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Thanksgiving, by Julie Gilbert

“Runyon cider?”

“Nope.”

“Sveltish wool?”

“Nope.”

“By the gods, Hazael, there must be something you’re thankful for,” Starfish said, stretching out her legs behind the dumpster in back of the tavern.

“Nope.  Safer that way,” the old sailor replied, hunkering over his mug of crayfish broth.

“What about eel pastries from Solly’s cart?” she persisted, waving her lunch in front of his nose.  “Look, Hazael, if you’re not thankful for eel pie, I don’t even want to know you.”

“Eel pie gives me the runs,” Hazael said right as Starfish took a bite.  Her mouth full of flaky pastry, Starfish flicked her fingers in a rude gesture.  Hazael cackled, a rusty sound that revealed his few remaining teeth.

“If they ever drag me in front of the stone, I’ll be fine,” Starfish boasted.  “I’ve got a whole list of things I’m thankful for.  It’s you I’m worried about.”

“That stone has piss to do with giving thanks.  Those Eireans bewitched it to sniff out their enemies.  That’s all.”

“It’s rooted out sixty-five rebels this year already, plus the riots have stopped. You can’t deny it works.”

“So do my bowels but you don’t see me using them to test my friends.”

“You haven’t had to follow you into the outhouse,” Starfish muttered.

“Safer not to be thankful for anything,” Hazael grunted.

“That attitude won’t get you any friends,” Starfish said.  “Now me, on the other hand –”

“That’s her!” a voice interrupted.  Hazael, quick for his age, vanished over the fence as city guards swarmed the alley.  Starfish started to follow but her boot caught on a nail.

“Too bad, girl,” a guard taunted, hauling her down.

“I didn’t do anything!” she protested.

“You’ve been named.”

“By who?”

“Your associates were quick to talk when we caught them at the docks.”

“I had nothing to do with that!”  Another lie.

The guard dragged her to the square, his hand tight around her arm.  Starfish scanned the crowd for a glimpse of Hazael but all she saw were cloaked figures, heads bowed and eyes darting over the cobblestones.

“Make way,” the guard called, hauling Starfish to the center of the square.  She shook off his hand and scowled at the figures standing in the royal balcony.  A little girl, her hair the color of wheat, tilted her head to the side.  The crown on her forehead threatened to slide off.

“Bow before your queen,” the guard rasped, shoving Starfish’s knees.

“I know, you ass,” she muttered, dipping her head before turning to face the stone, a block of milky quartz, almost as tall as she.  The surface was chipped and the color was flat gray.  She’d never been this close to the stone before.  Starfish’s gaze flickered to the young girl on the balcony.  Her head was still tilted to the side, although someone had secured her crown.

“What are you waiting for?” her guard said.  “Scared?”

“Shut your face,” Starfish muttered.  She drew a deep breath and laid her hand against the stone.  It felt cool and gritty, like the window in her attic room.

“I am…I am grateful for all the Royal House of Eiriea has bestowed upon me,” she said in a loud voice, the ritual words surfacing from somewhere deep in her mind.  “I open my heart and mind to be examined.

For a moment nothing happened.  The stone remained cool beneath her palm.  Starfish frowned.  Was she free?

Then a clear voice floated down from the balcony.

“What in particular?” the young queen asked.  “You have been accused of thievery, a crime punishable by death.  Share your thanks for what the throne has given you and perhaps your life will be spared, should the stone deem you worthy.”

Starfish was certain the stone would find her anything but worthy.  She opened her mouth to start her litany when sudden images flashed through her mind:  affectionate parents killed in the western campaign, a cousin who took her in before succumbing to plague, Hazael’s gruff charity, which saved her life when she first arrived in the city.

“I’m thankful that I know where I stand with my friends without having to test them.”

A muffled gasp moved through the crowd.  The queen’s head snapped straight.

Starfish closed her eyes.  She had spoken treason.  There was nothing to do but wait for the stone to flash its lightening and kill her.  As she waited, the stone shuddered and grew warm.  Starfish cracked her eyes to see the boulder glowing like starlight.

“The stone agrees!” someone cried.  “The girl is right.  The throne is wrong!”  In the square around her, the crowd was coming to the same realization.

There were shouts, the rasp of knives being drawn, the thud of rocks slamming into the balcony.

“The stone sides with us!”

Her guard fell to the ground, a dagger in his back.  Starfish saw the girl queen collapse, blood gushing as a knife flashed near her throat.  Her crown rolled off the edge of the balcony, trailing a few strands of wheat-colored hair.

“What is this?” Starfish gasped, the crowd thundering around her.

“The end of the Eiriean throne,” a woman said, her face sticky with gore, her eyes glittering.  “Join us.  You made this possible.”  She held out a knife to Starfish.

Starfish’s boots slipped in pools of blood as she raced across the square to a familiar squat figure peeking out from behind a wall.  Bodies thudded to the ground around her as the crowd overtook the guards.

Later, on the ship to Laecoso, Hazael found her at the rail.

“You more thankful for eel pies or for the fact that you started a revolution?”

“You were right,” Starfish said, her hands trembling, unable to shake the image of the falling crown.  “You’re only safe if you’re not thankful for anything.”

