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Witch Trees of New England

The day was far too lovely for witch-hunting. It should be dark, lightning in the distance, maybe some hail, a tornado imminent under a green sky. Not balmy, blue, brilliantly sunny, with a few wispy clouds overhead. Though I suppose if the weather had been that bad, we would have stayed inside. At least the tree smelled vile, but they always do. 

“This can’t be the spot.” I gestured at the flowering atrocity. “That’s a Bradford pear, and they only live for about twenty years. It can’t be old enough to mark the grave we’re looking for.” 

“Maybe they replaced the original with this one.” Megan took a big sniff of the frothy white blossoms and wrinkled her nose. “Though why this? Yuck.” 

“Maybe to keep people away,” I replied, walking slow circles with my head down, just in case. Grass, speedwell, creeping charlie, nothing to indicate that the ground had been disturbed recently, just unbroken vegetation. Nothing to indicate that any particular spot had been disturbed in the past, either. No headstone, no slightly sunken rectangle, no subtle change in vegetation; nothing to denote a grave, just an erratically-tended grassy verge outside an old cemetery.

It was a horrible cliche to find a diary describing buried treasure in the attic of the house you’re renting, and yet. Here we were. You’ve heard this story a million times: mysterious book describing fabulous treasure; people stumble across it and go looking; eaten by monsters. Or, in the realer-world versions, are badly injured by failing equipment, or go broke hunting. 

You’d expect cramped, spidery handwriting, but the author of this book had perfect copperplate penmanship. She lived in this old farmhouse once upon a time, and died there probably. It wasn’t her grave we were looking for. Megan and I didn’t know her name, though we were reasonably certain it was a girl. We didn’t know when or where she died, or where she was buried. But the diary contained a detailed account of how a neighbor, one everyone knew was a witch, died of “surely old age” and was buried outside the hallowed ground of the cemetery, back when this was a thriving town in a growing area, before the church and most of the town faded away. 

We were out here for the summer, Megan to work on her book, me to… not work on my book, based on what I’d done for the past few weeks. This was another in a series of excuses to do something, anything, rather than face my notes. Besides, how often would we have the opportunity to hunt for the lost grave of a long-forgotten witch? Or of a cranky and disliked woman who people felt justified in calling a witch and blaming for things because they didn’t like her, anyway. And treasure!

Not in her coffin with her, no. We had no plans to dig up her grave, even if we found it. But according to the beautiful copperplate account, the gold and ruby ring that was the sign of her pact with the devil was sealed, blessed, and buried under the tree at the foot of her grave. That ring received more care and attention than the poor woman’s body did. The tree clearly wasn’t a Bradford pear, but the author didn’t mention what kind of tree it was.

Megan was leaning on the pear tree, trying to find the cardinal singing somewhere overhead. I was still scanning the ground as I walked, but was more just admiring the new spring growth than taking the hunt seriously, when everything happened at once. I tripped over a tree root that I swear hadn’t been there — I was looking at the ground as I walked! — and fell on my face in a patch of violets. I was wet, muddy, and suddenly freezing cold. I rolled over, a bit bruised but mostly fine other than my clothes and my largely non-existent dignity, and sat up. I had wandered away from the semi-tended open area and into the woods. The skeleton of a grand old oak loomed over me, a wolf tree that I hadn’t noticed while wandering the area instead of writing. 

I looked back the way I’d came, and could just see the white pear blossoms. Megan wasn’t visible, but she could watch birds for hours. I laid my hands on the oak’s patchy bark, still clinging around the immense trunk. This tree was here when the town was founded. It watched the town grow, the area be cleared, then presided over its abandonment. It surely witnessed the supposed witch being buried. I scanned the surrounding forest, all much younger trees. The wide-spreading branches told me that this oak had stood alone for a long time, with freedom to grow without competition from other trees. Now in its death it was providing a place for fungi, for insects, birds, small mammals, and eventually it would blow over in a storm and create a clearing for growth to start anew. I looked down, thinking of the flowers and then shrubs and then saplings that would find a new home after the oak fell. Except for the battered patches where I’d fallen on them, the violets formed an oblong patch a couple meters long, the size and shape of a grave. 

I would have yelled for Megan, but I was reluctant to disturb the quiet. It’s not like the violets would walk away while I wasn’t looking. I headed back out into the sunshine, only to find my wife not there. This was nothing unusual, since she was forever wandering off to get a better look at an interesting bird, but I was eager to show her the violets. I spotted her in the cemetery proper, and jumped the low iron fence to join her. 

“Chasing birds?” I teased. 

“What happened to you, Emily?” she asked, looking at my muddy clothes?

“Looking at some violets up close and personal. I want to show you something.”

“Just a minute. I saw a girl over there, by those headstones, all by herself. It would be a great place to play, but I don’t think any kids live nearby any more. And she was dressed oddly, in a flouncy skirt and an actual bonnet. I wanted to ask her what she was doing, but I couldn’t catch her.” Megan walked a bit further down the overgrown gravel walkway, but soon returned. “No sign of her.” 

I led Megan into the edge of the woods. There were oaks here and there, but no giant wolf skeleton presiding over her descendants. There were violets galore, but no grave-sized patch. I described what I’d seen to Megan, and she felt my head for bumps, concerned for concussion. I was fine, my head was fine. Somewhere out there was a giant old oak, and somewhere under it a buried treasure. I could keep looking. I had all summer.

– Excerpted from the preface to Witch Trees of New England: A Cultural and Botanical Assessment, by Emily Downwell, Professor of Forest Ecology, Connecticut College, New London, CT.

