Category Archives: Short Story

Little Black Flowers Grow In the Sky

 

black-sunflower
Little black flowers grow in the sky. They grow in between the stars, in the rich loam of eternity. Most people can’t see them, not even if they wanted to. Most people should be glad they can’t see them. Those black sunflowers glow with a light of their own, in a spectrum that mortal beings can’t register. Such dark light can blind you just as easily as staring into the sun, and then it burns down and turns your soul to ashes. This is the truth; signed in blood and hope to die.

Sullivan stared down at his hands, red with blood. He had always thought that blood was bright red, but his blood looked dark. It flowed like a river from his gut. He couldn’t remember why.
It was strange that he couldn’t remember, when some part of him knew that remembering was important. It seemed to be the one thing left of which he was certain, while the rest of his thoughts were breaking up and scattering like autumn leaves tossed in a high wind. He scrambled to catch them, as they fluttered further and further away.
Is this what dying feels like?
As his normal senses slithered away, he appeared to be growing new ones. He looked up from his bloody hands. People crowded around, forming a ring of heads above him. He could make out their mouths opening and closing, but their voices receded away from him. Instead, he could hear the rocks beneath him sing, sounding something like whale song and something like a carillon of crystal bells being struck. From his own broken body came the sounds of waves breaking and a steady drumbeat. The blue of the sky was fading, replaced by colours he had never seen before. His fingertips tingled as the Earth plummeted through the universe. He could smell the sadness and worry and horror of the people milling around him.
It was then he noticed the optical illusion the circling heads were forming. They were so close together, that they looked like the petals surround the central disc of a daisy or a sunflower. It amused him, and Sullivan attempted a laugh. Like his thoughts, laughter seemed to spiral away into the tunnel of the sun, where it was burnt into gilt and ash. The ashes smelt like fresh-baked bread.
“Sully? Sully, can you hear me?” called a woman’s voice across the void.
What a beautiful voice! It shimmered with a rainbow of moonlight walks, sharing cosy talks, happy tears, fighting fears, holding tight, and bitter fights.
“Sully. You stay with us, you hear?”
The voice reminded him that he had something to remember. It was so important to remember. What he had to remember was twisted up with that voice, like twine around roses.
“Sully? Becca is safe. You saved her from being run over. Do you understand? Rebecca is safe. But you were run over instead,” said the beautiful voice. “You have to stay with us. Stay with me.”
Stay? Stay? His very being was being pulled apart in preparation for roaming the starry sunflower fields. He wasn’t even sure if he was staying himself. Some nameless power was shaking apart the jigsaw that had made him Sullivan. It didn’t physically hurt, though his confusion was almost painful. Then the torment of his thoughts focussed on the name ‘Rebecca’.
Rebecca. An album of impressions flickered: the perfume of baby powder, soft blue eyes, dimpled knees and a smile framing four baby teeth. Rebecca: a chuckle that turned into a laugh, reading Winnie the Pooh, giggling tickle fights…it was good to remember Rebecca. It was very good to know that Rebecca was safe. It still wasn’t the important fact he was struggling to remember, yet knowing Rebecca was safe it did give him an intense glow of satisfaction.
His limbs had felt like they had grown too heavy to lift. That was changing. He felt buoyant; his heart weighed less than a feather, it was light enough to float way. There was no pain. No sorrow. No fear. Nothingness. Black sunflowers flew out of his chest, one after another, a chain of shadowy jellyfish floating upwards to the surface of the ocean.
“Sully!”
The pain of that cry cut him deeper than any razor. It sliced away at his confusion. He remembered the beautiful voice belonged to his wife, Hayley, and Rebecca was their daughter. He managed to gain some control of his eyes. He focussed on the petal of darkness nearest to him. It resolved itself into the tear-jewelled face of his Hayley.
His lips and tongue were numb. Had he just visited the dentist for a filling? He fought to say her name. He couldn’t hear if he succeeded, but her eyes met his, so she must have heard something. She had one of his hands clutched in her own, oblivious of the blood and gore. He couldn’t feel her touching him. Why couldn’t he feel her touching him?
It didn’t matter. He could see her, and that was enough. Her eyes were mirrors, as always, showing him his own face as Hayley saw it, loving, kind, and dependable. He always looked handsome in Hayley’s eyes. It was his daily miracle that she loved him with such strength. And she had gifted him with a child of her body. He tried to squeeze her hand.
Suddenly it hailed gloves. Hayley was pulled away from him, and he didn’t have the strength to prevent it. Sullivan couldn’t feel what they were doing, but he could see and hear them, though they sounded very far away. Scissors cut away his clothes. Gloves with cloths swabbed away at all this blood. Voices made brisk comments that fell around him like snowflakes.
“Stand back please. Give us room.”
“There is internal bleeding”
“It looks as if at least one wheel ran over his hips.”
“His pelvis is shattered.”
“Bone shards cut his intestines.”
“We need to get him stable enough to transport to the hospital.”
“This is his wife and child.”
“Madam, can you give us your husband’s name?”
Hayley said, “It is Stephen George Aage Sullivan. But everyone calls him Sully. Please, he is only twenty-nine.”
“Don’t you worry, Missus,” said one of the brisk voices.
A concerned face swam into view. “You just have to hang on, Sully mate. You’ll be on your way to the hospital in just a minute.”
Sully could see the lie. The other snowflakes words floated gently to the ground… these words dropped like stones of ice and shattered all around him. The ambulance officers were working hard, but even as he watched them they grew further and further away.
The black sunflowers were now coming in bouquets and nosegays and daisy chains. They swam across his vision, obscuring his field of view. His back arched to help shake them from his chest.
A mouse screamed, “Sully!”
Another mouse shouted, “Arrhythmia. We’re losing him.”
The confusion took hold again, and the world spun around him, the calm centre in the middle of a cyclone. He tried to close his eyes; they wouldn’t respond.
It was snowing a blizzard now, but the sunflowers still drifted as though they were bubbles wafting on a gentle breeze. He no longer heard the bells or the ocean or the drum, but the rocks were still carolling like birds. He thought he could hear them whisper his name as part of their chorus. It was glorious. His thoughts were dropping off the string and rolling away, until there was just one thought left.
You have to remember.
Most of Sullivan had escaped by now. It was running free, no longer trapped by time or space or the puny laws of man or physics. He was both as large as an electron, as small as the universe, as still as sound wave and as slow as a ray of light. His existence was just a fading poem, with only one final task left for him to do.
Remember.
Remember.
He had promised to remember. And Sullivan was a man who always kept his promises. It was the one thing that defined him above all other aspects of his being, even as he stopped being a being.
Remember.
Remember.
His heart thudded for one final time.
Remember…
For just one last time, he thought with perfect clarity. He remembered. I promised to love you until death do us part, Hayley. But I will love you forever.
He could hear the speaking stones sing and mutter his name. While his face remained turned skyward, the blue reflected in his glazing eyes, his vision was filled with infinite fields of shining, gorgeous, shimmering black sunflowers.

