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A PERFECT MURDER • by Jamie McKittrick

I poisoned the King’s dinner. Got the dish put down right in front of him. The taster Dostori came over, took a healthy spoonful and went back to his corner. I struck up a song. They were just about ready to eat when a choking came from the corner and everyone looked to see Dostori vomiting up a chunk of his stomach. His face contorted with pain and his eyes — frantic — bulged as if they would burst. Many around the table stood up in horror to see. Dostori lunged around the hall grasping at the backs of chairs and looking helplessly into faces. His mouth opened and closed like a fish’s. He bent over and retched again and a long trickle of blood danced like a worm from his mouth to the floor.

Nobody would touch him as he sprawled around the room. He died on the floor in what must have been terrible agony. The King motioned a couple of guards over who removed the dish and then Dostori’s limp body. A foul slug trail of blood marked the path they took. The room was sealed and an inquiry undertaken. A foreign diplomat said, “Do you seriously think the assassin would be here with us now?” He was led away to a cell. Later when the sheriff was satisfied that the present company was innocent he made a declaration that he would find the culprit and have his head on a spike within the week. When I crept up behind and tugged at his sleeve he spun around and turned his gaze down to me. I said, “Excuse me, sheriff, I think you overlooked me!” Laughter erupted, tension subsided. There was a cheer to the King’s health. I struck up his favourite song.

Last night at the feast the sheriff rolled up to me drunk on wine and with laughing red lips slapped me hard on the back saying, “Well, dwarf, it looks like you won’t get your money from Dostori after all!” I replicated his laughter then sang for all to hear.

It’s true, Dostori gave me a whack
When last I asked for my money back.
But, Sheriff, don’t you think it’s funny:
Some things go beyond money!

I threw a bag of coins in the air and in the flurry of scrambling servants I saw the sheriff’s expression change. If he weren’t such a mutant I’d almost believe a thought flickered between his eyes. But he could spend ten lifetimes working on this mystery and never deduce the truth. I became giddy with secrets. I even threw myself onto the King’s lap and shouted, “It was I who poisoned your plate, Your Majesty, because you haven’t been paying attention to me lately!” Then I kissed him all over his face and as he pushed me to the ground everybody laughed and laughed. I spun cartwheels across the floor.

The man who sold me the phial of poison told me it was an old witch’s recipe but I suspect it was actually ground-up glass. I’ve heard the tiny shards do terrible things to the stomach. And once they enter the blood they begin to shred every part of the body from the inside. Imagine Dostori having a million knives slicing away inside his veins; how he must have felt as the glass pulsed through his brain and ripped at his eyes until he was blind — a vicious army of ants marching through his every fibre!

***

This morning I looked out of my little window. A soft mist lapped gently at the hills and as the day began to bloom the sun glanced off a windowpane and infused the low haze with a pink light. I made a decision to keep this little codex diary to remind myself of the flush of life I felt seeing Dostori as a corpse on the floor. His undoing has infused my whole being like that sunbeam through the mist. This journal will help to keep fresh in my mind the image of his body slumped dead, the electric hush that fell promptly on the room. I want it to feel new each time I think on how sour his skin turned, how knotted his face became in those last seconds, and that magic instant when I saw his eyes turn blank and knew in my core he was gone. The joys of vengeance have no place here; this is a much more rewarding pleasure, a little ball of juddering excitement that shakes with rude energy inside my ribcage. Sometimes I feel so powerful that I think I might just explode with a gleeful yelp.

Even if they were to find these little scribbles, what would they see? I could have the sheriff and all his men here in my room right now flicking through my papers, looking at every last page. They would look at my confessions and see only the amusingly obscene drawings of a silly little dwarf jester. An elegantly simple but utterly unbreakable code.

***

The coroner reported back today it was a potent corrosive killed Dostori, not ground glass as I imagined. No matter, I’ve not felt so good in years. But in spite of these ripples of joy that rebound through my frame my murderous mind continues to wander. If the cook saw me that night in the kitchen he’d doubtless squeal on me. I think I remember him calling me a filthy midget once and spitting in my food. Yes, I’m certain of it.

***

Tonight the sheriff has requested my attendance at a private ceremony in remembrance of Dostori. I will make them weep tears for the dead taster by singing the saddest songs I know. I will have their hearts all join mine in an exquisite sorrow. Then in the fading notes of my last strum I will break the most enormous wind and have everyone crumble into laughter. In this way they will happily forget that there ever was a Dostori.


Jamie McKittrick is a writer based in London, UK. He has a website and a Twitter feed @jamiemckittrick.