@talkwordy: A skeleton who knows too much
@premeesaurus: a well-dressed child alone at a cemetery
@valerievaldes: Bradford pear tree in full bloom and smelling of fish

Pi(e) Day

In honor of Pi Day, a twitter-prompt flash story. I had an unusually large number of prompts today:

@BenWolfeVision: Why did I have to annoy the hamsters?
@cislyn: The trees knew more than they were saying
@lbrothers: Alien ganache.
@mbennardo: A Regency romance about anglerfish
@kaillem44: a toilet paper shortage
@evilrooster: I thought I had imagined him. Turns out he’d invented me.
@CarolElaine: The scent of soy sauce seeped into the sofa.
@masterobscurity: Prompt: Raining out of a clear blue sky
@thekittymeister: Speedwell!
@onesockshort: Sauerkraut
@notmoro: whispers chickens

As is customary for this writing game, the story includes all the prompts, was written in one sitting, and is largely unedited.

Space exploration wasn’t at all what the movies made it out to be. Frankly, it kind of sucked. Mostly boredom. Lots of boredom. SO MUCH boredom. It was the moments of panic mixed in that really made it special, though. Like now. But this was special even in the annals of the Speedwell, and we’re the only Corps ship they haven’t made a documentary about, because the writers decided nobody would believe even a fraction of the things we’ve done. Clearly the mission where they forgot to supply toilet paper shouldn’t be made into video. But our cook would be a good subject. Why the Corps assigned a Crealloric as quartermaster and cook for a mostly-human crew is beyond me. We haven’t been short on TP since Jerrien took over that slot, thank the skies, but Creallorics are obligate algae eaters with no sense of smell. I don’t mind at all that Jerrien looks like an annoyed hamster — my own resting bitch face is strong — but they cook by color. Color! Jerrien decided that Desiree needed a birthday cake mid-mission, and whipped one up. The “chocolate” ganache? Dark soy. We’re never going to get the scent out of the rec room cushions. And don’t get me started on where the sauerkraut ended up…

I was in my quarters watching a Regency romance video. Somehow the galaxy has glommed onto Terrestrial period romances as the Next Big Thing, and everyone is making them. Whatever studio put this one together did an amazing job with the costuming, given that the entire cast looked more like anglerfish than humans. The fin-bustles were a really nice touch. I was looking at the bonnets, trying to figure out how they were staying on, what with all the swimming, when the alarm went off. Not the one we all ignored that meant Jerrien had burned something again (no sense of smell), but the one that meant something was actually wrong. 

On a Corps ship, let alone a tiny old one like the Speedwell, everyone does multiple jobs. Jerrien was cook and quartermaster, and supervised the cleaning bots. Desiree was geologist, archaeologist, and assistant engineer. Miguel was the engineer and spare pilot. Kallen was our xenobiologist, but only had one job, because their species didn’t tolerate jump travel well and spent transit time hibernating. I checked on them periodically, but in transit they looked like a cross between a limpet and a block of sandstone, and there was really nothing I could do for them anyway. I’m the medic, which really means that I’m trained on humans and on how to look things up for other species, and the botanist, and also, I’m afraid, the captain of the Speedwell.

I ran for the bridge, glad I was still wearing lounge clothes. The message on my room console hadn’t been helpful, just calling me to the bridge. Miguel was standing watch. We had just landed a day ago. Kallen was barely awake, still groggy and muttering about having imagined all of us. They’d be coherent by tomorrow morning. We hadn’t even started sampling yet, beyond basic security checks. There weren’t any large animals in the area, no geologic risks, nothing much going on. Everyone was planning to spend a period resting, except for routine short watches, and and get going in the morning with our various tasks and specialties.

Miguel was sitting in the command chair when I entered, but he very promptly got up. “All yours, Cap.” 

I rolled my eyes at him. Instead of telling me what triggered the alarm, he gestured to the viewscreen. The north camera view, of the trees edging the grassy clearing we’d landed in. I was eager to see how the “trees” and “grass” compared to other worlds. I was going to write a monograph on the evolution of woody and herbaceous species across the galaxy someday. but I didn’t think that had anything to do with it. My monograph was important, but not urgent. Motion caught my eye, something white, about chicken-sized, based on the branches surrounding it.

It was. A chicken. In an alien tree. On an alien world. That nobody from Earth had ever visited, as far as we knew. I zoomed in. Even worse, it was our chicken, beady little eyes and all. So much for biosecurity and not contaminating alien planets.

“Get Jerrien up here. Now.” Miguel buzzed him, while I stared at a terrestrial chicken in an alien tree. The Corps was always looking for ways to ensure that crew were satisfied and happy, and the current fad was for “real” foods. They’d decided chickens were perfect, somehow. Talking to an actual crew would get them the information that we all would prefer less work, less fuss, and packaged food was fine. The Corps wasn’t interested in that, though, but in looking good. So, chickens. The first couple of ships to be sent out with a small flock, not the Speedwell for once, came back with nothing but complaints, and no chickens. The new breed, the ones we’d gotten stuck with, were much quieter. They clucked and crowed, but in whispers. Jerrien was in charge of the three birds we’d been given. They roamed the hydroponic garden, eating our lettuce and whatever chicken food they were given. I tried to ignore them. Jerrien was getting pretty good at cooking eggs, once we explained that “boiled into rubber” was not the best strategy. 

Jerrien slouched in. I yelled. Jerrien apologized. I yelled some more. This made me feel better, but it didn’t do anything for the chicken problem. I needed Kallen to tell me how bad this was going to be, but they still weren’t particularly coherent, so the best thing I could come up with was to go catch the chicken. Jerrien assured me that the other two were in their coop, but couldn’t explain why one was outside, or how it had gotten there. Something about “chicken suit tests,” and “Corps instructions,” and that’s when I quit listening. 

And that’s how I found myself up a tree, on an alien planet, with a net. Wearing an envirosuit, of course, and broadcasting calming chicken calls through my suit speakers. The bird had refused to come down, even with the recorded chicken noises, so I was going up after it. Jerrien objected when I offered to just shoot it, and pointed out that spilled chicken innards would be an even worse biocontaminant. Right, I guess, although we were going to have to heavily decontaminate the tree branch it was sitting on. 

