Flash Fiction Friday: “Castles on the Strand” by S.C. Jensen

I’ve been sharing my submissions for the 12 Short Stories challenge here, and this is what I came up with for the May challenge. Our prompt was “Distinctive Markings” with a 1200 (exactly) word count. I’m a little over this month, at 1220, but I still think it’s a pretty solid piece. I’m posting the revised version after already receiving some feedback from the 12 Short Stories crew. But please feel free to add you thoughts and opinions. What do you think? How can I make this better?

“Castles on the Strand”
by S.C. Jensen
1220 words
Genre:

The wind howled up the beach like a toddler throwing a tantrum. It flung salt and sand at Peter, even a piece of driftwood, but he paid the weather no mind. Peter’s feet stepped nimbly over the wet rocks on the path down to the water; they knew the way. He wondered, vaguely, what would happen if he decided to stop coming to the strand.

But that was foolish.

This was the only thing Peter had left, the only thing tying him to his old life—or any life at all. If he fought the pull of the ocean, Peter would drown, gasping dry air like a fish out of water. Even in his dreams he ended up here, the waves crashing around him but never quite touching him as he built castles in the sand.

Peter’s face stung as he stepped out of the trees and into the full force of the autumn wind. Icy air soothed his raw cheeks even as the salt and sand scraped at him. The push and pull of the place never stopped. The ocean wanted Peter, but the beach despised him.  Day after day, week after week, Peter put all of his sorrow and anger into the sand, building it up and wishing for the ocean to take it away.

Instead, it grew.

“What are you waiting for?” Peter wanted to scream when he saw his castle, massive now, stretched along the beach like a sleeping beast. But the words tangled up in his throat like seaweed and the only sound he made was a strangled cry. Great spires jutted from the thing’s back, spiny scales that distorted the smooth, tranquil nature of the strand into the spiny, raging creature in Peter’s heart.

His grief was corrupting the place. This, Margaret’s favourite place in the entire world, the only place that Peter could still feel her presence; he was destroying it.

Maggie had dragged him here for their first date. They drank cheap wine out of plastic glasses and built a castle in the sand—their first—knowing they would build a life together, too. He proposed to her here, wrapping a thin piece of seaweed around her finger while she laughed and laughed. When she finally said yes he gave her the real ring, mother-of-pearl and diamond wrapped together infinitely. It was here that she told him that she was carrying his child—they build a castle that day, too, embellished with seashells.

The ocean came and flattened that one.

“What are you waiting for?” Peter whispered to the waves. Unlike each fragile hope he’d created with Margaret, life’s flotsam dashed apart on the rocks, this miscreation on the beach was the only thing born of his love which stubbornly withstood the cruelty of nature. Even his footprints from the day before had been erased; only the castle remained.

The castle and the curious markings around it.

He’d noticed them before, fat snake-like slitherings punctuated by gouges made by some clawed thing. The marks circled Peter’s castle as if made by some monstrous sentry, guarding his grief and rage against the sea.

The first time he saw the markings was the day after the funeral. He’d left the service early to come down to Margaret’s strand. It seemed like a better place to say goodbye. If she’d asked, he would have gone with her. But that was Margaret, always taking the blame for things no one could control. As much as he wished she’d chosen to stay with him, he still wanted to say goodbye. He built a castle for her to live in and waited for the ocean to take it to her.

But the next day, it was still there. The castle seemed taller and stronger when Peter returned to the beach. Only the slithers and gouges in the sand marked anything unusual happening on the strand. So Peter added to the castle, stretching farther into the high-tide line.

Each day Peter returned, and his sculpture was still there. He poured his sorrow into the castle, building wings for each of his unborn daughters—he always imagined his children to be daughters—spiralling out of the centre of Maggie’s castle. And each day, the mysterious sentry protected his creation from the waves.

They were waiting for something.

But who? Margaret? The babies they had lost? Maybe it was him. Maybe Maggie was waiting for him just beyond the waves. All he needed to do was walk into the cold, salty blue and say goodbye to everything else.

But why, then, had she left him in the first place?

So the sand castle grew. Peter poured his grief into the sand. The beach grew angry with him, provoked by his constant assaults upon her tranquility. But there was something Peter needed to do, something he needed to finish before they—Peter and the strand—could go back to the what they were.

Today, the markings were different. Peter patrolled his creation, marvelling at the way his presence had been erased by the monstrous sentry. The tracks circled the castle but, this time, dragged themselves toward the rocks at the north end of the beach.

As Peter approached the castle a glint of something soft and white caught his eye. Within the fortress he had built, a fat ocean pearl stared out from Maggie’s balcony, embedded in the sand. Peter walked around the spired, spiny structure, and found other pearls—one in each wing that he’d built for his unborn daughters. Shells embellished arches and reinforced bridges. The effect softened the monster Peter had built, and the hurt and anger he had felt at losing Maggie and the girls.

Peter’s eyes followed the serpentine path toward the rocks. “Hello?”

A thick, lumbering body lunged at him. The thing’s hair, the black-green of wet weeds, trailed behind it as is hauled its bulk over the rocks and rushed at Peter. The top of its body had skin like a fishbelly or the thick whitish flesh of a drowned man. Pendulous breasts hung off the creature—a woman, then—rocking to and fro as the thing dragged itself toward Peter.

