I sat on the cold emerald-green stone floor waiting for the Magistrate to call out Tony Garibaldi, which would send me into the courtroom. I’d chewed my upper lip almost raw and didn’t need a mirror to know the freckled tan skin of my face looked several shades paler than usual. I needed a good comedy routine, and I needed it soon.
A guard with black and gray fur placed at the end of the hall kept me from running. She was big even for a Cantorian, a species of centaurs the size of large Earth horses, and could have passed for a Clydesdale with arms.
A cutter of the Cantorian Frontier Guard had brought me to their home world, Zondlar, and an officer who looked like a Pinto pony had deposited me in the courthouse. I’d said, “I’ve been telling you I didn’t mean to cross into your territory.”
“So you claim.”
“My ship made a navigational error. I know about your new laws and had no intention to perform archeology, even though it’s true I am an archeologist.”
“Humans are humorous. You will require that skill to regale the Magistrate with funny yarns.”
“What do you mean?”
“You will appear before the Magistrate for trial by comedy.”
He’d walked away hissing, the Cantorian form of laughter.
I’d muttered, “You could have told me sooner, you miserable horse’s ass,” while my heart skipped a few beats.
Cantorians had a capricious sense of justice, but determining my fate by comedy? I was no stand-up comedian. And what kind of comedy would they like? The puns and double entendres I knew were not all that humorous. The knock-knock jokes I could remember were infantile. When I recalled a few ancient shyster jokes, I figured I might have it.
Considering my legal situation, I thought better of actually telling lawyer jokes. However, the Cantorians hated a rival species that resembled lizards called the Brexans. They could serve as the butt of modified jokes. I also needed a scavenging lower animal and remembered a journal article about a fish on Zondlar called a carft that was similar to an Earth catfish. I rehearsed several jokes over and over in my mind while praying they were good enough.
The Magistrate called me into the courtroom, which looked appropriately ominous with its walls of dark wood. He reminded me of an Appaloosa and stood on a dais flanked by a semi-circle of 15 other Cantorians.
The Magistrate said, “You have entered our space with the intent to conduct archeology.” He held up a hand before I could open my mouth. “Do not attempt to deny it. Amuse us to avoid punishment. You have one mzixo-spin.”
One mzixo-spin. About one and a third minutes. Panic from the mother of all cases of stage fright gripped me for a few moments and my stomach seemed to be on a journey to the center of the planet. Then I took a deep breath, exhaled, and mumbled, “Well, here goes nothing.”
I launched into my routine in a firm voice. “How can you tell if it’s a carft or a Brexan squashed on a road?” With so little time allotted to me, I paused only a couple of heartbeats between the joke’s setup and punch lines. “There are tire skid marks in front of a carft.”
A few of the audience began hissing.
“What’s lost if a land bus tumbles over a cliff carrying a full load of Brexans? A bus.”
More began hissing.
“What’s the difference between a carft and a Brexan? One is a scum-sucking bottom feeder. The other is a fish.”
The entire audience was hissing, which put a grin on my face, the first in a while. I had time for one more joke.
“Did you hear about the Brexan monarch having a meal of carft brains last night? She puked them back out a few mzixo-spins later. They were the smartest things to ever come out of her mouth.”
The room contained a herd of hissing cats. Some of the Cantorians were even slapping the thighs of their front legs, a very humanlike gesture. My hope of freedom soared like an eagle. Against all odds, they thought my moldy old jokes were funny.
The Magistrate spoke after the hissing died down. “You are humorous. However, I must now consult with higher authorities.”
My hope plummeted like an eagle that had flown into a wind turbine. I chewed my lower lip, and soon moved on to my fingernails.
Less than an hour later, the Magistrate stood over me. “Sovereign Victorium desires to meet the first human so foolish as to test our new law prohibiting archeology, especially since you are comical.”
The huge guard escorted me to the Sovereign’s palace, a gleaming mansion built of light colored marble. Victorium sat on a plush purple throne before thirty to forty of her court. She looked like a Palomino that had gone gray.
Everyone quieted when she cleared her throat, and she looked at me wearing an expression that struck me as no-nonsense and stern. “If you amuse us, we will consider leniency. You should be warned we are not easily amused. Begin.”
As I told my jokes, many of the court started stifling their laughter, which sounded like heavy breathing. They clearly didn’t want to commit to laughing for some reason, perhaps until they saw what Victorium thought. I completed my routine and held my breath.
