Tag Archives: creative writing

How a Victorian Engineer Inspired My Protagonist

I should have known by his name that this man would be the larger-than-life figure I needed as inspiration for my protagonist. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You’re destined for greatness with a name like that. And I needed some real-world greatness to help me lay a foundation for my protagonist. In my previous post, “Research: An Antidote for Writers Block,” I wrote about using research to solve some of the structural problems in the world of my fantasy novel. I scoured the Internet for notable figures from the Victorian Era and stumbled onto Brunel. I had found my man: an influential engineer whose name, work, and character lived far beyond the reach of his natural lifetime. Not only did he create some of the most innovative and memorable structures of the Victorian Industrial Age, but he stood out among his contemporaries as a person of tireless vision and ambition, even from a young age.

Twenty-one years old. I was still in college . . . changing my major, how about you? What were you doing at twenty-one? This man, I.K. Brunel, was already working as resident engineer on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. Can you imagine?

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

He was working alongside his father, Marc Brunel, a prominent engineer of the time, who had invented a tunneling shield that made building the underwater tunnel possible. It was the first of its kind and, at its opening in 1843, it was named the Eighth Wonder of the World. But the road to success wasn’t always glorious—the tunnel flooded during the third year of construction, and six of the crew were killed; Brunel barely survived when his assistant pulled his unconscious body from the water. It wouldn’t be the last time Brunel found himself in a tough spot.

From there, he worked on the Bristol Clifton Suspension Bridge. Like the Thames Tunnel, it was a record breaker—the longest bridge in the world at the time it was built. Brunel, then twenty-three years old, submitted one design after another and found himself battling the design put up by Thomas Telford, a well-known engineer in his seventies and the chair of the Clifton committee. But in the end Brunel won the commission. As if that David-and-Goliath-scale victory weren’t enough, he gained more notoriety with his next stunt. During construction, someone had the brilliant idea to string up a 1,000-foot iron bar that would carry a basket back and forth to bring supplies across the chasm. And guess who volunteered to test it? Yep, Brunel—he climbed into the basket and set off across the gorge, and it was going well . . . until the rope snagged. So he climbed out and freed it so he could get across. He was stranded, what else could he do, right? Needless to say, people took notice.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

So you can imagine by now what kind of man we’re talking about. Now think bigger, much bigger. As in Titanic. Before the infamous steamship was a twinkle in Thomas Andrews’ eye, I.K. Brunel was dreaming of The Great Western. He was convinced he could carry a passenger across the Atlantic by steam power—not so remarkable to a twenty-first century mind, but at the time it had never been done and . . . Brunel had never before designed a ship. Though he was opposed, ridiculed, and badly burned during construction, he saw the ship completed and arriving in New York from London in 1838. Oh and, by the way, it was the longest ship in the world.

SS Great Western (public domain)

SS Great Western (public domain)

The rest of Brunel’s life followed a similar trajectory of one innovative project after another. And it was this more than anything that drew me to him as a character of history: he was a man with astounding imagination, who broke through the boundaries of the known world, and the challenges of his own life, to pioneer a way into the future as we know it. I relied on details from Brunel’s life—engineering competitions, the setup of a drafting office, techniques of shipbuilding—to help construct my protagonist’s life and work, though the challenges he faces are of a more fantastical nature. Still, he has the heartbeat of men like Brunel: ambitious, visionary, groundbreaking. After all, it’s what makes us love them and root for them no matter where we find them.

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

How about you? Where did the ideas for your characters or other narrative elements come from? Did you look into history to find inspiration or another place entirely?

 

– Paige Duke

Phase to Phase, and the Words That Get Us Where We’re Going

IMG_1851.JPG

The other night, as I walked out of Barnes and Noble with a woman from my writing group I’d only met once, something profound happened to me.

The woman, whose name I’d just asked, shook my hand and smiled. “You really are a great writer.”

“Thank you,” I said, trying my best to accept the compliment gracefully and not be my normal, awkward self.

“You really will make it,” she added.

She walked away and left me contemplating what had just happened.

I played the scene in my mind the next day, tossing around the words she’d said. I really will make it. I really will.

Each word had its own weight in my heart. That woman had vocalized what keeps me writing – the idea, the belief, the chance that I’ll make it in the end.

It’s not always the feedback of others that keeps us going. It’s not always our successes that keep us trying. Sometimes, it’s just a few simple words. I can do this. I will.

The hardest part of pursuing a dream of any kind is having faith in yourself even when it seems stupid. Even when you’ve been rejected or criticized. Learning to use your setbacks as opportunities for growth and change is an essential part of the process. We must not lose those words, those mantras that keep us going as we transition from phase to phase.

Sometimes those words come from a new friend outside the bookstore, but most often they come from within. Relying on our own internal cheerleading can make the creative journey a difficult one. One that demands something from us that we are not readily willing to give.

Faith.

– Dani Nicole

Flash Fiction Friday

Nevermore, angelarizza  DeviantART

Nevermore, angelarizza DeviantART

 

 

Battle of Names

by Paige Duke

“You live up to your name, Dage,” Amarjaa shouted toward the fallen warrior, “you stood firm. Admirable. But even your might cannot alter the Vision. I have foreseen the end. If it’s to be a battle of names, yours is no match for mine.”

The priestess was closing in on the piled bodies, her armor scraping, catching on the refuse of battle. Her sword hung sheathed by her side, its case still wet with blood. In the predawn light, she saw Dage smirking at her with what little strength he had left to hold up his head. The insolent fool! “You wear the grimace of death, old man, can you not feel it?”

“Death, aye. He draws near. I smile not at death, but at your fate.”

Amarjaa’s laughter rang over the smoking ruins, rebounding off the cliffs that had trapped her enemies through the night, and rolled back to her in a wave of clanging mirth. “What do you know of my fate, Dage? Let me tell you what I have seen, lend me your dying ear. Let me tell of you how from your birth you were meant to die at my hand. Let me show you the futility of your life.”

“The Vision shows my frame rising gloriously forever, the victor over my enemies, drenched in their blood, the smoke of their defeat rising to greet the day. The world is mine. Who remains to parry my blow?”

