“Tooth Fairy” by S.C. Jensen

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Gram slipped his tongue into the empty socket and winced. The pain tasted like the jolt of a D-cell battery. Maybe he shouldn’t have pulled so hard to get his last baby tooth out. But Mom had promised cold hard cash and the illustrated Strange Stories anthology had been calling his name for months. Yesterday, with blood pooling in his mouth, he had texted Jeremy: Kazam!Comics @ 9AM!!?! Mom was working but he’d ride his bike.

Gram flipped onto his stomach and ran his hand underneath his pillow. The sheet on the other side was cool and smooth. No tooth.

No cash either. “Mom!”

He dodged a pile of magazines and nearly tripped on a dusty box of knickknacks in his race to the kitchen. Mom sat at the breakfast table in her waitressing uniform, reading on her phone and drinking a liter of coffee. She didn’t look up. “You’re up early.”

Gram poured himself a glass of orange juice. “Money?” he prompted.

Mom she held up the palm of her hand by her ear like she was holding a tray of drinks. “Tooth?”

“I don’t have it!”

“No tooth, no twenty.” She sipped her coffee, still not looking at him.

He said, “I put it under my pillow.”

Mom’s shoulders stiffened. She gazed at him over the rim of her enormous coffee mug like he was telling a bad joke. “Under your pillow?”

“I always…”

“Look, I’ve got twenty bucks with your name on it if you kill some boxes in the basement while I’m at work.”

Blood and OJ swirled in Gram’s mouth like bile. “But I’m meeting Jeremy in an hour!”

Mom’s eyes shot to the clock blinking on the microwave. “I’m late.”

“I hate this house!”

“At least you didn’t have to grow up here.” Mom clenched her jaw and for a second Gram though she was going to yell. But her face softened and she said, “It’s only for the summer. Once we sort it out, we can sell the damned place and get something of our own.”

“Why’d grandma have so much junk anyway?”

Mom sighed. “Your grandmother was very ill. She hoarded stuff to fill a hole inside herself.”

She looked so sad then that Gram forgot all about his tooth.

“I’ll help when I get back.” Mom rifled through her purse for her car keys.

“Okay, Mom.”

She paused, lost in though. Then she crossed the kitchen quickly and kissed Gram on top of the head. She squeezed his shoulder and said, “The tooth fairy never visited me in this house either. I’m sorry.”

After she had peeled out of the driveway Gram texted Jeremey again: cancel that. there is no tooth fairy.

Gram crept down the basement stairs like he was slipping into someone else’s dirty bathwater. Unpleasantly tepid air slid against his skin and gummed up his clothes. This was no way to spend summer holidays. But Mom would be home after lunch and then he’d be biking to Jeremey’s with Strange Stories in his hot little hands. How bad could it be?

At the bottom of the stairs, though, any thoughts of material possessions fled, evaporating into the decades of accumulated stuff towering around him. The rest of the house was a cluttered mess. This was something else. He tongued at the empty socket again. How much stuff must Mom must have gotten rid of already while he stayed with Dad? Gram opened the first box, surprised to find that he actually wanted to help.

He worked methodically, opening boxes, sorting out the trash from things they might actually be able to sell. There wasn’t much of the latter. The deeper he got into the stacks the fewer salable items he found. Most of the junk was much older than his grandmother. Was hoarding hereditary? Gram imagined his mother burrowing into all this junk like a dragon with its gold. The image creeped up on him as he dug, rising unbidden, as if from the boxes themselves. He made endless trips up and down the stairs. Every box he set on the curb felt like a scab picked off an old wound.

Gram had never been close to his grandma. But the basement was thick with her presence. She lurked behind towers of mouldy newspapers and peered out of boxes stuffed with disintegrating yellowed lace, urging him ever deeper into the stacks. Cold sweat oozed out of every pore but he pressed on, Strange Stories completely forgotten. Every box he opened was one Mom didn’t have to deal with.

Like an archaeologist excavating an ancient burial mound, Gram dug in. At the centre, in the deepest reaches of the hoard, he found his prize. A wooden chest, ancient but curiously well cared for. The layers of dust that hung like a shroud over everything down here didn’t touch it. Grandma’s special place. The thought came out of his brain as if he were possessed. His mouth filled with the sour battery taste again and his jaw ached.

He opened the box.