Local planetary time was early morning, of a beautiful spring day here in the northern hemisphere. The sky was a nearly-terrestrial blue, and beautiful. Normally I’d be excited about being the first one ever up a tree on a new world, but I just wanted to catch this bird and go to sleep. I was nearly to the chicken’s branch, safely roped in and net at the ready. That’s when the sky swiftly turned to gray, and the deluge began. 

I was dry in my suit, but the wet tree bark was suddenly slick, and all I could do was watch as the chicken launched itself into the air and flapped clumsily toward the ship, landing in the open outer lock, where it fluffed its feathers and settled in. The outer door closed, trapping the chicken. It could just stay there until we finished biologic sampling and determined whether it was safe to let it back in. When the rain slowed, I’d climb down and go in the lock on the other side.

I wonder if I could explain “chicken pot pie” to Jerrien. 

Landscaping Gnomes

I really wished I had cleared away a few more sticks and stones before lying down on my stomach by this big old sycamore. A boulder the size of a Chevy was digging into my bladder, and a redwood was biting into my shoulder. That’s what it felt like, anyway, but if I wiggled I’d have to start all over. Gnomes were so skittish. I had done all the prep work, even the bits I suspected were unnecessary. I was dressed all in cotton and wool, no synthetics, no leather. I’d bathed in rainwater, no soap, and then tied my hair back with braided grass rather than elastic. I wore no metal, other than the silver-bladed pruning shears at my waist (on a knotted cotton belt, which I’d nearly forgotten). All that effort would be for nothing if I wiggled now and scared the little buggers before they came out of this root-outlined doorway into the trunk around dusk. Landscaping was complicated work.

Sycamore gnomes weren’t so bad, really. Nothing like a nest of wyverns, for instance. Even this far north along the rolling line of the Appalachians, they were a problem in outlying areas, especially on newly-cleared lots. You think squirrels gnawing on wiring is a problem? A nest of wyverns has much stronger jaws. Mark and I took more than pruning shears after wyverns. That’s what the shotgun that lived in my truck was for. I wouldn’t even bother with the gnomes, except they were breaking the land treaty and wrecking my work. When they moved in, I’d negotiated on behalf of the homeowner (placidly ignorant of gnomes, or wyverns, or of landscaping even, but they listened to my planting suggestions and paid on time). The sycamore had been vacant for a few years, probably due to outdoor cats, but this band of gnomes had moved in last spring. We had negotiated the standard contract — residence in the sycamore for as long as the gnomes should wish, and in exchange they would leave the grounds and gardens alone, and also keep the pixies away. The nest of pixies had dealt with the feral cat problem, making space for the gnomes to return, but I still didn’t want pixies making messes in the yard or biting the Landis children while they were playing.

The urban-rural interface was the source of many kinds of tension. Farm vs development and coyotes eating cats were just the most obvious. Humans vs fae was a more serious problem, under the surface of things where most people would never notice. Landscaping was a great way to get to poke around in people’s yards and see what was really going on. Which brings me back to the gnomes. Instead of foraging outside the boundaries marked with ink and iron, they had taken out two entire beds of bulbs. I had no doubt the bulbs been sliced and dried, and would be served during the winter ahead. Sensible, but a contract violation, so I was waiting quietly outside the backdoor to grab one or two and have a chat.

“Gina!” Walpurga’s voice hit my ears about two seconds before her dog bit my ankle. She’d been trying to train that rescue dog to be a monster hunter, but so far the dustmop was a monster coward and an ankle hunter. The shelter was refusing to take it back. Actually, Annie hung up on me as soon as she heard my voice, so I didn’t know for sure. I guess she was still upset about killing the cu sidhe instead of rehoming it. Walpurga probably wouldn’t give up the dog anyway. She seemed to like it, for some reason. Probably she wouldn’t want to return it even if Annie would talk to me, but I was angry because it had chewed up my favorite deerskin gloves, then uprooted a whole row of native shrubs that were intended for a hedgerow at a job south of town. “Bad dog!” So much for the gnomes. I’d be doing this all over again tomorrow.

I stood stiffly, stretching my back. At least the boulder and the redwood weren’t poking me any more.

“I saw your truck, and stopped to see if you wanted to go to the harp. What were you doing, anyway, lying on the ground like that? I thought for a moment you were dead.”

“Looking for varmints, but now you’ve scared them off.” I aimed a half-hearted kick at the dog-thing. “So sure, why not.” It was Tuesday, so the house band wouldn’t be playing, which meant I wouldn’t have to worry about the guitarist seeing me dressed like this, but I pulled the grass band out of my hair anyway, just in case.

Apocalypse Again

The end of the world AGAIN? At least the apocalypse could have waited until I changed out of my pajamas, but that’s never how it works, is it? Saving the world while wearing fuzzy pajamas covered in elephants, camels, and zebras? All in a night’s work, I guess. And now you see why I don’t sleep nude. And do sleep with a sword under my pillow. I, well, don’t have many overnight guests, and rarely the same one more than once. The sword is sheathed and everything. Some people. 

The portal glowed in a color I liked to call octarine. Kind of an orange-purple-red, well, some color you didn’t see anywhere else except around a portal. I jammed my feet into the boots that always sat right beside my bed, where my feet would go if I were getting up in a hurry. I sleep in socks too, obviously. The portal was half a step from the edge of the bed, barely far enough that it didn’t cut off the boot toes. I grabbed the satchel that sat next to my boots in one hand, sword in the other, and stepped thru.

