“I started writing five years ago by participating in a weekly flash fiction challenge, and this story began as a 250 word sketch based on a photo of an empty swing.”
The Hugo Awards have these things they call nominations tallys but they are commonly referred to as The Long Lists. These include the top fifteen nominees, and show who just missed making the finals. For example, Escape Pod, PodCastle, and Mothership Zeta all made the long list last year for Semiprozine.
One of the great values of these long lists is that it allows readers even more excellent works to add to their “to read” pile. David Steffen has worked to make mining those lists significantly more convenient for you. For the third year in a row, David has published a volume of The Long List Anthology. In this most recent version are included works from names familiar to fans of Escape Artists. Lavie Tidhar, Ursula Vernon, Caroline M. Yoachim, and Ken Liu, among a host of amazing others.
Want to know what sort of story makes it to this anthology? Go listen to episode 607 of Escape Pod and catch Red in Tooth and Cog by Cat Rambo. Been procrastinating picking up Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw or Run Time by Escape Pod’s S.B. Divya? This anthology will assuage your guilt. You can find The Long List Anthology Volume 3 at all the usual purveyors of books. If you’re already the proud owner of this book, become a subscribing supporter of Diabolical Plots which is also edited by David Steffen. Subscribing there puts you in line early for not only the ebooks of the original stories published in Diabolical Plots, but also gets you in line early for The Long List Anthology Volume 4. Go support this fantastically creative human being.
From the Fertile Dark
by Rebecca J. Allred
As tendrils of spilled ink mingle with the pool of blood expanding around her knees, Charlotte paints the shadow child on a wall the shade of wilted daffodils. Upstairs, her husband packs his things, slipping quietly from her life even as the last of their children slips from her womb. There will be no call for the midwife who, with the blessings of the town elders, declared her pregnancy an abomination from the start. Neither will she seek the aid of the doctors from away. There is nothing either the ancient woman or the practitioners responsible for its inception can do to stay the flow of despair and failure seeping from Charlotte’s sex, and she is already intimately familiar with the details of post-miscarriage self-care.
Hands trembling, she outlines the shape of a girl, four years old, with soft curls that fall to her shoulders—an imitation of invented memory. With each stroke, Charlotte replaces the foul taste of Black Haw extract and Chaste Tree berry with the flavors of vanilla ice cream and birthday cake; the acrid scent of antiseptic and bleached linens with the fragrance of baby powder and warm milk; and the repeated pricks of needles that promised a miracle at the price of her friends and family with the soft ticklish flutter of butterfly kisses. In her mind, the short, hurried footsteps traversing the hallway are not the clatter of a runaway spouse, but an echo of a toddler fleeing bath time. Charlotte chases the phantom memory into darkness.
Instead of condolences and comfort, they bring casseroles and cake. Pariah or not, Charlotte is a grieving mother, and the neighbors have appearances to keep. Charlotte receives their charity with silent gratitude, stacking parcels one on top of the other like so many tiny coffins. With the exception of answering the door to accept tokens of feigned sympathy, she resides in the nursery.
Curtains closed, shelves lined with little socks and shoes, pacifiers, and containers of baby powder, the nursery is an altar for an absent god. Tucked in a corner, a handful of plush characters peek over the edge of a bassinet, glossy eyes connecting the dots of rust-colored stains that trace loss across the floorboards like chalk lines on pavement. Charlotte covers the walls with the residue of wishes, adding a jump rope, toys, and a swing for the shadow child’s amusement.
Days stretch endlessly into weeks as time rushes past in a monochromic blur until the neighborly visits, much like the flow of blood that serves as a daily reminder of her failure, eventually slow and then stop altogether.
Behind the house, near the edge of the surrounding woods, a pair of swings twists in an early winter breeze. Unable to contain her grief any longer, Charlotte’s house invites the breeze to cleanse its stagnant halls, throwing open its doors and windows and spilling a kaleidoscope of sorrow into the night.
Charlotte gives chase, but for every lamentation recaptured and rebottled to nurture and protect, another escapes her lips, feeding the breeze until it becomes a gale. When it becomes clear her efforts are wasted, Charlotte takes to the swings. If she cannot stop her despair from taking flight, she will follow it into the sky. Charlotte swings up, up, up—toward the swollen moon as it drifts through the amnion of distant galaxies—and lets go. For a moment, she hangs suspended in the tempest. Then it retreats with all her cultivated misery in tow, and Charlotte plummets back to the earth to sow her garden of heartache anew.