Victorium’s stern expression softened a bit. “You would have been far more amusing a short time ago. We will soon announce we are improving relations with the Brexans. At this time, a Brexan envoy is in the palace.” She paused for a few seconds. “For your punishment, you will spend 36 spins undergoing our new Brexan diversity and sensitivity training.”
My stomach churned for a few seconds, as if I’d eaten carft brains. Then my hope soared again. How bad could the training be?
Lance J. Mushung graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with an aerospace engineering degree. He worked for over 30 years with NASA contractors in Houston, Texas performing engineering work on the Space Shuttle and its payloads. Now retired, he writes science fiction.
In the days before the Great Recession, before the real estate bubble burst, before our family’s economic woes began, and before the aberrant behavior of Papa, my mother would take me, her only daughter, to the farmer’s market. It hid in the shade along Route 101 where cars roared, unaware of the treasures outside their air conditioned cages. Mama pinched and smelled fresh fruits and vegetables and chatted with merchants and friends. Everyone called her the Empress. She knew where the best avocados were tucked away, how to pick the juiciest tomatoes and best tasting onions and garlic, and which jalapenos had just the right amount of heat.
At home, with my three brothers shooed away, we peeled and chopped and boiled, producing the best salsa in our small California valley. The few jars not claimed by regular customers were sold in a roadside stand at the end of our dirt driveway.
“Galena,” Papa would say, “for that price, you may as well give away your salsa. Bad times are coming, I feel it.”
“Abran, this is my salsa. I want everyone to enjoy it. You want that only the rich can afford it? You worry too much.” Mama’s voice took on a shrill tone.
“I work hard. I have an important job. I know what is happening in the world.” His voice penetrated the walls, vibrating the windows in their sills.
“Important. Pah! You work on the line. How important can you be?”
“I’m the foreman of my shift. You have no idea how hard I work.”
The two of them yelled, but in the same way she ruled over the market and her kitchen, she applied the right amount of heat with Papa. When I heard the door to their room click shut and the bed creak, I knew. The Empress had won again.
For dinner she placed half of a buttery avocado, bursting with sweet, green flavor, on each of our plates. As we bit into the delicate softness of the fruit, smothered in her salsa, she said, “Never waste good avocados. Smashing them, that is no way to eat them. It spoils the texture.” Mama never mashed avocados.
This was all before Papa lost his job in the canning factory, before we found a sign on the door.
It was a Friday, Papa’s day off. After a morning of haggling and gossiping in the late summer heat, Mama and I returned to the house and drove up the dusty driveway. Mama’s sharp cry when she saw the sign boldly declaring “Foreclosure” on our door was my first clue that our lives had changed forever.
Even as she leaped out of the car and rushed to grab the sign, even as I lifted heady smelling bags of tender avocados and ripe tomatoes from the back seat, a part of me listened for the pounding of Papa fixing the roof or the rattle of the boys raking gravel. Silence hung in the humid, hot air.
“Boys,” she called, her voice rising. “Abran. Where are you?”
Miguel, the oldest, opened the door. His head hung down and dark hair straggled over his eyes. Mama lifted his chin and brushed hair out of his face.
His voice quivered as he told of a man in a suit driving up in a big, cream-colored car. When he reached the part about Papa yelling at the man, about Papa telling the man to get the hell off his land, about Papa, dazed and crazy, walking down the dirt drive, Miguel’s eyes grew round and he hung his head. He swallowed, but could not continue.
Mama chased the boys away and insisted that we make salsa. Papa never came home that long afternoon, and by dinnertime, with the salsa finished and dark pebbly fruit sitting on the cutting board, Mama had disappeared. I found her in her room, clenching the sign as dusk settled over the valley.
The sign fluttered to the floor. I picked it up and dropped it again when a loud knock startled me. I glanced at Mama, who remained as if cast for eternity at the window.
I opened the front door, and dusky light spilled into the room. A deputy sheriff removed his hat. “Miss.” He glanced back at his car, up at the sky, and at my feet. “Is your mother home?”
She appeared like a ghost behind me, and her pale face said everything.
“Sorry, ma’am.” My chest tightened and I couldn’t breathe. He looked at Mama’s face. “Sorry,” he said again, rubbing one hand along the rim of his hat, “there was a terrible accident. He dashed into the road. A car…” I didn’t wait to hear the rest. I ran back into the house and huddled under the kitchen table.