She smiled her cruelty down upon Dage, the last and greatest of her foes. “Look about you, if you have sight left in those eyes. Is it not as I have foreseen? When you pass into death, it will come to be. Amarjaa, Forever.”

Now it was Dage who laughed. Long and ragged. The sound chilled Amarjaa and she resolved to hasten his end. But his words halted her,

“Pity you know not my true name. Then you would not have misread what you saw.”

“Fool. I know you. I have known you for all these ages past.” Her voice was unyielding as iron.

“Nay, you are the fool, Eternal One, you shall live forever, indeed, but mine is the name that triumphs. Turn your eyes upon me, gaze the rest of your days upon the Stone who has conquered you in his final hour—for it is I, Chimwala Dage!”

With the swift uncurling of his clenched fingers, Dage revealed a stone. It was smooth and white as milk, pulsing at the sound of its namesake. The laugh that was perched on Amarjaa’s tongue turned to a scream and she tried to flee, but her feet were already turning to rock, her knees were stiff and gray, the shining breastplate hardened, and her lips trembled as they whispered “the Stone.”

Then they too were cold stone and spake no more. Dage indeed wore the smile of death now, as he looked upon his final conquest for one glorious moment. His head dropped and the stone fell from his lifeless grasp. The sun peaked over the horizon, gilding the battlefield. A fearsome figure stood gazing out over the carnage. The statue of Amarjaa, the Eternal One.

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
– Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven

Prowl

by Dani Nicole

She perches on a branch, just below the moonlight, scanning passers by. Some midnight visitors are drunk with moonshine, others drunk with sorrow. They rest flowers on tombstones and take away memories in the form of tears.

Her helm is heavy on her head; her neck tires of the burden. But still she perches, waiting for the one to end the curse.

“Is he coming tonight?” she asks No One.

“Indeed, he shall,” No One answers.

“And the curse will be forgotten?”

Nothing.

She can only wait. For people to pass by. For leaves to fall. For the sun to rise and end her reign.

Banished to the night,
delight in collected souls,
until you find the thread that binds,
to free you from your plight.

“Is it you?” She whispers in the direction of a man with stained pants and a ripped shirt. He sways when he walks and belches loudly. “I’ll take that as a no.” She scratches behind her ears as the raven rests upon her shoulder.

“I wish you would just tell me,” she says to No One.

“Better for you to see.”

She waits for hours as the dawn threatens to break. The graveyard is still and empty until, faintly, she hears the sound of gravel beneath shoes. She stands alert, leaning as far over the branch as possible without losing her balance.

A man stops at a marble stone, falls to the ground, and weeps.

She lands softly on the ground beside him, as gracefully as if she had wings. He doesn’t hear her approach.

“Tears do not resurrect the fallen,” she says.

The man jumps up and withdraws a knife from his pocket, wiping his tears with the back of his other hand.

“Who are you?” he asks.

She can hear panic in his voice. “They call me Raven Girl.”

His eyes widen. “That’s impossible.”

She twirls her blonde hair around her finger. “Not a fan of stories?”

“Those are fairy tales. The soul collector. The girl with a raven upon her shoulder that searches through souls.”

“And yet here I am, a girl, with a raven upon my shoulder,” she says.

“A cruel joke to a grieving man.”

She takes a step toward him and reaches for his hand. “On the contrary, I am here to comfort you. I watch many pass through these stones, and I have never seen a man weep as you. Tell me, who is the one you’ve lost?”

He retracts his hand so she cannot touch it. “My daughter, Avalyn.”

“Would you like to see her again?”

This does not seem to be the answer he expects. “Excuse me?”

“I can bring you back to her.”

“You’re insane.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps I am telling the truth.”

He looks into her eyes, searching for sincerity. She can tell he does not trust her, but may be miserable enough to try anything.

“How can you do that?” he asks.

“Give me a drop of your blood. And I will carry your soul to the next world.”

“Next world?”

“The beyond… where Avalyn rests. I am the only hope you have to find your daughter again.”

“And you know this will work?” he asks.

She hates that question. “I was supposed to meet the one who breaks my curse tonight. If the raven scans your soul and finds that you complete the thread of the curse, your soul will pass on to the next world.”

“And if I’m not?” he asks.

“Your soul will rest with the others until it is released.”

He stares, waits, thinks. She is patient. He is skeptical, but desperate. He will come to her in time.

“For your Avalyn, do this,” she says.

At last he takes his knife and opens a cut on his forearm. The raven on her shoulder begins to squawk.

“Never mind him, he doesn’t like the smell of blood. Come press your wound to my marking,” she says. She extends her arm tattooed by the dark silhouette of a raven.

He presses it against the ink, and is bound to her. He is immobile. As is she.

The world spins around them. A thin, golden thread appears before them, knotting itself into a braid. The raven on her shoulder begins to speak.

“The bond created never severed, for all the pain you both have weathered, a gift of the world beyond is given, for your soul the curse has striven,” says No One.

The man disappears, as does the raven tattoo.

“Where is he?” she asks No One.

“The world beyond,” he says. He flies from her shoulder for the first time in twenty years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flash Fiction Friday

Lost and Found

by Paige Duke

“Pass through town and keep walking ‘til you feel you’ve gone too far; there you’ll find Harrow House,” I repeated the old hag’s words to comfort myself. I had already felt, more than once, that I’d gone too far, but the house was nowhere in sight. Only endless, empty fields. Now I just felt foolish. For believing some hogwash about a destiny. For chancing the precious few coins I had left to a gypsy’s word. For running from the sorrow that will forever cling to me. As my doubts swelled, the daylight disappeared, all too quickly.

Hopeless, I thought.

Hannah, I heard in the next heartbeat. My name coming to me across the long grasses, spoken by no human tongue. I shivered and could make my feet move no further.

Winking at me out of the dusk was a ramshackle house, where before there was nothing. What sort of trick was this? I spun around but found no one to answer me. No sound but the breeze and the whisper of my name again, no soul in sight but the Man in the Moon.

Hannah.

