Of Mice and Men

By John Steinbeck

In the Penguin compilation volume, The Short Novels of John Steinbeck (2009 [1953]), the six novels chosen – the word novelette is used to describe one of them– half could be viewed as long short stories, and it is through the lens of the short story form that I tend to view them. Whereas Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat have that multiplicity of characters, plots and sub plots, and the sense of a wider setting that the novel – or novella and novelette – demands, stories like The PearlThe Moon is Down, and Of Mice and Men, have the focus, unity and singularity of the short story. They might have the length, but they do not have the breadth of even a short novel. At just over 82 pages, Of Mice and Men bears comparison with D.H.Lawrence’s St Mawr, which is longer, and The Captain’s Doll, which is only a few pages shorter, and both of which are in his The Tales of D.H.Lawrence (1914), described as ‘his shorter fiction’ in the preliminary ‘Note’. The reference highlights the difficulty we have with labelling stories in the gap between an obvious 5,000 word short story, and an obvious 60.000 word novel.

Of Mice and Men has no scene, either in its prose fiction form or in the play-script, where at least one of the two leads is not present, and in most scenes both are. In a novel one expects to find scenes without the ‘lead’ character, where minor characters enact or discuss issues not directly connected with the lead character’s story arc. In fact, a hallmark of the novel is the unfolding of other stories against which the story of the lead character, or characters, can be compared and contrasted. This is where the loose ends, which novels often have to tie up after the climax of the story, come from, loose ends that are rarely, if ever, encountered in a short story. There are no loose ends in Of Mice and Men.


I started to read side by side, the short story, and play-script versions, and to highlight the changes. Reading the play I was struck by how ‘word for word’ it seemed to be. Narrative elements of the text had been converted into stage directions, and some direct speech lifted intact

The process of switching from play script to prose fiction or vice versa is one I’ve attempted myself. Sometimes a short story could seem so heavy in dialogue, and so light in narrative that I slipped into writing a play instead. Once or twice, where the dialogue was sparse, an attempted script became a short story. The two forms lie close together. Arthur Miller, a master of both, mentions the exchange in his preface to the short story collection: Presence.

He calls the short story ‘this form of art in which a writer can still be as concise as his subject requires him to be.’ Of the play, by contrast , he refers to ‘the theatrical tone of voice, which is always immodest…’ Of dialogue specifically, he makes the comment:

Which last, is of course, precisely what Steinbeck appears to have done, and very successfully. I’d love to find out what Miller thought of Steinbeck’s adaptation, but as yet have been unable to!

The opening two pages of script in my Joseph Weinberger edition of the play bring me to the end of page three in the Penguin edition of the written story. A page and a half of prose description has been reduced to a third of a page of stage direction. A page, in smaller print, of general notes about the setting and structure, has gone before, but Steinbeck’s short story narrative has formed the basis of the stage directions, borrowing a few phrases, compressing some, leaving some out – notably the descriptions of his characters.

Over the following page and a half of play-script whole speeches are kept intact or changed by only a word or two, with some additions and a few deletions. They are not merely recognisably the same exchanges, but seem, without close comparison, exactly the same.

Read more https://theshortstory.co.uk/of-mice-and-men-the-short-fiction-of-john-steinbeck/

Head Smash

by Lara Newson

In a pot in my bedside cabinet are fragments of skull.

My skull.

Shards of off-white bone, too many and too shattered to ever fit back together. Many have been lost, either on the road where my head landed, or rinsed into washing machine filters. Some have been claimed by lovers along the way, a new twist on wanting a piece of me.

For years people have asked what happened to my head. The answer is both simple and complicated. There are many different versions depending who is asking and what I want them to know. Here’s one.


In the moment of impact everything slowed down, just like they say it does. As the leering grill of the Merc slammed into my right thigh my body flowed sweetly up around the bonnet and through a windscreen which melted around me.

Once I’d got a close up of the two faces in the car, I floated back out to land on my back on the road. That’s when my vulnerability finally registered and, using the badge on the bonnet for leverage, I pulled myself upright. In doing so the logo came loose so I threw it to one side in disgust and hobbled to the pavement.

A crowd gathered. Someone handed me a white towel.

“Get my bike,” I said, gesturing to the L-shape machine lying mid-lane. “Don’t want it getting damaged.” The crowd seemed rooted, staring at me. My return glare was obscured by gunk; the impact must have split the oil sump. I wiped whatever it was away with the towel. With one eye I saw the whiteness smeared with the same red and grey gunge I’d seen inside the car. More red this time, more vivid, more liquid. The car. I looked up at the crossroads where the Merc had been. It had gone.

“My bike,” I repeated, though there was no traffic. This was Pershore Road, a major arterial from the city centre, it was always busy. Time must be stuck on go-slow. Surely any moment the lights would change and send a three-lane stream over my sad bent scrambler.

People tried to move the bike but she wouldn’t cooperate. There she lay, the rounded headlight pointing towards me, her face the only thing intact. The rest of her was beyond broken. I watched others join those trying to hoist the bike to an upright she no longer had.

I don’t remember it arriving but an ambulance was parked beside me and two medics laid an unnecessary stretcher on the ground.

“I don’t need you,” I said. “It’s just a scratch.” Whatever was on my face would wash off. I was 21 and immortal.

“You’re going to need that head seeing to,” insisted a paramedic.


Birmingham Accident Hospital, crowded with post-Christmas casualties. I accepted the indignity of arriving in a wheelchair and being pushed straight through to intensive care. My neck felt gummy, the collar of my greatcoat a soaked sheepskin sponge. I stank, engine oil and iron over stale baccy and the sweat of last night’s curry. If I could smell this so could everyone else.

We rolled past an old sign for a Rehabilitation Centre. That must be it, I’m off to rehab. It isn’t my head at all; this is all a trick to get me clean. The simplicity made me smile. As if some twelve step salvation could help me now.

Then it hit. A delayed response, one impact to another. I wasn’t immortal. I wasn’t even tough. I was a fragile flower and I was broken.


I remember my grandmother’s expression seeing the mangled body she had nurtured. Her stunned pallor as she struggled to take in tubes sinking into flesh, machines bleeping in confirmation of life on the edge.

“Why did you do it?” she attempted through tears. Nurses were more accustomed to this scene.

“Don’t tire her; it’s enough for her to know that you’re here.”

But that doesn’t happen yet. My family didn’t even know. Staff asked for my next-of-kin but I insisted I had no-one. Plenty of people are alone in this world.


I needed to pee and insisted on taking myself. A nurse accompanied me in case I lost consciousness. They warned me not to look in the mirror but it wasn’t my appearance I cared about. I needed to soak up some solitude from the safety of the grey cubicle. From there I sat and took stock. I’d done it this time. I’d smashed myself up and had no idea if I was even fixable. My life was no longer in my hands. It was completely in theirs.


Staff insisted on going through my injuries as a way of keeping me still. An X-ray confirmed a fractured hip. They didn’t need an X-ray to show the broken skull, everyone could see that. What used to be forehead was now lacerated brain matter, strewn with shards of thin white bone, lightly sprinkled with grit and bits of glass. There was pain in the room and logic suggested it was mine yet I felt nothing, simply a softness at being forced to a stop.

The fracture at the head of the femur would heal with rest, prediction two months. The mulched brain was more complex. Faces around me suggested recovery was unlikely. I was an incomprehensible zombie whose being alive made no sense. My being conscious made even less.

