Intersection

Three women work side by side
The first, dimpled cheeks dusted with freckles
Red hair streaked with gray, pours liquid
From one brown bottle to another while the second
Moves from behind mountains
Of paper tearing scraps with stubby fingers,
Sticks them onto shining curves then,
Wielding a black pen,
Slashes and stabs words,
Inking labels with identification:
Coltsfoot Cleavers Codnopsis Mullein;
The third dances between counters
Knee high combat boots daintily pirouette
Shuffle and twist over the tiled floor
While she flicks her wrists and rolls
Avocado and cucumber
Inside sheets
Of seaweed.

Were I to empty myself out
It would be into amber rounds
One ounce, two ounce, and four ounce
Bottles with black tops.

Two women spar in a muddy field
They lunge and leap, hips jut out behind them,
Knees spread wide one grabs with stubby fingers
Grappling shoulders, neck, red hair streaked with gray
Down together they roll, legs locked,
Then apart they spring up, bouncing
On the balls of bare feet,
Beginning again
Kabadi!

I’d leave the shining bottles unlabeled
For future reference,
Their contents known through taste;
Nostrils by aroma.

One woman unlaces her boots
Peels the black hide from her legs where they cling,
Second skin, lays them to the side and rises
Striding into the mud pit armed with swords,
A long stalk of Mullein in each hand,
She crosses them and bows,
The two women across from her pause then
She says, En garde!
And they rush her.

A young woman returns to the cloth bazaar with a bundle. She sets it on the counter of a corner shop with bolts of chikkan, lawn, muslin, and georgette’s displayed on shelves. Pouring down the walls alongside the counter are chiffons and silks. Under the counter in rolls are beaded braids and embroidered trims in all colors of the rainbow, silver, gold, and copper. Two men are seated behind the counter, and she opens up her bundle, addressing the black haired one with gleaming black eyes, ringed with kohl; he reminds her of a raccoon she saw once on a road somewhere.

“Bhai Saab, you sold me these malmal’s and they’ve ruined my skirts! See here what’s happened.”

From her bundle she retrieves once white skirts, now muddy hued and streaked with red, blue, and green; spreads them on the counter. Beside them she places three muslin petticoats, a red a blue and a green one.

He looks at the display and runs his hands through oiled black hair then tosses his head nonchalantly.

“What’s it to me?” he asks, “Seems like you don’t know how to do your wash.”

He pops a piece of betel nut leaf into his mouth and chews it casually.

“Listen bhaya, you sold me these muslins without mentioning that they’d bleed in water, the colors have all run! I thought they were pakka, instead you sold me kachaa raw dyed cloth with no word about washing them separate. I suggest you replace them to make amends, and also the white fabric to stitch new skirts with!”

His insolent gaze turns incredulous and he stops chewing his betel nut leaf. Then he turns to the second man, the spectacled one who’s been listening quietly to the interchange from beside him.

“Wah jee, listen to this foreign return bewakoof woman! She doesn’t know how to do her wash anymore after living too many years in vilaayat, and now she expects me to give her for free more of the same kachaa cloth plus chikkan to fix her bewakoofee! What next!”

To the woman he says, “Listen Bibi, not my problem, buss.”

She glares at him and leans forward, “Bhai Saab, in this world there are, as you have pointed out so clearly, bewakoof women like me. Being as wise as you are and observant to boot, why don’t you spell it out for us:: Bibi colors run, take care to wash separate hmm, what does it cost you to tell us this? Save us the hassle and you the trouble of having us show up here with our cloths; don’t tell me this hasn’t happened before! Besides, in vilaayat the muslin all comes from here, better quality, always pukka rang, how come you sell this here instead of what gets sent overseas? Under your nose it’s made and produced, yet you accept this quality and sell it with no word of warning! How come you don’t tell suppliers, give us the good stuff, hmm?”

He shakes his head and says with a smirk, “So what? Like I said, not my problem Bibi, no money back guarantee here, no exchange, no replacement; only free thing for you is a lesson, buss.”

She stamps her foot and shouts loudly. “Not your problem? Not your problem? Is that so, oho! Okay we’ll see about that!”

The other shoppers are watching curiously from behind curtains of silk, voile, and satin, staring openly at her freckled face; flushed red with agitation.

The second man, the quiet spectacled one, suddenly speaks up.

“Bibiji, don’t listen to my brother. Come, what if I replace the three muslins at no cost for not mentioning to you the cost of washing together, and half price for the skirt materials?”

She turns to face him, folding her arms across her chest, and considers.

“No, I don’t want the muslins replaced. Money back for those and replacement white chikkan for the skirts.”

“Money back for muslin and sixty percent discount on anything else you buy today.”

“That’s fair,” she says finally, “In the future kindly consider us bewakoof begums who forget things that you remember, and remind us; otherwise so what if you see clearly?”

She makes her selections while his brother, the raccoon eyed greasy haired one, pours tea. He turns to her with a sly grin and asks, “Begum Babyji, chai for you, or should I say Teeee?”

She laughs at his audacity, says, “Only pakka doodh patee chai, no tea bags.”

His brother adjusts his spectacles, begins making cuts from bolts of cloth; one yard, two yard, four yards.

Three women lay flat on their backs
Watching clouds gather.
Soon it begins to rain, a warm rain,
They stand as one rinsing off
Rivers of mud in the downpour
Around their feet
Hundreds of Mullein seeds are tamped into the earth;
Dainty hands pick up black boots by their laces,
Walking home
To mountains of paper
A platter of sushi.

I empty myself out
Into amber rounds,
As simples and compounds;
They keep well in cool, dry places.

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The Heedless Girl

There once was a pretty, young woman who lived in a little cottage off a country lane. Her name was Sseldaed, and she was vain and arrogant.

One day, a poor beggar wandering through the country lanes stopped at Sseldaed’s door to ask for food.

“Pooh!” exclaimed Sseldaed at the sight of the beggar, and she wrinkled her nose. “Why should I give food to you? I have friends coming over for dinner, and you are not fit to be seen! Go away!” She prepared to slam the door in the beggars face.

“Those who are selfish and cruel to those less fortunate then themselves will be cursed forever,” said the old beggar, and he hobbled away.