A swarm of smiling faces stared up at him. Dolls, with strange misshapen buttons for eyes and crooked grins. Each had a little heart shaped necklace with a name printed in spidery letters: Anna, Beth, Susan—his aunts. Mary, Mom. Older dolls with names he didn’t recognize peered up at him. Gram reached into the box and took out a doll with short, dark hair like his own. This one wasn’t smiling. It wore a shocked expression, its tiny mouth a lumpy “O” of surprise. His own mouth fell open. The cold damp air made his socket ache.

Stuffed into the doll’s mouth was a molar. Fresh blood blossomed on the fabric like lips parting around the tooth. Smaller teeth made tiny, unblinking eyes. The buttons on its little jacket were made of teeth. And there was a little heart, just like the others.

Except it was his mother’s clean, sharp lettering that spelled the name.

Gram.

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This piece was written for the #BlogBattle Stories flash fiction challenge. February’s theme was “Loss” at 1000 words or less. This piece is 999 words. Check out the other submissions HERE! And, as always, let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

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Interview: Uniweb Productions with S.C. Jensen

Last week I was interviewed by Matt Whiteside of the UniWeb Interview Show about my novel The Timekeepers’ War, my publishing journey (so far), and my own creative process. It was a really fun time, if you can’t tell from all of the laughing. We had some technical difficulties and had to re-do sections of the interview a bunch of times, but Matt did a great job editing it into something cohesive.

Please click the link to view the video in YouTube. For some reason videos embedded into WordPress pages don’t count toward the channels views, and it would help Matt launch his UniWeb Productions channel to have more action over there. Don’t forget to like, share, and comment, especially if you have read The Timekeepers’ War and want to leave me some feedback!

Matt also has a ton of amazing content on his blog Seeking Purpose Today. I highly recommend following him and seeing what he’s up to: from motivational writing and discussion of addiction and recovery, to author interviews, dramatic readings of his own and other’s work, and an experimental “Choose Your Own Adventure” story that anyone can contribute to!

Of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts right here on Sarah Does Sci-Fi, too!

Writing, Hair-pulling, and Rewriting

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No, this is not a sexy new sub-genre of erotica.

I am working on my second novel, Book 2 in The Timekeepers’ War trilogy. The manuscript has been 80% completed for ages, but I keep running into snags. I had a development editor look at it, and she pointed out a few things that were definitely bogging me down, so I went back and restructured and rewrote half of it and I was feeling much better about it. And yet, there was still something missing. I couldn’t seem to avoid big chunks of exposition, forced dialogue, and backstory crammed in all over the place, and it was seriously affecting the pacing.

Well, folks. I started reading Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland, thinking it would help me tackle this problem in a new way. I have been a pantser, as in I write “by the seat of my pants,” for the entirety of my writing career. Every excuse for why plotting and planning wasn’t for me has probably passed my lips. But lets just have a look at the data…

I had to cut over 50K words from my MS and completely restructure it to address placing issues with Book One. Now, I’m going through something similar with Book Two. I have done a lot of work studying flash fiction and short story form and practicing the craft as well as the art of writing short form fiction, and my writing has improved exponentially with a little structure…

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of my hippy-dippy muses.

Reading Weiland’s book triggered a horrific realization for me. I have been writing the wrong book. What I have been trying to write as Book 2 in my trilogy is actually Book 3. I tried to skip too far ahead in my own story and was using exposition and backstory to catch up the readers when really, I needed to “show not tell” what has happened between Book One and my current manuscript.

So I have set that MS aside and outlined an entirely new Book Two, and one that makes a whole lot more sense at this point in the trilogy. If you are new to outlining and want to give it a try, I highly recommend Weiland’s book! It is accessible, and it addresses all of those niggling fears we pantsers have about the rigidity of plotting. I’m still not the kind of writer who has spreadsheets full of every detail of their character’s lives right down to their favourite flavour of ice-cream. But Weiland’s techniques allowed me to build and organic outlining method that still lets me tap into the joys of discovery writing while making sure that I have a road map to follow as I write my story. Her method even makes room for exploration of theme and imagery, something that I always add into my writing anyway, and demonstrates how to use the outline to strengthen these aspects of your story.

So, sadly, I have put aside nearly 70K words and another 20K of rewrites to tackle a brand new book. That is both exciting and sad. The bright side is that much of what I have written will still be usable because I still need to tell that part of the story. And all of the time I spent immersed in the world of The Timekeepers has certainly not been wasted.

I have set a stretch goal for myself to write 1500 words a day on this MS until I get the first draft done. Ideally, I would like to have it ready for revisions in three months.