Little black flowers grow in the sky. They grow in between the stars, in the rich loam of eternity. Those black sunflowers glow with a light of their own, in a spectrum that mortal beings can’t register. Such dark light can blind you just as easily as staring into the sun, and then it burns down and turns your soul to ashes.
The only thing that remains is love.
This is the truth; signed in blood and hope to die.

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The Photograph – a short story

Peter’s ears were assaulted by the shocking clatter of a smash, with a counterpoint of shattering glass. These were followed immediately by the sounds of grunting and swearing echoing around the deep ceiling of the renovated hall. The fuss halted the idle chatter between Peter and the gallery owner, and they both rushed towards the epicentre of the trouble.

They were in time to witness a drunken lout being restrained by two other men, as all three struggled beside the remains of one of Peter’s photographic portraits. Blood spattered the floor, testimony to an attempt by the drunk to smash the artwork with his bare fists.

“Fuck’n queers!” cursed the drunk, as he attempted to tug his arms free. “That’s what you all are…queers ‘n poofters ‘n fairies. Bloody lot of you should be shot on sight.”

One of young men engaged in preventing his tirade turned to the gathering crowd, “Quick, somebody, call the police! You can see he’s off his face.”

“I’m right on it. Don’t let him go, now,” uttered the gallery owner, and he rushed off to retrieve his mobile phone from his office. A couple of people in the crowd looked uncertainly after him, and a young woman reached for her own cell phone.

Peter couldn’t drag his eyes away from his ruined work. It was one of his favourite pieces. It was a drag queen, taken in full regalia as she marched in Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gra parade. The photo was a monotone, originally in black and white; Peter had tinted his subject every shade of blue. He had really captured the joy and pride that the transvestite had radiated like a beacon.

Now, the piece was crumpled and torn and bloodstained, and its frame was irretrievably smashed. Its despoiler must have known what to expect when he had attended Peter’s gallery opening. What would have motivated such an act of rage? Wasn’t this kind of Neanderthal response to the gay community meant to be just a memory in this more enlightened decade? With some effort, he managed to tear his eyes away from the scraps of his work.

His eyes met with another gentleman’s gaze, a handsome redhead who was watching the spectacle with obvious delight. Suddenly, Peter felt an overwhelming wave of fear, loathing and horror. It was a sensation akin to drowning, as he really couldn’t bring himself to draw a breath – he was so frozen with terror. His heart felt like it was beating within a cage of barbed wire. Was he dying?

A girl noticed his distress, the same girl that had just used her phone to summon the police. “Oh look,” she shrieked, “It’s the artist! He’s going into shock. Somebody do something.” The crowd’s attention was drawn away from the drunk, and towards Peter. Several people stepped forward to help him. A matronly woman stepped in front of him, and hid the glowing green eyes that filled Peter’s vision. The terror was shut off like a blowing of a light bulb.

He went to sink to the floor, but there were many hands to catch him. His consciousness took the best and fastest avenue of recovery from the utter madness of the last few moments, and Peter fainted.

***

It took a few days for Peter to regain his courage and return to the art gallery. The memory of those fleeting moments of complete and utter dread and hatred was still strong. It was like his mind was a sea, and someone had dropped an enormous jagged shoal right into the centre of it. Dangerous currents lurked just under his surface thoughts. Still, he couldn’t really avoid such a personally important venue as the art gallery forever. He bolstered his meagre store of courage, snatched up his camera case, and set off to his showing.

The gallery owner greeted him warmly. Peter’s works were selling steadily, and the showing was well on the way to success. Peter politely refused an offer of a shared pot of coffee in the office, preferring to wander for a bit. He had his camera at the ready. He never knew when an interesting or exciting subject might present itself.

The sheer beauty of one of the art gallery patrons quickly captured his attention. The man was a true redhead, with the clear-cut, patrician features of a Greek sculpture. Peter was usually attracted to men with dark, brooding features, but this guy’s gorgeous skin and hair lured and seduced his eye.

Unobtrusively, Peter snapped a few shots of the gentleman. Peter was so focussed on his subject that he didn’t notice that the man seemed to travel with an enormous area of personal space. As the redhead strolled around the gallery, his approach to the other patrons seemed to make them suddenly shudder or squirm, and hurry away.

Peter hoped the man was homosexual. He moved with an animal grace that was most sensual to watch, as he toured the photo portraits. After a while, the redhead noticed of Peter’s admiring gaze. He turned to meet Peter’s eyes.

Suddenly, Peter was trapped in a turmoil of repellent sensations. Hatred. Greed. The need to destroy. Disgust. Lust. Rage. It was a replay of the horror that occurred on the opening night of Peter’s exhibit. His bruised psyche recoiled in fear.  The redhead grinned at Peter’s obvious distress. It was the same type of sneer that might lurk on a boy’s face, as the boy amuses himself by torturing a puppy with a stick.  As he turned away from Peter, the redhead smiled with pleasure.

The photographer watched, pale and sweating and shaking, as the other man exited the art gallery in a leisurely manner.

