The Golden Muse | A Short Story

Blowing out as much air as I can, my heavy body sinks beneath the choppy surface of the lake. The sounds instantly mute, bringing with it the first moment of calm I’ve had in days. Opening my eyes, I see nothing but the cloudy silt of the disturbed lake bed from where I walked into the water. If she met me here, maybe I’d be able to hear her.

Surfacing, I walk on tippy-toes, my feet occasionally sinking into the slimy stickiness of decomposed leaves, peats, sedges, and what remains of the creatures who have died here. I imagine them sinking down, landing sideways on a giant rock to take their last gill-filled sip of water. Perhaps they look up one final time to see the sunlight casting golden rays in a circle around them, illuminating tiny dancing specks in the water—a fond farewell.

Something brushes against my left calf and my heart races with panic. It could be a plant, a fish, a water snake, or something else. I picture an ancient and ugly beast covered in grey scales, a blood-sucking descendant of the dinosaurs, disturbed by my unwanted presence in its waters. It stalks me through the murk, circling and circling, getting closer and closer.

As the idea of the creature grows and solidifies, so does my panic. I lean into it, thinking some truth might be found in the sensation. I notice how as the thoughts become bigger, the creature becomes clearer until the instinctual urge to run overtakes my writer’s curiosity. I dive under the water, kicking, twisting, and punching until I arrive in the shallows and can see there’s no monster beneath me.

Keeping my body perpendicular to the rocky bottom, I swim along the shoreline looking for small fish or tiny treasures. I resurface every few minutes to keep the cabin and the horizon within sight. Although these waters are a second home to me, I’m fully aware of how quickly the water can disorient you. When I was a child, we’d bring a bright rainbow-colored umbrella to keep on the shore so I’d always be able to find the home base.

My younger self, freckled pink, runs along the hot beach to escape under the umbrella where my mother sits reading beside a giant wicker basket of snacks. I grab a banana and some almonds and she touches my cool skin with her warm feet. I push her away.

Flipping to my back, keeping my ears under the surface, I savor the muffled silence. The white sky above remains motionless and still, empty as I am. I’m more than halfway through my stay here and I have nothing written. My outline lays shredded on the cabin floor and the silence I came for exists nowhere but here below the surface of the lake. The book I wrote last year feels as if it contained all my words and truth. I have nothing more to offer. I tug at my wet hair and twirl it between my fingers, pulling and pulling.

If I could bring a pen and paper into the mirrored waters, would she slip beside me and whisper the words? I’ve lost her, my golden shadow muse, somewhere in the noise I can’t seem to get away from. She won’t return, and the madness inside me seems to be growing; an itchy sliver embedded deep within my palm, a prickly cactus of sharpness, a dentist’s drill pounding. It all feels a lot like failure.

From day one at the cabin silence has eluded me, replaced by an unexpected and unwanted presence–whispers and movements I can’t quite hear or see. A permanent shadow of sound perpetually here, but not here. I’ve wandered looking for it, seeking it out, and found only its partners–its noisy neighbors.

First, it was the trees, scrapping and clawing at the cabin day and night. I found a ladder and a saw and trimmed them back, so nothing touched the house. Then the squirrels took up leaping and scampering from the cut branches to roll things along the roof, creating a cacophony of sounds, driving the words from me. I had to cut back more and more of the branches until the trees lay ugly and bare, the pile of wood taller than me.

Then it was the sound of water dripping from faucets, the kind of noise used to torture out truths in secret basements. I turned off the water, drove into town and bought new gaskets and a plumbing book, and spent over a week fixing and fixing and fixing. The drops stopped.

But then it was the birds. Chirping and singing in voices shrill and constant at all times, driving the words from me, keeping her from me. I’d yell at them, but they’d scatter and return moments later with louder cries. I flung baking soda along the rails, boxes and boxes of it, and strung together forks to hang from the porch. I scattered birdseed far from the cabin day and night.

It worked for a time until a small brown bird made the tiny peach tree outside the front window its home. It would sing and sing, mocking me day and night. A robotic bird, unreal and unearthly. In a fit of anger I chopped down the baby tree, its single peach the size of a walnut lay on the ground and I wept. My dreams of cobblers and ice cream were destroyed in a single impulsive moment.

The words, my words, lay within the silence, I’m certain of it. They lay with her within the curves and folds of her shadowy dress, waiting for the moment of peace to settle for her to creep on padded feet behind me and breathe into my neck and whisper to me the story I know is so close. I’ve found it and her before, but now it’s simply too loud.

From Sunday to Saturday, from Monday to Friday, the days blend into days, and the sounds blend into sounds. She won’t come until it’s quiet, and I can’t find words without her. They are locked inside a box within a box and the key lies in the silence I can’t find.

Diving down into the water I begin digging through the muck, struck by the idea the key lies here. My fingers feel inadequate and I wish I’d brought a shovel or some kind of underwater ax. I shove items into the pockets of my bathing suit skirt, surfacing to fill my lungs and then returning to dig and scoop, dig and scoop.

Eventually, my body and breathing become weary and I surface to find the white sky has turned dark. A small sliver of the moon sits surrounded by tiny twinkling stars mirrored in the black water around me. The mountains have released the sighing breath of night, and the cool air makes my body react with gooseflesh and shivers.

A sudden disorienting panic hits me and I swim as fast as I can, items falling out of my suit and returning to the muck below me. I’m haunted by the idea of hands in the water reaching for me, grabbing at me, taking the key back, and by the time I reach the shore I’m sobbing and far from where I’d left my towel and shoes.

Running across the sharp pebbled beach, ignoring the pain in my feet, I focus on the golden light of the cabin. I’d left one window uncovered and the hooded desk lamp has transformed the dull curtains into bright yellow beacons. I run and run, up the dark wooden steps and into the familiar musty smell of our family cabin.

I wrap the nearest quilt, a remnant of my mother’s last stay here, around my shoulders, and trembling I throw logs into the large brick fireplace. I rub my wrinkled hands along the blanket until they are dry enough to twist the pages of an old National Geographic magazine into cones to light. I scrape a match along the edge of the box and press the reddish flame into a gray photo of a gnarled gargoyle with pointy ears and watch the word Paris turn to ash.

When I sit on the floor, the items from the lake poke into my sides. I pull them out and lay them in a line across the hearth—Barbie head with matted brown hair, a bright blue fidget spinner turned rusty but still able to move, several bottle caps from various cheap beers, an “I Love You a Latte” pin missing the back, and a bright silver ring.

It’s the last item I think could be the key. I wipe it on the blanket and try it on several fingers and find it only fits my pinky. It’s a simple thin band, with no markings, dainty but heavy. I hold my hands closer to the fire to warm them and look at how the metal ring reflects back the orange and red light. The whispering sounds pulse around me. I wish they’d stop.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my shadow stretching out, a thin skeletal version of me. I follow it down the hall and into the bedroom, strip off my wet clothes, and stand naked before an upright golden mirror. I don’t recognize myself in the dim light leaking in from the fire down the hall, the flickering body of a woman I might have known at some point, but who looks nothing like me anymore. I stare into the mirror version of my hazel eyes and have the terrifying thought I might do something like wink, or my eyes might suddenly becoming not my own.

I’m about to scream, but instead, I twirl my hair with my left hand and pull until several strands break free. I let them fall to the floor and notice the tops of my shoulders are beet red with small blisters forming under the skin. I grab a sample bottle of aloe from a drawer beside the bed, wondering if it has an expiration date, and rub it into the inflamed skin anyway. The cool gel makes me feel feverish and sick. I’m veering off course. I’m not me. I don’t like this and I wonder when I last ate something.

My shadow dances along the wall and I slip on warm pajamas and follow it. I’m sleepwalking or dreaming, moving through thick clouds, heavy and drunk. I sit at my writing desk by the front window, open a blank journal page, and put the pen on the paper. Hovering, I sit still for seconds, minutes…hours. A prickling sensation begins at my toes and travels in a rush up my body. All the nerves feel dull and alive at the same time—on alert. The pen begins to move.

“The golden shadow…”

The tiniest flicker of hope left inside dances with joy at the words, at the feeling of her behind me. She presses further, our bodies merge into one, the shadow takes the pen and writes an entire page and I know as it flows from my hand it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.”

With a snapping feeling, my body lurches back and then forward. I hit my head on the desk with a thud. She’s gone. Some sound has chased her away and I scream, the sound traveling out of every pore of my body, emptying me of everything. My heart pounds and I begin to sweat and shake.

I stand on wobbly legs and follow the sound, a bloodhound tracking the scent through a dark and dangerous forest. I feel the rage inside at having the words taken away, a bubbling tea kettle screaming and screaming. The faint sound seems everywhere and nowhere. I circle the rooms, down the hall, and back.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.” 

It’s in the hallway! I press my ear against the wall until I find the exact spot and realize, with horror, it’s the sound of a pen writing on paper. My words are inside the wall. Someone has stolen them, taking them from me, and I need them. I need them more than I need to breathe or eat or be. I bang on the wall and scream, but the sound continues without pause.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.” 

I scrape and scrape with my fingernails until I’m able to pull at the flowered wallpaper, tearing off a wide strip and throwing it on the floor. I pick at the uneven wall underneath until I’m able to form a tiny hole. I run to the writing desk, grab my gold pen and press the tip into the hole, twisting and twisting until it pops through. I press down hard, like a lever, until a chunk of plaster falls to the floor.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.”

Using my hands, I tear off the rest of the wallpaper and the crumbling bits of fibrous material as fast as I can. Throwing it all around me, I’m no longer aware of the why. My knuckles and fingers bleed, but I continue to rip and tear until I’ve uncovered the entire stretch of wall between two light-colored wooden posts. In the center of the blank wall, a black shadow oozes and bubbles out like oil, running down the wall in a thick stream.

“Scratch…Scratch…Scratch.” 

I scramble backward and fall against the wall behind me, sliding down until I’m clutching my own knees and rocking. The shadow moves slowly, like thick molasses across the floor, growing in size and shape until it becomes a grotesque twisted version of me. It leers tall and thin in the hallway, reaching with spindly cold fingers toward my face. I feel it reaching through nothingness, into nothingness, dragging me toward its thick dark madness.

The scratching sound fades, or maybe simply never was. The shadowy shape before me opens its mouth to reveal sharpened black teeth, a cartoonish Jack-O-Lantern, dripping down onto me the whispery sounds of fear and anger. It’s louder than ever before, a pulsing and grating sound, and I cover my ears and continue to rock in place.

Time seems to stand still in this moment, a frozen nightmare of my own creation. Knowingness eventually prickles along my back, bringing with it the vision of a small girl with pigtails. Her tiny voice begins to whisper in my ear, speaking of kindness, and worth and begging me to fight back. I’m sitting on the back fence of the home I grew up in, singing as loud as I can to the passing cars. The world needs to hear my voice. I have something to say.

The singing becomes louder and louder and I feel her wrap her golden arms through mine. We are one. I feel through the debris for my pen and stand with it held out in front of me. The shadow doesn’t shrink, but I grow. I stand tall and firm, my resolve larger than my fear has ever been, and I thrust my pen as hard as I can into the silhouette before me. It shatters, the darkness dissolving into tiny puzzle pieces of nothing, running down the walls and into the floorboards. It’s gone or maybe it never existed at all.

Holding the pen firmly in my hand, I walk on steady legs to the writing desk and set it down. Sunrise dances through the cloudy sky as I step onto the porch to listen for the sounds of the world. I don’t need to cover my ears anymore.

Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper

You inspired me, yet you feel so far away

Words float around, bubbles of colored vapor

Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper

Endings, beginnings round and round I caper

Lost in dark along the perfectionists highway

Golden muse, shadow of pen on paper

You inspired me, yet you feel so far away

Author’s note: My inspiration for this story came while writing at the coffee shop this week and looking down to see the golden shadow of my pen on my journal page. My mind was filled with images of shadow creatures, muses, and the idea of madness. As I began to write, the story took me to the lake and to the idea of needing silence to create. As the story progressed a bit of “The Shining” crept in and I had to resist the urge to have her hack the wall with an ax. You can probably also see the influence of Edgar Allen Poe with the sounds in the wall. Thank you, as always, for reading and if you feel so inspired, please let me know what you thought in the comments below.


Short Story Challenge | Week 15

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about a writer with noisy neighbors. We had to include the words dentist, rainbow, explosion, horizon, cactus, palm, Saturday, latte, beets, and sample.


Write With Us

Next Week’s Prompt: Newlyweds on their honeymoon

Include: cockpit, selfie, kayak, thought bubble, picnic table, wander, propose, shiatsu, motherhood, temple


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

How’s the writing going? 

I’m sitting at my favorite coffee shop with avocado toast and an oat milk latte. Low-fi beats play in my rose gold headphones and I’m lost in the art of storytelling. People rush around me, blurring on the edge of my vision, but I’ve fallen into the words and barely register the ticking of the clock or the feel of my body in the chair.

It feels like magic. 

I’m an archaeologist uncovering the bones of an ancient beast buried deep within myself. I’m a wizard casting a spell upon the page. I’m the heroine discovering the power to change the world was inside me the whole time.

I’m a writer.

I’ve had this realization before, but something this time feels different. It’s not simply an identity adopted, but a feeling deep inside my bones I’m doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing.

It feels a lot like purpose.

Thank you 52-week writing challenge.

When my writing partner Anna and I sat down late last year and envisioned the challenge, we were seeking more accountability. We wanted to continue the momentum we’d experienced doing NaNoWriMo—harnessing our creative energy more consistently. We figured the more we wrote, the more energy we’d have to work on our manuscripts and the closer we’d be to following our dreams of being published.

Twelve weeks in is the perfect time to reflect on what I’ve learned so far:

  • I’ve started to see a clear pattern in the way I approach a story idea. I read the prompt over and over until a character begins to speak to me. I journal each morning, playing with possible story ideas for the character and feeling them out with many starts and stops. When I hit on the story it feels like something clicks and then, and only then, can I begin to write. If I start before that moment it will be rambling and I’ll have to start over.
  • I need the accountability of writing on deadline. My week has a definite rhythm now and it revolves around publishing on my blog and my photography. It feels comfortable and is getting easier. The first few weeks I waited until the last minute to begin and it resulted in a lot of late nights. Now, I publish on Saturday, rest on Sunday, and begin planning and thinking of the next story on Monday.
  • I find story ideas and photo opportunities everywhere. I sit still and feel the energy of the words inside me. I craft sentences in the shower, while I’m driving, and when I’m folding laundry. It feels like managed chaos—the energy has a place to go.
  • I’m making my writing a priority. I used to “try and write” around my schedule. I’d let things get in the way all the time, often seeking and finding ways to sabotage my writing time by doing things for others, cleaning my house, or playing games on my phone. I felt like I wasn’t a “real writer” and therefore I couldn’t take the time away from my family or my friends for a “hobby.” These short stories have shifted that. I write now because I must, and it is a priority.
  • My anxiety has lessened. The beauty of the weekly challenge is you have to post on a deadline so there isn’t time to short-circuit and collapse under the weight of self-doubt. I don’t have time to think too much about if what I’m writing is “good” or “good enough.” Time chases me and doesn’t allow me the space to think too long and hard about any of it. I can’t let Anna down. I can’t let myself down. I have to keep going.
  • It’s completely reframed the way I look at writing and my goals for the future. While I don’t have the time I thought I would for working on my manuscripts, I feel my writing style shifting and my skills improving with each short story. It feels like these words are necessary to keep growing my skills so when I return to my manuscripts it will be with fresh eyes and new skills. I still dream of being a published author, but I’m aware of the fact I’m not ready yet. I have more work to do.
  • I’m investing in myself. I’ve grown my readership on my blog and I’ve signed up for writing classes and workshops. I paid extra to have the ads taken off my website. I’ve not been this committed in the past, and I’m excited to see where it’s going.

The overall feeling is one of potential and growth. I don’t know why this project feels important, but it does. I’m going to keep moving forward and trust this is leading somewhere.

I’d like to thank my writing partner Anna for constantly pushing me, inspiring me, and blowing me away with her artwork and incredibly beautiful writing. I’m so happy to be on this journey with her. It’s fun to see how different we both interpret the prompt and I’m looking forward to a huge party with her at the end of the year.

Also, thank you to everyone who likes or comments on my blog. I value each and every one of you. Your support feels like a warm blanket I can slip into when the negative self-talk becomes too loud. It’s encouraging and appreciated.

See you on Saturday with my take on a haunted house story.


Write with us

If you find yourself in a rut or could use a framework for your chaotic creativity, consider joining us on this journey. We’d love to have you! There’s no commitment, and you can start and stop whenever you like. You make the rules for yourself. The prompt for the next week is at the bottom of our stories each week. Let me know if you write one of the prompts and I’ll link to your blog.

My 52 Week Challenge Journey

The Car Wash

“Auntie,” he calls from the back seat.

I adjust the rearview mirror so I can see him smiling from his car seat in his striped footie pajamas. He turns the tiny gold key to my jewelry box over and over in his small hand. We spent all morning unlocking tiny doors around the house, letting out imaginary rabbits to rush around and find carrots in the carpet.

“The van is dirty,” he says.

We make eye contact in the mirror and he giggles. His bright blue eyes are hidden behind my pink sunglasses and he’s wearing a knit blue cap. I play along.

“Are you sure?” I say. “It looks clean to me.”

“Yes! It’s dirty!”

“Well…what do you think we should do?”

“Car wash!”

He says the words with a squeak at the end. His entire body jerks and the sunglasses fall off his face.

“You think so, huh?” I say.

“Yes! Car wash!”

“I don’t know…”

“Car wash! Car wash! Car wash!”

He knows I’m going to give in and I do. When he sees the yellow duck on the sign he claps his hands and kicks his legs. I put on our song, “Working at the Car Wash” by Rosvelt, and pull the shade back from the sunroof so we can see the bubbles all around us.

“Ready?” 

“Yes!”

I watch the joy and excitement on his squishy face as he stares at the green, blue and purple bubbles. We sing, dance, and giggle over the harsh sounds of the water and the fat colorful rollers slapping against the van.

It’s pure joy.

A ritual we’ve discovered together.

An auntie thing.

He turns three on Saturday and I live for these pockets of magic we uncover. 

Our shared treasure.

They feel big and important.

And fleeting.

My own children are teenagers, beautiful and complex. We are close and continue to create new memories, but I miss when they were small enough I didn’t have to share them with school or friends.

When they were mine.

I’ve discovered playing with my nephew allows me to slip back into memories of my own kids in a new and different way; to uncover the feelings and sensations of burying them in the sand, snuggling them at bedtime, and holding them when they’ve fallen. 

These little snapshots of my kids at his age come into focus with surprising intensity. It’s like remembering an old language I used to speak, slipping on an old sweater, or opening a tiny door.

It’s a wonderful and unexpected gift.

All the love.

All the silliness.

All the tears.

All the firsts.

This week my son got his first bank account and started his first job. As I drive him to work it occurs to me it’s the exact route I took to his preschool. The feelings swelling up are familiar too; another moment of letting go and another shifting of our relationship.

The sadness I expect to come, however, doesn’t.

It feels different.

When I pick up him at 10 p.m. he requests a Happy Meal and hopes he gets a Stitch toy. He talks animately about his job and the people he met. He laughs and we listen to “Pump up the Jam” at high volume and sing along.

My boy.

There you are.

The pandemic and his accidents robbed him of growth and some of the firsts he should have had. It put us in a strange place of adversaries, and we’ve both lost the comfortable way we’d always been together. The silly way we could look back and move forward; our own dance.

I’m remembering it.

I hope he is too.

We have a lifetime of firsts left.

First job uniform.

52 Weeks – Week 7 – Childhood Home

Prompt: Selling a childhood home

Include: dreamscape, convince, pioneer, genesis, cumulous, jump, mash, condition, erase, gold

Read Anna’s Week 7

The Final Goodbye

I wasn’t always like this.

To look at me now you might think all kinds of bad things about me, but I can assure you my beginning hinted nothing at what was to come.

Built on a new curved road with fresh brown dirt and bright pine wood, everything about me said potential. My genesis was unremarkably normal as far as these things go, but it was paired with a sort of frenzied hopefulness for the kind of place you can be proud of. 

The suburban dreamscape of middle-class pioneers.

Plans and potential. 

Hopes and fresh starts.

My walls were painted bright colors and covered in wallpaper with large bold flowers. My rooms overflowed with golden light and fresh air. Every inch in pristine condition—new and welcoming, surrounded by tiny baby plants taking root in the soft soil.

It’s unfair to erase it all as if it didn’t happen, but I see you crying and perhaps you can’t remember. The dark cumulous clouds have blocked out all the light and all you can see is the eye of the storm. 

It’s okay.

I’ll remember for you.

There was a swing set, a dollhouse, and a front-yard wedding. Kids ran through my halls, drew on my walls, and hid in my cupboards. There were bubble baths and birthday parties.

A pot-bellied pig rushed through my screens and a dog died on my doorstep. Doves sang caged inside a back room, while a parakeet flew out the front door. There were guinea pigs and kittens and fish. 

I held you all, but you don’t seem to remember. 

You look and see the end of things and it breaks your heart. You see the way the broken things left unfixed became hazardous and ugly. The holes in the ceiling, the torn mashed carpet with exposed sharp nails, the brown-tinged water stains growing larger each day, and the tangles of weeds pushing through the cracks in the walls.

You try to convince yourself it’s all for the best, but you can’t let go. I see it in the way you touch my textured walls and turn the lights on and off. You take photos of my doorknobs, but you don’t recognize me. 

I don’t either.

Time has jumped ahead, and without someone to protect and sustain the old me, I’ve transformed into a living representation of the sadness I’ve held within me for the last decade.

It hurt to watch it happen. I could do nothing to stop it.

Oh, if I could have stopped it.

I want so much for things to be different, but we both know it’s neither of our faults and it can’t be undone.

Things break and things change.

You use a shovel to remove the garbage piled inside me into black shiny bags, an archeological dig of the past. I see you unearth a few treasures I protected for you, loading them into your van before you turn to say goodbye.

There’s so much we want to say to each other, but we don’t have to.

The love and memories we’ve shared are intact and unbroken.

We get to keep them and we don’t have to say anything.

I watch you take a pair of scissors and fight through the weeds to gather up the last of the spring roses, a fragrant bundle of pinks, yellows, and reds. Breathing them in, you trace the gold house numbers with a shaking finger.

You stand in the middle of the driveway and we stare at each other. I watch you fall off your bike and get a black eye, run across the street to play with your best friend, and kiss your boyfriend beside his car. I see the transformation of us both as if it’s happening in a blink before me.

It’s painfully beautiful.

Crossing your arms across your chest and squaring your feet, you seem unable to move.

I want you to go.

