the best sculptor in the world. People will weep to see your work.’ And the King will find you, and insist you make endless models for him, until your nails crack and your fingers bleed and they are so calloused that you can no longer feel anything, and…

‘No, no!’ said Elissa. ‘No. If I am to become good at modelling clay, I shall learn the skill for myself. With practice. If I acquire it by magic, it will be as though it’s someone else’s work, and what would be the point of that?’

Fariha looked at the sky with irritation. The sun was gone, leaving nothing more than a bloody glow across the darkened horizon. Soon, it would be night, and her power would be gone for another day. ‘You waste my time,’ she hissed.

‘I’m sorry. It was not my intention. There is nothing that I want. Take your leave, if it pleases you, of course.’

Fariha screeched. ‘You bore me, child! I hate being bored.’ The bird goddess spread her wings wide, so that the tips almost touched the walls of the tiny garden, filling it with black shadow. The teacup fell to the ground with a crash as she flexed her talons, long, wicked things that dug deep into the ground, and stared at Elissa. ‘Such lovely, soft skin. I promised your father you would live a long life. I never promised you would live it painlessly. Unscarred.’

Elissa took a deep breath. ‘You need me to ask for something?’

The two stared at each other for a long moment.

‘Do not think of tricking me, child. You cannot wish me harm.’

‘No,’ said Elissa, breaking Fariha’s gaze and looking up at the sky, now a deep indigo marked with a single pinpoint of white, light. ‘But perhaps there is another way.’

Fariha’s black eyes glittered. Time seemed to stretch and stop, and snap.

‘I wish… you were not bored. And would never be so again.’

There was a sound, just on the edge of hearing. Clear and sweet as the note of a bell.

Fariha began to laugh. She flapped her great wings and leapt upwards, still laughing, and the sound turned into cawing as she soared into the endless sky.

Somewhere far below, a girl picked up a lump of clay and began to work on it, so that it resembled something a little like a woman.

Or perhaps a bird.

Or perhaps, a reminder.


Author’s notes
This story was written for another Mythmaking event. The idea behind these events is that a group of storytellers write and perform stories inspired by museum artefacts that have no stories of their own. In this case, we know these small, female-form, ceramic figures are about 4000 years old and were widely traded, but that’s all — no one knows who, or what, they represented, or why they were significant. The event took place at the Ashmolean Museum, was organised by Brian Mackenwells and Charvy Narain, and was totally brilliant — look out for more in the future!


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© Kat Day 2019

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The trip of a lifetime

Dear Han and Lettie,

Having a wonderful time in E. California. It’s so different from the forest – the rocks are the colour of cinnamon and chocolate and the sky is clear and bright, like peppermints. Tomorrow I’m going to visit the local “Nut and Candy Store”. I’m sure I’ll find some lovely knick-knacks to bring back. Maybe something pretty for the gables. I hope there’s air-conditioning. The heat here is ferocious. They say that if you crack an egg into a pan and leave it in the sun, it will cook. I can believe it – the ground is so hot it’s like a stovetop. It’s tough on my old bones! Thanks again for spending some of your windfall on little me – it’s been the trip of a lifetime,

Baba Rosina x

Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley

P.S. Look after the cottage, darlings, don’t eat me out of house and home!


Author’s notes

This piece came from this idea: What if Hansel and Gretel didn’t so much as push the witch into an oven, as send her away to one? All the places mentioned – the Nut and Candy store, Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley – are real locations. The witch’s name is an amalgam of the old “Baba Yaga” myths and Rosina Leckermaul, from the Engelbert Humperdink opera. 

© Kat Day 2017

Out of the Doorway

supermarket-507295_960_720Jem let the heat of the shop wrap around her like a blanket. She stared at the rows of bright packets. Saliva filled her mouth.

“Have a nice evening!” The door swished as the customer left. Jem’s fingers caressed warm metal in the pocket of her jeans.

Coins. But not enough.

She headed for the door. Claws of cold air reached out to claim her as it opened.

“Did you forget something?”

Fingers gripped her arm, pulled her round.

Three packets of fig rolls fell from underneath her jacket, thudding softly as they landed, one after the other, on the linoleum.

“Cat got your tongue, eh? God, I’m so sick of you lot. Bloody freeloaders, think you can come here and just help yourself to everything.”

Jem kept her eyes down, letting the words wash over her head, like a wave. Hold your breath. Stay calm.