The other thing I’m struggling with is the urge to go back and apply what I have learned about outlining and structure to Book One. I haven’t had any negative feedback about it yet, but I can see how much stronger The Timekeepers’ War could be if I had known some of these things five years ago. But that’s a project for after Book Three is completed, I guess. I might rewrite Book One and release all three within a nine month period. Dream big!

For those of you who have read and loved The Timekeepers’ War, don’t worry. I won’t add anything new to the plot so you won’t need to reread it (unless you’re curious or just want a refresher!) But I might cut some of the excess–there is still a lot of excess even after my initial fat trimming job–and make those sub-stories into short stories, novellas, and other bonus material for fans.

I’m deep into writing mode, but I will try to keep up with my short story challenges and submissions, too. And I’m going to set aside one day a week to catch up on the other wordpress blogs I follow and my “Thoughts on reading and writing SF”

 

“Queen of the Castle” by S.C. Jensen

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Construction equipment lurked along the gravel road, heavy metal appendages folded in on themselves, like an invading army of robotic insects. A man in a white hardhat wandered between them, yelling something into his cell phone. Most of the crew pickups had taken off, and the machines were silent. Missy drove her van past the foreman, up the two-track driveway, and through the property gate, where an old farm house patiently awaited its fate.

Periwinkle flax and alfalfa flourished at the edges of the property in a tranquil sea of blossoms, barely stirring in the heavy midsummer heat. The villa stood, queen-like, before the surrounding fields where colourful bee-boxes peeked through here and there like bashful ladies in waiting. A delicate lacework peeled away from her yellow gown and her shoulders slumped slightly, but she held her crown of terraces high. Tired, not defeated.

Missy parked her van next to another, identical vehicle, in a patch of flattened weeds and cracked earth that may once have been a garden.

“Rise and shine, boss.” She elbowed her passenger awake. “Looks like Ben is still here.”

Keith Weiland stretched and peered blearily through the window at the other Ace Pest Control van. “That bastard.”

They got out. Heat enveloped Missy’s air-conditioned flesh like liquid honey, leaving her instantly sticky. The scent of burnt oil and dead bugs wafted up from the grill and the engine ticked as it cooled. Wasps droned around the front of the van, drawn to the carnage.

“Suit up,” Keith said and flung open the van’s service door. Then he cursed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fuckers are stinging already.”

Missy rummaged through the gear and found her uniform. Keith twitched and swatted beside her, drawing the attention of the bugs. A red welt had erupted on the skin above his collar. He swore again. Boss, maybe, but Keith wasn’t made for fieldwork.

Missy donned the equipment unhurriedly, almost reverently. She felt as if she were a priestess preparing to perform an ancient sacrificial rite. A curious insect buzzed around her, landing briefly on her forearm. She kept still. It tickled, but didn’t sting, then flew off to deliver news of its discovery to the rest of the colony. Missy finished dressing.

A truck tore up the driveway and came to a gravel-grinding stop next to the vans. The foreman rolled down his window a crack and shouted, “It’s about goddamned time you got here!”

Keith zipped his mesh helmet closed and sauntered toward the pickup. “Has the van been here all weekend?”

“It was here on Friday,” the foreman said. “It’s still here today. So are the fucking bugs. No sign of your guy.”

“He’s not answering his phone,” Keith said. “Did anyone check inside the house?”

“Are you kidding?” The man’s eyes bugged out until he looked insect-like himself. “We can’t get anywhere near the place. We stirred up a whole shit-storm of the things when we started clearing.”

The regal structure seemed to stare down at them with wide, unblinking eyes. Something flickered in the upstairs window like a draft had stirred the curtains. “Why are you tearing it down?” Missy asked.

A wasp crawled up the driver’s side window and the foreman eyed it warily. He quickly rolled it up just as the wasp slipped an exploratory antennae over the edge. The insect struggled, trapped against the weather-stripping.

“Just get rid of them,” the foreman shouted through the glass. He sped off down the driveway and back toward town. Missy stared after him. Fury crawled up from her belly and into her throat. It struggled there, and died. Inside the suit her skin felt cool and clammy. She wanted to tear it off.

“After you,” Keith said. Wasps crawled all over his white safety-suit, burrowing at the seams and zippers. He swatted at them fruitlessly. “Are they always like this?”

Missy led the boss up the sunken steps and through the front door. She breathed in the dusty air of the old house. The tang of mouse piss and something else, sweet and a little bit gamey, wafted toward her. A trickle of cold sweat ran down her spine. The insects left her alone, but her skin rippled as if they were crawling on her, too. She placed a tentative foot on the staircase.