You haven’t lived here in a long time and neither of us are the same as we were. We’ve been looking back through a cloud of time, yearning for something long gone, but it must end.

It already has.

Release me and turn from here.

Go, dear child. 

Don’t look back.

I’ll be okay.

There will be a new future for me and there’s nothing left here for you.

Go.

It’s time.


Author’s note: When I read this week’s prompt I was flooded with memories of my childhood home. It felt visceral and raw, a wound not quite healed. I wrote about the experience of letting it go a few years ago, but apparently, I wasn’t done processing my feelings around the loss.

My childhood home wasn’t sold but was foreclosed upon. My brother and mother lived there, both suffering from depression. The house had endured a long-drawn-out decay, breaking bit by bit, and by the end, it was a mere shadow of the place I grew up.

It was something about the final goodbye which brought about the contrasts for me of how it was when I was a child compared to what it had become. I wrote this week’s short story in a rush, a blend of reality and fiction that poured out faster than I could type. It felt cathartic and I cried as I typed the final words. Three years later, I think I’m finally ready to let it go.

Related blog: Home, Broken, Home


Next week’s prompt: Week 8

Prompt: A wild animal loose in the house

Include: pregnant, community, logo, statistics, democracy, honesty, criminal, ankle, orange, comment


My 52 Week Challenge Journey

52 Weeks – Week 6 – The Hitchhiker

Prompt: Picking up a hitchhiker

Include: hospital, defer, interface, experiment, beaker, visualize, mattress, skyline, interpret, zap

Read Anna’s Week 6

Through the Glass Windshield

Alice can’t remember being this bored in her life. She flops down on her bed, disturbing a pile of textbooks and papers. Her tutors seem intent on overworking her since her sister left for college as if an increased workload could keep her from her feelings. Alice wishes it could.

Bianca, the fluffy white cat her sister left behind, jumps onto Alice’s stomach and begins kneading her belly with its paws. She should shove the cat off because she’ll get white hair all over her nice blue cardigan and white dress but she doesn’t think it’s fair. Bianca is sad too.

Alice reaches her fingers out in front of her toward the peaked ceiling of her attic bedroom. Her nanny Margaret used to say “adventure lies at your fingertips.” Alice can recall all the times she’s tried to see something beyond her fingertips, laying in the grass staring at the cloudless sky or crawling under one of the large hydrangea bushes and pressing her fingers through the mass of green and purple. To her, adventure seemed far beyond the reach of her fingertips, perhaps hidden behind a veil she couldn’t see.

Her parents haven’t been home in months, traveling for this thing or another, and Alice feels their absence mixing with her sister’s to form a sort of melancholy madness within her. Her feelings are like an underwater volcano rumbling and fuming but hidden under the deep dark water. The bubbles of hot steam would take days to reach the surface.

Bianca pounces on a pencil but lands on a pile of slippery paper. She does a sort of ungraceful pawing in an attempt to get her footing but ends up falling onto the floor. Alice rolls onto her stomach and peers at her. She’s shaking her paws and ignoring Alice as if it was her fault. This sort of thing used to make Alice laugh but instead she just feels sorry for the cat.

Alice rolls out of bed, straightens her dress, pulls up her white tights, and fixes her pearl necklace so the clasp rests at the back of her neck. Standing at her lone triangular window, she watches the gardeners weeding the flowerbeds along the driveway. She can recall waving to the flowers in the mornings as a child, especially the sunflowers and daisies as they moved their heads to follow the sun. She has an urge to do it again.

Pressing her fingertips into the glass she follows the line they make to the light blue VW Beetle her parents bought her for her sixteenth birthday, a car she’s driven only a handful of times. Alice rarely has anywhere to go. Tutors come to her. She has no friends. There are people who cook for her, clean for her and shop for her. She traces the round curve of the car with her fingers and makes a bold decision.

She slips on her black ballet flats and pats the now sleeping Bianca on the head before tiptoeing down the wooden stairs. She’s supposed to be studying and the house staff keeps a close eye on her. She can visualize a detailed report of her activity being compiled and sent to her parents daily and it makes her furious. She’s not something to be managed, and without her sister to distract those thoughts away, she lets them rage inside her. The volcano might be close to erupting.

A wooden rack by the tall front door contains a neat row of silver and brass keys of various sizes and shapes all hung on small black hooks. Alice has no idea what all the keys are for despite asking her parents and the staff numerous times. Her keys, the last in the row, are easy to spot thanks to the keychain her sister sent her; a silly grinning pink striped cat with a curling tail and yellow eyes.

Alice peeks through the stained glass of the front door to see where the gardeners are and smiles at the way the colored glass transforms the tidy lawn, flowerbeds, and trees into a kaleidoscope of topsy-turvy colors and shapes. It feels like magic. She opens the door and senses an opening inside herself; a beginning. She runs to the car before someone can stop her.

She imagines people are chasing her, calling her back to her room and her studies, but when she glances in her rearview mirror she sees nothing of the sort. Her quiet street remains neat and orderly with all the hedges clipped into unnatural shapes, not at all the way they grow in nature. Alice realizes she craves wildness, an undisturbed and disorderly place. She turns from the city and presses her fingers out in front of her-letting her fingertips lead the way.

At first, Alice drives with a hyper-focus on the rules of the road making sure to stay three car lengths from the vehicle in front of her and to stop for a full 10 seconds at each stop sign. She plays no music but listens for sirens or signs of someone following her. As the skyline of the city shrinks and disappears behind her, she keeps imagining she’ll be arrested and incarcerated for breaking a rule-the first time in her life.

When nothing happens, Alice begins to relax. She rolls down the window and lets the wind mess up her perfectly styled blonde hair. It occurs to her, in a rush, she’d left her cellphone and purse upstairs in her room. For a moment it feels like a fatal mistake. She imagines a true-crime podcast trying to make sense of her actions, taking her absence of forethought to be some dire clue. The feeling doesn’t take hold though. The further she drives without incident, the more it changes into a sense of giddy freedom. Nobody can track her and she can do what she wants. It makes her laugh.

Alice finds herself leaving the highway and driving on a series of two-lane roads weaving through a part of town she didn’t know existed. There are tall fields of wild grasses dotted by an occasional horse or cow, long driveways disappearing into clumps of tall trees, dusty tractors cutting deep grooves into the soil, and watery rice fields with long-necked white cranes. It feels reckless and Alice enjoys the feeling. Each turn feels like an unwinding or maybe a winding up.

After going across a series of small one-lane bridges she turns onto a dark strip of road filled with things both wonderful and scary; tall unmanaged weeds with giant thorns, rows of scraggly trees leaning across the road as if trying to touch each other, rusted cars stripped and naked without seats or mirrors, and a heaping pile of junk with a faded yellow mattress set on the top like a dirty garbage throne. 

It’s a bumpy road and it occurs to Alice she doesn’t know how to change a tire. She slows to avoid needing to figure it out when she spots a strange short man standing dressed in an expensive and spotlessly clean white linen suit. He holds a large gold pocket watch in his hand attached to his jacket by an extravagant gleaming chain. Her windows are down, and as she nears him, she can hear him exclaiming in a quick agitated voice.

“I’m late! I’m late! Oh, this isn’t good at all. I’m so late and I do have such an important date. Oh me, oh my! I’m late.”

Alice stops the car beside the man, aware this isn’t something she should do. Vaguely she recalls the words “stranger danger,” but dismisses it because he looks familiar. He has small watery eyes and hops from foot to foot.

“Are you alright?” Alice calls.

The man jumps, quite high considering his large belly, and then peers into the passenger window at Alice. She notices this close up he’s got a small thin mustache and rather large ears. The buttons on his jacket are gold faces, all slightly different expressions, but all with large bulbous noses. The man looks at his watch and then back at her several times before speaking.

“I’m so late! I’m so very very late!”

“Would you like a ride?” Alice asks.

She’s shocked at her boldness and marvels at how different being impulsive feels. The man looks from the watch to her and back again. He smiles at Alice and she wishes she could remember where she knows him from, perhaps he’s a friend of her father.

“I’m late! I’m so very late!” he says. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing, but if you really don’t mind…”

He’d given her a chance to change her mind, but Alice unlocks the door and smiles at him. She’s being a good citizen. This man is harmless and…he’s late!

He slides into the passenger seat bringing with him the unmistakable smell of flowers. He opens and shuts his pocket watch several times before erupting into a series of sneezes, each a bit larger than the last. He pulls out a white handkerchief covered in tiny red roses from his jacket pocket and loudly blows his nose.

“Are you okay?” Alice says.

The man sneezes again, and it’s such an exuberant thing it makes Alice giggle. She covers her mouth to stifle the sound, afraid to hurt his feelings. He opens and closes his watch, blows his nose several more times, and then stares at Alice.

“Do you have a cat?” he says.

Alice nods.

“I’m allergic,” he says and sneezes a few more times.

Alice wishes she’d not let Bianca climb all over her, but the man gives her another smile and his cheeks flush a light pink.

“I’m late,” he says, flipping the watch open again.

“Where should I take you?”

“That way,” he says.

He points straight ahead and Alice begins driving slow on the uneven road, avoiding holes in the ground and the odd pieces of garbage. She wants to speak to the man more, but he seems rather absorbed in looking at his watch, sneezing, and mumbling to himself.

“I’m late. Oh, dear. This will not do. I’m so late.”

“What are you late for?” Alice asks, unable to contain her curiosity.

The man doesn’t respond, and she thinks it would be rude to ask a second time. 

The road takes a sharp turn to the left followed by two more sharp turns to the left. Alice knows, logically, it should lead back to the place they started, but it does not. The road has become wide, smooth and lined by tall hedges cut the exact same height and width. They drive through a pair of golden gates toward an impressivly large mansion surrounded by gigantic rose bushes.

Alice pulls into a valet loop stopping directly in front of the house. Two men rush past her car with buckets of red paint and she swears they look oddly square. Without a word, her passenger jumps from the car, straightens his suit, and runs toward a gathering of people in the gardens to the left of the house. Alice can make out red banners, red carpets, and people dressed in fancy clothes. She calls after the man, but he doesn’t hear her. A long black car appears in her rearview mirror and honks impatiently for her to move.

Alice wonders about the party and why the man was so worried about being late. Perhaps he’s supposed to officiate a wedding or give out an award. Alice doesn’t like not knowing things. She plans to circle back to get some answers, but once she’s pulled away from the house the road narrows and narrows until it’s barely wide enough for her small car to pass. 

Without the ability to turn around she’s forced to continue as the one-lane road winds around and around and up and up. It’s dizzying how high she climbs and how cold the air becomes. Alice rolls up her windows as patches of snow appear beside the car. Tall pine trees form a barrier along the road and she can’t see anything past them. She fears the twisting road will go on forever, but it doesn’t.

Without warning the road stops at an enormous white wall stretching left and right as far as she can see. Alice rubs her eyes. She climbed a snowy mountain to arrive at the base of a wall with no snow in sight. How curious!

There’s a zapping electrical sound in the air and Alice rolls down her window to search for the source. She’s amazed at how warm the air has become. A tall thin man dressed in colorful clothing, layers, and layers of it, leans against the wall. He has a cloud of smoke in front of him, and as she watches, he breaks into an interpretive dance. The smoke changes color from white to blue as he moves in a fluid circular motion, his long arms and legs making graceful arches around him.

