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

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Jin 2: the slipper

Rina looked around, trying to blink away the memory of a strange, glossy blackness.

“It’s a tent,” she said at last. Cream-coloured canvas walls rippled in a gentle breeze which smelled of thunderstorms and something thick and floral. Cushions were scattered all around, jewel-bright colours darkened by lighting that gave the impression of candlelight, although Rina couldn’t see any candles. The space was large, with plenty of room to stand and walk about. A low, wooden table had been placed near one wall, more cushions around its sides. Little clusters of books lay on the floor, some open, some closed, some with their spines bent painfully back.

Jin nodded cheerfully, as though being transported from a room full of shouting people to a wedding marquee which the bride and groom had decided would make a nice first home was entirely normal and everyday.

Rina picked up one of the books from the nearest pile. “Mushrooms of the Northern Isles of Araniae?” she asked.

“I like to read,” said Jin, settling on one of the cushions near the table.

Dozens of questions bubbled in Rina’s mind. For some reason, the first sentence to make its way out was: “you said this was a craft.”

“So it is. The Slipper can move outside of what you understand as space and time. Which, I am certain, is very little,” she added.

“I did physics at school.”

“Of course you did, child. But-”

“Why do you keep calling me child? I’m not a child!”

“How old are you?”

“I’m nineteen!”

“I am four thousand, five hundred and sixty-seven of your years, approximately,” said Jin, calmly. “You are a child. As I was saying, human understanding is very limited. You struggle to comprehend anything you cannot describe with language. You know that there is no concept of the colour blue in your famous Homer’s Iliad? Blue did not exist in your minds until you invented a word for it.”

Rina’s knowledge of Greek mythology was limited to playing the part of Medusa in a school play, and she wasn’t even sure that was in the Iliad. “That can’t be right,” she protested. “What about the sky? And the sea?”

“Have you ever looked at the sea? It is only ever blue in childish drawings.”

“But…” Rina shook her head. “Why am I arguing about this? I don’t care. The only thing I know about Homer is that a cartoon character was named after him. I think.” She walked over to one of the canvas walls and pressed her hand against it. It gave slightly, but only slightly, and merged seamlessly with the floor and the ceiling. Where was the breeze coming from? “Thanks for rescuing me and everything, but how do I get out of here? I need to get home.”

“You do not.”

“I do. Mum hates it if I don’t get back when I said I would.” Rina felt in the back pocket of her jeans for her mobile.

“I meant, you do not get out of here. You cannot get ‘out of here’ without my leave, and I say that you stay,” said Jin cheerfully, glancing at her book. “Your plastic and glass thing will not work,” she added.

Rina stared, a terrible sensation of wanting to press ‘undo’ filling her gut. “I can’t go home?”

“You cannot. Do not make me eternally repeat it,” said Jin, waving a hand dismissively. “Accept it. Explore. The Slipper is larger than it seems.”

For the first time Rina noticed what looked like a fold in the canvas to the right of the table, a sliver of blackness behind it. A thought worked its way around her growing panic. “What if I wish to go home?” she asked slowly.

Jin inclined her head slightly as if inviting her to try it.

“I wish to go home!” said Rina.

Jin chuckled. “Very good. Now we have resolved that. You still cannot go home, because I cannot safely return to your world, and you cannot get there without me. You can demand it, or even wish it, as much as you like, but it will quickly become a very tiresome and circular dialogue.” She turned her attention back to her book.

Anger elbowed its way to the top of Rina’s emotions. “You’ve got to be kidding me! I helped you! I called that stupid dog because you told me he was lost, not some bloody guard dog! And now I’m trapped on your… your… this!”

Jin did not look up. “You requested that I take you.”

Rina moved towards the old woman. “I just wanted you to get me out of there!”

“And so I did.”

“You didn’t explain that it was a one-way trip!” Rina was now just two feet away from Jin, who was still staring at her book.

“You did not ask,” said Jin, mildly. “I suggest, child, that you cease this tantrum.”