But her face. He recognized that face.

Maggie stared up at him with sea-green eyes and spongey flesh. Dark hair coiled around her face like dead eels. And Peter yearned for her, still. Monstrous, but his.

The thing beckoned. Peter could let Maggie go. He could take the creature’s hand and disappear into the ocean. In this other life, they would have their daughters. One, at least. Her name would be Pearl. The creature smiled; teeth like knives flashed, shell-white. Hunger glinted in her eyes.

Peter screamed. This wasn’t Maggie. It was the thing that ate their unborn children, consumed his wife; this thing destroyed everything he loved.

He unleashed his fear and fury on the castle, stomped on the rooms he’d built for nameless daughters, for his dead wife. He crushed the seashells and pearls beneath his heel and he screamed. “What are you waiting for?”

At last the waves crashed in against the strand. The creature and the remains of the castle dissolved in a volley of froth and grit. The beach, restored to its former tranquility, wrapped its smooth expanses around Peter while he wept, on his knees, in the sand.

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Flash Fiction Friday: “The Ferryman” by S.C. Jensen

Okay, this isn’t really flash fiction, but this is a story I wrote for a submission call earlier this year and I didn’t make the cut. So, hit me with your feedback! The good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t worry, I can handle it!

“The Ferryman”
S.C. Jensen
2968 words
Genre: Paranormal

Waves chopped up the surface of Wailing Lake like teeth. A gibbous moon, ruddy from the harvest, hung low over the water. It cast a shadow there, a gaping black maw. Alma imagined the waves spilling from its centre, tiny and hungry, swelling as they rushed at the shore where they fell upon the rocks in a frenzy. The lake gnashed at her; spittle sprayed her face. But Alma stood just out of reach.

“Maybe next time, old girl.” Alma sucked a lungful of crisp autumn air through her cigarette and flicked the butt into the water. “Break time is over.”

Alma scrambled back up the narrow path through the pines to the parking lot. She opened her car door and the CB radio crackled.

She had known it would.

Alma floated through life on an invisible string that seemed to tug her where she needed to be. Lately, the line had sunk itself deep in the middle of Wailing Lake. She woke, like a somnambulist, upon its shore, toes flirting with the waves; she never remembered how she got there. Her mother—a great lover of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo—had called her a Wayfinder. Alma felt more like a Stumbler, yanked from place to place with no idea where she was going or why she was going there.

She never missed a call from dispatch, though.

The radio crackled again and she grabbed the handset. “Got a fare for me, Ralphie?”

“Alma, Queen of the Night, I knew you’d come through for me.” Ralph’s voice broke over the patchy connection. “Taking a smoke break by the lake?”

“You’re a magician.” Alma pulled out of the rest area and onto the gravel service road that would take her back to the highway. “How’d you guess?”

“The connection is shit. And you’re the only one crazy enough to be out in the sticks on the graveyard shift.”

“What can I say? It’s my favourite haunt.”

“That place is haunted. You wouldn’t catch me out there for a picnic.”

Alma let instinct guide her as she turned onto the pavement. She headed, with mild surprise, not toward town but up into the pass. “Gimme that fare, Ralphie.”

“You’re most of the way there, already. Foothills Inn.”

That was fifty clicks out of the normal service range for Ferryman Taxi. “That faux-chalet thing at Eagle Peak?”

“Don’t forget to nail him with the mileage surcharge.”

Alma cracked the window and lit another cigarette. “Of course, Ralphie. Everyone’s gotta pay the Ferryman.”

“See, you get it.” Ralph laughed. She pictured his face crinkling up, the way it did. She pictured the patterns that would etch his skin when he was an old man. If he made it that far. “That’s why I love you.”

“You love me because I take the shifts no one else wants.”

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t true, my Queen of the Night.”

“You don’t want me for your Queen.” She took a deep drag and smiled. “I’d take years off your life.”

“Doesn’t stop you from smoking.”

Alma hung up the handset. She liked Ralph, but a vague sense of unease disturbed the warm-and-fuzzies. Maybe she was ready to try again? She felt like she was. But what if she was wrong? What if Ralph ended up like her last—

No sense dwelling on it. If experience had taught Alma anything it was that dwelling on the past was like dragging an anchor behind you. You never got where you were going to and, worst of all, you could never get back.

Alma turned up the radio and punched the old taxi into a higher gear. She let the hum of the engine pull her away from her thoughts, back into herself. The fare was unusual but that didn’t matter. There was nothing Alma loved better than knowing where she was going.

###

It was different when she was a kid. Back then, Alma had a knack for being where she wanted to be. She’d show up right before her mom’s cookies came out of the oven, or when a pick-up Frisbee game needed one more player, or when the fireworks were about to start. Things happened when Alma was around. Even the other kids noticed it. In school, her nickname was Lucky.

Everyone wanted to be her friend.

Alma had luck, it was true. But there was good luck and bad luck. As she got older, she realized that Fate didn’t discriminate.

Alma imagined great balances, like the Scales of Justice, weighing and measuring her fortune. If everyone was to come out neutral in the end, Alma used up her good luck before puberty.