***

Peter’s photographs of the redhead proved to be most enlightening, on several levels. Instead a suave and handsome human male, the pictures revealed a portrait of a devil, a gargoyle with the most intently evil expression imaginable. It was every sin personified, into one terrible, monstrous form.

After toying with the idea of releasing the photos to the press, Peter quietly burned the photos and the negatives. No one would believe the real circumstances behind the portraits. As well, Peter instinctively felt that any public release would be asking for trouble, lots of trouble.

Instead, Peter began to regularly attend church instead.

 

*I wrote this story nearly two decades ago. With ‘Lucifer’ playing on the small screen, I felt it was time to give it an airing. It need a major polish, but it has good bones.

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Murphy and the Hunky Punk

 

This was the start of a chapter book I never finished. Upon rereading this opening chapter, I am beginning to wonder why I abandoned it. Any thoughts? Should I plan on finishing this?

Hunkypunk

Hunky punk on a church.

Chapter One – Radio Daze

Isaac Murphy often wondered if his name had cursed him. He loved sharing a name with his hero, Isaac Newton, but Murphy thought that his surname was what brought him bad luck. Everyone knows about Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The law seemed all too true for Murphy. When he was around, weird things happened.

He wished people would call him Zak or Izzy, which were cool names. As a Zak, he would have smooth and in charge. As an Izzy, he would have been popular in Year Six. However, everyone called him Murphy, even his parents, and so he was jinxed to be clumsy, and to say or do stupid things when he was trying to be clever and witty. The episode with the hunky punk is perfect example of how strange things happened to Murphy.

Murphy wanted to be a cool kid, like a sports star.  But no matter how hard he tried to play soccer and cricket, he seemed destined to be a science nerd. He tinkered with gadgets. His current obsession was ham radio; he enjoyed building home-made radios and antennas as well as chatting to people from all over the world.

Murphy’s call sign was VK*MUR (This is not a real call sign. However, in Australia, all ham radio call signs starts with VK. The VK is followed by a number that represents your state, and another couple of letters to identify the individual.). He held an advanced licence, which meant he was allowed to tune into all of twenty-three amateur bands available. It was great fun to talk to people from other countries, when the conditions were right. He had spoken with people from every continent on the planet.

He spent all his pocket money, birthday money, and any cash he earned doing odd jobs for his neighbours, on new radio equipment and on improving his antenna array. He was constantly working to improve the range and sensitivity of his radio setup. As well, he borrowed every book in his library about radios and electronics. He hunted through the internet, looking for sites and forums that were run by fellow fanatics. When his friends were gaming or watching television, he was fiddling with his radio dials.

His parents were happy that he had a hobby.

Murphy’s parents did not suffer from the same curse as their son. Mr Murphy was a psychiatrist who liked to tell Dad jokes; he always answered the phone “Hello. This is Murphy’s Madhouse.” Mrs Murphy was a computer programmer, specialising in financial systems. Both of Murphy’s parents were successful in their jobs, looked like normal people and were pretty good at golf. As parents, they were kind and encouraging.

Murphy often wondered if he had been given to them by mistake, even though he had red hair the exact same shade as his mum’s hair (his hair looked goofy, his mum’s hair looked brilliant). But then, they didn’t seem to suffer from Murphy’s Law. Weird things happened to him, while his parents didn’t seem to have strange or bizarre incidents. For example, they never did see why he wanted to change bedrooms after his run in with the hunky punk…

What, you’re telling me you don’t know what a hunky punk is?  Well, have you ever seen a gargoyle? Gargoyles and hunky punks are ugly, gruesome statues that squat all over old buildings and some new ones. Gargoyles serve a purpose, as they act as drains, funnelling water away from the walls of a building like a pipe. Hunky punks are only there for show, to make the building look scarier.

There aren’t too many houses in Australia that sport gargoyles and hunky punks. However, Murphy lived in a house that had been built by an eccentric artist, one who had spent his days carving monsters and mythical beasts out of stone. Any that he couldn’t sell he put into the garden or used them to decorate the house. There was a truly horrible hunky punk set above Murphy’s window, with huge, spiky eyebrows and a wicked, leering mouth.

Most of the time, Murphy took little notice of the hideous thing.

 

 

 

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Bees – a short story

Victorian-era Gold Bee Brooch

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” Quote incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, but accurate all the same.

 

“I am afraid the logistics of making a mechanical bee is still years beyond current technology,” said Professor Melissa Beowulf. She pushed her honey-coloured hair back from her face, fighting hard against her overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. “We aren’t going to make the deadline following this path of inquiry.”

“What about the other projects? Maybe we should switch the focus and funds to one of them?” suggested Mr Woozle, the Prime Minister. He sat back into his chair, which was upholstered in an expensive leather too soft to squeak, and tried to look concerned. Melissa wriggled in her chair, seated across from him in a much cheaper and squeakier chair. He continued on, “I promised the country we would find a solution. I need something to give heart to the farmers affected by the bee shortage.”

He wasn’t fooling Melissa. She ignored the royal ‘we’. She knew the Prime Minister wouldn’t shoulder any of the blame and would be quick to distance himself from any failure, as slippery as any toad. He was infamous for it. He would then pull all funding from anything to do with the bee shortage … including the long-term breeding strategies, the best bet for recovery.

Instead of panicking, she sorted through her files and pulled out a couple of the ones that she mentally labelled as ‘pseudo-science’; as her granny used to say, Desperate times call for desperate measures. She laid the files out in front of her. She wondered just how little science Mr Woozle understood. Melissa assumed that, to become Prime Minister, he couldn’t be a stupid man, and yet he was popularly considered to be quite the Luddite in his attitudes to science and technology. Her pseudo-science files might test that assumption.

“I have here some innovative suggestions – you might even call them cutting edge,” said Melissa.

Mr Woozle leant forward, and Melissa resisted the urge to lean back.

“Well then, let’s hear them,” he said.

She opened the first folder and few out a few concept illustrations. She fanned them out in front and Mr Woozle. He looked them over, and Melissa took careful note of his expression; his face remained interested. He didn’t look amused, nor did he start to sneer, which Melissa found encouraging.

The pictures showed tiny people helping the bees to pollinate flowers.

