Saturday Stories: Dance of the Dead

Photo: Egres73, Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a while since I posted a Saturday story. Here’s a little flash piece I wrote last week.

The longest night of the year started off cold and clear. As the stars came out, the entire village gathered in the square for the solstice celebration. Lanterns flickered all around the square, each one lit in memory of a loved one gone.

Claire wended her way through the crowd just in time to see her brother light the great bonfire. A cheer went up from the crowd. Musicians struck up a tune and the dancing began.

It was the dancing that drew the dead. At least, that’s what the elders said. Only on the winter solstice. Claire joined the others, stomping feet and turning circles. Her neighbour, Tom, caught her eye and smiled, but Claire hardly noticed as she looked around.

Where was Geoffrey? So lately dead, he should be one of the first to arrive. It was always that way. The ones who had been dead for longer took longer to return. More engaged in the afterlife. Eventually, most stopped coming altogether. But Geoffrey was only killed two months ago. Claire shuddered at the memory of the crushed body the other woodcutters carried home from the forest that day.

The circle of the dance brought Tom back around. “Good to see you, Claire.” They joined hands and spun. “Would you like to join me for a pie later?”

“Huh?” Claire had been craning her neck for a glimpse of Geoffrey. “Um…” The dance whirled them apart.

Where was Geoffrey? The dead were arriving in numbers now. Charlotte, who died last year in childbirth, was dancing with her husband Neil. The boy, Carter, who drowned during spring flooding, was holding his mother’s hand. Even Old Man Gardner was standing at the edge of the dance, clapping his hands and tapping a foot. His wife Henna, also of the dead, joined him with a smile and swept him into the dance.

So where was Geoffrey? Surely he’d arrived by now, if even Henna–three years dead– was here. Surely he was here and looking for her.

Twice more, Tom danced close enough to smile at Claire and ask his question. But Claire shook her head. “I’m waiting for Geoffrey.”

“Oh. I’ve seen him.” Tom looked like he was about to say something more, but then thought better of it. “Look, won’t you just go have a pie with me?”

Claire refused. It was the dancing that brought the dead. She had to keep dancing. For Geoffrey. She danced on. In the middle of the second dance, she noticed Tom, standing at the edge of the crowd, eating a pie alone.

Finally, well into the third song, when the dance was thronged with dead, she saw him–her Geoffrey!

Dancing with another girl.

Archie and the Dragon

Another short story from the world of the Dragon Slayer series. How Archie came to be where he is at the beginning of The Dragon Slayer’s Son.

Archibald McMannis frowned as he knelt at the front of the hall. He wasn’t sure about this. He’d asked for two weeks of extra time to decide whether to accept the position of Patriarch of the Fraternal Order of Dragon Slayers International. Even so, he still wasn’t certain it had been the right decision.

His thoughts drifted back to his last mission. The one that had clinched his nomination, though he hadn’t known it at the time. He had been called overseas to deal with a tundra dragon in Russia. The beast had already defeated three dragon slayers (only one had come out alive), and the Fraternal Order of Dragon Slayers had pulled Archie in as the last hope of slaying the vicious animal.

This would be Archie’s tenth mission, and he had yet to sustain injuries worse than scorched eyebrows. He was a natural. Some said he was so good, he didn’t even have to use his sword; he could talk a dragon into committing suicide.

Archie himself had started that rumour. It was almost true. His command of the Draconic language was superb. He could carry on long conversations with dragons. He did carry on long conversations with dragons. And he hadn’t killed nearly as many as everyone supposed he had.

Arriving at the dragon’s lair, in a bleak windswept valley in the middle of nowhere, Archie thought he might actually have to kill this one. It burst from its burrow in the permafrost, blasting fire. Archie crouched under his shield, watching the snow around him vaporise in the intense heat. The dragon didn’t even give him time to talk. After the fire, it struck with its claws, knocking Archie to the ground and flinging his shield out of his hand.

Archie scrambled to pick up the shield before the dragon struck again.

He didn’t make it. The whoosh of wings too close made him turn just in time to see the jet of flame come roaring at him. He closed his eyes and rolled across the ground as quickly as he could. The flames seared his eyelids, then his face plunged into snow as he rolled. Over and over he went—flame and ice, flame and ice. The dragon pulled up and Archie managed to get to his feet.

He dove for his shield, and by the time the dragon had turned, he was ready.

“Navarra, would you kill me before we have a chance to talk?”

The dragon landed in front of Archie—all twenty-five metres of it—and he frowned at its appearance. Tundra dragons survived the cold with a thick layer of fat that made them seem almost portly for, but this one was anything but fat. Its hip bones jutted up from its hindquarters and its spine was a sharp ridge along its back. Its limbs were wasted and thin. Archie could have counted every rib.

“Why should I talk to you, Dragon Slayer? Why shouldn’t I just eat you? You’re here to kill me, after all. Just like the others. Do you taste as sweet as they did?”