I felt a sharp prick against my wrist, an insect’s sting. But I looked down to see only the old trinket the gypsy had pressed into my hand at her glassy-eyed divination. A charm she’d hung on a chain, but the thing was too small to fasten round my neck, so I wore it as a double-wrapped bracelet. It didn’t look like much, little more than a chipped or halved coin. But from the moment I wore it, the thing seemed to hum there against my skin. Its strange energy coursed through me, pulsing at the emptiness, the raw ache at the center of me, that place where the child had left me but its soul still lived.

I looked between the charm and the house—its siding grayed with dirt, the roof as threadbare as an old dishrag, the doors hanging from their hinges.

Where else could I go? Even if the old woman had cheated me with her talk of fate, it was shelter for one night.

Hannah.

Suddenly weary, I surrendered. My tired feet slogged through the tall grass as if it were mud, but the gypsy’s trinket thrummed louder with every step. I felt the burst of new life, fresh purpose, though all around me was the stench of mold and decay. The porch creaked, and I tried not to imagine what creatures might be lurking in the darkness of that house.

As I passed through the door, a ray of moonlight sneaking through a patch in the roof illumined the house. All around me was dust and ash glittering in the silvery light, a curious sort of beauty. My hollow womb grieved at the sight, another emptied and abandoned room, and still the charm’s magic pulled me forward.

A weak cry startled me. Now it was my heart thrumming in my ears as I turned to find the source. Just beyond the moon’s spotlight I saw a wriggling mass of blankets I’d mistaken for a trash heap. I approached, my limbs alive with fear. Before me lay a tiny babe, tucked inside a blanket. It couldn’t have been there long, so healthy and perfect it looked. The poor thing was hungry, though, it suckled its fist and squirmed.

I called out, I searched the whole place, but of course the thing’s mother was nowhere to be found. I came back to the wailing child and longed to take it in my arms. As I lifted the tiny thing, the blankets fell back and around its neck hung the thinnest chain of gold with half a coin, whose mate still pulsed at my wrist.

The Case of Beatrice Burns

by Dani Nicole

Beatrice Burns disappeared near Wicker Place at dusk. She was victim twenty-six.

The old house got its name because of its burn marks. One match, and the whole place would ignite like wicker.

No one remembers how the house got its burns. There are no news stories covering an accident. No wildfires. No discarded cigarette butts.

Most people of Blanket, Texas choose to forget, but I’ve made it my focus in life to not ignore the abnormal, for it will always catch up with you.

I set my newspaper on the table and grab my banana, peeling it slowly as I read the bolded headline.

NEW REPORTED DISAPPEARANCE NEAR WICKER PLACE

The victim was only twelve, and new to town. She was walking her dog Toto near the perimeter of 766 Destiny Lane and never came back. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

“Another depressing headline?” Jennie says. My wife comes into the kitchen, her hair a bird’s nest on top of her head. The camisole she wears is thin enough to see through.

“You know, just another victim to the house.”

“You’re not still on that are you?” She yawns, stretching her arms above her head. I pull her close to me.

“It’s the only answer. Every time someone disappears in this town they are last seen near the perimeter.”

“It’s a house, Ray. It doesn’t just eat people.” She laughs, but it’s never funny to me. “Are you going to have a real breakfast, or just a banana?”

I kiss her on the cheek. “Have to run. Be home at 6.”

She smiles and smacks my butt on the way out of the house, but all I can think of is victim twenty-six.

#

“Victim, Beatrice, female, twelve, last seen near Wicker Place,” Sergeant Waters says. He slaps a folder onto his desk. “This is the twenty-sixth disappearance in five years.”

Since the burn marks appeared on Wicker Place.

“I want to put an end to this. We need to find the common thread.” His eyes hesitate on mine. “And something I can use in court, not a superstition.”

He moves to a chalkboard and starts writing details. We hypothesize about the connection, but my mind travels to past cases. It took three for me to put it together, to start associating the house with the disappearances. Once I did, I visited the house after each victim. But I never found anything.

“… Dakota? Are you listening?” Sergeant Waters says, staring at me.

“Yes.”

“Good.” He tosses me the folder. “I’m putting you on this one. You can start by interviewing her family.”

The others exit the room as I weigh the folder in my hands.

The afternoon consists of a visit to the Beatrice’s house, where her mother is hysterical and difficult to talk to. Her father is calmer, and is able to verify that his daughter was out walking Toto and never came back.

“Someone took our sweet girl,” said Beatrice’s mother. “Who would do that?”

“We don’t know that yet,” I say, scribbling notes in the folder. “Let’s just start with what we know.”

Beatrice’s father assures me that she had no enemies, no suicidal thoughts, and had never talked about being bullied or followed.

“It was completely unexpected,” he said.

That’s what they always say.

I pack my briefcase and drive to Destiny Lane. I step out of the car and walk in the street, only able to glance at the house from afar. Its white walls are splattered with ash. Its roof caves in. Weeds poke up all over the dead yard.

This place is a gravesite.

The metal door is hanging off the mailbox, secured by only one screw. It looks as though it hasn’t been filled with mail in a long time – perhaps five years. I scan the rest of the scene, not finding anything that grabs my attention.

I turn to walk back to my car, and stop.

“Hello,” says a little boy with blond hair, standing near my door.

“Are you lost? Where are your parents? It’s not safe out here.” I squat down so that I am at his eye level.

“My camera is broken,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes.

“Maybe I can fix it. Where is it?”

He walks through the weeded grass to a small camera resting on a child’s sized tripod. “It’s right here. It won’t take pictures.

I push a few buttons. It doesn’t even turn on. “I don’t know if I can fix this.”

He starts to cry, but the camera flickers on. “Yay! Yay! Now I have to take a picture. You stand over there.” He points at a space in the grass.

I take a few steps back and smile.

“One, two, three–”

He clicks the button, there’s a flash, and I am moving.

I land on hardwood, the smell of ash filling my nostrils. There are walls on every side of me, burn marks splattered across them.

On the wall there are twenty-seven pictures.

Mine is the last.