I wasn’t a patient any of them would forget in a hurry.

Read more https://theshortstory.co.uk/creative-non-fiction-head-smash-by-lara-newson/

The Little Witch

By M. Rickert

Every Halloween, an elderly woman hands out candy to a young trick-or-treater who’s dressed as a witch each time, looking exactly the same age. With each passing year, the woman grows more attached to the little witch and her odd nature. But she is no ordinary child, and an uncanny relationship develops between the two of them that may prove dangerous and deadly.

The first time I saw her, I remarked on her footwear. “Oh, you’re a red-boot witch,” I said, and shared a brief conspiratorial laugh with a woman I assumed was the mother. The little witch did not join in, however. She looked up at me with a solemn gaze, gray eyes serious beneath the wide brim of her black hat, and I felt chagrined. Hadn’t I vowed, when I was young, to never be one of the adults behaving just as I was then, laughing at a child under the guise of charm? Because of guilt I told her she could have two candies, and watched her little hand, fingers small as sticks, fingernails like glass, searching through the bowl until she found two of the exact same tiny chocolate bars, and then another.

“Did you say thank you?” the woman asked. The little witch looked up at me as she dropped her contraband into the hole at the top of the pumpkin’s head.

“Yes, she did,” I lied, and only then did the child smile, if you could call it that, devoid as it was of mirth. As they walked away I observed a distance between them as if adult and child had come to some sort of truce. She walked boldly, that little one, in her red boots, creating enough of a stir to cause her cape to float aloft behind her.

Every year a few trick-or-treaters set in my mind, individuals amongst the pack, and that year she was one of the remembered. After the last candy was dropped—wearily—into a plastic bag’s maw, lights turned off and candles blown out, I retired to bed, shivering beneath the stack of quilts because a chill had gotten into my heart. When I finally closed my eyes, I saw the little witch stealing that extra chocolate, which is how it came to be that I fell asleep smiling for the first time in quite a while.

I barely gave another thought to her, however, in the year that passed between one visitation and the next. The holidays arrived with the increased tempo life had established as a contrapuntal to my own increasingly measured pace. Because I had seen what happened to people who thought they could continue moving about as though their bones had not grown old along with their skin, I hired a boy to do the shoveling. He did sloppy work for which I paid five dollars. I considered him a borderline crook and was quite unhappy with our arrangement until he broke his leg and turned the job over to his sister. She cut neat lines down the walk and driveway, then finished with a sprinkling of salt. Sometimes I watched from my bedroom window, marveling at her strength. I thought we would like each other but she had no interest in becoming my friend. She plucked the five dollars from my hand as though fearful that by touching me she would be contaminated. “Your body will change too,” I muttered, watching her run down the safe path she had cleared.

I did not mean it as a curse and was severely distressed to learn of the accident that severed her fingers. Not all of them. I was never clear how it happened exactly, but by that time it was spring and her services no longer needed. I sent over a cranberry pie nonetheless, and a note, though neither was acknowledged in any way. Shortly thereafter the entire family began the distressing practice of crossing to the other side of the street at my approach, which caused me to suspect the cranberries had been sour.

Spring was welcome, as it always has been, followed by summer, which was, of course, too hot and too short. Then—and it seemed all at once—the leaves were gold and red, the sky a wooly gray, pumpkins appeared in the neighborhood gardens as if grown overnight through October magic, and I was standing in my doorway greeting the little witch in her red boots.

“Why, you’ve hardly grown at all,” I said, then bit my lip, worried I hurt her feelings. Age had unleashed me as unkind in ways I never would have imagined when I was young. “Go ahead,” I said. “You can have three.” Of course she took four.

I searched her face for signs of humor, but her gaze remained steady, so I looked up at the woman, thinking we could share a smile, though she stood outside the porch light and might as well have been composed of shadows as blood and bone. By the time I turned back to the little witch she was walking down the stairs, her cape blown aloft, each leg in turn, jutted straight out before her like a little Nazi. I wondered if the boots were too large for her small feet and if she had adopted the peculiar gait to compensate.

I went to bed that night with a raging headache, tossing and turning against all my shortcomings. I should have asked more. I should have knelt down, looked into those gray eyes, and whispered, “Are you all right?”

The next year I did, peering closely at her face for signs of age not evidenced in her size. I realized she might be one of those people who would never grow tall, but when I summoned all my strength to lower my body to kneel before her, I looked into the face of a child, even if her gaze was preternaturally solemn.

“Are you all right?” I whispered as I extended the bowl toward her.

She looked at me with her hand hovered above the treats; I guessed she was waiting for permission so I nodded, and she thrust into the pile of candy with fingers splayed as spider legs, scooping up considerably more than her share.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

She was so intent on stuffing her pumpkin I wasn’t certain she would answer, but once the last candy was settled she returned my curious gaze with her own. “Alice,” she said, then shocked me by speaking further. “What’s yours?”

I had taken no notice of her companion, and was startled when I heard a peculiar noise coming from the shadows, a short abrupt sound that seemed more bray than cough and, indeed, was taken aback as I turned to see the figure obscured but for twisted horns that rose from its head, alabaster against the dark.

I didn’t have a chance to answer Alice’s question; she was already hurrying away in a manner I had not seen her employ before, moving so quickly that not only did her cape bell out behind her but fallen leaves rose as some kind of tempest when she passed, then settled all at once, as if admonished by the horned figure that followed.

I felt, suddenly, both weighed down as if some spectral shawl had settled on my shoulders, and hollowed out as a jack-o’-lantern. In that state, I placed the bowl of treats on the top step and went back inside to sit with Gerta, the cat who’d recently come to live with me. Even with the doors closed tightly against their invasion, I was able to hear the soft footsteps of children who politely selected a single candy, perhaps two, then continued on their way. It wasn’t long at all, however, before the noise was that of youth with heavier footsteps followed by shouts and laughter, which I would not have minded had the sound carried a happy tenor rather than derisive glee. Sensing my irritation, Gerta jumped off my lap, and I went to the porch to retrieve the bowl, tossed on the brown grass—empty, of course.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2020/10/28/the-little-witch-m-rickert/

Skin Deep

By Alan Brennert

The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. In Alan Brennert’s “Skin Deep,” we see for the first time the events of September 15, 1946 from the viewpoint of someone living on the West Coast of the United States. Trina Nelson is a pretty, popular sixteen-year-old high school student whose idyllic life took a turn for the tragic because of the Wild Cards virus. Now, she wants nothing more than to live out her days in the shadowy anonymity of the Jokertown on the Santa Monica Pier. But life, it turns out, has still another wild card to deal Trina…

Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” was playing on the jukebox, filling the Menagerie with its cool syncopation as the clock ticked toward two a.m. Trina, wending her way through tables carrying a tray of drinks, hated working the late shift. Most of the nats were long gone, leaving only the drunkest of jokers, and the drunkest were also the grabbiest—but none grabbier than a cephalopod. She felt a lithe tentacle trying to loop around her waist but managed to wriggle away from it even as she balanced her wobbling tray.

“Bongo, please,” Trina said in exasperation, “stop kidding around?”