“I dare say!” Sseldaed said, sniffing, and she flounced away to get ready for the party. The party went well, and everyone left Sseldaed’s house, laughing and saying how much they had enjoyed the party.

Sseldaed went up to bed, leaving the servants to tidy up her house. She had her breakfast in bed the next day. She ate her lunch in her back garden and sketched for a bit, calling for her gardener to shoo away the stray animals that wandered through her garden.

At dinnertime, Sseldaed went inside and went up to her room to tidy up her hair for dinner. She has started to comb her hair when her head came off in her hands! Sseldaed screamed horribly, and her maid came running. At the sight of her mistress holding her head in her hands, the maid shrieked and fled from the house. She never came back.

Sseldaed wept and cried, holding her head in her hands. She was still able to see where she was by some extraordinary super sense that let her see around herself. Still weeping, she went down to her sitting room to find a needle and thread. If her head had come off without killing her, perhaps she could sew it back on.

But her head refused to be sewn back on.

Sseldaed found all her servants had abandoned her. She sat down to a cold dinner and wondered glumly how she would ever eat anything without a mouth. She looked at her head, sitting on the table beside her plate. After a minute, she picked up her fork.

To Sseldaed’s utter horror, a hole in the stump at the top of her neck opened up, equipped with teeth and a long, slimy, purple tongue. Sseldaed dropped her fork and cried like a banshee. Then she fainted dead away.

When Sseldaed came to, she was still lying on the floor by her chair, and she was very hungry. She forced herself to sit back up in her chair and feed herself through the mouth in the top of her stumpy neck. But her nasty, neck mouth refused to eat anything at all; it spat out the apple pie, and cold beef, and salad. Sseldaed beat her hands on the table and howled again. What had she done to deserve this? What would she do?

Sseldaed’s neck mouth reached out its long tongue and licked her disembodied head sitting on the table. Sseldaed winced at the sight and felt sick. Yuck! Her mouth wanted to eat her head! But she was hungry and, if that was the only thing her neck mouth would let her eat, then that was it. She picked up her head, chopped it into neat pieces with her knife, and fed it to her neck. Her head tasted sour and bitter and tough.

After dinner, Sseldaed went up to bed. When she woke up the next day, she found that she had her head back! Jumping out of bed, she fervently checked her reflection in the mirror before she did her hair and went down to breakfast. Of course, the whole thing had just been a bad dream! How could she have thought otherwise! No one lost a head without dying!

The cottage was empty. Dirty dishes lay piled on the table and plates of food held yesterday’s dinner. Frowning, Sseldaed went all over the house, calling and calling for her maids to tidy the dining room up. When she received no answer, she sat down helplessly in a chair. Perhaps the whole nightmare had not been a dream after all!

Sseldaed did not like dirt. She liked everything tidy and neat. She realized that without servants to keep her cottage clean, she would have to do all the work herself! Sseldaed struggled with the idea. Imagine, a person like herself having to clean dishes and dust and mop and weed the garden . . . good gracious, she would certainly not do the garden! Why, the idea of dirt on her hands was revolting!

Sseldaed soon got used to her new life. But she did not tend to the garden. She could bring herself to washing the dishes and dusting and mopping, but she would not get dirt on her hands. Her hands were no longer perfectly smooth and slender, and her clothes were no longer shining and clean all the time. Her hair did not up in its fancy sets all day. She had to get used to a normal bun.

And every night at dinner, Sseldaed’s head would fall off. And her head was the only thing that she could eat as her last meal of the day. Sseldaed experimented. She did not eat her head one night, and she woke up headless in the morning. She had to eat her head in order for it to grow back.

One day Sseldaed went out into her garden. It was overgrown with weeds and the flowers were dead. It was an ugly sight. The sight frustrated Sseldaed. It was all she could do to keep her house and clothes clean. But to have to make the garden tidy . . . no, she would not do it!

Sseldaed’s friends had abandoned her. They told tales they had heard from Sseldaed’s former servants to everyone they knew. Everyone shunned Sseldaed. She lived alone. No servant would come to help her. The current rumor was Sseldaed was vampire in disguise. Mothers turned Sseldaed into a monster that would eat naughty, little children if they did not listen to their parents.

Sseldaed was just sitting down to eat her head one evening when she heard a knock on her front door. She jumped for the noise startled her. It had been months since she had heard a knock on her front door. No one came to visit her anymore. She got up and went to the door. She opened it nervously.

A young man was standing outside her door. He tipped his hat to her. “Good evening, ma’am. I am a wandering gardener, and I saw that your garden was in a sad state. Shameful, it looked, and such a nice piece if land.”

“I do not have a gardener, sir,” Sseldaed said with dignity. “I am currently indisposed, as you can see.”

“Yes, ma’am. Very sad for you, I am sure. But, begging’ your pardon, ma’am, I have no problems with working for a headless lady. My name is Relaeh” The young man looked at Sseldaed.

“Really? Well, if you would come in, I will interview you. I am afraid I do not have a hot dinner on hand, as I am eating my head, but you can have the leftover lunch.”

Relaeh sat down to the table and tucked into the food Sseldaed placed before him. He did not seem unsettled, nor did he stare, as Sseldaed started to eat her head. “A very pretty head you have got, ma’am,” he said politely. “Now, I am sure you would like to see my references. I am a special class of gardener, ma’am. I only work for people with peculiarities. See here, I have worked for a lady with bird feet, a man with a tail, and I have taught one or two little kids with no eyes and wings. But I have never met anyone with a peculiarity such as yours, ma’am, if I may say so. Got yourself cursed, I suppose? Refused an old beggar a meal, from the looks of it.”

“What do you mean by that, sir?” Sseldaed asked haughtily.

“You do listen to the old tales, don’t you, ma’am? You know the tale about the beggars realm?”

“That is a silly child story,” Sseldaed said, brushing it away with her hand. “Who ever heard of such rubbish?”