Archie ignored the questions. “What’s wrong with you? Are you sick?”

“Ha! Like you care. Like any of your kind care. You would starve us out of existence. Destroy our habitat and our prey just like you destroy us.”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you mean?” the dragon mocked. “Are you so blind you can’t see? Young and stupid. Is that the sort of dragon slayer they send to finish me off? Or maybe all you humans are like that. Babies. Idiots. So stupid you can’t see that whatever you do to the dragons you do to yourself.” Navarra began coughing. A wet, hacking cough that made Archie wince.

“Is there…Is there anything I can do for you?”

“What, before you kill me?” The dragon coughed again. Its legs began to shake. “Go away,” it growled, and then stumbled back into its lair.

Archie didn’t know what to do. He’d never had a dragon walk away from a fight. He’d also never seen a dragon in such bad shape. How had it defeated three other dragon slayers? What had happened to it? Staring at the burrow entrance, he considered his options.

A dragon slayer never entered a lair. Not if he wanted to stay alive. There was no room to maneuver in a lair, and dragons became particularly defensive against intruders.

But if the dragon wouldn’t come out, how would he get rid of it?

“Hey, Navarra. Why don’t you come out and fight like a real dragon?” Maybe taunting it would bring it out again. Archie waited, sword at the ready, but the dragon neither responded nor appeared.

“You must be a real coward, not to come out and face me.”

No response.

Archie sighed. He would just have to wait. He stepped away from the lair entrance so he would have some warning if Navarra appeared. He kept his sword and shield out, but relaxed into a crouch to try to get out of the wind.

Fifteen minutes passed, half an hour, an hour. Archie shifted and stamped his feet to warm them. The wind picked up and it began to snow.

Another hour, and the wind had become a gale, the snow blinding. If the dragon did emerge now, he’d never see it until it was on top of him.

Archie shivered. Dragon or no, he could very well die out here. He had been dropped off by helicopter a few kilometres away. He was to radio back when he was ready to be picked up, but no helicopter could fly in these conditions.

He crept closer to the lair. It wouldn’t do to be surprised if Navarra came out. He had to be able to see the entrance. His shivering continued. Even stamping wasn’t warming his toes now.

Another hour in the blizzard, and Archie knew the storm would kill him if he didn’t find shelter. The only shelter available was the dragon’s lair. He took a deep breath and ducked inside.

The entrance tunnel dove quickly, and Archie had difficulty descending without slipping. He was shivering uncontrollably, and he realised he’d waited too long to take cover. The warmth of the lair beckoned him. Every step down brought a rise in temperature. Every step down brought him closer to the dragon.

It was daylight above, but only dim light filtered into the lair. Archie took his time, letting his eyes adjust before going too far down. He was as good as dead if Navarra decided to kill him in here, but he wanted to at least be able to see it coming.

The entrance tunnel leveled out. Archie guessed he was a good thirty metres belowground. Then, before he realised he was near the main chamber, the tunnel opened up. Blinking in the semi-darkness, Archie saw the dragon sprawled on its side, chest heaving, eyes closed.

Archie took two more steps into the lair.

“What’s your name, Dragon Slayer?” Navarra’s voice was a raspy whisper.

“Archie. Archie McMannis.”

A weak laugh. “Archie McMannis. Yes. I’ve heard of you. You killed my cousin, Neve.”

Archie swallowed. “Yes. I’m…I’m sorry.”

Navarra opened an eye and looked at Archie. “Why?”

“Why did I kill her?”

“No. Why are you sorry?”

“Because…” Well, now. “Because she was clever and articulate and…and she made me laugh.”

A wheezy chuckle came from Navarra. “Yes, she knew how to make a pun, didn’t she? So why did you kill her?”

Archie shrugged. “I’m a dragon slayer. It’s my job. She was eating skiiers.”

Another chuckle. “She did develop quite a taste for them. Me, not so much. The skiiers were fine, but the skis always got stuck between my teeth. Not worth the bother, if you ask me.” A racking cough shook Navarra’s body.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

The dragon didn’t respond.

Archie stood for a minute longer, unsure of what to do.

The dragon shivered. “Fire.” It was barely a whisper.

Of course. The dragon was so thin, it had no way to stay warm. It needed heat. Fire.

How was he going to build a fire in the middle of a blizzard in the tundra?

He turned, ready to head out into the storm to find something to burn. Then he noticed the charred patch on the floor. Navarra had been keeping warm with fire for a while. He glanced around the lair and his gaze lit on a pile of lichen and moss, carefully dried and stored.

Archie set his sword and shield down reluctantly. What if Navarra’s weakness was just an act? He glanced at her again. She still shivered. If it was an act, it was a convincing one.

