my flash fiction


Image by Clifton_58 via Flickr

In addition to NaBloPoMo, it’s also NaNoWriMo. How a month short a day and leading up to Christmas became the writer’s New Year, I cannot say, but in my lack of wisdom, I am playing along.

Why not?

I am missing fiction and an idea for my Eubie Blake character has been plaguing me since our trip to Penticton in August, so I will tap it out and see what happens. The worst that could happen is nothing. And since nothing ventured is precisely as much gained, there isn’t much risk involved as I am way over the need to “win” at the end of the 30 days.

It’s time I got back to serious starving artist stuff anyway.

*Just a reminder that the clock is mercifully winding down at the Top 25 Canadian Mom Blogs contest where I cling to the top five. You can vote still and daily, so if you haven’t and are inclined to boast my ego a bit, click here.

He thought about her often. Time being so much on his hands to the point where he felt the urge to nudge it forward like an awkward child who shies back from a room of strangers. Though he hadn’t fallen so far that he lacked willing couriers, he solicited them only to send final missives to his sons. Notes which could cause no great harm if fallen into unfriendly hands for not even his enemies could begrudge a father his last words.

His tower cell looked over the deserted yard and out to the Thames where he tried vainly to drown her image. She’d married finally they told him. She was safe, he heard.

It was nearly two years since he last touched her. Soft and smelling of roses fresh from the markets of Calais. She’d found him, hiding in the dank corridors near chapel, crouched low, hands folded, thumbs indenting a time-worn brow.

“Time is past for prayers,” she said.

He didn’t look up but opened his eyes to the fullness of a sky blue skirt so close he had but to release his clasp and gather her to him like the air.

Once was a time he’d have slipped beneath the folds and run rough common hands up to delve royal treasures well-known. Instead, he reached out a tentative finger, briefly catching the pleated fabric between index and thumb before pulling back to monkish misery. She was beyond his knowing and they both realized it.

“It’s all I can do,” he replied.

He expected her to chide him over his failure of conscious, his weak-kneed capitulation, but she did not. Her grasp of the complicated was as grounded in survival as his own.

“She sends this,” and she dropped an English bible at his feet. It fell flat and hollow, the sound echoing down the drafty hall. “She faults herself only she says.”

“Kindness out of character for her, methinks.”

“Kindess is all the vengeance left to her.”

He looked up. Her pale moon shaped face pinched in places and tear swollen in others in comic effect that nearly cracked his own matching facade.

“I’d heard she’d turned over that leaf,” he said. “Perhaps she is not so shriven as she gives out?”

“Do not jest with me, Master,” her reply worn and thin. The last days have been long and though near over, she is spent like a farthing in the hands of beggar.

“I’ve missed our little assignations,” he countered in a dipolmatic tone that marked him courtier but with eyes that belied the disinterested tone.

“You’ve heard? You’re angry?”

“No,” he said. “How could I ever be made angry be the practical choice. Practicality is the foundation of my life. It is nearly my motto and I daresay will serve me as a fine epitaph.”

“Do you ever want, Tom*?”

He gathered a handful of her gown as she stepped nearer, her fingers playing tentatively through his salted locks.

“Modestly,” he admitted.

“Or wish?” tone more hopeful.

“Not at all,” regretting the cold water as soon as it tripped the tongue.

“Why breath?” she asked.

“Why indeed Mistress Mary,” he said. “Should you puzzle it out, share your revelation with me.”

“And more,” she agreed, slipping away from his grasp until only her shadow caressed his own with the whimsy of a ghost.

A stained wood block tore his gaze back from the water to the courtyard below. A beggar would find himself poorly mounted astride my wishes, he thought. Cold seeped into his forearms and up through his resting chin, chilling his memories as he noted the gathering crowd.

Grey, as though it knew her melancholy, the sky clung to its tears. It wept but a little for her sister as she recalled, stingy when it might downpour and damp the moment called for more.

She stood alone on the parapet. Hooded cloak concealing only so much of her identity as to not arouse suspicion. The times balanced precariously on princely whim and temper. In the yard, she noted the ugly mood and the grimly satisfied visages of the lords in attendance. Little did they know they disservice they did themselves this bleak morning.