Maybe luck had nothing to do with balance. Maybe Alma always got what she needed. Maybe as you got older what you want and what you need is worlds apart. Either way, things took a definite downturn after her first cycle. That was the day her mother openly acknowledged her gift.

“You’re a Wayfinder, Alma.”

“What am I supposed to find my way to?” Abdominal cramps and fear consumed every drop of patience she might have had. “The tampon aisle?”

“I don’t know.” Her mother seemed to absorb all the patience Alma was losing, the maternal sponge. “We won’t know until you are claimed.”

“This is not the time for the sex talk, mom. Really.”

“No matter what, you will find your way, Alma.” Her mother stroked her hair and, for once, the gesture didn’t irritate her. The warmth of her mother’s touch reach from her roots all the way through her body, like electricity. “But we don’t know what your way is. Now that you are a woman, things will change.”

“I used to be lucky,” Alma said. “Now I feel like I’ve been cursed.”

Her mother’s fingers massaged her scalp, releasing some pent-up energy she didn’t know was stored there. Jolts of it shot through her limbs, making her feel more alive. And more afraid.

Her mother said, “Sometimes luck is a curse.”

###

Alma flew up the highway toward the pass. The taxi soared silently up the ever-increasing grade, wraithlike. The humming engine and thrumming tires lulled her into a meditative state. The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” came on the oldies station and Alma cranked her radio. The time it took to get to the Eagle Peak turn off evaporated into Ray Manzarek’s eerie keyboarding.

There’s a killer on the road.

The tiny hairs at the back of her neck stood and reached up as if the air really were charged with electricity from a storm. The ones on her forearms ached against the heavy sleeves of her leather jacket. Even the stubble on her shins pulled away from her skin. Alma shivered.

His brain is squirming like a toad.

She knew the killer wasn’t human. The killer was Death; stalking every one of them until the time was right. Stalking Alma in particular, it seemed. Or at least the ones she loved. Her mother had been right. Things had changed that day. Ever since her first cycle, Alma became a magnet for sickness and disaster. Death.

Girl, you’ve gotta love your man.

Hadn’t she?

It wasn’t enough.

Girl, you’ve gotta love your man.

Alma turned off onto the service road just before the summit. The gravel ground beneath her tires and the headlights cast a strange white glow upon the unlit surface. She slowed, expecting that the road wouldn’t be well maintained in the off season. But the gravel, illuminated by her moonlight-white high beams, stretched smoothly into the darkness beyond. A figure materialized on the side of the road.

Take him by the hand.

Alma slowed as she passed him. Pedestrians weren’t unusual this close to the flats. Still, she stared as she crept past. The man was thin, his shadowed face gaunt and drawn. He walked slowly, like he had nowhere in particular to go. Alma wondered which way he would turn when he reached the highway.

Make him understand.

The taxi coasted past the guy and up toward the Foothills Inn. She wanted to stop and ask if he was okay. The fullness of autumn wasn’t yet upon them but the air had a bite to it. Alma tried to catch a glimpse of him in her rear-view mirror but the darkness had swallowed him whole.

The man would be cold tonight.

A chalet style building loomed above her at the peak, a gothic ski-bunny haven. Huge peaked windows stared down on her, black but for the reflection of her headlights dancing against their panes. The place was hollow. Empty. She sensed it long before she pulled up to the deserted valet station, before she knocked on the darkened glass of the entrance.

“Closed for the season,” a small sign inside the window proclaimed.

Obviously, Alma thought. But who had called Ralph for pick up? She slammed the car door and lit another cigarette.

The hitchhiker.

The world on you depends.

No, he wasn’t a hitchhiker, thumb out for any ride. That had been her fare wandering toward the highway. Why hadn’t she stopped? So much for knowing where she was going. Alma cursed herself and peeled out of the parking lot, back toward her fare. Hopefully he wouldn’t be too pissed off that she’d missed him the first time.

Our life will never end.

When Alma’s headlights found the man this time he stood still, waiting. She rolled up next to him, and he climbed into the back seat.

“Sorry about that, buddy.”

He said nothing. Alma met the man’s eyes in the mirror. His skin was thin and sallow; his eyes as black and empty as the windows of the Inn. “Where do you need to go?”

He didn’t even blink.

Gotta love your man.

Alma put the taxi back into gear and rolled down the service road. She knew where to take him.

###

It didn’t take the kids long to stop calling her Lucky. Alma’s thirteenth year was a turning point in her young life. Over the next five years, friends, once drawn to Alma like flies to honey, now dropped like them. Everyone that Alma loved was torn from her, ruthlessly. She went from always being in the right place at the right time, to being a harbinger of doom.

It wasn’t that Alma was ever the cause of Death. Yet she was always there when tragedy struck. She called the ambulance when Peter—her best friend since kindergarten—had an asthma attack at summer camp when they were fourteen. Six months after that, her cousin Lilijana took a line drive to the face pitching fast ball and died before help could arrive. The doctors said it was a freak accident, no one’s fault. Alma never believed it; if she hadn’t been there, she knew, Lily would have lived. The year after that, Alma’s friend Paula was badly injured in a house fire. Alma visited the hospital moments before Paula succumbed to the infection that weakened her burn-ravaged body; even Paula’s mother said it was as if the girl had been waiting for Alma to say goodbye.

