On A Flayed Horse

~ Brandon H. Bell

Outside the window, San Muerte Drive glowed orange with dust kicked up by a band of flayed horses.

“Those creatures, they’s part of the General’s army. Trained to make conscripts. That means they kill folk,” the crone said, huffing. “You see a load of conscripts passin’, the horses ain’t far behind.”

“Everyone knows that,” I said. The air in her shop stank of cigarettes and essential oils.

“Did you know they won’t kill young women?”

I nodded, thinking of Muireann and Marigold. Thinking of my flight from him.

“The line between young and heart ripped out, who knows?”

She glanced at me and saw, I presumed, the disappointment and boredom.

“Did you know a young woman can ride a flayed horse?”

“Really?”

This was new and intrigued me.

“It’d be a bad idea,” she said, cackles descending into wet cough.

In the distance black, shiny clouds roiled with faces and lightning. Tumblestorms. I wondered where the twins were, when they’d last eaten a hot meal, or when they’d last been hugged.

 

You might suppose my name is Chance. You’d be mistaken.

 

The last broadcast of import came from ground zero: it flooded social media, streaming, television. Everyone watched the descent, that sliver of ice in baby blue, suspended above Fort Worth, how it seemed to grow fatter, engorged, as it slid into place amid the meager downtown sprawl. Clips viewed more than any World Cup, Super Bowl, or Kardashian episode. The ship landed, and soon a crack of light at its base released its load and changed our world. The backs of people’s heads filled the foreground. No holes bubbling with green alien spiders. Not yet.

After media died, our dim evenings echoed with snatches of voice and song from the Bardo, and I’d sit with her as long as I dared before bolting home in the night.

“You’ve met the General?”

She glanced at me; coughed her wet cough.

“Every Shaman has. You will too.”

I remembered the old world, my parents, trips to the grocery store with dad and backyard hangouts while he grilled, constant chatter, laughter with mom, over what I couldn’t recall, before I lived with him.

 

I met Muireann and Marigold when I first arrived in the suburb from my uncle’s home. Dust engulfed the sky, filtered maroon, crimson, and scarlet to a diffuse saffron horizon. Memory: firmament aflame, my hair mussed by the breeze, the dead equine reek. The twins, I learned, wandered the length of San Muerte when the hoards passed. They turned to me that day amid the band of flayed horses, first frightened at this haggard wraith, then chattering around meek, quick smiles. A tumblestorm wheeled past and they glanced for faces between lightning strikes. A children’s game for the Bardo burbs. They creeped and charmed in equal measure, as the beasts herded around us. The destriers ripped men open and gulped out their hearts, a quick delicacy and a fresh conscript made.

They never bothered the twins.

Until one did.

 

A group of conscripts slouched through town, broken and bloodied by their harvesting band.

“You know why we treat women like we do, boy?” The old Shaman asked, laughing. Startled silent, she’d misgendered me.

Magic had rules, and she sought to share those rules before death came for her. Each step of our surest friend, as she dubbed it, counted in phlegmy, wet coughs, her every word a lesson meant to outpace the inevitable. From the window I watched the twins flit hand in hand across San Muerte, under red sky, silhouettes in dust. She cleared her throat, begging my attention, as she shared the secrets and rumors from the garrulous dead, stray artifacts, and the rare Bardonaut.

“I don’t know how to answer a question that big,” I said.

She laughed.

“Of course you don’t. But know this. There’s one way to bring someone back from the land of the dead. A fertile woman is needed. We all know it, instinctively. Gotta control a thing that powerful.”

“Women ain’t things,” I said, feeling clever.

She laughed at that too, glanced with trepidation at the dim window behind her. Red sky and black expanse stretched to the horizon outside, but through that window sprawled a shadowed room beyond the building’s perimeter, a room that shouldn’t exist.

“Put that out ya mind,” she said, noticing my attention. “Back to your litanies.”

“It’s like this in the dead land . . .” I intoned.

 

Inward, toward the landing site, the focal point in the war between humanity (dead and otherwise) and the aliens, life was brutal but quotidian. Severed limbs littered the ground, encampments congealed along the Trinity. Outward lay the Bardo, the dead land. Texas sprawled vast, black, and mythic beneath bloodshot sky. Wander too far out and you’d never find your way back. The dead, and other things, wandered inward, conscripts for the Buddhist General who led the dead army.

Winds carried hints of gunpowder and sewage, then weakened, stilled, and reversed, as if the city heaved a vast sigh, and from the Bardo the odor of lost dreams and forsaken love blew dust, ruffled hair, chapped skin.

The monsters, myths, and magic existed but slumbered, extraneous to the modern world . . . until the aliens arrived. They emerged from the Bardo, antibodies to a virus. The green pseudo-spiders engorged people, sometimes other vessels (infamously Big Tex which roamed DFW, stalked the uninfected), and combined them into neomorphs. I’d crossed minotaurs, centaurs, and human centipedes on my trek from my uncle’s.

In the suburb, we rarely saw neomorphs, but witnessed conscripts, determined for the front lines, and less often an Avicinaut, business suit aflame.

 

Once the green-pseudo-spider-filled Big Tex trudged into our suburb, then slinked to the water tower near Elm. There it stood, peering outward into the red and black, like a giant cartoon cowboy peering into all of human history. It latched onto the water tower like it would blow away and held vigil for three days. Near as I could tell, everyone stayed in their house, afraid to catch its attention.

Except the twins.

A band of horses arrived, following conscript. The girls trailed the horses to Elm, then stopped, gazed up into Big Tex’s bland, bloated face. It tilted toward them, head askew like a mutt listening through a door. The girls waved at the monster.

It waved back, turned its face outward as if to take a last look, and then pivoted its significant bulk toward city center and set off into the fray, dripping green pseudo-spiders from its seams.

Later that day ten dark figures spilled from the Shaman’s shop and trudged past my window, pale-faced and dour. No one had entered the shop since I left. I fidgeted and bit at my cuticles. Why did they come to her? They’d followed Big Tex, but where did they come from?

I berated myself, dismissed it, but a thought niggled at me. It was dark, square, foreboding.

 

A colossal migration inundated the town, and I sheltered in place, delinquent to the crone. I called her that, but she might have been forty. Rode hard and hung up wet, my uncle’s East Texas twang intoned. He lived rent free and proffered these appraisals.

I once walked among the flayed horses, but she didn’t know. Gave me a ring. One ring to rule your ass, she said, cackling. If I put it on backwards, her matching ring would spark: I’m coming, we agreed.

I strode once among the bands, when I was young, before I escaped my uncle’s home, then as the means of my escape. Since then, I assumed a camouflage of ambiguity, let people assume. She’d assumed. Though I didn’t saunter among the flayed beasts, it wasn’t because of my gender, but my purity. I believed in my exile.

They accepted the twins. Sadness accumulated as I watched the horses and loved them from afar.

They’d crumpled my uncle like a plaything when I fled.

Good horseys.

 

The knock startled me. I swung the door open and puzzled at the small, solitary figure against the dust haze.

Marigold threw herself into my arms, quaking. She smelled of wet puppies and bubble gum. I let her grieve for a moment, clutching at her like a lost doppelgänger, then I held her back and shook her. Her features hung on her face as if melted. Wounded by horror, the expression didn’t register, and I stared into her eyes until the tiny rivulets on her cheeks, the quiver of her mouth, the fact of her solitude jolted me.

“Where is she?”

