Bongi clawed at the steep lake’s banks and caught a branch, but it broke off. He caught some strongly anchored weeds, unsure how long he could hold on. His right leg was being dragged towards the bottom by two heavy bricks, his nostrils were full of water, and his lungs ached like they would explode any minute.
The weights on his leg prevented him from scaling the brittle bank’s sides, but sliding his fingers against the sand, he felt for possible gripping points. A hard object that protruded from the bank’s sides gave him some transient hope.
A tortoise shell?
He was about to look away when his hand hit it and tiny air bubbles escaped from underneath. Grabbing the shell, he pried it from the sand and quickly turned it so the dome faced up. He stuck his face into the shell’s cavity and inhaled deeply.
There isn’t much left but maybe it’ll buy me time to think a plan through, he thought.
He exhaled, then took a second breath from the shell, estimating he had one or two breaths left.
In vain, he tried to wiggle the rope off his tied leg, hoping the knot had been done sloppily. This was strenuous. Attempting to slice the rope by scraping it against a stone stuck in the sand also proved useless. The rope slid against the stone like a slimy slug on ceramic tiles.
He took another breath from the shell. So this is how it feels from down here.
It was usually someone else doing the drowning while Bongi stood on the bank looking down, like the angel of death. The unlucky bastards he had dumped into the lake over the years were debtors for the most part. Others were snitches.
Just one time it was this guy that looked at him funny. Bongi had regrets over that kill. “I may have overdone it that day,” he would sometimes say after narrating this particular incident.
Some water forced its way through Bongi’s nose and slithered down his trachea into his lungs, dragging him away from his daydream. The muscles in his right arm began twitching uncontrollably.
He went for another breath of air and, though not very religious by nature, began to pray. “Lord, we haven’t spoken in a while,” he started. “Bad timing, I understand, but please don’t hold that against me. I am sorry. Sorry for all the bad I’ve done, all the poor people I’ve killed.”
His arm suddenly gave in from having to hold his and the two bricks’ weight. “I don’t want to die, Lord. Save me and I swear each day that I spend on this Earth shall be devoted to serving you. I will use every penny of the fortune I’ve amassed to save a person a day… I will even go to church with my mother on Sundays.”
At that moment, on the brink of death, he truly had faith. So he prayed, and believed he would be saved, for Jesus is love and all sins on this earth can be forgiven through love. Yet nothing happened.
His lungs kept filling up with the brackish waters of the river.
He kept sinking.
A severed hand floated before him. He recognized the ring on it, his ex-wife’s. That was another messed-up story. She cheated, he got angry, and one thing leading to another, she found herself being tossed into the lake. The crocodiles did the rest.
One of those crocodiles may even have been the one that, unfortunately, Bongi spotted not too far on the left. The crocodile looked at Bongi, giving him the kind of stare commonly reserved for a piece of juicy chicken on the dinner table after a long day of work.
“I’ve learned my lesson. Please, Lord.”
Right then, he woke up in sweat. He was in his bed, alone. The view of the all-wood floors in his vast open bedroom was comforting. Focusing on the dry, wooden floor and consciously taking deep breaths further calmed him down.
After a minute, his heart stopped throbbing.
“It was just a dream,” he said, lying back down to stare at the white roof. He laughed, feeling the tension that had held him quickly dissipate with each rhythmic spasm. “Whew. And here I was thinking I would need to go to church next Sunday.”
Right then, water squirted out of his mouth and he found himself back where he’d started. The crocodile stared at him with thin, blood-shot eyes. “You should really learn to keep your promises, Bongi,” the crocodile said, then stretched its jaws open.
Robertson Klaingar says: “I like to write because I like to daydream, and writing is a never-ending daydream.”
The faceplate lowers and seals itself as my suit reacts to the hull breach alarm. It’s called a siren by tradition, but sounds more like a wounded bird’s squeak.
Colin tees up the self-repair sequence, though we both know better. With the ship’s diagnostics fried to shit, its proprioceptors can’t locate a breach, let alone fix it.
Orbital decay accelerates. Our TX-1 Orca prototype is licking the fringe of Earth’s atmosphere.
“Nav still responds,” Colin pleads, his suit hunched over the controls.
“Prepare to bail.”
“Negative, sir. We’ve respected her, she owes us a safe ride down. We ditch her now, and it’s a whole different karma.”
Part of me is glad Colin phrased it this way. Now I don’t have to listen to my gut, or his gut, or this jinxed ship.
“Wings on, Grossman. That’s an order.” First time I’ve had to use those words with Colin in — what — twelve years?
I arm the self-destruct (can’t risk gifting a piece of the Orca to the Chinese) and follow him to the wingfitters. Colin is a better-than-okay wingjumper, but an outstanding test pilot. Me, I dig flying and jumping about even… except for the fitting part. I lean back and brace for a jab in the ribs as the wingpack anchors to the connectors on my flightsuit shell. Bruises guaranteed for a week.