“I’m calling the police.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his phone.

“No,” she looked up. “Please.” Not that. “I’m– I’m sorry.” She looked up, pleading.

“Oh, so you speak English, eh? Well that’s something!” The shopkeeper peered at her. “Here, how old’re you?”

Jem didn’t answer. His mouth was hidden by a huge, ginger beard, but his eyes had a touch of kindness around the edges. She was short, and skinny, and it was a long time since her face had seen makeup. With luck…

“Oh for chrissakes. When’d you last eat?” He shook his head. “I’m too soft, that’s my problem. Here,” he picked up one of the packets and thrust it at her. “They’ll be damaged, anyway. Now get out of my shop.”

“Thanks,” mumbled Jem, blinking. She stepped into the night before he could change his mind.

#

“Haha, lookit this guy, Jem.” Her friend, Kev, rubbed his hands together, more out of habit than of any hope of generating warmth.

Jem squinted across the road where a bearded man was running, huffing and puffing. A yellow light blinked in the distance.

“E’s missed that cab,” said Kev. “He’ll be lucky now, this time of day.”

“Yeah,” muttered Jem, watching as the man leant against a lamppost and reached into his back pocket for his phone.

“What a muppet! Now he’s dropped his mobile!”

Instinct had her legs moving before her brain registered what was happening. The man was lying on the pavement by the time she got there.

“Shit, he’s had a heart attack. Kev, call an ambulance!” Jem thrust the dropped phone at Kev as she started chest compressions. A black chuckle bubbled up as she remembered her army instructor’s advice: ‘Use Another One Bites The Dust by Queen for the right rhythm. Keep it in your head, though.’

“Why’d you care? He’s probably a gonner. As if he’d give a fig for one of us.”

“JUST DO IT!”

She heard Kev mutter something, but then, a few seconds later, she also heard him say ‘ambulance’.

“He did give a fig,” she muttered, between presses.


Author’s notes

A story inspired by Aesop’s Fable of The Lion and the Mouse. It also seems appropriate, given current events, to remember the importance of a little compassion.

© Kat Day 2017

Let me come in

lift buttonsPagett gazed sadly into the mirror on the back wall. On the store dummy the pink suit had looked bright and trendy. On her, after a long day, creases and bulges had appeared. Combined with her naturally shiny skin and the hot, metallic-scented air of the lift she felt uncomfortably like partly-cooked sausage.

She turned as the doors opened. A woman stalked in, dressed a dark suit so sharp you could use it to perform surgery. She smiled, glossy red lips peeling back from white teeth.

“Pagett! Just the person I was hoping to run into,” said the newcomer as the doors closed.

Pagett took a deep breath and smiled weakly. “Am I, Wilfreda?”

“Absolutely, darling.” She examined a perfectly-manicured nail. “I was chatting to that friend of yours earlier. What’s his name. Oh yes, Shay.”

“Were you?”

“I was. And, you know, I was saying I need something good this month. Something to really blow through my targets. And, funny thing, I happened to remember hearing something, oh, I’m not sure where from now, about Shay’s previous experience.”

Pagett nodded slowly, looking at the blue numbers above the door. It took a while to get down from the seventieth floor.

“And, I can’t think what came over me, but I just happened to suggest that it would be a terrible shame if Anderson were to find out that Shay’s last job was less executive assistant more, shall we say, shop assistant.”

“It was?” said Pagett, eyes widening.

“It seems so,” murmured Wilfreda, “because when I said that, he immediately told me that interest rates are going up. I thought he might just be clutching at straws, you know, but no – apparently he’s seen the paperwork.”

“Gosh, he shouldn’t…“ Pagett tailed off as the lift slowed.

Both women looked out as the doors slid open. The corridor was empty. Wilfreda casually tapped the toe of her glossy, black stiletto shoe. “Anyway,” she continued, as the doors closed again, “after that, would you believe it, I just happened to run into Rick. You know Rick as well, don’t you?”

“Er,” said Pagett, brushing some imaginary dust off her jacket, “a bit… we’ve chatted a few times.”

“Yes, I thought so. I happened to mention in passing a few bits and pieces I’d heard about last year’s Christmas party, and would you believe it, little Ricky immediately up and told me that Birch and Billet are about to announce a loss.”

Pagett chewed on a nail and said nothing. The lift stopped again but, once more, there was no one there.