Alice can’t take her eyes off him and, as if she’d willed it to happen, he moves toward her car. He arrives at the driver’s window in a flurry of colorful smoke. He has one green eye and one blue. The smell of patchouli, sage, and clove fills her car and makes her dizzy. He gives her a relaxed smile she recognizes but can’t remember why.

“Who are you, man?” he asks.

He says it slowly, drawing out each word, and it makes Alice giggle. He spins in a circle, a blur of colorful silks floats around him like smoke. He smiles again, leaning so close his blue stone pendant necklace touches her arm.

“Who are you, man? Like, where did you come from?”

“I’m Alice. I came up the mountain. I mean I came down the mountain. Actually, I’m not sure.”

“Whoa, that’s trippy man. Did you go up or did you go down?”

“I don’t know.”

“Far out, man.”

Alice watches him as he begins to dance again, spinning and spinning until she worries he may fall down. He doesn’t. He pulls out a small wooden pipe and fills her car with green smoke smelling of pine needles. Alice swears it circles around him like a wreath, the old line from “Twas the Night Before Christmas” ringing in her head. He gives her a dimpled smile.

“Where are you going, Alice?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then how can you go there? I mean, how can you go somewhere you don’t know, man?”

“I don’t know.”

Alice feels confused. The man pulls out a dark brown bottle from a hidden pocket in his clothing and dumps two pills onto his dirty palm, one red and one blue. He holds them out for Alice to examine.

“One pill makes you larger. Like, real big, man. The biggest you can imagine being. You might not stop either, getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Alice nods but has no idea what he’s talking about.

“One pill makes you smaller. Like tiny, man. Like so small you can hide in plain sight and nobody can touch you. So so small.”

It occurs to Alice he’s some kind of drug addict and maybe these are experimental drugs or pills he created. He holds the pills out to her in offering, but she shakes her head no. He swallows both pills without water. He giggles and Alice does too. There’s a sort of mania about him, but it doesn’t feel dangerous. It feels electric.

Suddenly, a purple smoke smelling of lavender fills the car and it makes Alice feel a bit sleepy. The man begins dancing again and, as Alice watches, he appears to become bigger and smaller over and over. The wall behind him appears to grow and shrink as well. Alice rubs her eyes and realizes she might be drugged by the smoke. It’s an unsettling feeling, but it has made her too relaxed to fully care.

With a flourish, and returning to his regular size, he climbs into the passenger seat and shuts the door behind him. He points at the wall, a flurry of silver bracelets slipping up and down his arm.

“You want to go through, man? Break on through to the other side?”

Alice nods.

“You need to use the interface, man. You gotta like tell it to let you pass.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He points a long finger at the wall. His nails are painted purple and there’s a large butterfly ring on his thumb.

“Tell it, man. Tell the wall you want to go through.”

Alice leans out her window and faces the wall. She feels foolish.

“Can you let me pass, please?”

The man laughs and touches her hand. A spark of electric energy passes between them; a shock. His eyes blaze brightly.

“No, man. You got to tell it, not ask it. Tell it!”

Alice hasn’t had the occasion to demand anything in her life, so it feels awkward. He squeezes her hand reassuringly, and she feels another shock. She leans out the window toward the looming white wall and shouts with all her might.

“I demand you let me pass! Now!”

It works! The wall opens wide enough for the small blue car to pass through onto a wide-open countryside with rolling green hills in all directions. The sun shines overhead in a clear blue sky, and the man blows out a yellow smoke smelling of honeysuckles and springtime. He looks at Alice through the haze.

“Who are you, man?”

“Alice. I told you, remember?”

“Yeah, but like, what’s an Alice?”

Alice can’t think of what to say. It’s a strange question, one she hasn’t considered before, and she’s about to ask him who he is when he opens the door and rolls out of the car. Alice slams on the brakes, but he’s on his feet skipping up a small hill covered in daisies waving madly in a flurry of color and movement. Alice waves back until he disappears from view.

For a long time, Alice drives in silence pondering the strange man’s question; what’s an Alice? She’s defined herself by the roles she plays; the little sister, the dutiful daughter, and the student. Alice must be more though, right? She can’t simply be a thing to other people.

Last summer her sister took a course in philosophy and she’d become dull and full of unanswerable questions. Alice can recall her talking about reality and consciousness until she’d talked herself into a frenzy and cried herself to sleep. Alice feels close to the same feeling now.

The road takes a sharp right turn, and then another, and then a third. Alice finds she’s left the countryside behind and she’s passing a large hospital with rows of reflective windows reaching high into the sky. Straining to see the top, she doesn’t see a man crossing the road until she’s upon him. She slams on her brakes and stops less than an inch from his legs.

“Sorry!” Alice calls. “Are you okay?”

The man gives her a crooked smile and laughs with a small snort. He’s got a bulging brown leather bag draped across his chest and is carrying a large misshapen birthday cake on a plate with bright pink frosting. He rushes to her car window and leans in.

“Oh, it’s you!” he says.

He’s wearing dark black eyeliner accentuating murky blue eyes with tiny black pupils. Curly reddish hair peeks out from under a large black top hat with colorful patches. Dressed in purple pants with a maroon jacket, he bows slightly and Alice feels the spark of familiarity she’s been feeling all day. Curiouser and curiouser! 

“Do I know you?” she asks.

“Does a butcher know a baker or a candlestick maker? Does a sailor know a ship in the deep blue sea? Does a turtle know the sand it’s hatched into?”

“I suppose.”

“Suppose or supposed?”

“I don’t know.”

The man moves to the passenger side of the car and climbs in, bringing with him the sugary sweet smell of cake and frosting. The familiar pang of worry hits her stomach for a moment. She doesn’t know this man, for sure, but she dismisses it and realizes it has become easier and easier to do so.

The man unstraps the leather bag and lets it fall to the floor with a clattering of glass. He balances the cake on his knees and Alice can see “Very Merry Unbirthday” written in blue frosting across the top.

“Unbirthday?”

“Why, yes. Don’t mind if I do.”

While Alice resumes driving, the man retrieves from his bag a beaker of pale pink liquid and a white teacup with a matching saucer covered in tiny red hearts. Holding both above the cake, he pours the liquid from the beaker into his teacup splashing several drops onto the cake. He returns the beaker to his bag and sips his tea loudly.

Alice doesn’t want to make the mistakes she’d made with her other passengers today in her efforts to be polite. She’d like some answers. Perhaps it was yelling at the wall, but she feels braver and begins questioning the smiling man as he sips his pink tea, firing off one question after another.

“What is your name?”

“The Mad Hatter or Matt Hatter, or some call me Simply Mad or Raving Mad. I prefer Hatter or Hattie, but I do answer to all.”

He attempts to tip his hat to Alice and more of the pink tea drips onto the cake.

“Do you know a man who wears a white suit?”

“White suit, White suit, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”

“Do you know the colorful man with the smoke?”

“Oh, yes I know the smokey man, the smokey man, the smokey man. Oh, yes, I know the smokey man that lives on Drury Lane.”

The Hatter removes a small brown Dormouse from the front pocket of his jacket and sets it on the tea saucer. The sleeping thing wakes, puts its paws on the lip of the cup, and takes a long drink.

“Who is that?”

“Why he’s the cheese to my sandwich and the peanut butter to my jelly is all.”

The Hatter puts his ear down toward the Dormouse and nods as if the tiny thing is speaking to him.

“The Dormouse would like me to thank you for the ride. He’s quite fond of car rides and its been ever so long since we’ve had one.”

“Tell him he’s welcome.”

“Tell him yourself.”

The Hatter holds the Dormouse up toward Alice’s face and it blinks at her with small black eyes.

“You are welcome,” she says.

The Dormouse curls up into a ball in the plam of the Hatter and falls asleep.

“You must defer to me for all further inquiries,” the Hatter says.

He lurches forward with no warning and points excitedly out the window. The cake slides with him creating a trail of frosting on the door and on the sleeve of his shirt. Alice follows where he’s pointing.

“The hospital?” she asks.

“Yes, yes. I must go there,” the Hatter says. “The very merry unbirthday of my friend must take place today, for he might not have another one for a long time, poor fellow.”

“I’m sorry,” Alice says. “Didn’t we come from there?”

“Who can say where we come from? The land? The sea? The lollipop tree?”

Alice feels exhausted but turns the car around. Within a few minutes, they arrive at the place they started, but when she stops the car the Hatter begins to cry.

“Whatever is the matter?”

“Whatever is the Hatter you mean?”

“Why are you crying?”

“I’ve only just remembered that my friend, the March Hare, isn’t here because it’s April and that’s why you hit me with your car.”

Alice doesn’t know what to say so she drives away from the hospital. The Hatter pulls another beaker from his bag of a brownish liquid, pours it into his teacup, and drinks it down in one gulp.

“There!” he says.

He points to a park with a large pond and Alice pulls over. She recognizes this place and it feels comforting to be somewhere she’s been before. Her nanny Margret took her and her sister to this park each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for three hours-the happiest times of her childhood. The slides, swings, and sandbox look the same as she remembers. The Hatter jumps out the car and Alice follows him. He sets down the cake and pulls a patchwork quilt from his bag and spreads it on the ground near a wide Willow tree.

Alice smooths out her dress and straightens her legs out in front of her. She’s had quite an adventure! She imagines this must be what it feels like to visit old friends. Perhaps she has! She wants to ask the Hatter about it but is afraid it would break the spell and the happiness she feels.

“It’s time,” the Hatter says.

Sixteen white candles pop and sizzle on the top of the lopsided cake. The Dormouse peers at Alice from the brim of the black top hat and she’s certain he winks at her. Without warning the Hatter sings to Alice with an exuberance she can’t recall anyone ever showing her before. It brings tears to her eyes.

“A very merry unbirthday

To me?

To you

A very merry unbirthday

For me?

For you

Now blow the candle out, my dear

And make your wish come true

A very merry unbirthday to you.”

Alice blows out the candles. The Hatter pulls plates, forks, and a serving knife from his bag and cuts them each a thick slice of the cake. Alice eats it while staring at the ducks in the pond. There are two young girls holding hands by the edge of the water, the smallest leans in and whispers to the larger one. Alice knows this moment, a secret between sisters, and it’s sweeter than the cake.

Alice, the Hatter, and the Dormouse watch the sun change the sky to orange, yellow, and purple before plopping down at the edge of the horizon like a fat orange ball. The Dormouse yawns and the Hatter slips him into his pocket, giving Alice a smile she feels reaches every part of her.

Laying down on the blanket Alice raises her hands toward the sky and watches the faint light as it dims and goes out at her fingertips.


Author’s note: When I read the prompt my first thought was to continue my theme from last week and write about a woman picking up her grandmother as a teenger on the road and hearing her story-a nod to Field of Dreams. This idea felt overdone and I went through a list of other ideas; aliens, angels, demons, ghosts (Large Marge!), killers, a person from the future. I ticked each off as not feeling right until I came up with the idea of setting the story with characters from one of my favorite childhood books. I’ve always been attracted to the story of Alice in Wonderland and wondered what it might be like for Alice to revisit her friends at a time in her life she might need a little adventure. This was wicked fun to write, and although I’m certain I didn’t get the characters quite right, I hope you enjoyed it. Stay curious!


Next week’s prompt: Week 7

Prompt: Selling a childhood home

Include: dreamscape, convince, pioneer, genesis, cumulous, jump, mash, condition, erase, gold


The Mad Hatter by Lola White

My 52 Week Challenge Journey

The Unbirthday Song (Alice in Wonderland) lyrics © Walt Disney Music Co. Ltd., Walt Disney Music Company, Wonderland Music Company Inc.