“STOP CALLING ME CHILD!” Rina reached out and made a grab for Jin’s book, intending to fling it aside and make her meet her eyes.

She blinked. She was back on the other side of the tent, and Jin was still in her spot by the table. Rina ran at her, only to find herself moved back to the same spot. Again. And again.

“You realise,” said Jin, after the fourth attempt, “that I could destroy you? I am simply choosing not to. It is quite possible that I will get bored with this game. Are you sure you want to see how long that will take?”

“Why did you bring me here, if you didn’t have to?” spat Rina, breathing hard.

“You amused me.”

“So, what, I’m some sort of, of, dancing monkey?”

“Finally you understand,” said Jin cheerfully. She reached out and pulled on the fold in the fabric, creating a triangle of darkness. “It really could be very much worse. You are alive, you have not been disfigured by a vicious dog, and you find yourself on a craft which can travel through multiverses in the blink of an eye. One might imagine you would be excited. Now,” she waved her arm at the gap, “explore!”


More to follow soon…

Jin 1 – the beginning

Breathing hard, Rina looked around the room she found herself in. Its walls had been painted plain white, and it was lit with bright spotlights. The air was dry and cool. There were no windows, and no furniture except for a single pedestal in the centre which held some sort of brass antique thing.

There was only the one door, and she’d come through it. No other exits. Outside, she could hear the ear-slamming sound of the alarm, mercifully muted in here, and the sorts of bangs and thuds made by, say, people opening and closing doors quite violently whilst running around in heavy boots. They were not, on the whole, friendly sounds.

On the other side of the room, Jin smiled. Rina had thought she was… elderly when she’d first met her. A little slow on her feet. Perhaps a touch of arthritis here and there. Now, standing with one hand on her hip, she seemed considerably more sprightly. Old, yes, but more the kind of old person who ran marathons at weekends, waving cheerily at youngsters who were puffing and throwing water over their heads as she passed by without even breaking a sweat.

There was no way she’d ended up in this room by mistake. “So, how do we get out of here?” asked Rina.

Jin shrugged and nodded at the door. “You can always go that way,” she said.

Rina noticed the emphasis. “And you?”

The woman said nothing, but the wrinkles around her eyes twitched.

“Come on, you have to help me! I can’t go out there! I’ll be caught, arrested! I can’t have a criminal record!”

“You should not have followed me.”

“There was a huge dog about to rip my arm off!”

“I taught you the whistle.”

“You taught me the whistle to make the damn thing attack me so that you could get in here!” Outside the door, Rina thought she could hear raised voices. It had clicked when she’d slammed it behind her. Had it locked?

“Perhaps. But you had a choice. You could have run the other way.”

“Funnily enough, I had the idea that the very fast dog with four legs might catch up with me!” There were bangs from the door. Rina thought she heard someone say something about a key.

“They’ll be in here in a minute! How are you going to get out?”

Jim grinned again. “I have a way.”

“Are you going to tell me what it is?”

“I am not.”

“Come on!”

“But,” said Jin, slowly, appearing to decide something as she spoke, “there is one thing you could say.” Her eyes flickered to the pedestal in the centre of the room.

“Oh, god, it’s not please, is it?” said Rina in desperation. The door behind her rattled.

Jin shook her head, looking a little disappointed. Her long fingers reached for the brass object on the pedestal. It had a loop of a handle attached to a wide section that tapered to a narrower spout. It was sort of shoe-shaped, if a shoe were placed on a small, upturned saucer and had a handle stuck on its heel. Rina thought she’d seen something like it before, somewhere. This was larger, and probably older, but…

Several things clicked into place in her mind. It was a lamp. An ancient, brass lamp. And the woman she’d followed into this room had said her name was Jin.

The lock rattled in the door behind her. “I wish you would take me with you!” she said.

Jin threw her head back and laughed. The door flew open and someone shouted something, but the sound dropped away. Rina’s skin tingled, her vision turned first black and white, and then, just black.