“As you know, due to the lack of bees to pollinate crops, we are facing a food shortage. So, as an alternative to bees, or to assist them, one of my teams suggested we genetically adapt humanoid creatures. The success of the human form makes it a good all-rounder.”

Melissa was pleased that Mr Woozle nodded as if he understood.

She continued, “We know historically and traditionally that, in most cultures, homunculi were considered to assist in the growing of all sorts of flora.”

“Excellent,’ said Mr Woozle, steepling his hands and leaning even further forward. “As you know, I like to think of my government as standing for traditional family values. Maybe you should divert some of your funding to this group.”

“Well, the idea isn’t something we can pull together overnight. We would need secure, long-term funding for such a project.”

“Hmmmm. You boffins always say that,” said Mr Woozle, sitting back in his chair and twisting his expression to create his trademark ‘cynical eyebrow lift’. He used that eyebrow to cower junior members of his party and the opposition, but Professor Melissa Beowulf was made of sterner stuff.

“We can’t abandon the other projects just when some of them are coming close to showing results,” she said, gesturing to her pile of folders. “As well, we can profitably repurpose the results from my various teams.  The robotic bees – as the project stands now – can be modified to be spy bugs, as just one example.”

The quirked eyebrow had lowered significantly at the mention of the word ‘profitably’. If there was one thing that Mr Woozle treasured over everything else, it was economic gain. It was ironic that it had been his devotion to great god of Economics that had created the problem in the first place. His government had approved the use of chemicals to improve crops by regulating harmful insects; except it had also regulated bees to near extinction. At first, the government had fobbed of the loss of bees as collateral damage and denied that anyone needed to be concerned. However, most of the very same crops that needed to be ‘protected’ from insect attack also needed bees to pollinate the flowers that produced the crop. When shortfall started to hit the general public with larger grocery bills, and the complaints had started pouring in, only then did the government set up a taskforce to save the bees.

Melissa tried not to feel bitter that she had been advocating for the bees for years before the crisis had finally occurred. As her granny used to say, An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. It was a pity that governments spent money so grudgingly on science-related projects. The Prime Minister and his government were among the most technophobic she had ever encountered. Having to come to the man, subservient, with cap in hand, was a subtle form of torture.

Mr Woozle didn’t notice how Melissa’s lips thinned as she waited for his response. He was again studying the pictures in front of him. It would have taken a heart of stone not to be captivated by the images of tiny people frolicking with the fuzzy bees; he had enough fibres of humanity left to set his heart a-twitching. And he could see it wouldn’t be that hard to sell the general public on such an attractive project.

“It’s a pity we only have sketches,” he said. “An actual  … what did you call it? A human-clueless? One of those would make funding this project so much easier.”

Melissa looked uncertain. “The file does make mention of a prototype,” she said, “but I haven’t witnessed it in action.”

“Excellent!” barked Mr Woozle. “Arrange a demonstration for me asap. You may go.”

Melissa gathered up her folders, smothering elation. The Prime Minister hadn’t mentioned anything about cutting her funding. She’d bury him in flower fairies if she thought that would keep her projects going.

 

Doctor Tündér was one of those men who looked like they were carved rather than grown, since he was all sharp angles and thin, long limbs, with smooth teak-coloured skin. Melissa found him attractive, but she was perturbed by what his motivations might be and what was it that dedicated him to his project; he looked too stern to be creating cute, thumb-sized homunculi. As her granny used to say, Handsome is as handsome does. However, he certainly looked like the type of scientist that the Prime Minister would best respond to: male, white-coated, clinical, and serious.

A good half of Doctor Tündér’s laboratory was a greenhouse, full of flowering plants and pleasantly a-buzz with bees. The air was fragrant rather than antiseptic. Instead of artificial lighting, it was full of sunshine. Melissa approved of the set-up. The more she saw, the better she like Doctor Tündér.

Mr Woozle flinched as a bee flew past one of his ears.

“Do they sting?” he asked, glancing around in a nervous manner, as he walked with Melissa and Doctor Tündér. The Prime Minister was nattily dressed in a Saville Row suite with Italian shoes … he had to look good in his photos. Behind him trailed his ‘crew’: his personal media assistant/spin doctor, his Minister for Industry – in lieu of a non-existent Minister for Science – and his personal media assistant, and the usual flock of housebroken journalists and photographers.

“Only if provoked,” said Doctor Tündér, “so I wouldn’t be too worried. Unless you are allergic?”

“I don’t think so,” said Mr Woozle. “I can remember being stung as a child.”

“Then you should be fine,” said Doctor Tündér.

Melissa fused a few of her brain cells at the thought of Mr Woozle as a boy. She just couldn’t imagine him playing outdoors. Surely he was more the type to stay indoors and play computer games about world domination. He did try to improve his image with action shots, but even the least cynical person could see that most were staged photographs.

Doctor Tündér led them through into the back of his greenhouse. There, on an ordinary wooden bench, stood a little object that resembled a pigeon coop merged into a doll house. “This is where I house my prototype. Please don’t crowd around too close. The creature is too small to be truly intelligent, and I have attempted to modify her instincts accordingly. The creature gets easily frightened by the presence of large animals and by unexpected loud noises.”

Melissa stood perfectly still, and resisted the urge to stop breathing, as Doctor Tündér leant down beside the strange little house and made a clicking noise with his tongue against his teeth. It was obviously how he communicated with his prototype, because a little person walked out of its house and onto the bench. The murmuring of the Prime Minister’s entourage grew silent. The creature was humanoid in shape, but it did not look like a miniaturized human being. It had a rotund, bottom-heavy body, so that its arms looked long and elegant by comparison. Its least human-like feature was its head, as round as a ball, small-featured, noseless, and crowned with a mass of dark fluff. It had been dressed in a simple tunic, but the stiffness of the fabric created the impression of a swing skirt; it was self-evident that Doctor Tündér was not a seamstress. Melissa guessed the creature stood approximately three bees in height, or just under the length of her thumb.