He stumbled a bit as he made his way to the scaffold. She wondered that he wasn’t bound for humiliation’s sake. She hoped he would make a noble end without tears but knew that he would not. He left much behind and he was not such a man that his many regrets wouldn’t rise up to choke him at his end. He bent not a whit for his enemies, scowling and impatient for his end.

“I die a good true Catholic and his majesty’s most humble servant who I beg all to pray for so he should continue long and in health,” he spoke to the small crowd as if he were at Parliament, catching unwilling eyes and noting attendance though he did not glance up to see her.

Stepping to the block he knelt before it as if it were the altar and bowed his head to pray before gripping it either side with a soldier’s steeled nerve.

“I pray you all to learn from me,” he said. “Want modestly, but wish upon stars. Had I done this, a happier man I would have undoubtedly been.”

The blade landed to high to be true, the crack of skull followed shortly by a soft gurgle as the axe was lifted for a second stroke. She turned as his fingers clutched convulsively before going slack.

*I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s delightful Wolf Hall. I am a Tudor junkie and am well read on the time period, but Cromwell is more often than not a footnote or a very minor character. He is usually portrayed as a self-serving villain, but as the Tudors had a habit of rewriting history to suit their purposes, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of who he was and what might be true and what was merely invention by his enemies after the fact. Mantel’s novel is startling in its compassionate view of him and the hint of a romance between Cromwell and Mary Boleyn (Queen Anne’s older sister and mother of at least one of Henry the VIII’s bastards) caught my fancy though it would have been a very unlikely thing to have happened.

This is so not done. The roughest of drafts and I really envision it as short story that tells about their affair in flashback.

the berry picker by kym gouchie

Filling the basket required a consciousness most neglected in Bird’s opinion. Inattention spoiled the berries by degrees, tainted their potency. Plinth berries spoke ,to those who listened, but young ones now skimmed surfaces and denied whispering existence.  Bird knew sentience flooded the world with a rumbling force that rivaled the periodic tipping and tossing of the foothills her flock called home. She sighed. Caught in a world of rock and scrub, the Pilnth stood out and Bird, who stood out too, appreciated the companionship.

Counting mattered too. Baskets filled differently each time. Bushels changed with seasons. Light and water altered the berries heft, texture and hue. Dark winter rubies became airy rosettes with the first solstice before summer warmed and deepened them for the early autumn harvest.

Squatting in the traditional pose, Bird hummed a counterpoint to her companion’s joyous warbles. Tense when she began, the melody melted her, seeping down to her marrow like the poultice she’s prepared and administered to the trees root system. She rocked on her heel in time with the swaying branches.

Few Plinth’s spotted the mountainside. Traditionally seedlings harvested in late spring were replanted for daughters hatched the previous year. Out of favor for many season’s, Bird’s was among a handful left, and aside from Letty’s, Bird tended them all, but hers was the only one that sang. The others silenced by disinterest, disbelief or death. To Bird, it was all the same.

September 11, 1981

HE called. I was washing dishes. Not the right Cinderella moment, but up to my elbows in greasy suds is more authentic than a size ten threatening to shatter a glass slipper while the other waits for its prince to get on one knee and slice a toe off with the other.

A summer’s worth of eating tuna, celery and rice had paid off I thought when I heard HIS voice, a feathery tickle I’ve known since we were five. I ate so much tuna; I couldn’t go barefoot without the cat lapping at my toes. And my poor toes? Curled under, raw from being ground into the sidewalk every night. I ran the two miles to my old grade school playground, worked my way up to eleven real pull-ups over the course of the summer before tromping my fat ass home.

Twenty vanquished pounds later, HE calls. I can taste the three years of loserdom melting in my mouth. Romanceless fat best friend years, pining for HIM while HE dated every girl we knew and saved his secrets for me.

I thought.

Until tonight.

“It was me,” he said.

“What was you?” I asked.

Not the conversation I anticipated. That conversation gushed over my new appearance and how stupid he’d been to not notice I was so pretty in addition to being funny, smart and a good listener.