“It is not rubbish, ma’am,” said Relaeh. “I will explain it to you. The tale goes that all the old beggars live in a secret part of the world. And they say the old beggars come out into the world, and go about looking for rude, arrogant, selfish people to teach lessons to. When they find someone who is rude to them, they curse that person in such a way that if the person manages to cure their curse, they will no longer be rude, selfish, or arrogant.”

Sseldaed sniffed.

“I would say you are the selfish, mean sort, ma’am. From the looks of it, you must have refused an old beggar dinner so he made you eat your head every night for the rest of your life. I have seen it all, ma’am. Those beggars are a nightmare, ma’am!”

“I suppose it might be true,” Sseldaed said doubtfully. “Now, what do you charge for your services?”

Relaeh named a reasonable figure. He agreed to sleep in the spare bedroom, and get to work early the next morning.

Sseldaed went to bed thinking about what Relaeh had said. The next morning at breakfast she asked him if he knew how to undo curses.

Relaeh finished his coffee. “Well, I would say, ma’am, that you will have to be kind and generous. Excuse me, ma’am, but I have to get to work.”

At ten o’ clock, Relaeh brought in an abandoned cat. “Here you go, ma’am. A little something that needs a bit of help. Remember what I said about your curse, ma’am? Well, you can start undoing it right now. A bit of food is what this ol’ gal needs to pep her up.” He dumped the spitting cat into Sseldaed’s arms and marched out.

An hour later, Relaeh brought in a stray dog. Then he reappeared with a bird that had broken its wing. Shortly thereafter he came back inside carrying a mouse with no tail. Sseldaed squealed when she saw it.

“Oh, oh! Get it out! I will feed the cat and dog, and fix a bird’s wing, but I will not doctor a mouse! Ooh, you wicked man! Take it away!”

“Do you want your head back, ma’am? Well, until you have done two good deeds for every selfish thing you have done, you will have to keep on eating your head. Healing a mouse, ma’am, counts as two good deeds since you hate them so much.”

Gingerly, Sseldaed took the mouse. She carried it into the kitchen and gave it a bit of cheese. The dog and the cat were occupying separate corners of the kitchen. The bird was in the old cage belonging to her dead pet canary. Books on medicine lay littered about the kitchen. Sseldaed had dug them out of her attic. The books had belonged to her godmother, who had been an herbalist. When her godmother had died, Sseldaed had inherited the books. She had packed them away at the time, but now they were coming in handy.

Over the next few months, Relaeh kept bringing in stray animals. He brought a cat with a broken leg, a dog with a bleeding side, a lame duck, an injured baby deer, and a rat with a broken paw.

Every day, Sseldaed wondered what Relaeh would bring in next. Her house was full of healing animals. Every day she let the healed ones go back to the wild, and Relaeh would bring her more. She had no idea where he found them. But her garden was looking lovely.

One day Relaeh brought her an abandoned, dirty child. “Afternoon, ma’am. Lovely day to be out weeding. I found this poor little lad a ways down the road. What he needs is a good bath and a hot meal. Afternoon, ma’am. Must be getting on with my work.”

Sseldaed looked at the little lad. Then she went to fill the bath. The lad splashed in the bathwater, laughing. He ate messily, and danced wildly around the house. He grinned crookedly at Sseldaed when she scolded him for not behaving, and replied to her in a language she did not know.

But that night, Sseldaed’s head did not fall of! She was so happy she cried, and cooked herself a proper dinner to celebrate. She went to bed and slept comfortably, with her head on the pillows.

Relaeh said to his employer the next morning, “Now, ma’am, you listen to me; as long as you keep on being kind and generous, your head will stay where it should be. The minute you are mean, off it will go. Crack! You understand?”

“Yes. But who are you? You are not an ordinary man, are you? I mean, how do you know so much about curses?”

Relaeh smiled suddenly. “No, ma’am, I am not. You know the old beggars tale? Well, the old buggers make so much trouble in the world cursing people, we angels, ma’am, have to come out of heaven, and help some of the less fortunate cursed people out a bit. You will excuse me, ma’am, but my son and I have got to be getting back to heaven now. Good morning, ma’am.”

Relaeh took the hand of the little lad in his and stepped outside the house. There was flash of light, and both of them disappeared.

When Sseldaed went up to tidy up Relaeh’s bedroom, she found he had left her a present of a book on gardening. Sseldaed knew she would treasure the book forever. She sat down to read it with avid attention.

~a short story by Layla

Mindlovemiserysmenagerie Photo Challenge #58 Artwork:Tess Photography

Caught!

There once was a boy. His name was Mark. His mother had abandoned Mark when he was a baby and put him in a lake to drown. But he had not drowned. Mermaids lived in the lake. Mermaids that liked a toy to tease and abuse. They had entrapped Mark in a magical net that kept him tied to the lake forever or until the net was removed from him by a human.

The net was what kept the mermaids alive. The net had to have a living being in it to feed off. Without energy to feed off, it could not supply the mermaids with life, and they would all die. Always, the mermaids kept a living child in the net to supply the net with energy and them with life. When the child died eventually, they tricked a human mother into leaving her baby in their lake as the next victim of the cruel, pitiless net. It was not hard for the mermaids to enter the human mother’s dreams and convince her that her child would be born cursed and must be got rid of.

Mark grew gills so he would not drown. He lived endlessly in the lake, miserable and unhappy for many years. The mermaids teased him and taunted him. They enjoyed watching him cry from fear and misery.

At first Mark had been hopeful that a human would come by the lake and take the net off him. But no humans came near the lake. The humans were afraid of the mermaids.

Not far away from the lake was a human village. In the village was a man name Sef. Sef had been born with a gift that allowed him to see into the future. The gift was a temperamental sort and did not function, as a proper gift should, in Sef’s opinion. Because of this, Sef could not see into his own future, nor could he see into the future whenever he wished.

The people in Sef’s village did not believe magic was a good thing. They believed anything to do with magic was evil and tainted. As Sef was growing up, they ignored his abilities, merely marking it off as an uncanny knack for prediction. However, when Sef was a grown man and he had more control over his gift, the villagers began to notice and understand that whatever Sef said usually came true. Floods and draughts hit just when he said they would. Wheat thrived and gardens grew if they were planted when Sef said they should be. And even though that knowledge was helpful to the villagers, they still believed Sef was tainted and that he would bring bad luck to the village. In order to decide what to do with Sef, the villagers consulted their leader.