“Shouldn’t we check around down here, first?”

“The main nest will be upstairs, on the south side of the house,” she explained patiently. “Wasps love sunlight.”

“I mean shouldn’t we check for Ben?”

“Ben knows about wasps.” She climbed upwards, rising like the heat of the day into the dust speckled beams of light coming from the second floor windows. “He’ll have gone upstairs.”

Keith trailed after her, slapping at his arms and legs. The insects hummed around both of them, thicker now. To Missy, the noise was like the susurrus of tiny voices all speaking at once. They didn’t land on her, but they seemed to whisper, “This way.”

She followed.

The noise was much louder on the landing, as if the entire building was vibrating with winged creatures. It almost seemed to come from inside her head, buzzing her vision and making the walls shake. Missy’s eyes locked onto a door at the far end of the corridor. Wasps swarmed out from the cracks on all sides and a grey, papery film seemed to grow from the door jamb.

“Holy shit.” Keith exhaled in a staccato burst. “Is that normal?”

Keith hovered near her elbow as she reached for the doorknob, as if she could protect him from the millions of creatures that inhabited the house. The door moaned. Missy pushed it open and stepped inside, and Keith tumbled in after her.

“Oh god,” he said.

Ben’s white safety-suit lay, discarded, next to a mound of pale, hairless flesh. Tiny larvae wriggled contentedly at the raw edges where something big had burst out. The rest of it disappeared into the papery layers of a hive that filled the room. An itching need to take off her own suit pulsed through Missy’s body. She closed the door.

“Yes.” The wasps droned in her ears and she began to disrobe. “Yes. He said she would come.”

“Oh god,” Keith said.

Missy’s skin writhed and twitched as she peeled off layer after layer. She dug her fingernails into her convulsing chest, tearing, desperate to be free of the pupal shell she had been trapped in all summer. A sound like the ripping of wet fabric rent the air. Missy burst free of her prison and shook the thick red fluid from her newly formed wings. A beam of sunshine pierced through the cloud of insects. She stretched into it to dry off.

“Yes.” The colony trilled in excitement. “A new queen.”

Wasps swarmed out of the walls, floor and ceiling. Keith Weiland, proud owner of Ace Pest Control, fell to his knees and screamed.

“And a feast,” she hummed, looking up at the fractured, prismatic image of her erstwhile employer, “fit for a queen.”

And before long all that could be heard in the regal house among the flax and alfalfa, was the lazy buzzing of insects.

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This is what I’m working on for the February’s 12 Short Stories Challenge. The prompt was “New Me” at 1200 words. Let me know what you think! I have the rest of the month to make changes before I submit it to the forum.

Failing and Freezing

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We are in the middle of a midwinter deep freeze. Lows of -42 Celsius overnight. I can remember very few winters that have been this cold as relatively far south as we are. My husband, who works in the real north, suffers through a few weeks of the -40 stuff every year but this is unusual for us. He’s in his truck right now, and I’m trying not to think about what will happen if he has truck or trailer problems. It’s unforgiving out there.

School busses are cancelled and the kids have a fort built in the living room. We’ll be hiding inside today. I’m going to make bread and do some writing. I really can’t complain.

But the cold has got me thinking about freezing. Not the freezing of fingers and toes and the tips of your nose, but that full body/brain freeze that only really happens because of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure. You know the freeze I’m talking about. Would-be writers suffer from this all the time, myself included.

This thought started to solidify for me this winter when the kids started skating. We all bought skates, even though my husband and I haven’t been skating in 25 years. My husband didn’t do a lot of skating growing up and was never great at it (so he says). My dad has always played hockey, right up until he broke his ankle a few years ago (in his 60s!), and I learned to skate young. But when we got on the ice for the first time, I was the one who froze.

Ice is hard. And slippery. And I was exquisitely aware of how vulnerable I was in my now middle-aged body. It was terrifying. My husband, who is naturally athletic and, it seems to me sometimes, completely immune to fear of physical injury, took off. He was a little shaky at first, but pretty soon he was doing just as well as most people out there.

In the end, I did fall. I had a nice purple knee for a couple of weeks. But it took falling, and getting that fear out of the way, to allow me to move forward. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I knew, suddenly, that I would survive if it happened again. And when you’re skating, my husband reminded me, you fall just as hard when you’re standing still and when you’re going fast. So you might as well pick up the pace! Next time we went, I wasn’t doing half bad. I still have to work on my technique and my ankle strength, but I’m not afraid to move and (mostly) not afraid to fall anymore.