***

“Where am I?” said Rina, pushing herself into a sitting position.

“Welcome, child!” said Jin, cheerfully. “This is my craft. I call her The Slipper!”


Author’s notes

Unlike the other pieces on this site this is not a complete work. It’s something which starts here, with this first scene between Rina and Jin. These characters had been bouncing around in my brain and my notebook for some time, and I decided to let them out. And then, once they were out, they started clamouring for more.

You can read the next part of their story here.

© Kat Day 2017

Something in my eye

london-959482_960_720“I don’t want to!” I watch the small girl as she tugs on her father’s hand. Her hair is sunrise red, her eyes are the shifting green of stormy seas, and she is as reluctant to move as a boulder lodged in soft earth.

“Rowan, you’ve been pestering me all day. We’ve paid, we’ve queued, we’re going. You’ll like it once you get on.” The girl’s father looks down, sighs, then picks her up with a grunt of effort and tucks her on his hip. She is a little too old to be carried, I think, but nevertheless she buries her head in his shoulder. They step across the line, into the oval-shaped capsule with its clear, glass walls.

I follow them. I’m last, and the doors close behind me with a shhhnick. The air inside feels thick with people. I catch a hint of aftershave, or something like it. It’s thick and sweet, but with acrid undertones. I wrinkle my nose and look for the source. A man, wearing a thick jumper with a shirt underneath. The woman he’s standing too close to is hunched slightly, a large handbag clutched in front of her stomach. Her red lips are smiling, but it’s an unnatural thing, like blood on a cobweb.

“Did you know,” he says, in a voice that seems to have bypassed his lungs and come straight through his nose, “that there are thirty-two capsules on the London Eye, but the numbers go up to the thirty-three because, haha,” he gives a little snort of a laugh, “people believe that number thirteen is unlucky?”

“Really, Graham?” says his companion, as she stares through the glass.

“Yes. Aren’t these old superstitions ridiculous? Why is thirteen unlucky and not, oh, twenty-seven?”

“It’s something to do with Jesus’ disciples, isn’t it?”

He waves a hand, “yes, yes, but how is that relevant in this day and age? Such silliness. I expect it was a woman who made the decision. Typical female thing, all that superstitious rubbish.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t want bad luck on this thing,” his companion murmurs, fiddling with the clasp on her bag.

He snorts again, and she recoils from the puff of warm air. He doesn’t notice.

“Hello,” says a small voice behind me. I haven’t noticed that my red-headed child has wriggled away from her father’s grasp and crept up behind me.

“Hello, Rowan,” I reply, straight-faced.

Her eyes widen, like green pools swollen with rain water. I touch my nose and wink. I turn towards the glass wall of the capsule, pull a coin out of my pocket and flick it into the air. It spins, its shiny surface catching the afternoon sunshine, glinting and then… there is no coin. Only a remnant of light that fades away.

She stares at my tightly pinned-up white hair and long black dress. “Are you… a witch?” she whispers.

I smile. “Oh, witches don’t ex-”

“Rowan, are you bothering this lady?” her father is behind us.

“Daddy, she’s a witch!”

He flushes. “That’s very rude! I’m so sorry!” He scoops her up again and moves to the other end of the capsule.

“exist. Anymore,” I say softly.

We have reached the top of the arc. I stare out at the whole of London, stretched out before me. A messy carpet of buildings and roads and tiny cars and buses. Directly below us, the river, its glistening surface painted with the shadows of the tall buildings on its banks.

I worked in one of those buildings once, when there was still something for me to do. Before everything changed. Before I retired. Before so many years drifted by.

Something snags the corner of my left eye. I turn my head, there’s nothing there, but I have a sense of unease. I rub my thumbs against my forefingers in response to the strange prickling sensation there. Something I haven’t felt for a long time. I look around but everything is normal. The soup of voices has no anxious flavours. Graham is still too close to his companion, but she’s staring at the doors with quiet determination. Rowan is trying to swing on her father’s arm. The only smells are wood, and plastic and Graham’s oppressive aftershave. I look outside again.