Alma tried not to visit the hospital after that. No one blamed her, but Alma knew something wasn’t right.

Still, even when she tried to stay away, sometimes she opened her eyes and she was standing before someone who was hurt or sick, not knowing how she got there, but knowing that if she was there it was to say goodbye. Just like she now found herself standing on the shores of Wailing Lake, staring at the churning waters, as if there was something she was forgetting to do.

Her mother was the last one before Alma ran away.

Cancer. Alma knew her mother was sick. Alma knew she was dying. But she thought if she just stayed away from the hospital, somehow, her mother would keep living.

She couldn’t, though.

Alma couldn’t stay away and her mother couldn’t keep living.

“I knew you would come.”

“Please don’t leave me, Mama.” Alma cried into her mother’s hand knowing that she was, somehow, killing her. “I need you.”

“You don’t need me,” her mother had said. “You have been claimed.”

###

Into this house we’re born.

The song had ended ages ago but the lyrics still rang in Alma’s head. She accelerated through the curves that led out of the pass and back toward the flats. The almost-full-moon hung higher now. It had lost the bloody sheen of early evening but still looked hungry.

Is this what I am? Alma thought.

The man in the back seat stared straight ahead. He knew where he was going. Alma knew, too. The familiar tug in her guts told her where to go, even without his direction. His glassy black stare was focussed somewhere far beyond what Alma could see.

Far beyond what she would ever see, if she was right.

Into this world we’re thrown.

“You have been claimed,” her mother said. Only now did she believe it. Only now did Alma understand.

###

When she was eighteen, Alma ran. She thought if she could get far enough away, her path would change. There was no one left to hold her to her home. Everyone she loved was dead.

But she hadn’t run far enough.

The same pattern started again. Everywhere Alma went, went Death.

She cut herself off. She isolated herself from people, just the bare minimum social contact to get through life. That’s when Alma had taken to the night shift, though back then it was restocking shelves at a tech warehouse. Still, she couldn’t get away.

Still, she found Jared.

Jared, the tortured scholar, had too many lifetimes living inside him. Too many souls. They fought and he was miserable. He was magnetic. Alma was drawn to him, helplessly. She woke on his shores, blinking, wondering how it had happened. For a little while, they were there, together.

She loved him.

And then she killed him.

###

Riders on the storm.

Alma pulled back into the Wailing Lake rest area, and this time she wasn’t even surprised. This was where the man needed to be. This was where she would always end up. It only made sense.

The man opened the back door of her cab and closed it resolutely. He didn’t pay her. Alma had expected that. She knew Ralph would be pissed; missing the fare and the mileage surcharge. But this was not a normal fare.

The man lingered outside her window.

Alma cranked it down and lit a cigarette. His dead eyes stared through her. But he looked like he wanted to say something. His eyes sat like dull black stones in his sockets. His cheeks sunk deeper into his skull.

“Go on, then.” Alma sucked on the filter, relished the burn in her lungs. “This is the place, isn’t it?”

The man’s lips, thin and colourless, parted. But instead of words, something else fell out. Alma caught it. A thick gold coin landed in her open palm.

Riders on the storm.

###

The night shift hadn’t saved her. Alma might be Queen of the Night at Ferryman Taxi, but she felt like Queen of Nothing. She walked through her life with blinders, hoping no one would notice her. Hoping she would notice no one.

Now there was Ralph.

Before that, Jared.

You’ve gotta love your man.

The last time she had seen Jared it was at his apartment. He hadn’t called but she wanted to see him. When she opened the front door she knew why.

The Doors played on living room stereo. Water ran at the back of the apartment.

Alma opened the door to the bathroom. Pink tinged water overflowed the bathtub and lapped at her feet. Jared lay, wrists up, in the tepid pool. One arm was cut through, wrist to elbow. The other had a jagged gash near the palm but the wound had dissolved.

Unfinished.

“Help me,” Jared had said.

Alma grabbed her phone and dialed. But Jared said, “No!”

She stared at him, naked and vulnerable in the tub. His genitals floated on the surface of the water like a strange flower, a grotesque imitation of life. He said, “Help me.”

Alma helped him. She picked up the razorblade left by Jared’s weakened hand and dragged it through the vein. She guided him from this world into the next.

That was what she was supposed to do, right?

You’ve gotta love your man.

When the ambulance arrived there was nothing they could do for Jared.

Alma ran again.

###

Alma held the coin in her hand and watched the man disappear into the darkness of the trailhead. She closed the taxi door and followed.

At the shore the man hesitated. He let the waves of Wailing Lake kiss his toes. Then, slowly, he stepped into her waters. The man walked forward, deeper and deeper into her, until she lapped at his ribs, his shoulders, his throat.

Then he stopped and looked back at Alma. Those black eyes told her everything she needed to know. He walked into the waves like a thing that belonged. Alma felt peace descended upon her in the first time for years.

###

Alma sat in the driver’s seat of the Ferryman Taxi, waiting for the next call. She sucked on a cigarette and tried not to think too much about the man in the lake.