“What I told you about Stevie,” he said. “It wasn’t him, it was me.”

“Oh,” and that was all there was to say.

“We’re still friends?” he asked. “You don’t hate me, do you? I couldn’t stand it if you hated me.”

“Yes,” I agreed.

But we ‘re not friends anymore and I will hate him for a long time, I think.

We three were musketeers. Since kindergarten. Over the summer, they went off to band camp and when they came back, Stevie didn’t hang out with us anymore.

“Is something wrong?” I asked HIM. “Did something happen at camp between you guys?”

“Nah,” HE said. “You know Steve. He’s that way sometimes. Moody. Things’ll get back to normal eventually.”

But they didn’t. Stevie wouldn’t talk to me except to tell me I should ask HIM about IT and that I didn’t know HIM as well as I thought I did.

Eventually he explained that Stevie tried to kiss him one night when they’d gotten drunk off Boone’s Farm. He’d turned Stevie down, of course, and now Stevie was embarrassed and mad.

But it was both of them. Twinsies all along. I smelled like the cat bowl for nothing.

The fat girl inside gloated. Like the other girls who dated him and knew will. I can see it now. The looks they gave us this fall that weren’t really jealous at all.

I almost didn’t go for my nightly run, but I decided to punish my inner fat girl for her smugness and I skipped her breakfast this morning too for good measure.

I wrote this for a contest at Nathan Bransford’s blog. I didn’t make the semi’s or the honorable mention. Nathan listed some of the things he looked for and also traits that disqualified. One of notes concerned story that seemed to have a date stamped on in an attempt to make narrative look like a diary entry. I would say my piece resembles that, but this is how I kept my journals as a teen and into my late twenties. I would write about events from my day as if I were telling a first person story, transcribing them verbatim including whole dialogues with commentary interspersed.

The contest called for 500 words max which doomed me too because I needed about double to flesh it properly. I wanted to do that before posting, but I have done a yoga cleanse this week. Yoga sessions daily and twice on Tuesday and Wednesday, so I am beat. I also had some issues at the paying gig to wade through that distracted a bit. I will be back later today to post the revision.

The Rosetta Stone

Drop-off was uneventful but for the unfortunate sighting by the alien culture’s ground crew required a swift dispatchment, regrettable, but incidental enough that a report would not need to be filed. Twee, however, took the necessary data and filed it internally anyway, just in case.

Accessing the aliens’ transportation terminal proved less difficult than the drop crew had led her to expect. The vaporization of her initial alien contacts made it necessary to find another to peel. The curious, and somewhat cumbersome, outer layers were a puzzling mix of organic and synthesized materials. Twee was certain her advisor had said the lifeforms were carbon based. The being she peeled before neutralizing had at least two more layers than she was expecting. Donning them over her own near translucent skin, Twee filed the new information before inspecting her new appearance. Normally her internal sensors would make the needed adjustments to features and skin tone to facilitate blending, but Twee noticed a wide range of features in the lifeforms she had encountered already, and she overrode her programming to consciously direct the process to suit her tastes and take advantage of the variety.

Twee enjoyed planet drops. She never shirked her rotation and subbed on as many as she was allowed per planetary system. Though this particular galaxy was known for its beauty, Twee was disappointed when only one of the planets revealed advanced life forms. Her colleagues preferred the collecting of particulars and small cellular organisms. Twee liked her specimens ambulatory and sentient.

Once inside the terminal, Twee wandered freely. No one gave her a glance or sought to interact with her. Instead they hurried by in either direction pulling interesting boxes of varying shapes and an array of strange hues. Some of the beings were smaller and others appeared aged, but mostly they were swift. Twee marveled at their speed, which seemed strange for creatures confined to such a small area. Why hurry from one end to another?

As fascinating as they were, Twee knew she needed to ascertain a way to communicate. Her time was limited and she needed to collect her required life forms. Standing very still, Twee listened and scanned the area very slowly. Aliens whizzed by her and one or two nearly knocked into her in their haste, but Twee ignored them, focusing her attention on the sounds around her. Normally, she had trouble picking up speech, but the terminal was cavernous and sound swirled around her like the watery wind on her home world, saturating her audio receptors.