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Posted on November 21, 2014 in Fantasy, Stories
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WHEN AZIZA’S VOICE LIFTED • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Ascending in kafi, Aziza’s voice was raw sugar and pomegranate syrup poured through a smoky fire. It caught in your throat when you heard it.

It didn’t lift til later. First —

Her father was a Sufi Pir — like a plumber, he kept life flowing in the right direction. He counseled the troubled and wrote out blessings, and was conveniently located. Wonderfully soothing — a handsome old man who twinkled at will.

Her mother’s earthy graciousness calmed women entering the ladies’ parlor trembling with embarrassment and yearning; they’d be giggling before she led them to the master’s study.

Aziza looked a plain though cheerful bird; her sisters were brilliant in colors that set off their fairness but she liked shades of cinnamon, honey and ginger — a plump brown gulab-jamun warm from the kitchen herself.

God in His infinite mercy gives everyone a purpose; Aziza’s fruit chaat and perfectly-textured shami kebabs were a blessing, her parents always said, in their household whose door was always open. Our comfort and our gift, they said, as they married off her peach-and-almond-blossom sisters. You are our sunflower, they said.

No hope of daughters-in-law, but God granted them one daughter no burden to keep at home.

***

All this began as insidiously as an infestation of mice — that first little bite letting everything else in.

“Will you wait for me,” asked Bakhtyaar, “til I see my way through?”

He and Aziza had been schoolfellows, and ruined perhaps by a modern education. They believed in the existence of happy endings.

“Yes,” Aziza said.

A long wait was likely. Bakhtyaar, respectful, though perhaps too advanced for the times, had asked his parents to approve the match.

“Are my nieces so hideous,” his mother inquired, “that you are forced to disgrace us?”

Bakhtyaar’s father said, “Choose any cousin you like.”

Bakhtyaar wasn’t quarrelsome, or a liar. “I will complete my education,” he said. That was all he said.

He worked hard; he gained admission to a fine institution abroad; he went quietly away, leaving a sharp but invisible rift in someone’s universe.

Aziza, kneading dough for parathas one morning, thought of him, the grace of his movements sketching parabolas in space while they talked of some mathematical concept.

The sweetness of the memory made the pain of his absence, for a moment, unbearably sharper. Aziza meant only to relieve it with a sigh, but found herself exclaiming a Seraiki kafi to the rhythm of her hands and brought the servants to tears.

To be the child of a Sufi Pir is to have in one’s blood every form of poetry.

Aziza’s father had an overflowing library; his daughters grew up speaking that Persianized Urdu birthed in the Mughal court. They recited ghazals with exquisite subtlety; all had done admirably in their tenth-year exams.

But Persian and Urdu are sweet languages, best for beautiful formalities. To voice the heart-ravishment of a created being thirsting for God requires tongues more vigorous than those where penis is rendered as the organ of procreation.

The Sufis used the languages of the plains — Punjabi and Seraiki, where “sister-fucker” is curse and endearment–to transmute every function of the body into descriptor of the soul — the bed soaked and reeking after the Beloved has possessed you, all night, in every orifice — until love has brought you deliriously to the brink of death. Such poetry allows even the most unlettered to feel who God is, unto the very marrow of their bones.

Aziza’s parents returned from a journey to find neighbor women sitting cross-legged in their courtyard, hands pressed to the ground, swaying and crying out in a joyful anguish of devotion as Aziza’s voice consumed them with gutter words.

These words, of course, expressed sublimities. But her father, liberal as he was, felt unsettled by this rapture. Were these particular sublimities suited to the mouth of his daughter?

He and his wife suspected some derangement of the bodily humors.

“Well,” said Aziza truthfully, “something pinched me inside, and it had to come up or go down.”

They dosed her with digestive remedies but couldn’t expel that voice.

She sang at unpredictable moments and her audience couldn’t be sustained; women cannot, of course, drop their cooking spoons in deference to the nourishment of their souls.

But energy once created can’t be destroyed; that voice was everywhere even when Aziza spoke and laughed and hummed in her cheerfully ordinary way.

Bakhtyaar heard it, thousands of miles away. His soul ached with shame. I shouldn’t have made her wait, he thought.

He took a week’s leave and traveled straight to Aziza’s house and paid a respectful call on her father. He described the course of his education and what God, in His infinite mercy, had enabled him to do with it.

He asked for Aziza’s hand, hinting that a quick decision was necessary — he had only such a limited amount of leave. And he expressed doubt that elaborate wedding festivities were what God, in His wisdom, required for the sanctification of marriage. Why not make a small gift towards the establishment of a household?

Aziza’s parents approved of the way he thought — practical though he was, he might almost have been one of her father’s students. Perhaps they could relinquish Aziza, after all.