Another flicker, now on my right. This time, I don’t look. I stare straight ahead. Another flicker. I still refuse to look. Another, and another, and then…

I can’t not look, because it’s right in my eye-line. I knew it would eventually tire of being ignored. Still, my mouth drops open a little. I hadn’t really expected to see this. Not now, not in this time. It’s been… how long? I try to remember. I was little more than a child, trying to help.

Kolim.

It’s small, less than the span of my fingers. Green-gold scales catch the sunlight. Tiny rainbows flicker in wings so fine they’re like the surface of bubbles. But I know from experience that these will not fall apart at a simple touch. The creature might be beautiful, if not for the eyes that glow with the dull light of coals after the yellow flames have died away. And the claws that curve gracefully into hypodermic points. It looks at me and grins. Its mouth is too wide, and too full of teeth. I can’t hear it through the glass, but I’d swear it’s laughing.

I look around. We’ve passed the apex of our circuit and we’re moving slowly down, but it will be several minutes before we reach the ground. None of the other passengers have seen what I’ve seen. My fingers tingle, and I reach up to the glass. I tap my forefinger and middle finger against it and a tiny spark of light appears. My aim is good. It hits the creature and it rolls up, ball-like. Its wings freeze, motionless, and it drops.

Relief and exhaustion wash over me, followed by a spike of concern. I look impatiently around. There’s nothing to do but wait until we reach the bottom and the doors open again.

“I mean, no offence or anything,” Graham is saying, “ but you women do fuss over things that are completely unimportant. Take my ex-wife for example. No, please, take her!” He laughs at his own joke. The hands of the woman with him clench into fists.

There’s a sound, like someone gently but firmly dragging a fork across a plate. My head whips to the doors of the capsule.

We’ve stopped moving, and the doors are opening.

They can’t be, because we’re still high in the air.

But they are. They’re slowly pulling apart as though hauled by invisible hands. I catch a flash of green through the gap.

Several flashes.

I take a step towards the doors, and then things happen fast. Three little balls of gold-green appear and grab Graham, one by the hair and one on each shoulder, and drag him towards the widening gap. For a second I wonder why him. Perhaps they like his aftershave.

“Help!” he squeals in a suddenly high-pitched voice. His companion stares, mouth open. She doesn’t, I can’t help noticing, move.

For a moment I can see two outcomes in my mind. Crisp and cold. Like a fork in a mountain stream; same water, different rocks. In one, I turn around and let the obnoxious man go. It will be a tragic accident. A “technical fault”. I will reach the ground and walk away, and then I’ll report it properly. Let the right people deal with this. It’s not my problem.

In the other…

I sigh. “No,” I say calmly, as I reach out and grasp Graham’s arm. His other hand is now gripping the edge of the door, knuckles white. His bottom is wedged in the gap, but it will soon be wide enough for him to fall through. One of the other passengers screams. Another shouts something. They cannot see the Kolim – to them it must look at though Graham was leaning against the doors and they’ve somehow given way. I haul on Graham’s arm, but he’s heavy, and the Kolim are pulling in the opposite direction. He starts to slip, and I realise that if I’m not careful, I’m going to follow him.

I try to find the tingle in the fingers of my other hand, but there’s nothing. So many years.

“Nononononono!” squeals Graham, his words whipped away by the wind as his head tips back into empty space. The doors are still sliding apart.

Worse, I can see more flashes of green and gold. More than three. Many more.

A hand grips Graham’s arm in front of mine and the wrench on my shoulder lessens. It’s one of the other passengers. Everyone else is pressed against the back wall.

“What are the fairies doing?” It’s Rowan. She’s a few steps away, I realise it’s her father who’s grabbed Graham.

“Get back against the wall, Rowan!” he shouts. Then, “he’s going to fall!”

“No!” I say.

“I can’t hold him!”

“No,” I say, “I mean, Rowan, come here!” Rowan stares and our eyes meet and lock and once again I have that sense of splitting. Of two different realities. And one is bad.