“Amazing,” she whispered. Doctor Tündér had managed a scientific miracle on a very limited budget. Her eyes met with her fellow scientist, and they smiled.

Mr Woozle, on the other hand, was disappointed.  “It isn’t terribly sweet,” he said.

“Whatever do you mean?” asked Doctor Tündér, reluctantly breaking eye contact with Melissa.

“It doesn’t look anything like the illustrations. It’s kind of boring.”

Doctor Tündér just stared at the Prime Minister, literally and figuratively gobsmacked. In complete contrast, Melissa discovered a whole avalanche of words that she wanted to say, but most of them were unrepeatable.

“I think you misunderstand,” she said icily. “This is a magnificent achievement. World shaking.”

“This little toy? It doesn’t even look that much like human,” said Mr Woozle. He gestured at the creature with his hand.

The little creature jumped back and went into a crouch. Melissa thought it had a thorn clutched in one fist. And was it her imagination, or did the bees suddenly seem more agitated?

“Careful!” said Doctor Tündér. “I asked you not to frighten her.”

“Her? HER?” spluttered Mr Woozle, almost shrieking with disapproval. “Your prototype is a female?”

The creature went down on one knee as if she felt the Prime Minister’s outrage like a blow. The buzzing of the bees grew louder. More angry.

“I didn’t keep it a secret,” said Doctor Tündér.

“All worker bees are female,” pointed out one of the brighter media clones. He was death-glared at for his trouble. The Prime Minister’s face turned puce.

Melissa broke in before Mr Woozle to start into a rant. The furious bees were beginning to frighten her.

“Why does it matter?” she asked.

“How am I supposed to fund this ugly thing?” asked Mr Woozle, and he jabbed his finger down at the cowering creature.

She jabbed right back, using her tiny weapon. Then she turned and ran back into her house.

“It bit me!” howled Mr Woozle.

“Well, you frightened her!” replied Doctor Tündér. “I told you not to frighten her.”

“And she didn’t bite you, she stabbed you with something. Maybe a cactus thorn,” said Melissa. “She was defending herself. You look like a monster to her.”

Mr Woozle turned to inflict his anger on Melissa, but the bees stopped him. They rose in a stormy squarm and attacked. Panic ensued as Mr Woozle and his entourage fled, knocking over plants and overturning tables in their hurry to escape. Melissa expected to be badly stung, but it was soon apparent they were only targeting the Prime Minister.

The politician was shrieking and flailing his arms, driven out of his mind with pain. Melissa went to run to his aid, but Doctor Tündér grabbed her arms and held her back. “The bees are defending one of their own,” he explained. “You might get stung.”

“But we can’t just leave him to suffer like this,” said Melissa. As much as she disliked Mr Woozle, she had never wanted to see him hurt or injured.

“Wait… and watch,” whispered Doctor Tündér, still holding Melissa close.

From the doll house came a high-pitched crooning noise, almost too high to hear. The angry drone of the bees lessened immediately. The crooning noise continued until the bees were calm and returning to their flowers. Mr Woozle remained in a heap, moaning. One of his entourage could be heard calling for an ambulance.

“She is the queen?” asked Melissa.

“She is a queen analogue. It seemed to be the quickest way to gain the cooperation of the bees,” Doctor Tündér replied. He loosened his grip on Melissa, but she felt no urge to move out of his arms.

“How clever,” she said. And as her granny always said, You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

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Pearls

 

“No, you can’t have my doll,” shouted Lily Henderson. She just knew she was going to cry, and she was too big a girl to cry in front of other people.

Lily, moments before, had been most impressed with her new friend. She had never met anyone with a lovely purpley-silver tail before. And Shirra had the most beautiful jewellery, made of shells and coral and smooth, creamy beads.

Shirra, on the other hand, was utterly taken by Lily’s doll. She told Lily that no one had anything like it in her town.

Lily found that hard to believe…her doll was nothing special. Yes, it had its own bottle and two sets of clothes, but there were dolls that could walk and speak and eat and poo their pants. The only thing really special about her doll was that Lily loved it with all her heart.

The two little girls had spent a beautiful hour playing mothers in the rock pool. Lily’s mummy was sketching, sitting on the rocks just a little above the tiny pool where the girls were. She kept half an eye on her daughter, but could see she was perfectly safe with Shirra. The two children were just out of reach of the turning tide, and the rock pool was shallow…though it did hide the girls from the hips down.

But now, Shirra wanted Lily’s baby. “Please, please, please let me have it,” she sobbed, “I have to go now. I can hear my mother calling me. I’ll never get to see you or your wonderful doll again.”

Merbaby

Lily listened carefully, but couldn’t hear anyone calling. All she could hear was the mournful note of a horn in the far distance. She suspected Shirra was lying, so as to steal the precious toy. “No! You can’t have her!” pouted Lily, and then a happy thought struck her, “Look, I’ll go ask my mummy if we can come back tomorrow. We can play again.”

“No. You can’t see it. My mummy is going to be very mad when she knows I’ve been playing with you. She won’t let me come back.”

“Oh. I do so see,” said Lily, “You’ve come down to the water by yourself. That is naughty. You should never go near water by yourself. You might drown.”

Shirra tried to smile through her tears. “It’s kind of like that. Please Lily, let me keep the doll. I’ll swap you all my necklaces.” She pulled off several of the long, gleaming strands of pretty beads, and held them out to her friend. “Here, you can have all of them.”

Lily looked at the necklaces. They were enticing. The beads were gold, white, cream, silver, grey, and blue…with hints of the shining rainbow in their sheen. Even so, she really loved her doll.

Then, she looked up into Shirra’s eyes. She was too little to understand all the emotions she saw, but she could understand the yearning and the sadness. Her tender heart melted.

“Here,” she muttered quickly, before she could regret her generous impulse, “You can have my dolly. You don’t have to give me your stuff.”

“Oh no, oh no, you take them!” came the joyous reply. Shirra clutched the little plastic baby to her chest, hugging and caressing it. “Oh Lily, I will never forget you. I will look after this as if it was the rarest treasure. Look, I really have to go. Thank you. Thank you.”