“Here’s the thing, Paggy,” said Wilfreda, turning to fix her gaze on the other woman. Her eyes were a brilliant shade of grey that reminded Pagett of the sun behind clouds. “None of that is very juicy, is it? Interests rates, huh. And everyone already knew B&B were up the swanny. I need something else. Something really good.”

Pagett’s eyes widened again. “But… Wilfreda, you know I can’t.”

“Pish. Of course you can. Who will know?”

“That’s not the point.” Pagett looked at the descending numbers over the lift door.

Wilfreda narrowed her eyes. “I may have nothing on you, little goody-two-shoes Paggy, always working hard, never partying, never speaking out of turn,” she growled, “but you know what? It doesn’t matter. I’ll make something up. Something suitably… illegal. No smoke without fire, everyone will say. She had the means, they’ll say. Poor Paggy, I expect she wanted some extra cash to buy a decent suit, they’ll say.”

Pagett chewed her lip.

Wilfreda continued to stare at her. It felt as though she was trying to suck all the air out of the small space.

“All right,” said Pagett eventually, “but if I tell you this, you have to promise to leave Shay and Ricky alone from now on, okay?”

Wilfreda looked away and waved a hand. “Whatever.”

“Okay,” said Pagett, staring intently at the numbers which were finally ticking down into single digits. “Terracube Limited. They’re about to announce the result of their oil exploration.” She lowered her voice, even though they were alone. “They found a huge field.”

“Really?” Wilfreda’s eyes glinted.

Pagett nodded, and stared as the display finally flicked from 1 to G.

Wilfreda stepped out without looking back, high-heels clicking on the marble floor of the foyer. Pagett didn’t leave. Instead, she leant against the lift wall, letting her heartbeat return to normal. Then she pressed a button. The doors slid shut and the lift started to move upwards.

She straightened up, took a deep breath, and smiled. At school she’d always been the one with her head in a book, reading, learning, writing notes. But, funnily enough, she’d always liked drama lessons. It was fun, pretending.

After Ricky and Shay had been to see her this morning she’d spent her entire lunchtime staring into the mirror, practising her nervy, anxious look. And it looked like the hard work had paid off – Wilfreda had believed every word.

In fact, Terracube were about to announce that the oil field was a bare as a wheat field after harvest. With a bit of luck, thought Pagett as the lift doors opened again, Wilfie will blow so much money on the deal that she ends up fired.


Author’s notes:

The first version of this story was written for a competition which specified the lift (elevator, for my American friends) setting. I tried a few things, but they all seemed very predictable or boringly bleak (hospital lift, sigh, someone leaving an office party, yawn) so I decided to have mess about with it instead and threw together a spin on the classic fairy tale: The Three Little Pigs. I wasn’t completely happy with my effort, but the deadline was looming so I entered it anyway. It didn’t win, but it did get highly-commended, which just goes to show that you can’t always predict how things will be received. Still, I’ve since re-written it fairly substantially to make more of the ‘hard work pays off in the end’ theme of the original fairy tale. I hope you enjoyed it!


© Kat Day 2016

The Prince and the Witch

800px-W.E.F._Britten_-_The_Early_Poems_of_Alfred,_Lord_Tennyson_-_Sleeping_Beauty
(c) Adam Cuerden

“A-ha ha ha ha ha!” I cackled, as the beautiful princess nicked her finger on the golden scissors.

“Oh blast,” she said, “my mother warned me about th–” her voice cut off as, with a final desperate look at her lady-in-waiting, she fell asleep.

“You fiend!” said the lady-in-waiting, “what have you done?”

I didn’t need to answer; she’d just about got the last word out when the spell caught up with her and she crumpled to the floor.

One, two, three, four…
There was a clattering from outside the door.

Better get a move on, I thought, as it was followed by the distant rustling of fast-growing thorn bushes. I stepped over the fallen guard and dashed out of the castle, murmuring the spell to remove my disguise on the way.

#

I’m a witch, you see, and I happen to think the old routines are the best. My mother was a witch, and her mother before her, and you can’t beat a good castle-cursing. After all, something interesting has to happen to princesses. Embroidery and sitting by windows brushing unnecessarily long hair really doesn’t make a good story on its own. Make no mistake, stories matter. People round here just don’t respect a ruler who hasn’t suffered at least one bit of misadventure.