With the kids, it was different. They’ve never skated before. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were learning how to walk. This was totally foreign and scary and they didn’t know how to handle it. My son, who has inherited my (lack of) athletic prowess, has been convinced since he was tiny that he will be a hockey player. That enthusiasm skips a generation, apparently. He envisioned himself as a pro. So the rude shock of having to learn how to do this thing, just like everyone else, was incredibly frustrating.

The first hour that we were out, the kids basically just fell over. Got up. Fell over again. They were in tears; I was nearly in tears (my knee really hurt!). My son kept saying, “How can I learn anything if all I do is fall down!” And I told him that every time he fell down, his body was learning what not to do. If you step like this you fall. If you lean like that you fall. And eventually, once it had eliminated a bunch of “wrong” motions, it would start to figure out the “right” ones.

I mean, I was just making that up. I didn’t want him to be frustrated. I honestly had my doubts that any of us would figure out this skating thing this year.

But sure enough, by the end of the two hours that we were on the ice, all three of the kids were shuffling around and mostly staying upright. And when they fell down, they were really good at getting themselves back up again.

Even more interesting was the fact that my son who, like I said, has my natural cautiousness and lack of athleticism, was doing much better than his twin sister who, despite the fact that she has my husband’s fearlessness and agility, quickly loses interest in things that don’t come easily. She doesn’t get angry or frustrated, she just moves on to the next thing, like running around the bleachers with her cousins.

To see my son skating, you’d think he was having a terrible time. His eyebrows were furrowed and he frowned in concentration. There were a lot of breaks and tears of frustration. But when the skates were off and we were back in the truck he lit up, and couldn’t stop talking about it. He had focused on his goal and powered through the challenges just out of sheer determination to be a hockey player. And maybe that’s just what he’ll do!

But guys. This story is not about my kids.

It’s about me. It’s about us. It’s about learning to love the struggle of getting better at the thing we are passionate about. It’s about failing, and failing repeatedly, because it’s the only way that we learn. When have you ever learned anything by being good at it already? Never. You might coast for a while on natural ability–that’s what I was doing when I chose to study English Literature in school–but eventually, if you want to grow, you have to fall on your face. You have to make mistakes. You have to try new things, and mess them up, and try again.

I’ve never actually enjoyed writing. Writing, at least in the draft stages, is a lot like hard manual labour. It is the equivalent of getting a shovel and digging until you find clay. Digging until you have enough clay that you are ready to make something. It’s the re-writing and the editing that is the real art, I think. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you sculpt your lump of clay into what you want it to be. But you can’t edit a blank page. You can’t finesse the words you haven’t written yet. So sometimes you have to force yourself to sit down and write. You’ve got to dig.

You can’t let yourself worry about the what if. What if what I’m going to make will be no good? What if no one will like it? What if the thing I’m trying to say is derivative and pointless? That’s when you freeze. That’s when you get “writers block.”

Because none of that matters. If what you write is a bunch of rubbish, that’s fine. Then you go back and work it again. And the next time you try, it will come out a little closer to that piece of art you are envisioning in your head.

So I hope you aren’t freezing this winter. But I do hope that you fall on your face a couple of times and, more than anything, I hope you pick yourself up and try again.

Horrific Fun: “Sanctuary” and more…

 

I know I mentioned this back in October, but I have a story in Corrogatio IV: The Midnight Massacre from CrushPop Productions, which is a collection of horror, gore-core, and thrash type stories. It’s FREE to download here if you want to check it out! Seriously, go check it out. I’ll wait…

Now.

If you enjoyed my piece, “Sanctuary” you will be excited to hear that I will be doing a fiction series for CPOP that builds on this story. I’ve got the whole thing plotted out, and just got the go ahead to start writing. I finished my draft of Season Episode One today and plan to finish one episode a week until I have the first season completed. These are, of course, drafts. So I’ll need some time to fine tune it afterwards and I’m not sure when the release is going to be, but I expect sometime in the second half of the year.

I don’t want to give too much away until it’s all finalized, but I think I can safely say… post-apocalyptic vampire hunters are coming your way. And it’s going to be glorious.

“Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen: 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

Here it is! This is my draft for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Subject: Superhuman, Character: a cheesemaker. Word limit is 2500 words.