Shirra slithered over the side of the pool, and snaked down the sand to the water. With a flip of her tail, she was into the waves. She glanced back at Lily, smiled, and then dived deep into the water.

For a moment, Lily wondered if she should call for her mother. After all, little girls weren’t supposed to go into the water by themselves. But, somehow, she sensed that Shirra was okay, that she wouldn’t drown.

After all, she could swim like a fish.

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Heavens to Betsy

*Excerpt from a police transcript investigating an alleged hit-and-run death*

Interrogating Officer: Miss Carry, can you give me some idea of what happened?

Tori Carry: I was always a tinkerer when it came to my car. As cars became more and more sophisticated, I couldn’t resist adding all the newest gadgets to my little Betsy, you know …  proximity detectors, automatic global positioning sensors, speeding alarms and the rest. It appealed to my sense of humour that a PT Cruiser would be hiding all these super-brilliant devices, like a spy car. So when AI addies for cars became available, I bought the best brain I could afford.

Of course, it wasn’t the top of the range; I’m not a millionaire. The AI couldn’t talk like my satnav, but it communicated by running text through a screen above my CD player, and kept me informed on the engine, the car, and external conditions like road conditions and weather. It was all very shiny and clever and so up-to-the minute techno-geekiness. I gave my Betsy senses with which to see, hear, smell, touch and taste, and other senses to do with electricity and magnetism that I can only imagine. I thought I had given her a real personality.

Um. You know how some people anthropomorphise their car, sort of like I did, by giving it a name and stuff? I had taken that to a whole new level.

Some people saw the AIs as another driver distraction, but the AI was able to collate and coordinate all the other devices in the car, and so cut down on the number of data inputs. I had Betsy rigged up so that she would write, “Hiya, Tori” and update me on the weather and any road works as soon as I turned the ignition on. It felt like Betsy was communicating with me.

She could respond to my spoken commands. The AI was well designed, so that it slowly learnt all my preferences and could read my moods. She would put on happy tunes when I was down, or refuse to turn on her motor when I was tipsy. She acted like she was my friend, and I started thinking of her as a person, but just car-shaped, you know what I mean?

I think she liked me back. I do. After all, I spend more time and money on her than I did on any relationships I had. Cars are easier to trust than people. Well, maybe not. But they are more honest with their feelings.

Interrogating Officer: Please, Miss Carry. Could you focus on what occurred on the night in question? We can return to this part of your statement later, if you like.

Tori Carry: Oh. Okay.

Well, I’m a student, studying music at the Conservatorium. I’ve managed to pay my way through uni by playing gigs at pubs and stuff. I play covers of what’s in the Top Forty, old standards, a bit of folk music and country rock. I don’t get too much upfront from the managers of these places, you see? So I depend on raking in extra by getting tips.

The thing is – is that sexy sells. So I always dress up when I play these gigs. Nothing too slutty, but I make sure I look nice. I might wear something slinkier than I would normally. Put on too much make-up, as the lights tend to wash you out.

And you flirt with the customers. Well, it is kind of like flirting. I don’t actually want to go out with any of the drunks and goons; I have a perfectly good boyfriend.

(Carry pauses here. She starts to cry.)

What’s Neil going to think about all this? Oh god. He isn’t going to want to touch me after this.

*Interview is suspended while suspect regains control of her emotions*

Interrogating Officer: Are you sure you are ready to continue, Tori? I know you’ve been through a lot, but we need your account of the events.

Tori Carry: Yes. I know. But this is hard, you know?  I never thought something like this would happen to me.

I never noticed him the crowd. You think that a creep like that would give off a vibe, or something, but he didn’t stand out at all. I’ve had my fair share of weirdos staring at me, and idiots shouting inappropriate comments to me. Usually, the bouncer or one of the bar staff walks me to Betsy when we think one of those jokers might get nasty or stupid. Last night, they seemed like a pretty normal crowd; in fact, I was a little irritated that they seemed more interested in their drinks than my singing.

Unlike some places, the car park is well lit. There isn’t any place to lurk and jump out at anyone. I saw there was a guy near my Betsy, but I didn’t think anything about it. After all, he could have been a patron heading home.

He just looked so ordinary.

He grabbed the second I had opened the car door. He had a knife in his hand.

“Get in,” he hissed.

He got into the seat behind me, and kept the knife close to my gut.

“Drive,” he said, “I’ll tell you were to go.”

I was so scared! So many scenarios went through my mind. My parents never knowing what happened to me. Maybe people would think I had run away. Was he going to hurt me? Was he going to kill me?

It was a good thing Betsy is nearly able to drive herself. I wasn’t concentrating on the road. Though maybe, if I had tried, we could have had an accident. Then all this wouldn’t have happened.

Interrogating Officer: Don’t dwell on the might-have-beens. All we need are the facts. What happened next?

Tori Carry: Well, he made me drive up to the old quarry. It is miles away from any houses, so that no one could hear me call for help.

He made me get into the back seat with him. Then he pushed me flat on my stomach, pushed up my dress, and used his knife to cut off my underpants. Then he raped me. He raped me twice. In my own car. (Carry falls silent for a minute or so.)

Interrogating Officer: If you are able, can you give us more detail than that? Anything at all might help us discover the truth.

Tori Carry: Um. He didn’t want me to turn Betsy off. He wanted the heater on, and the music playing. He kept telling me that I should consider myself lucky. That women like me were dirty, flaunting ourselves in public, that we should expect this kind of treatment. That I must have wanted it. Asked for it. Deserved it.

After a while, my mind seemed to take me away from what was happening. First of all, I started thinking how it was going to be impossible to get the smell of this pervert out of Betsy’s seat covers. I was going to have to replace them. I can remember thinking about the amazing seafood place my family had gone to on our last holiday overseas. I can remember thinking about how I wanted to study in Paris.

I had to survive. I had to survive if I wanted to see my parents. Neil. Paris. I think I was whispering that to myself over and over again. “I have to survive. Hold on.”

Interrogating Officer: Would your car have been able to hear you?