 

 

 

 

It Takes Balls to Be a Writer

Picture from borderlandswp.wordpress.com

Picture from borderlandswp.wordpress.com

The day I decided to really pursue my dream of becoming a writer was equal parts “You’re a genius” and “Oh god, what if my parents read it?” I can’t even imagine the phase erotic novelists go through, when they decide to put their reputation on the line and let loved ones read their dirty work.

Granted, I don’t write erotica. But there’s a certain amount of fear associated with going public with your writing – a fear that I had no idea existed until I received word that some of my work would be published.

This moment went about the way I imagined.

A squeal. An onslaught of text messages. A Facebook status update. Everything was wonderful and I was up in the clouds until… I realized being published means that people can actually read your work.

My writing has always been private. Since college I have joined several critique groups, but even still, my writing doesn’t make it past 10-15 sets of eyes. My pieces have never gone WORLDWIDE on the Interwebs.

This… this is a whole new level of transparency.

And that’s when I realized that writing takes balls. It’s one thing to write your heart out, it’s another thing to show it to someone.

I started to make a mistake once people congratulated me on my achievement. I started conceding my accomplishments with excuses. I said that my writing wasn’t what I normally wrote. That it was extra snarky and I didn’t know if people would like it.

But what I realized is that apologizing for expressing yourself violates the basic reason to write. It is an art form. I never heard J.K. Rowling apologize for putting witchcraft in her books. And I’m not going to apologize for what comes from me freely, whether it is something raw and gritty and transparent, or something light-hearted and sarcastic.

All of my writing is a facet of me.  And going public just means owning who you are, and what you’re capable of.

-Dani Nicole

Research: An Antidote for Writer’s Block

The dreaded curse of every writer—writer’s block! Though definitions of the term vary and its actual existence is at times hotly debated, the writing community agrees at some level that sometimes a writer is just plain stuck. Your stream of inspiration has run dry, your once-nimble fingers have grown rigid and unwieldy, the solid road along which your characters were walking has become obscured and hazy. So, what do you do?

Sit around and wait for inspiration to strike.

Berate yourself for losing your mojo.

Beg, bribe, and cajole your muse.

Fake it ‘til you make it.

Well, there are many positive ways of pushing through that rough patch that, for the sake of this post we’ll call writer’s block, but there’s one in particular that’s been immensely helpful for me. When I begin to feel uninspired, unsure, or just totally lost, I often turn to research for help. I know, that sounds boring and academic and not-at-all-inspiring. But stay with me, I’ll give you an example by way of explanation.

My novel is set in a Victorian-inspired fantasy world. Early in the process, I envisioned my protagonist and his love interest meeting in a library where he worked and she visited often (because what’s more romantic than the dusty, silent stacks, right? *sarcasm*) Anyway, I kept bumping into one wall after another until I was at a complete standstill. I just couldn’t see a way forward for these characters. I couldn’t find the right pieces of their backstory that led them to this place in time. In short, it was an unsustainable idea, propped up on a very shaky scaffolding.

And so I went back to the drawing board and did some research. I tried to find out what kinds of employment were available for men of the age and station of my protagonist in historical Victorian society. What educational background usually led up to those positions? Were they available in rural or urban areas? You get the idea. To my surprise and relief, my protagonist’s past, present, and (a portion of his) future magically opened up to me, because . . . drumroll . . . I suddenly KNEW what the possibilities were for a person like him. (The old adage “Write what you know,” turns out to be true in its most literal sense.)

Let me add a caveat: in fiction, fantasy especially, we have the privilege and responsibility of making stuff up!! At times, that’s an ingenious way of getting out of a tough narrative spot. But there are many times when the problem is that you can’t write your way forward in a story simply because you don’t know what is possible or likely or available to your characters. In this sense, knowledge truly is power.

This tool works in so many ways, both big and small, across genre lines and in all kinds of settings. A tiny seed of an idea is sometimes all you need for the character or the city or that piece of authentic dialog to open up for you. And in the age of the Internet, all the knowledge you could ever need is available at your fingertips. So dig deep, get creative, and put on your research cap. Before you know it, you’ll breeze right past that block that was looming so large in your view; it’ll look no bigger than a pebble as you pass by.

 

How has research helped you overcome writer’s block? What other tools do you use to confront similar challenges in your writing process?

 

-Paige Duke

She Said, She Said… Getting Too Into Your Story World

She Said, She Said… posts are actual conversations taken place via instant messenger between authors. All names have been changed to protect identities, keep us out of trouble, and otherwise clear our names.

[On feeling a little loopy while writing]

Dani Nicole: Maniacal laugh.

Dani Nicole: Cackle cackle.

Dani Nicole: DIEEEEE

Dani Nicole: Haha sorry.

Dani Nicole: This book is making me crazy.

Paige Duke: That’s good! You’re getting into it.

Dani Nicole: Yeah but if I start burning blue-taloned birds just give me a talking to.

Paige Duke: Lol. Ok.

Dani Nicole: Dani… I think…

Dani Nicole: You shouldn’t do that….

Dani Nicole: Why do you have a canteen??

Paige Duke: HA

Dani Nicole: Are you wearing a headpiece??

Dani Nicole: STOP KISSING 17 YEAR OLD BOYS!!

Flash Fiction Friday

Night Butterfly by AlexandraVBach, deviantART

Night Butterfly by AlexandraVBach, deviantART

The Enchantress’s Gift

By Paige Duke

I was a child when my mother first took me to the Midnight Masquerade. So enthralled was I with the women’s finery and the men’s charms, that I sensed nothing morbid in their masks. Innocence blinded me, for I didn’t yet know that my people bought the Master’s favor with their silence. No, I trembled with delight when my mother put my own mask in place, “The Master has found a bride,” she said, with something strange upon her face. I know now it was a smile tinged with regret.

The Master’s ballroom was a whirlwind of color and light. Feathers and lace, bangles and ribbon, whiskers and claws and fangs bobbed and jostled to the music. In my delight and terror, I lost my mother and sought a safe place to hide.