52 Weeks – Week 3 – Fairy tales

Mash-up two classic fairy tales into one story

Include: fireplace, sword, grove, stroke, underbrush, mourn, seven, friendship, cardboard, giver

What is 52 weeks?

Read Anna’s Week 3 (my faithful writing partner)

It Bearly Fits

“What a waste of time,” Bruce says to nobody in particular. “I knew it wouldn’t fit any of those twelve silly sisters. I feel bad for their poor father with all of them talking at once and dancing everywhere. Such a nightmare.”

Prince Charming nods but says nothing. He holds his head high, mounts his pure white stallion, and kicks him forward with boots of shiny black leather. Bruce watches him for a moment, taking in his blonde curls, his golden crown of ivy, his white riding pants, and his blue velvet jacket. He looks like a boy playing a game, not a grown man who will be crowned King.

Bruce has been the valet and personal assistant to Prince Charming since he was seven. When he’d met the small, pale boy, his nanny had quit and his father wanted him to have a male attendant. Bruce thought it would be an easy job. He was happy to move out of his rundown shack, wear nice clothes, eat three meals a day, and live in the gleaming white palace.

He had no idea how difficult the job would be. At first, the young boy would run from him and hide all over the palace. He’d jump out and scare the maids, break things and run, or leave the palace grounds and roam the nearby villages. Each time the prince got into trouble, it was Bruce who faced the consequences. He soon learned his real job was covering up the prince’s actions and hiding them from the King. Not an easy job at all.

When he was 8, Prince Charming became obsessed with a white lamb in the stables. He named it Weatherby and spent all his time carrying it around. The King had a strict no-animal policy in the palace, but the prince insisted on sneaking it inside and feeding it food he swiped from the cook. Each night, Bruce would remove the lamb from the prince’s arms and return it to the stables, and each morning he’d find it curled up sleeping on the prince’s pillow. Bruce would smuggle it back outside in his jacket before it could be discovered, leaving him smelling like an animal for the rest of the day.

When he was 10, Prince Charming decided he wanted to become a knight. Bruce would find him pulling a heavy sword down a hallway or practicing archery by shooting the King’s prized pumpkins. Once he snuck out at night and tried to join the watchmen, wearing one of their uniforms he’d swiped from the laundress. Bruce had to follow him everywhere, making sure he didn’t hurt himself or others.

As the prince grew, he showed less and less interest in playing games or sneaking around. Instead, he grew sullen and serious. He’d walk around the gardens with his head hung low, refusing to do his lessons or practice his swordsmanship. Bruce became more of a friend and mentor, encouraging the young prince to prepare himself for the day he would become King. They’d spend hours together reading, talking and Bruce grew quite fond of the prince.

On the prince’s 16th birthday, a caravan arrived from the Eastern Kingdom bringing with it an auburn-haired girl wearing a flowing dress of bight pink. Her name was Princess Papillon and she was presented to the prince as his betrothed, an arrangement made when he was a baby to brokerage peace. He knew nothing about the deal, and neither did Bruce. It felt like a cruel birthday joke, and the prince was furious. He refused to have anything to do with her, even if she was incredibly beautiful.

“She’s a pink pampered poodle of a person,” he’d screamed loud enough for the entire palace to hear.

Bruce knew the prince’s anger was about being told who he had to marry, rather than towards the girl herself. However, the statement caused a great rift between the two kingdoms. It almost ended in war. Lucky for all involved, the King was a powerful negotiator and, after many days of heated discussion, he was able to negotiate a peace treaty involving trade benefits in the Eastern Kingdom’s favor.

The moment the delegation left, the King rounded on Prince Charming. They had a terrible fight, and the prince said he would rather give up his title than marry any woman his father chose for him. As the prince is the sole heir to the throne, a compromise had to be found. 

The “Who Wants to be the Queen?” ball held last night was the compromise. The King invited every girl in the kingdom, including princesses from far and wide, and the prince agreed to pick one to be his future queen. It was an elaborate evening with the finest of everything; food, clothing, decorations, and musicians. Bruce got quite drunk and figured the evening would end with the prince happy and content, but things got strange.

The mysterious girl the prince spent the evening dancing with, a stunning girl with golden hair and sparkling bright eyes, suddenly dashed out of the palace at midnight leaving behind her glass slipper on the grand staircase. Prince Charming, devastated and heartsick, organized a quest at once. Bruce, as his right-hand man, had spent the last six hours knocking on doors and shoving the slipper on the sweaty foot of more girls than he can count. It’s been exhausting, demeaning and rather depressing to see the Prince acting so lovesick.

It takes several soldiers to hoist Bruce back on his horse, a brown filly with a gut as round as his own. Both Bruce and the horse grunt, the horse from carrying his weight, and Bruce weary from lack of sleep and a night of excess food and drink, even for Bruce. A soldier hands him the golden basket containing the slipper, and he considers, for about the hundredth time, dropping it on the forest floor and watching it shatter. Instead, he kicks his horse forward until he’s beside Prince Charming.

“Sire,” Bruce tries. “I know I’ve said this already, but I wish you’d reconsider. This girl should be coming to you, not the other way around. You should not have to track her down. You are going to be King. It’s unbecoming.”

Prince Charming’s hand rests on the hilt of his sword, but he says nothing. Bruce pulls on the reins, and his horse slows. They ride in silence, surrounded by a dozen soldiers and pages, toward the next house on the search. Bruce knows when the prince has his mindset and there’s nothing he can say or do to change it.

Everyone at the ball agreed, the girl had the glow of magic about her. Bruce worries she may have been an enchantress who has bewitched the young prince. Her quick disappearance, the one glass slipper, and his complete and utter obsession with her all points to sorcery. He’d tried to get an audience with the King to share this opinion, but he would not grant one. As usual, the King wants results and doesn’t care how they happen. While the King’s focused on securing his legacy by having the prince married, Bruce wants the prince to be happy.

A family of rabbits dart from the underbrush, scaring the horses who whinny and jerk to a stop. Bruce loses his grip on the basket, and it tumbles from his hands. A freckled-face young page dives off his horse and catches the basket before it hits the ground. He stands, several fresh cuts on his cheek and arm, and bows before Bruce.

“I saved it,” he says.

“So you did,” says Bruce.

Prince Charming gives the young boy a nod, and he beams. He will be telling this story to his family for years to come, the day he saved the glass slipper for the prince. He limps over to his small horse and remounts. The other pages give him encouraging smiles, but Bruce scowls. This was so close to being over.

They’ve been riding in the direct sunlight for an hour and Bruce feels weak and light-headed. He clutches the basket with one hand and wipes sweat from his eyes with the other. He sighs with relief when they turn off the main road and enter a dense grove of tall redwood trees.

The path here’s a bit overgrown, and he considers catching up to Prince Charming to suggest they return to the road when a small two-story cottage comes into view. It’s made of wood and thatch, with a pattern like a stacked deck of cards, boards of varying dark and white wood. There’s a kind of wildness about the place, and it makes the hairs on Bruce’s arms stand on end.

Prince Charming dismounts and waits with his hands on his hips for Bruce. It’s a bit of a process to get the chubby man off his horse, and it involves several guards and a fair amount of moaning. Stiffly, he carries the basket and meets the prince at the door.

“This could be the place,” the prince says. “I can feel it. We are getting nearer to her.”

“Sure,” Bruce says.

Prince Charming grabs him by his shoulders and spins him so they are facing each other. There’s a look of manic love in those baby blue eyes, a sort of desperate hopefulness Bruce can’t ignore. For a moment he forgets his pains and wishes happiness for the young prince.

“We will find her,” he says.

“Your friendship means the world to me. I can’t imagine doing this without you.”

“There’s no place I’d rather be.”

He’s surprised he means it and hopes the owner of the slipper loves Prince Charming and isn’t an evil enchantress. He gestures for the royal horns to be blown and knocks on the door. It’s a few minutes before a high voice can be heard through the heavy wood.

“Who’s there?”

“Open the door,” Bruce yells. “Prince Charming has arrived and demands an audience with you at once.”

“Seems a bit harsh,” the prince whispers.

Bruce agrees, but it’s the first time he’s had to answer such a question. Each house before had thrown open its doors when they heard the horse hooves on the road. All had laid out elaborate settings of food and wine. Bruce had eaten and drank more than he could handle, but he was taken back by this house’s lack of pomp.

The door opens with a creak, and they are face to face with a young girl dressed in a strange costume. She’s wearing large round glasses, far too big for her face, making her eyes appear as two giant saucers of blueberry jam. An oversized pink-flowered bonnet covers her hair, ears, and forehead. Wrapped around her body, held closed by a rather dirty hand, is a tattered quilt of brown and green squares with a noticeable amount of brown fur clinging to it.

She blinks and yawns. It’s clear they have woken her up, even though it’s getting close to lunchtime. She shifts and it looks like she might close the door in their faces.

“What’s going on?” she says.

There’s no mistaking the grumpiness in her voice, and the prince takes a step back. She scowls and for a second, Bruce worries she may attack them. Perhaps she’s a wild child living alone in the woods. He takes a protective step in front of the prince.

“Are you the only one home?” Bruce asks.

He tries to peer behind the girl, but she’s blocking the doorway. She lowers the glasses from her nose and gives them a good look, up and down. Her gaze stops on the prince’s crown, and her face transforms. She gives them a huge smile of brilliantly white teeth, and her voice becomes sugary sweet. 

“Wait a second. Did you say he was a prince? Like The Prince Charming?”

“Yes,” Bruce says.

The girl giggles, her cheeks turning instantly pink. She bows, bending her body so her nose touches the floor. The pink bonnet falls from her head revealing an abundance of shiny blonde ringlets. She stands and removes the oversized glasses, but her blue eyes remain large and bright. She throws the quilt to the floor and bounces on her heels.

“A prince has come to see me,” she says. “It’s my lucky day!”

She does a sort of elaborate curtsey, with one knee almost touching the floor and one leg pulled far behind her. Her dress, soft blue checkered with a fluffy white petticoat underneath, has splotches of porridge all down the front. She doesn’t seem to notice though, beaming at the prince.

“Oh, you’ve caught me at a bad time,” she says, grabbing his hand and pulling him forward. “I’m usually much more bubbly. Please, come in and join me by the fireplace.”

The prince doesn’t move, so she yanks his arm. The guards press forward, but he waves them away.

“Come on,” she says.

He allows her to pull him into the dark cottage. Letting go of his hand, she chucks large pieces of wood in the direction of the fireplace but misses terribly. She knocks over a table, a beautiful yellow-flowered lamp smashes onto the floor.

“Oops!“ she says.

The cottage has the look of a bar after a huge fight. The kitchen table has one empty wooden bowl set in the center, but two others sit on the floor, the sticky contents of uneaten porridge pooling around them. By the fireplace, a large and medium-sized chair are knocked over and covered with dirty shoe marks. A small wooden chair has been smashed to pieces. The girl picks up a splintered leg, breaking it free with a loud snapping sound, and adds it to the wood she’s stacked in and around the fireplace.

“We don’t need a fire,” Bruce says.

“Oh,” the girl says.

“What’s your name?” the prince says.  

“Oh, silly me. I didn’t tell you! Why I’m Goldilocks! You know, the girl with the beautiful hair. Everyone knows me.”

“I don’t know you,” Bruce says.

“Don’t be silly,” the prince says and gives Bruce a reproaching look. “Goldilocks. Of course, we know you. It’s a pleasure to see you again.”

