Step Down, Step Down: “I’ve always been fascinated by the tradition of murder ballads that are still sung and passed down where I live in the southern Appalachian mountains. The haunting songs call out from that murky territory where good and evil, beauty and cruelty mix to be reinterpreted and made into something both ancient and new.”
“Snip Snip Snip” was inspired by ‘The Finishing Line’.
“My Guests”: “This story emerged after I read an article about termites titled ‘A giant crawling brain’. It talks about how the termite mound could be considered a composite animal, with constructed lungs, a warrior caste immune system and the workers as mouth and blood supply. I tried to write it a few times, but I could feel my subconscious still chewing on the idea. Eventually, properly masticated and probably digested by a symbiotic fungus, the story emerged on its own. I don’t normally work like that.”
A fantasy the way it could. A picture of us in a dream.
Step Down, Step Down
by Alexandra Duncan
You’ve heard the ballads of young women murdered, drowned down by the river banks. I am one such maid.
He asked me once to be his love
He asked it two and three
I ne’er knew my answer would
Be the death of me.
Sometimes we are killed by brigands. Other times by a cruel sister. But most often by our lovers. We are always rosy-cheeked and demure. We die beautiful and tragic, and our murderer sings his lament from the gallows. He regrets it, but he had no choice. Fate drove his hand. Perhaps he even placed a posy in our cold grip as a we lay among the long grass.
As for me? Step down and I will tell you. Was I murdered by a draught of poisoned wine? A rapier through my breast? A blow to the head as I stood gazing at the way the light of the late afternoon turned the river to molten gold? What did I think of in those final moments? The sweet drop of honeysuckle as he pinched the bloom and touched the stamen to my tongue? The way the leaves show their pale underbellies in a storm? My little sister slipping her small feet into my shoes? Step down among the reeds and I will tell you.
I always heard tell of angel bands and welcoming arms on the other side. But instead I find myself here. In the winter, ice clings to the rocks along the bank and the water is frigid. Its surface is gray as my skin, gray as the sky, and below my hair streams slick as the currents. Not even the fish and frogs keep me company. They are rooted down in the mud, waiting for a friendlier season.
But ah, then summer comes, and the polliwogs and minnows. And young men such as yourself. The water never grows much warmer. Put your feet in. See? But I remember what it was to be warm, and I remember I used to sing. Listen to the cicadas. Do you hear them? They were thrumming at my back the day I died, their sound thickening the air. If you listen hard enough, you will hear me humming behind their voices.
Won’t you step in with me? Further. Up to your knees. The chill isn’t so bad once you grow accustomed to it and the water is clear. See the little fish nibbling at your feet? They must like the taste of you. It’s been so long since someone lent me a listening ear.
Time, it will come and it will go
For all men it draws near
But there’s no time for a poor drowned maid
She ever lingers here.
Do you dream of love? I dreamed of it, once, too. Pushing open the garden gate by moonlight. Eyes large and dark with desire, or the dim, or both. Hurried hands in hair, on buttons, on skin. I never dreamed the bruises on my arm, those same eyes charged with hate. Perhaps I should have looked harder, been more exacting in my choices. Come down by the riverside, he said. Come walk with me. And I did. Because I loved him. Because I knew what would happen if he found himself disappointed. If I’d said no, you might have come across me wandering our old house with the rocking chair porch that bowed in the middle, instead of here by the water.
Isn’t it strange how the cold feels almost warm after a time? Sometimes I lie back and let myself float along the surface, let the current carry me what feels like miles. But then I look up and I’m here still, in the same place. Try it. See? There used to be a poplar tree there by the bank, before they cut it down. I died beneath its branches, but I never held it against the tree. My blood made it no less beautiful.
Won’t you take my hand? It’s so kind of you to stay with me. I’ve been so lonely, especially in the cold months, when no one visits the river. Look up at the sky, at the way the clouds make pictures and cast shadows on the water. That one looks like a hammer, don’t you think? And that one, a coffin. You can tell me about yourself. Did you love a maid such as me? That is what I am, is it not? Did you ever do her wrong? Or would you have done, in time? So many men swear they would not, but we never know what we might do until it’s done.
You aren’t thinking of going yet, are you? Do not struggle. You know I would never leave you. Sink down. Breathe deep. We have all the time in the world.
Come down, come down to the riverbed
And give your hand to me
Step down, step down to the waters clear
Your true love for to see.