There was such variation. Shrill pitches pricked to the point of discomfort. Gutteral tones rumbling like the engines of a ship. High summer sweet pitches that tickled her receptors. But among the noise, Twee could discern no single common language and that was problematic. Twee was programmed to localize and learn any language but she needed to be able to listen to a pure dialect. Variety was spicy but too many was a tasteless muddle. She wasn’t a machine despite her programming.

Thinking that perhaps she could get a lock if she stood off to the side of the hive like forms as they flitted back and forth, Twee removed herself from the common travel area and to her surprise found what she needed. An open kiosk manned by a short, dark life form was talking to the air in one dialect after another in perfect sequence. As nearly as Twee could ascertain, it was repeating the same information in each dialect. Twee stepped closer.

“Are you interested in learning another language?” the small dark alien said.

Twee blinked and flinched back. Aliens rarely made first contact unless her assimilation was incorrect in some way. Twee ran a quick diagnostic, preparing to make adjustments when the alien spoke again.

“We have programs for a surprising variety of the world’s most used languages,” she said as she handed Twee a box.

Uncertain, but feeling more confident, Twee took the box and scanned it. A smile spread unbidden but in response to the alien’s matching one. The box contained a set of polymer based disks loaded with language data.  Twee’s eyes widened and her smile with them.

“This is English? she asked the alien.

“Yes, but we have Spanish, French, Italian,” she took the box from Twee’s hands and replaced it with another. “We even have all the Chinese dialects. Would you like to see them?”

Twee placed the second box back on the kiosk shelf.

“Oui, merci.”

The sun dipped, torching the horizon a familiar red-orange haze. Colleen stood on the back porch and listened. She’d put on an old black sweater before stepping out even though the Indian summer continued without sign of abatement. It draped her as loosely as it had the wire hanger in the coat closet. She held out  an arm and observed a bony wrist  before stepping down into the yard and heading for the gate.

Up the alley and lightly across the road, Colleen was soon in the fallow field, overgrown in defiant contrast to the sheared barley fields that shouldered it. She slowed her gait and began a meandering zig-zag towards the pond. The sweater was too warm as the day’s heat wafted up, caressing her seductively, but she kept walking not stopping until she felt a sudden chill that warmed her heart even as it dried the sweat on her forehead and upper lip.

Taking a deep, steadying breath, Colleen squatted  and began clearing the ground cover with her bare hands. Clumps of dirt came up with each handful of grassy scrub which Colleen tossed with disinterest to either side. When she had cleared a patch roughly the size of a wall clock face, she worked to smooth the surface taking clumps and breaking them to powder with her fingers until a bare, but rough, surface stared up at her accusingly.

The air was colder now. She’d felt the temperature drop around her like a sheet of winter rain as she worked. Dropping out of the squat and coming to her knees, Colleen paused. She brought her hands together and rubbed them as if to warm them but they were colder than the air around her now. She shivered involuntarily, knowing that time was at a premium and not inclined to work to her advantage yet. Determined to have the last word, Colleen reached into the various pockets of the sweater draping her like a magician’s cloak and produced three plastic baggies which she tossed in a pattern to the ground just outside the circle she’d created, careful not to let them contact the edges.

She emptied the contents of the first baggie into her left hand and carefully spread it around the circle until the brown dirt shimmered and the sharp silica-like crystals drew blood. She applied the second baggie in a similar manner using her right hand with the same results and then clasped her bloody palms together, touching her forehead to her thumbs briefly before dumping the last bag’s contents in a pile dead center of the crackling circle. It ignited like a torch and Colleen braced herself as the flame licked at her face. Colder than the frigid air which knifed her lungs with each breath, the flames grew and expanded towards her as she stood, ready to be consumed or admitted.

She turned to face the road, realizing that the searing light was all around her or rather that she was the light because the flame emanated from her now. She lifted one arm and then the other. Delighting in the light that shimmered and dimmed depending on the bend of an elbow or the flick of a finger.