“A fffflayed horse,” she whimpered. The world, and my stomach, churned.

 

The Shaman rarely left her shop, but the General would send a message to all the Shamans in a region and they’d travel to answer his summons at the foot of his tornado/tower.

On one such occasion, I broke into the shop and opened the black window. Cool breeze. Stink of gunpowder and must. I slunk through a series of rooms, a maze. The colors of the rooms: red-veined granite illuminated by cool light. I heard moans in a distant room, ecstasy or suffering, that morphed into indifference and grew sinister. I’d lost my way, forsaken the old stories. No trail of breadcrumbs, no diligently followed path.

Panicked, I stumbled into an alcove with a woman ensconced in a wooden chair. Ancient chicana, pale hair, wrinkled visage, cataract-filled eyes that flashed fear, then pity.

“Girl, you’re not me, are you?” She asked, with kind inflection. She shifted, assessed this creature, and intelligence stormed in her cloudy eyes.

“I—I don’t think so, ma’am.”

“I was as young as you when it began. Old women are the ghostliest ghosts. What’s your name?”

Not that much time had passed since ground zero. My brow furrowed. I told her my name.

“Not me. Why are you in the General’s tower?” she asked.

I blanched.

She nodded, pushed up from her chair, trudged around the corner and led me to my window . . . the Shaman’s window.

“Don’t come back, girl.”

I nodded on the windowsill to leave her.

“You knew I was a girl,” I said.

“You’d of been killed or conscripted, otherwise.”

 

 

The tracks led into the red and black, through a valley of towering mesas straight out of a Chuck Jones cartoon. Not North Texas, at all. Mythic America. The tracks didn’t resemble horse’s hooves. Perfect circles, too small, damaged.

A zephyr ozone-sharp with perversion spilled from the Bardo; broken promise of rain dry enough to chafe. My lips puckered and cracked in a grit-filmed face.

“This is the one,” I said to Marigold, and she nodded. The band surrounded us, stench and clouds of flies whipped by their sinewy tails. Innumerable rats followed the horses and Marigold violently kicked one that came near, an outburst, a fit. I paused and watched a mare prance alongside, muscles bulged, tendons tight, then released, blood black. I waited, breath held. It ignored me, kept the old unstated promise. It nickered and nodded, rolled eyes white with cataracts, then loped into grainy murk.

I squatted so I could stare, level, into Marigold’s eyes. They were the clearest things I’d ever seen.

“Go to the Shaman. Tell her I’ve gone after Muireann. Tell her I’ll use my ring. If she can bring us back—”

“I don’t—”

“Just tell her, Marigold. Tell her I listened. Yes? But don’t get too close. And then hide in the bands. Stay away from everyone. Watch the shop. That’s where we’ll come back. If we come back. It won’t be long. If the General’s tower moves and we haven’t returned. Well, we probably won’t.”

Her face fell, stricken.

“A week?” she asked.

“At most. Yes. Be careful. Don’t trust her. Don’t trust anyone.”

“I never did.”

 

I rode into the Bardo on a flayed horse.

 

It’s like this, in the dead land, I kept muttering. At my back ground zero, it’s direction an extra sense, always apparent, a beacon, and ahead, infinite death, like a toothache.

Archetypal cacti caught grew in clusters, alongside more alien plants that resembled pairs of tall, cupped blades. Some were not plants, but the hunched profiles of deer-sized hares, towering ears a deadly mimicry.

When I passed, the king jacks—as I dubbed them—proved wary of my flayed horse but regarded me, salivating below impressive whiskers and quivering noses, their eyes blinking with lashes so lush they resembled fairy tale creatures until those mouths opened to reveal multiple rows of teeth.

Desert land, buttes, mesas, arroyos.

We crested a knoll above a river of the dead, flowing outward, a contemporary majority interspersed by the anachronistic, belonging to ancient eras. The dead slogged away from ground zero and toward the Bardo’s horizon. The boundary throbbed, painful—outward endless death, inward the quotidian, opposing polarities that inspired nausea and weird gravity.

The horse trembled as we lingered atop the bluff, then we followed the trail of round tracks downward, into the dead masses’ apprehension and furtive glances. The horse bucked, frustrated, eager to thrash, crush, bite and create conscripts. It tensed, adrenaline surged, a rumble began deep in its throat and I slapped its neck and told it No! The whinny sounded horror movie fake, and I slapped it again.

“No!”

Pointed our way and it clip-clopped on.

We parted the mass of bodies in our passage, none wishing to cross our path. The flayed horse eviscerated three stragglers that shuffled too near. They each fell to the ground with stillborn shrieks, but when I glanced over my shoulder, they rose and trudged against the flow, back toward the front. Even the dead could be conscripted. The horse seemed pleased and trotted, jaunty, through our parted red sea.

The tracks, like footprints of astronauts on the moon, undisturbed, led up the far grade. I hurried the skinless horse after them, and it obeyed as if it read my mind.

 

We came upon the linear city after crossing two more rivers of the dead. One river followed a ridgeline, the other trampled a sloped valley, crested accumulated skree, then emerged to flood the landscape. Cardinal directions ceased: there was inward, outward, and uncertainty. We cantered a Mobius strip trail, deeper into death. Titanic mesas predominated along a curvature no planet possessed, as the idea of direction grew alien, abstractions limited in my brain.

The tracks led down and into a house.

 

“Magic ain’t nothing but shit you’re too stupid to understand,” the old woman said.

The memory lingered as I sat astride the flayed horse. What’s the ish? The Shaman deemed it folly to ride a flayed horse. She tended to accuracy, bereft of details. Then I realized the problem.

I couldn’t dismount.

Exploring the space between its hide and my pants, I found sinewy strands grew from its back into my buttocks and upper legs, joining us. It didn’t hurt. In fact, if I strained just right, it felt . . . Exquisite.

Peered left, then right, atop a ridge a hundred meters above the line of houses, store fronts, municipal buildings. A ring. One side of the city faced inward toward ground zero, the other outward toward deep Bardo.

I could feel hunger from those depths as we poised above the gullet.

I paralleled the city, East then West (approximations), and found no end. If it went on, it would encircle DFW. I could ride alongside it and I would come back to this spot. As I galloped, men came and went but ignored me.

Women slipped from the houses and shops, tended children, tossed out water, swept. Few acknowledged me, hands above scrunched faces.

All stood chained.

 

“Every town has a Shaman?”

The old crone nodded, smiled. My interest pleased her. We had the front door propped open, a rare luxury. No horses on San Muerte, nor Avicinauts nearby. Fresh air would be nice, she’d said.

“Do all the Shamans have a window like yours? The black one that leads somewhere else?”

She turned pale and fretted about the door, urged me to close it. She stood, faltered, collapsed in seizure, but recovered before I could react. I helped her up, trembling and sweaty, and led her to bed.

 

I returned to the tracks, indelible despite the wind, and followed them to the wooden boardwalk where they ended. The buildings had concrete foundations, and we sauntered, hooves high, to the near door, and the beast stomped—

Jigsaw splinters, slap of board against concrete, into the hovel where Muireann lay chained. Two men, Caucasian but dark with hair, beard, aura, stood above her. To the side lay a contraption that resembled a horse-shaped cab for two and supplies above spindly legs driven by pedals.

“You cain’t—” one man said before the destrier tensed, reared, then clomped, its shriek loud, horrible in the lamplight of the small abode. It took care not to stomp Muireann, unconcerned about the particulates and spatters of blood. She closed her eyes but did not scream. She’d walked among the horses and understood their alignment.