One of the many things I hate about portals is that you can’t see thru them before you step in. All you get is octarine glow and distorted reflections of whatever is behind you. I never know if I should unsheathe my sword first (you didn’t think I’d have a bare blade under my pillow?), or if that might be a problem. The sword equivalent of friendly fire is clearly tripping through a portal and accidentally stabbing someone on your side, but there’s also the risk of stepping into a crowd of giant bat-things or something equally venomous and angry. (Done that.) So I compromise by holding the sword in two hands, one properly on the hilt, and the other ready to pull the sheath off if necessary. The satchel didn’t get in the way when I practiced, but of course it tangled half the time when I did it for real. Okay, not half the time, because I’m still alive to tell this story, but more than I’d like. 

This time, it wasn’t a concern, because the portal dropped me onto an empty staircase heading down. It’s good that I’m steady on my feet, because it was just stairs. No wall, no railing, no bannister. Stairs. Dark empty space to the left. Even darker empty space to the right. You know how you can feel when you’re in an open or a closed space? That. Open. And a breeze, too. It smelled of wet grass and unfamiliar flowers, and an odd note of decay. Definitely creepy, but I had no idea why I was here.  To save the world, as usual, but which world? And from what? I couldn’t even see my own hands.

Oh. Probably whatever made that terrible yowl. I twisted around, trying to see anything in the darkness, trying to figure out what the creature might be. I didn’t recognize the cry, but it was definitely something unhappy. And large. Definitely something large. Although probably someday I’d end up trying to save a world menaced by slugs or something. I should add a container of salt to my satchel. 

I continued slowly down the stairs into the darkness. Did I mention yet that the stairs were glowing faintly? Probably glowing octarine too, but it was really faint, just enough to keep me from plummeting to certain death off the edge of the stairs. If I looked back, I could still see the portal waiting for me at the top. Unfortunately, experience had taught me that it wouldn’t let me through until I accomplished whatever I was there for, no matter how much I just wanted to go back to bed. At least the pay was good, good enough that I didn’t have to explain to a regular boss why I had to literally vanish from work now and then, or why there was a sword in the umbrella stand. I didn’t have health insurance, obviously, but I did have Major Magical Medical. (That was a joke, but it’s a really good plan nonetheless.)

Descending through the darkness on glowing stairs, unholy yowling now coming from all sides. Whatever it was, either there were lots of really upset demon-creatures or one really fast one. I’m not sure which one would be better for me. Neither option really sounded great. I was mostly watching my feet on the glowing steps instead of staring into the featureless darkness around me and imagining that the speckles in my vision were real things, so I noticed that the steps vanished half a beat before I stepped into a cute little mountain lake, mirror-smooth and surrounded by flowers. Good thing, too, because these boots take forever to dry if I actually get them full of water.

And if I could see the lakeshore, the lights were on. I looked down at my now-visible hands in relief. The red cord spliced around my left wrist was still there, as it always was and always would be, and I could distinguish the white bead from the black bead. Every time I meet someone, I look at their wrists, but so far I’ve never found anyone with the symbol of our calling, even though I know there must be other guardians. I’d like to be able to talk to someone who doesn’t think I’m delusional, but that doesn’t seem to be how it works. There have to be other people like me, people who are on call to save the world? People who know what, and how, and why? Money appears in my bank account. If I go to sleep injured or ill, I’m fine in the morning. Portals randomly appear at any time and any place. I go through, and usually I kill things. 

The yowl sounded right behind me. I spun, sliding my sword free and swinging it around in one smooth motion, right through the neck of the creature lunging at me. I’d been waiting for that. Reptilian, scaly, green blood. I didn’t even get any on my pajamas. I stared across the lake for a few minutes, wondering if that was all. The valley was quiet, though, so I trudged back up the stairs. 

The portal let me through, so I was indeed done. I wiped down my sword and oiled it, then crawled back into bed for a few more hours of sleep. I would never know where I had been, or why I had needed to kill the yowler. Someday the wyvern or the kraken or the sentient plant would kill me instead, or injure me badly enough that I couldn’t get back through the portal. I hoped that before then I’d meet someone who could tell me why.

First twitter flash of 2021! Prompts from:
@notmoro – CAMELS
@PrinceJvstin – A stairway that descends into a tarn.
@evilrooster – Two bone beads, one dark, one light.

As always, written immediately and unedited. I hope you enjoyed it anyway.


It would be so much easier if we could breathe on this fucking planet. But no. The atmosphere wasn’t poisonous, exactly, but there wasn’t enough of it, and it would taste absolutely awful if any of the team did trying breathing it. Jorge got an accidental whiff due to a helmet malfunction, and described it as a mix of stale giraffe farts and rotting leather. This raises some questions that I really don’t want answers to.

Anyway, here we were. Me, Jorge, Alistrina, and our faithful dog Spot, who wasn’t a dog and was only faithful because it was made that way.  We had a little habitrail to work and sleep in, an inflated series of tubes that packed light but gave us each some private space. It was great after being crammed into that pocketship for so many weeks. There’s only so many recreational pills you can take to make the boredom and crowding. Come to think of it, pocketships probably smell like stale giraffe farts too, but nobody cares. Taking drugs while not in transit is strictly forbidden, so if something went wrong we’d have to smell it. 

Right now, all I smelled was steamed pork buns. It was Alistrina’s turn to cook, and she liked those far more than I thought they deserved: fake pork, soggy bun, real steam. But they were nourishing enough, and for my turn tomorrow I could pull something that actually tasted good out of the freezer. In transit, nobody was able to cook, and on planet nobody had time, so we packed a full complement of ready-to-heat meals. Fancier teams raised fresh vegetables and mealworms,  but none of us wanted to do anything but get in and get out. 

I grabbed a plateful of steaming buns and… what was that? kale? and hauled it back to the main workroom. Not that we were supposed to eat around alien artifacts, but we were in a hurry. The pocketship was tucked under a ledge, and the habitrail was undetectible by anything short of a direct visual examination, and even then the chromatophores made it difficult to spot, but the longer we hung around the more likely that the Patrol would catch us, or that another Jones squad would try to muscle in. 