He gathered an armful of moss and carried it to the fire pit. His fingers were numb and clumsy as he fumbled for the lighter he knew he had in his pocket—part of the kit every dragon slayer kept on him at all times. It took a dozen tries to strike a flame—his fingers simply didn’t want to do what he asked of them—but finally he had a fire going. It was smoky, but it was warm.

Holding his hands over the flames to warm them, Archie was surprised by movement behind him. He jumped away from the fire and snatched up his sword and shield.

Navarra raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as she shifted closer to the fire.

“Why don’t you kill me?” asked the dragon. “You see what state I’m in. One stroke of that sword is all it would take.”

Archie looked at his sword and slowly lowered it. “Why don’t you kill me? I’ve foolishly trapped myself in your lair.”

Navarra chuckled. “I’m curious, Sir Archie McMannis. I’ve heard many things about you.”

“What sort of things?”

“Well, I heard that, after you killed Neve, you took her eggs to her sister, to be hatched and raised.” Archie shrugged and Navarra continued. “I heard you spent a week with a copper dragon in Nepal who you were sent to kill. You both left that encounter alive.”

“That copper dragon hasn’t been seen since.”

Navarra chuckled. “Not by humans. I hear he’s got a nice new home in an uninhabited valley. As do two other dragons you’ve supposedly slain.”

“Is it a problem if I prefer to negotiate rather than kill?”

“No. It’s just curious. Put down your weapons and sit by the fire. You’re shivering as much as I am.” The dragon coughed, and Archie nervously lowered his sword and shield to the ground. When he was settled by the fire, Navarra spoke again.

“I am nearly five hundred years old. I have lived in this lair for longer than even I can remember. I have seen many things in the world. Many changes. But the tundra is my home. It has always provided plenty of food and shelter. It has been a place of peace and solitude for tundra dragons—we are not social creatures.” The dragon had to stop as a series of coughs racked her body.

“But if the tundra provides food, why have you been killing people?” asked Archie.

“I’ve not been killing just any people. These are the men who have brought roads and trucks and drilling rigs to my home. They have chased off the reindeer I used to eat. They’ve churned up the ground and spilled acrid smoke into the air. I’ve been killing them because there is nothing else to eat anymore.”

Archie knew it was true. He’d seen the oil rigs dotting the landscape as they flew over, the endless roads slicing across the tundra, the grim concrete barracks where the workers lived.

“And now, the entire tundra ecosystem is dying. Killed off by human greed. By your species’ need to go faster, have things from the other side of the world, and show off your wealth.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s melting.”

Archie thought of the blizzard raging outside. It certainly wasn’t melting today.

“You humans probably can’t even see it happening. Your lives are so short. But I have been here long enough to see it. Two hundred years ago, the permafrost was just that—permanent. The ground stayed frozen year-round, and we tundra dragons could construct our lairs anywhere, and they lasted. They were dry and comfortable. Now, my roof leaks all summer. Many lairs have been flooded and abandoned. And where the ground has thawed, trees move in. We tundra dragon are not made for forests. We can’t maneuver well enough to hunt among the trees. We’re forced to move further and further north to find frozen ground and enough game to support us. Some day, we will be pinned against the sea, fighting for space with polar bears. If the polar bears still survive by that point.”

Archie knew about climate change. He knew it was an important environmental issue, but to hear this ancient dragon tell of the changes she’d seen during her lifetime made it real, personal.

“And amidst all this, we face the persecution of dragon slayers.”

“I’m sorry,” was all Archie could think to say.

Navarra looked keenly at Archie, until he began to itch for the comfort of his sword.

“Yes. You are sorry. That’s what makes you such a curious dragon slayer. That’s what makes your reputation as the best dragon slayer so…interesting.”

Archie sighed. “When I killed Neve, I felt terrible. She agreed, after we’d talked, that I had no choice but to try, and she had no choice but to try to kill me in turn. We agreed to a fair fight…to the death.” He blinked. “Three times I could have killed her, but I held back. Gave her the chance to escape. I know she did the same for me.” He was silent for a moment, replaying the fight in his mind. “I made it as quick and painless as I could.”

“And you risked your life to save her children.”

Archie shrugged. “I was sent to kill only Neve.”

“But dragon slayers are supposed to minimise future threat by destroying eggs when they can.”

“No one else knew she was incubating eggs.”

“Have you killed a dragon since?”

Archie hesitated. Would it be showing too much weakness? Navarra could still kill him. His sword was out of reach.

“No. Not one.”

Navarra chuckled, and her laugh soon turned to a cough. Archie watched helplessly as she hacked until blood dribbled from her mouth. When she spoke again it was a wheeze.

“Archie. Dragon slayer. You must slay one more dragon.” She took a shuddering breath. “We are dying. All of us, not just the tundra dragons. Our habitats are under threat. Those who know of us do not understand us. You humans are all so young. So sure of your place.” She coughed again, and her eyes closed. “Except you, Archie. The dragon slayer who saves dragons.” Her breathing became laboured. “You, Archie…You must kill me…”

“No.”