“Queen of the Night.” Ralph’s voice crackled through the speaker. “I have a pick-up for you.”

“Just as long as it isn’t you, Ralphie,” she said. Alma flicked the butt of her cigarette toward the waters of Wailing Lake. She knew where Ralph was going to send her.

There was nothing Alma loved more than knowing where she was going.

Athabasca Flying: The Power of Your Story

This week I spent four days in northern Saskatchewan with the 2018 Athabasca Flying Career Fair. I do this not in my capacity as a writer, but as a representative of the transportation industry (we freelancers wear many hats!). I have been before, and I hope to go every year from now on because it is an incredible experience.

This career fair has employers and educators from across Saskatchewan flying out to remote schools to talk to students about their futures. Some of these communities have no road access, the only way to reach them is via expensive charter planes, and so they don’t see a lot of outside visitors. The schools and students are amazing. We ate so much caribou and bannock I think I’ll have to be dieting for the rest of the month. Or maybe, I’ll run away up north and just make a lifestyle out of it…

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I realize this is not exactly writing or Sci-Fi related, but one of our team members this year has me thinking about the power of personal narratives and the importance of story.

Madelaine (Maddie) MacCallum is a motivational speaker, model, actor, and dancer. She accompanied us to the career fair as a speaker and dancer, and she made a massive impact on the students; there was a noticeable difference between last year (which didn’t include Madelaine’s performace) and this year. After hearing Maddie speak and watching her dance, the students were more grounded and focused than we saw the year before.

And it’s no wonder. Maddie has an incredible story to tell.

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In fact, Madelaine’s entire identity is based in the power of her story, the good and the bad. I was brought to tears when I heard her describe her life as a young child growing up in a family plagued by addiction, her years as a runaway living on the streets from ages 13-16, and even as she made steps to leave that life behind, to confront addiction and anxiety and depression and really come into her own through the power of traditional dance.

Much of Maddie’s talk focuses on rewriting our personal narratives. She has found the power of her own story, and she shares it with people who need it. She talks about the shift in perspective between viewing herself as a victim and seeing herself as a gift. Even in the worst moments of her life, Madelaine has found a way to understand why she was there and what her purpose in life is. And that ability gives her an immense power that I think we all can learn from.

I don’t want to divulge too much of her own story. But I think the message we all can take, especially we writers, is that there is power in words–not just the words we speak to others but the words we speak to ourselves. This is the power of story, the power of personal narrative, and the way all of us can take control of our own lives.

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I’m immensely proud of Maddie. She has inspired me, and countless others. I just wanted to share a bit of my experience to hopefully get others to think about their own personal narratives and how we might all become better people by changing the words we use to describe ourselves.

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Flash Fiction Friday: “Blood and Bells” by S.C. Jensen

This piece was written for the 12ShortStories.com prompt for April 2018, “Buy or Sell.” The challenge was to write a flash fiction story exactly 750 words. Here’s my take! Please leave your feedback in the comments. Enjoy!

“Blood and Bells”
by S.C. Jensen
750 words (exactly!)

Kelda hunkered low on the slushy bank and scrubbed at the blood on her nightdress. She pounded the pink-stained fabric against the frozen rocks like a lump of butchers’ meat that needed tendering. Blood leached into the icy water of the river and the fabric whitened, but her flesh grew red and chapped.

Late winter hung like a dingy grey sheet from the sky. Kelda squinted at the painful light of the horizon, dull and blinding. A cart clattered up the road next to the river. Kelda wrung out her gown and dashed up the road ahead of the traveller. Mother would be angry enough about the soiled clothing without her speaking to the Lost Folk.

The faint tinkling of bells followed as Kelda’s feet tripped across the hoary path. Winter’s innards broke through the surface and spilled out in wet, black gushes of icy muck. It slashed across the crust of snow like dried blood.

♦♦♦♦♦

“Where have you been, girl?” Mother loomed in the doorway at the back of the apartment.

Kelda slipped past the statuesque woman and into the kitchen. “Sorry, Mother.”

“There’s work to do.” Mother’s red face pinched downward. “No time for messing about.”

“Yes, Mother.” Kelda balled up the damp nightdress in her raw fingers and ran for the stairs. “I’ll be right down.”

“What do you have there?” The woman’s voice sunk between Kelda’s shoulder blades and snapped her to a stop. “Show me.”

Kelda turned and, fingers trembling, held out the soiled linen. “I cleaned it as best I could.”

“Blood?” Mother snatched the gown from Kelda’s cold-cracked hands. “A skinny little thing like you?”

“I found some rags so I don’t mess my dresses.”

“I thought I’d get a few years out of you yet.”

Kelda wanted to sink into the floor, far away from the woman’s gaze. Mother’s grimace turned up at the corners. The joyless smile was more frightening than anger.

“You’re a woman now, though.”

A noise from the parlor window saved Kelda from further scrutiny.

“Never mind then.” Mother shoved the nightdress against Kelda’s chest and peered into the street. “Hang it up. We’ll talk more tonight.”

♦♦♦♦♦

Downstairs, the front door slammed. The window rattled in its warped frame. Kelda watched the woman through the frosty glass as she bustled across the sodden street toward the market. The Inn rose above the stalls there, a queen upon her dais. Mother wasn’t going about the laundry.