Bongo K. was a skinny kid with reddish-brown skin, wearing dungarees and a gray sweatshirt with holes for his eight happy-go-lucky tentacles: one was holding a shot of Jim Beam, another was coiled around a bongo drum, and a third drummed in surprisingly good time with Brubeck’s horn. Bongo was usually rather shy, but after two drinks he became a bit frisky—and loquacious:

“Baby, I dig you, that’s all,” he said imploringly. He used a fourth appendage to snap up some abandoned flowers from a nearby table and waved the bouquet in Trina’s face, forcing her to stop in her tracks. “Just listen to this poem I’ve written in testament to your ever-loving beauty—”

Beauty? Trina wanted to puke. She didn’t know which she hated more: men who were repulsed by her face, or those who found such deformities arousing. She pushed aside the flowers, her exasperation flaring into anger.

“Doug!” she called. “A little help here?”

Doug was the club bouncer. Sprawled on the floor next to the bar, he resembled the top half of a giant jellyfish; unlike Bongo he had no tentacles but a compensatory telekinesis that he was using to scoop beer nuts off the bar and pop them into the orifice that passed for his mouth.


Bongo started to object: “Hey, cool it, man, I—”

Doug wrested Bongo’s tentacle from around Trina’s waist using invisible tendrils of his own. He forced Bongo to put down his Jim Beam gently on the table but let him keep his hold on the bongo drum. Then, as if it had been yanked aloft by a winch, Bongo’s whole body was jerked up into the air with his tentacles pinned against his body, hovering like a helicopter without rotors.

The chromatophores below the surface of Bongo’s skin turned him literally white with fear. “Aw, man—”

>I’ll take him home, Trina. Almost quitting time anyway.<

“Thanks, Doug.”


Doug floated up off the floor and toward the door, with Bongo trailing him like a tethered balloon. Trina went to the door and watched them head up the boardwalk to the building that was once the warehouse and loading dock for Santa Monica Seafood but was now a hotel for most of Los Angeles’ amphibious jokers, with easy access to the ocean and to refrigerator units for those tenants sensitive to heat.

In minutes Trina was off duty herself and outside taking a deep breath of the cool, briny air. It was a beautiful summer night, a full moon floating above the Santa Monica Pier. The food and amusement concessions were all closed, deserted except for the carousel, where one or two desperate joker hookers straddled wooden horses, smoking cigarettes as they waited forlornly for johns. A pair of masked jokers—one wearing a royal-purple cloak and hood, the other a cheap plastic likeness of Marilyn Monroe—staggered tipsily past the merry-go-round, giggling and pawing at each other as they headed, presumably, to one or the other’s accommodations.

During the day Trina sometimes wore a mask herself to hide her face from tourists, but at this hour of the morning the tourists were long gone. Rather than returning to her apartment above the carousel, Trina climbed down a side ladder, onto the sand. Under the pier, she kicked off the three-inch heels the manager made the girls wear along with her tacky cocktail dress. Beneath it she wore her swimsuit; excitedly she padded out from under the wooden crossbeams and pylons that supported the pier and onto the beach. It was empty this time of night and the rippling moonlight beckoned from across Santa Monica Bay. Here there were no nat eyes to gape at her misshapen face in horror or laughter; no screams from children too young to understand what the wild card virus had done to her.

She dove into the water and immediately felt calmer, at ease. She swam toward the distant moon, then flipped onto her back, floating on the night tide. Here she was a child again at play, or a teenager swimming out to meet her boyfriend Woody—after fourteen years his tanned face, bright blue eyes, and blond crewcut still tender in her memory—as he straddled his surfboard waiting for the next set of waves, smiling at her as she swam toward him. He kissed her as she swam up, running his hand along the side of her swimsuit, giving her gooseflesh.

She could barely remember what a kiss felt like.

She swam for the better part of an hour, until, exhausted but happy, she returned to the beach. She retrieved her shoes and clothes, scrambled up the ladder, and headed for the Hippodrome, the castle-like building that housed the carousel. The old Looff Hippodrome dated back to 1916 and was an architectural goulash of Byzantine arches, Moorish windows, and Spanish Colonial turrets, all painted a bright mustard yellow. Trina hurried inside a side door, up two flights of rickety stairs, through narrow corridors to one of the seven small apartments above the merry-go-round.

She opened the door to find her cat, Ace, waiting. He greeted her with a familiar miaow that Trina knew meant both “Where have you been?” and “Feed me!” She went to the kitchen, opened a can of Puss’n Boots, and smiled as he attacked the food. Then she went into the bathroom to take a shower. The room was the same as it was when she moved here fourteen years ago, except for the vanity mirror, which she had taken down soon after moving in.

It was an airy, one-bedroom apartment, and the living room—inside one of the building’s turrets—enjoyed a view of the surf lapping at the beach. She ate a sandwich as Ace finished his dinner, then sat down on the divan next to the windows. Ace jumped into her lap, purring as she stroked his orange fur. She gazed out at the waves rolling to shore, their white crests iridescent in the moonlight, and at the beautiful but forbidden lights of Santa Monica. She was born and raised in this city but was now virtually an exile from it, like a blemished princess hidden away in a high castle.

Trina picked up her subscription copy of Time magazine and grimaced at the lead story about Richard Nixon securing the Republican nomination for president. She didn’t know much about his opponent, Kennedy, but she remembered Nixon’s venal attacks—as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee—on the legendary Four Aces, heroes whose lives and reputations were casually destroyed by HUAC. Trina was willing to don a mask and walk over hot coals, if necessary, to the polls, in order to cast a vote against Nixon.

The other news story that caught her interest told of how the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina—the subject of sit-down protests for the first five months of 1960—had finally capitulated and would allow Negroes to join white patrons at its lunch counter. She was happy for their victory but despaired of any similar civil rights movement for jokers.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/07/21/skin-deep-alan-brennert/

Blood in the Thread

By Cheri Kamei

Nothing tears two women apart like the men who want and take indiscriminately. In this retelling of “The Crane Wife”, a makeup artist and her actress lover struggle to stay together as the glitz and glamour of old Hollywood transforms into a cruel and manipulative beast that threatens to pluck them apart.

Content warning: This story contains fictional depictions of domestic violence.

“Today,” she says, “we are women who are actually cranes.” Her hair is loose and her face is bare. Off to the side, her wedding dress lies strewn across an entire hotel room bed, train trickling down, a stream of white silk shot through with crimson ribbon. “Do you remember?” she asks.

You remember. You hated that story when you were younger: the molting feathers, the discovery, the betrayal, the abrupt, unsatisfactory conclusion.

“Hey,” she says. The engagement band on her delicate finger gleams in the light. “It’s only a story. And today we are cranes because I say we are beautiful, beautiful cranes.” She tips your chin and her kiss is a resolution, not a promise. You shouldn’t have agreed to see her before the nuptials, but she asked, and you can never say no.

“Okay,” you say. You unpack your bag, lay out the tools of your trade, the colors and powders and stains. While her face is still naked and true, you reach out, cup her cheek, whisper, “Marry me.” You will never tire of saying it.

Everything from the fading stars to the hotel Bible holds its breath. She beams. She breaks into helpless laughter. She gestures at the wedding gown and presses your hands to her tired face.

You nod and pull yourself together, stretch her arm out toward you, and begin to dream of wings.

Once upon a time, there lived a man who found a wounded crane upon his doorstep. Deep in the bird’s breast lay a fletched arrow. A slick spill of blood stained her feathers a furious shade of red, the exact shade of a poppy gone to rot. The man pressed his hands to the wound and, beneath the squelch and gore, he felt a heart that still fought, pounding back against his palm. He had no obligation to the crane, but its beauty, its tragic majesty, moved him. “I will care for you,” he told the crane. “I promise, I promise, I promise.”