Here is their genre description for a Fairy Tale as per the contest guidelines:

A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths. Fairy tales usually exist in a time-suspended context, with minimal references to actual events, people, and places. They are often short and intended for children, although there are exceptions to that rule. Common elements: conflict between good and evil, talking animals, royalty, archetypes, use of traditional beginnings and endings, i.e., “Once upon a time…” and “…happily ever after.” Fairy Tale books include Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. Fairy tale films include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Princess Bride (1987).

I’d love your feedback on the story, how well it works with my assignment elements, and any other considerations. I still have three days to submit it, so I have time to apply any changes I need to! Without further ado, here it is:

Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen
2496 words

Once upon a stormy night a witch stirred up a foul smelling concoction in a cauldron as black as mould. Thunder rattled the tiny windows of her cottage in the woods and the wind outside howled. Inside the kitchen a fire crackled and, to anyone left out in the gale, its blaze would have appeared like the glowing red eyes of the devil herself flashing in the pitch. There was no one outside, though. The witch had even brought in her cow, Etheldred, who stood next to the wash basin contentedly chewing her cud and watching the fuss.

“That’s three turns widdershins,” Etheldred said, for she was a magical cow and never could keep her opinions to herself. “With the wooden spoon, not the iron. Do you want to spoil the whole batch?”

“I know that,” the witch snapped and quickly dropped the iron poker she’d been about to thrust into the brew. “What do you care if I spoil it, anyway?”

“Whose teats did you squeeze with your clammy hands to fill that crock, you half-witted hag?”

“Half-wit, am I?” Flames licked up around the fat belly of the pot as the witch muttered over her potion. “Managed to get the best of you, didn’t I?”

A gobbet of twice digested grass hung from Ethelred’s mouth. “I happen to like being a cow,” she lied.

“It certainly suits you. Saggy teats and all.”

“They were good enough for your husband, Frances Stein.” The cow licked her lips lasciviously and let a steaming pile of dung fall to the kitchen floor.

“Well, there’s no accounting for tastes.” Witch Stein poured a vial of alarmingly yellow liquid into the cauldron. “Anyway, you can have him once this spell is finished. I’m making myself a new husband.”

“That,” the cow said, “was Bile of Basilisk.”

“That’s what you said to use!” The witch gave a horrified look at the evil-looking liquid. “Who’s the cheese expert here?”

If a cow could grin, then Etheldred was grinning. “Banshee would have been better.”

“You baggy bovine!” the witch glowered. “You’re trying to sabotage me.”

“You did turn me into a cow.”

“If this doesn’t work,” the witch said, waving the wooden spoon at her companion, “you’re going to stay that way for the rest of your udder-lugging life.”

“Relax,” Etheldred said. “It’s curdling isn’t it?”

“Milk thistle to thicken,” the witch held up another vial. Then her eyes flashed with menace. “Unless you have another suggestion? I hear cows’ stomachs produce excellent rennet.”

“Rennet is terribly old-fashioned,” the cow blinked lazily, not in the least worried by the witch’s threats. “Besides, I’m using all of my stomachs.”

Witch Stein poured the milk thistle into the pot and watched the mixture coagulate. After a time, she prodded the jellied mass with her spoon and said, “Looks about right.”

“Get on with it, then,” the cow chided. “This weather isn’t going to last all night.”

“You mind your own magic,” the witch said.  With leather mitted hands she heaved the stinking cauldron over to the kitchen table and dumped its contents without ceremony. “This bit is mine.”

Slowly, surely, the witch began to mould and sculpt the mass of fresh cheese. After a time, the shape on the table took a new form. The cheese became a large, slightly misshapen man. Once she was satisfied, Witch Stein hauled out a coil of fine, hair-like metal fibers and used them to pierce the body in a few vital locations: the head, the heart, the belly, and the groin.

“What are you stabbing it for?” the cow brayed. “This isn’t one of those black magic dolls, is it? You said I could have Ralphie and I want him in one piece!”

It was Witch Stein’s turn to say, “Relax.”

She uncoiled the wires and attached them to a strange looking harness over the fireplace. More wires climbed from the harness, up the chimney, and onto the roof. The witch rubbed her hands together and looked out the window at the roiling storm. “Now, we wait.”

No sooner had she said that, then the air of the room fizzed and crackled and a smell like old coins replaced the stink of the cheese. Forks of hot white light shot from the wires on the chimney and sparked around the body of the cheese man. Etheldred mooed in alarm as a finger of lightening got too close for comfort.