A bitter taste flooded Kelda’s mouth. Her lip throbbed the girl realized she’d been biting it. She wiped at it with the back of her hand. More blood.

Farther up the road, the strange cart clattered through semi-frozen potholes, splashing black water into the air. Tiny silver bells jangled up from the street. Kelda tried not to fog the glass with her breath as she leaned closer.

♦♦♦♦♦

Kelda finished ironing the pile of towels and bed linens from the Inn and began repairing the lacework on one of the girls’ dresses. The Madame hadn’t paid for a wash, just the stitching. A sour, yeasty smell rose from the garish purple fabric. Kelda’s tongue was like sackcloth in her mouth. She’d die before she’d pull that dress over her own head.

Daylight waned before Mother opened the door to the parlor. She pushed a scrawny, scabby-looking girl before her. “Show the child to your old room.”

The woman’s voice was as thin as her smile. The girl stared at Kelda with wide, glistening eyes.

“Mother—”

“That’s Ma’am to you, now.” A heavy pouch clinked against her thigh when she leaned down to inspect Kelda’s lace. “You do good work, though. Pity for you there wasn’t a man to take you off my hands.”

“Who is taking me?” Kelda’s lips stuck to her teeth. She swallowed. “Ma’am.”

“You’ll deliver the Madame’s order tonight.” The woman wrapped a hand protectively around her purse. “Take your things with you.”

♦♦♦♦♦

Long purple shadows tugged at Kelda as she walked toward the market. Toward Madame’s Inn. She carried the linens in a gunny sack over her back. The weight of it pinched her flesh and pulled at her dress like greedy fingers. Kelda’s eyes searched the darkened stalls of the market, hoping.

Nothing.

Then a breeze blew through the town from the west, and on it the sound of her freedom. Kelda dropped the sack into the muck and ran. She ran from town, away from the Inn, away from Madame.

She ran toward the jingling of bells.

 

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Update

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I’ve been meaning to update you all on my first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest ever since we got the feedback back a few weeks ago. So here it is!

Some of you may have read my submission already. You can find it here, if you’re interested. I was really excited for my submission this time. I got a prompt that was right up my alley and I was quite happy with what I produced. So I had been awaiting the results of the first round with bated breath!

Unfortunately, the judges were not quite as enamored with my story as I was, haha. They actually prefaced this round with a note that competition was very stiff, and not to feel badly if we didn’t score as well as we’d like. That didn’t happen during any of the three rounds I participated in for the Flash Fiction contest, so I guess I’ll believe them.

Alas, I didn’t even place in the top ten for the first round! But all is not lost. The feedback was actually quite encouraging, and it gives me some direction for what to do with this piece before I start submitting it elsewhere.

Here is what the judges had to say:

Feedback for “Tongue Tied” by Sarah Jensen

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1737}  Your narrative was complex, but perfectly executed. Your ideas were dynamic, but comprehensible. Your narrative landscape was intriguing!

{1772}  Suki has a clear outer goal that she pursues over the course of the story. The premise is original and keeps the reader engaged.

{1636}  The severity of the stakes is never lost, and even before clear conflicts arise, the tones does a good amount of work in terms of demonstrating the nature of the story ahead.  The world-building is also impressively done, especially in the early pages.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1737}  Try to maintain the clarity of some of your more thoughtful or intelligible ideas.

{1772}  Suki’s inner needs should be developed more. She has a clear outer goal to save her career and patients, but what about her inner drive? By giving her something to long for (for example, she needs to prove herself to the world) and an inner conflict to deal with (her desire to punish Meeker vs needing him), the story will make a greater impact on the reader.

{1636}  The dialogue can be a bit stilted at tomes, and at others, overly expositional.  Additionally, much of the language (dialogic or not) is so internal and specific to the world being created here that it might be off-putting to readers. An example: “You know Blastocorp produces only the highest quality pluripotent cells from synthetic lab-engineered blastocyst embryos.”

So, what do you think? If you haven’t read it yet, head over to my Flash Fiction Friday section and give “Tongue Tied” a read. Let me know if you agree or disagree with the judges, and if there is anything you would add! I will be submitting this piece somewhere, sometime before summer hits. All critique is welcome!

Fantasy Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

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I just finished reading My Soul to Keep, a supernatural suspense novel from 1997, written by Tananarive Due. I had never heard of Due or her African Immortals series until stumbling upon a suggestion from a “Women of Horror” reading recommendations list. My Soul to Keep is not what I would call a horror novel, exactly. It is pretty scary, but not in a gory gross-out kind of way. Due masterfully integrates the supernatural into a vividly realistic story about Jessica and David, a seemingly perfect middle class African American family with a 5 year old daughter, as they navigate successful careers, marital bliss, and a series of devastating losses.

I’m torn on how I feel about this novel, and I think I’ll have to continue in the series to decide for sure. On one hand, I love Due’s take on the theme of immortality that has been so popular for the last twenty years. If you love vampire books but are tired of vampires, this is a great place to start. Due also tackles some interesting aspects of human history that most popular titles gloss over or avoid entirely, with a focus on African and Middle Eastern history rather than European.