It has always been the two of you, ever since you were both jam-handed and pulling the fat, flowered heads of roses off of the bushes in your front yard. You do everything together and never question it. In high school, when she stars as the lead in a few musicals, you attend every show. You fill sketchbooks and canvases with your waking dream: the same girl aging in real time, standing, singing, smiling, in repose; yours, kept pressed between the pages. When junior prom comes around, you get ready together in her bedroom, zipping up dresses, surrounded by tubes of lip gloss and a rainbow of eye tints. The night is perfect and she looks so lovely. She closes her eyes and tilts her head for the touch of a blending brush, and so you kiss her.

It is no surprise, then, that you follow her into the city for the auditions and part-time jobs, the two-bedroom shit apartment you share with one bed made up for show and the other rumpled from two bodies curled close. By day, you attend beauty school and ache with her absence. By night, you dream of the lives you could have together, all the scripts and wardrobe decisions, together, entangled. “Marry me,” you practice whispering as she sleeps. Anything feels possible with her body warm next to yours.

Neither of you feel the world shift the day she books a job, a shoot in the same city where you tear ticket stubs and buy your groceries and make love and exist. You do her makeup for her, at her insistence; for good luck, she says. She leaves in the morning and comes home at night and so you go on. Absolutely nothing changes until everything does.

The movie premieres. Her face is in subways tunnels and on billboards, lovely and large as the moon.

Suddenly everyone wants to stake their claim.

The night before her first televised interview, she sits in bed, breathing into a paper bag. She clings to you and you hold her together with your own two hands. “Come with me,” she insists. “Tomorrow. We’ll tell everyone that only you can do my makeup. It can’t be anyone else. Please.”

It’s how you end up backstage in a small dressing room, murmuring encouragement as you stain her eyelids purple and gold. Turning her face this way and that, you lift the apple of her cheeks with a blush soft as plum blossoms. You rouge her lips into a pink slick as a sliced peach. You hide away the little girl who used to scribble on sheet music and eat too many jam sandwiches and give her a mask to hide behind instead. When you watch her smiling and chatting nervously on the television monitor later, you know you are the only one who can peek behind this version of her. Only you have held her face between two hands and seen the truth of her, brilliant and terrified and beautiful. You think, I am going to marry that woman.

And then her costar walks out to thunderous applause. As he answers questions, he keeps touching her forearm, resting his hand on her thigh. Only you seem to be able to see the way her smile goes rigid. As they depart, he draws her close. She disappears into his embrace, cut from sight like a bird shot from the sky.

There is no question, then: The man takes the injured crane into his home and tends to it with great patience and care. The crane seems to understand his intent, and so allows the touch of his rough hands, the stink of wood smoke and musk that stings. She bears it as best she can. Eventually, she recovers.

There is no question, then: The man must release her. He has no use for a crane, no matter how beautiful. He takes her out of the woods. The sky stretches out. The crane flies far.

            But that is not where this tale ends.

The very next evening, a woman appears at the man’s door, beautiful and majestic. She gives no indication that she is a changeling, once a crane. And what reason would the man have to believe in such magic? No version of the story will say.

In any case, it is always the same: The man falls in love.

            (Does the woman?)

            In any case, they marry.

“I don’t understand,” she says. Her manager has called her in for a discussion. They want photos and flirting and more, playing things up to build buzz for the film. The handsome lead and the beautiful ingénue: It is a story that writes itself.

She looks to you for an answer. You will not be the one to hold her back. You tell her, “I have an idea. Trust me.”

You get out your growing sprawl of cosmetics. For her first awards show, you send her out covered in shimmering camellias and barbed butterflies that spiral down her bare arms, fading into the faint lines of her blue, blue veins. You saturate those delicate petals and wings with all the venom in your heart. You line her eyes sharp as spears. You leave a giant golden flower, bulbous with poison, where her costar is most apt to smack wet kisses. If you cannot show that she is yours and you are hers, then you can at least make them all realize that their touches will be rebuffed, profane and unworthy.

He doesn’t lay a hand on her. (Not that night.)

From then on you give her everything in you: labyrinthine shapes like magic runes, drawn in neon for a fashion show; poetry that curls around the shells of her ear, creeping down her exposed neck, wrapping like a gauntlet round her elbow; a splash of cherry blossoms connected by branches that become swollen stitches, lines becoming giant centipedes, white and delicate as lace, curling protectively around her jaw, for a dinner out she cannot avoid.

You shield her from what you can, but her face is in every magazine and newspaper, and her costar is right there with her. You follow her dutifully and remind yourself that this was your dream. (Somewhere between the shifting planes of each transformation, you buy a ring, deep gold, diamonds and devotion.) But people can only reach out for so long and the barricades you build together stretch only so high. Their touches begin to land, and there is only flesh beneath the fantasies you sear into her skin.

The first time it happens, you are waiting to prep her for some industry event. She comes home and won’t look you in the eye. She is already crying and you don’t understand until she removes her coat and you see the ring of bruises around her biceps. “Don’t be mad.”

“Who did this?” you ask her—can’t look at it, start to reach out, think better of it.

“I told them I didn’t want to do it anymore.” She shakes her head. “They’re going to ruin everything if I tell. The things they said . . .”

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/05/12/blood-in-the-thread-cheri-kamei/

Post on the Spirit of Enterprise blog. Reach over 3oo daily readers. Click Here It’s FREE

The Red Mother

By Elizabeth Bear

Auga, a wandering sorcerer, follows his brother’s fate-thread into the village of Ormsfjoll, where he expects to deliver good news and continue his travels. What he doesn’t anticipate is that to meet his brother he must first contend with the truth at the heart of the volcano that wreaks havoc on Ormsfjoll.

A pall of ash turned my red horse roan as he and I ambled between tuffs of old lava. Basalt fields spread on either side, dotted with burnt-orange or gray-green lichen. Flat flakes of ash drifted past the brim of my hat.

We were crossing a big flow near the Ormsfjoll, and the reek of sulfur in the air left both Magni and me over-eager to complete our trip. It couldn’t be too much farther to the village. Magni’s ears were pricked. His walk tended to rush into a tolt. I knew he had scented or heard other livestock that was still too far away for me to detect.

He knew that where there was livestock, there was fodder. He was thinking of grain and grass and company, and I couldn’t blame him. It had been a long ride, and a lone horse is never comfortable. They’re meant to be in the company of their own kind.

Some would snipe that this makes my horse the opposite of me.

Fair enough. I felt no need for company. I did need supplies, however, and—if it were to be had—information to complete my quest.

My journey was for kin-duty. I had an obligation to find my brother and give him the news that his name was cleared, his honor restored, and his exile ended. To that end, I had spun the threads of his fate by sorcery, and was following them.

This was where they led.

The first sign of my return to civilization was a graveyard. The road passed through it, flanked on both sides by neat cairns. Some were marked with runestones; some stood uncommemorated. The lichen had grown over a few. But lichen grows slowly and most of the graves stood barren, sad heaps of brown-black rock with the sea in the distance behind.

Not long after, I came within sight of the village.