When the room fell to a quiet composed of the flayed horses’ breath and whinnies, clomping of concrete, she slipped from her shackles, and stood, wiping hair from her face. I searched, found a jacket hanging, and laid it over the horse. Then I leaned down and snagged Muireann beneath thin arms and plopped her astride the cloth.

“Chains didn’t stop you,” I said.

“They said I’d grow into them.”

 

Nothing to lose but our chains . . . the thought blazed in my mind, lit my eyes, burned at my skandhas.

 

The woman next door toppled from the boardwalk, chain pulled taut. Neighbors yelped, afraid, or sniped in rage, flashing eyes and waggled fingers. The horse had its way with them, Muireann quiet but trembling, and a dozen conscripts rose from the blood and viscera of their protestations to shuffle toward the front.

I urged the horse further along the inward boardwalk of the city, far enough that they would not have been able to hear the death stomps and screaming from earlier.

We arrived at a storefront with a cheerily painted sign. Odds N Ends. The name seemed ominous. A woman stepped onto the boardwalk in response to my knocking. She wore a simple shift, smiled.

“Hola, mi ja. Can I help you?”

A shackle and chain around her ankle.

“I’ve come,” I said. Muireann glanced back and up at me. “We’ve come to rescue you.”

“From what, mi ja?”

“You’re chained. A prisoner. We—”

I didn’t know what to call it. This gate in our wombs. This resource everyone but us might control.

“Ah, mi ja, so it goes. This is life, yes?”

She smiled.

 

“I miss Marigold,” Muireann told me.

“I know. Soon,” I said.

From home to home, shop to shop, we searched. I spoke to the women who would listen. Countless men fell beneath my hooves. I could have counted, but grew numb to gore and screaming.

We traveled the length of the linear city. The ebb and flow of death beckoned, urging toward the Bardo depths, endless death, a promise, a withheld caress.

I’d been right. The linear city stretched around all of DFW.

And I was wrong on all points that mattered.

“I miss my sister,” she reminded me.

“I know. Let’s go.”

I flipped the ring on my finger. It glowed blue, as if in a book of stories and ogres were near.

“Your surest friend knocks, lady,” I said aloud. I didn’t know if the magic conducted my voice, but I thought it fair to give her the chance to refuse this if it did. Static suffused the air along with the scents of offal and iron.

The flayed horse started, then bucked and trotted off into the badlands. Sky dark red, black expanse, until the flash of light and cracking, sand in eyes, then blood, an infinite vortex of suffering and shock—

I recognized her screams—

 

The emergence, like birth. Stifling air, gloom. Tunnel’s end, a dead scream echoed. The walls speckled with viscera and blood. Heaving breath, still alive, then awareness, the tick, tick, tick of time. The tiny figure in the corner, peering at her sister. Bawling for her sister.

“Go,” I say, and leverage Muireann down. She topples to the floor, then scampers into an embrace with her twin. Marigold breaks free and scampers near, balled fist lifted toward me, eyes intent. I reach down and she slips something small, cold, and round into my palm. Then she runs back and they hold each other, eyes closed.

The moment elongates, their embrace, their scurried escape, open door blinding, but their passage dims it and they slink into a passing band. He clears his throat and I notice the figure. Doesn’t look like a monk. Business suit over enormous girth, orange tan, blond hair, dead eyes.

“You look like that president,” I say and he laughs.

“I wonder,” he tells me. “Why you have killed one of my Shaman? Your mentor, no less?”

His voice is curt, formal, sensual. He doesn’t look like a General, either.

“The linear city, those women. Why?”

“Linear city? The Bardo gives us interesting perspectives, yes? I’d call it a circular city. Huge. It’s the hugest.”

I take a moment to understand the sound chuffing from his face is laughter.

“Are you a monster?”

At this he mewls, the amusement settling into ugly gentleness.

“Hard question, Shaman killer. I am Rakshasa, bitten by Cucui,” He says and laughs again, entertained, “all those years ago. They called me, in time, Geshe Rakshasa. More recent: General.”

“I mean. Did you have all those women chained? In the city?”

“Interesting thing, the Bardo. We’re told by mendicants it’s an in-between place. But you see, it is a form unto itself, a function, a mode, a multifarious proliferation thereof. And it has interesting ways of formalizing the circumstantial, actualizing the memetic. Big words. It gives you what you really are. I make use of that, fighting the incursion—”

I rear the horse and turn to the window. The rakshasa in his fine suit hisses at my back as we burst through the glass and into his tower.

 

The thing I understand about magic? Understanding is overrated.

 

Three days pass, measured in glimpses of sky from occasional parapets, machicolations, balastraria, windows. The aether is thick and Bardo radio waves provide esoteric nomenclature—fun, I guess—but most useful, often betrays nearby pursuers, minds static with bloodlust. The General’s elite guard follows, soldiers more skilled and quiet of mind, but I’ve outpaced them and their insectile-buzz auras, the tower Tardis-vast.

A psychic confluence grows stronger, up feels like outward, the Bardo twisted tight. I gallop along black basalt corridors wrapped within this coil of space-time, up the superstring.

Where did I hear that phrase?

I wonder about the relationship of tower to Bardo, but that’s another useless question I’m too stupid to answer.

The elite guard in pursuit, I meet iterative versions of the old woman I encountered in the black window. I speak with these doppelgangers—each time, first contact—wondering how to entreat them to my cause. It is her hand I ask for, to hold in momentary kinship, and it is her ring that intrigues me.

Were but she of child-bearing age.

 

That is interesting, I think from within the flayed horse’s skull. I agree, the thought unfurling in my girl’s brainpan. As I travel up the spire, the iterations of the elderly woman become younger—merely old, next middle-aged, then younger still . . .

 

Crack, crack, crack—

The woman crumples with a whimper. Quiet flutter of breath. The echo lives longer than she does and the bullet hole drools onto her hair and the stone floor, then the next report and a punch at my flank. The horse parts of me are magic-dead, but it still hurts like hell.

Canter into shadowed lee, break into gallop, follow an upward path around an outward wall, the tower smells of mold and agelessness, light filtered through rare balastraria give false impressions of cold mountains and forests just beyond the next corner. Damp, refreshing, breath heaved in cold, but steaming on the exhalation, the running warms, and adrenaline makes me eager and jumpy. The squad proves persistent, fast and pursuit remains intense and threatening. Gunshots dull my hearing.

Pass into a region of the tower composed of large chambers shaped like the inside of a nautilus shell, cathedrals within cathedrals turning into profane fleshy limbs, entwined.

Charge ever upward. Magic-dead, I never tire, onward, upward, mindless, until unknowable kotis of kalpas of space-time elapse and . . . I come upon this girl, almost a child. She shrinks back, a ghost. But we see each other and linger on the exposed topmost parapet of the tower. She cries, eyes the horse—aware, it seems, of the danger of flayed horses but not of their embargo toward young women—overcomes her fear—

 

Far below stretches the battle-torn landscape of DFW. Beyond that, the red and black of the Bardo, mesas, endlessness.

“He tricked me. Everyone thinks—”

“The General,” I say.

Confusion mars her face. The wind smells of rain—such beauty—and a hint of blue flashes between gray clouds.

“The old monk,” I say.

She nods.

“You think a ring holds all the world’s magic, someone once told me, but on a woman’s finger, it’s a gate. You’ve bled?”