“My tail is on fire,” she bellowed.

But the witch wasn’t paying the cow any attention. The creature on the table was moving its great lumpy limbs. She clapped her hands ecstatically. “It worked!”

The cheese man sat up and shook its fat, misshapen head.

“It’s alive!” Witch Stein shrieked and she did a little jig. “You thought I couldn’t do it, admit it!”

“Well,” said the cow as she gingerly dipped her tail in her water bucket. “He’s not much to look at, is he?”

“Neither is Ralphie,” the witch snapped. “I don’t need him to be handsome, I just need him to be big and strong and to follow my every command.”

“He’s certainly big,” the cow said. The cheese man’s head seemed to be growing closer to the thatched roof. “And with that recipe, he’ll be stronger than any human man. So that’s my end of the bargain. Now change me back!”

But the witch was too busy admiring her handiwork to worry about Etheldred. The cheese man tore the mess of metal wires away and stood almost to his full height. His neck bent awkwardly and his shoulders pressed against the ceiling. He looked at the witch with eyes of dry curd, and he spoke.

“Mama?” The cheese man’s voice belched out in a cloud of air that reeked like rancid feet.

Etheldred cackled as well as she could with her cow’s mouth and dropped another pile of dung.

“I’m not your mother, you oaf.” The witch poked him in the belly with her wooden spoon. “I’m your wife, Frances. Now quit lazing about, we’ve got work to do!”

“Hungry!” the cheese man grunted. And with that, he reached out his huge, lumpy hand, grabbed Etheldred the cow, and gobbled her all up.

The witch said, “Huh.”

The cheese man suddenly doubled in size, stood up to his full height, and crashed through the wall of Frances Stein’s kitchen. He lumbered into the night wearing the thatched roof like a hat, eating rocks and trees and whatever wild animals he scared up along the way.

“That’s a shame,” said the witch. She hitched her sleeves up to her elbows, grabbed her broom, and followed after her cheese husband.

The storm had abated and dawn was breaking by the time Witch Stein caught up with the cheese man. He moved quickly on legs that were growing longer every second, but he left a path of ruin that was easy enough to follow. The witch found him sitting on his huge, bumpy bottom in the middle of town, plucking the roofs of houses and snacking on the terrified villagers inside.

“Stop that this instant!” The witch flew her broom up to the cheese man’s head and buzzed around him like an angry bee. “We don’t have time for this nonsense.”

The cheese man swatted at her clumsily. “Hungry,” he moaned.

“I’ll get you some food,” the witch promised, an idea brewing in her brain. “But first, you have to give me back that cow.” 

The cheese man blinked his curd eyes at her.

“The one you ate in my kitchen,” she prompted.

The cheese man opened his cavernous mouth, reached a hand down his throat, and pulled out Etheldred. He plunked her on the ground, sodden and stinking. Then he heaved himself to his feet, now the size of schooners, and lumbered in the direction of the next town eating everything in his path.

“Disgusting,” the cow said.

“Quit your whining,” the witch said. “I need one of your food spells.”

“What I need is a washing-up spell,” Etheldred replied, dripping with whey and misery. “I’ll never get this smell out.”

“Can you do a never-ending bread loaf?”

“Bread loafs, salt pots, cheese wheels, you name it.” Even in her soggy state, the cow wasn’t above a little bragging. “If you can eat it, I can make it last forever.”

“I’m going to change you back,” the witch said begrudgingly. “But I need your help.”

“I suppose I’m in no position to bargain,” the cow said.

Witch Stein snapped her fingers and lifted the curse. Etheldred, still dripping but looking slightly more human, stretched her back and thrust out her buxom bosom. “That’s better,” she said. “Now what’s on the menu?”

The two witches went to work scouring the town for oats, molasses, and flour. Etheldred was as good as her word, and in a few hours they had an enchanted loaf of bread the size of a cart horse.

“Big and dense,” the kitchen witch declared. “Just like your cheese husband.”

“And Ralphie, too, while we’re on the subject.” Witch Stein rapped Etheldred on the head with her broom. “Now shut your gob and help me carry this thing.”

The witches wrapped the loaf up with thick ropes, strung it between two broomsticks, and flew—a little wobbly and with a lilt to the left—after the cheese man. They followed the path of broken trees, flattened cottages, and absent livestock all the way to a river. The cheese man, who was now the size of a large hillock, knelt on the ground beside the water guzzling for all he was worth.