However, the focus of the novel seemed to be on the inexplicable love between Jessica and David, which I just could not get into. From the very beginning, David’s character really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s controlling, condescending, and emotionally manipulative. Jessica is a bright, driven young woman who seems to have fallen for a guy because he’s good looking and good in bed (which–SPOILER ALERT!–he should be after 500 years experience).

The true horror of this novel is their relationship, and I’m not sure yet whether or not that was Due’s intent. I’m a bit cynical after the barrage of novels that romanticize abusive relationships in recent years (and, lets face it, these kinds of stories have a long history–from Wuthering Heights to Twilight and on). As the novel progresses, David gets more and more abusive, and it gets harder and harder to understand why Jessica puts up with it. But we all know people in relationships like this; Due’s story is frustratingly believable. What makes me uneasy is that, even by the end of the novel, it’s not clear whether or not we are supposed to love David like Jessica does or if their love is the horror of the novel.

It wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I could say whether or not I liked it. Due’s writing is lush, and often brilliant. Her characters certainly evoke an emotional response. But when the novel ended, I was still angry. I wanted redemption for Jessica and some kind of punishment for David, and while Due hints that this is where the series is going, you have to read on to find out for sure. But there was enough resolution that I did end feeling like there was hope, and this makes me want to read at least the next book in the series.

I suspect that Due intended for Jessica and David’s relationship to be unsettling. If she did, she executed it beautifully, and my own discomfort is testimony to that. Her depiction of David from his own POV is unequivocally selfish and greedy even as he is professing his love (obsession) for Jessica. I doubt very much that a writer of Due’s skill would make this mistake. But we never really learn how much of this Jessica sees for herself by the end of the novel, and so the emotional arc of Book One feels incomplete.

I’ll definitely read on, though. And I think I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, supernatural suspense, paranormal thrillers, and yes, paranormal romance. Have you read it? What did you think? How about the rest of the series? Let me know in the comments!

SF Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

“I’ve always been fascinated by candles. Looking into the flame calms me down. Here in Nigeria, PHC is always taking the lights, so I keep candles in my room just in case.

PHC stands for “Power Holding Company of Nigeria,” but people like to say it really stands for “Please Hold Candles in Nigeria.” Back in Chicago we had ConEd, and the electricity was always working. Not here, though. Not yet. Maybe in the future.” – from Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

When I sat down to read Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor last December, the power went out. Literally, the moment I finished reading the above passage, the very first two paragraphs of the prologue, my house went dark. I didn’t need a candle to keep reading. I dimmed the background light on my e-book and kept going. Yet, I can’t deny a moment’s hesitation. I felt something significant had happened. This book was going to be special.

Our power outage lasted nine hours which, in the dead of a Saskatchewan winter, on one of the coldest nights of the year, is a little unsettling. I stayed up later than usual, waiting for the heat to come back, reading the story of Sunny—a twelve-year-old Nigerian girl who discovers she is a Leopard Person, a person with natural magical talents—and eventually, I had to crawl into bed with my own children while the house got colder and colder around us. I fell asleep thinking about magic.

Magic is what brought me to Akata Witch, somewhat indirectly. But I’ll get back to that.

I first read about the author, Nnedi Okorafor last year when I belatedly realized that October was Black Speculative Fiction Month, and I read a slew of articles recommending books and authors who are often overlooked in the genre. Okorafor’s novel Who Fears Death was on nearly every one of them.

For reasons I don’t recall, I never ended up downloading Who Fears Death, but I did download Akata Witch and Binti—a SF novella about a young woman who gives up her life on earth for a prestigious opportunity to study at the intergallactically famous Oozma University. Now, I have said I don’t recall why I downloaded these two other works and I didn’t download the much-lauded Who Fears Death, but in retrospect I think I can guess. Let me explain.

The realization that there was a Black Speculative Fiction Month came with the dual realization that there was Black Speculative Fiction. Not just that there were black SF writers which, as a fan of Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia E. Butler, N.K. Jemison and others, I was aware of—oddly, I found these writers while seeking out female writers in a male-dominated genre without acutely realizing the significance of their race in a historically white-dominated genre. What surprised me, though, was the sheer volume of SF by black writers, entire sub-categories of my self-professed favourite genre, that I had no idea were out there. It was very exciting to me, and also very overwhelming.

After studying English Literature for five years in university, I’ve read a lot of the classics and the critical theory that has come out of them. I’m quite well-versed in the Canon of English Literature. After I graduated, though, I swore off the classics. I had had enough of the stuffy European white dudes over-analyzing “their” world. I re-discovered my love for Science Fiction and Fantasy, where I continued to read mostly white dudes, but at least there were sometimes lasers and spaceships and the occasional fantasy race in which women had power and there were side-characters with “exotic” names and descriptions of skin-colours that made everyone sound edible. (Note to Writers: Please stop describing characters of colour with words like chocolate, coffee, caramel, café o lait, etc. The trope is tired, and your effort is lazy—Yes, I have been guilty of this, too)

It didn’t take me long to realize that much of my frustrations with the Canon were repeating themselves in the genre fiction I was reading. I attempted to remedy this by reading more women writers. I started with Margaret Atwood, whom I have loved since high-school, and branched out from there. Ursula K. Leguin, Anne McCaffrey, Madeleine L’Engle, Doris Lessing, Sheri S. Tepper… I researched lists, and spent months tracking down new-to-me writers and the massive potential for SF&F exploded before me once again. I was absolutely dumbfounded by how similar and yet how different these genres could be when the stories were told by women.