Confusion again, but a meaningful glance clarifies and she nods.

“We could destroy this, but you’d be a gate. And that means—”

“I’m a ghost. You don’t know what it means.”

I slip the Shaman ring Marigold gave me onto her finger. I nod at it and she wrenches the apprentice ring from her finger and slips it on mine.

“You know how the old magic works?”

She shrugs.

“It’s dangerous. To your shaman, to you.”

“I consent,” she says. “I take responsibility.”

She doesn’t grasp the breadth of what’s been done to her, iterative hell of so many lost selves growing old, alone, trapped. But no sense in adding to her misery.

 

I take the girl’s apprentice ring, flip it and slide it back onto my finger. It glows blue.

 

The girl’s corporeal self wears the apprentice ring, the original, suspended in an upside-down car, wreckage imminent. A magic I do not know holds this pocket of space-time. Another ghost version of her stands beside me, observes me, observes herself and her family in the moments before impending death.

“He did this to me. To us. I don’t understand why.”

“Why never really matters,” I say.

She’s startled at my reply. Cries. Since the beginning, no one has heard her.

“Please,” she says. Through tears, she begs for the Shaman’s ring.

I re-enter the dark, fetid temple to parse through the explosion of flesh within.

The Shaman’s remains cool in the pizzeria-turned-temple. I locate her hand and retrieve the ring. I wipe the effluvia, blood, and gore from it and shamble out to the floating Subaru. Through the open window I place the Shaman ring on the girl’s finger. I pretend it a gift from me to her, a promise, a vow composed of secrets and silences only we might decipher.

 

It is like this in the world. Soldiers fight, civilians shelter, evils parade in daylight, men-shaped creatures, everywhere, and those not conforming to these man-shapes are murdered, maimed, or raped out of hunger, power, boredom; why doesn’t matter. Those with uteruses get pregnant, give birth and raise the seeds of violence, perpetuating the cycle. Men-shaped creatures with holes in the back of their heads bubbling with green pseudo-spiders battle the General’s army; other-than-men lay dead or dying, limping from trespass to desecration, conscripts incoming, another band of flayed horses, glory, glory, hallelujah.

 

Engorged, still my dual, eldritch self, flayed horse from the Bardo and battered babe from the battlefields of suburbia—Ha!—but more still: filled with the green pseudo-spiders and crouched on the giant’s shoulder as I flip the ghost girl’s ring to return.

The old magic is mine.

Stark horizon where bruised sky paints the world in chiaroscuro, a front of tumblestorms blow inward, their shadows like fingers in a nightmare. Time slows, an artifact of the superstring or I’m clogged with adrenaline.

It’s like this in the dead land: on a flayed horse I fall toward the tower, head full of green alien spiders. They bubble in my craniums, horse and human, multifoliate chimera. I fall past Big Tex, it, too, emergent from the ghost girl’s womb, and she hovers near, correct that this is magic. Shit I don’t understand.

We plummet, Big Tex, ghost girl, and I toward the tower. The soldiers in black and their General wait, but even now iterative ghosts of her fall into her more corporeal selves, alight with rage. We use his magic against him, her iterations become an army to defeat this last vile patriarchy.

You might suppose my name is Chance, but you’d be wrong. It’s Necessity.

Queen of Swords

 

Brandon H. Bell is busy revising his completed novel set in the world of “On a Flayed Horse.” His fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, M-Brane SF, and Hadley Rille Books, among others. He edited Torn Pages and The Aether Age anthologies, both with Christopher Fletcher, and founded the magazine Fantastique Unfettered.

Brandon lives in the Dallas Metroplex with his family and is working on his next novel, an intimate work about adult siblings, memory, and a wooden sea. You can find him online at www.brandonhbell.com.

 [ issue 8 : fall 2022 ]

I See You

~ Gerri Leen

I look, tasting the moment, the hesitation—even perhaps the fear—as you take me in with a sideways “I might not have seen you” glance. Will you run? Leave the bar and go find your girl of the moment in some other place? I know you won’t look me straight in the eye.

Even that night you didn’t. When we touched, the lights were out, my hair whipping around your face but our features hazy at best.

That was great.

I could have been anyone.

You’re great.

I am. Not that you’d know it.

I have an early meeting. I know this is . . . awkward. But I really need to get my rest and I sleep best alone.

So cold. You could have been made of stone.

I left, like a dutiful doormat. Used and discarded. Hurting because I thought you liked me.

I make my way to where you are. I don’t look directly at you, either, but I’m like a hunting cat, keeping you in my sights even as I pretend to have other prey in mind.

God, you’re beautiful.

But how did you know? You never even saw me there. Not the woman I am. All you wanted was the body that you took fast and hard, not seeming to think you should make it good for me too.

You edge toward the bar, and I move to block your way to the door, just in case you lose your nerve and try to flee. But you don’t.

I should give you credit for that. You stride forth to a stool like some mythical hero. Your phone your shield, your wallet full of cash your sword. Women will fall before you like soldiers to a superior force.

The one you’ve picked for the night is already yielding—you have a type, don’t you? Those of us who want but can’t have, who sit and wait as our fairer sisters are taken to the dance floor, offered drinks, seduced onto balconies and decks and into grimy bathroom stalls.

We are the left behinds, the uncomfortable, the fidgeters, the ones who wonder why we picked this dress, these shoes, this purse that’s too big to put on the bar and too little to put at our feet.

I came without a purse this time. I came not in a slinky dress but jeans and a leather jacket. My boots are flat and sensible and could kick you to shit.

My hair is curly tonight. I didn’t spend hours trying to tame the whirls and serpentine bits that refuse to give in to the flat iron and blow dryer without a fight.

Under my jacket, I have on a plain white t-shirt. In my pocket I have my phone, my keys, my lip balm, and enough money to buy my own damn drinks.

I am not here to catch. I am here to set free.

The woman you’ve latched onto looks at me. She’s annoyed. This is her moment—possibly the only one that will come—and I’m ruining it.

I nod to you, noticing you still won’t turn to face me fully. I call you by the wrong name. It’s petty but it amuses me, and your face twists in what looks like irritation.

She doesn’t frown. You haven’t gotten to the introduction stage yet. For all she knows, that is your name.

I lean in and smell her perfume. Desperate and exactly what I wore the other night. We are all twins, in our sleek outfits with our self-tanned legs and straight hair and spicy floral scent.

Tonight, I wear lemon. It reminds me of youth, of a time when men did not slay me after I gave them everything.

I tip her chin up, turning gently, making her look from you to me. Her skin is soft—too soft for the likes of you. “He’s selfish and he won’t make you come. He’ll send you home once he’s finished with you. Come find me when it’s done. We’ll be a gang, sisters tarnished by this man’s blade.” I make a sneering noise. “Well, not that large a blade, if we’re being honest—just between us girls.”

You try to pull her away.

You’re special. I could see that right away.

You weren’t wrong. You also weren’t sincere. Special to you means victim, means prey, means strike fast then leave. Means cut out my heart. Why not take my hands too? My head?

You can take what you want—no matter how deep the cut, you won’t kill what’s real inside me. You won’t slay the monster you’ve awakened.

“He hurt you,” the woman says.

I nod. “He’ll hurt you, too. But if you need to go down that road, do it. Sometime pain is liberating.”

She looks rebellious. Like she doesn’t believe me—or doesn’t want to. For women like us, those are often the same thing.

And you want her. It’s a powerful thing for a girl who’s usually left sitting, guarding the drinks.