Tori Carry: Of course. Betsy was on. All her sensors were engaged. She would have heard everything. But I don’t think an AI has any legal status in a court of law, does it? Can a car give evidence?

Interrogating Officer: That’s something we can consider in the future. Right now, would you be able to continue with your statement?

Tori Carry: After a while, Betsy developed a growling noise in her motor. You’d think I wouldn’t notice something like that. But, like I said, my mind kept trying to run away from what was happening to my body. It was easier to worry about the noise in the engine than what was going to happen after he had finished with me.

I thought he was going to kill me.

No. I knew he was going to kill me.

And I wasn’t ready to die. Not without seeing and studying in Paris.

What seemed days later, he was finally finished. He pulled up the zipper on his fly, and made me turn over. I started to come back into myself, and suddenly I could feel how badly he had torn me, and all my bruises, and I was scared again.

All the light in the car seemed to be reflected in the blade of his knife. He told me what he was going to do with the knife. I felt sick and weak.

Betsy’s motor began to growl so loud that even he noticed. The lights flickered on her dash.

“What’s wrong with the car?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe she is overheating? Something might be caught in her belts?” I had only just refuelled before the gig, so I didn’t think she was running low.

He must have thought that he needed to kill me quickly, as Betsy was his only transportation out of the quarry. He pulled me out of the car.

That’s when things got strange.

Interrogating Officer: Strange?

Tori Carry: Betsy suddenly started revving her motor. She fell out of park, and started to roll forward, down the hill. He yelled at the car, and ran after it.

I tried to get to my feet and run away. But the pain was too much. Everything started spinning, and I fell down. I think I blacked out.

When I came to, Betsy was back beside me. Her motor wasn’t roaring and growling, it was a quiet purr. I managed to drag myself into the back seat … the door was still open. Then I must have blacked out again, because the next thing I remember was waking up as people dragged me out of Betsy and into the hospital.

And here we are.

(Upon consultation with her doctors, it would appear the suspect was probably not lying about the periods of blacking out, as convenient as the blanks in her memory may seem. She has suffered internal injuries; the extent of these injuries means it is unlikely she will ever be able to bear children. There was copious blood loss that would have caused her loss of consciousness.)

Interrogating Officer: So what happened? Can you tell me where your rapist is now?

Tori Carry: No. I wish I did.  I hope you catch the bastard.

Interrogating Officer: Did you know that we have found blood and human tissue on your tires and plastering the underside of the car? And we will be checking the quarry to collaborate your confession.

Tori Carry: Confession. What do you mean?

Interrogating Officer: Your alleged rapist is very dead, Tori. We knew that from the amount of blood and the types of tissues found under the car. Brain tissue. Spleen. Heart. He hasn’t survived you running him down. Still, there are extenuating circumstances. You might even be able to plea self-defence.

Tori Carry: Look. He’s dead? Really?  (A few seconds of silence. It must be noted here that the suspect did appear to be genuinely surprised by the news.) I suppose it is going to make me sound as guilty as hell, but I’m glad he is dead. I wish I had done it. But I can’t see how. I don’t remember doing it.

Last time I saw him, he was chasing after Betsy as she rolled downhill. Could he have run under her in the dark, by mistake?

Interrogating Officer: Okay. Say that was the case. There are a lot of inconsistencies in your story.

After rolling away, the car returned to where you were lying. And you must have driven to the hospital. You didn’t call for an ambulance or police, which looks suspicious, because it took you away from the crime scene. Unless there was a third person at the scene, that leaves just you or your attacker to drive the car.

Of course, as we haven’t yet identified your rapist, it might not be his blood and tissue under your car. However, preliminary tests have proven the semen and other cellular contaminants collected as evidence from your body matches the blood type found under the car. (At this point, it must be noted that the suspect commenced dry retching and the interview had to be suspended until the next day.)

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The White Deer

White Stag original handmade OOAK clay art by creaturesfromel

There once were two men who followed the Way of the Warrior. This meant they were paragons of honour and honesty, of courage and benevolence, of loyalty and respect, and of justice and integrity. The older samurai was called Takeshi, which meant ‘warrior’ in his native tongue, and the other was a young man named Katsuo, which meant ‘victorious hero’. They were lovers, as Takeshi was leading Katsuo into teachings of Shudo, the Way of the Young, the traditional relationship for warriors. Followers of Shudo believe that the love of women fosters feminine weakness in a man. The practice of Shudo was held in high esteem, as the older warrior would lead his protégé into the true beauty of the Way of the Warrior.

To the misfortune of the men, they came to the attention of a Qilin, a spirit woman, which some in the West confuse with the unicorn. It is never wise to attract the attention of the supernatural. Some deer spirits have fickle natures, which belie the wisdom of their long lives.

As the men rode through the woods, the Qilin watched them with curious eyes. She saw the bond between the men, and their pride in that bond, and it was a challenge she couldn’t resist. The bond had to be tested. If they passed her test, she would gift them good luck. She had found that some people might break when tested, but their bond would mend, and would grow stronger and more beautiful just like a pot mended in the Kintsukuroi method.  If they didn’t pass her test, she wouldn’t need to engineer their doom; they would make their own fate. That would be punishment enough.

The Qilin took the form of a beautiful woman called Shinju. She chose that name to be a warning, to give the two warriors a fighting chance. Shinju can mean ‘pearl’; however in theatrical tradition it can also mean ‘double suicide by lovers’. In the form of Shinju, the Qilin had skin as white and smooth as a pearl, and her hair was as lustrous as an oyster shell. Her kimono was of pearl-coloured silk decorated with a pattern of dancing white stags, and the antlers of each stag flowered with pink blossom, while their eyes were picked out with rubies. Her manner of dress was also meant as a subtle warning.

In this guise, she created a house and servants and a noble father. She knew the two warriors would seek shelter at the house for the night. She would be a daughter of the house. And so her trap was laid, with her as the bait.

Samurai are meant to be as clever with their wits as they are with their swords; and yet they are mere babes compared to one of the immortals. As it was, both men fell in love with Shinju the first time they saw her. Her fairy glamour spun a web around their hearts, trapping an unnatural love within their spirits. They could see only what she wanted them to see, hear only what she wanted them to hear. If they had been aware of the bewitchment, they might have noticed the unique smell of the Qilin, an odour resembling violets; instead, they took her scent for rare perfume.