I shoved half a bun in my mouth while I looked at the thing. It was kind of shaped like an an ancient Greek amphora, with the curves and all, but it didn’t have an opening at the top. Also, amphorae didn’t glow like that. That’s how we spotted it: a landslide had uncovered the edge of the lip, and a hot pink light should always be investigated, at least if you’re trying to get rich on looted alien artifacts. This freshly-discovered planet was a likely prospect, and we aimed to get in fast and get out with something good before the official survey teams showed up. They were slow, methodically, and boring, and I should know, because I worked for one for a while. Got kicked out for taking a couple of small doodads, figuring there were so many of the whatever-they-were that nobody would notice. I was wrong, but they didn’t actually know how many I had snagged, and the sales of the ones I’d hidden got me enough money and enough rep to get onto the team. 

I was still chewing when Jorge barged in, followed by Spot. “You gotta get that thing under wraps,” he yelled. “The whole hab is glowing pink.” It didn’t seem that bright in here, but maybe I’d gotten used to it. It did add some attractive highlights to Spot’s carapace, where scrabbling thru the rubble hadn’t left it scratched up. Spot’s main job was to dig and burrow in places that we didn’t think were safe enough for people, and it was rather enthusiastic. Jorge tended to get over-excited, at least I thought so, but it was his job to keep us safe on-planet. He did security and piloting, Alistrina managed mainenance, and I was the xenoarchaeologist. What more do you need to loot and run?

But we were not very far ahead of the survey team. They could even be in orbit already, in which case glowing would be very bad. I wanted to get out tomorrow morning and look for some more stuff around the landslide, or at least slide offplanet clean. Getting caught would spoil all my plans. And the thing was getting brighter. The sun would be setting outside, I figured, and the glow was intensifying as the light outside faded. If it was visible thru the insulated habitrail walls (and how was that possible? but Jorge was not the type to be making things up – he didn’t even like to watch anything but documentaries), that was a problem. I grabbed a can of spray foam and started coating it. I was going to pack the amphora-thing for transit tonight anyway. Might as well do it now. I could crate it and then have Spot stow it for good measure. 

Jorge leaned against the wall, arms crossed on his chest, the entire time I was coating and crating the object. Maybe it was a nightlight. Maybe it was a piece of art. It was hard to tell what an extinct alien species might have intended, and I really didn’t care anyway. I was already thinking about who I could sell it to, and how much we could make, and whether there might be anything else exposed in that cliff face. The pink glow was hidden by the foam long before I fastened the lid. Spot picked up the crate with two of its six legs and carried it off.

I hadn’t seen Alistrina come in, and jumped when they spoke. “I think we should jet. I don’t feel right.” They got hunches. You can laugh, like I used to, but Jorge always listened, and more often than not they saved us from something: collapsing ice cave, tsunami, and a couple of unexpected patrols. So now I listened too, but that doesn’t mean I liked it.

“We just got set up, and I think there’s more goodies out there.” 

They fidgeted, shifting weight back and forth. “We have to go. Now.”

I glanced at Jorge, who shrugged. “If you insist.” I was looking forward to sleeping in my own space. I called it the habitrail, but it was so much nicer than the ship. But I threw my stuff back in my bag, closed the workroom cabinet, and hit the deflate button for this segment on my way out the door. It poofed down to a cube — you did not want to be caught inside — and Spot trotted over to grab it. The kitchen popped down right after, and Jorge’s bit was already done and loaded. 

I wanted to scratch my nose, but of course my visor was sealed against stale giraffe farts. I followed the others into the pocketship, looking over my shoulder at the pile of rubble I wanted to dig in. Maybe this would be a false alarm, and I could come back down tomorrow. 

Nope. The ship’s scanner alarm started to beep even while I was still taking off my suit. A survey ship was just within sensor range. We could slip out undetected, but the window was rapidly closing. Jorge was already at the console, speaking quietly to the computer and double-checking the settings. Alistrina and I strapped ourselves in for a quick but quiet exit. 

Departure was as uneventful as we could hope for, and the survey team never even knew we were there. We were pretty good at this, after all. Lots of practice. I was ready for some fun drugs and a long, relaxing trip back, but I wanted to take a look at the crate first. I hadn’t gotten to check Spot’s placement and anchoring. It was usually fine, but I always confirmed. 

I slid open the door separating the hold from our cramped living space and froze. Pinpricks of light like a hot pink galaxy were projected all over the room like an alien planetarium.

I screamed. 

Jorge and Alistrina ran up behind me. Like me, they saw the pinpricks first, but then looked down, where I was pointing incoherently at the swarms of tiny hot pink glowworms moving purposefully across the floor. 

It wasn’t an alien artifact, it was an alien.

Apparently I haven’t done one of these since the Before Times. Thanks to @fictionlisbeth (ancient Greek amphora), @thekittymeister (steamed pork buns), @spacedlaw (dying light), and @scribofelidae (giraffe) for providing prompts on twitter.

The rules of the game: I solicit prompts, write for an hour or so, and post the result, usually completely unedited. It’s fun, and not just low stakes but NO stakes, so it stays fun. I hope you were entertained.

Left Turn

“I told you we should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque. King Oberon is going to be furious.”

“You got those directions from a cartoon.”

“No, Oberon did. That’s how you get to the Seelie Court right now. He thought it was funny.”

Eliese rolled her eyes. “You both watch too much human media. The Movable Court should be found in the old ways, by star and stone and water. Left turn.”e

“You are way too young to be that old and cranky.” Logan grinned at her. “Since we’re here, we should definitely check it out. Then we can go on to Court like we’re supposed to.” 