“You must kill me…And then…must…not kill…again…save…” She coughed, and Archie stood and placed a hand on her snout where it lay on the floor of the lair. Her eye flickered open at the touch. “So much pain…hunger…please…” Her eye closed again, and she began to pant.

Archie left her side to pick up his sword. It gleamed in the light of the fire. He had once been so proud of that gleam, proud to be a dragon slayer. He walked quietly to Navarra’s side. She gave no sign of having heard him, but she said, “Thank you.”

Archie swallowed, lifted his sword, and drove it point first into the spot just behind the head that all dragon slayers were taught was the most difficult part of a dragon to access, but the surest and swiftest death. Navarra didn’t move, but seemed to sigh gently.

Now here he was, about to be confirmed as the leader of the Fraternal Order of Dragon Slayers International. If they knew what he had in mind for the Order, would they have asked him to lead it? If they knew how few dragons he’d actually killed, he was certain they wouldn’t have. He cringed at the thought of the initials PFODSI behind his name. He wondered how the members would react when he began discussing dragon conservation. He didn’t expect it to go well. But after two weeks of agonizing, he’d come to the conclusion that he would have better luck changing the system if he were in charge of it, rather than if he were one of its minions.

“Rise,” said the master of ceremonies, breaking into Archie’s thoughts. Archie rose and turned to the attending dragon slayers. “I present to you Sir Archibald McMannis, Patriarch of the Fraternal Order of Dragon Slayers International.”

“For family, village and hearth, we pledge our swords as protection.” All the gathered dragon slayers recited the Dragon Slayer pledge.

“And for the dragons,” Archie added in his head. He hoped the dragons would understand.

Short Story: Sir Magnus and the Dragon

Those of you who have read The Dragon Slayer’s Son will know that Sir Magnus is a former dragon slayer who works at the Alexandra School of Heroic Arts. This is the story of how his dragon slaying career ended.

Sir Magnus MacDiermont squelched along the sodden track whistling a tune. After three days of rain, the sun was finally out, and he was near his destination—the lair of a southern blue dragon that had been terrorising trampers on the South Coast Track for months. He hoped it wouldn’t take long to find her and kill her; he planned to get a little pig hunting in before he headed back home.

At forty-five years old, Sir Magnus was practically elderly for a dragon slayer. No one liked talking about it, but few dragon slayers survived past fifty. Once they began to slow down, their days were numbered. Magnus tried not to think about it, but it weighed heavily on him each time he was called out to deal with a dragon.

His current target wouldn’t be easy to kill. Southern blues weren’t the biggest dragons in New Zealand, but they could be nasty, particularly the females. This one had already eaten two trampers and injured half a dozen others. But Magnus was feeling good today. The sun gave him confidence. He’d dispatch this dragon quickly, then have a little fun.

He dropped off the track and onto the scrap of beach where most of the attacks had happened. The dragon’s lair must be somewhere nearby, in some crevice along the rocky coast. He started toward the tumbled cliffs to his left.

A roar sounded behind him, and Magnus whirled to see the dragon burst from the rocks on the other side of the beach. His expression grew grave as he assessed his adversary. She was big, for a southern blue—not a whisker under twenty metres long. And mean, too—a truck-sized ball of flame and fury, headed straight for him.

Magnus planted his feet and waited.

The dragon swept across the beach, scorching the sand with her flames.

Fifty metres away, and he could feel the heat billowing toward him.

Twenty metres away, and he began to sweat.

Ten metres, and he blinked against the searing blast.

Five metres, and the acrid smell of burning wool hit his nostrils, as the hair on his arms scorched off.

At the very last moment, Magnus stepped deftly to the left—the dragon’s right—and the dragon surged past, roaring in frustration. Magnus chuckled. That move worked every time. He reckoned one day he might come across a rare right-handed dragon, but most were left-handed and couldn’t steer well to the right. If you could stand the heat, that little side-step would put the dragon off-kilter long enough for you to assess it and make a plan. It also let the dragon know you were a dragon slayer, which made them a little more cautious and less likely to attack.

The southern blue banked. By the time she had made the turn, Magnus had his sword and shield out. The dragon landed on the sand just out of sword reach.

“Well, well, well…Magnus MacDiermont. Fancy meeting you here.”

Magnus laughed. He was pleased his reputation preceded him. “That’s Sir Magnus to you, vile worm. You’ve taken enough trampers now. It’s time for you to move on.”

Now it was the dragon’s turn to laugh. “Or you’ll do what? Prick me with your shiny toothpick? I’ll turn you to toast before you even get near me.”

Magnus smiled. It was the breeding season for southern blues, and he reckoned that this one had gone on a rampage because she was guarding eggs. It made them vicious, but also vulnerable. To incubate their eggs, the female dragon plucked off a patch of scales just over her fire stomach. It kept the eggs warmer, but it was a chink in her armour.