“She’s just pissed it didn’t work out for us.” Your voice is soft, reasonable even. Using logic in the face of my bitterness. Mister Rational.

I can see immediately that it’s the wrong tack to take. She looks at you, her head cocked, her eyes almost fiery in the low light. “How long were you together?”

How long did you give it?  That’s what she’s asking and she already knows the answer—she’s figured it out.  She’s smarter than I was.  But then I didn’t have me telling me hard truths.

I smirk. You stare into the mirror over the bar and our eyes finally meet.

You’re not as handsome as I remember. Not now that I see you fully, with eyes not blinded by relief, by gratitude, by loneliness. You have a weak chin. Shifty eyes.  And you’re sweating.

I let one side of my mouth go up slowly, the universal sign of contempt. I know my eyes are dead.

She’s the one who responds. She laughs and slides off the barstool. “You look so cool,” she says to me. “Wild. Sexy.”

Everything I thought you were.

I don’t take my eyes from yours. You stand frozen, your mouth grim.

“I am. You can be, too.” I finally break the gaze and take her hand, pulling her onto the dance floor. Our dance isn’t sexual. It’s defiance. It’s victory.

Men stop to watch, frozen. As if they’ve never seen two women dance for themselves, not for them.

“My friends are freaking,” she says with a laugh. “They always leave me behind but now I’m getting all the attention.”

“No one leaves us behind anymore.”

Her smile falters. Her “that’s right” is shaky. There’s something lost about her, as if suddenly she’s doubting our path.

I slip my jacket off and put it around her. It’s heavy and warm and broken in perfectly. She’s smaller than I am so it swallows her a little. I tell her it suits her and it does. I’m not going to lie about things like that. We don’t need that.

Then a new woman comes into the bar. She sees you, her face broken—but her back straight.

“Sister,” I whisper, recognizing another former lost soul, and take the hand of my new friend.

We follow the girl as she strides to the bar—to you.

She’s in black jeans. A gray tank top. Sneakers and a bracelet of skulls around her wrist.

You see her in the mirror, then you see us. You don’t move except to motion for the bartender as if we’re nothing to you. Just three women happening to stand behind you—not a threat, not a reminder, not revenge waiting to happen.

You can pretend all you want, but the way your hand shakes as you lift the glass to your mouth lets us know what you’re really feeling.

I reach the new woman just before she gets to you. “There’s no satisfaction there.”

She turns to face me. She’s prettier than my new friend and I are. You threw her away too? Do none of us measure up for you?

“This is our bar now,” I say. My new friend nods. This pretty girl turns and stares at you in the mirror.

You glance up, frozen, not a single forgivable excuse coming from you. Not a lie, either. Or an insult. You say nothing.

Stone cold silent.

But men like you always are. Even when you never shut up.

Me? I feel like anything but stone. It’s as if there’s a fire inside me. I grab my girls’ hands and lead them to the other side of the bar. We’re proud, even if we’re just learning to be. We’re beautiful, even if we aren’t. We’re not seat-holders. We’re not the girls who wait.

We soon have men hovering. We don’t have to pay for our own drinks.

We do anyway.

Queen of Swords

 

Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. In addition to being an avid reader, she’s passionate about horse racing, tea, and collecting encaustic art and raku pottery. She has work appearing or accepted by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nature, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and others. She’s edited several anthologies for independent presses, is finishing some longer projects, and is a member of SFWA and HWA.

See more at gerrileen.com.

 [ issue 6 : spring 2022  ]

The Bremen Job

~ Linda McMullen

My scarlet cloak—with its mythic riding hood—hung abstractedly on its peg, while I pondered a curious communication deposited beneath the doorframe in the hours between twilight and dawn. The embossed, snow-white envelope bore only my name: Poppy

I heard my mother stirring, chirruping at the birds, just as always. Soon she would stoke the ebon coals and knead her day away, preparing the inevitable loaves that I would take to my grandmother’s table. I stole outside, borrowing the robins’ perch on a stump just outside. I could not bear to break the seal—a crimson tome, with a double-pointed oval superimposed over its pages. I lifted it carefully from the envelope and extracted my letter like a thief, or a magician.

Dear Poppy,

We would like to extend to you an invitation to join our organization, and to obtain the duties and privileges thereof, for our mutual benefit. If you wish to attend today’s gathering, please present yourself at a quarter to ten at the wishing well. Our representative will look for your red cloak.

Sincerely,

The FTH Society

Persuading my mother to allow me to gather wildflowers while she baked and swept and washed required all the childlike charm I could boast—no simple matter for a girl teetering on the precipice of womanhood. Particularly as I had spent much of the previous day lost in my book of wildflowers. But I promised to gather dandelions for a salad too, tipping the balance. “My indulgence will prove your undoing,” she sighed. I kissed her and skipped away.

The village well appeared deserted when I arrived. I had neglected to bring a pail, so the villagers eyed me with the self-congratulating scorn of a priggish priest hearing extravagant confessions. I rinsed the dust from my hands, for the sake of appearing to do something—and then a movement caught my eye.

A slim young woman gestured from the shadow of the church—

But it seemed that only her pale forearm emerged from the darkness . . . 

I followed.

She turned southward without acknowledging my inquisitive footfalls, or even tilting her head—with its heavy crown of auburn hair—toward me. She kept her arms crossed before her as we passed into the forest, and we marched on, on, until she suddenly descended into a cleft in the ground, tracing a gumdrop-mushroom path I had never glimpsed before. The breeze tickled me with hints of cinnamon and clove. The spruce and oaks grew denser; the air grew closer; we came to a cottage half-concealed in the undergrowth—

A magnificent gingerbread structure, next to a tiny, flowing creek.

I followed the girl to the sugar-glass door; she opened it wide but remained on the threshold, barring my entry. She finally turned and I saw, for certain, that she had no hands. “Turn out your cloak and hood, and open your basket.” As I did so, she stood aside, so that the many wide eyes within could see; I could feel their suddenly undammed curiosity flowing over me. 

“You may enter,” called a melodious voice from within. 

I obeyed, only to discover that the sweetly beautiful cottage was thoroughly bewitched: what seemed like a residence for perhaps one sweet-toothed misanthrope magically allowed dozens of damsels to fit comfortably. They reclined on marzipan divans and lemon drop cushions and a sugar plum sofa. I did my best to curtsey.

“Yes,” murmured the ageless sage enthroned on a fairy-food pedestal, “I see it.” Turning to me, she said, “Have a seat, Poppy.”

“I’ll just . . . dust off this stool,” said a young woman I recognized as Cinderella, retrieving one from a closet.

“That one is too hard,” complained a girl with bouncy flaxen curls.

“It’s fine,” I said, thanking Cinderella.

“Excellent,” said the wise woman. “Welcome, ladies, to this meeting of the Fairy Tale Heroines Society.” I could have sworn she vouchsafed me a wink. “Our younger generation has finally come of age, so I am pleased to introduce to you three potential new members: Poppy with her red riding hood”—I waved—“Goldilocks”—my complaining, curly-haired companion smiled—“and Gretel, whom I would like to thank for hosting us all today.” A round-faced, doughty girl bowed her head in acknowledgement. 

“I’m so sorry,” interrupted the young woman with the siren’s voice, as she sank onto the arm of the sofa, accidentally jostling Cinderella. “I feel as though I’ve been walking on knives all day.” (I learned later that walking hurt her greatly; she made herself useful by doing much of the cooking, though she flatly refused to prepare seafood.)