And one is really, really bad.

She steps towards me. I breathe out.

“You can see them?” I hiss.

“Yes,” she says.

“They’re not fairies,” I say, breathless. The soles of Graham’s shoes are tilting see-saw like on the rim of the door. His face is white.

“What are they?” she asks.

“I’ll tell you,” I say, “if you help me.”

She nods, eyes wide.

“When I say go, grab my hand. Understand?”

She nods again.

I count in my head. One. Two. “Go!” I let go of Graham and drop my right hand to Rowan’s. She grips it and…

The world falls away, as though everything is a cardboard set. There’s just Rowan and me, and she’s bright, as though lit from inside with a giant spotlight. Or maybe a small sun.

I draw her light into me. The tingling sensation grows and spreads. Every single cell in my body seems to stop for a moment, readjust itself and then…

The world rebuilds itself around us from the inside out. Energy is crawling across my skin. I can still feel Rowan’s fingers, but her grip is loosening.

“Hold on,” I say.

I feel her small fingers grip more firmly for a moment, but then her weight is heavy on my arm, and then it’s gone. Her fingers have slipped from mine, and she’s crumpled to the ground.

It’s all right. It’s enough. Less than a second has passed. Rowan’s father is still focused on Graham, who’s holding onto the edge of one door with his fingertips. I look past him and concentrate. It takes no effort, it’s terribly, terrifically, easy. I almost have to hold back.

There’s a flash as a ball of pale blue fire appears behind Graham’s head. Kolim hiss and pop as it touches them. It spreads out, splitting into fine tendrils at the edges.

And then it is gone. And so are they. And Rowan’s father hauls Graham back into the capsule. He falls onto his face, hands spread on the floor as though trying to hold onto the flat surface. The doors slide slowly shut as if they have all the time in the world.

I look down at Rowan and feel a surge of relief. She’s sitting on the floor, apparently unscathed. I crouch down and she looks at me, and I look at me in her eyes.

“When?” she says.

“Soon,” I say.

Her father scoops her up then, and people are crowding around me now, the brave old lady who tried to stop the silly man from falling out of the malfunctioning doors. The old lady who took the hand of the scared little girl and kept her from getting too close.

Hah.

There’s a lurch as the capsule starts moving again. Some of the other passengers cheer. It’s a brittle sound, tinged with hysteria at the edges. Oh, yes, there was a flash. Ball lightening, they’ll say. They always blame ball lightening. A freak electrical storm. No doubt it caused the doors to malfunction, too.

A woman touches my arm and hands me a bottle of water. I take it gratefully. I swallow. The cold liquid is like a coating of snow on a dirty landscape.

The capsule reaches the bottom of the circuit and, finally, we can get off. Paramedics are waiting to help Graham. A man in a uniform wants to talk to Rowan’s father. Me too, I expect, but I have a knack of avoiding this kind of thing. People will say, “she was here a moment ago…”

But they won’t find me again.

Unless I want to be found.

I catch Rowan’s eye. We both nod. She will find me. I owe her.

I take a deep breath and start walking.

And then I freeze, because I’ve just caught another flash of green-gold.

I turn my head slowly and I see the woman who was with Graham. His bored companion. She smiles at me with very red lips.

Then she snaps her handbag shut.


Author’s notes

I wrote the first version of this story a year ago. There was something pleasing about that initial effort, but it was a bit of an uninflated balloon of a story – there was room for a lot more in the middle. I tinkered with it, and then ended up leaving it partially finished in a folder. Wanting something for February, I came back to it – and remembered that I rather liked it. Suddenly, the middle section seemed to come together, and here you see something a lot more substantial. It just goes to show – never throw anything away…

© Kat Day 2017

Acutus Lepus

road-1072823_960_720“The rabbit–”

Bocci ducked as his Aunt’s heavy besom swung round in a wide arc. The springy birch twigs caught his hair, leaving his scalp stinging. “Blasphemy! We do not question The Creator – May He Be Always Revered!