“Accident, meh, that was no accident.” The house shook from her anger and despair as she stomped down the hall.
With eyes so red they hurt me to look at them, Mama reached for a knife. Feeling powerless and as empty as the darkness, I had an image of blood spewing from wrists and fingers, slashed and mutilated by her anger. I muffled a cry as she raised the knife and picked up one perfect pear-shaped avocado, the one I had picked out for her, the one that yielded tender under my touch. She cradled the fruit in one hand and whacked the knife down. It sliced through the tough skin, sinking deep into its soft flesh.
The pit, large and solid, had stopped the knife. I eased the knife and avocado out of her hands, ran the knife around the fruit, and pulled apart the two halves. Delicate yellow-green glistened.
There would be no more arguments, no more making up, and no more Empress. That night, Mama cruelly mashed the avocados.
Sue Babcock spent years and years as an engineer. Now mostly retired, she delights in writing stories, especially dark fantasy and of human failings, and she occasionally manages to get published. Sue is the managing editor at Silver Blade and the publisher of Liquid Imagination and Youth Imagination, and she is a Director and the webmaster of Silver Pen, which is a non-profit writers’ association.
The otters disappeared.
No one could explain it. The government was cleaning the water, weren’t they? Oh, the rivers were poisoned, but, people said, there had to be some streams running clean, somewhere, with places to gambol.
Librarians fussed late into the night. The children were different; dark-eyed and feral, they knew only a poisoned environment. Their few living forests were walled off, filled only with suited, shadowy figures trying to hunt out the invasive species, heavy metals, poison. Children knew woods and meadows only from books. How to make them care about this world’s recovery? New editions, the librarians decided. They would begin with the world these children knew. Matthias the plucky mouse, now surrounded by fierce oily muskrats. Mole and Rat found Beaver’s son with the piper at the gates of dawn. There would always be rats and mice, after all, and the supporting cast could change accordingly.
Then the badgers went. Rabbits overran gardens and hedgerows and burrowed under houses.
What to make of Mister Rat and Mister Mole’s midnight visit? Perhaps a crotchety raccoon? They settled on a small bear, for the bears weren’t to be seen much these days, and perhaps a bit of interest might bring them back.
The rabbits ate pesticide grass, and dogs ate their corpses. When the rabbits went, the librarians sighed and pulled Watership Down off the shelf. Farmer MacGregor battled Peter Mouse, and he was neither as fast or as clever.
Hedgehogs, then beavers, then sparrows, and even the muskrats went. The forests went silent, and then there were no forests.
The pale mice shivered from lab injections, and the rats they faced would have torn Cluny the Scourge apart; black, loaded with iron-spring muscles, the size of dogs, for those who remembered dogs. Alice followed a whip-tailed, one-eyed cackling beast into the sewer. Mister Toad was a distant legend, a mad savior held within a creaking, smoking prison. Mrs. Frisby shivered and cried and fawned, trying to please her torturers. And black, seething rats surrounded Redwall, Toad Manor, flooded Efrafa and ate through the walls.
Bring back the old Adams, Jacques, Potter, the withered librarians said. Let the children see what they could have had, at least.
But the children threw the old books away, and cheered for the rats.
Spencer German Ellsworth lives in Bellingham, Washington, works at Northwest Indian College, plays bass for the band Pawnbroker, has a wife and three children, and writes his little brain out. He has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and multiple anthologies, and his fiction won the PARSEC award in 2009. He lives virtually at spencerellsworth.com.
Frieda reached down and grasped another stalk of white yarrow. She broke the stem and, with a sidelong glance at Erik, placed it with the others in the wicker basket. “You don’t have to pretend,” she said. “I know why they made you come with me.”
The man straightened, staring at the sprig of wild rose in his hand, sunlight glinting off his dark curls and pale skin.
She reached for another stalk of yarrow. “You should let your hair grow long. You still look like a thrall.”
Erik glanced at her, his eyes red. “There was no dishonor in being a slave to Vallec.” Three blossoms clung to the thorny stem in his hand.
“You’ll hurt yourself picking those.” She nodded at the roses and then tossed a yellow braid behind her shoulders.
Turning, he walked toward her, leggings brushing the grass. Stopping at the edge of the basket, he extended his hand but did not drop the roses.