He holds out his hand and she shakes it up and down so vigorously the crown on his head slips to the side. He removes his hand, wiping the sticky remnants of dried porridge on the back of Bruce’s shirt, and straightens his crown.

“We are sorry to intrude,” Bruce says. “Thanks for letting us in, but we better get moving.”

Bruce thought, for sure, the prince would agree to skip the foot of this very odd child, but the prince scowls at Bruce, and returns his attention to Goldilocks. He gives her a little bow, which causes her to giggle madly and blush.

“We are traveling throughout the kingdom today in search of a girl who was at the ball last night,” the prince says. “She left her glass slipper and we are trying to return it.”

Goldilocks smiles and, for the first time, she notices the basket in Bruce’s hands. She reaches forward to stroke it, but he steps back before she can. Her hands twitch, and for a moment, he can see a bit of anger in her blue eyes. She composes herself and walks into the kitchen.

“There’s a chair in here,” she calls.

Bruce sees her grab an object off the counter and slip it behind her back. He sighs. He didn’t know how many young ladies in this land could be sneaky and dishonest. Many, including this young girl, didn’t even attend the ball. Yet, he knows how important this quest and the ritual have become to the prince.

“I’m waiting,” Goldilocks calls in a sing-song voice.

Bruce and the prince follow Goldilocks to the kitchen. She’s sitting on a large wooden chair, her small bare feet dangling in front of her. Bruce hands the basket to the prince and lowers himself into a kneeling position. His joints creak and he feels a sharp stabbing pain in his lower back. He’s too old and too fat for this nonsense. He clears his throat, and begins the ceremony, exactly as he’s done each time.

“Goldilocks, please present your foot,” he says.

The girl wiggles her toes and giggles. He grabs the foot in his hand, it’s warm, covered in dirt, and smells faintly of bread.

“The glass slipper,” Bruce says.

The prince takes it out with two hands and closes his eyes. 

“Oh, sweet giver of the beautiful slipper, I will find thee,” he thinks. “I won’t rest until you are in my arms again.”

He can feel her energy attached to the glass slipper, and while he knows it’s not the girl before him now, he feels a certain reverence for the process. It’s practice for when he finds her. He wants the moment to be perfect.

“Last night the most…”

Goldilocks doesn’t wait for the prince’s speech, but instead yanks the slipper from his hand and spins around in the large chair with it held to her chest. The prince screams and lunges for her, knocking Bruce from his kneeled position to his butt. Goldilocks hops onto the table, turns her back to them, and slips it onto her left foot.

“It fits!” she yells. “Look at me! I’m the Princess! I’m the Princess!”

She dances across the table, the glass slipper tapping, her barefoot slapping. Tap. Slap. Tap. Slap. The prince feels light-headed and staggers back until he’s leaning against the kitchen sink. Bruce tries to get up but falls onto his back like a turtle. The soldiers look confused, and sort of shuffle around the room.

The front door swings open with a growl, and a family of three bears stomp in; a father bear, a mother bear, and a wee baby bear. They are dressed in fine clothing and holding baskets of fresh-picked blueberries. They scan the room with wide eyes, taking in the terrible mess, the dancing girl, the prince, Bruce, and the soldiers.

They all three growl, a low rumbling sound, and the soldiers move toward the prince.

“My bonnet,” Mother bear says.

“My glasses,” Father bear says.

“My blankie,” Baby bear says.

Goldilocks continues her slap, tap dance on the table, oblivious to the scene unfolding around her. The soldiers help Bruce to his feet and form a huddle around him and the prince. They watch as the bears walk around the room, pointing out broken items to each other, getting more and more upset.

“My chair’s covered in shoe prints,” father bear says.

“My chair’s torn and filthy,” mother bear says.

“My chair’s broken,” baby bear wails.

Father bear growls. Mother bear growls. Baby bear wails. They stalk toward the prince and Bruce, the soldiers form an even tighter circle around them. The bears look from the group of men to the dancing girl, and back.

“Who did this?” Father bear growls. 

The hair on the back of his neck stands on end as he notices the spilled bowls of porridge on the ground. The prince peeks through the wall of soldiers and points at Goldilocks.

“She stole my glass slipper too,” he says.

Father bear growls. Mother bear growls. Baby bear growls. 

The prince, Bruce, and the soldiers turn away.

Slap. Tap. Slap. Tap.

“I’m the princess!”

There’s a loud roaring, followed by ripping and tearing. The men cover their ears and inch as one group across the room and out the front door. A few moments later the door opens behind them and the three bears emerge. 

Father bears mouth drips red.

Mother bears mouth drips red. 

Baby bears mouth drips red.

“Here,” baby bear says in a wee voice.

He holds the now ruby red glass slipper in his small paws. It’s unbroken, and they can see a large piece of bread shoved in the toe. The prince takes the slipper with shaking hands.

“Thank you,” the prince says.

The bears say nothing, returning to the house and slamming the heavy door behind them. A page removes the bread and uses water and a cloth to clean the glass slipper, polishing it and polishing it until it’s returned to its former beauty. It’s placed back into the golden basket, everyone mounts their horses, and they continue on their quest.

Not one of them, not even the freckled-faced page, pauses to mourn the death of Goldilocks.

Author’s note: My favorite part of motherhood has been reading to my children. I’ve read them all the classic fairy tales, as well as hundreds of picture books and chapter books. This prompt had me spinning in lots of directions for several days, until I happened to be eating oatmeal for breakfast and the image of Prince Charming and a bloody shoe came to me. I had so much fun writing this short story, and I sure hope you enjoyed reading it.

My little Prince Charming and his butterfly princess sister.

Next week’s prompt: Week 4

A missionary in a remote village

Include: orchestra, finch, aim, development, ex, bold, old-fashioned, gut, brassy, sharp

52 Weeks – Week 1 – Igraine

Prompt: A new take on the Arthurian legend

Include the words: Avalon, crossbow, orphan, list, comrade, corruption, lake, enfold, disgraceful, grass

What is 52 weeks?

Read Anna’s Week 1 (my writing partner and collaborator on this project)

Photo/Bridgette White

The Heart and the Stone

Someone has swept all the dried leaves from the grey stone floors and polished the colorful wood of the massive round table until its surface gleamed like a mirror. I squeeze between two of the tall backed chairs and place my palms on the cool, smooth surface. My face looks dark and angular in the flickering firelight.

It’s been four days since I arrived at Camelot to find I was too late. It turns out the prophecy delivered to me was true, and my son has ridden with his armies into the thick of it. I pull my woolen shawl tight around my shoulders and squint at my reflection, searching my eyes to see if they’ve been altered by what I’ve done.

My mind slips into memory, not of things past, but of things which are to happen, or maybe not. The images torment me, taunt me, and I wonder if she’s the one who set this all in motion. I wish I could stop the vision, but it comes, as it has for seven days now. It comes, relentless and vivid, and I’m helpless to stop it.

My beautiful son lies bleeding near an ancient oak tree, its branches rustling in a terrifying wind. His bright sword, Excalibur, sits bloody and still across his body. His deep blue eyes, the eyes of his father, are filled with terror and fight. I see him mouth my name, Igraine. He doesn’t say mother, or beloved, but instead my name. Igraine. He knows not of my true undying love for him. He knows not of the burning ache inside, always longing to be with him, and he remembers not the embraces and kisses I smothered him with as a babe. No, he cries out the name of the woman he hopes will feel his dying and perhaps do something to stop it. A silver-clad comrade, a crossbow strapped to his back, appears from the woods running towards Arthur, screaming his name, but it’s too late. The light from his eyes fades and his lips stop saying my name.

I rode as fast as I could the day the vision first came, but I arrived too late. Camelot was empty, the staff wide-eyed and teary, but not welcoming. No, they had no love for the mother of their king, for they’ve heard the stories, and they believe the lies. I knew the moment I arrived that I would seek her out, that this would be where it happens, but it took me four days to find the courage to set it in motion. Now I must wait and I must see his dying moments replayed in my mind over and over until I can be sure it’s undone.

“My lady,” a small voice whispers behind me.

I’m startled, but I don’t allow it to show. I turn, holding my head high and my back straight. It’s a thin girl with pale skin, one of the half-dozen servants I’ve seen the last few days. Strands of dirty blonde hair escape from beneath an off-white cap, and she’s got smudges of dirt on her small freckled nose. She holds a heavily loaded tray out in front of her with both hands and bows her head.

She’s probably one of the many orphans Arthur has taken into his care. Stories about the compassionate king who pulled the sword from the stone have been told across the land. Told and retold in taverns, castles, and all the places in-between. These stories of kindness and bravery seem fantastical, but I don’t doubt they are true. 

While I haven’t seen my son in 20 years, I know his heart. The boy who would collect wildflowers and bring them to me, the boy who curled in my lap as I read to him at night, and the boy who rescued wounded animals and nursed them back to health. My heart could sing ballads of all the good of Arthur, long before he became king, and long before he wasn’t mine anymore.

The young girl makes a sort of small squeak, like a wounded puppy. She’s staring at the floor, at the soft brown leather boots on my feet, and at the mud and grass sticking to the sides, soiling the cleanliness of the majestic hall. I know what disgraceful things have been said about me, and I wonder if she believes them. She won’t meet my gaze, so I imagine she does.

“No thanks,” I say. “Take it away.”

The ceramic teapot and cup rattle on the wooden tray, her hands and body shaking as if raked with fever. She doesn’t look up from the floor but speaks again. Her voice is now breathy and panicky. I wonder who made her come in here. 

“My lady, I was told not to take no for an answer,” she says.

The poor child looks as if she may collapse, so I motion for her to set the tray on the table. She shakes her head no and makes the same sound as before. It takes a moment for me to realize, I sigh. The rules.

“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “Nobody may use this table until my son returns.”

It’s one of the many rules I’ve learned since my arrival in Camelot, always delivered by some young servant with shaking hands and downcast eyes. I’m unsure if there’s an actual list of these rules somewhere, or if they are created by someone who wants me to know how unwanted I am here. Whoever gives the servants orders, they must be scarier than me.

The girl says nothing, but silent tears fall down her face. I wish I could enfold her to my bosom and tell her all will be well, but I cannot. I have lost the ability to comfort others, as my son’s dying face fades in and out of my vision. I point to a small round table set near the fireplace.

“Set it over there,” I say, “and please leave me. I don’t want any more interruptions, no matter what anyone tells you.”

The girl sets down the tray with a thud and runs as fast as she can out of the room. A sick feeling rushes through me, making me weak and dizzy. I close my eyes and summon stillness and strength, calling it to me as I was trained to do during my time in Avalon, amongst the priestesses. I walk with silent footsteps to the oversized brown leather chair by the fire and sit stiffly with both feet on the floor in front of me. I allow the full force of the feeling to hit me.

It’s happening faster than I thought. I consider drinking some of the tea, but my body hums and vibrates, and I know it won’t be possible to swallow it. The coldness inside burns, but my body begins to sweat. I stare into the fire, trying to see the happy image promised to me. I see nothing but the flames and feel nothing but the chill, as I replay the night, the horrible details clear and naked before me.

***

She’s easy to find, far easier than I expected. Her hut lies in the exact spot I’d been told it would be, deep in the woods, past the boulder fields, and nestled on the shore of a long-forgotten bog filled with decay and death. The smell overwhelms me, but the sound of my son’s pleas moves me forward until I’m standing at the doorway of a sideways leaning shack, the wood covered in greenish grey moss and mold. I knock hard on the scraggly door of rotting, softwood, and it responds with a squishy, soft thud, barely audible.

