A man floats in the deeps of Malta, returning to a place he has spent most of his life avoiding. The power of the ancient sea has long overshadowed his life and tonight marks a new turning point in its history. -SY
Thirty miles off the shore of Malta, his wife of forty years wept like an orphan. It was their first vacation in far too long and taken at her insistence. A return to the old country. Needless to say, it hadn’t gone well. Call it a clash of cultures, a patriotic scrimmage. These kinds of wars were fought on quiet fronts.
Back in the navy, he’d been little more than a handyman for the Marinai housing outside of Sigonella, a lowly liaison to the local contractors. Still, he’d been proud of his uniform, and she had too. It’s what caught her eye when he’d first sat at her table. Tonight, when he asked her to dance, she shyly agreed. This was a game they played, pretending the old days were new. When every kiss was the first, there would never be a last.
A dozen men in long beards and tourist prints took offense to his attire. When they tipped him overboard, they made sure he fell facing the night sky. They wanted pop-eyed fear, cries of desperation. He turned his face to the sea. He couldn’t bear to see her framed by such filth.
The waters slapped hard against him, wrapped tight, and pulled him down. He floated in darkness and thought only of her. Already the ship was distant, the slow roll of its wake finding the Mediterranean’s rhythm. They would reach the Syrian coast in two days. Maybe someone would stop them, but it wouldn’t be him. He would exhale. He would inhale. After a quick struggle, he would rest.
The Mary Jane sails away from the storm that almost took her, and it looks like plain sailing hereon out to Joseph. However, the sea is a fickle mistress, hiding all manner of plans behind her deceptively gentle waves. SY
The gale passes with the dawn. The Mary Jane barely lifts on the swell, her mainsail fortified with the bonnet and drabbler to better catch the breeze, her square-sail full on the mast. The North Sea lies as green and calm as an English meadow. Joseph puts on his cap but the cold still bites at his ears. The wintry air, like a ghost, moves through anything it pleases, stinging his fingers and toes, slicing without resistance into his belly, his marrow. It’s a familiar discomfort.
Joseph leans on the gunwale to better enjoy this rare moment of rest.
The sky shines pale and clear, a sign of good fishing. Once thrown, the nets will be full of cod and herring within a few hours. Joseph longs for something to eat other than fish. Mostly, he craves bacon and potato pie. His wife, Amelia, is a good cook. He sighs. The Mary Jane has been at sea for weeks. It’s best not to think about one’s wife and the various pleasures that she can offer.
Mortimer loves horror, but he’s never been any good with work of his own. He lucks out with an interview with a hero of the genre, who sets him on the path of his dreams, if only he knows what he will need to give up to achieve it. SY
Ever since I was a kid I’ve been addicted to horror stories. I was desolate that I missed the end of Weird Tales. Hell, I was even bitter about being born too late for Terror Tales and Shock Mystery Tales, which were not exactly horror’s gold standard.
I worshipped H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith (and of course Bram Stoker), and would take bus rides more than one hundred miles from home just to attend an autographing by Stephen King or Peter Straub. Even if they were known for other work, I collected—and read, and re-read—the few horror stories by Ray Bradbury and Fritz Leiber and Joe Lansdale.
I even tried my hand at it when I got out of college, but while I could push nouns up against verbs with some minimal grace, I simply couldn’t come up with notions that were original, or saleable, or preferably both. I began to think that every good horror story had already been told. Then I’d pick up a new novel or anthology and suddenly realize that no, they hadn’t all been told. They just weren’t going to be told by me.
Spring had stretched the daylight hours and dried the damp-weather rot in my hands by the time the old woman, Emmeline, began visiting the orange grove. By then, I knew enough to see she wasn’t well. I had been placed in the grove to scare away the mynahs pecking incessantly at the fruit. At first, I couldn’t remember being made, or recall the hands that sewed my body and my clothes. Who was it that stuffed me full so I plumped out like a real man?
I was much more than an ordinary scarecrow, though, beyond all the rags and lopsided limbs. It wasn’t straw or old newspaper inside me. The tokens that shape me are the memories of others. Dried lavender, tickets stubs from concerts and train journeys, remnants of wedding veils, locks of hair from mourning rings. Even a tiny bird’s nest brought home by a child for his ailing mother sitting in the centre of my chest. Carefully stowed cogs from music boxes and wind-up toys served as my ballast.
I’m the only memory-keeper there is.
It’s the old letters—some only fragments, some pages and pages long—that made me who I am, words flowing through me akin to blood. I was their guardian and the tales coursing through me were my teachers. At the close of each day, I was more than I had been the day before.
For a Westerner, the culture of China can be hard to fully appreciate. To become immersed in it, you must do more than just watch. Ron Riekki brings us a dash of fantasy from the misunderstandings of a Westerner in urban Shanghai. SY
I sat watching the girls walk by. This was my second week in Shanghai, my first time in Asia. The girls looked like they were heading to funerals. Their expressions, their clothing, their entire demeanor screamed death to me. In Montréal, where I had come from, there was an equal affinity for black, but the vibe was catwalk. Montréal was runway; Shanghai felt like runaway.
Maybe it was simply because I didn’t understand the culture. I was thoroughly Canadian. I grew up in Sudbury, which got me used to air pollution, the way that the sky can look like artistic renditions of lung cancer, beautiful gray carcinoma mornings.