Snip Snip Snip
by Matt Thompson
Ginny came into school today with half her thumb missing.
Her mum had bandaged it okay—you couldn’t see much blood, and Ginny told us it didn’t hurt, not really. She wouldn’t let on what she’d done, though. Not even when Jordan squeezed the wound to make her tell. It can’t have been anything too bad. If it had been she’d have lost more fingers than she did.
“The Snipper’s coming back for the rest,” Jordan taunted, until one of the teachers dragged him off to detention. Ginny was so scared she was sent home for the day. She’ll be okay, though. They say the Snipper only visits you once.
No-one’s ever seen him. Jordan said he woke up in the middle of it when it happened to him. The Snipper’s hair was made of razor wire, he said, and his teeth made of piano keys, and his fingernails sharpened into box-cutter blades. He ended up with one thumb and a pinkie finger gone. We all think he’s telling stories to distract from the way his scars look like cat’s faces. Maybe he drowned one, who knows?
The Snipper knows. Mo in year six lost the top half of both thumbs. That’s worse than losing all of one. Now he has to hold his pencil between his first and middle fingers, and when he writes it looks like he’s back in year one again. Ginny said he’d stolen 50p off one of the juniors, and that was why the Snipper came for him. Already his stumps are healing into sharp edges, like a 50p piece, so maybe she’s right.
Still, she can talk. We’ll find out her crime soon enough when the scars form. But me? I don’t think I’ve done anything so bad. Well—maybe sometimes. When I was six I told mum that my little cousin Sukie stole a packet of biscuits I’d taken myself. I didn’t say anything when Auntie Vicky made Sukie apologise, even when she started crying. Is that enough for the Snipper? Or that time I pushed Felipe into the school pond? Or when I told mum I wished dad had taken me with him when he left?
All the parents and teachers just try and pretend it’s not happening. Doesn’t seem to be working. Praying doesn’t help either. So when the Snipper finally comes for me it’ll almost be a relief. I even kind of want to know what the worst thing I’ve ever done is. Maybe that’ll hurt more than the snipping? But at least it’ll be over with.
Unless I do something else to make him angry. Jordan’s been limping lately. “Stubbed my toe,” he said when I asked.
He didn’t answer. Just winced, and wouldn’t look at me, and hobbled away with one foot dragging sideways like he was walking on knives.
By Glynn Forsythe
Six antennae wiggle at me as I stare into the hole. They are tiny and perfect, emerging from the dark while the owners cower in the safe space I provide. I won’t let anyone hurt you, little wigglers, you’re safe with me.
It doesn’t hurt, the hole. It’s just a little gap in my shin, the skin around it slightly pink and shiny like scar tissue. It goes quite deep, I think, but I don’t want to shine a light down there and panic my guests. They panic enough when I stand up, antennae waving wildly at the motion.
I wear loose cotton trousers to work. They aren’t really uniform, but I’m a favourite with Helen so I get away with it. I don’t do good work today. I’m too concerned about my guests, suddenly in a new environment out of my flat. I’m also feeling paranoid about my walk. Does it look funny? It feels like my left leg is lighter than my right, as though it’s been hollowed out. It’s OK if it has, I like being a good home, but I know my colleagues wouldn’t understand. I suddenly can’t bear the thought of questions, or worse, prodding fingers. I leave early.
I buy a lot of food on my way home. Trying to work was too much, I’ll call in sick for a while and stay inside, make certain my little charges are safe.
They are uninterested in any of the food I offer them. Sugary, fatty, protein. I lie on the lawn outside in the evening sunshine and doze off for a moment. When I wake there is a small bare patch beside my leg where all the grass is gone. I’m glad.
The next morning I stand up, I look down, expecting to see the panicked wiggle once more, but instead the hole is plugged completely by a darker round head with a threatening nozzle. They have started to develop different castes. This must be a big step, I feel a parental pride pooling under my ribs.
Both legs feel light today, bringing my gait back into balance. I only walk down the stairs though, and settle on the grass again. I eat sandwiches as I sit and watch the hole be tentatively unplugged, then one small form after another negotiate the hairs on my leg to bring back a snip of grass. They are so brave, these tiny creatures in such a big world.
I read about termites. I don’t know if my tenants are termites, but they could be. I learn a queen could live for fifty years. That their mounds have a hard skin and chambers for lungs. I have a soft skin, hard centre and I have my own lungs. I will be a better home.