It wasn’t a big village, Ormsfjolltharp, and I was in among it almost as soon as I noticed it. Men and women working outdoors turned to watch me as I rode past the two dozen or so houses. Turf houses, some with goats or sheep grazing on roofs that looked more like low hillocks than dwelling-places. I had been corrupted by too much time spent in southern lands where exotic building materials like wood existed. Any trees that grew here would be for boats and bows and axe-hafts, not for houses.

A group of men stood around an open-fronted cattle shed not too far from the well, the baker and the blacksmith. They were doing what folk generally do in such circumstances: passing the time of day and pretending to work a little, in case their wives should check on them.

I fingered the ebony and bone spindle in my coat pocket. The thread on it was wound tight, and I was almost to the end of the roving. I’d followed the thread all the way here, woven my path along Arnulfr’s fate-thread. I’d soon need a new thread to follow. It would raise questions for a solitary man to buy carded wool in such a place, however.

I rode Magni to the hitching rail—not too far from the cluster of gossipers, but not too close either. There were five men: one black, one red, one dun, and two as nondescript in color as I had been before my hair and beard went to pewter.

They looked up as I swung down from the saddle. Magni stood placidly except for turning his head to glance over his shoulder, hopeful of a treat. He got a scratch instead and sighed in companionable disappointment when I didn’t loosen his girth. You never know when you might need to leave in a hurry.

“I know,” I said under my breath. “I’m a grave disappointment to you.”

I seemed to be a grave disappointment to the cattle-shed malingerers as well, judging by the scowls they turned on me. I forced my own face into a friendlier expression than I was feeling, stopped a healthy few paces back, and said, “I’m looking for a man called Arnulfr Augusson. Or his wife, Bryngerthr Thorrsdaughter. It’s possible they passed this way.”

“Be you a kinsman?” the black-haired one asked. His cheeks were suncreased above a thicket of beard.

I nodded. That sharpened their gazes.

One of the nondescript ones asked, “Would that make you the one they call Hacksilver?”

I tipped my head to let the question slide off one side. A weight shifted along the broad brim of my hat, but it was just all the ash piled there. We go viking or we starve; we send our sons off to settle the coasts and rivers of Avalon and the Moonwise Isles; we build our trade towns and send our mercenary bands almost to the heart of the Steppe. And still there aren’t so many Northfolk that a man can escape his reputation—or a lawsuit—with ease.

“Some sort of sorcerer, I heard,” said the black one.

“Right,” said the red. “They say he laid warfetter on a whole castle full of sentries. A double dozen of them, out in Avalon. Across the poisoned sea.”

“Little renown to be won in such work,” I remarked, conversationally. “Who’d sing a man’s name for butchering the blinded and limb-bound?”

“Womanish work, spell-weaving,” said the black-haired man. “Don’t they usually keep camp whores for that?”

He watched me with narrowed eyes.

I made myself sound as if I were not disagreeing. “A curious tale. From whom did you hear it?”

My voice gets a little more precise when I’m being Not Angry. I pulled my hand out of my pocket so I wouldn’t finger my spindle, and I didn’t place it on the hilt of my knife.

“There’s an old Viking up the cinder trail,” the red man said. “A Karlson. Supposed to have been a sea-king in his youth. Nobody here calls him nought but Half-Hand.”

A chill lifted the hairs on my neck. Behind me, Magni snorted and shifted, making the saddle creak. I knew a man with half a hand once, a man whose father’s name was Karl. A Viking, a sea-king, a giver of arm-rings. Yes, he had been those things.

I said, “I never heard of a sorcerer who could lay warfetter on as much as a hand of men all at once. The strain of more would kill the wizard…so they say.”

The skalds and the seers tell us we ought to love war. And somebody must. There’s enough of it.

Maybe Ragnar Karlson, called Half-Hand, called Wound-Rain, was still that man. Men get old—even sea-kings—and I hadn’t seen him in ten years or more. So I couldn’t be sure. He certainly wasn’t a skald, or a seer.

I might have passed for a seer, but as for the man who loves war…I didn’t think that was me. I was the man who didn’t know what else to do with himself if he wasn’t fighting a war that he hated.

Farming’s harder work and at least as uncertain as raiding. Because the world is not a fair place, farming doesn’t win renown. Extorting towns and ransoming priestlings and chieftains, that is where the glory lies.

Magni was less than pleased with me when I dusted the ash off his saddle and climbed back on. He’d hoped our walking was over for the day, and there might be hot mash and cool water before long. But after a longing look and a little drunken swerve toward a paddock across the square populated by a half dozen other horses, he cooperated.

Ragnar’s homestead was not too much farther. We crossed another finger of the basalt flow and came down into a second grassy valley. From experience, I knew that turf lay over soil no more than a fingerlength deep, comprised of dust, sand, and loess that had collected in this valley that was little more than a crevice between tuffs. Ragnar would have worked himself and his thralls hard to enrich it with dung and fish guts and make it bear the rich green grass that now poked forlornly through drifts of ash.

Cattle would starve this winter if the hay were lost. And if cattle starved, men starved as well.

Viking was an easier way to make a living. Until you weakened.

Ragnar’s homestead was more than a turf house in the village, and less than a sea-king’s hall. I saw its long shape against the hillsides that would have been green with the flush of summer grass. It was built of thatched basalt, not sod and turf, and it seemed to have been built over a stable dug into the slope behind it. The beam over the door was wood, carved with dragon-heads on the ends like a ship’s prow.

Ragnar was cutting dried turf in the yard. His ropy, scarred back did not suggest that he had weakened. I halted Magni well clear of the gate and whistled, then dismounted once he turned. He would have heard the hooves, but it was polite to let a man know you were not a raider.

As I walked up, leading my gelding, Ragnar’s eyes flicked from me to Magni and back again. His face went through a couple dozen expressions before settling on incredulity.

“Auga Hacksilver, you old bastard. Making friends already, I imagine?”

I shrugged, and in attempting to brush some ash off Magni’s flaxen mane merely ground it in.

Ragnar shook his head at me. “I’d wish I’d known you were coming. I would have laid odds that you’d turn folk against yourself in the first half-day, and I would have cleaned up. I’ve never met a man like you for going to a new town and finding somebody who’s already mad at you there. It’s almost as if you make enemies on purpose.”

“Some would say that those who spread the tales make the enemies,” I answered easily.

“A man’s earned fame shall never die,” Ragnar replied.

I snorted loudly enough that I could have blamed it on Magni. It’s a comforting thing to tell ourselves, that the name lives on. And in my experience, it’s nonsense.

He continued, “Speaking of death, what are the odds that you’re still breathing?”

I laid my fingers on my throat. “Two to one,” I offered. “I’ll give you a better spread on it this time tomorrow.”

“Isn’t there some sort of ill-considered decision-making process regarding other people’s spouses you could be engaging in right now?”

“Hey, your wife came to me, Ragnar.” I waggled my hand noncommittally. “She wasn’t so great that I’d think it would be hard to keep her at home if you put in a little effort, though.”

He cursed like a piked bear, and I wondered if I’d overplayed. I’ve never had the skill of knowing when to walk away from a flyting.

It was safer to take the punch than to look at him. You had to seem like you didn’t care. Like you didn’t fear.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/06/23/the-red-mother-elizabeth-bear/

Post on the Spirit of Enterpside blog. Reach over 300 daily readers. Click Here It’s FREE

Judge Dee and the Poisoner of Montmartre

By Lavie Tidhar

Judge Dee returns to solve a new case involving a Parisian party gone wrong. But this time? Everyone in attendance is a suspect, including the judge himself.