Eliese gazed at the gates of Disneyland, lines of people winding back and forth in front of them. Secretly she thought that was a great idea, but she had to seem the responsible older sister, even if her sibling always reminded her that it was only by twenty-eight minutes, and that if she hadn’t been so pushy they’d have been eldest, clearly. 

“All right, but just for a few hours. And I’m not standing in those lines.”

They checked each other’s glamour, no pointy ears or slit pupils visible, then held hands and oozed through the lines, people stepping out of the way without looking at them. Logan wanted the full experience, so they did pay at the booth, the green paper that humans were using this era. It would return to oak leaves at sundown, but they’d be long gone. “Enjoy Disneyland! Just put these wristbands on. They’ll mark you as our guests.” The cotton-candy-colored wristband buzzed oddly as Eliese snapped it into place. 

She hadn’t noticed the faint music until then, and she grabbed Logan’s hand again, eagerly tugging them into the park. 

The siblings wandered the park for several hours, riding the rides, eating junk food, laughing at the costumed performers. Eliese thought vaguely now and then about somewhere she ought to be, but she was having far too much fun to think seriously about leaving. This park was the best place she had ever been, the most fun she had ever had. All of the people around her were laughing and smiling. Everyone was having a good time! Even the performers looked like they were having fun, despite the hot costumes. The mermaid was in a tub, just as if she were real. Various princesses wandered the grounds, posing for selfies and waving. A brown-skinned woman in a forest green dress was clearly the star of the princess-show. 

They were wandering along the river, Eliese right on the bank, when something tangled in her ankles and she tripped, landing with a splash. Pain spiked in her wrist, and she sat for a moment in the shallow water, completely befuddled. 

“Don’t just sit there,” said the gray tabby who’d tripped her. “Get out of the river before they notice. Though you’d better pull your sib in too. Their ears are showing.” Panic rippled thru Eliese. Logan’s pointed ears were clearly visible, and they were goggling at her inanely.

“Sis, this is no place to swim. Let me help you out. We still haven’t been on that roller coaster.” They reached a hand down, and Eliese tugged as the cat tripped, and Logan nearly landed on top of her. 

Logan lay still for a moment. “What the fuck? Did they enchant us?”

“No, you dork,” replied the cat. “there’s a mood control gizmo embedded in wristbands. Apparently it makes elves go human. Now get out of the river before security sees you.” Eliese wrapped them in glamour and followed the cat into the private areas of the park. “Are you two gonna be okay now? It’s getting late, which means that the best sunbeam in the park is going to be caressing my fuzzy blanket right now, and I don’t want to miss any of its warmth.”

“Um, okay,” said Logan, still a bit groggy. “But…”

The cat interrupted. “I’ve got to go. Melody will explain everything.” She nodded her head off to the left, then bounded away in search of the best sunbeam. The sibs looked after her in puzzlement.

Eliese jumped, banging her shoulder painfully into a light pole, when the prop barrel beside them emitted a loud squawk. She peered in, to see an enormous green parrot looking back. She thought she’d seen it in the pirate parade earlier, riding on Captain Hook’s shoulder. “What you lookin’ at?” it yelled, then tucked its head under a wing. 

“Don’t mind Polly,” a silky female voice said. “He’s agoraphobic, and spends all the time he isn’t performing in that barrel. Says he feels safe there. I’m certainly not going to make him stop.” Eliese looked over in time to see the mermaid from earlier, still in her tub, wave a hand toward her tail. 

She elbowed Logan and whispered, “Stop staring, dorkface. It’s rude.”

“But… she was fake when we saw her earlier. That was clearly a costume.”

“I apologize for my sib,” Eliese said, walking closer. “They’re a bit of a dorkface.”

Melody smiled beautifully. “A bit of latex to create a seam, and those wristbands. They make people gullible and happy. A lot like your glamour, really.” 

Eliese nodded thoughtfully. “I’m really not pleased about humans having glamour, especially something that works on elves. Oberon is going to be furious. But how did you end up here?”

“Oh, it’s perfect,” the mermaid replied. “I hope King Oberon doesn’t interfere. Most of the cast are fae of some sort. It’s a good job, since the humans don’t notice much and we fit in so well. Nearly all of…” She broke off, and Eliese followed her gaze. The princess in the green dress, the one she had thought was the star of the show, was walking past, oblivious to the mermaid watching her.

“You should sing for her,” Eliese said. “Excuse me, Your Highness,” she called after the woman. 

“Oh, hi,” the princess said. She was nearly as beautiful without the glamour making her look princessy, and that dress was a stunning color on her. But Eliese wasn’t here to admire on her own behalf.

“Do you like singers?” Eliese asked. The princess nodded, a bit perplexed. “Because Melody here is an amazing vocalist, and she would love to sing for you sometime soon.” 

The princess’s face lit up. “You would? Do you know any of the old jazz standards? I haven’t heard them live since I was a girl.” Eliese left them chattering away about Billie Holiday, wondering idly what kind of fae the princess was, and how old she was, then wondering more urgently where Logan had vanished to. She didn’t want to call, because park security might notice her. Where could they have gotten to?

She turned a corner, past a weathered building that held bits of a pirate ship, and a few ghosts. She nodded politely, then spotted Logan picking something off the fence. Their hands were full of tan bits of fur. 

“What are you doing?” 

“Picking up tufts of fur. I’m trying to figure out what left them. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a basilisk around here somewhere.” 

Eliese rubbed one between her fingers. Not basilisk, or Arctic bass. She sniffed it. Herbivore, not a threat.