“Come in,” a scratchy voice says. “I’ve been expecting you.”

For indeed, this is the way of things, I think. Prophecy and fate, for I must have known all my life I’d end up here with this wretched spirit. Her voice sounds familiar, the stuff of nightmares, and a terrifying internal tugging accompany the sound. My body recoils and I fall to my knees and puke onto a pile of dead leaves. Something stirs, moving through the brownish mound, and I stand before I can see what it is. The door creaks, shifting toward me, and I turn the handle. I’ve already made up my mind, there’s no turning back.

The hut is small and dark, but several shafts of sunlight spike through the tattered roof and illuminate the scene before me. A horribly thin woman sits naked in the center of the dirt floor, a pile of grey skin and bones. Her legs are twisted to her sides, bent at odd angles, as if she’d been crushed. Tall piles of too-white bones lay around her. Long grey hair falls over her face and breasts, tangled and filthy. I try not to think of the things she’s eaten or killed, but instead on why I’m here, and what I’ve come to bargain for.

“You know the price,” she says.

She laughs, a short screechy sound I feel move through me like a gust of wind. She picks up two long bones, femurs, and smacks them together before dragging them in the black dirt, drawing two spiraling circles weaving in and out of each other. She presses harder and harder, the bones digging deeper and deeper, creating furrows in the ground. Grunting, she presses harder and harder still until the bones snap in two. The sound lingers and moves around me, mocking me. She lifts one of the broken bones to her mouth and licks it, her tongue a snake darting out of her hair and back, one quick repulsive motion.

She hums deeply and rocks back and forth. Then pulls a rough stone from under one of her thighs and sharpens the broken piece of bone, rubbing it back and forth across the dark rock. The continuous humming and sharpening sounds make me feel weak, but I don’t dare sit on the floor. I’ve heard the stories of those who show weakness in her presence.

“Say the words,” she says, “and it will be done.”

She continues to rock, to sharpen, and to hum. I’m dizzy, and I don’t want to say the words, but the face of my boy dances around me. All the faces of my boy, from the day I pulled him from my body to his dying moment, they flash like lightning before me, a cruel horrible storm of time, love, guilt, and regret. 

 I know the moment has come. I have no other choice. It’s now or he will die. Fate, it seems, has no wiggle room. Stepping forward, I hold myself in the regal way I was taught. I let down my defenses, all my guards, and speak clearly and strongly. 

“Save Arthur. Save my son,” I say. “Please. I will pay the price.”

The words slice through the air, stopping all other movements and sounds. A wind rushes around us, moving the hair from her face, revealing dark holes where eyes should be. She leaps to her feet and rushes toward me, faster than a diving hawk. I watch, outside myself, as she stabs the sharpened bone into my chest, into my heart. I feel the blood pour from my body, the corruption of my soul, the death of all I’ve been or ever will be. I don’t scream, and I don’t cry.

We stand locked in this position, her boney body pressed against mine and a wide, toothy smile on her skeletal face. Her teeth are sharp, and for a moment I think she will lunge at my throat, but she yanks the bone from my body and retreats to her spot on the floor, to her pile of bones. She begins licking and sucking the bloody bone, a horrible slurping sound, and I walk, dazed, out the door into the moonlight.

Never have I seen such a moon, so full of light and life. Merlin once told me it’s a giant stone in the sky, nothing more. Like a boulder in the middle of the ocean, held in time and place, but responsible for the movements of the tides and the flow of blood in a woman’s body. I didn’t understand until this moment. It’s as if death, its icy grip tight around my throat, wants me to truly see what I’m leaving behind.

As I walk back toward Camelot, I feel resolved. I would choose to save my son every single time. My life hasn’t been what I thought it would be when I was young, my dreams of adventure and epic love dashed and broken. I’ve made bad choices, I’ve hurt those I love, and I’ve suffered. But I saved Arthur, and I loved him with all I am, and for that, I am beyond grateful.

I touch my chest, expecting a gaping hole, but find none. There’s no trace of blood or gore on my body or my clothes, but I can feel it moving through me. I didn’t know death would be so cold. As I reach the top of a small hill, Camelot comes into view. The sun rises behind it, making the glorious castle glow golden and pink. It could be in heaven, I think. Such beauty belongs to Arthur, not to me. 

“Arthur’s back! Arthur’s back! The war’s over! We won!”

The excited voice of a small boy breaks the silence of the hall, and I realize I’d fallen into a trance as I watched the flames, reliving the last few hours, and feeling the cold devour me, bit by bit. I’m empty of the truest part of me, and I know it’s nearing time. I want to gather Arthur into my arms and feel his warmth, feel the life in his body, and tell him I love him. He must know I love him, he must know all the things I’ve held back, all the truths, and all the sacrifices. 

No.

The hall’s alive with activity; colorful banners and flags appear on the walls, the large chandeliers burn bright with dozens of candles, enormous barrels of ale with shining silver spigots appear everywhere, and plates of hot food and large, pewter mugs cover the famous round table. Servants rush to and fro, smiles on their faces, singing and laughing. Arthur’s alive and so, it seems, is Camelot.

The sounds of horns, horses, and metal armor reach the castle, and I stand. Nobody notices me, as I take a final look at the place my son created, at the people he protects. This victory will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for these people, his people. I know this to be true, the same way I know I shall never embrace my son again.

Weaving through the rushing servants, I exit the great hall. With all the strength left in my body, I hurry through empty corridors until I reach a small wooden door at the back of the castle. It’s left ajar, beckoning me outside, as if Camelot has decided to help me, to protect the king.

Nobody notices as I walk down the stone staircase, through the beautiful gardens, and to the shore of the lake. A bit of fog hugs the edges of the water, but it’s not too thick, and I can see the trees reflected in the glassy, smooth surface. I stop with my toe at the edge, savoring the sounds of celebration in the distance, and lift a large white stone into my arms.

I won’t allow Arthur’s victory and joy to be crushed by my death. It would be cruel to die in his arms, although my heart longs for nothing else. Oh, to hear his voice say, “I love you, dear mother.” I can’t think of it. 

No, my disappearance, if he’s told of my visit at all, will not seem out of character for me. My son has grown used to my comings and goings, my life seemingly my own. He knows not of the ways I’ve guided the world to bend toward him, and he will know nothing of my death or the price I paid to save him.

I step into the cold water, its iciness matches the chill already infecting my body from within. My dress and shawl absorb the water, forcing me to fight them, to fight for every step. I know not what awaits me, but I know this is the way it ends. I’d seen it as a child, felt it every time I was near the water. Yes, this is how it ends.

I step over slippery stones, see small fish rush away from my boots until I reach an underwater ledge, a drop-off so deep I can see nothing but blackness. Cradling the stone in my arms, as if it’s my baby, my Arthur, I step into the deep, and allow myself to sink below the surface.


Author’s note: With this prompt, I decided to play with the idea of the martyr mother. My son recently turned 17, and I’ve been experiencing some strong feelings as we navigate a new relationship. It’s been painful, and although I strive to not slip into martyr or victim mode, it felt like the perfect moment and story to explore the idea of giving all to our children without expecting anything in return.

Next week’s prompt: Week 2

Anonymous gifts start arriving at the doorstep

Include the words: teenager, camouflage, birch, harmony, rifle, screen door, wrinkle, dive, pick-up, sticker

The 52 Week Writing Challenge

Photo/Bridgette White

There’s something magical about mushrooms. I can’t pass one up without examining it. I don’t understand how they can be so varying, yet so beautifully the same.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been playing with writing. I’ve fumbled along with blog posts, journal writing, and a few manuscripts, all in an attempt to craft fiction and art from the bits and pieces of my life. It’s messy, nonlinear, and I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time. Luckily, I’ve not had to do it alone.

I met Anna when our children were babies, and we weaved in and out of each other’s orbit for years. My fondest memories include camping along the river with her and her daughter, building fairy houses, and dancing under the stars.

During the pandemic, Anna introduced me to The Artist’s Way. As we worked through the prompts, we grew in our craft and friendship. This led us to complete two years of NaNoWriMo, inspiring and supporting each other through the ups and downs of life and art. Anna’s empathy, kindness, intuition, and raw talent make her a powerful artist and wonderful friend.

Now, as we continue to evolve as writing/accountably partners, we’ve decided to tackle a new project for the year we are calling; 52 weeks, 52 short stories. It’s a way to stay connected, to work on our craft, and to play with our words and our blogs.

Using the story prompts from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. we will share our stories each week on our blogs as well as share each other’s work. You can find Anna’s writing and beautiful artwork at https://loscotoff.com. I’m excited to see the direction we each take these prompts, and how much we learn about ourselves and our craft through the process.

If you want to join in the fun, I’ll post the next week’s prompt at the end of my story each week. Let’s write and grow together.

Dillion Beach last summer

Writing prompt #3: The Pledge

Two weeks late and a bit meandering, I give you this short story I’m calling “The Pledge.”

I’d love to know what you think of the characters and if you’d read more. Thanks again to Angelica for the prompt.

Enjoy.

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I push my bare feet into the familiarity of my cracked red cowboy boots. The dampness makes the worn leather grab them, so I have to pull hard. The sore muscles in my hands twitch in disagreement. It takes thirty seconds, but with his eyes on the back of me and the heavy stone returning to my gut, it’s like an endless looping moment.

Turning around, I see he is as I left him, laying on his back under the green sweeping branches of the old Willow Tree. He has slipped his brown corduroy pants back on, but his chest remains exposed and flushed. His bushy blonde hair and beard, thick legs and arms, give him the appearance of a resting lion. I blush remembering the hunt. He pats the ground next to him and I turn away.

“Don’t go yet,” he says.

His voice smoky and panting calls me back to our hidden spot and my body responds with natural instinct, a betrayal of my true intentions. The warring of my conscience, volleying back and forth, makes me sway in place for a moment. I kick a rock with the toe of my boot and watch it hit a boulder and break into uneven pieces. I don’t know if I can end this, or if I do, what will be left of me.

The rainclouds grow darker and fat drops fall onto my tangled red hair, bringing goosebumps spiraling from my neck to my arms and legs. The soft fabric of my favorite yellow sundress is plastered to my body, outlining its curving shape and my missing undergarments. The rock shifts in my stomach and I lean forward to avoid my boots as I release everything I’ve eaten in the last day on the mossy ground.

Shivering, I recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” in my head, my hand covering my heart in a motion so practiced it could not be restrained.

“I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America…”

In the moonlight, my father’s face looks as if it was carved from an elephant’s tusk, pale white and severe. There is a dark brown evening shadow of hair running in an almost straight line from his ears to his cheekbones, ending in a patch on his pointed chin. His eyebrows are pitched toward his nose in a deep scowl, making his blue eyes almost disappear into his wrinkled face. He spits a glob of foam onto the ground and twirls the hard, white ball in one hand.

I’m standing at the five-sided home plate in our backyard, holding the heavy wooden bat in my small hands. A tall, wispy girl of six, I’m dressed in jeans and a faded yellow t-shirt. My nails are thick with dirt from digging with the neighbor boy for worms near the creek behind our house. I concentrate on placing my weight on the balls of my feet and keeping a slight bend in my knees.

My father brings his arms together in front of his body,  pulling back and lifting one knee, he pitches the ball. Fear overcomes training, I close my eyes and freeze in place. The ball hits me hard on my side and I fall to the ground, tears coming faster than I can stop them. The bat rolls away and I gasp for air.