“But–”

“One more word, boy, and I swear, I’ll have you digging out the privy. WITHOUT a shovel,” she added, with a glare that could have fired pottery.

Bocci’s nose wrinkled. He stayed silent.

His Aunt’s eyes softened. She looked around and scuttled a little closer. “Listen, child,” she said quietly, “this talk is dangerous business. If the high priest hears of it, it won’t go well for me. Old women have been used as kindling for less.”

She raised her voice again. “Away with you! Finish your chores!” She glanced around once more. “And your prayers!” she added. Just in case.

#

Bocci stomped through the forest, huffing away the heavy scents of leaf mould and rot. Shafts of cold sunlight slipped through the tangle of branches above. He sat down on a log and picked up a fallen leaf, letting his fingers trace the sharp edges and smooth surfaces.

Bocci’s thoughts were scattered by the thick scent and sound of moving earth. A rabbit poked its head through the newly-formed hole and looked around. It was holding a carrot.

“What’s up, Boc?” it said.

“Don’t talk to me,” muttered Bocci.

The rabbit shrugged and bit the end off its orange snack.

Bocci listened to the noisy crunching for a few moments. “The priests say that The Creator gave only humans the power of speech,” he said eventually. “So rabbits can’t talk. So you must be my imagination.”

“Interesting,” said the rabbit. “What about the dwarves?”

“What about them?”

“They’re not human. They talk.”

Bocci rubbed his sore scalp. “I think,” he said slowly, “they have a different creator.”

“Not ‘the’ creator, then?” asked the rabbit.

“Um…”

The rabbit swallowed. “Some rabbits think the Almighty Buck made all of us in His image.”

“But you don’t?”

“Makes no sense. Why go to all that effort? You just need two rabbits, then, you know,” the rabbit coughed, “you get two more, and then they get bigger and have more rabbits – before long, there’re loads.”

“But who made the first two rabbits?”

“Dunno. Common ancestor?”

“What?”

“Never mind. Gotta go. I’ve got eight mouths to feed.” It paused. “Might be thirteen by now.” The rabbit fixed its liquid eyes on Bocci. “May as well keep pondering the world, Boc. You don’t get off it alive either way.”

With that, it tossed away the end of its carrot and dived headfirst down the hole.

Bocci stared at the space where the rabbit wasn’t. After a few moments he remembered the leaf and held it up, eyes following the stem as it split into smaller veins, and then split again, and again.

He stood, brushing the damp from his backside. Whistling a complicated little tune he headed back towards his Aunt’s cottage.


Author’s notes

This little tale is inspired by Fibonacci and his sequence, and of course his rabbits. Really, this is about those people (or even animals) who are willing to think beyond what they’re told to think, even if doing so might make their life more difficult. It ends on a forward-looking note, which seems appropriate for the end of December. Happy New Year everyone!

© Kat Day 2016

The only winning move

death-valley-sky-597885_960_720

A landscape of barren, dark-grey stone. Above, a black sky dotted with pinpricks of light – as though someone had taken a piece of paper, repeatedly shoved a pin through it, and then put it in front of a something extremely bright. Like, say, the lights of an oncoming train.

There was no breeze. No sound. No moon.

Since the last thing David Snacknot remembered was playing Go with one of his colleagues at the University, this all seemed rather strange.

“Where in the hell am I?”

“Interesting assumption.”

David looked over his shoulder, giving the impression that while his head wanted to see what was going on, his feet wanted to stay pointing in the direction which might provide a clear run.

He found himself looking at a figure with its arms folded across its chest. Its black robe covered it entirely. Even its face was completely hidden by the fall of the heavy cowl.

At this point, David realised he wasn’t breathing.

He tried to take a breath, and found he couldn’t. Then, more out of habit than anything else he tried to panic, and found he couldn’t do that, either.

The cowled figure pushed back its hood. “Do stop opening and closing your mouth, Professor. You look like a goldfish.”