To hit that chink, though, he’d have to get close enough to be incinerated by flame and shredded by claw. His shield would be of no use that close, and it would prevent him from using his sword. It was a problem many dragon slayers had faced, and there were no good solutions. But Magnus had prepared a little experiment. If it worked it would be brilliant. If it didn’t…well, Magnus’ affairs were in order, and his family knew the risks he took.

He said to the dragon, “Ah! You’re probably right. What good is my sword against your scaly hide? Perhaps we can negotiate. I have something you might be interested in.” Magnus shrugged off his pack, careful to keep his sword at the ready, and then pulled something shimmery and silver from the bag. The dragon’s eyes widened as the supple cloth-like object streamed out.

“Ooooo! Pretty!” she said.

Magnus snapped the object to unfurl it completely. He was pleased with the dragon’s response. It was just what he had expected—he’d never met a dragon who could resist shiny things. He only hoped the shiny fire shelter was enough to protect him. It worked for firefighters; with luck, it would work for him.

“You like that?” he asked. “Well, you can have it, if you can burn me.” He dove into the shelter with his sword. The dragon didn’t waste a moment—she breathed a gout of flame over him. He laughed and told her she needed to try harder.

She stepped closer. Another flame, and Magnus jeered at her again.

Three times she breathed on him in that shelter, coming closer each time, before she was close enough. By then, Magnus was envisioning himself as a potato wrapped in aluminium foil baking on the campfire. The shelter offered protection, but it was still horribly hot inside. He didn’t know if he’d survive the next blast, but it was too late to change his mind. When he heard the dragon inhale in preparation for roasting him at point-blank range, he thrust his sword upward.

The tip of the sword ripped a gash in the fire shelter, and then rebounded off the dragon’s scales. He’d missed the bare spot. He’d gambled and he’d lost.

The torn fire shelter was now nothing but a liability. Without a moment to lose, Magnus slashed the hole larger so he could see the dragon’s underbelly. There was the bare patch. He stabbed the sword again, driving it home.

And now Magnus recognised the flaw in his plan. The dragon was mortally wounded, but she didn’t die immediately. A wounded dragon is more dangerous than a room full of tigers, and Magnus was tangled in a useless fire shelter between the dragon’s front feet. He dropped his sword and lunged away. The dragon pounced, catching Magnus’s right leg in her teeth.  She lifted him and shook.  A loud crack and a stab of searing pain, and Magnus knew his leg was broken. Every struggle of his, every movement of the dragon was a lesson in pain as the broken bone tore through muscle and skin.

The dragon took a few staggering steps, flapping feebly to try to return to her lair. She made it into the air, only to crash a moment later.

Magnus tumbled to the ground and blacked out.

He came to with a hiss of pain when a wave washed over his shattered leg. He blinked, trying to remember why he was lying on the sand, and why his leg hurt so much. As his vision cleared, the dragon came into focus. Her limp body was already being lifted by the tide and sucked seaward.

Magnus raised himself to sitting and grunted as his left arm seared with pain. Broken. It must have broken when the dragon dropped him.

Another wave licked his legs, and Magnus watched the water flow red with blood. His blood. His leg was a wreck.

Help. He needed help. Now. He scanned the beach for his pack. It was nowhere to be seen. It must have been carried away by the waves already. How long had he been unconscious?

Another wave washed over him. He needed to move. His pack was gone, along with the locator beacon inside. He would have to climb back to the track and hope someone came along soon.

He tried to stand, but the world went dark. Blood loss. Too much blood loss. He began dragging himself up the beach, inching along on his butt, with one arm and one leg. Every few metres he had to stop and let the pain subside as his body threatened to lose consciousness again.

He reached the rocky step up to the track. Two metres. It had been a short hop down, and would have been nothing to climb, if he hadn’t been injured. Magnus rested, his back against the rock, for a few minutes before attempting the climb. Then he took a deep breath, gritted his teeth against the pain, and pushed himself upright.

The world swam before him, but he braced against the rock until his vision steadied. There was a red smear of blood all the way up the beach. The dragon was floating freely now, rolling in the breakers.

Just a little further. Magnus turned to face the rock. He reached high and grabbed hold of a small knob with his good hand. He wondered if his injured leg could support any weight, then decided he didn’t want to even try. Hanging by his arm, he dragged his good leg up to a foothold, wincing as the broken leg crunched against the rock. This was going to hurt. Magnus took a breath and counted.

One.

Two.

Three.

He hurled himself up, heaving his upper body onto the track above. The impact forced a cry from him.

That was the last thing he remembered.

He woke in a hospital bed, his wife reading a book in a chair next to him.

“Karyn?” his voice was ragged and his throat dry.