I crawled into a corner occupied by only one other soul, an old woman. I could see she was shrunken and shrewd, for she wore no costume or mask. She smiled and bid me sit beside her, studying me. “We two are alike, I think. Only here for the Master’s bride?” she guessed.

I nodded, too shy yet to speak. So we sat for a time until my curiosity won out. “Why don’t you wear the mask?”

She patted my hand, “I have no one to charm and nothing to hide,” she said gently.

I pondered her words and looked out across the frolicking crowd. Charm abounded, that was plain to me, but my eyes knew not how to see hidden things. “What do my kinsmen hide behind their masks?” I ventured.

The woman’s eyes grew round and steely, “The guilt of the terrible price they pay for their luxury.”

All around me was merriment and revelry, nothing that spoke to me of dishonor. Perhaps this old woman was mad. She must have seen my doubt, for she sneered, “What has your mother told you of the Master’s bride?”

“Only that she is beautiful and fortunate to have caught the Master’s attention.”

“Fortunate,” she spat. “If only you knew, as do your kin. They all conspire to deny the truth. Judge for yourself this day, dear child, before they draw you into their deception. Do you know the tale of the lovers of the forest?”

I laughed, “Of course! Every child knows the story.” I stood tall and cleared my throat. “There were two lovers who sought out an enchantress. They paid her all their gold to gain everlasting life. ‘No man may be immortal,’ she told the young lovers, but gave them instead a second life upon their deaths. The man grew ill in time and died, only to transform into the most regal of birds, the mighty peacock. And thus, the woman and beast lived in loyal love.”

The old woman’s eyes burned me, “They’ve taught you well, my pet. But they shroud the truth in children’s tales. I tell you, your Master slew the mighty peacock and made a bride of his poor lover.”

Now I knew she must be mad, I tried to laugh, “But it’s only a fairy tale. There are no ill-fated lovers. There is no old enchantress, no second life beyond first death.”

Suddenly the sound of a bell, clear and deafening, rang above the raucous crowd. The band halted their merry tune, the dancers froze in their turns, and every eye looked to the front of the room as the Master stepped into view. The old woman whispered fiercely in my ear, “See for yourself then, dear one.”

A gasp rose from the assembly and from my own lips. The Master’s form was regal and commanding, and he wore his mask with pride. His face was hidden behind the bluest peacock’s crown and his words rumbled from beneath the bird’s beak. “Behold, the bride I have won.” My faith wavered and I felt a stirring of fear at the sight, could the old crone’s words be true?

I stood on tiptoe to see the woman emerging from a darkened hallway. Her steps were slow and deliberate as they bore her through the sea of guests. She was pale as moonlight with obsidian eyes and cornflower hair. She wore not the color of a bride but the deepest shade of mourning. From her collar rose the jet-black feathers of a peacock’s pelt and she carried no flowers, but a fan with the sign of a mighty peacock in flight. Were these a token of her loyal lover? On her face, the bride wore a delicate mask, the lustrous wings of a dark butterfly.

What if the old woman’s claim was true? I half hoped a brave soul would come forward to oppose the Master, but not a man or woman stirred. They were all a sea of veiled faces, obediently still before their lord.

The bride strode stoically up the aisle to face her groom. As she gazed into the vacant eyes of the glorious bird, a single tear slid down her cheek. The Master started forward to claim her. But far too quickly, there was a swish of lace and a flash of silver as a thin blade sliced the air.

The Master froze. Cries rent the silence. For the woman had pierced her own pale breast.

As a plume of bright blood welled from the wound, the Master recovered and reached for his bride. But she slipped through his grasp in the flurry of a butterfly’s wings.

The crowd erupted at once into chaos. The feathered and bejeweled guests wailed and staggered, every soul trying at once to flee. In my panic, I turned to my companion. But I was alone. The old woman had gone.

The Gate of Second Chances

by Dani Nicole

He counted the minutes in butterflies, and she had sixty-one.

The Butterfly Collector turned these fluttered things into fleeting moments–moments that Agatha purchased for a second chance.

She caught each one with the Jar of New Hope. And he bowed when she presented them, one at a time, until at last he gave her the key.

She hesitated for a moment, then took it, feeling the pain of old age in her joints. Soon she would be young again.

“Sixty-one minutes are yours, my sweet,” said the Butterfly Collector.

Agatha bowed back and turned toward the iron gate barricading the garden she had never entered.

“Your time will end at exactly sixty-one,” the Butterfly Collector called after her.

She nodded and twisted the key in the Gate of Second Chances. Agatha stepped through the shimmering translucent veil that linked the present and past.

She was young again. She felt it in her hips. In the way her spine stood tall as her black evening gown spiraled up her neck. The paint on her face was sticking, the corset over her ribs, stifling. But Agatha had only felt so alive once before, on this very night sixty-one years ago. And this time she had a secret.

She heard a flapping near her ear–a butterfly, blue as the afternoon sky. And another. And more. There were sixty-one. A minute later, there was a pop and a butterfly disappeared.

The Butterfly Collector does not lose track of time.

“You wear his mark,” said a man’s voice behind her–the voice which she had come for.

“Then you should know my intentions,” she said, turning toward him.

“He always costumes his collection in his finest dresses, his finest masks,” the man glanced up, “and of course accompanied by his precious butterflies.”

As the man spoke another butterfly disappeared.

“I am not something to be collected,” Agatha replied, feeling the fire of youth in her voice.

“Are you not? Tell me, what did he take from you in return for your second chance?”

Agatha did not answer.

The man pulled a gun from his belt and pointed it at Agatha. “Should we start where we left off, then?”

Agatha smiled at him, her butterfly mask shimmering under the moonlight. “I hoped we could.”

Agatha moved quicker than she thought she could, quicker than she remembered. She swerved as the first bullet fired and ran behind the man who held the gun. She escaped down an alleyway and took a sharp left, then right, praying she could remember the way.

And after several turns, and several dodged gunshots, Agatha saw the house at the end of the cobblestone street.

She knew she was not allowed to be seen.

The Butterfly Collector does not forget the rules.

Agatha stopped on the doorstep of the cottage and looked behind her for the man with the gun, the one who had prevented her from opening this door sixty-one years ago. He was farther behind, so she had just enough time to twist the doorknob.