Colin gets up, wingpack attached, and turns in front of me. All looks in order. I give a thumbs-up.
My turn to turn.
“Yellow eleven.” Without hesitation, he points to my bottom left connector head.
I tug on the connector — feels solid. The diagnostic on my visor passes it, too.
“Looks tilted,” insists Colin.
I zoom in with a worktip camera on my glove. A tiny fold of the shell fabric is caught under the head. Leave it to Colin to notice such shit. Most jumpers miss it and land safe, nine times out of ten.
Back to the fitter. Detach. Refit. Another jab in the ribs. Get up. Turn. Colin points —
“Enough!” I’m not refitting for another nanowrinkle.
I practically push him out of the airlock. As we fall away, I briefly train the camera on the Orca hull – can’t observe the damage. Must be on the belly, or portside.
Ahead and below me, Colin’s wing unfolds from the pack. It slows his fall, and I pass him just before my own wing snaps open and the suit stiffens for the aerodynamics and temperatures of descent. Working from the center out, I test-check the stabilizer, breakers, ailerons and winglets, all the while bracing for the inevitable shockwave from Orca’s self-destruct.
“Hernandez, tango-bravo-one, homebound.” I am now a small aircraft.
Colin streaks by. Fast. With a visibly brighter friction glow at his right winglet.
“Slow down and check your roll.”
“Grossman, tango-bravo-two…” He sounds detached, like we’ve landed a week ago. “Never bailed before, sir.”
I tap the feed from his visor display. Sure enough, he’s got his camera pointed at the Orca, its hull hogging the centerfield of his visuals.
“Snap out of it, Grossman! Watch your — ”
The glow brightens along Colin’s right-side leading edge. A split-second later, his wing doubles over, origami-like, and Captain Grossman flickers out like a stray bonfire spark.
Of my entire recovery team, just Lazy Charlie… And who’s the hot-ass Major?
“Melanie Lonovoi, Legal Ops.”
“A lawyer? That was quick…” I ignore her hand. Any other day, I’d get busy charming my way into her pants.
No one says much until we board the plane. Major Lonovoi and Charlie strap in first, opposite each other. Colonel Montgomery from cybersupport (what’s he doing here?) plops down next to Charlie, leaving me to either continue being rude or join Lonovoi.
Should’ve stayed rude. Her torrent of legalese starts the moment we lift off. Ethics Commission… Inquiry… Orca project… babble-babble-babble…
We have the same rank, except I earned mine up in the sky.
“Where’s the team?” I shout to Charlie above the engine growl.
Charlie turns to Montgomery. “Sir?”
“At the landing pad, where they should be,” says Montgomery.
“The Orca autolanded an hour ago,” Charlie adds, his face stiff.
“Bull. I scuttled it.”
Yet I don’t recall a shockwave from the self-destruct.
“You did. It didn’t,” says Charlie. “Tell him, Colonel!”
“You’re out of line, Lieutenant… Major Hernandez, the goal of this mission was to evaluate the new crisis management software.”
A ball of ice explodes in my stomach.
“Did our systems really fry?”
“They were designed to go off-line, simulating electrical fire.”
“And the hull breach? Was that real?”
“Trickiest part!” Montgomery’s eyes light up. “We had to engineer an openable six-inch slit in the underbelly.”
“A U.S. Air Force officer is dead, sir. Hope you aren’t gloating.”
“Look: we sent up the ballsiest test crew, they bailed, and Orca still landed. This is the future of spaceflight.”
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“So your app landed a spacecraft with a neat, six-inch slit. What if it’d been a four-foot structural fatigue crack? How can you know your software’s decision wasn’t dumber than mine?”
“How do you know that if you’d listened to Captain Grossman, he couldn’t’ve gotten you both down safe?”
My mind rewinds to Colin’s visor feed — sacrificing the last seconds of his life to inspect the Orca hull for damage, baffled, ashamed. Best fucking test pilot I ever knew.
Before I can verbalize any of it, Charlie leans over and clocks Montgomery in the jaw. And again. And again.
“Hey, stop that!” Lonovoi moves to unstrap herself.
I lean over and casually place my hand on hers, pinning the strap release under her wrist.
“I agree, Major. Got to stop such experiments. I’ll testify, or whatever it is you wish me to do.”
Still going… never seen Charlie lose it like this. I’d rate Montgomery’s chances of deplaning unassisted at fifty-fifty.
Sarah Sotan writes in Vermont, USA.
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.
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.
“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.)
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.”
“Sure,” says Blake. “On behalf of Scrimshaw, I’m pleased to say that we’d like to buy Streets of Paris.”
“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.”
“Jesus, Noel, you haven’t even done anything to that manuscript in months. All we do is eat and drink and carry on like…”
“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.