Still, much as I appreciate tradition, I’ve never gone in for the whole pointy hat, warty nose and straggly hair thing. Quite apart from the fact that it rather gives the game away, a girl’s got to have standards. There’s no excuse for tatty clothes and ugly boots. I don’t care what anyone says, I like a bit of lipstick, and green isn’t my colour.

#

I kept an eye on the castle. The bushes almost completely concealed it and I knew everyone inside would be all right – I’ve been casting basic send-em-all-to-sleep spells for decades – but I still like to make sure the boundary’s secure. There was that time with the bear and, well, let’s just say that one didn’t end happily ever after.

#

I was doing my rounds two weeks later when a white charger, draped in an extravagant blue and gold caparison and bearing an armour-clad rider, appeared.

That was quick.

He dismounted and started hacking at the braches near the castle entrance with his sword. Honestly, they never think to bring an axe. I sidled up behind him.

“Hello, kind sir,” I said.

He jumped, then peered at me through his visor. “Hello, good woman. Do you live hereabouts?”

“I do. I was just chopping some wood for the winter. Would you like to borrow my axe?”

“You’re not dressed for woodcutting,” he said, suspiciously.

Smarter than the average prince then; that was promising.

I smoothed down my red dress, murmured something and held out the sharp-bladed tool. He shrugged, took it, and swung at the bushes. It went through the vines like a hot knife through frog’s brains. Very handy for spells, frog brains.

Ten minutes later he’d run up to the tower and was crouching by the princess. I followed.

“Is she alive?” he asked.

“Oh yes, just asleep. It’s a standard ‘true love’s kiss’ deal. Er, I imagine,” I added.

“Oh dear, really?” he asked, taking off his helmet. I was surprised. He had to be sixty if he was a day. A handsome man, certainly, but in a rather well-worn way.

“You’re older than the average prince,” I said.

He sighed. “I know. It’s not my fault, I come from a very long-lived family. My father’s been king forever. I heard there might be a spot of bother and so I popped over the border to check up on the old place.” He glanced at the sleeping princess. “She looks rather like my granddaughter.”

I looked him up and down. He really was rather good-looking, with deep brown eyes and thick, if grey-streaked, hair. He was in good shape, too. Ah, what the hell. Not all stories have to end the same way. I muttered a few words under my breath.

“Perhaps a kiss on the hand?” I suggested. “I’ve heard that sometimes works.”

“Do you think so?” he asked with relief, gently picking up the long white fingers and touching them to his lips. I muttered another word. The princess woke up with a start.

“Who are you?” she asked the prince.

“Prince Gerald of Boscovia, Your Highness.”

“You’re very old. I’m not going to have to marry you, am I?” asked the princess.

“Ah, no, Your Highness. I don’t think that would be appropriate.”

“Thank goodness. No offence.”

“None taken, Your Highness.”

“Jolly good.” The princess looked fondly at her pretty lady-in-waiting, who was just beginning to stir. “I don’t have much time for princes anyway.”

Gosh, I thought. Different times.

“Who’s she?” asked the lady-in-waiting, waking up and looking at me with piercing blue eyes. Surely she hadn’t recognised me without my earlier disguise?

“Just a local peasant who lent the prince an axe,” I said, staring hard at the floor.

“Hm,” said the lady-in-waiting. “You’re wearing very nice shoes for a peasant.”

“Is that the time? I must be going,” I said, backing away.

#

I waited by the prince’s horse. He reappeared more quickly than I’d expected.

“They’ve got a lot of tidying up to do,” he explained. “I thought I’d leave them to it. The king suggested we work out some kind of trade agreement next month.”

I nodded. It seemed more practical than the usual ‘hand of the princess’ deal in this case. You can’t keep on giving half your kingdom away every time something dramatic happens.

“So,” I said, looking again at the handsome prince. He looked about my age, come to think of it. “You said you had a granddaughter. Are you married, Your Highness?”

He looked sad. “I was, briefly, a long time ago. There was a terrible incident with a bear.”

I thought about it. I was almost sure that was nothing to do with me. “In that case, Gerald – may I call you Gerald? – perhaps you’d like to come to my cottage for dinner?”


Author’s notes:

I wrote this for a bit of fun, but it’s turned out to be one of my favourite stories. One of these days I might write more about this witch. I rather like her.


© Kat Day 2016