Careful not to step out of the circle, Colleen stilled her body and began to prepare for meditation. She had no idea how or when it would begin or how much time was needed for events to play out. She closed her eyes, wondering what she would see when the time came to open them again.

*I have wanted to write about the Plantagenet princes and their possible fate for a long time and was inspired to do so after finishing Phillipa Gregory’s White Queen this last week. I ran long – again – sorry.

Tradition dictated that Henry spend the night before his coronation in The Tower as greater kings of England had done before him and his heirs, God willing, would do after him, but danger and sorrow were as infused in the stone walls as joy and triumph and it was those emotions speaking to him as he lay on the four-poster staring sightless at the canopy above him. His mind’s eye reflected back at him like a painter’s canvas scenes well-known and merely well imagined court gossip. The dead whispered like supplicants, begging for his ear and judgement though Henry wondered how a king with bloody hands could rightly be called upon to administer justice.

Though far from empty as there were guards at every door, even the one that separated his privy chambers from the makeshift council room set up for him by his Uncle Jasper and stepfather, Lord Stanley to serve until the new king moved into Whitehall, Henry shivered with a creeping feeling of isolation. It occurred to him that this night was perhaps the only night in his life he’d spent alone without cousins, uncles, mother or retainers of any sort. Alone. 

“That’s what it is to be king,” Jasper had reminded him often in the last decade. “Your mother and I will always be nearby and ready to offer counsel, should you ask – and her even if you don’t – but to be aloof and unto himself alone is what it means to rule as King of England. No man, nor woman either, can share the burden that will fall on you.”

He sighed deeply and sat up. He hadn’t stripped down for bed. His Chamberlain yet to be decided, Henry recoiled from Stanley’s suggestion that he needed a master of the wardrobe to help him dress and undress.

“Seriously, Uncle?” he complained when it was just he and Jasper, the council dismissed for the evening and his mother reluctantly dragged off by her husband.

“You wanted to be, Harry,” Jasper smiled.

“I never wanted to be King,” Henry said. “It’s the price I pay for outliving every other claimant.”

Jasper laughed, rocking back his chair to prop his legs on the table between them.

“You preferred life on the French dole then?” he asked. “Forever a supplicant on bended knee, staring down your nose at shite caked boots?”

Henry silently surveyed his Uncle’s reclining form and toured the simple splendor of his Tower chambers with narrowed grey eyes before shaking his head, but he knew that being king was not something he would have consciously give a care to had another path been open to him.

“I miss Wales,” he said.

Jasper smiled. “It’s gone nowhere. Nor will it.”

Henry climbed from the bed and headed for the door before reconsidering and making for the small ante-chamber he’d discovered earlier. It was a small room sparsely furnished with just a desk, a chair and a tall wardrobe containing old vestments of all things. At first glance it appeared adjacent only with no way of escape save the door leading back to the bed chamber. But Henry had not spent a life on the run without learning a truth or two about rooms like these. There was always another way out though it was seldom apparent to the unhunted eye.

It had taken him less than an hour to discover the secret door cleverly concealed in the back of a wardrobe which was securely attached to a wall and led directly to a damp and dimly light staircase that spiraled up and down. Henry recalled that his own chambers were directly under an open terrace that connected towers on either side and so he turned sharply right and sprung cat-like downward into the dimness with less caution than a newly minted king should, he was sure his Uncle would have said though he was equally certain that Jasper would have followed him for the pure adventure of it as well.

Within minutes, it was clear to Henry that the stairway had passed the main floor and he was below ground. The walls dripped a dank dew and a musty smell mixed with the stench of the Thames, which lapped The Tower walls with a familiarity bred over generations. Even so Henry realized with a shock that the air was lightening as he spiraled away from the world above into the bowels of a place with more secrets than even he as king would ever be privileged to know. Only when his stockinged  feet fell flat and the narrow hall widened to reveal a door cracked open to the point that light spilled out and threatened him with exposure did Henry stop and consider the rashness of his actions.

“I am King,” he thought. “I chose this at the end, so why am I prowling about like some spoiled princeling pup?”