The leader of the village decided not to burn Sef at the stake. Instead he said to the assembled people, “Has Sef’s knowledge of earthquakes and floods not allowed us to move out of harm’s way? Has his mysterious way of telling us when and how to grow our food not helped us thrive? I will set Sef a task. If he can complete it, we will allow him to return to this village and live here with us. If he fails, he shall be banished forever. If Sef refuses to take the task on, we will burn him.”

The villagers all yelled with agreement. It was an excellent proposal. Sef certainly could not refuse to take on the task; otherwise he would be burned alive.

Seeing that he had no choice in the matter, Sef asked, “What is the task you have set for me, ‘o wise leader?”

The leader of the village said slowly, “In this village we have plenty of grain and meat and vegetables. But what would we all give for a bite of fish! I have not tasted fish in my whole life. Your task, Sef, will be to go to the lake and get rid of all the mermaids so that it will be safe to fish in that lake.”

A great yell of excitement went up from the assembled villagers. That was a fabulous idea! Fish. Wonderful fish! The taste of fish would be a blessing! It was the perfect task to set for Sef. If he succeeded, they would all benefit from his accomplishment. Sef would have all their hope behind him. If he failed . . . well, he was tainted so no one would really care.

The naming of his task dismayed Sef. Get rid of the mermaids? How would he ever do that? It was not as if his gift would allow him to see just how he could succeed. His gift was in another temperamental stage at the moment.

The villagers were eager for Sef to begin at his task. But their leader had one more thing to say. He said, “Sef, if you succeed at your task and come back here to live with us, you may not marry nor have any children. Your magic must not continue to survive here.”

A wave of sadness washed over Sef. That was so unfair! No children or a wife? Why was he even living in this horrible place?

Sef set off for the mermaid’s lake the next morning. A glimmer of hope remained in his heart. The night before, his gift had sought to cheer him up and had sent him the feeling that, if he went to the lake, he would be happy.

When Sef came to the lake, it was midafternoon. The lake looked blue and flat and normal. Now and then, a huge fish would jump out of the water. In one corner of the lake, a large patch of cattails grew. They cast a dark shadow on a small surface of the lake. Sef stood on the shore and wondered how he would go about succeeding at his task. If he jumped in and tried to kill the mermaids, they would drown him at once. And it was not as if he had anything he could try to kill the mermaids with! Sef was a mellow, kind type of person. He did not go around carrying knives and javelins with him.

Dispirited, Sef wandered around the lake, following the shoreline and keeping an eye out for the mermaids. As he neared the patch of cattails, Sef heard the sound of a child’s heartbreaking sobs. Curious, he stepped into the shallow water of the lake and parted the cattails. He thought perhaps he would see a mermaid child weeping prettily, but instead he saw a skinny, naked, little human boy covered in a weighted net. He was sobbing pitifully into his hands. Tears were dripping down into the water.

“Hello!” said Sef in surprise. “Who did this to you? Better get out quick or the mermaids will get you.”

The boy started and turned around to stare at him in surprise and fear. He started to get up but a screeching mermaid suddenly dove out of the water and grabbed the boy’s ankle. “Get back here, you beastly little wretch! You are not going anywhere!” She started dragging the screaming boy out into deeper water.

Sef splashed out into the water as far as he dared go, and grabbed the boy’s hand that was desperately reaching for him. A short tug-of-war followed. The mermaid shrieked and clawed at the boy, drawing blood from his leg. She screamed for her sisters to help her, and Sef saw ripples in the lake. Many mermaids were coming! He had to get out of the lake or they would get him too. But he could not leave the boy behind!

Desperately, with an extra strong pull, Sef pulled the boy free of the mermaid’s grasp and dragged him far up onto the beach. He collapsed, panting. The mermaids were all yelling and splashing in the shallow water, unable to come out any further. They screamed fearful threats at the boy, and he huddled next to Sef, looking frightened.

Sef started taking the net off the boy. “Here, let me get you out of this nasty old thing. The mermaids cannot do a thing to you from here. What is your name?”

“They just call be Mark,” the boy said in a small voice. His eyes lit up as the net came off him and Sef discarded it next to him on the beach. He was shivering so Sef wrapped his cloak around him. “What do they call you?”

“Sef. How did you get into the lake?”

“I always lived there. I could not leave on my own while the net was on me. And I could not take the net off myself either. The mermaids put the net on me. It takes away all my energy and gives it to them.”

Sef looked appalled. “That is a cruel thing to do to a boy your age! Will they die if I destroy the net?”

“I guess so.” Mark was looking at the gills on his chest with fascination. They were slowly fading away into his skin.

Sef noticed. “Did the net grow those on you?”

“Yes. But it did not give me a tail or webbed hands. I wish it had. If it had, I could have gotten away from the mermaids in the water, and they would not have been able to catch me and hurt me.”

“Did they feed you enough?”

“No. I had to catch my own food. What are you going to do with me? Do you have a net too? Are you going to put me in it?”

“No! Even if I did, I would not put you in it. That is an awful thing to do. How do you destroy the net?”

“I guess you burn it. At least, the mermaids hate fire so I bet it would hurt the net. Where do you live?”

“In a village not to far from here. Will you help me gather up brushwood? I am going to burn the net.”

Mark brightened. “I would love to. I hate the net. It was so heavy, I could barely swim in it at all!” He jumped to his feet and ran up the rocky beach.

When the wood was collected, Sef lit a fire and tossed the net onto it. The wood all burned but the net remained unscathed. Mark looked dismayed. “Now the mermaids will get it back and put someone else in it! It is not fair!”

“No, it is not,” Sef agreed. “Well, there is nothing we can do so we might as well get some sleep. We cannot walk back to my village in the dark.”

While Sef was sleeping, his gift sent him a dream. In the dream, Mark was standing in the middle of a fire with the net on him. He was screaming horribly as the net slowly burned away in patches of black smoke and he burned with it. Sef awoke with a jump. If that was the only way to destroy the net, he would not do it. To have to burn Mark as well . . . . .