“Get up.”

He is snarling at me from his raised pitching mound, the anger hot between us. I wipe the tears with my hands, the dirt stinging my eyes. My lungs stab with pain, but I force myself to my feet and stumble toward the bat’s resting place a few feet away. When I bend to lift the bat, the pain makes me cry out. I turn to him, begging with my eyes for us to be done, but he doesn’t return the gaze. He walks toward me, retrieves the ball near my scuffed pink tennis shoes, and returns to his dirty throne.

“Again.”

I place my feet shoulder-width apart and hold the bat, making sure my index finger on the bottom hand is bent around but separate from the other fingers. I adjust the angle and keep my eye on the ball. Don’t look away. Don’t flinch.

“…And to the Republic for Which it Stands…”

Standing side by side, I try to stay in unison with my father’s deep voice as we say the pledge together. He pronounces each word sharp and crisp. When he finishes, he turns to me, tilting my ten-year-old face to his. He is wearing his dark blue army uniform, the special occasion one with the shiny gold buttons and the polished black boots. I don’t know if he is carrying his gun. He grabs both my hands in his.

“Never forget today.”

The seams of my white gloves press into my palms as he squeezes hard. We turn back toward the hole in the yard where Gretchen lay dead and stiff. Dad’s flannel shirt is laid across the lower part of her body and her favorite chew toy, a stuffed mallard with missing eyeballs, is placed in her paws as if she’s holding it. I’m scared she might move at any minute and lunge at me with her wild eyes and sharp teeth.

Dad stands at attention, and I do as well. I’m wearing a pleated yellow dress he ironed with starch and it itches, like bugs crawling on my stomach and chest. I look at the stand of beech trees near the back fence, yearning to play, and he grabs my chin, returning my gaze to the hole. Gretchen’s face is locked in a permanent growl and I swear I hear it rumbling out of her dead mouth. I shiver and squirm.

He slaps me across the face. My neck whips around and I fall to the ground, the smell of rotting dog making me gag. My face burns, my eyes refuse to focus and I puke, a dismal array of undigested oatmeal and orange juice. He pulls me to my feet, my white patent leather shoes scuffed with dirt, and screams into my face of disrespect and disappointment. I can’t see his face. I stammer an apology and return to his side. We stand at attention, the throbbing of my head making me sway, and say the pledge over and over as the stench of Gretchen’s body covers us.

“…One Nation under God…”

He holds my hand as we watch the casket, my father tucked inside, lowered into the ground. The sun is shining bright and the sky is electric blue and free of clouds. Sweat makes the black lace of my dress stick to my skin and drips streak the backs of my legs. I squint and cover my face with my free hand, pretending tears I can’t seem to force.

A soldier, young enough to have pimples on his chin, hands me a triangle of an American flag. It’s heavy in my arms and I resist the urge to throw it on the ground. All eyes are on us, the grieving couple. I’m about to say something when he makes a strangled cough which turns into a heaving sob, his bulky form shaking next to me. He sounds like a fish gasping for air. I keep my eyes on the hole in the ground.

My father and I met him at a car show. He was standing next to a bright red 1966 Ford F100. It had been his father’s truck and he was honoring his memory by showing it. He had long blonde hair pulled back into a neat ponytail and a trimmed blonde beard. He was dressed in a sandy brown suit, ironed creases along the center of the pant legs, and a soft yellow handkerchief folded with three points in the left breast pocket. His smile warmed my body. My dad was impressed and invited him to dinner at our house. We were married six months later, five days after my 18th birthday.

My father loved him, greeting him every time by gripping his arms and pulling him into a deep embrace. They never spoke harsh of each other, only of me. His sobs crescendo, his body wobbling back and forth as everyone watches. The light catches his wedding ring. I should pull it off his finger and throw it onto the casket.

He looks beautiful in his expensive Italian suit with its three round buttons, embroidered silk tie, and pale-yellow handkerchief. He’d polished his shoes for two hours this morning, but they look dull in the brightness of the noon sun. He goes silent and snaps his body to attention. His voice cracks as he leads everyone in saying the pledge my father lived. We all join in.

“…Indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.”

I spit the last strings of vomit on the ground and tilt my head back so the raindrops fall on my face. I close my eyes. The ground is slick and puddled under my boots. I should not have come to him again. He wipes my face with soft yellow fabric and folds me into his arms, the scent of him like pine forests and mud. His lips brush my neck, licking rainwater and warming the air. I look at my red leather boots and beg them to walk away.

 

 

 

Writing prompt #2

I’ve been working on my novel for several years, a task which involves writing the same paragraph seventeen times, scrapping it and then crying. I suppose there are other methods, but I like to suffer. Clearly.

As you can imagine, it’s not so fun. It’s work. Self-imposed work with no deadline or guarantee anything will come of it. Soul-feeding and soul-draining work.

Free writing, however, is as fun as I remembered. Letting a story flow, without edit and overthinking, is creative play and makes me feel giddy.

Here is my second free write with Reece Writing. Be sure to read her chilling take on the same prompt.

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Grandmother’s left side of her body is smaller than her right, giving her a lopsided gait and a frailty which compels strangers to want to open doors for her or offer her assistance. She refuses, giving the well-intentioned person a scolding look. This is followed by her story, unpacked in a measured tone, each word well-rehearsed and precise, trapping the would-be good-doer with her piercing black eyes.

We are at Save Mart picking up a cake for her 90th birthday party, a task she did not trust me to complete alone. A tired mother with a sleeping baby strapped to her chest in a colorful sling, and an excited toddler bellowing his ABCs while stacking groceries into towers inside the cart, makes the mistake of smiling at Grandmother and asking her if she needs anything.

Grandmother sits down on the cracked leather seat of her walker, taking a small box of tissues out of the flower print bag hanging from the metal bars, and sets it on her lap. She holds up her left hand, it looks like bones covered in blueish veins held together with greying tissue paper.

“I had Polio at five months old,” she begins.

Her voice is loud for someone so small and I see the woman’s look, the one they all give as she begins her story. Sympathy at first, perhaps even interest, but as she continues, it transforms into embarrassment and then a desperate desire to flee.

“My mother wept for the first five years of my life. She was heartbroken at the imperfection of her only child, this weak and disfigured girl who didn’t smile or speak. My father says my Polio is what killed my mother, but I know it was something more. I felt the truth the moment I was born, and I carry it still.”

If she can keep her audience, the story continues with her two marriages, one good and one bad, her ten children, eight surviving to adulthood, and the three-bedroom house she has lived in all her life. Few people stay for the entire story. If they do, it’s older women wearing long skirts or flowering dresses and they want to hug her after. Grandmother does not permit any kind of touching but will give them a tissue from the box. If they don’t leave, she will begin again.

The young mother doesn’t make it past the story of the first marriage. The toddler screeches and throws crackers at Grandmother as the newborn baby begins to wail and snuffle at her covered breasts. The poor woman apologizes and backs away. She appears shaken and I offer to help, but she’s moving fast away from us, headed toward the opposite side of the store.

“Here’s your cake.”

The woman behind the counter, a 20-something with bright blue eyes and a blond pony-tail high on the back of her head, smiles at us with the box open for our inspection. Grandmother stands and peers inside. It’s a vanilla cake in the shape of a house, frosted green with yellow shutters, and the number 90 written in gold icing on the front door.

“Perfect,” I say.

Grandmother turns to me and scowls, making a growling sound in the back of her throat, and walks toward the glass front doors of the store.

“Nothing’s perfect,” she calls. “Hurry up.”

I thank the woman and pay, balancing the cake in my arms to find Grandmother sitting behind the wheel of her pale blue 1970s Cadillac. The windows are rolled down and her walker sits on the curb next to the car. I set the cake on the back seat, fold up her walker and place it into the cavernous trunk.

“You move like a sloth,” she calls. “You better hold the cake on your lap.”

I retrieve the cake and take my seat, expecting her to slam on the gas, but instead, she’s frozen. Her hands are gripping the steering wheel, making the knuckle bones look as if they will pop through her papery skin. She is staring at a middle-aged man, plain and a bit pudgy, getting out of the white Ford sedan next to us. He returns her stare, glaring with deep-set grey eyes. I recognize the look, but don’t want to.

“No,” I whisper.

“No choice,” she says.

“It’s your birthday Grandmother, and everyone is waiting at the house for us. We could ignore it.”

“Get my walker.”

“Grandmother…”

She stares at me, her black eyes burning and I blush from shame.

“Now.”

I return the cake to the backseat and get her walker. The man is standing at the cake counter by the time we get inside, unaware of what is to come. I wish I was. He is talking to the same girl we got our cake from and she is blushing and giggling in excess. She likes him.

He is wearing faded denim jeans, a button-up grey shirt, and plain brown shoes. His sandy blonde hair is balding in the back, and he has a small trimmed mustache. Grandmother walks over to him and touches him on the arm with her left hand. He flinches and glares at her. I see it flash across his face so transparent I wonder why he’s never been caught.

“Can I help you?”

He is trying to recover, his voice sugary and sweet, but the fear is making him tremble and his temples are wet with sweat. He smirks at Grandmother, the telling grin of a confident hunter, and my stomach burns with acid. Patience, I tell myself.

“I’m wondering if you can help me,” Grandmother says.

“Oh…umm…sure.”

He is staring at the blond girl, her name tag says Angela, and I wonder if she’ll ever know how close she came to death.

“I’ll be right back,” he says.

He touches Angela’s forearm with a finger, a tickling swipe to mark her, and she blushes. How long has he been planning today? How many cakes has he bought in preparation? She giggles at some joke he whispers, and I feel nauseous and sleepy. Grandmother’s voice wakes me.

“I need help getting something out of my trunk,” she says. “It’s too big for my granddaughter and me to handle, but you look strong.”

Her syrupy voice, the one she uses for this purpose, awakens the calling inside me and I find the stillness. My training takes over. I beam at him, making myself smaller and more attractive. I sway my hips as I step into place next to him, placing my arm onto his, steadying him. I stare into those dim eyes, past the monster, to the prey. He blinks and wipes the sweat from his forehead.

“Oh, I can’t thank you enough for helping us,” I say.

“It’s no trouble,” he says.

I lead him to the car. He stumbles a few times, mumbling in a voice low and wobbly. He is confused, his instincts trying to wake him. I’m stronger. Grandmother is waiting at the open trunk. He stares at her and tries to speak, but words are lost to him. He climbs into the trunk and lays down, his arms at his sides.

“That’s a good boy,” Grandmother says.

He unsnaps a hunting knife from a leather strap around his calf and hands it to me. It’s warm and smells musky. I wrap it in a rag and put it into the glove box. Grandmother closes the trunk, stores her walker behind her seat and brings the V-8 engine rattling to life.

“Don’t forget the cake. You should hold it on your lap.”

I do as she says, the weight of the cake box comforting. I resist the urge to open it and dip my finger into the sweet icing. My body feels weak and hungry.

“We will take care of him after the party,” she says. “I don’t want to keep everyone waiting.”

“Yes, Grandmother.”

“You did well, child. You may be ready to do this without me.”

“Thank you, Grandmother.”

She begins to sing a song from her childhood, the words as familiar to me as my own breath. I join in and our rising voices become one.

“When the shadows of the evening creep across the sky,

And your mommy comes upstairs to sing a lullaby,

Tell her that the Bogeyman no longer frightens you,

Grandmother very kindly taught you what to do!”

*Adapted from “Hush Hush Hush Here Comes the Bogey Man” by Henry Hall