The wise woman arched her brow. “Ladies,” she said, gesturing to Goldilocks, Gretel, and myself, “Joining the society means divorcing yourself from the lives you’ve known, the habits you’ve developed, the stories you’ve told. It means commitment to this group above all, and unswerving obedience to our mission—”

“What’s your mission?” interjected Goldilocks. 

“—which is to address our broken relationships with Grimm, and Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen.” continued the wise woman, as if there had been no interruption.

“And Robert Southey?” Goldilocks broke in. The wise woman stared at her until Goldilocks flushed and looked down at her shoes, which were undoubtedly too small.

“I suppose,” conceded the wise woman, looking as though she was reconsidering the wisdom of her own invitation decisions. “Well. Girls. Yes or no?”

Gretel waved, which I supposed meant yes. Goldilocks said, “I have too little information—”

“Too bad,” said the wise woman. “Poppy?”

“Wait!” cried Goldilocks. “I . . . didn’t mean . . . that is . . . I . . . I’ll join.”

“Poppy?” the wise woman said again.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

We took our vows of allegiance. The girl with six brothers rose with a swanlike grace to get beverages, while my friend with no hands picked up a massive bowl of pears and offered them around. Then the real meeting began.

“The plan, ladies,” declared the wise woman, “is that we’re going to break into the Repository at Bremen.”

The phlegmatic Gretel didn’t bat an eye, but Goldilocks gasped and I couldn’t help feeling slightly taken aback. The Repository was the archive. The source of the source texts. The Official Tellings of all our tales, sanctified by the authors themselves. 

“You’re mad,” Goldilocks declared. “Those stories are sacred! The authors have placed them under layers of protection to keep anyone—including us—from tampering with them! I’ve heard they’re under incredibly heavy guard!”

“Do you wish to rescind your participation?” the wise woman asked, drawing out her wand and extending it toward Goldilocks’s trademark hair, adding, “I can make it look permanently ratted, you know.”

Goldilocks gulped and muttered a shamefaced apology.

“Now, we exist only as marionettes,” intoned the wise woman. “We follow the pre-trod paths, day in, day out—without ever having lived a day in our lives. Or even seen our own scripts. Well, no more!” she cried. “We are going to reclaim those texts. And we are going to create something better in their wake. We are finished playing the parts that men wrote for us!”

Applause; determined, almost grim, expressions.

“Thanks to our very own goose girl, who has been lingering with her flock outside the Repository for the last several weeks, we have excellent information about external security. The Repository boasts two guards outside its entrance at all times. They work eight-hour shifts. We know that at least five of these guards are susceptible to some kind of temptation, but one of them is extremely brave, absolutely impervious to shivers of any kind. We will therefore schedule our infiltration around his shift.”

Cinderella went about collecting the pear cores. “Sorry. Habit.”

The wise woman sighed and continued. “Allerleirauh will be in charge of disguises,” she began. “Then Inge—” she gestured to my handless guide—“will conduct the team through the forest; she’s spent an extensive amount of time in there, mapping the route. Once you arrive, Plan A is that Eva”—she gestured to a pretty, pouty young woman—“will arrive just before the end of the midnight-to-dawn shift with soup to offer the hungry guards. Obviously, it will contain donkey cabbage, which will literally transform the guards into the braying asses they are. In the unlikely event that they refuse free food, plan B is to have Snow White lure them into the woods. The dwarves have generously rented their cottage to us, and she’s booby-trapped it to a nicety.”

“What if only one of them goes?” I asked.

“Gretel’s more than a match for any one of them,” the wise woman replied. “She took out a witch when she was underfed and terrified, and she’s been in training since then.”

Gretel flexed her biceps.

“Indeed. And we’ll be sending additional support. At any rate, once our team enters the repository, they will have to work through the information warren inside. Goldilocks, I understand, has some experience with housebreaking, so I’ll ask her to take the lead on devising a plan to navigate through the building. Our goal is to reach the safe, which is located on the third floor, in the very center of the building.”

“Of course it is,” Goldilocks muttered, but accepted the blueprint the wise woman handed her.

“We expect that Sleeping Beauty will be able to pick the lock with her spindle—stop playing with that, dear!” cried the wise woman, as the princess let her fingertips dance a hair’s-breadth over its lethal-looking point. “If that doesn’t work, our fisherman’s wife has a range of hooks available.” An ill-at-ease peasant woman nodded from the corner. “Then—”

Beauty waved from the corner.

“That’s right. The strike team will extract the original texts of all our tales, and bring them back here for Beauty to analyze. Then we’ll make decisions about what to do. Cinderella will also remain at headquarters with me; she’ll look after anyone who gets injured. Understood?”

“How can I help?” I asked. My voice sounded very small. I didn’t have any magical powers, or exceptional beauty, or an enigmatic voice, or—

The wise woman smiled. “I daresay we’ll find some use for you.”

 

Day after day I told my mother I was off to visit my grandmother, while I trained with Gretel and the rest of the strike team—those the wise woman had assigned duties, plus Rapunzel, the Snow Queen (recently reclaimed from villainy through a little Disneyesque magic), a kind young woman named Clara who the wise woman explained had come straight from the three little men in the wood, and a bored young princess perpetually toying with a golden ball. We participated in physical training, conducted drills, and ran simulations. “You must be prepared,” said the wise woman. “I can only foresee so much.”

“Aren’t there kind of a lot of us?” asked Goldilocks.

“Redundancy ensures success,” replied the wise woman.

And at last, the great day arrived. The girl with the seven brothers had spun and woven, and made disguises following Allerleirauh’s designs. Allerleirauh disguised Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, the Snow Queen, Golden Ball girl, the kind young woman, Rapunzel, and the fisherman’s wife as security guards, tucking Rapunzel’s hair into a basket on her back, and pulling her hat down as far as possible. The donkey cabbage proprietress was also dressed as a guard, with a blue cloak to conceal it. Snow White, Goldilocks and I alone remained in normal clothing, though she braided our hair and accessorized us with spectacles and satchels (she allowed me to keep my basket). “This way, you’ll look like students,” she said, “and you won’t attract attention if you’re poking around—as if looking for a book.”

We made our way stealthily toward the repository, keeping to the forest as much as possible. But, true to form, I couldn’t help leaving the path for some exquisite, poisonously-blue buds blooming in the glade . . . 

“Really?” demanded Gretel. 

“You were sent to fulfill your mission, I was sent to complete mine,” I muttered, but only after she was striding forward, and well out of earshot.

The donkey cabbage plan worked like a . . . well, it was under a charm, but it’s probably a bit too on-the-nose to say . . . anyway, our plans did not miscarry. Eva-the-donkey-cabbage-proprietress dragged the guards out of sight and secured them with some rope, then abandoned her cloak and returned to the front door with Inge to take their places and deflect the questions of the oncoming crew. The rest of us entered the Repository of Lore, our security “squad” marching in formation as if conducting an extra patrol. And saw, just ahead a pair of guards conducting their real duties . . . 

“Go!” hissed Gretel; Snow White, Goldilocks and I dispersed into the bowels of the labyrinth, while our security team tangled noisily with the guards. I peered out from behind the multicolored array of Lang titles, lightly dusted in their rainbow jackets, anticipating pandemonium . . . 

“Gentlemen!” cried the young woman who had visited the three little men of the woods, “let my colleagues be!”