Unbidden, David’s feet shuffled around as he stared. The face before him was not what he’d been expecting. Not that he knew what he’d been expecting, but whatever it had been, it wasn’t this.

“A-are you… Death?” he stuttered.

“I dislike that name. Such negative connotations,” said the figure. The face was feminine, and it definitely had skin. Admittedly, very pale skin, and skin stretched tautly over angular – one might even say bony – features.

“Er…” said David, then stopped to consider the fact that, despite not breathing, he still seemed to be able to speak. He fought back an inexplicable urge to whistle. Just to see if he still could. Then he had to fight back the urge to giggle.

“I rather prefer Entropy,” continued the figure.

What is it called, thought David, when actors are laughing so much during a performance that they can’t say their lines?

“Because that other name, it’s really not what I do. I don’t actually have anything to do with the D-word. That happens before people get to me. My role is merely to move things forward.”

Oh yes, thought David. Corpsing.

“So,” said Entropy. “Shall we begin? Or perhaps I should say, end? Ha ha.”

“Ha ha,” repeated David.

Entropy beamed. “That’s the spirit! Hardly anyone laughs at my jokes! Oh! Spirit! Ha ha!”

David smiled weakly. His eyes slid from her face to the surrounding landscape, and something strange behind her left shoulder caught his eye. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing.

“What? Ah, yes. Well, once upon a time, it would’ve been a pale horse. But we all have to move with the times.”

“A combine harvester?”

“There are a lot of you these days.”

David nodded slowly. I must be hallucinating, he thought. Just how much did I drink?

“The scythe just wouldn’t be practical.”

“No, I suppose not.” His rational side gave up. If he was dreaming he might as well go along with it. “Er, don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought Dea–, sorry,” he said quickly as she frowned, “I mean, in books and things you’re usually male.”

“How can you tell?”

“What?”

“I’m usually drawn as a skeleton.”

“Oh. Good point.” David resolutely fixed his eyes on her face.

“The people who draw me,” pointed out Entropy reasonably, “are not, generally speaking, people who’ve actually met me.

“Of course, yes. Makes sense. Wait a minute. If there are so many of us that you have to use a piece of heavy-duty agricultural equipment to do your job, why am I here on my own like this?”

Entropy smiled enigmatically. “Good question, professor.”

“Is it?”

“It is.”

“Is it a good question with an answer?” asked David, after a few moments.

“If you flipped a coin ten times, what would happen?”

“What’s that got to do with it?

“Just answer.”

“Well… I suppose you’d get a mixture of heads and tails. You’d expect half of each, but in just ten flips,” he shrugged, “who knows? Could be all heads, could be all tails, could be one to nine, or two to eight, or anything, really.”

“Very good. And if you flipped it one hundred times?”

“Then, assuming you had an evenly-weighted coin, it ought to come out closer to fifty-fifty. But I don’t see–”

“A thousand times? A million? A billion?”

“Closer and closer to an even split. And sore fingers,” he grinned. Entropy didn’t laugh, which seemed rather unfair, all things considered.

“Can you, perhaps, conceive of any other alternative?”

David frowned. “Not if the coin is evenly weighted…”

Entropy dipped her long, pale fingers into the folds of her robe and pulled out a coin. It glinted silver in the non-light. Slowly and deliberately, she pressed her thumb against her index finger, then balanced the metal disc on her thumbnail. With a soft ‘fthick’ the coin leapt upwards, turning over and over in a slow arc. David’s eyes followed it as it reached the apex, and then fell downwards, still spinning.

Clink.

He stared.

“You see,” said Entropy, “you’re like the coin.”

“On edge?”

“Exactly.”

The both considered the disc of metal for a moment, perfectly balanced on its side.

“Are you saying,” asked David slowly, “that I’m somehow between states? I could fall one way, or the other? I could… go back?”

“Perhaps,” said Entropy.

“Perhaps what?”

“Traditionally, in this circumstance, you would challenge me to a game.”