Karyn looked up and closed her book. She leaned over him. “Magnus.” A tear slid down her cheek. She swiped it away and sniffed. “Well, it could have been worse.” She pulled an envelope from between the pages of her book and handed it to him. “They say that leg is never going to be the same.”

Magnus fumbled one-handed with the envelope. He looked up at Karyn and she smiled. She broke the envelope’s seal and pulled out two sheets of paper.

“Dragon Slayer Extraordinare,” she read. “This honor awarded to Sir Magnus MacDiermont in recognition of his services to humanity in the destruction of the rogue dragon, Bluezilla.” She looked up. “Was that her name?”

Magnus nodded.

Karyn dropped the paper on the bedside table and read the second sheet. “Honourable Discharge.” She looked up, a smile flickering on her face. “Owing to injuries obtained in the line of duty, we hereby discharge Sir Magnus MacDiermont from the Dragon Slaying profession. He retains full honours, and is commended for his faithful service.” Tension seemed to drain from her face, then shoulders. She hurled herself at Magnus and hugged him. He patted her back with his good hand.

“Honourable discharge.” His huff might have been a laugh or a sob. He’d never expected to survive to retirement. Never considered what he would do, who he would be, after dragon slaying. He was a dragon slayer. How could they take that from him? The news settled onto his shoulders like a weight, but as it soaked in with his wife’s tears, he felt it lift him up. He began to think about dreams he’d forgotten he’d ever had. Dreams for himself, his wife, his children.

Honourable discharge. He could live with that. Yes.

He could live.

Flash Fiction: Ken and Barbie

“I told you it would come to this, Ken. Didn’t I tell you?”

“Mwf mwf mwf–”

“You never listen, do you? Remember last week when the children pinned me to the wall with thumbtacks? You laughed. Thought it was funny. It’s just your hands. They’re plastic, after all. It’s not like it hurts.

“Mwf mwf m–”

“And then when they started jabbing my arms and face with more thumbtacks, you just sat there with that smug smile, like it was painted on or something. Ha! But I was right. I told you you had it coming to you.”

“Mwf mwf–”

“Thought they wouldn’t mess with big bad Ken did you? Thought they wouldn’t dare do anything horrible to you. That’s the problem with you–you think you’re so superior just because you don’t have to stand on tiptoe twenty-four seven.”

“Mwf mwf–”

“Well, I can dance rings around you, even on my toes. Especially now. But did I laugh when they ripped off your legs? No. Did I tell you it wasn’t a big deal? That you shouldn’t mind it because you’re just a crappy piece of plastic? No.”

“Mwf mwf mwf–”

“Oh, don’t give me that shit, Ken. I’ve put up with your heartless, unthinking selfishness for too long. We’re over. Get out of my apartment.”

“Mwf mwfmwf mwf–”

“I don’t care if your legs are scattered across the floor. I want you out. Now.”

“Mwfmwfmwf—”

“Oh, shut up.”

Saturday Stories–Biodiversity

2017-01-05-09-03-54-cropOn our recent tramping trip to Mt Somers, my daughter and I whiled away the evening setting writing challenges. We chose three words at random from magazines in the hut, and used them in a story. The words that inspired this story: rhyolite, biodiversity, and me.

We hiked to the summit and set up our camp on a windy knob. I would have preferred to camp lower down, but the wētā we were studying lived in the cracks on the rhyolite cliffs just below the summit. We would rappel down from the top, our collecting jars in a sack attached to our harnesses, to gather our subjects.

“Caroline, you go first,” said Mark.

“Me?” I had hoped to watch one of the more experienced climbers descend first. I didn’t want to show the others how nervous I was about it though, so I stepped into my harness and tightened it.

At the brink I paused to make sure everything was ready. I knew if I glanced down even once I’d chicken out, so I kept my eyes on the rock in front of me as I slowly made my way down. I focused on admiring the beautiful, angular columns, the reddish colour. I looked for likely wētā hiding spots. I glanced up and saw Sophie coming down a second rope to my left.

I stopped at a small crevice and fumbled in my bag for a collecting jar and the bent wire ‘wētā tickler’ we all carried to nudge wētā out of their lairs. Focused on the insects, I forgot my fear, forgot the dizzying drop below. I fished out two wētā, then lowered myself a few more metres.

The rock was different here. Less columnar, more green than red. Did the wētā only live in the rhyolite? I didn’t know. I was curious to find out. I probed a near-circular hole in the rock with my wire.

The rock seemed to shiver.

I froze. Was that an earthquake? We’d never talked about what to do if we were on the cliffs during a tremor. All my fear of heights came rushing back.

I waited for a minute, eyes shut. Nothing happened. I opened my eyes and looked up at Sophie. She was poking intently at a crevice, as though nothing had happened. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. Funny what your imagination can do. I laughed at myself and took a moment to relax my taut muscles and clenched fists.