Another butterfly disappeared.

Agatha heard her high-pitched cry coming from upstairs. She took the stairs two at a time to the room at the end of the hall with the door slightly ajar.

Another butterfly disappeared.

Her minutes were fading and the baby’s cries swelled within the house, grating at Agatha’s heart. She thrust open the door and saw the baby’s father standing over the crib with a malicious smile on his face.

“Leave her alone,” Agatha said, reaching for the fan clipped onto her dress, the one she had hidden from the Butterfly Collector.

The man was surprised to see Agatha, and his surprise was matched with Agatha’s when several butterflies popped at once.

“Agatha? What… how…?”

Several more.

She did not let him speak.

The butterflies were fading faster than minutes.

She spread the fan and wafted the air with it, which began to emit a purple mist. The mist filled the room as the butterfly popping crescendoed. She did not have much time left, and she had to kill the man who had killed her daughter sixty-one years ago, while his friend held her hostage in the alleyway.

The mist coiled across the room and circled the father’s neck. He began to suffocate as the purple mist grew hands and began to strangle him. Agatha did not want to watch. She had once loved that man who traded his family for crime, who traded his own daughter for a significant sum of money. But she could not love him anymore.

The father fell to the floor and stopped breathing.

Three butterflies popped, then five more.

Agatha braced herself for the unknown. She had broken the rules.

The Butterfly Collector does not forget the rules.

As the last butterfly popped, Agatha’s daughter cried, “mommy,” and Agatha faded towards that blissful strip of oblivion she had avoided all these sixty-one years, carried in a flurry of butterflies.

Flash Fiction Friday

Prompt: Bones in the Badlands

Remnants

By Paige Duke

Talitha walked among rows of bones, sorted and tagged by the students, until she came to what must have been the skulls. She bent and gently picked one up with her gloved hand. She turned it, examining the dingy surface with barely disguised fascination. Who were you? she wondered. What sort of life did you have in this place? She looked out across the unfamiliar terrain, the cracked clay that stretched for miles until it rippled into brown and orange striated foothills. What sort of people could flourish in so unforgiving a place?

“This is such a waste of time,” Ronell whined from behind her. Talitha turned to find the other woman looking bored; it was clear she hadn’t even started recording any of the remains. Under different circumstances—back home, steeped in the comforts of their modern lives—she liked Ronell, but the woman did not share her appreciation for the lost histories. Few did.

“Oh?” Talitha asked innocently.

“They’ll never see the outside of a lab,” she said, motioning to the minefield of bones the kids had dug up. “And how much can they really tell without a proper record anyway?”

Talitha shrugged, trying to mirror Ronell’s disinterest.

The other woman fanned herself with the webbing of her open palm, “Ugh. How many more of these godforsaken planets do we have left?”

Talitha gently replaced the skull in its row and opened the flap of her biopouch, careful not to let her treasures jingle against one another, and pulled out a thin spindle. With a swipe of her fingerpad, she pulled up the B Class Archeological Survey itinerary. “Only two more after this one.”

“That’s two too many, I say. This is the last time I chaperone,” Ronell said, shaking her head. Sweat glistening on her flawless blue skin in the glare of the planet’s single sun. “You know, the only reason I agreed in the first place was I thought we’d hear more about the Terraforming. I think it’s just amazing! The way they can take these useless old planets and repurpose them.”

Looking down to hide her dismay, Talitha nodded. She couldn’t very well argue for historical preservation when technology promised the end of their desperate troubles.

“Oh thank Oleith, I think they’ve finished.”

Talitha followed Ronell’s gaze to see the class packing up their gear and Caelith skipping excitedly toward them.

“Your boy seems like he’s really into this,” said Ronell. “All the others were bored by the third planet. Can’t say I blame them. Bones all start to look the same after a while, no matter how ingeniously they’re arranged.”

Caelith slowed, breathing hard and nodded to Ronell, “Hello, Mistress.” In one hand, he carried his overloaded toolkit and the other—Talitha saw, with a little thrill—was tucked firmly into the pocket of his robe. She reached out to smooth his feathery hair.

“Nice work today, young sir,” said Ronell with feigned enthusiasm and a stiff pat on his arm. “Well, I’m going to get out of this heat. I’ll see you two back on board,” she said, leaving mother and son alone.

Talitha waited a moment before whispering, “What have brought me this time, boy?”

Caelith smiled and pulled his hand from his pocket, looking around to be sure no one was watching, and placed a small, perfectly round disc into her palm. “Found a pile of these in a pouch. Used to be some sort of picture on it that’s worn away now, but I thought you’d like the runes.”

They exchanged a look of wonder and Talitha smiled, her heart squeezing with affection for this child who could share and keep her secret.

Caelith reached out to squeeze her fist, “I’m going to clean up. Meet you back in our quarters.”

Waiting until he was behind her and the sound of the class’s banter began to fade, she looked down at the trinket her son had salvaged for her. The disc was made of thin metal and its face was smeared with dirt where he had smudged the dust. She wiped it clean the best she could to reveal the outline of an image worn away by time and the elements. She found the runes Caelith mentioned and turned the disc until her retinal translator could make sense of them: IN GOD WE TRUST. What did it mean?

Talitha closed her fingers around her newest treasure, still warm from its earthen grave. She took one last look across the alien terrain, a piece of living history soon to be remade. She turned then to make her way back to the ship, dropping the disc into her biopouch among the other detritus of lost worlds.

The Bone Locket

By Dani Nicole

They called her Bag of Bones. A less than civil name for the witch who came to town, carrying a velvet purse that rattled when she walked.

“A dime for a femur, a nickel for a knee,” she’d sing in a voice that sounded like a hawk’s screech. She never talked of anything but bones. She never asked for anything but coins.

“Why does she want coins for bones?” a little boy asked.

His mother shushed him as if she could erase his curiosity with her firmly placed index finger. “We will not talk about the witches.”

“I want to be a witch, mommy,” said the curious boy’s sister. “I want to buy a bone.”

“You will do none of those things.”