“What are you doing now, you great galumph,” Witch Stein bellowed at her cheese husband. “I brought you food that will never run out. Now it’s time for you to get to work!”

The cheese man peered at her with his curd eyes and blinked. He snatched the loaf of bread from between the witches’ brooms, nearly spilling them both into the river, and took a colossal bite. Before he finished chewing, the loaf sprang back to its original size with a pop. The cheese man took another bite, watched the loaf grow back again, and grinned a cheesy grin.

Then he tossed the loaf aside and guzzled at the river again. Witch Stein and Etheldred looked at one another and shrugged.

Soon, the raging river became a babbling brook, the brook became a trickle, and then the trickle dried up completely. He’d guzzled up all of the water for miles and miles. The cheese man sat up and coughed out a cloud of dust.

“Thirsty,” he said and made like he was going to lumber off again in search of more water.

“Don’t you dare!” Witch Stein flew up and buzzed in his ear like a gnat. “You stay right where you are. Etheldred, can you do that trick with water, too?”

“Water, milk, ale,” Etheldred puffed out her chest. “If you can drink it, I can—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Witch Stein landed her broom and hitched up her skirts. “What do we need?”

“Why should I help you again?” Etheldred put her hands on her hips and blew a strand of whey soaked hair off of her large, crooked nose. “I kept my side of the bargain. The deal is done.”

“If you don’t, I’ll find Ralphie and turn him into the toad he is!”

Etheldred landed beside Witch Stein and muttered, “I’m starting to think that Ralphie is more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Well, at least you didn’t have to marry him to figure that out,” snapped Frances. “Are you going to help me, or not?”

“We’re going to need a big pot,” Etheldred said. “A really big pot. And after this, you’re going to owe me one.”

“You heard the woman!” Witch Stein clapped her hands at the cheese man. “Go fetch us the biggest pot you can find. And be quick about it!”

The cheese giant picked up his loaf of bread and lumbered off into the distance, munching away, and leaving slightly less devastation in his wake. It took three whole weeks for him to return, by which time Etheldred and Frances had put aside their differences and more or less become friends.

“Now that’s a cauldron!” Etheldred said when the cheese man trundled up to them with a vessel the size of a house. “Where did you find that?”

“Giants,” said the cheese man, and that was all they got out of him on the matter. But Witch Stein heard, a few years later, about a stone giant named Hymir who had developed a sudden, and rather ferocious, aversion to dairy products.

“What’ll it be,” Etheldred asked, pulling herself up onto the lip of the cauldron. “Water, milk, tea?”

Witch Stein looked up at her mountain of a husband and shook her head. “Better make it wine,” she said.

“You’re my kind of woman, Frankie!” Etheldred cackled and she waved her hands over the pot, reciting a complicated incantation that involved a little too much hip wiggling and bosom shimmying for Frances’s taste.

Soon the cauldron was brimming with a fragrant, dark red vintage.

“My best merlot,” Etheldred winked. “It pairs very well with cheese.”

The cheese giant picked up the cauldron and drank. He drank and he drank but, just as the kitchen witch promised, the cauldron never emptied. Then, with a belch that shook the birds out of the sky, he smiled. “Good.”

“Finally!” Witch Stein threw her hands up in the air. She pulled a roll of parchment out of her bosom and thrust it at her cheese husband. “Gather these materials, Cheese-Head. We have to build a bigger house before we do anything else.”

“Wow!” Etheldred exclaimed as the cheese man lurched away on his first mission, carrying the over-sized wine flask and bread loaf with him. “He can read?”

“Grab your broom, woman.” Frankie Stein launched herself into the air. “We’re going to find a nice secluded spot in the mountains. I need space for my laboratory and the hard-to-find magical elements Goudard is going to collect for me. I have hypotheses to test!”

“Goudard?”

“Well I have to call him something besides Cheese-Head.”

“Wait just a minute,” Etheldred said. “You still owe me a favour.”

Frankie rolled her eyes heavenward. “I promise not to turn Ralph into a toad.”

“Forget Ralph.” Etheldred hopped on her broomstick. The witches zipped over barren fields and flattened forests toward the mountains. A bovine bellow could be heard for miles around, “I want a cheese husband!”

And they would all have lived happily ever after except that Goudard, it turns out, didn’t like being berated and bossed any more than Ralphie had. So he joined the circus, and Frankie Stein had to do her own ingredient collecting. That didn’t stop her from trying to create new husbands, though. Once, she even dug up a cemetery for parts… But that’s another story for another time.