Calm again, I poked my wire into the hole once more—it was the perfect size for a wētā.

There was no mistaking it this time. The rock moved. I yelped and pulled back my hand as a large yellow eye snapped open in the rock face to my right. There was a rumble, and suddenly a huge head detached itself from the cliff face in front of me. A huge, reptilian head. It snorted, and a wisp of smoke curled up out of its nostril—the hole I had probed for wētā.

Too startled and frightened even to scream, my mind lit on one thought: the biodiversity of Mt. Somers was greater than anyone had ever guessed. And unusual insects weren’t the most interesting things up here.

I wondered if we would make it home to tell anyone.

Saturday Stories: Violet

2016-10-10-15-31-17-hdr-cropsmYes, I know it’s Sunday. I meant to post this yesterday and forgot about it!

The bush crowded in on Violet’s cabin. She liked it that way. After Harold died, she had graciously allowed the tree ferns and bracken to reclaim the vegetable patch and most of the lawn. Violet had never been fond of the cabbage and broccoli Harold grew, anyway. And she couldn’t manage the lawnmower anymore.

Violet kept the house up as best she could. She patched the window screens, changed light bulbs, and swept the porch. The place needed painting, and probably a new roof, but Violet reckoned those would be jobs for the next owner. Her son-in-law cleaned out the gutters once a year, because Violet didn’t trust her shaking limbs on a ladder. He threatened to cut down the trees that overhung the roof and filled the gutters with twigs and leaves, but Violet said no, just as she said no to her daughter’s threats to move her to ‘assisted living.’

“Why would I want to go live with a bunch of old people?” she replied.

“Mother, you’re eighty-seven!”

“And living just fine without assistance, thank-you-very-much!”

“Couldn’t you at least move to a nice flat in town? It would be so much less work for you than this old cottage. And more comfortable, too.”

“There’s no such thing as a nice flat in town. Yes, I could live in a flat and listen to my neighbours through the walls—hear them on the toilet, smell their dinner every night.” She harrumphed. “I don’t want to be subjected to my neighbour’s curries or their bodily functions.”

“But neighbours would look out for you. Out here, you’ve got no one. What if something happened to you? It could be a week before anyone noticed.”

“Well, then I’d die in a pleasant place. I won’t move to town, to be watched over by the neighbours.”

Violet knew she depended on her daughter’s help—the weekly visit to do her cleaning and bring her groceries—but she was thankful when it was over.

Her daughter always fussed over Violet—she must be too cold, the house was too damp, the lights too dim. When she left, Violet turned the lights off, let the fire go out, and opened the windows. She preferred the natural light, the fresh air. She was rarely cold, and knew her way around the house, even in the dark.

This evening, in the wake of one of her daughter’s visits, Violet sat in a battered wooden chair on the porch. Harold had painted it white years ago, but most of the paint was long gone. The wide arms were black from years of Harold’s garden-soiled hands. Tonight, Violet set her cup of tea on the right arm, her hand wrapped around the mug.

She sat and listened, as she did every evening. Her eyesight was going, but her hearing was still as sharp as ever.

As the light faded, a bellbird called—its clear, repeated call falling into a rhythm Violet knew well. She tapped a foot as though to her favourite tune.

A tui clanked from behind the house.

He’s a little late tonight, she thought. I wonder if he’s got himself a girlfriend.

She sipped her tea and closed her eyes, waiting for her next visitor. In a flurry of wing beats, a kereru landed in the rata tree hanging over the porch.

Welcome home, my friend, thought Violet to the plump bird.

A fine mist began to fall, hissing quietly on the roof.

The kereru ruffled its feathers and tucked its head under a wing.

The tui fell silent.

The bellbird sang its last note.

Violet’s foot stopped tapping and she let out a sigh.

The rain hissed as her tea cooled, sitting on the arm of the chair. The clouds lowered, wrapping the tops of the trees in a grey blanket.

Violet’s hand, resting lightly against her mug, cooled along with the tea.

Darkness fell.

Somewhere deep in the bush, a kiwi called, its rising trill a question needing no answer.

Violet remained on the porch, eyes closed, a smile lingering on her face.

Saturday Stories: Girl on the Plane/Boy on the Plane

dsc_0010-cropBelinda took her seat on the plane—12A—a window seat. She had just finished her Masters degree in aerospace engineering. Graduating top of her class, she’d had her pick of jobs. In the end, she’d chosen Lockheed Martin, not just because of the job, but also because it was located in Colorado.

A man sat down next to her. She smiled, and they shared a greeting as he buckled himself in.

Belinda grinned as the plane accelerated down the runway. For the first time in her life, she was leaving the Midwest. She was finally pursuing her dreams for real. Her first real job! She was already envisioning the trajectory of her career—as carefully calculated as the trajectory of the space craft she intended to design and launch some day.