Aziza agreed this was an acceptable offer.

All of them regretted the derangement of bodily humors this would cause to Bakhtyaar’s parents, but who can resist fate?

***

Aziza’s body, like kulfi, was cool and sweet and melted at just the right times. Bakhtyaar found every corner of her delectable.

Miraculous too.

“Just the laws of physics,” she said, “but thank God you had wonderful hearing.”


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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Posted on November 20, 2014 in Fantasy, Romance, Stories
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A DRINKING TALE • by Christopher Owen

Marci and I run through the streets of Montmartre, drunk. Rain falls, turning the streetlights of Paris blurry against the dusk-time sky. Marci is barefoot, shoes in her hands, the streets too slick for high heels.

She seems particularly exuberant, and I like it. She’s been moody of late. Lecturing. But between then and now there’d been wine, which frees her soul like a bacchanal celebrant. It’s enough to make me forgive her incessant texting at each pub we’ve visited today.

We had started our day at a lunchtime writers’ social that took place at a restaurant atop Montmartre. The party was full of boring fellow writers who’d brought their big dreams with them to Paris, Hemingways every one of them. Marci had made me go. Good for you to network. Some publishers will be there too, Noel. Ha! At least there’d been plenty of booze. Wine. Beer. Spirits aplenty. Such tipple helps to fend off all the obligatory ‘how’s your writing going?’ and ‘have you published?’ remarks.

Such things bother me when I’m sober, but hours of steady drinking have alleviated that, and as I run with Marci, I feel good. Everything seems pre-ordained and possible when you’re drunk.

“Oh look, Darling, a little cat,” says Marci. I don’t bother to look. We’ve been playing this game all day.

“Let’s just go into the pub.”

“Oh, you,” she says. “Play the game.”

“Fine.” I look around. “What cat?  I don’t see any — ”

“She must have gone into that bar. Come on, let’s go in.”

Marci loves cats, and when she read Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain, she made up a game where she sees them around the streets of Paris. Today they always appear outside the doors of brasseries or pubs. I don’t really mind, I’m always rewarded with a drink inside.

We go in and I hear someone call Marci’s name. Marci’s eyes brighten and she pulls me along.

“Who the hell?” I whisper.

“Come on, it’s someone I want you to meet.”

“Is this who you’ve been texting all day?”

“Yes, now move.”

The man stands when we approach his table and holds out his hand to Marci. “Nice to finally meet you,” he says. “He then turns to me, hand held out like a hatchet. “Blake Vaughn,” he says, “Scrimshaw Publishing.”

We shake. We sit. We order drinks. My merciful bourbon arrives and helps to quell the queasy feeling that is growing inside me.

“Sorry I couldn’t make the social,” Blake tells us. “Crappy day. But hey, this worked out fine. So, Marci, shall we tell him the good news.”

“Good news?”

“Sure,” says Blake. “On behalf of Scrimshaw, I’m pleased to say that we’d like to buy Streets of Paris.”

“My novel?”

“Of course. I’ll forward you all the details via email, but Marci thought it would be nice for you to hear it in person, and well, since I was in town.”

“But, I didn’t submit it.”

“Oh, Noel,” says Marci. “I sent it. You’ve been worrying over that thing for a year since you finished it. Time to get it out there.”

“But it’s not done.”

“Well, I’d say it is,” says Blake. “Everyone thought it was brilliant. Consider yourself lucky. We don’t usually read unsoliciteds. But, Marci was convincing, and well, friend of a friend, you know.”

“Noel, don’t be mad. This is what you wanted. Take it. It’s time. And lord knows you need the money.”

Ouch, that stung. The grant that brought me to Paris to write has long since run out, and I’ve been living off Marci and her family’s good graces.

“I know this can be overwhelming,” says Blake. “Just look for my email, and think it over. No rush. But on that note, I’ve got to go.”

Blake pays and leaves. Marci smiles at me.

“Don’t be mad, Noel.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because you wouldn’t have sent it.”

“I would when it was ready.”

“Didn’t you hear him? It is ready. Let it go. Start another one. Every single word doesn’t have to be perfect.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Jesus, Noel, you haven’t even done anything to that manuscript in months. All we do is eat and drink and carry on like…”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, like you’re trying to be Hemingway or something.”

“Maybe I am.”

“Well, write like him, and stop drinking like the old sot for a change.”

“Great. A lecture.”

“Noel, I love you, but I’m tired of going on like this.” She stands.

“Where are you going?”

“Home. You can come if you want.”

“Hmph. Think I’ll hang here a bit. Looks like I’ve got a lot to think about.”