“For what do you weep?” someone from within the wood whispers. The voice is low and dark, like distant thunder, and though it carries undertones of stealth and misdirection, it offers the first kind words Charlotte has heard in months.
“I weep for the death of my heart, that its ghost may forget how to love.”
“Even those who walk between worlds are haunted by the memory of loss.”
“I among them.” Charlotte rises, brushing blades of winter grass from her dress and steps toward the edge of the wooded area. “Who are you? Why do you speak with me? Do you not know that I am forsaken?”
“I am a granter of wishes. I can give you that for which your heart breaks.”
Temptation in the form of a flutter deep in the pit of Charlotte’s stomach draws her nearer to the shadowed wood.
“Nothing of such value is given freely.” Charlotte’s voice trembles with an amalgam of hope and fear. “What payment is due such a service?”
“Love,” the voice says. “Sacrifice.”
A vine wide as her palm and armed with thorns like fangs twists from the foliage into the moonlight. It lashes out, slicing through the thin fabric of Charlotte’s dress and leaving behind three sets of parallel wounds on her abdomen.
Charlotte cries out but does not flee. She touches the slits on her belly, smearing thick drops of blood against her shivering flesh. Fingers slick with red, Charlotte steps closer and attempts to wrap them around the vine, but it has no depth and passes through her grasp like vapor. She presses her fingers to her mouth.
“Love,” she says, bending at the waist and brushing her bloodied lips against the shadow, returning its kiss. “Love is sacrifice.”
The vine shudders. Its barbs scramble up the stem, coalescing into a razor sharp grin. “Flesh of your flesh.”
Lapping at the fluid coursing down the concave hollow of Charlotte’s stomach, the dark umbilicus sprouts arms and legs. They probe her wounds, diving between layers of muscle and disappearing into Charlotte’s body like smoke in reverse.
Her belly swells, the slits become gouges, and a sound like ruptured earth erupts from her throat. It is agony. It is rapture. It lasts forever and is over in the beat of a newborn’s heart.
Charlotte kneels, clutching her abdomen. The slashes have disappeared; tiny fingers trace their absence from the inside.
Words like wasps hover round Charlotte’s home, waiting for an opportunity to sting. Her much expanded midsection has captured the town’s attention, and to the hive of buzzing tongues, each postulate regarding her condition is less palatable than the last.
The presence of another draws Charlotte from sleep. Fearing the worst, that the elders have come for her and the unborn child, she tumbles out of bed and heads for the door.
“It is only I,” a calm, familiar voice reassures.
Charlotte ceases her escape and turns to confront her husband. He sits, hands clutching one another between his knees, on the edge of the bed they once shared.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to make amends. To beg your forgiveness and be a father to our child.”
Wrapping her arms protectively around her belly, Charlotte speaks the words she’s practiced time and again inside her mind.
“This child belongs to me and me alone.”
Her husband winces as if struck. “Not mine, then.”
“I suspected as much. As do many of the others.” It is clear from his face that while he accepts this explanation, her husband had hoped the earliest rumors were true. That the miscarriage had been no more than a deception and the child inside her was the sum of their shared efforts.
“And yet my errand remains the same.” He rises and crosses to Charlotte, taking one of her hands in his own. “Forgive me, wife. I was a coward.”
A sensation like falling into the sky forces Charlotte to her knees. She looks into her husband’s eyes and hopes the urgency reflected there is not her own.
“I forgive you, but you cannot stay. The elders will never allow it.”
“It would not be the first time I rejected the will of the elders for the promise of a family.”
“That was different.”
“Was it? Tell me, wife. How came you to be with child this time?”
Charlotte pulls her hand away and returns it to its place upon her stomach which has begun to knot.
“Be it by medicine or by magic, it is the same in the eyes of the elders.”
Instead of words, a wail of agony pours from Charlotte’s throat and she curls round her tightening middle.
Her husband gathers her into his arms and rests her on the bed. “I’ll fetch the midwife,” he says when she’s past the first contraction.
“No! They must never see!”
Charlotte cries out again as another wave of pressure threatens to split her open. “Help me,” she pleads. “Help me, and you can stay.”
Hours later, Charlotte’s screams are replaced by the shrill cry of a newborn.
When they come to question her, Charlotte tells the elder’s vassals that, despite his rumored claims to return home, she hasn’t seen her husband in months—not since he left following her most recent miscarriage. About the infant sounds coming from the adjacent room, she tells them nothing, keeping the bundle of coos and gurgles tightly swaddled as they search the house and surrounding land time and again for evidence of a crime.