The little girl was not satiated. “But no one ever buys her bones mother. How shall we know what they do?”

“They are bones. They are meant to be in the ground.”

The woman hurried her children along but the witch continued singing, “A dime for a femur, a nickel for a knee,” because though the curiosity of the children had stirred curiosity in the witch, she still had a job to do.

***

I met the witch when I was hungry, standing outside the bakery. The smell of freshly baked bread perfumed the air, and she came sing-songing down the street. “Two dimes for a femur, two nickels for a knee.”

“Excuse me, miss, but I must ask,” she stopped walking at the sound of my voice, “But why are the bones twice as much today?”

She smiled revealing black and gray teeth, she smiled revealing her soul. “Because you need them twice as much, of course, than you did any other day.”

She walked away from the freshly baked bread, down the street into an alleyway. My mind followed her, but my stomach protested, sounding off for a pastry.

I purchased my delicacy, but I was distracted and kept searching for the witch who’d disappeared. What kind of witch sells bones, I wondered. What kind of witch needs coins?

I walked to where her robes disappeared, into an alleyway– a narrow sliver, almost too small for one man. I stopped for a moment, then turned sideways, shoving myself towards the Badlands. There were overcast skies and naked trees, and cracked earth prickled by plants.

“There are bones in the Badlands,” said a creaky voice. I turned to see Bag of Bones on my right.

“Why do I need the bones?”  I asked.

“We all need the bones, or rather, what’s inside.”

“Marrow?”

She shook her head. “I know what you lost, someone you loved. I know many things.”

“I thought you were a witch.”

“Of sorts,” she said, reaching into her bag.

“No, I don’t want to—“

“If you see, you’ll understand.” She removed a flat, round locket and handed it to me. I touched the milky-white surface.

“Is this made of—“

“Bone,” she said, as if that were a normal thing.

“What is it?”

“It is a way to release what the world needs from bones.”

I opened the locket which revealed two words. On the left it said life; on the right it said death.

“What do these words mean?”

She took the locket and looked toward the Badlands. “There are bones in my purse. There are bones in the Badlands. There are bones in our bodies. But what do these bones mean? They do not mean we are alive, because our bones are here when we die. They do not mean we are dead, because we are born with bones.”

“Perhaps they mean that we existed.”

“Precisely.” She paused. “Bones are given to us when we are born and we give them back when we die. The one you lost is gone, but not her bones.” She opened her bag and peeked in. “These bones belonged to mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. These people were loved and now they are missed. When you love someone, that love does not leave. It stays buried in their bones.”

I stare at her. “Can the bones bring back the lost?”

“What has perished has perished, but the love remains. With my locket you can release that love. It will continue into the world, a new baby receives, and perhaps she will grow to love. Perhaps she will lose, the way we all do, and release more love from more bones.”

“Your locket, it seems, can recycle love.”

“Precisely.”

I closed my eyes and remembered her, swirled in beauty and grace.  I pulled the coins in my pocket and said, “Tell me what I must do.”

“Purchase the bones, bury them near the lake. When you are done you are free.” She took a step forward, put her face near my ear. “But if perhaps, you want to help, you can bring me more bones from the Badlands.”

“And what do you do with the coins?” I asked.

She smiled, secretly, and I knew she would not say. “I buy more velvet bags.”

I gave her my coins; she gave me three bones. She smiled and turned on her feet. Her velvet bag rattled, the bone locket clanked, and Bag of Bones walked away.

Flash Fiction Friday

TheDarkRayne, Depths DeviantArt

TheDarkRayne, Depths DeviantArt

A Harmless Diversion

By Paige Duke

Something was different today. Bryn knew the moment she stepped into the lake. The waters felt expectant somehow; they shivered around her, where before they had exuded an almost narcotic calm. They had been waiting for her.

She waded in up to her knees, immune now to the way the water soaked and darkened the pure white lace of her dress. The first day she’d been so afraid Vanesh would be angry with her, but he was only pleased that she’d found the lake.

He hadn’t even mentioned the dress. She thought again how odd it was that they hadn’t quarreled about her long absences from the resort or the damage to her gowns. His precious white gowns. It had frightened her a little that first day in the diplomat’s mansion, to step into the closet full of identical white frilly things. She shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Every public photo of Vanesh Nagiri sported a young blonde, never the same face, but always the same gown. It was a status symbol, one that she had craved and envied.

And now she had it. The gown and the man. But for how much longer? That was the question always on her mind. Is that why Vanesh had brought her to Fios I—to give her a final chance to charm him? They were arguing almost constantly back at home, but she was running out of ways to appease him. Bryn swam forward and submerged her face, feeling the kiss of cool water, and the ends of her pale hair lifting lazily. Am I replaceable? She forced herself to ask, though it stung. Every time. If she didn’t regain his interest, would Vanesh dispose of her as he had done with his other courtesans? After all, she was just a type once she donned the white dress.

Bryn held perfectly still, eyes closed, limbs suspended. She breathed steadily—still so unused to the sensation of Fios I’s aerate water—and listened intently. The strange, alien melody pulsed against her ears and she let it roll over her until . . . yes, there it was. Words, snatches of lyric amidst the melody. They tantalized her, promising to confide something essential and secret. But always at the last moment, they disintegrated into meaningless bubbling nonsense.

She opened her eyes and searched for clues, as she had done each time before. From shore, the lake looked positively small. She could walk around it in a half-hour’s time. But below the water’s surface, it seemed infinite. For hours upon hours, she had plumbed its crystalline depths and hunted the source of its secret song. But to her amazement, she never seemed to cover the same terrain twice. Always a new vista opened up to her, dazzling scarlet corral, massive rock outcroppings covered in electric orange algae, spindly underwater trees with delicate fronds for limbs. But never an answer to the mysterious melody that permeated it all.

Something had changed, though. The music was louder and clearer than ever before. She felt that she was in the lake’s very heartbeat, she was so overcome with the sound and sense of the rhythm. Suddenly she knew that it wanted her to Come Come Come. But where?