These lists drew me to other lists: I started reading queer writers, aboriginal writers, Canadian writers, writers who were immigrants or refugees, non-English writers whose works had been translated… The more I branched out into these different intersections via the lives and identities of the writers’ themselves, the more I found how much I had been missing.

The trouble is, when we stick to the classics, and the best-seller lists, we only see a tiny sliver of what is out there. Big publishers tend to stick to what is safe and easy to sell, and has mass-market appeal, and often—unless potential readers have been primed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey—this means it is very similar to something else people have read and bought and loved on a massive scale.

But I don’t read science fiction to feel safe. I read science fiction to explore vastly different worlds, different social and political systems, different sex and gender and sexuality norms—to push human potential for good and evil to its extremes. Right?

Well…

I remember how magic brought me to Akata Witch. It was this preface to the book description by the publisher,

 “Affectionately dubbed “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” Akata Witch weaves together a heart-pounding tale of magic, mystery, and finding one’s place in the world.”

Jumping into the world of Black Speculative Fiction has been exciting. And overwhelming. Without even realizing that I was doing it, I rejected Who Fears Death and downloaded Akata Witch, instead. Because the description for Who Fears Death was a little outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t sure what to expect of it (despite numerous credible sources telling me it was wonderful and right up my alley). I was immediately drawn to Akata Witch, the comparison to a well-loved children’s classic, just different enough to be fresh but familiar enough to be safe.

After I finished reading Akata Witch, and loved every word of it, I enthusiastically recommended it to my friends and family using this exact same description: “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” Which is precisely what the publisher intended, I can only assume.

The problem is that Akata Witch is nothing like Harry Potter, a fact that I didn’t even consider until a friend and fellow writer, Jelani Wilson of Pages Without Paper, called it to my attention. Not only is Okorafor’s novel nothing like Rowling’s, the comparison ultimately places the books in a hierarchy where Harry Potter automatically reigns supreme.

Okorafor tweeted about this problem in January, saying “Thanks to the #BlackHogwarts hashtag, The Akata Books will probably never get away from the reductive label of “the Nigerian Harry Potter.” … I mean, I am flattered and happy to see people excited about the series, but I think my books have a foundation that is quite different from the Potter books. They are their own thing, not the African version of something else that gets to be its own thing.”

And it’s true. My initial impression that there was something special about Okorafor’s Akata books was bang on.

Akata Witch is a brilliant, original story about an exceptional young girl’s journey toward self-discovery. Although there are magical elements to the story, Okorafor explores issues of racism, colourism, poverty, classism, sexism, and violence without shielding her readers with euphemism and fantastical allegory. Sunny and her friends have remarkable abilities, but they are operating in the real world which, in my mind, elevates Akata Witch to something beyond “Black Harry Potter.”

Having a background in English Literature means that my instinct when reading is to mentally compare a book with other books that I have read. I think this can be a great way to explore stories, actually. But stepping outside of my comfort zone of classic/white/Western literature means I have to rethink the way that I do this.

For one thing, I need to read a lot more! I can’t critique a writer like Okorafor the way I can Margaret Atwood. I don’t have the foundation yet. Or, rather, my foundation is the same but I’m trying to build on different terrain. Atwood I understand within the context of the Canon. I studied her in high school alongside Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence (Canadian women writers), and George Orwell and William Golding (Science Fiction classics). Even while Atwood has resisted classification as a feminist or science fiction writer, I feel comfortable viewing her work through those lenses and her own definitions of those terms. Comparing and contrasting Atwood’s work to other white “classic” authors has never felt reductive to me. In a sense, classic writers are all talking to each other and about each other and these comparisons come easily and naturally.

What do we do with writers, and genres, that are a part of a different conversation, though? Ones that have no interest in speaking to the so-called Canon except, perhaps, to reject it. Ones that have their own Canons to explore? If I’m going to venture out of my comfort zone, into new-to-me literary worlds, I need also to be prepared to let go of my old-world assumptions and expectations.

Of course, I can compare Okorafor to writers like Atwood (or J.K. Rowling), and these observations would be valid. But if I only compare her to white western writers, I am missing out on the other myriad intersections of her work. Comparing Akata Witch to Harry Potter has some merit. But implying that Akata Witch is a Nigerian iteration of Rowling’s story completely negates the rich history of black women writers, Nigerian writers, Afro-futurists, magical realists, etc. that Okorator belongs to, and reduces her work to a mere reflection of a single pop culture phenomenon.

I’m writing this review-cum-essay to unpack my own goals and motives as I attempt to expand my reading experience. But I also want to encourage other people to do the same. Whatever your reading niche has been, no matter how vast or varied, I guarantee there is something new out there for you. I hope you’ll seek it out, and be ready to explore these new worlds on their own terms, to allow them to be their own stories.