She leaves. Through the blurry windows I see her hail a cab and she is gone.

After a few moments I decide I don’t like the air in this place, so I go out and walk through the rain for a little while. At length I come to another pub. In the window is a little cat. I laugh in spite of myself. It’s the only god-damned real one we’ve seen all day. As I go into the pub, the refreshing scent of stale alcohol greets me.

Marci doesn’t know that I’ve stolen a good bit of Streets of Paris from others, taken freely the words and sentences of long dead writers languishing in obscure novels. My plan had been to turn those phrases into something I could call my own eventually, but the task has proven difficult. Perhaps I took up a crutch that never should have been used. But my mind, these days, is no longer sharp. Even my hands shake sometimes. Whatever, it will all come out soon enough. Who knows how much I will lose. The deal, certainly. My reputation. Perhaps Marci as well.

Still dripping rainwater, I approach the bar and order a drink. Outside, the streets of Paris echo with a million stories that I’ll never know or tell.


Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science fiction, Mirror Dance, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop and the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference.


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Posted on November 19, 2014 in Literary, Stories
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ON MEASURING TIME • by Austin Eichelberger

The morning my grandpa died, during the summer I turned eleven, I stumbled from my grandparents’ small cabin to Grandma’s car for a confused six a.m. ride to the hospital, my overweight grandfather already pale blue and slumped against his seat belt. In the back seat, holding the bulky car phone to my ear as Grandma drove, I spoke to the ambulance paramedics: “We just passed the fire station, can you meet us somewhere? Now we’re by a grocery store — Grandma, where are we?”

Just before bedtime about a month later, in that same cabin, my grandma stood quietly before the cuckoo clock that had hung silent since that trip to the hospital. The pink enamel of her clipped nails shuddered against the hanging chains of the clock as she reached for the black iron weights, pulled her arms back, reached out again and paused. “Dale?”

“Yeah, Grandma?” I sat on my bed in the room behind her, watching her instead of reading. My room was the same first-story bedroom my mom had grown up in, the same room from which I had retrieved the unopened Father’s Day card to slide into Grandpa’s coffin.

Grandma turned and stepped through the bedroom doorway. “I need to ask you something.”

She sat down on the twin bed across from me. Her fine hands fell to her lap but never stopped moving, like small birds – just as they would settle, one atop the other, they would lift up and re-settle the same way, again and again.

I pulled one of my knees up onto the bed and looked at the woman who volunteered five days a week at a soup kitchen because she just didn’t know what to do with retirement; who cussed under her breath at church before smiling and shaking hands with people who talked to her like she was stupid; who had whispered “Close your eyes” as she pulled a steak knife out of my forearm after I fell with it in my hand, lodging it there. “What is it, Grandma?”

“I need you to set the cuckoo clock. For eight in the morning.”

I glanced over at the clock I had seen a thousand times, the one Grandpa had brought back from Switzerland after World War 2: the meticulously carved oak shaped into a house, the delicate plank where a wooden cuckoo flitted out on the hour, the dangling chains and the iron weights shaped like pinecones hanging from them. “But I don’t really know how.”

Her hazel eyes darted to the floor, then back up to my face, the corners of her mouth trembling. “I can tell you. I’ll tell you how.”

I sat forward. “Can’t you do it?”

Her eyes shone glossy as she swallowed hard, turning to the clock, her head tilted up like one of the figures in the church’s stained glass windows. “Your grandpa used to do it. He used to pull the chains just before bed, last thing. And I know how, but when I go to, it reminds me that his hands aren’t here to do it.” She sniffled as I thought of Grandpa being pulled from the car by the paramedics, his blue face, limp arms. Grandma pushed her lips into a weak smile. “It’s fine. It’s just been strange to go through days without it chiming.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her lips barely parted. “Let’s get to bed now.”

We each stood and I kissed her cheek. She flipped the light switch off on her way out and went to lock the back door.

“Goodnight,” I said, my gaze on her from the soft darkness just beyond the open bedroom door. “See you in the morning.”

“Goodnight,” she said. She paused at the staircase — her face in light but heart falling under shadow — and her wet eyes flickered back to the cuckoo clock, the brittle wooden borders of the roof. Then she put a hand on the wobbly banister and walked slowly up the dark stairs.

A few minutes after Grandma creaked into the shadows of her bedroom, I rose from the bed and moved out into the hallway. In the heavy darkness before the cuckoo clock, I reached for the fine chains with shaking fingers — picturing all the times I had seen Grandpa raise and lower each wrought iron weight — and tugged gently, letting go of those that felt taut, pulling further those that gave way.