Opening her eyes, she saw the familiar violet corrals waving lazily, the same dappled light filtering in from above. “Where are you?” She pleaded. No answer but the steady beat of the music. But then, movement to her right. Bryn froze and raked the lakebed with her eyes, searching for the source. Beneath a ledge of jagged rock, a stream of bubbles rose from the sand.

As she stared, another appeared beside the first and then another and another until streams of bubbles rose like strings of pearls to the surface. Her heart was racing. This was it. The thing she had come for day after day. The sound, the song, the voice that had beckoned her.

Her approach felt effortless, as if the music itself was drawing her nearer, inside the curtain of bubbles. They streamed all around her, frenzied, until she thought she’d burst with the expectation of it. Bryn turned and kicked her way toward the bottom. As she neared the source, she could see a thin film, like a clouded bubble or some pale shroud stretched dome-like across the floor. It pulsed and writhed with white rippling light. Why had she not seen it before? Why was it only now revealed to her?

But her questions were subsumed beneath the music, for it was here, she knew, that she would discover what the voice, the voices—it wasn’t solo, she realized, but harmony—were trying to tell her. She had reached the bottom; the roiling filmy whiteness was just inches from her. Bryn reached out a trembling hand and her fingers met and then breached the surface. Her wrist continued through the veil effortlessly. The haze began to clear, the picture beyond resolving into a flurry of white. Slim fingers and whole hands grasped her elbow and pulled her closer, closer, until her shoulder, then her neck, and finally her face broke the surface. But wait. No. This was wrong. A terrible shrieking filled her ears, it was not music at all, but a horrifying layered screaming. She tried to pull away, but the hands bound her like shackles. She was lost, tumbling and twirling, and all around her was the thrashing of a hundred white gowns and the varied hues of golden hair.

The Landing

By Dani Nicole

This watery coffin cannot contain me. I will die in this collision of wind and water, but the elements cannot take away what I have gained. I have touched him; I have kissed him. And the electric feeling of his salt-bitten skin is enough to keep me calm. The vortex pushes me to the bottom of the ocean, deeper than I have ever known, and I am drowning.

It was worth it.

When my feet touch the sea floor my body collapses. My lungs scream for air and my head feels as though it may burst. I claw at my white dress, claw at the seaweed around my toes. And when I can take the fire no more, I open my mouth and breathe.

Water swims into me, fills me entirely. I am water; I am human. The water soothes the fire, like oxygen above the surface. I exhale, and I can do nothing but breathe, stare at my translucent skin and breathe again, as if I were meant to breathe salt water my entire life, and every breath of oxygen was just a cheapening of the woman I was supposed to become.

I am alive.

I have to find Marlowe, separated by the depths of the ocean. I can still feel the burn of the wind and water on my cheeks. The Vortex came just as Marlowe said it would and yet we did not die as Phaedra warned him when she gave him his curse.

Touch another soul and perish. You will manipulate the elements, but they will also manipulate you.

Yet I am more alive than I was before he kissed me, before he breached the rules of his universe to put his lips on mine, just for one infinitely blissful moment. He has awoken in me what was always meant to be stirred.

Marlowe called it suicide. The emotion that would rise from touching someone like me would destroy us. The wind and water would rage against us and as we touched the vortex would take us, and we would drown.

But love can manipulate us too. It can make us think what is risky is wrong. But as my arms slice through the water I can’t help thinking that I’ve never been more right.

***

“I can’t, Genevieve. I can’t be who you want me to be. What you need.” Marlowe runs his hands through his dark hair. He looks exasperated, as if he is grasping onto his last fleck of sanity.

“What makes you think I want you to be someone else?” I counter.

He laughs, just a sharp exhale of air. “Because that’s what you deserve Gen. You deserve the world and I can’t even touch you.”

“I don’t want the world without you,” I say, taking a few steps toward him.

He leans against the railing, rests his hands on it, but doesn’t move. “You don’t know how every fiber of my being responds to you when you say that, when you look at me that way, when you walk towards me. It’s like a current Gen.”

I keep walking, slowly. “Love is electric. It’s not something that can be easily contained. Or ignored.”

“You love me then?”

I stop in front of him, look into his eyes. I want to brush his hair from his face, the way he does when he’s trying to get control. “Marlowe, I am more than in love. I am incomplete.”

I step towards him, so close that I can feel the heat of his body, just like he said–electricity.

“Gen,” he whispers.

I shake my head. “I won’t. But I want you to.”

“You know the end of this.”

“I don’t care.”

“The vortex, Gen—“

I interrupt him. “Love is a vortex Marlowe. Don’t you get that?”

I plead with him, stare at him, long for him. Something changes in his eyes. Some flicker of understanding wells up and he reaches for me.

When his hand touches my arm it sends a surge up my spine. The boat rocks as the water begins to rage. “Don’t let go,” he shouts over the brewing storm.

Thunder cracks in the sky and the boat kicks up. I reach out for him and he grabs my other arm. He is holding me. Marlowe is holding me.

“We won’t have very long, Gen.”

“Whatever happens, you’re worth it.”

He looks as though I’ve already killed a part of him, and pulls me in. He wraps his arms around me and my body presses against his. I am blanketed in Marlowe. He is what I see, what I smell, and when his lips touch mine he is what I taste.

I can feel nothing but bliss.

I can remember nothing but him.

When the water and wind collide, when they spin around us, Marlowe kisses me still. My feet are ripped from the deck and Marlowe clings to me. I bury my face into his chest as he tightens his arms around me.

We rise.

We fall.

We crash into the water and Marlowe is pulled from my grasp.

***

I have swum as long as I am able. My new body makes it possible to swim for days, but I still grow weary. I sleep on the sea floor, among the plants and fish. I do not see Marlowe.

I find a sea cave. I sleep. I do not see Marlowe.

And on the fifteenth day, I hear something I could never hear before. A heartbeat that pulses in my wrists.

“Marlowe?” I whisper into the darkness.

“I am with you,” he replies. “In your heart.”

I would cry if it were possible. I would speak if I could find the words.

“You will live, Gen, but I will only live in you.”

“Love is a vortex,” I whisper.

“And I am forever drowning.”