Jonathan had liked Paris immediately. The air was just growing cold as the year turned, and the autumn leaves fell beautifully across the paved road as he walked back from the market. He held a round loaf of bread under his arm, as well as a string of sausages, two bottles of decent red wine, three kinds of cheese, and a handful of apples. Just because his master drank blood, Jonathan felt, didn’t mean he should deprive himself of decent food.

And Paris had plenty of that to offer.

The Seine was on his left as he walked back. The sun was setting and the master was soon to rise. Jonathan whistled cheerfully, enjoying the sunset and the reflection of the light on the water and the vista of the big cathedral as it rose from the island in the river. A couple of girls watched him from near a flower seller’s stall and Jonathan smiled at them and doffed his hat. They giggled.

Jonathan had survived the Hell of Black Rock, long ago, and subsequently, on his adventures with Judge Dee, had lived through the Case of the Castle of Horrors and the Nightmare in the Alps and the Werdenfels Massacre and too many others to mention. He seldom slept well anymore. He was seldom warm and he was seldom full and he was never, well . . .

Happy. He realised with some surprise that he was as close to being content as it was possible to be when you were the travelling companion of a vampire judge.

He made his way to their abode. The judge had rented apartments near the university, on the left bank. It was a lively place, what with all the students going about their business, foot traffic from the various monasteries and dignitaries from the palace. Jonathan nimbly avoided a pile of horse manure, passed unharmed as someone tossed rotting garbage from a top floor, tossed a coin to a child beggar and made it to the gates. He slipped into the quiet courtyard and climbed the stairs, only to discover on his arrival that the master was already risen—and he had guests.

‘Ah, Jonathan,’ Judge Dee said. ‘You have grease on your shirt.’

‘Master?’ Jonathan looked down. The sausages, he saw with dismay, had come loose in his grasp and rubbed all across his new, fashionable shirt.

‘This is Lady Aurore,’ the judge said. The visitor turned her attention on Jonathan and grinned, flashing her long canines at him in a vampire’s idea of a greeting. Jonathan tried hard not to flinch, and the lady laughed.

‘He looks so delicious,’ she said, ‘like a fat little blood sausage.’

Behind the Lady Aurore stood a human servant. She looked Jonathan over critically and clearly found him wanting. It was the sort of superior look most Parisians had for Jonathan, as though they reserved it especially for him.

Sausages,’ she said.

‘What?’ Jonathan said. ‘I like sausages.’

‘Of course you do.’

‘My girl, Noemi,’ Lady Aurore said. She waved a hand airily. ‘Perhaps you could give her a tour of the apartments. Or offer her some wine. I have business with the judge.’

‘Of course, my lady.’

Jonathan left them and the human girl, Noemi, followed him reluctantly. Jonathan put down his purchases in the kitchen (which only he used, of course), opened a bottle of wine and poured them both a glass. Noemi sniffed the wine but apparently found it acceptable, because she took a large gulp and some colour rose to her cheeks.

‘There’s a lovely view of the city from the balcony,’ Jonathan said.

‘If you say so.’

But she followed him through the lounge and onto the balcony. The view really was beautiful. The moon rose over the Seine and Notre-Dame glimmered on the Île de la Cité. Boats glided all along the river. Somewhere nearby someone played the flute, a couple were screaming at each other outside a bakery, distant bells rang for prayers and a group of passing students argued passionately over whether philosophy really was, as Aquinas had said, the handmaiden of theology. Jonathan wanted to change his shirt but instead took a sip of his wine. The French truly did good wine, he thought.

‘What is your mistress’ business with my master?’ he said.

‘Why don’t you mind your own business?’ Noemi said.

‘This is my business. I assist Judge Dee,’ Jonathan said. Which wasn’t, he had to admit, strictly true. He never really knew just why the judge kept him around.

Noemi looked at him in amusement. ‘Is that so?’ she said. ‘You collect clues? Solve cases? Pass ultimate judgement on vampirekind?’

‘Well, not as such, but—’

‘I didn’t think so.’

She fell quiet and looked away from the view, to the open door where the judge and Lady Aurore were still speaking. An expression flitted across her face when she regarded her mistress, something deep and strong and true. Jonathan tried to hear the conversation, but the voices were muffled. He thought he heard the expression ‘Sang Noir’ a couple of times, and then something that sounded like a name, ‘Saragossa.’

Shortly, however, the judge and his guest concluded their meeting. Noemi gave Jonathan a sarcastic smile and left with her mistress. At the door, Lady Aurore turned to Judge Dee and touched him lightly on the hand.

‘I hope I shall see you soon,’ she said.


With that they were gone.

‘What was it about, master?’ Jonathan said.

‘She brought me some information,’ the judge said. ‘It is of possible interest. Now, have you not changed your shirt yet? We are to go out. We must not be late for the performance!’

Jonathan’s heart sank. The judge was usually an ascetic. He had renounced most earthly pleasures. Unlike most vampires, he fed only when he had to. But since their arrival in the city, the judge had fallen for a new form of entertainment that had swept the city.


Ribald and bawdy street productions, filled with, well . . . actors. They pranced and capered and made a general mockery of things. They were even worse than writers, and that was saying something, in Jonathan’s opinion.

Jonathan had quickly come to realise he did not care for the theatre in the slightest.

‘Again?’ he said miserably. ‘Only it’s the third time this week and—’

‘A bit of culture would do you good, Jonathan,’ the judge said, and he donned his cape.

‘Yes, master . . .’ Jonathan said.

And so he changed his shirt and followed the judge out of the apartments into the night.


Paris was never quiet. It was loud and messy and thronged with people from all across Christendom. There were even other English people there, and the English generally hated the Continent.

Judge Dee had found Jonathan buried under a pile of corpses outside his village in England. The judge had saved Jonathan’s life. Ever since then Jonathan had accompanied the judge on his travels. Overall, it was better than lying under a pile of corpses.

At least, most of the time.

They made their way along the left bank. Students jostled them as they passed, priests and monks from the nearby monasteries, ladies of the court and flower sellers and beggars and pickpockets and cutthroats, jugglers and singers and ladies of the night. Paris was surprisingly egalitarian. It didn’t matter who you were, as long as you carried yourself with a certain amount of flair.

Merchants from the Rhine and Venice, Templars from the Holy Land, knights from Normandy and Andalusian Jews all mingled freely. The ships came along the river and docked on the right bank. A steady flow of trade and the grand institutions of the university, the court and the church had made Paris the grandest city in Europe. No wonder it attracted vampires.

Jonathan followed Judge Dee through the crowds to the front of Notre-Dame over the  wooden bridge that linked the left bank with the island. Jonathan had once asked the judge if it was true vampires couldn’t cross running water, and Judge Dee had looked at him strangely.

‘What odd notions you have sometimes, Jonathan,’ he said.

They crossed the bridge. There was always something going on there on the island. The judge moved smoothly, like a piece of darkness torn from the night. Jonathan struggled to keep up. Pilgrims were gathered before the cathedral, prostitutes offered their services in the shadows, a fruit seller did a roaring trade and there, far enough away from the church so as not to offend, yet not too far as to lose out on its profitable foot traffic, were the jongleurs.

‘Gather round, gather round, ladies and sirs! For you are about to witness a great stuffing’—here the speaker made a rude gesture with his arm and the audience laughed—‘called The Guests at the Dinner Party, here for your amusement and your coin!’