“Oh,” said a passing contortionist, clearly of marshwiggle ancestry somewhere along the line, “Josie has been wandering again. She gets bored in the Animal Kingdom after hours, and sneaks out.” She neatly plucked the ball of fur out of Logan’s hand. “I’ll just get rid of this so she doesn’t get caught.” The contortionist leaned in confidentially. “I think one of her ancestors pissed off a djinn. Being a sentient pack camel must have sucked. At least Josie got into the park. I play cards with her sometimes. She’s amazing at poker. I lost my firstborn to her last week. I don’t know how she’s going to raise a passel of polliwogs.” She headed off, stuffing the fur in a pocket.

Logan squealed. They tugged at their foot, where a series of tendrils had wrapped around their jeans above the shoe. “What the fuck!” They pulled harder, nearly falling over. “That plant is trying to eat me!”

Eliese bent down to look. Yellow flowers, prickly green fruit. “You’re being menaced by a cucumber,” she laughed. 

“It isn’t funny. I’m stuck!”

Eliese whispered to the plant, and the tendrils rapidly unwound, springing back from Logan’s leg.

“Wow. What did you say to them?”

“It’s because I’m older,” she replied. “I have powers you don’t share.”

They punched her in the shoulder. “That’s not true and you know it.”

Eliese giggled. “Pickles.” At their feet, the plant trembled. 

“Unless you want to stay and watch the fireworks, we should get out of here. Somebody in charge is going to eventually notice us, and we definitely need to tell Papa about the glamour wristbands.”

“He won’t care much,” Logan replied. “He’s not interested in technology at all. He’s going to regret that eventually.”

“That’s why we keep an eye on it for him,” Eliese agreed. “If he leaves the park alone, all these folks will keep their jobs and hiding places. But we definitely need to make sure this mind control doesn’t get out of hand.”

Logan nodded. “We are going to have to go the long way around, aren’t we, so we can take a left turn at Albuquerque.”

Eliese sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, we are. Stupid dad jokes.”

This is a twitter flash: five minutes of soliciting prompts on twitter, then an hour of writing something that includes ALL of them. Then I post it here, largely unedited, and as fast as I can. It’s a fun game!

Today’s prompts were courtesy of:

@ce_murphy: A mermaid falls in love with a star

@mjandersen: Saucy romance between a cat and her sunbeam

@outseide: A brain implant that can control mood via electricity has been developed that is safe. Go!

@ImperfectSong: Two elves get lost and end up in Disneyworld.

@thekittymeister: Camel hair!

@evilrooster: Rivers and memory

@zanzjan: Malevolent cucumbers.

@SamhainNight: But the music was faint

@julieczerneda: Parrot in a barrel

How’d I do?

Awards eligibility: Making people cry

I have never done an awards eligibility post, but there’s a first time for everything.

In 2018 I wrote and sold an essay to Uncanny, “There and Back Again.” It was hard to write, hard to send out into the world, terrifying to have people read, and I will be forever grateful to the people who encouraged/comforted/shoved me through the process. I have never been so proud of making people cry.

This essay is eligible for the Hugo for Best Related Work. I’d be honored if you would read it, and consider adding it to your nomination list.

I also published one short story, “By Stone, by Sea, by Flower, by Thorn,” at Fireside Magazine. It’s a short thing, about anger and long-term planning.


Special Collections

The job ad said NOTHING about canoes. Librarian needed, experience with cataloguing and customer service. I’d never heard of the research institute whose library I was taking over, but they offered a good salary and it wasn’t in Texas.

The problem was, most of the collection wasn’t books. I was curating an enormous collection of, well. Bottles. Packets. Mysterious containers of all sorts. They were all labeled, yes, but in faded, spidery, near-illegible handwriting. The founder of the institute, Ernest Albertine, well. He was eccentric, I suppose, because he was also ridiculously wealthy. Otherwise? Well.

  • Powdered unicorn horn: opaque cobalt jar, shelf 43, cupboard 8. (Rattles when shaken.)
  • Fragments of the True Cross: linen packet, shelf 1, cupboard 17. (Extensive provenance.)
  • Fragments of the fake cross: assorted linen packets, shelves 2 thru 8, cupboard 17. (Each packet with extensive provenance, and catalogued individually.)
  • Cephalosaur baculum: wooden box, shelf 12, cabinet 8.
  • Scent of extinct roses: set of six vials tied together with red silk ribbon, cabinet 11. (I did not open one, much as I wanted to.)

And so on, and on, and. I had all the equipment I needed: computer, camera, state-of-the-aat digital collections management software. Even a couple of student interns who came in several afternoons a week to photograph the packages and the labels. I was including both in the item metadata. Eventually the digital catalog would be made available to researchers, and then I’d need more of my reference desk skills than my cataloging chops.

I jammed a hat onto my head to keep the mosquitoes off of my buzzed hair, and crawled unsteadily into the front of the canoe, holding onto the sides. Dr. Eric Albertine, Ernest’s great-grandson and my boss, had the grace not to laugh as he pushed the boat away from the shore and climbed in the back. Stern. Whatever. Being that rich meant you had good manners and a perfect haircut, apparently. I wondered if his barber would cut my hair. Some barbers didn’t cut women’s hair, but I’d rather go to a barber than a stylist, unless I wanted color.

The canoe rocked a bit, snapping me out of my hair musings. I reflexively grabbed the sides, then relaxed when I realized it was just Dr. Albertine paddling. “Sorry, sir, I’ve never been in a canoe before.”

“Well, I’ll make sure you have some time to practice, then. You’ll be traveling back and forth to the island on your own in no time.”

I peered ahead of us, where a proper Victorian folly rose: a small island, with an attractively fake Classical ruin. “I still don’t understand why the collections are split into two parts. Why not store everything at the main institute building?”

Eric was silent for a minute or two. “We’ve always kept Special Collections on the island. It’s much safer this way. Despite the folly, there’s a quite solid building there, and the things in the collection can’t cross water.”