Austin Eichelberger is happily still teaching English and writing in New Mexico. His fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Gone Lawn, Extract(s), Eclectic Flash, First Stop Fiction, and others. More of his writing lives at austineichelberger.wordpress.com.


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Posted on November 18, 2014 in Literary, Stories
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OGLING JEREMY ANDERSON • by J. W. Shumate

The Andersons spent spring break ogling breathtaking vistas at the Columbia River Gorge. On the fifth day of ogling, little Jeremy swallowed a breathtaking vista. Nothing ogle-worthy remained. A few scraps of bark and the occasional puddle. This embarrassed Mr. Anderson.

“Spit that out right this minute,” he said, slapping the back of his son’s head. Angry tourists and their guides surrounded the Andersons, their cameras threatening to become clubs.

“I can’t,” said little Jeremy, “I’m all blocked up with serene beauty.” His breath smelled of waterfalls.

This only angered Mr. Anderson more. He was a practical man; tucked in, belted, combed over. He wasn’t a fan of flowery language, and he certainly wasn’t about to apply it to his son, who, with his mangled teeth and horse nose, had somehow bypassed the Law of Universal Cuteness in children his age. “Listen to what I tell you,” Mr. Anderson said.

“Listen to what your father tells you,” Mrs. Anderson said.

“Listen to what your parents tell you,” the angry tourists said.

The boy belched pine needles.

A shortish man in khakis approached the Andersons. “As a representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society,” he said, “I am obliged to take your son into custody until such a time as he relinquishes possession of said breathtaking vista. These folks have come from all corners of the world to ogle this particular breathtaking vista. Our economy depends upon such ogling.”

Mr. Anderson grabbed his son and thrust him into the air. “Step back or the kid eats the gift shop!”

A few tourists fainted. The representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society screamed.

“Let him gobble it up,” said the gift shop manager, a moled woman with a lunch lady physique. “Who wants to buy tee shirts and key chains and velvet paintings depicting a breathtaking vista that doesn’t exist?” Half the tourists thrashed into their oversized plastic shopping bags, hunting for receipts.

The representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society took a few steps toward the Andersons, who were backing away with their hostage breathtaking vista child. “Can’t we reason this out?”

“What’s to reason?” asked Mr. Anderson. “Don’t think I’m not tanning his hide when we get home.”

“Can I take a look at him?”

“He’s hardly breathtaking.” Mr. Anderson shoved his kid forward.

“Open your mouth there, boy.”

Jeremy looked back at his dad.

“Do as the nice man says, Jeremy,” said Mrs. Anderson.

Jeremy did as the nice man said. The representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society stuck a finger in the boy’s mouth and peeked inside: the hawks were circling over the ancient trees, breathtakingly. “It’s all there,” he said. “A nice place to visit, a better place to bring home in the form of tee shirts, key chains, and velvet paintings. Take a look everyone, and don’t forget your cameras.  Single file!”

The tourists shrugged and lined up in front of the boy. An old couple on their second honeymoon was first — they took turns stretching Jeremy’s mouth and pointing at the nature down his throat.

“Ma,” mumbled Jeremy, “I sick. Don’ like dis.”

“Shut up,” said the tourist. “My wife can’t see the mountains.”

Mr. Anderson went off to the side and whispered with the representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society. They returned in seconds, holding hands.

“Five dollars per view!” they said.

“Oh, I’m so proud of him!” Mrs. Anderson said, holding another tourist’s toddler up to peep inside her son.

Mr. Anderson sat in a foldout chair beside Jeremy, patting the boy’s arm and weeping tears of pride. The line went around the corner of the gift shop, which now sold tee shirts and key chains and velvet paintings depicting Jeremy’s mouth depicting a breathtaking vista.

“Isn’t he wonderful?” said Mr. Anderson between sobs. Another five dollar bill joined the others on his lap.

“Quite the wonderful spectacle indeed,” beamed the representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society.

“Isn’t he as precious as a dewy morning?” said Mr. Anderson.

“Dewy!  Yes, that’s it exactly!” said the gift shop manager.

“As the golden rays at sunrise?”

“I can see the rays, Mommy!” said a tourist child.

“As rose petals dripping with a fresh spring rain?”

Mrs. Anderson nodded, welcoming the next tourist in line.

“He’s scenic!”

“Scenic!”  Echoed the tourists, cameras clicking.

“He’s serene!”

“Serene!”

A deer hoof wiggled out of Jeremy’s mouth. Mr. Anderson pushed it back in with his palm.


J. W. Shumate earned his MFA from West Virginia University. He writes and teaches in Boston.


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Posted on November 17, 2014 in Humour/Satire, Stories, Surreal
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