From the forest below, the sound of axes drifted up the hillside.
Frieda smoothed the front of her apron dress. “I don’t think Mama Rakalle cares for flowers in her son’s boat. She wants spears and shields.”
Erik drew back his hand. “There’ll be plenty of those.” His voice was rough, his face red.
“Flowers were a tradition in my family.” She nodded toward the hills on the horizon. “A symbol of the resurrection, a promise of life to come.”
“The Jesus God is weak. Odin would never beg for resurrection.”
She glanced at him sidelong again, and continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “In the winter we used sprigs of fir and pine. Of course, we bury our boats; we don’t burn them like you do.”
Erik wiped his nose on his quilted sleeve and sniffed. “Wild roses were his favorite. I could only find one.”
She lowered her head to look into Erik’s face. “I’m glad you came with me. I’ve so few friends here.”
He gave her a thin-lipped smile.
“There’ll be more roses later—but of course, I won’t see them.” She shaded her eyes and looked down into the valley. Smoke rose from village chimneys. The sound of chopping had stopped.
Erik too, looked in the direction of the village. “I wonder if they’ll finish by nightfall.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Erik, why weren’t you jealous of me?”
“Why would I be jealous?” He spoke in an even voice, but a vein pulsed in his neck.
She cocked her head to one side and measured her words carefully. “If I ran, I almost think you’d let me get away.”
“Don’t you want to go to Valhalla… or to your heaven?”
“I want to see the summer roses. And I’m afraid.”
“Yes, they did send me to watch you. Vallec shouldn’t…” he swallowed, “…sail without his wife.”
She stooped to pick up the basket. “He was a good chief, a good son, and a good lover — wasn’t he?”
Erik glanced guardedly at her.
“Oh, I know.”
“You know nothing.”
“I know more than you think. He said your name — one night.”
Erik raised his hand and Frieda flinched, thinking he would strike her, but he grabbed the thorny stem instead, clinching it in his fist until blood seeped between his fingers.
Frieda furrowed her brow and turned her head away, but she heard the thud as his knees hit the grass and the choked cry that escaped his lips.
“Our wedding was the greatest day of my family’s lives.” She looked out at the forest’s edge. “To think — a mere herder’s daughter from the Gray Hills marrying a coastal chieftain.”
He said nothing.
“I didn’t understand why he gave you your freedom that day, or later, why you weren’t jealous.”
“I didn’t lose anything.”
“I did not. Why are you shaming me?”
She turned back to him. “Did you kiss him?”
Erik, still on his knees, opened his mouth, but no sound came. Blood dripped from his fist where he clutched the stem of roses. Eyes wild, he said in a broken voice. “I want to die.”
Frieda threw the basket in front of him, whirled and ran. She parted the high grass like the wind and heard him trip on the basket, but still he was too fast for her. She felt the tug when his hand snagged her skirt. Flailing, she sprawled in the high grass.
He tumbled on top of her, their faces nearly colliding. Amazingly, he still held in his fist, the stem of roses.
She gasped, breathing his air. “Did you mean what you said, about dying? Would you take my place?”
They stared at one another, Erik’s bloodied fist above her breasts.
“You could lie within his boat,” she said, “upon his shield.”
“They wouldn’t let me.”
“You could sail together on the great sea, forever and ever.”
“They would not take a man in place of his wife.”
“But they would take the sacrifice of a thrall. Mama Rakalle loves the tales of old when thralls were sacrificed with their chief. Tell them you let me go, and offer yourself. They will place the funeral pyre of Vallec in their heroic songs.”
He looked down at her, his face inches from hers. “In my heart I’m still in thrall to him.”
“Then give me my freedom.”
His gaze fell to the rose, and then, with his free hand, he broke the third blossom from the stem and held it out to her.
She closed her hand on it. “And take this to him,” she raised her head and kissed his lips.
As fast as she dared, she slipped from beneath him. Standing, she strode toward the edge of the meadow in the direction of the Gray Hills, forcing herself to walk slowly. She heard the sound of her dress skimming the grass, a meadowlark trilling in the distance. When she reached the edge of the clearing she dropped the rose, and fled into the woods.