‘Stuffing?’ Jonathan said.

Farce,’ Judge Dee said. ‘From the Latin, Jonathan. To stuff.’

‘Why do they call it that?’

‘Hush. Go give the girl with the hat some money.’

Jonathan put a handful of coins in the girl’s hat. She went around collecting money from the spectators. She wore white face paint and exaggerated rouge on her lips and cheeks. She gave Jonathan a wink and he blushed.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/09/15/judge-dee-and-the-poisoner-of-montmartre-lavie-tidhar/

Post on the Spirit of Enterprise blog. Reach over 300 daily readers. Click Here It’s FREE

Questions Asked in the Belly of the World

By A. T. Greenblatt

For the residents of this mycological ecosystem, creating art feeds the World around you and requires working in harmony with your inner voice. When one artist’s voice begins screaming, he’s forced to travel farther than he ever has before to reconcile with the noise in his head and find his true place in society before it’s too late.

In the darkness, the voice in his head is screaming again.

Kenji crushes his knuckles into his temples, even though that’s not where the pain—or the voice—really is. But the agony is unrelenting, unspecified; it’s coursing through his body, making his muscles clench and his molars grind. And the screaming, oh God, the screaming. The voice in his head is screaming loud enough to drown out the raging metal band on the front, center stage. Painful enough that Kenji squeezes his eyes closed, shutting out the audience around him—all those glowing people, jumping to the time of the music, like a stuttering heartbeat.

Then there’s a moment, just a second, when the voice pauses in its shrieking and Kenji opens his eyes, only to find Eva standing next to him looking concerned. The bioluminescent mushrooms she picked on the way to the concert decorate her hair, giving her an unWorldly look. She can’t hear the screaming voice in his head, but she can read the expression on his face.

She knows something is wrong.

“Air,” he mouths, and points toward the door. Eva begins to shoulder her way out, pushing against the illuminated bodies of the audience, but he waves her back, shouting: “I’ll be okay.”

The voice in his head starts screaming again.

Stumbling toward the exit, pushing against the crowd of glowing people, it’s a struggle to keep putting one foot in front of the other when his muscles seize and his head’s ringing with strings of incoherent syllables, and none of this should be happening. But Kenji keeps pushing on. Pushing through.

By the time he’s outside the venue, the episode is almost over. His muscles are relaxing, breathing becomes easier, and the voice in his head sounds hoarse. It’s already mumbling “Sorrysorrysorrysorry.”

Kenji sags against the building, sweating, gulping down lungfuls of air, warm and muggy, like a half-drowned man. He feels some of the polypores growing on the building break and rupture under his weight. This is not the first time his voice has pulled a stunt like this, and if this is like those other times, he’ll feel normal again in a few minutes.

In a few minutes, it will be like nothing happened at all.

Which makes Kenji want to vomit. It’s the lie, the doubt, the false sense of security that scares him most, because if there’s something wrong with his voice . . . If it’s . . .

People in this World can’t survive without the voices in their heads.

In the darkness outside the concert venue, he feels the music throbbing through the boards of the road. It’s now background noise to the sound of the Endless River rushing by a hundred paces away. Which is to say, everything seems abnormally quiet now that the screaming has stopped.

Kenji’s relieved to be alone, to have this moment to himself before returning to the concert and living the lie—the one that says everything is fine. The towering fungi trees growing randomly on the road shush gently in the breeze. There’s no one else around.

Except for a girl, clearly a student, on the prowl. She has that stance that looks like wanting, like minor desperation. She’s glowing only slightly. He notices her too late.

By comparison, Kenji’s own skin radiates like a damn beacon. I need to take care of that tonight, he thinks. His glow is almost indecent. The girl spots him easily and smiles like a hunter striking lucky, quickly weaving her way around the fungi trees, vanishing the space between them in a breath.

“Sorry to bother you,” she says, though her tone apologizes for nothing. “Do you mind? It’s for school. What do you think?” She thrusts a button into Kenji’s hands, and he’s tempted to make an excuse or tell her off. The last thing he wants to do right now is talk about art.

“Doesn’t everyone want to discuss art?” the voice in his head whispers conspiratorially, even though he’s the only one who can hear it. “Isn’t it what you live for?”


Or least that’s what everyone says.

Kenji stares at the button, fights to keep his hands steady. The button is a common brown mushroom cap, treated and painted aqua and lavender, with an elegant luminous script that says Given/Give Back. It’s pleasing and well executed, on its own. But Kenji has seen it before. Too many times.

“Good work,” he says. “Clean lines and nice color contrast. Maybe ease up on the background details, though. It detracts from the text.”

It’s a weak critique, uninspired. But Kenji doesn’t feel particularly moved by art tonight. There are a thousand other buttons like it in the World. A thousand other artists with the same message.

The girl nods seriously, diplomatically. She peppers him with other questions, asking about composition and the overall effect of the message. But Kenji gives her terse answers and her friendly demeanor shifts into wariness.

“Thanks for the feedback, mister,” the girl says quickly. Too quickly. She’s already backing away.

“Good luck with the assignment,” Kenji says, though he knows what she’s thinking.

A reluctance to talk about art is a sign your voice is dying.

As soon as she’s out of sight, Kenji empties the contents of his stomach at the base of the nearest tree.

Read more https://www.tor.com/2021/09/29/questions-asked-in-the-belly-of-the-world-a-t-greenblatt/

Post on the Spirit of Enterprise blog. Reach over 300 daily readers. Click Here It’s FREE


Written by Matthew Neill Null

“First and Second Children” opens at a police auction where a drug dealer’s possessions are being sold to the highest bidder. With the first exchanges of dialogue between Glover and an old coworker, it’s immediately evident that Matthew Neill Null is a master of understanding how people are shaped and made by the places they come from, how it affects their voice, their outlook, and their relationships. Some of the people at this auction know each other. Some of them know the incarcerated man whose belongings are being sold. At the very least their lives are intertwined by the sheer fact of this rural county. Glover has lived through the decades here. His daughter and her daughter are living at home, with him and his wife. It’s not clear who the father is, and after a bit of gossip, Glover is worried that Monica is pregnant again.

For Glover, driving through the county, a history plays before his eyes. The coal bust, a flood of Oxy, a mineral rights boom. Opportunities and tragedies that just missed him, or didn’t. “Glover had been born too early­­—or too late,” Null writes. “He was amazed when commerce began again, as if God had flipped the switch.”

Amidst all this chaos, Glover struggles to control the one thing he feels is really his, his family. His wife and children, now his granddaughter too. “His girls.” Glover loves them, is loyal to them, but his fear and frustration functions like an iron mask. He is incapable of saying what needs to be said. Here, Null achieves one of the most difficult and necessary feats a writer can try; he not only shows us who Glover is, but also who he wants to be. He enables the reader to peer around the flat face of Glover’s limitations and glimpse what might have been. An opportunity squandered yet recorded, regret frozen in a truck’s dome light.

– Halimah Marcus
Editor of Recommended Reading



Short stories and novel excerpts by the most dynamic voices in contemporary literature delivered to your inbox every Wednesday.