Mark persisted that they try again to burn the net. They tried all day to burn the net. As the fire burned away for the hundredth time, Mark said mournfully, “I would do anything to destroy the net. It caused me so much pain. Do-do you think if I went into the fire with the net it might burn away?”

Sef looked at Mark, startled. “I-I am sure that would not work at all. Why do you think it would?”

“I had a dream. Only, I died too and it hurt a lot.”

Sef thought about lying and saying Mark’s idea was foolishness. But his lips refused to form the lie. In the end, he admitted that the only way to destroy the net was to place it on its last occupant and burn them both.

Mark tried to look brave and failed. Instead he looked frightened and pale. “Okay. I want to do it. That way, the mermaids will all die and never be able to hurt anyone else. Will you—will you light the fire?”

“You do not have to,” Sef warned. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Mark nodded. When he was standing in the middle of the pile of wood Sef had gathered with the net on him, Sef lit it and turned away. He waited on edge for the dying screams to start. When he did not hear any, he turned uncertainly around.

Sef was just in time to witness the fire all rush in on Mark and explode all around him. Mark let out a yell of terror. But the fire burned down and disappeared, leaving Mark unscathed. He stumbled out of the brushwood and fell against Sef, shaking all over. The net was gone.

Sef blinked in astonishment. He saw the lake begin to boil and steam. He saw the mermaids all wither away into little puffs of black smoke. Letting go of Mark, Sef waded out into the lake water. He went in up to his chest and finally swam out to the middle of the lake and back without any mermaids coming out of the depths to drown him. He came out of the lake, dripping all over, and told Mark the mermaids were all dead and the lake was safe.

“Are we going back to your village now?” Mark asked, looking happy.

Sef considered. He said finally, “No. The people there did not treat me very well. I am going to go find a new home. You can go to my village if you want to. My people will treat you kindly.”

“But I want to come with you. You are the only person who was ever kind to me. And you saved me from the mermaids and their net. Please may I come with you?”

“Well, why not?” Sef took Mark’s hand. “My gift told me I would be happy if I came here. And I am because I found you. Come on; we have time enough to get away from here before any of my people come to see if I am dead or not. The boiling lake and the steam rising off it must have attracted a lot of attention.”

Sef and Mark found the road and walked down it, away to the west and into the setting sun.

~A short story by Layla

Mindlovesmiserysmenagerie Photo Challenge #120, Art: Alessio Albi

The Orange Witch and The Goldfish

Fury overtook the Orange Witch when her sweetheart fell in love and became engaged to the ordinary Mrs. Gniveirg. How could any man be enamored with an ordinary woman over a witch, pretty and young and full of magic? The Orange Witch did not take into account that Love was at work where she could not see it.

The Orange Witch swore to make her love pay for betraying her and going off with Mrs. Gniveirg. And so she had her revenge by turning her handsome once-lover into a goldfish. A plain and ordinary goldfish with a particularly girly face to further add to his humiliation.

Mrs. Gniveirg was heartbroken. The Orange Witch gave the goldfish to her grieving rival and told her with a smug smile on her face, “There is only one way to undo the spell I have cast upon your foolish lover! You must make him weigh seven pounds.” Leaving Mrs. Gniveirg to grieve over her ruined future, the Orange Witch vanished with a cackle.

Mrs. Gniveirg lived in a small but comfortable flat in a seventy-five story high building. It was a flat with a small balcony out the back door overlooking the street. Above it was the balcony of the flat above it and below it the balcony of the flat underneath Mrs. Gniveirg’s. Mrs. Gniveirg put her fiancé in his goldfish bowl out on the balcony so he would have fresh air and resolved to feed him until he weighed exactly seven pounds. She kept a weighing scale in a little draw by her fiancé’s table and a notebook with the entries of how much his water weighed exactly and how much he weighed.

Mrs. Gniveirg warned her two young sons’, Fox and Wolf, not to meddle with her goldfish as he was delicate. She bought the boys their own goldfish to amuse them. Fox and Wolf put their goldfish in their room and named him Goldie. They curiously studied their mother’s unusual behavior every morning when she weighed her goldfish.

“She must be going nuts,” Fox said. He added proudly, “I have heard they do go barmy at certain ages.”

“And she is overfeeding him something awful,” Wolf added. “It says on the goldfish feed bag only to give ‘em so much every day or it kills ‘em. Mum is overfeeding her fish like I never saw!”

When her sons asked her why her goldfish had to be weighed and fed so much, Mrs. Gniveirg told the boys that the goldfish was special because it had once been a human man. Fox and Wolf were impressed.

One day Mrs. Gniveirg was out on the balcony. She was feeling depressed because her poor fiancé had gained all the weight it seemed he ever would! He was only at two pounds and refused to get any bigger.

The lady who lived in the flat above hers leaned over her balcony and called down to her, “Good morning, my child. Why do you look so upset?”

“Good morning, Ms. Spielberg,” Mrs. Gniveirg answered gloomily. “It is my goldfish. He will not gain any weight. I simply must get him to weigh more.”

“Well, my child, I happen to know a little spell that makes things grow at a simply wonderful rate. I will tell it to you. You look so terribly unhappy, I cannot stand it! You must repeat the words ‘hsifdlog, hsifdlog, worg, worg’ to your lovely pet every morning and evening. Keep feeding him as you are.”

“Oh, Ms. Spielberg, you are too kind!” Mrs. Gniveirg cried. “But will it really work?”

“Of course, my child. You just trust dear old granny Spielberg, honey, and everything will turn out just fine.”

Having no better means to accomplish her objective, Mrs. Gniveirg agreed. She scribbled down the magic words on a piece of note paper and promised to say them to her goldfish every morning and night. Then she went into her flat.

Ms. Spielberg smiled a malicious smile. She had enjoyed her once rival-in-love’s despair. Now she would make sure Mrs. Gniveirg could never change her love back to man. The Orange Witch got onto her motorcycle and drove to multiple pet stores where she ordered many goldfish of different sizes and paid for delivery to her flat. When the goldfish arrived, she set them up in tanks all over her kitchen, labeling each fish with its exact weight.