Gerald Warfield’s short story “The Poly Islands” won second prize in the first quarter of the 2011 Writers of the Future contest. The same year, his humorous story “The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry” took first place in the nationally syndicated Grammar Girl short story contest. “Spores of the Volcano” appeared in NewMyths and the Campbellian 2014 Anthology. “Return of the Mayflower” is scheduled to appear in Perihelion. Several of his flash pieces have previously appeared in Every Day Fiction. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.
Antonio and his co-workers sit in his kitchen around a small worn wooden table. They are there after work to enjoy some mate, and to wind down after a long day at the shop. This has been part of their daily ritual for the past ten years. But Antonio already knows that tonight is different.
Antonio fills the mate gourd with the yerba, makes a hollow with the bombilla, and pours hot water into the empty space. He is the cebador tonight, and drinks the first bitter mate. After that, he serves his two friends, each in turn, before it’s his turn again. The carved mate gourd passes from hand to hand. Each drinks the mate, talks, listens. They talk about everyday things, about the shop, about the work. There’s a note of pride when they talk about the work. And the warm mate goes round.
But Antonio feels sad tonight because he has told the people he loves that he’s leaving Argentina, and going to America. He is heavyhearted as he tells the people he loves, and who rely on him for their livelihoods, that he’s leaving them, and going to America. They chip away at his resolve. The conversation is strained tonight.
They say that leaving will not make it easier. He will feel the same pain, the same loss, maybe even more. They all lost her two years ago. They all miss her – a father, a brother, a husband.
He pours more hot water into the gourd. He holds the gourd and sips the mate, finding it hard to say the words that will explain why now and why America.
As he holds the gourd he remembers another night two months ago. A night similar to this one – the men, after work, drinking mate at the worn wooden table, and talking about the possibility of a contract to carve the new doors for the cathedral. The possibility did not sit well with Antonio, and at the time he did not understand why, so he kept his doubts to himself.
When the night was over, Antonio poured the last drops of hot water into the gourd and sipped alone. The gourd was special. He had carved it for her. On that mysterious night, for the first time in a long time, he studied his carvings of the sun and the moon, the stars and the sky. The carvings reminded him of a lost dream.
Then a familiar scent interrupted his reverie. It didn’t take long for him to recognize it as his wife’s. Was it rising from the gourd? He leaned in and inhaled deeply. He still remembered the day her scent faded from everything she had touched, and how, on that day, he had mourned her again. That night the scent surprised him, but also comforted him.
That’s when he heard Celestina’s voice, clear and earnest. “Remember our dream?” she said. “Don’t wait any longer. Now is the time. Go to America.”
It was only a moment, and he wondered if it was a hallucination, or a daydream, or was he thinking out loud? No, he was certain it was Celestina, and she was giving him permission, a permission he realized he needed, and was waiting for.
But in the kitchen tonight the words stay jammed in his throat, so he waits, and listens.
His father-in-law brings up the global economic depression already in its third year, and that Antonio probably has it much better in Argentina than he will in America. That here he has family, has his own shop, is his own boss.
Antonio listens, and waits for her words to reach him again.
They insist that he wait, that now is not a good time.
Antonio recalls the years of waiting, the times that were never right, and waits for her words to reach him again, and when they do, he says them out loud.
“She told me to go. Celestina told me that now is the time to go.”
They look away, feeling embarrassed for him, not knowing how to respond.
In that moment Antonio wants to fall back to old habits, confess “I had you going, didn’t I?”, so they could all have a good laugh. It would feel good to laugh, to relieve the heavy tension bearing down on their hearts. But tonight is different.
With her visit two months ago, Celestina gave him the strength to imagine the dream without her, to make it his own, and to make it come true.
Like his shop, his house is also sold, and no longer belongs to him. His suitcase is packed, hidden in a back room. Three wool suits, three cotton white shirts, three ties, and a few other personal items. Another case holds treasured carpentry tools that he cannot part with. He’ll also be taking the carved mate gourd that they are drinking from tonight as they sit around a worn wooden table, in an almost bare kitchen, listening to Carlos Gardel on the radio.
His father-in-law and brother-in-law feel offended and betrayed. They both have tempers, and he feels a little afraid. But he drinks the last mate, says gracias, and then adios muchachos.
He goes to the back room, gets his cases, and leaves the only family he knows in a stranger’s kitchen with Gardel singing on the radio.
Wanda Kiernan has been writing fiction for as long as she can remember. Has had super short fiction published in onefortyfiction.com, and came in second in a Writer’s Digest “Your Story” contest.