In the Eyes of a Father of Daughters

“First and Second Children” by Matthew Neill Null

At the police auction, Glover ran into Jeff Daugherty, an old friend of his from the plant. “There ain’t no deals here,” Daugherty was saying. Word had gotten out—too many people. Three papers had featured the drug bust prominently. Daugherty had hoped for welding equipment; Glover heard seven vehicles were up for auction, and maybe one would do for Monica, who, at twenty years old, still lived in Glover’s home with a young child. Glover didn’t know who the father of his granddaughter was. His wife said, “Don’t you dare say a thing.” Some wouldn’t be brave enough even to come home, she continued; Monica might have ended up in one of them clinics. Glover held his tongue; as much as he adored his new granddaughter, he had a different opinion on said clinics. Today, he wanted to buy Monica a little car on the cheap so she could drive herself to work. Two sedans were on the block, but the one was bid out of reach before Glover could lift a hand. The other, plain rattletrap, went unbought. “I was under the impression that drug dealers was a little better off,” Daugherty said. “Watched too much Miami Vice. Not that I expected a cigarette boat nor nothing. And here I go, burning up another Saturday.”

Glover glanced around. The confiscated property filled an entire stock barn at the fairgrounds. “Had a lot of stuff.”

“Yeah, but it’s all junk. Look at them cars. Sell five and buy yourself one good one, you know what I mean?”

Even the auctioneer’s nonsensical droning could not entertain them. Glover bought a turkey leg off a vendor, and Daugherty treated himself to a roasted ear of corn. Men of their trade, both wore polka-dotted, short-brimmed welders’ hats, as if they had coordinated outfits. They sat on square bales of hay near the edge of an open barn, watching rain fall. Come October, the fairground would host the Black Walnut Festival—a meager, oily, acrid food that, once a year, everyone had to pretend to like. In terms of agriculture, it was the best that the county’s rocky, impacted clay could offer up. Glover doubted he’d bother coming back till then.

Laughing, two women carried a forty-two inch flatscreen through the drizzle, a coat flung over and protecting about a third of it. The wet screen shimmered like verdigris. Daugherty whistled. “Look at all this humanity, like you kicked over a damned ant hill.”

Read more https://electricliterature.com/first-and-second-children-by-matthew-neill-ull/

Post on the Spirit of Enterprise blog. Reach over 300 daily readers. Click Here It’s FREE

A Gelato or Two

by Reshma Ruia

My mother fell ill in Rome. We put it down to exhaustion. We had left India, abandoned the bone and flesh of our familiar world to begin a new life in a country shaped like a boot and it was taking its toll on her. She wasn’t always like this. In the days leading to our departure, mother was a lightening flash in her blue cotton sari, rushing around, her face perspiring in the Delhi summer heat, a red pencil tucked behind her left ear and a clipboard with a to-do list in her hand. She was busy tying up any loose ends that she could before we boarded the Air India flight 434 to Rome. Mother’s hands were busy packing, storing, selling and distributing stuff that we couldn’t carry over to our new life. She engaged K.P Sinha & Sons, Delhi’s premier relocation specialists who promised to swaddle her sitar like a baby. ‘Not one string will be stirred,’ Mr Sinha promised, adding that he preferred payment in US dollars and cash if possible. Ten days before we left, mother summoned all her female cousins and nieces home and pointing to her brown Godrej almirah said, ‘help yourself. I don’t think I’ll be wearing many Kanjeevaram saris in Rome.’ She terminated the utility bills and informed my school that since we were moving to a bright new world I no longer needed my grey pleated skirt and maroon blazer and tie. They along with my textbooks could be sold in the second-hand uniform sale that was held in the school canteen the last Friday of every month.

My father could have helped but he retreated into his office, hiding behind a pile of files, mumbling occasionally about how difficult it was for my mother but once we were in the land of pasta and pizza life would be much easier. Our relatives chose not to help either, instead they descended on our house every evening, settled on our sofas and proceeded to drink innumerable cups of tea, eat through entire packets of Glaxo biscuits and shake their heads, slack jawed with envy that we were escaping to a better life. Arms folded, they read out the list of benefits we were going to enjoy in our new home in the West.

  1. Higher salary for my father. (Paid in US dollars not rupees, since he was joining an American organization)
  2. A dust and reptile free house. We lived at that time in one of those white stucco colonial bungalows left behind by the British. The rooms were large, the ceilings high, but the paint was cracked and the red tiled roof leaked. A patina of dust covered everything like golden flour. Our servant Babu inspected the rooms each morning, broom in hand, shaking his head and declaring he couldn’t cope with the sirocco wind that blew in the dust from the desert plains of Rajasthan. There was also the small matter of monsoon rains, which forced snakes, frogs and lizards to flee their respective hideouts and take shelter in the veranda, quivering in the alcoves or underneath the coir doormats.
  3. Guaranteed access to air-conditioned supermarkets filled to the brim with fruit, vegetable and meat 365 days a year. We would no longer have to buy strawberries on the black market or have chicken curry only on Sundays. This was non-stop happiness on tap.

My mother listened to these benefits, her eyes distracted. A faint smile played on her mouth as she poured the relatives some more Assam tea and opened another packet of biscuits. She glanced at us and said,

‘We’re moving abroad only for our girls.’ She ran her fingers through my hair and continued, ‘We want them to have a superior life, get better education and who knows one day they will become accountants and doctors and settle in America and we can come back home, our job done.’ America was the golden dream ticket and Italy was just the stepping-stone to it. Mother had a cousin who lived in California. He bombarded us with postcards every summer. I gushed over the spotless beaches and his open top silver Cadillac parked on highways that stretched right to heaven without a single cow or beggar in sight.

My mother came to pick me up on my last day at school. ‘We’re going to Italy,’ she confided to Sister Pereira, the headmistress of Convent of Jesus and Mary, the Irish catholic school where Indian bureaucrats and businessmen sent their children to get a proper English education. Mrs Pereira nodded, her eyes skimmed over my face, I wasn’t sure if she remembered my name. Her expression was wistful as she fingered her glass-beaded rosary and I felt a sudden stab of sadness for her. What was she doing here, thousands of miles away from her home? There she sat, in her tight black Nun’s habit in the stifling pre-monsoon Delhi heat, her pink cheeks turning ashen in the tropical dust. Was she secretly pining for the emerald forests and lakes of her homeland?

Sister Pereira leaned forward and patted my mother’s hand. ‘You must be brave,’ she said. ‘It will be the start of something new. But it won’t be easy.’

‘It’ll be very easy,’ I interrupted her rudely. ‘There will be pizza and pasta and lots of ice-cream, that’s what my dad says.’ The adults smiled at my foolishness but said nothing.

Our last night in India was spent in tearful goodbyes and much hand clasping and hugs and cries of ‘Don’t forget us’ from our relatives. We stood in the shiny airport terminal, clutching plastic bags of various shapes and sizes, our feet itching in our brand new Bata shoes, our skin scratchy with the feel of unfamiliar woollen coats that my mother had bought from the Tibetan market in old Delhi.

Father found us a furnished flat to rent in an apartment block that stood in a quiet, crumbling part of Rome. ‘We will save and buy somewhere better soon,’ he promised my mother as she walked into the kitchen, opened the empty fridge and burst into tears. The pent up energy of the past months seemed to leave her, like a balloon that deflates. Her face grew small and her mouth trembled as she moved from room to room, touching the heavy rosewood furniture that was too big for the size of the rooms. She patted the blue velvet sofa and she stroked the fringed lampshades with their print of pink naked cherubs.  ‘How will I be happy here?’ she asked.

Read more https://theshortstory.co.uk/a-gelato-or-two-by-reshma-rui/