“Really?” asked David, champion Go player, “then I choose–”

“But in this case,” she interrupted, “I think perhaps not, given what happened the last time you proposed a game.”

Memories crawled through David’s mind like a drunk getting back to the house at 3am. They missed the lock, knocked over the furniture and set fire to a frying pan. He’d been playing Go with his friend Jian. And they’d been drinking. A lot. Because, because…”

Entropy shuddered. “Spit all over the playing pieces. Revolting.”

Oh yes. The classic Go variant: I bet I can fit more of these playing pieces into my mouth than you can.

“We’d been drinking,” he protested. “I wouldn’t do that normally.” Thirty-four, he’d managed. Then, before anyone could say Heimlich manoeuvre, here he was having a cosy chat with Dea– Entropy.”

“Traditions,” she mused, “are a very human idea. You spend all this time and energy inventing new and more efficient ways of doing things, but every now and then you insist on making life difficult for yourselves because great-great-grandma would have approved.”

Why had he drunk so much? They’d been celebrating, because…

“I don’t have a ancestors. Or descendants. I remember how everything was done, and I know how it will be done.”

“… brandy. They’d been drinking brandy…”

“And I do have a job to do. I can’t sit around playing complicated strategy games.”

“… because…”

“So with that in mind, pick a number.”

“What?” asked David, jolted away from his fractured memory.

“You say that a lot. Pick a number.”

“Any number?”

“Yes.”

“But there are an infinite number of numbers!”

“I didn’t say it would be easy.”

“Can’t you at least give me a, a, range?”

“I can say nothing.”

“What about fractions? Decimals? Irrational numbers?”

“It’s a round number.”

His birthday! They’d been celebrating his birthday! Jian had been meant to be keeping him away from the surprise party he wasn’t supposed to know about!

“Come along, Professor Snacknot, before the universe reaches heat death, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Fifty! It’s my fiftieth birthday! That’s a round number!”

“Fifty is your choice?”

“Yes!” It was an hallucination! His brain had just been trying to process everything. He’d been trying to find a way back to consciousness! Now he’d remembered, he could go back!

Entropy nodded and raised a finger. Arm outstretched, she drew a spiral in the air, the line picked out with glittering silver. The shape pushed outwards, creating a cone-shaped tunnel. In the distance, David thought he could see colours. The brown of a battered wooden desk, the green of an old carpet…

She pointed.

David ran towards the tunnel.

He could see the desk. See the toppled brandy bottle. See his carpet with round, black and white pieces scattered across it. See the two paramedics. See the figure lying prone on the floor.

He was close. He reached out. Almost there.

And watched in horror as his finger dissolved into a thousand glittering pieces.

Tried to cry out as the fragmentation spread up his arm and along his chest.

Felt his larynx splinter before he could make the sound.

The essence of David Snacknot scattered into trillions and billions of particles and drifted away on the silent winds of the universe, never to be joined again.

#

In the grey-stone dessert, Entropy climbed into the cabin of her combine harvester and patted its dashboard. She sighed. Despite what she’d said about traditions, she had rather preferred the horse.

“You’d think a physicist would’ve worked it out, wouldn’t you?” she said to the silent piece of heavy machinery. “There’s only one number where entropy cannot be. And only one number of playing pieces a very drunk, middle-aged man could survive having lodged in his windpipe.”

The combine harvester, of course, said nothing.

“I gave him clues. ‘I can say nothing’ I said. I mean, short of actually telling him the answer, what else could I do?”

The combine harvester rumbled and rose into the air in an upwards arc.

The silver coin toppled from its edge and fell heads up, a single, round disc of silver against the dark stone.


Author’s notes

This story began life as a piece inspired by the Fibonacci sequence. It didn’t really work, and I didn’t like it. But I had a sense that there was something there, particularly in the character of Entropy, so I picked it up again. I ended up gutting the original tale, chopping up and rejigging more or less everything bar the very beginning and some parts of the end. I hope you like it, and if you do it just goes to show: a writer should never throw anything away!


© 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