In the flat below, Fox and Wolf were struggling to figure out what to take for next week’s show-and-tell at school. Wolf said suddenly, “Hey, why not take mom’s fish? She said it was a man once. I bet she was lying, but no one at school will know. We can tell a fine old yarn. Only trouble is, mom will see we took her fish and throw a fit.”

“Not if I can help it,” said Fox. “We can take her fish and put good old Goldie in his place. Mom will never know. Quick, get Goldie. We can do the substitution now will mom is out talking to the landlady. That way if mom finds out now, we will know our trick will not work and we will still have lots of time to come up with something new for show-and-tell.”

The boys quickly carried Goldie in his bowl out onto the balcony. They put his bowl down on the table where their mom’s goldfish swam in his bowl, snatched it up and hurried back to their room just as their mother came in.

“I hope you boys are behaving yourselves,” Mrs. Gniveirg called, going to the kitchen to make dinner. Afterwards, she went out to say the magic words to her goldfish in his bowl. Fox and Wolf watched her anxiously from door.

“Look, mum has gone nuts now,” Fox said, “She is talking rot to her ol’ fish. She has not noticed its Goldie. Hurray!”

Mrs. Gniveirg went back into her flat to serve dinner. In the flat above, Ms. Spielberg was putting a slightly bigger fish then Goldie into a bowl of water. She went out onto her balcony and looked quickly around to make sure the coast was clear. She lowered her goldfish down onto the table where Mrs. Gniveirg’s fish was swimming around in his bowl. Then she pulled up Goldie with her long set of mechanical claws.

Ms. Spielberg went into her kitchen and killed the fish she had pulled up from Mrs. Gniveirg’s balcony. She thought it was her former lover. She cooked the fish and ate it, happily thinking she had got rid of her once lover. She would keep substituting a slightly heavier goldfish for the one on Mrs. Gniveirg’s balcony every night to keep up the illusion that the magic words were working before she cleared out for good.

The next morning when Mrs. Gniveirg weighed her goldfish, she found he had gained a few ounces! She shrieked in delight, and Ms. Spielberg peered down off her balcony. “Oh, oh, Ms. Spielberg, your magic words are working!” Mrs. Gniveirg cried excitedly. “I can hardly believe it!”

“Wonderful, my child,” said Ms. Spielberg. “I am so glad you are happy.”

That night Ms. Spielberg cranked up the goldfish from Mrs. Gniveirg’s balcony and replaced it with a slightly heavier one. Grinning, she ate went to bed. Silly, stupid, ordinary Mrs. Gniveirg! Mrs. Gniveirg was being played like a harp!

One day, when her fish weighed exactly six and a half pounds, Mrs. Gniveirg found she had to work late unexpectedly. She could not leave her boys at home alone, so she called up to Ms. Spielberg and begged her to come and babysit Fox and Wolf while she was out working. To her relief, Ms. Spielberg agreed to babysit her children.

Fox and Wolf were told to be good boys and not play any tricks by their mother as she rushed off to work. The boys looked with interest at the elderly Ms. Spielberg and went back to discussing their killer show-and-tell display; it was the next day.

Ms. Spielberg was knitting in a chair by the electric heater from where she overheard what the boys said. Curious, because it involved a goldfish, she asked, “What is your exhibit, boys?”

“Oh, its an ol’ fish that was supposed to have been a man once,” Fox said proudly. “It was mom’s, but we pinched it and put our old Goldie in its place. That was smart, huh? She never found out! She goes on talking to poor Goldie, who is getting terribly fat, just like it was her old one.”

Ms. Spielberg’s knitting needles fell to the floor. “What?” she screamed in rage. She, the Orange Witch, had eaten an ordinary goldfish and not her once lover after all? But the real goldfish was still in the house . . . all she had to do was catch it, kill it and eat it. And that would be easy. No two boys could stop her. She would kill them too! How ruined would be poor, ordinary Mrs. Gniveirg’s life then!

Fox and Wolf had scrambled to their feet and run to their room and locked the door. They leaned against it, panting.

“I do not like her,” Fox panted. “Is she going to hurt us? I wish mom were home.”

“Me too. But we will not let her in. Quick, we can rig up a booby trap in case she gets in! Get me three of mom’s old boyfriend’s biggest bowling balls. They’re a few in the back of my closet. He never took them with him when he disappeared.”

Three bowling balls were erected over the door. A trip wire was stretched across the doorway. The boys left the door cracked open and crouched behind their bed to wait and see what happened.

Ms. Spielberg appeared in the hallway. She was now young and beautiful but with an air of wickedness about her. She was holding a knife. When she saw Fox and Wolf and the goldfish behind them on their dresser, she came at once into the room. “There you are, naughty children! Do—” Then Ms. Spielberg screamed a dying death scream.

Fox and Wolf gulped as Ms. Spielberg’s head was crushed in by the downfall of the three bowling balls. They hid their faces in their hands to block out the sight. Behind them, out of the goldfish bowl, a man emerged.

Fox and Wolf turned around at the sound of sound of breathing behind them. “Hey, look, it is mom’s old boyfriend,” Wolf said. “How did he get in here?”

“He busted the goldfish bowl,” Fox said sorrowfully, “And he killed her fish. Mom is going to kill us!”

“No, she will not,” the old boyfriend said, “I will not let her. I was the goldfish. When the witch died, I was released from my curse.”

Fox groaned and clutched his head. “Oh man, oh man! Why could you not have popped out at show-and-tell is what I want to know? Couldn’t you have waited a bit longer? We would have brought down the house if you had come out of a fish in front of the whole class!”

“Sorry about that, buddy,” the old boyfriend said. He picked up the dead Orange Witch, carried her out onto the flat balcony, and threw her off. “As far as the world knows, Ms. Spielberg fell off her balcony and died of an accident. Back into the house, boys, that is no sight for you to be seeing!”

Fox and Wolf heard footsteps in the hall. “Mom is coming home!” they shrieked. They dragged the old boyfriend over to the door. “Quick, let her in!”

So the old boyfriend did.

~A short story by Layla

Mindlovesmiserysmenagerie Photo Challenge #140, Artwork:: Slrlounge.com

Poison

His name was Lavadil. He was tall and fair and blue-eyed. His son was eight, and his name was Seshal.