With this, five gold coins fell out of her mouth. The guards withdrew their molestation-poised hands and dove for the money. A gleam danced behind her eyes; she darted back out the door, singing, dropping coins with every word, the guards in greedy pursuit.

“Two down,” cried Goldilocks, delightedly, from somewhere in the stacks.

“More friends coming to join us,” muttered Gretel, as another pair of guards had become aware of their colleagues’ conspicuous absence. They approached, glowering, until Snow White ran up to one of them and whispered something in his ear. His face flushed, and his eyes glowed like stars. Then she whispered something in his partner’s ear. A moment later she had linked arms with them both and they walked merrily out the front door. I heard her murmur, “My cabin is only a quarter-hour’s walk from here . . . ”

I made my way back to the security team, now smaller by two. “Will she be all right?”

“I wouldn’t worry,” said Gretel. “She designed the set-up, and the wise woman helped her test it. And she has plenty of experience dealing with people targeting her.”

Not altogether reassured, I rejoined the others. Goldilocks navigated us through the library, carefully skirting the witches’ lore section, and reminding us all to jump the enchanted stream flowing through the middle of the Bewitchment section. Universally graceful, we soared over the waters and were proceeding to the rear stairwells to reach the second—and ultimately, third floors—when Gretel held up a silent hand.

A giant stood before us, wielding a club, ready to strike.

“Any ideas?” muttered Goldilocks, out of the corner of her mouth. “Anyone?”

“Scatter!” cried Gretel, as the club came down in our midst. I dove right, landing on top of Gretel, as the giant swung his club wildly about, no doubt hoping to smash us. But we were tiny and moving fast, and in his frustration, he lifted the club and bashed against the nearest objects, which happened to be the wooden staircases. They collapsed into a heap of kindling.

“Oh, no,” someone moaned.

“Help me! What have you got, girl?” cried Gretel, shaking my shoulder. I rummaged in my basket and produced the bottle of wine. She rolled her eyes, but accepted it, and ran out to face the danger. “Oi! You’re nothing but an overgrown troll!” she cried. The giant, caring for neither her remark nor her tone, tried to demolish her with his club; Gretel caught it on the upswing, then leapt from it to his shoulder, whence she smashed the wine bottle over his head. As he staggered forward from the blow, he grabbed Gretel around the waist and flung her against the Anthropomorphic Items collection. She did not stir. 

Goldilocks appeared out of nowhere, staring down the concussed giant and stamping her foot. “Somebody,” she screeched, “has been interfering with my team!

And she screamed aloud, the same shriek that must have given those bears infinite pause, and the giant hove himself forward, trying to smash her, trying to stop the horrible noise—and Goldilocks, displaying an impressive presence of mind, paused only to blow him him a raspberry, then, still screaming, skipped just ahead of him toward the library entrance, drawing him off . . . 

“Not bad for a complaining little housebreaker,” observed Gretel. 

“How’re we going to reach the archive?” Golden Ball girl complained. “The steps are gone, and Goldilocks’s blueprint only showed the one set.”

“Not very prudent of the designers, really,” observed the fisherman’s wife. “If I had that kind of power –”

“Focus, please,” said Gretel. “Ideas, team?”

Rapunzel grinned. “Not to worry,” she said, and looped her hair over the existing bit of bannister, two stories up. She turned to me. “Poppy, you’re lightest, you go first, and we’ll see if this will even work.”

“Great,” said Gretel, standing at attention to keep Rapunzel safe.

I half-clambered up her hair as she and the rest of the team helped hoist me to the next level—then Sleeping Beauty, the fisherman’s wife, Golden Ball girl, and the Snow Queen followed. Gretel and Rapunzel remained below to fend off anyone attempting to reach us from behind—“I’m certain they have enchanted ropes or ladders about for just such an emergency,” she said, grimly.

Up on the third floor now, our remainder stole down a corridor, which ended in a locked door. “I’ve got it,” cried Sleeping Beauty merrily, twirling her spindle around her thumb with an altogether worrying degree of swagger. She used the spindle’s lethal tip to blindly perform the delicate mechanical surgery that would open the lock—

A pop! and the handle turned. Sleeping Beauty looped her prize tool around her thumb in preparation for holstering it, when it caught her on the forefinger and she slumped to the ground, unconscious. 

“I don’t believe this,” cried Golden Ball girl, unfortunately catching the attention of the guard stationed just beyond the door. He seemed to weigh the situation, then took a deep breath, in preparation for issuing a monumental bellow, to let his fellows know he had found us—

But Golden Ball girl lunged forward, looping her arm around his neck, and kissing him full on the mouth. For a moment, I couldn’t distinguish anything through a cloud of acrid green smoke, and then, I saw—

—a frog emerging from the depths of the guard’s crumpled uniform.

That’s your power?” I cried. 

She shrugged. “Supposedly I can also change an upstanding, enchanted frog into a prince, but good luck finding one of those. So far, the magic only cuts this way.”

“Break in now, meta-analysis later!” cried the Snow Queen. “Mathilde”—she gestured to our resident faunamorphosis expert—“You’ve done your bit, look after Sleeping Beauty.” She transformed the corridor behind us into ice, and erected an ice slide down to the lower level.

“You couldn’t have just made us an ice ladder back there?” Mathilde replied, earning her a withering glance from the Snow Queen. Mathilde—I imagined, partly to escape from the remainder of this conversation—asked to borrow my cloak, and I obliged; we helped her place Sleeping Beauty on top of it, and Mathilde dragged our fallen comrade carefully back to the rest of the team on the makeshift stretcher/toboggan. 

And the rest of us crept onward, coming across another locked door. The fisherman’s wife fileted the lock; it clattered onto the floor and I half-imagined smoke and whimpers emerging from it.

“Excellent,” said the Snow Queen. 

Then the lights went out.

The Snow Queen, the fisherman’s wife, and I crept forward, when we heard a short scream suddenly cut off—then silence. 

Our picklock turned tail and ran back toward the rest of the team, and the light . . . 

“Do your ice powers also extend to—”

“No,” she said. “Do you have anything useful in your basket?”

I shook my head, ruefully, painfully conscious of the fact that my sole contribution to that point had been attendance. 

The Snow Queen sighed.

The light flickered on beyond the cracked door.

And then, an inhuman voice:

“Come and play, Red . . . ”

I trembled from my red riding hood to my little boots, a primal, wordless terror surging through me—

The Snow Queen murmured, “I’m right beside you. We’ll go together.”

I nodded, and—with every ounce of my will focused on my leaden feet—stumbled forward through the door, whose plaque read: The Dorothea Viehmann Repository.

We came into the room, the frozen heart of the archive, a dim, windowless, box-shaped room lined with iron caskets, locked drawers and stout safes—

—and before them prowled The Wolf.

I forced the scream fighting for exit back down my constricted throat. He was savage and sensual, with talons that beckoned even as they threatened to rip me apart . . . and what big eyes he had—hypnotic yellow discs . . .

“I hope you’ve come to play,” he said, his eyes flickering from me to the Snow Queen and back again. My fingers snaked into my basket, hoping by some miracle that the wise woman would choose now to work a miracle, to deliver me a weapon that appeared just from wishing—but I found nothing but the bread and the flowers. I offered him the former, gripping the flowers, as if their cheerful color might offer some comfort.

“I’m hungry, all right,” he returned, “but not for bread. Still, I’ll keep it. The better to eat you with.”