They find none, overlooking the dim, shifting outline of a man huddled in the bedroom corner. Charlotte too learns to overlook him, and in time, he disappears altogether.
As the girl blossoms from infant to toddler, Charlotte grows ever more pale, spending day and night watching her daughter play with toys inked upon the walls of their secluded existence. Her only regret is that, unlike the jacks and the swing, her daughter’s dark touch is unable to animate the other shadow child and grant herself a playmate.
Walking home through waves of winter ash, a bundle of groceries held close to her chest, Charlotte is confronted by a woman cloaked in familiar wounds.
“How’s your daughter?” the woman asks, cheeks streaked with rage.
On both sides of the street, people have halted their journeys to bear witness. Charlotte’s answer is tentative. “Well, thank you. I was sorry to hear of yours. I pray they find her soon and in good health.”
The woman spits in Charlotte’s face and hurries away, choked sobs trailing behind her. Sharp glares aimed at her heart pierce Charlotte’s winter coat, but they fail to embed themselves in her fading flesh.
When she arrives at home, Charlotte is greeted by the sound of not one, but two children giggling. She rushes inside, terrified of what she knows she will find. Her daughter swings wide arcs across the nursery’s yellow walls, dusky locks trailing behind her like smoke. A second, unfamiliar shadow child pushes her as the original watches, silent and unmoving as a statue.
One by one, the town’s children vanish. One by one, their shadows appear in Charlotte’s home, the ranks of her daughter’s playground companions swelling into the dozens.
Little more than a whisper, Charlotte watches as a mob gathers outside—larger, angrier versions of wasps equipped with more than mere stings. Near the back, draped in robes, the elders watch with a singular pious gaze.
“Give them back!”
“Come out, or we’ll drag you out!”
Someone throws a stone; it crashes through the window, and a river of children’s laughter leaks out.
“I hear them. They’re inside.”
“More lies. She must be destroyed!”
The children gather round Charlotte, pulling her away from the windows just as the first blazing torch sails into the living room. In the nursery, her daughter twists in the swing. Charlotte tries to gather the girl into her arms, but they no longer have any substance. The girl laughs and points to the original shadow child still inked upon the wall.
Exhausted, Charlotte sinks to the floor. This close to the shadow child, she can see flecks of dried blood admixed with the ink. Her blood.
The flames spread. They creep down the hall, a light made to devour shadow.
“Flesh of my flesh,” Charlotte says. “Love is sacrifice.” She presses her lips to the imprint and flows backward into herself. The children follow her into darkness.
Charlotte wanders the boundless forest in a veil of midnight, surrounded by giggles and rustling leaves as tiny shadows dart from tree to tree through beams of moonlight. Ahead, she glimpses a break in the dense timber and, beyond that, a memory of her former self. Its slight frame shudders, exuding a fountain of grief.
Charlotte calls wordlessly to the shadows and draws one to her breast. Then she moves to the edge of the night and asks the woman a question to which she already knows the answer.
Damien Angelica Walters has a new collection out now from Apex Books – Cry Your Way Home. Damien presents unease with exceptional craft. There’s a lot of non-traditional families in this collection struggling to survive in an uncaring world. There’s a number of young girls struggling with friendship and its collapse and the need to be heard and understood.
I love the ominous exploration of blended families in “Deep Within the Marrow, Hidden in My Smile” and the interaction of mothers and their teenage daughters in “On the Other Side of the Door, Everything Changes.” Grief is a common theme, no better presented in “Falling Under, Through the Dark” which bears the crushing weight of the loss of a child and the feelings of complicity in the guilt. – This one ran here on PseudoPod as Episode 510.
Probably my favorite of the collection is “Take a Walk in the Night, My Love” which nods to the quiet unreliability of a du Maurier character and explores gaslighting. You get your money’s worth with this story alone, making every other excellent story in this collection a true gift.
About the Author
Rebecca is a practicing pathologist living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and the world’s most spoiled cat. She enjoys horror movies, video games, comic books, and homemade pasta. She is also technically the member of a circus. Her work has appeared in LampLight Magazine; Horror Library, Volume 6; Nightscript II; and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6; among others. When she isn’t busy rendering diagnoses or writing, Rebecca enjoys reading, drawing, and laughing at RiffTrax.
About the Narrator
Dani loves to keep busy and narrating is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, a retired roller derby player and current soap maker and small business owner. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.
[Editor’s note: Soaps and balms from Story Time Soap make great gifts (for others or yourself).]