Seshal had no mother; she had died in a drow raid, giving her life to save him. Seshal did not speak much, haunted by that day, but that was okay; his father understood him without words.

They were elves. And they were happy.

Lavadil and Seshal were out playing on the hill. Seshal was laughing, and trying not to let his father touch him; Lavadil had a bad case of poison ivy all over his hands.

That was the day his life changed.

Lavadil was running after his son when they erupted around him. The drow fastened his hands in cruel chains. One of them chased his son with a naked blade.

“Run, Seshal!” Lavadil screamed wildly, before the gag was stuffed in his mouth and he was dragged away.

Lavadil lived with the knowledge that his son was still alive. The drow dragged him down into the earth. They were dark elves, with black skin, and white hair, and evil hearts.

“Did you kill him?” Corex asked with interest when his brother returned, “He was just a child.”

“No,” said Jayma angrily, sheathing his blade, “He got away!” And he kicked Lavadil hard.

Corex shook his head. “Matron Sichera will not be pleased.”

“We do not have to tell her,” Jetre offered.

Corex snorted, and kicked Lavadil to make him walk faster. “She will find out anyway, my brother.”

All the long way to servitude, Lavadil lived, knowing his sweet son was still alive. Corex and Jetre whipped him, and did not deem it necessary to feed him. He was taken to their House and made a slave.

Lavadil’s new home was brutal an ugly. Some of the slaves were drow, who did as they were told or they were beaten. They worked, lived, and died. So it was, even with the children.

Lavadil was particularly sorry for them. He let them sleep, huddled against his warm body, at night. The poison ivy on his hands went away.

This was not so elsewhere.

“What is it?” Corex asked, “Itches?”

“Yes,” said Jetre, “all over me! Probably nothing.”

The brothers went out to kill the victims appointed to them by their mother.

Jayma jogged to join them. “Sixty and Malay, the two from House Six?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Corex, shrugging away an itch on his shoulder, “Come on.”

Corex and Jetre stationed themselves in the darkest corners of the tunnel.

Soon, Jayma darted past them and gave them a thumbs up sign, then voices were heard behind him.

“—It is difficult to say, perhaps he will.”

“Oh, he will. Anything new?”

“No; a few new victims for the torture chamber. The last child from House Sichera lasted a long time on the table.”

Corex nodded to Jetre as the two drow came into sight. He came up behind Malay and stabbed him through the back. As Sixty turned towards him offensively, Jetre gutted him.

Leaving the corpses, they went home.

Jayma joined them, bloody and flushed. “Mission accomplished. Do you feel . . . uncomfortable?”

“I am itchy,” Jetre admitted, “It feels horrible!”

“Me too,” said Jayma.

“I suffer the same,” Corex said. He kicked Lavadil as the slave passed by, “I bet it was him!”

Lavadil walked calmly on. He knew what was happening. He would soon be free. And then he would see Seshal again. His dear son.

Corex, Jetre, and Jayma reported back to their mother. The warlords were dead. They could attack House Six.

“Ah!” said the Matron, “Our two warlords are dead? I am pleased; you may go.”

She did not notice that her sons seemed ill at ease. In fact, they were struggling with the uncontrollable itching.

Once they were alone, they scratched their arms and legs. Little clusters of red welts had formed.

Jayma popped all his. Juicy puss oozed out.

“Oh, yuck!” he said, and went to wash.

Corex and Jetre popped all their blisters, and went to wash away the pus.

“There,” said Jayma, “They are gone now.”

But he was wrong.

The next day, the welts were back, bigger and more swollen, and more painful then ever.

“I feel ill,” Jayma groaned.

“How so?” Corex was feeling dizzy himself.

“Dizzy. Sick . . . . .” Jayma rushed away, and vomited.

Corex gagged at the scent of the vomit. Decayed flesh . . .

“I do not think that I can go with the troops to attack House Six,” Jetre said weakly, sinking to the floor, “You tell her, Corex.”

Corex felt ill himself. He walked slowly down the hall, to where his mother was waiting in full battle armor. She expected to be victorious within a week.

“Matron mother,” Corex sank to his knees, “I do not feel well. I am unable to accompany you.”

“You will come!” said Matron Sichera, “I do not care how you feel!”

Corex moaned in protest. The world spun around him as he tried to rise. He dropped to all fours, vomiting uncontrollably, and fainted.

Had Matron Sichera not been in such a hurry, she would have whipped him to death. But Corex was lucky; his mother had a war to fight, and was far too busy to be bothered with him. She left him where she was, took her armies, and left.

Corex lay on the cold, stone floor. His skin bubbled and boiled, rotting away in patches. In their rooms, Jayma and Jetre lay helpless, awake and prone, as their flesh rotted away. They were screaming, but Corex could not hear them.

He was lucky to be unconscious.

Lavadil came in, sent to clean up the vomit. He looked at Corex dispassionately, but with a tiny bit of pity in his eyes as he saw the rotting flesh and blood. The smell was sickening.

Lavadil continued his rounds. Others besides Corex were suffering from the disease. Slaves. Warriors left behind to protect House Sichera if they were attacked while the mass of their army was away. Nobles and children.

Lavadil hated to see the children suffering. It was not right. He passed drow scratching themselves uncontrollably. The Sichera army was probably feeling uncomfortable right about now; they would lose this battle for sure.

Lavadil was lying with a small boy curled up against him, shivering from the cold, when Corex staggered in.

Corex was pale and ill. His flesh was oozing and rotting away in patches. He dropped down next to Lavadil, and grabbed him roughly.

“Please,” he said hoarsely, “Give me the cure!”

Lavadil said, “Take me to the surface—”

“Never! You are my slave!”

“Then rot to death,” said Lavadil coldly.

Corex did not have the strength to whip him, or he would have. He got to his feet, and struggled up the steps to his brother’s room.

Jayma and Jetre were sprawled on the floor, hacking up blood. They were too weak to rise, and they stared at Corex with tortured eyes and convulsed souls.