The boss told me to get out of the office. He said my hyperactivity would scare the clients. That I didn’t know how to shut up. The Chinese like silence. First person to talk loses. He told me to roam the streets.
A Chinese coworker warned me of “the three hands.”
“The three hands? What’s that?”
It’s been different since the angels came to town. That dirty little secret can now follow you around, and while others won’t know what it represents, it won’t be long before they find out. Michelle Jager is back with a dark fantasy that gives wings to your sins. SY
I’m lying on the couch semiconscious and barely aware of the flickering light from the TV. Some perky presenter announces something about a supposed celebrity and her new line of handbags. Half opening my eyes, I see that the remote control is just out of reach—perhaps if I roll just a little I can grab it. But if I roll, I will be fully awake, fully aware. There’ll be no drifting back to sleep. I’ll be forced into reality. And I can hear reality in the next room. Hear it trying to compete with Miss Perky on TV.
It can’t compete.
There is something about Perky’s pitch which is beyond its reach. Babies or cats might stand a chance. Things with vocal chords. But not it.
This should be a good thing, but Miss Perky’s B-B-B-Berocca voice is positively skipping, twirling and high-fiving itself across my brain it’s so faaarking elated. Her Colgate, too-white-to-be-real smile is penetrating my eyelids and slamming into my hangover. Which, mind you, is a fixed state at present, but one I thought couldn’t get any worse.
Rosaline, daughter of the indomitable Bluebeard, finds herself thrust into a quest certainly designed with her death in mind. But she’s no fool, she’s taking her own heading, right into the woods. And we all know what they say about those…SY
‘Here,’ she says, ‘have an apple.’
Yeah, right. As if I know nothing about stepmothers. As if I know nothing about apples. But I’m polite and I’m not stupid, so I put the green orb in my bag, and thank her.
‘Now, don’t forget: you’ll need to be careful and cunning. You’ll need your wits about you. It’s hidden deep, the treasure, and there will be all kinds of obstacles.’ Hands on hips, Orienne surveys me critically. ‘It’s a long journey, but you’ve got the most fat on you of all of us. You’ll be fine; the exercise will do you good. Don’t forget that apple, Rosaline; no cakes or pastries.’
As if I’m likely to forget that bloody apple; I know what she’s done to it. Trust her to manage a dig at my weight—I come from a long line of women who eat their grief, but my father’s fifth wife is of thin stock. Busy, busy, busy all the time, bustling and fidgeting, organising and ordering, burning away everything she eats, hating anyone to be idle; she’s got the energy of a hummingbird and a heart that softens for her own child alone. Gods forbid anyone should spend an afternoon sitting on their arse, reading a good book.
(Inspired in part by “The Maiden with the Rose on her Forehead” by Consiglieri Pedroso)
In a locked bedroom, Marcella clutched her parents’ bones between shivering fingers, wishing for the day they would return to save her.
The orphan wept into her tangled raven locks, soaking the filthy bedding and nourishing the countless insects that called her bed home. She wanted to be dead, resting deep and cold beneath the earth alongside her mother and father. But her aunts weren’t ready to let her die just yet.
Hearing the key turn in the lock, Marcella sat up in fear. She secreted her parents’ bones beneath a pillow and put on the bravest face she could as her aunts bled into the room. Both were swathed in muck-soaked gowns of tattered lace. Vorrada wore a pointed cone the tint of a winter storm atop her haggard head, while her twin Eseina’s swollen visage was framed by a crooked Elizabethan collar. The pair drifted like smoke across the floor, their sunken eyes and indigo lips wide and wanton. Vorrada held a silver platter in her gnarled hand.
“Here child!” she said. “Here.”
The ground scraped his nose as he bowed low before his majesties. As he straightened he pulled the rough cloth off the prize with a flourish.
They gasped. The sound shivered and bounced off the grey slate walls.
“What is this, sisters?” The multilayered voice buzzed with harmonics as each mouth spoke in unison.
The man waited. Their husbands—mute fools that they were, white and black and brown with jutting erections—clapped and capered. He averted his eyes from their folly. Instead he observed the offering.
When he’d found it upon the slopes of the windiest mountain, it let itself be taken. The long neck bowed, it kept its wings folded by its sides. It could have flown away.
“Oh sisters, I know! Mercy is white, mercy is wise!”
The baby monitor was silent. It wasn’t the soft ambience of a sleeping infant but rather a cold, plastic void. Wishing they’d paid extra for the model with an inbuilt camera, Hespa rolled out of bed. She didn’t bother to wake Martin; a dead battery in the transmitter was the likely culprit and there was no use both of them losing sleep over it.
Halfway down the hall, she paused, breath catching in her throat. As usual, the door to Lisel’s room stood generously ajar but from beyond it there came a faint glow, almost a shimmer in the air, like the play of summer heat on a long bitumen road.
She all but ran the rest of the way.
Bending over the crib was a thin, pale figure who straightened swiftly as Hespa lurched into the room. The slippery, shimmery light seemed to emanate from that strange frosted skin, or perhaps it was the spider-silk hair that glowed, or the robes that fell in spangled waves from shoulders narrow and sharp.
“Get away from her!” Hespa gasped, hastening over to where Lisel lay sleeping with little hands curled loose into fists.