“Greetings, great warriors. My father has sent me to serve you with tea, or would you prefer plum wine?” said Shinju, her eyes demurely turned to the floor. Her eyelashes lay dark against the cherry-blossom smoothness of her cheeks, and her brows fluttered like moths. Crystal bells chimed as she spoke. The men were enchanted. The web pulled tight around their hearts.

Manly Takeshi stepped forward and said, “We are, you and me, like two pine needles which will dry and fall – but never separate.”  This love poem has become quite famous, though few know it was first spoken by the great warrior. His eyes met with Shinju’s. For just a moment, his heart struggled to escape the snare of her magic, knowing something was amiss. The spell used his own pride to wash away his doubt, and in place of that doubt a demon of jealousy was born.

Chivalrous Katsuo unsheathed his swords, his daito and his shoto, and offered them to Shinju, “Your beauty has cut me deeper than ever these blades could manage.”  The swords glittered like rare jewels, and Shinju gave a small smile. She could feel the power in those swords. Blood is always linked to power, and immortals love power in any form.

Takeshi was enraged that Shinju seemed to be more impressed with Katsuo’s gesture than with his poem. Wasn’t he the greatest warrior? Wasn’t he the better educated? Katsuo was handsome, but surely the youth’s beauty was no match for his own magnificence. Takeshi was pulled two ways, by his love for Katsuo, and by the little demon of jealousy. His heart grew a turtle shell and his eyes glittered as sharp as the swords. He decided to take charge, as the elder warrior should.

“The maiden will attend only me,” said Takeshi. He put an imperious expression on his face, and gestured to Shinju. She shuffled over to his side, pretending to be obedient to his wishes.

Katsuo felt his own heart grow hotter and larger within the silver cage of his ribs, until he thought that Shinju and Takeshi must hear it sizzling like hot fat. “I beg to differ, my lord. She is a free woman, a daughter of the house. She can choose to serve us both, or just you if that is her desire … or she may wish to serve just me.”

The men faced off against each other, their faces red, and their shared love forgotten. Katsuo still held his twin swords in his hands. With a flip of his wrists, Takeshi would be dead upon the ground, and Katsuo’s honour would be smoke twisting in the breeze. The tension vibrated faster than a glass bell; a hammer could have shattered it.

Neither man was taking much notice of the Qilin, who was resisting the urge to smirk with delight. Making her expression seem humble and sweet, she said. “Oh please do not fight over me. I am not worthy of such a duel.”

“A duel!” exclaimed Takeshi. “What a splendid idea. Shall we meet again after we have made our sacrifices to the gods?”

For a moment, Katsuo hesitated. A duel was such a final option. Surely no mere woman was worth ruining such a friendship as he shared with Takeshi. He looked over to the girl. She was lovely, very lovely … with all the dainty grace of a doe. Yet, on some level, she troubled him.

Takeshi stepped between him and Shinju. “Are you agreeable to a duel? Or do you concede?”

“Concede? And lose all honour?” asked Katsuo. He was horrified that his mentor would even consider the possibility.

“I will allow you to retain your swords,” said Takeshi.

Such a gesture would relegate Katsuo to the status of a mere child. It wasn’t a kindness, it was an insult. Katsuo’s misgivings were all forgotten.

“Yes. A duel will settle this,” said Katsuo. He was confident he would win, as his mentor was older. Older meant slower. He would coat his glittering swords with Takeshi’s blood.

Takeshi went to the shrine of Bishamonten, the god of treasure, the god of war, and the god of warriors. There, he burnt incense and set out bowls of wine for his god. He asked his god that he retain his honour in the coming conflict. A pigeon, the sacred messenger of Bishamonten, flew through a window and landed at Takeshi’s feet. This was a sign that the god had indeed listened to his heart.

Katsuo went to the shrine of Benzaiten, sea-goddess, dragon-wife, the goddess of Beauty and Music. There, he cut a lock of his hair and burnt it at the altar. He prayed that he would find a true and pure love. A tiny green snake slithered up to his feet, a signal from Benzaiten that she had indeed listened to his heart.

Shinju went to the temple of Inari, both god and goddess, spirit of the rice, but she made no offerings. The Qilin had tested the Samurais’ bond, and found it wanting. She didn’t need to see the outcome of their duel. Instead, she returned to the form of a pure white Qilin with branching horns like a stag, and she danced on cleft hooves into the sacred arch of a vermillion tori. The last anyone knew of her was a cry that chimed like a woman’s crystal laughter, accompanied by the strong smell of violets, as she disappeared into the spirit world.

The samurai met for the last time. The spell ensured they could no longer remember the affection that they had for each other, as master and disciple, as friends, as lovers. Instead, each saw the other as a rival and as an enemy. They formally bowed to each other, and then took their fighting stance with their swords drawn.

“Make ready!” ordered Takeshi.

“I am more than ready,” said Katsuo.

Their swords flashed, and the air chimed. For many hours, the two men struggled. Both were peerless warriors and well matched. However, in the end, Takeshi’s experience favoured him, and he struck his friend a terrible blow.

The younger man fell to the ground, his blood staining the soil red. The Qilin’s spell shattered.

At that moment, Takeshi felt his rage leave him. Seeing Katsuo so injured shocked the older man to his senses. “What have I done,” he said, “I have brought dishonour to my family name.”

There is only one path left to a samurai who is disgraced: seppuku. Takeshi took his katana and with one swift motion he disembowelled himself. He lay beside Katsuo and drew his dying friend into his arms, holding Katsuo close as his protégé’s eyes grew dim. Takeshi’s pain from his wound was nothing compared to the pain in his heart. He saw the world darken, and the warriors perished together, wearing their blood as a cloak. Takeshi had regained his honour, and Katsuo had regained the love of Takeshi. The gods had answered their prayers appropriately.

It is never wise to attract the attention of the supernatural.

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