The little guys and girls snipping grass by my leg are so coordinated. They bump, smell and pass each other constantly to form a living conveyor belt. Does any one individual know their plan? Does it even make sense to think of an individual termite? These are my teeth, chewing and pulling nutrients into me.
I’ve often regretted that my landlord lives upstairs from me. He heard the crash as the window fell out last night. I would have lived without glass for a while and been happy, but he sees where the wood was eaten away.
“Termites,” he tells me. “I’ll get pest control in as soon as I can.” I tire of his apologies and usher him out. “You’re looking good at least,” he tells me on the way, like a consolation prize. “Whatever you’re doing keep it up.”
I’ll have to leave, even inside me they might not be safe from toxic treatments. I start to pack, but most of my clothes no longer fit. I’m no heavier, but my skin feels tight. My landlord is right though, I do look good. My skin is clear, my eyes shine. I have a purpose. I don’t need to pack to fulfil that purpose, so I leave all my belongings and start walking.
I almost bounce as I walk, I feel so light and brimming with life. The extra holes that have appeared over my arms and upper body are each plugged by a dark head. They look like moles, or beauty spots. They are beautiful to me, these little entrances and their guards.
This first night I realise I no longer feel the cold. Thousands of tiny generators keep me warm from the inside out. I walk until my legs warn me they are about to give up, then find a park with some trees to shelter beneath. I wake up on a bare patch of earth feeling satiated, drink greedily at a water fountain and keep going.
The second night I find a nicer park. I’m still in the city, but moving through a richer area near the river. I’m awakened by an unsympathetic boot.
“You can’t sleep here,” says a policeman. “Looks like you were lying on an ant nest anyway.” He and his partner haul me to my feet and try to brush me down. I panic for a moment, I don’t want to leave so many of my tiny wards behind, alone in this park. At my panic I feel movement on my skin, liquid jets squirt into each of the two faces near mine. An acrid whiff makes my eyes sting and water, but it’s nothing compared to the reaction of the two police. They release me and drop, curling up with hands in their eyes. The smell calls to the workers on the ground, and they swarm back to me. Their militant siblings stand agitated guard, waiting for trouble, ready to fire again. We are gone before the policemen recover.
We escape the city, but find farms instead. There is so little wild land now where we could be safe. The threat of people and pesticides surrounds me. I will keep going. I will keep them safe. I feel a message of satisfaction from within, pride at my determination.
Later, how much later I no longer know nor care, I roll along a pine needle carpet between dense, straight trunks. My thousands of mouths reach out to the world around us. I keep them, and they keep me. Company, safety, home. They are all within and without me. I see no people, but we are not lonely.
About the Authors
Alexandra Duncan is an author and librarian. Her YA sci-fi novels, Salvage (2014), Sound (2015), and Blight (2017) are available from Greenwillow Books. Her short fiction has appeared in several Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
In her spare time, she fosters sick cats for the local Humane Society. She lives with her husband and three monstrous, furry felines of her own in the Appalachian mountains.
Matt Thompson is a London-based experimental musician and writer of strange stories. He is way, way behind on his to-be-read pile, a situation he currently finds himself unable to rectify. His work has been published at Interzone, Nature: Futures, Black Static and many more worthy venues. You can find him online at http://matt-thompson.com.
Glynn Forsythe has always been interested in reading, writing and blogging. His previous publications are an academic paper on parasitology, and a beginners’ book for the board game Go. He currently works with book publisher Forgotten Books and enjoys handstands and kicking people, preferably at the same time. He lives in sunny Perth, Australia with his young family. More fantastical flash fiction can be found at his blog Writing in the Balance.
About the Narrators
Karlo Yeager Rodriguez is originally from the enchanting island of Puerto Rico, but moved to Baltimore some years back. His stories have appeared in Nature Futures, Galaxy’s Edge and several other venues. He lives happily among the rolling hills of rural Maryland with his partner and one very odd dog. Karlo is an Associate Editor at Escape Pod. To read Karlo’s sporadic posts, go to alineofink.com
Kat Day is a writer and chemist who’s had both fiction and non-fiction published in various places. She lives with her husband, two children and cat in Oxfordshire, England. She thinks black coffee is far superior to tea. The purple liquid on the stovetop is none of your concern.