Before he could turn thought to action and retreat up the stairwell, a voice called out from the secret room.

“Who goes there? Uncle? Is that you? Are you returned at last?”

It was a boy. Without thinking, Henry replied.

“No, it is I, Henry Tudor.”

“Not King Henry?” the voice gently mocked. “Why such reticence? I was told the Tudors thought themselves grand. I am much surprised by your humility.”

Slowly Henry approached the door, stretching out a hand to swing it open wide before peering in.

“I am no threat to you, Henry Tudor, King of England. Step in and see for yourself.”

Years on the battlefield could not quite overcome the heart hammering fear as he stepped through the doorway. Though he was not a tall man, he needed to bow slightly and when he looked up again, he found himself face to face with a monster.

In spite of himself, he gasped and tottered back, catching the frame of the door as he felt one foot slide away. The creature did not move but smiled and turned away. Limping slightly, it walked the length of a deceptively large room and seated itself at table still set for supper.

“Forgive my appearance, Cousin,” it said, waving towards a vacant seat across from itself. “Join me, please. I wish to hear all the news for it has been sometime now that I have been alone.”

Henry willed his breath to slow and place a hand hard over his ribs to stem the wild beating.

“How long?” 

He approached haltingly and with a growing recognition that did nothing to silence the roar in his ears that grew with each step. It was not a monster, but a boy as he first suspected. A decade younger than himself though the lumpy decayed looking blemishes that covered the left side of his face and his exposed hand and forearm made age impossible to guess accurately. The long blond locks and sky blue eyes however left no doubt of identity.

“A fortnight  plus,” he replied. 

“You’re a leper,” Henry said as he seated himself, taking care to touch nothing and laying his hands on either knee. “That’s why Richard never produced you when the rumors of your death began their rounds.”

The boy nodded. His eyes gleamed, but Henry couldn’t tell if they were rheumy or tear-filled.

“And your brother?” Henry asked, hating himself for hoping that the noticeably absent sibling might be similarly afflicted if not dead already.

“I can’t help you with that,” he replied. “I haven’t seen my brother since returning to Ludlow last year. I suspect our Mother has him hidden somewhere in Burgundy. The boy she surrended to my Uncle’s priests was his whipping boy and he, poor thing, succumbed to a fever not long after. His innocent soul rests uneasily under yonder staircase.”

Henry cast a jaundiced eye towards the door and back again to the mottled youth in front of him.

“Forgive me Cousin when I say that you are the last trouble I needed to add to my list of things unsettled.”

The boy who would have been king smiled widely and with more warmth than Henry knew he would have been capable of had the table been inverted.

“I am too rotted to be much of a threat, don’t you think?” his voice was teasing and it reminded him of Elizabeth’s during their brief meeting a day earlier. There was much about the boy who recalled his future queen and seeing it reminded him that this potential threat to his precarious security was his almost brother as well.

“What will you do?” he asked. “Now that you know?”

Henry shook his head and shrugged.

“I don’t know.”

“Kings have to know, Henry,” he said. “It’s part and parcel. But this has been a shock … to us both for I truly expected my Uncle when I heard footfall on the stairs. I promise you I am no threat, but I understand what needs be done. My death is assured and falls not on thee.”

Henry stood abruptly and the boy flinched the slightest bit before relaxing and closing his eyes for a blow he seemed more than ready for, but Henry hurriedly crossed the room and stepped out into the small hallway like a man searching for fresher air. He stood there with eyes closed, searching the canvas of his mind once more for a lost lesson on such a circumstance, but Jasper had never touched on the possibility that the Prince of Wales was still alive. 

He did not turn when the shuffling sound of rag-wrapped feet stopped in the doorway behind him.

“I am a soldier,” Henry said without turning. “I do not murder innocent boys. Did I not fight your Uncle on suspicion of him having done that?”

“Among other reasons, I warrant,” the voice behind him did not bother to hide the sarcasm for vengeance was a loosely applied rationale among their extensive set of relations and they both knew it.

“I will visit again soon,” Henry said and disappeared up the stairs.

“And I will be waiting.”