They’re paying me a lot. They’re paying me a lot. They’re paying me a lot. The institute could be as weird as it wanted, as long as it was solvent. I didn’t ask any more questions until we had walked up the path to the modern-looking concrete bunker roofed in solar panels. My institute badge unlocked the door, and the lights came on automatically as I followed Dr. Albertine inside.

The reception desk was empty, and we let ourselves in through a serious-looking security door. Instead of the mismatched wooden cabinets and odd steamer trunks of the main institute collection, this storage area had neat rows of drawers of different sizes, a few shelves of ancient-looking books behind glass, and actual typed labels on everything.

“This material will be much easier to catalog,” Dr. Albertine said as we walked up and down the rows, “but I wanted to start you on the oldest material right away, so I could find a replacement quickly if you were not suited to the job. But I am very pleased with your progress, and how quickly you’ve adjusted to working at the Institute.” When he said it, “institute” was always capitalized.

“Thank you, sir. I’m enjoying the challenge. This is nothing like the collections I’ve worked with previously.”

“No, nothing like this exists anywhere.” We stopped in front of a even more serious door, reinforced with a grid of iron bars. “You’ll need to take notes on paper and bring them back to your office. Despite the lights, computer equipment doesn’t work reliably on the island. We’re too close to the Doorway.” Like “institute,” “doorway” was clearly capitalized.

“You’re the boss,” I replied, distracted by something moving off to the side. “Oh, sorry, Dr. Albertine. I didn’t mean…”

“Of course you did – as long as I pay you, you’ll humor me.” I probably looked as sheepish as I felt, but he was right. Eric Albertine could be as eccentric as Ernest Albertine, and as long as I was getting paid and enjoying the work, I’d stay. Something was definitely moving in that corner, but every time I turned to look at it, there was nothing there.

Dr. Albertine glanced back. “Ignore it. As long as there’s no tentacles, it’s probably fine. But don’t take anything out of this room without permission. He turned to the iron door. “Your badge won’t let you into this door. Once you’re properly trained, you’ll be given access. Your duties will eventually include staffing the reference desk here at least two days a month.”

I looked around, wondering just who might need librarian assistance on an uninhabited island. Dr. Albertine pulled a sword from the umbrella stand by the door. I took a step back. Maybe this wasn’t such an interesting job after all.

He looked back at me, then down at the blade. “This is just precautionary. It’s a bad idea to go in unarmed, and a steel blade is the best choice.” He looked at me again, eyebrow raised. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever studied fencing?”

He pulled the door open, and I followed him through. It looked like a moderately nice hotel foyer, with comfortable chairs and small tables arranged around area rugs, even a reception desk. Where the hall into the hotel proper would be, though, was… nothing, a featureless black surface. Not a wall, not a window, not a door, just emptiness. I stopped short, staring. I’d never seen anything like that. Dr. Albertine watched me carefully, probably to see if I’d freak out or something. No, but I was intrigued. I walked closer, trying to figure out how the illusion was done. That light-absorbing paint, maybe.

Dr. Albertine kept a bit ahead of me as I walked, and a step to my right. An irridescent flash, and he shoved me back as a tentacle lashed out of the blackness. He slipped while dodging it himself, and it swung over his head, then came back the other way. I grabbed a vase off of the nearest table, silk flowers scattering, and hurled it at the base of the tentacle-thing. The vase bounced off the tentacle, then shattered on the floor, sending glass shards flying. The tentacle lurched and withdrew, scattering drops of greenish blood from where the shards had hit it. Or would that be ichor?

Dr. Albertine lifted himself off the floor. “Nicely done,” he said. “You’ll have to apologize later, but he really shouldn’t have been snooping around. I’m sure he will see that, certainly by the time you’re able to come back on your own. And it could have been something dangerous. That’s why we carry swords, after all. I’m pleased to see that you react well under pressure, even though this should have been a simple orientation.”

I mulled over what I’d seen as we walked to the canoe. How much of the collection was real? All of it, maybe. “So,” Dr. Albertine began. “Canoe practice, and fencing lessons. You’re an excellent librarian, but working the reference desk in fairyland requires some additional skills.” He looked down at me. “Unless you’re planning to quit now?”

“No, this is even more interesting a challenge than I expected. I’d like to continue.”

He smiled. “You’d better call me Eric.”

The game:

I solicit prompts on Twitter, then write a flash piece using all of them, as quickly as possible, and post it online immediately. Usually these are very short flash pieces; this time I got a bit carried away.


@schlowlibrary – a non-stereotypical librarian.
@evilrooster – the scent of extinct roses.
@MarissaLingen – a canoe.
@scribofelidae and @outseide – you know what you did.

Walking to Mordor

Look at this! My name, in some excellent company.

Uncanny 25 Cover

I have an essay in the Nov/Dec issue (25) of Uncanny Magazine, out today. The second half of this issue will be posted online on December 6. I’ll let you know!

I submitted this essay to Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and it was rejected with editorial comment, “We can’t take this for DPDSF, because it’s not science fiction. Can we publish it in a later issue?”

BEST REJECTION, and I replied instantly.

So here it is.

And frankly, I’m terrified. This essay, about cancer and medicine and recovery, is the most personal thing I’ve ever published, and I’m terrified about people reading it. But it’s out in the world now.

I’ll be under the bed.


By Stone

It has already appeared in the Fireside quarterly print, and monthly e-magazine, but today my flash story, “By Stone, by Sea, by Flower, by Thorn,” is available to everyone!

“By Stone” is my tenth sale, and my fifth pro sale. Given how little time I spend writing, that’s pretty good, even if it’s taken me eight years to get to ten stories.

I’m very proud of this story; it’s clear to me that I’ve gotten better over the past eight years.

Fireside logo and pull quote from story: “The first man who bought me for shards of bright silver had foul breath and beat me when he wished. He died in his stocking feet, alone and in agony. I burned his bed.”

It’s an angry little story about the value of long-term planning.