Corex gagged. He looked away. He was infected. They were infected. Their army was infected. They would be defeated . . . drow would pour in and murder everyone. The whole city would be infected! He had to have a cure.

Corex stumbled back to Lavadil.

“Give me the cure!” he snarled hoarsely, “I must have it!”

Lavadil caressed the head of the tired child in his hands. He said, “There is the jewelweed.”

“Gems?” said Corex in disbelief, “Gems will cure this?”

“I did not say that. I said jewelweed.”

“What is it? Opal? Emeralds? Tell me! We are dying!”

“It is orange—”

“Sunstones? Rubies!” Corex knew where those were. He left Lavadil in a hurry, gasping at the pain in his body.

In his room, he grabbed an amulet containing a ruby, and rubbed it frantically against his rotting flesh, crying out in pain.

Nothing happened.

Corex screamed in frustration. He was overcome by blood exploding in his throat and collapsed, coughing. He was too weak to rise again, even though he had to. With pain-racked movements, he crawled all the way down to the slave’s quarters, and sank down by Lavadil.

“Give me the antidote,” he begged, “I must have it. We will all rot to death!”

“Take me to the surface, and I will collect the plants that will make the ointment to cure you.”

“I cannot! I do not have the strength! I am weak and dying . . .”

Lavadil moved slightly. He produced a bottle, and tipped the bitter contents down Corex’s throat.

“I want my son,” he said, “You want ointment. Do we have a deal?”

Corex felt the pain in him begin to subside. “Yes.”

“Good. Then we must go. One more condition.”

“Anything! I must have the cure!”

“You will heal all the children first without payment.”

“Why should I? They are worthless fools.”

“Very well, you may rot with them.”

Corex hesitated. He thought of his brothers. “Fine,” he said, “I will do as you ask; I will heal the children.”

“Take me to freedom.”

“My brothers—”

“If they deserve they live,” Lavadil said as they climbed the stairs, “they will not die.”

Corex winced. They had just murdered Malay and Sixty.

“What was it you gave me?”

Lavadil smiled thinly. “It will only keep you alive a little longer.”

“I see.” Corex looked at Lavadil. He was beautiful. Suddenly, he was no longer an enemy enslaved; he was a friend.

“Why are you helping me?” he asked, “I—I took you away from your son! I have done nothing but murder and enslave your kind.”

Lavadil blinked as they emerged into the city by the back gate. “I know. Seshal will be hurt by my abduction, but he knows that I will come back to him . . . I was not taught to hate. You are in pain. You need help. I was not taught to refuse from malice.”

A lump formed in Corex’s throat. In Lavadil’s place, he would have let everyone die. But Lavadil cared . . . that was something new.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

Lavadil smiled weakly. Then he gasped in horror.

The scene of the battlefield was spread out before him. But it was covered in the hacking, coughing, rotting bodies of screaming drow, writhing in a mass on the ground.

No one went near them; no one else wanted to catch the disease.

“You will need tons of ointment,” Lavadil said, “We must hurry!”

He ran.

Corex led the way. It took hours, but they did not stop running until they reached the surface. It was blaring daylight. The light stung Corex’s eyes.

Lavadil sprang away from him and, laughing, fled into the light where Corex could not follow.

“No!” wailed Corex, stumbling to the ground, “Come back! Please!” He sobbed in despair.

Lavadil ran. He caught Seshal in his arms as his son ran to meet him, and crushed him to his chest, laughing and crying at the same time.

Seshal sniffled into his neck. “Father. I missed you. I thought . . .”

Lavadil set him down. Then he gave him rapid instructions, and lit a fire.

Corex was lying on the cool ground of the cave when he opened his eyes. He sat up. His flesh was whole again! The pain was gone!

Lavadil came into the cave. It was night behind him. Seshal followed his father.

“Y—you did not go?” Corex stammered.

Lavadil shook his head. He said, “You are cured. These are for you.”

He handed Corex two bottles. “For your brothers. They will only work if you apply them with love.”

“Only?”

“Only.”

Seshal stepped into his view. He gave Corex seventeen, tiny bottles. “These contain healing gas to spray over your army. One bottle covers 700 square feet.”

Corex stared at the child. He was bright-eyed and small, but free and happy, unlike the drow children; suppressed, enslaved to work until 16, unhappy.

“Thank you,” he said, and reached to touch him.

Seshal bit him.

“Ow!” out of natural reaction, Corex drew back his hand to slap him, then stopped. He let his hand fall.

Seshal went back to his father.

“Are you coming with me?” Corex asked.

“No,” said Lavadil, “I will know if you have been kind. My son needs me now. Go, Corex. Do not be cruel to those who cannot repay you.”

Corex took the bottles, and left. He returned to his home, and sprayed the gas over the remainder of the House Sichera army. He did not wait for results.

Jayma and Jetre were coughing weakly, half-rotted away when he reached them.

With tender care, he rubbed the white ointment into their skin, and watched it seal shut. His brothers slowly sat up, gathering their breaths, and stared at him.

“He helped us,” said Corex.

“Who?”

“The slave. Lavadil. He is with his son now.”

Jetre stared at him in disbelief. “He—he helped you?”

“He gave me the ointment to heal you, and everyone else. I—I did not know they could be kind.”

Jayma and Jetre considered this in silence.

“I am sorry that I chased his son,” Jayma finally said, “But mother will kill you for what you did!”

Corex got up. He let his brothers help him heal the children. Every time he touched one of them, they cringed and looked at him with pain and fear in their eyes.

One by one, they thanked him and crawled or staggered away. There were no loving arms to greet them and hold them. There was no one, but they expected none.

Matron Sichera and her army returned, having abandoned the battle, as Lavadil had predicted. “I will kill the slave!” she swore.

But the slave was gone.

No one told her what Corex had done. She suspected, and she had her son tortured for it, but she did not know, so she spared his life.

Corex, Jetre, and Jayma never harmed another elf, and they were always careful to help hurting children when they could.

Lavadil and Seshal saw Corex and his brothers one more time, when they came to thank Lavadil for the kindness they had shown them.

Then they parted, and did not see each other again until Seshal was much older, and Corex, Jetre, and Jayma ran away from home to come and live with their children on the surface.