And then he lunged at us. The Snow Queen, anticipating his attack, threw up an ice wall between him and us, but he powered through it, sending both of us flying, and dispersing ice shards into every corner of the room . . .  I struggled to right myself, only to find her grappling with him, hand to hand, his torrid breath scorching her face . . . But he was in no hurry, always preferring to play with his food before he finally ate it—

“Poppy!” she gasped, his fangs grazing her throat. 

And time seemed to slow, to lose all meaning, and of all things, my wildflower book seemed to dance before my eyes, and I remembered I had seen a picture of those beautiful blue flowers in my basket, several days before, on the page . . . 

Aconitum, also known as aconite, or monkshood, also possesses the curious nickname of wolf’s bane . . . 

I seized an ice shard from the floor, squeezed a few drops of the flowers’ venomous nectar onto its tip, and plunged it into the wolf’s broad back.

He howled in surprise and misery and pain—and then the tremors began; he rolled off the Snow Queen and onto his side, spewing expletives and curses that ended with: “ . . . Red.”

Then he moved no more.

I rushed to the Snow Queen: “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she replied, wearily; she had a great lump on her head from where she had hit it in her fall. “Go find which strongbox our files are in, will you?”

I did as she bid, deciphering the faded ink scrawls on tiny labels affixed to the safes and drawers. After examining several—British Nursery Rhymes, Folklore: West Africa, Chivalric Tales, and so on—I came to a pot-bellied safe whose label read: Fairy Tales, Original Versions. I pointed. The Snow Queen propped herself up, and sent a wave of ice and snow around it. Her magic swirled, dropping the temperature of the room so abruptly that my teeth began to chatter . . .  and then—to my astonishment—the safe shattered. 

The Snow Queen tumbled senseless to the floor. 

“No!” I shouted, but a little voice inside reminded me not to allow her to have struggled in vain. I began picking through the silvery slivers of the former safe, extracting sheaves of carefully ribbon-bound, yellowing papers, and storing them in my basket. Footsteps sounded in the hall; I picked up another ice shard that felt friendly in my hand, and waited, crouched defensively—

“Thank God!” exclaimed Gretel, pulling me into an unexpected and slightly bone-crushing hug. “You’re alive! We thought—” She finally spotted the Snow Queen on the floor, bent down over her with careful fingers on her neck. “She’s alive. I’ll carry her. You’ve got the stories?”

I nodded because speech would not come. Gretel threw the meager royal weight across her shoulders, and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Golden Ball girl—Mathilde, I mean—had clearly reconnected with the rest of the team; leaving Rapunzel to care for Sleeping Beauty, she had gone about kissing all of the remaining guards. The only thing that slowed our exit was trying to avoid stepping on the phalanx of frogs.

 

Back at the little cottage, Cinderella had put most of the injured to rights. The Snow Queen rested on the sofa, lifting a hand to her still-tender head, but smiling. Gretel and the rest of the security crew had suffered numerous contusions, and many of them had ice on their injuries. Poor Rapunzel had an awful headache from everyone pulling on her hair, and she had a blindfold on and an ice pack on her head, but she was humming a merry tune. The kind young woman who produced coins when she spoke had led the guards pursuing her to Snow White’s cottage, where they—like the two invited by Snow White—had gotten snared in the various traps. The two of them were only sore from running, and lounged in adjacent armchairs. 

Goldilocks and I remained well, albeit rattled.

Unfortunately, however, neither Cinderella nor the wise woman had yet discovered a cure for Sleeping Beauty. She had perused the ancient text, of course, and found that the official story prescribed a prince . . . She had nonetheless tried to work other spells. Not one of them had made the least difference, and our companion slumbered on. 

While she did so, the wise woman came to me, and clasped both my hands in hers. “Poppy, we owe you our thanks. You faced a particularly personal battle, and emerged triumphant. I am so appreciative—and, if I may say so, I am very proud of you.”

I blushed as red as my hood. “I—thank you, but I am just so sorry so many of our sisters got injured—”

“They accepted that risk, just as you did,” the wise woman replied. “I just wish I were sagacious enough to—” She frowned at herself, glancing toward Sleeping Beauty.

Shaking her head in bewilderment, the wise woman convened those present, and gave Beauty the floor. Beauty went on at some length, describing the individual stories to gasps and frowns. She had just finished “The Three Little Men in the Wood” and we were enjoying a  break when Mathilde jumped up and cried, “Where’s Clara?”

“Gathering strawberries, why?”

“We need her! Which way did she go?”

The wise woman looked frankly bewildered. “West, I think.”

“Great!” cried Mathilde, over her shoulder, as she bolted out the door. We all stared after her in bewilderment.

Beauty cleared her throat, gently, and resumed her narrations. When she had read all of our stories, she said, “I’ve gone through these tales several times.” She pursed her lips. “Most of them appear to have been written to caution girls –” She glanced toward me—“against straying from the path—or, in my own case, for example, to teach young women to accept their fates with grace . . .  and docility.” She frowned. “But in my view, these lessons belong to another age—”

At that moment, Mathilde and Clara returned with a third, blindfolded young woman, a stranger, and Mathilde’s expression was triumphant. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but I’ve had an idea.”

“Bringing unapproved strangers here?” demanded the wise woman.

“She can’t see anything,” pointed out Mathilde. “But I think we need her . . . ”

“For what?”

“Curing Sleeping Beauty,” continued Mathilde. 

Clara broke in, apologetically. “This is my stepsister. When I went to the house in the wood, the three little men put a charm on me, that makes me drop coins from my mouth when I speak—” By the end of this explanation, she had produced enough gold to fund the Society for a year. “But my stepsister—ah . . . ”

“She was cursed with toads jumping out of her mouth at every word,” Mathilde explained. “So, I thought if I could just get my hands . . . or, rather, my mouth on one magical toad . . . ”

“I thought your magic worked on frogs?” asked the wise woman, sharply.

“I thought it close enough to merit an attempt,” Mathilde retorted. “It can’t hurt. Go on, Bertha.”

Bertha hissed, “No!” but it was enough; a gruesome amphibian sprang from her lips. Mathilde scooped him up and kissed him . . . 

. . . a puff of gold-and-plum smoke—

—and a beautiful, slightly vacant-eyed prince appeared, looking dazed. “My savior!” he cried, lurching amorously toward Mathilde—

“Not me,” she replied, promptly. “I did it on her behalf,” she said, pointing toward Sleeping Beauty. The prince, uncomprehending but amenable, kissed Sleeping Beauty full on the lips. She stirred prettily, blinked, and murmured, “What did I miss?”

The prince cried, “My love!” and Sleeping Beauty wrinkled her forehead and frowned at him, and Mathilde came to the rescue and kissed him so that he turned back into a toad. Then she carried him carefully out to the creek and wished him good luck. Clara sent her stepsister off with some coins.

“There is a certain elegance in the original tales’ simplicity,” Beauty continued, as if there had been no interruption. “But they offer us no agency.” She glanced toward the wise woman, who dipped her chin affirmatively.

“Therefore,” she said, “I propose that we produce our own versions of the tales—where we women act, and choose, and live.”

Mathilde began a slow clap, and then Rapunzel joined, and soon the whole room dissolved in thunderous applause.

“There’s just one . . . small concern, however,” said Beauty. “Once we’ve written our new editions, we’ll need to—somehow—place them inside the archive . . . ”

Queen of Swords

 

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over ninety literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020.

She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.

 [ issue 2 : spring 2021 ]