Belinda had always been obsessed with space. She had asked for a star chart for her sixth birthday, and created a scale model of the solar system as a science project in first grade. She excelled in math and physics in high school. She had been accepted at MIT, but her parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, she had attended Iowa State University, where she had earned a full scholarship for both her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

As the plane reached cruising altitude, Belinda relaxed into her seat and watched the patchwork of Iowa farmland pass below. She couldn’t wait to see the mountains of Colorado. She would learn to ski, and maybe rock climb, too.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the man next to her. He was older than she—in her eyes, ancient, though he was probably only in his mid-fifties. He was well-dressed and unexceptional-looking.

“You headed to the ski fields?” he asked.

“No. Well, eventually I hope. I’m moving to Colorado.”

“Ah! Is there a special someone waiting for you there?”

“Um…No. I’m starting a new job there.”

“Don’t tell me…Elementary school teacher. I know they’re always short of teachers. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

“Actually, aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin.”

“Oh!” The man frowned. “Well, what made you choose that?”

The way he said that, it sounded like he was asking why she’d bought fried cricket clusters at the Iowa State Fair instead of French fries.

“I’ve always been interested in space. I used to make space ships out of Legos and calculate their trajectories to Mars.”

The man laughed. “And what does your boyfriend think of that?”

“Um…I don’t have one.”

“Oh. Married, then?”

“No.” Was he hitting on her? Surely he was way too old for that. “I’m not particularly interested in having a boyfriend or getting married.”

“Really? Now, that can’t possibly be true—a pretty girl like you? What makes you say you’re not interested in marriage? What about kids? Surely you want kids!”

“No husband, no kids. I’ve got other plans for my life—a career that doesn’t really fit in with a family.”

He laughed and Belinda realised he didn’t believe her. He was probably some crazy religious guy, like the one who had accosted her mother once in the mall, praising her for producing children because “God has called mankind to go forth and multiply.” He probably had a poor, harried wife at home with a dozen kids underfoot.

“And you? Are you married?” she asked to turn the conversation away from herself.

“Aw, me? Nah. Married to my business.”

 

_____________________

 

Jeff took his seat on the plane—12A—a window seat. He had just finished his Masters degree in aerospace engineering. Graduating top of his class, he’d had his pick of jobs. In the end, he’d chosen Lockheed Martin, not just because of the job, but also because it was located in Colorado.

A man sat down next to him. He smiled, and they shared a greeting as he buckled himself in.

Jeff grinned as the plane accelerated down the runway. For the first time in his life, he was leaving the Midwest. He was finally pursuing his dreams for real. His first real job! He was already envisioning the trajectory of his career—as carefully calculated as the trajectory of the space craft he intended to design and launch some day.

Jeff had always been obsessed with space. He had asked for a star chart for his sixth birthday, and created a scale model of the solar system as a science project in first grade. He excelled in math and physics in high school. He had been accepted at MIT, but his parents couldn’t afford the tuition. Instead, he had attended Iowa State University, where he had earned a full scholarship for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees.

As the plane reached cruising altitude, Jeff relaxed into his seat and watched the patchwork of Iowa farmland pass below. He couldn’t wait to see the mountains of Colorado. He would learn to ski, and maybe rock climb, too.

His thoughts were interrupted by the man next to him. He was older than Jeff—in Jeff’s eyes, ancient, though he was probably only in his mid-fifties. He was well-dressed and unexceptional-looking.

“You headed to the ski fields?” the man asked.

“No. Well, eventually I hope. I’m moving to Colorado.”

“Ah! Is there a special someone waiting for you there?”

“Um…No. I’m starting a new job there.”

“Don’t tell me…Elementary school teacher. I know they’re always short of teachers. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

“Actually, aeronautical engineer at Lockheed Martin.”

“Oh!” The man frowned. “Well, what made you choose that?”

The way he said that, it sounded like he was asking why Jeff had bought fried cricket clusters at the Iowa State Fair instead of French fries.

“I’ve always been interested in space. I used to make space ships out of Legos and calculate their trajectories to Mars.”

The man laughed. “And what does your girlfriend think of that?”

“Um…I don’t have one.”

“Oh. Married, then?”

“No.” Was he hitting on him? Surely he was way too old for that. “I’m not particularly interested in having a girlfriend or getting married.”

“Really? Now, that can’t possibly be true—a handsome guy like you? What makes you say you’re not interested in marriage? What about kids? Surely you want kids!”

“No wife, no kids. I’ve got other plans for my life—a career that doesn’t really fit in with a family.”

He laughed and Jeff realised he didn’t believe him. He was probably some crazy religious guy, like the one who had accosted his mother once in the mall, praising her for producing children because “God has called mankind to go forth and multiply.” He probably had a poor, harried wife at home with a dozen kids underfoot.

“And you? Are you married?” Jeff asked to turn the conversation away from himself.

“Aw, me? Nah. Married to my business.”