Hazael laid a hand on her shoulder.  Starfish shrugged off his touch and sought her empty cabin.

~~~

I am a librarian living in rural Minnesota. In my spare time, I chase my small children and escape for walks in cemeteries. My work has appeared in Foliate Oak. My blog, Cemeteries & Pajamas, can be found at juliekgilbert.com.

The Whole Picture, by Ray Dean

“End of the line!” The train car shuddered a bit as it slowed and Simon grabbed the armrests of his chair and waited for the faint bump. Others in the adjoining car had already gained their feet and were headed for the stairs when the train connected to the brace at the end of the track. A young man nearly toppled from the doorway as an elegantly dressed man was forced back into his seat with the abrupt motion. A rather large gentleman, with his kerchief pressed against his sweltering brow barely registered the movement of the car and was the first to step outside into the heat of an Arizona afternoon.

The porter assigned to his private car stepped up beside him and offered an arm. “Mr. Desislav, may I be of some assistance?”

The offer rankled.

The locomotive was one of the best money could buy, the newest technology, some of it in part to his own ‘genius,’ had swayed the car almost effortlessly over the heavy rails.  Having remained stationary for the majority of the voyage had allowed his muscles to set in place and now that he was finally at his destination and he needed to disembark.

Warding off the man’s assistance with a curt shake of his head, Simon grasped the ornately carved arms of his chair and stood, one aching inch at a time. His army escort met him at the door of his car and, as was his custom, stood in an overly-erect stance that befitted his assignment.

“If I give you my valise and portfolio, Captain Moser, will that be sufficient to keep your hands to yourself?”

As usual, the soldier’s eyes revealed nothing of his thoughts. “Sir, yes, sir.”

Simon’s sigh of relief was cut short by a cough. The sudden cessation of movement brought the captain to his side.

Rather than address the younger man’s mistake, Simon thrust his bags into the man’s arms and made his way down the steps onto the platform.

The nearest edge was empty of any travelers, they had both time and the inclination to move away. Simon’s escort had arrived before the train and were waiting patiently for him to join them. “Captain Moser, our horses?”

“Unloaded and ready for travel, sir.”

“Good, bring them along after you’ve secured my things.” He didn’t wait for an affirmative answer. Captain Moser was a man used to taking orders and carrying them out. In the few months that he’d been under the captain’s watchful eye, he’d never once had to repeat a request.

When he stepped up to the edge of the platform, he was greeted with a few familiar faces, so familiar, that he felt some glimmer of hope rise up above the gorge in his throat. Narrowing his clouding eyes at the center of the group he found enough facial features to bring a name to the tip of his tongue. “Two Feathers. I am glad you were able to come.”

The horse at the center stepped forward, seemingly without any prompting from his rider. The man sitting elegantly on his mount’s back leaned forward to peer at Simon, copying his own curious posture. “I have come, but I am confused, Simon.” There was a twinge of laughter in his voice. “It seemed to me that we have lost nearly two years since we last met, but you…” he looked down one side of his escort and then the other, “have lost more time than we.”  Leaning forward again he narrowed his eyes. This time it was not in a friendly mocking tone, instead, he found the changes in his friend disturbing. “What has happened to you, old friend?”

Simon nearly barked out a laugh. Two feathers had called him ‘old friend’ and he knew that to those seeing him again, it must have been a shock for the ‘old’ now carried a more pointed meaning. Reaching up, Simon drew his fingers over his beard and held the ends between his fingers. “You have seen me in my better days, old friend. I have changed much since our first meeting and you have not at all. Perhaps,” he looked up at the sun. Squinting as its heavy rays felt heavy against his flesh, “we might journey to your village and speak of it there.”

Two Feathers nodded. “The sun seems to weigh heavily on you more than ever. Come,” he gestured to his son who led the column of horses, “there may be another trail worth exploring”. While Captain Moser helped Simon into his own saddle, Two feathers glanced down at the other end of the railroad platform and held up his hand in greeting. An elegantly dressed older couple standing on the far edge with ramrod straight postures in spite of their wrinkled garments, moved toward the steps with startling speed and disappeared into the gathered crowd of fearful onlookers.

Simon saw the sardonic twist to the other man’s smile and shook his head. He did not need the sharper eyes of his youth to see such an expression, it was one he’d worn many times. Certain things would be hard to change, especially the deep-seated prejudices of others.

# # #

As they travelled, Simon did his best to explain his altered appearance and tried to ignore the number of times that he dozed off only to be awakened by a gentle nudge from Captain Moser. “As I was saying,” he tried to gather his thoughts, “we’ve already lost two of the men in my laboratory. Jack Compton and Ford Hoffman had planned to come with me, but Jack was buried over a week before I boarded the train and Ford,” Simon rasped out a cough behind his hand, “will be dead before I return.”

Two Feathers was more than curious. “You believe it is the rock that has caused your illness.”

“There is nothing else that we share in common.” Simon fought down the lump in his throat. “There are others, men that work with us, but in a limited capacity.” He looked over at the Captain, wondering if he was close to crossing the line of secrecy that the government felt was important.  The younger man continued to ride on beside him, his gaze focused ahead. Simon continued. “We followed the instructions you gave me from those rock paintings, but you,” he felt bitterness twist in his throat, “you show no ill effects.” At the answering silence, Simon’s curiosity became suspicion. Remembering his visit to the village he wondered aloud. “You don’t use it as fuel?”

“Too much power for what we need.” Two Feathers lifted his hand, bringing his son to his side. Uttering a soft command to the younger man, he watched as rider and horse sprang forward from the group to scout ahead. “You were the one that wanted the rock that burned. We only gave you what you asked for.”

Simon’s flare of anger lapsed into a moody silence that the chief filled with his own curiosity.

“I wonder, ” the chief addressed him without turning to see his companion , “I have heard of your airships, but have yet to see one,” he swept his hand across the heavens in a smooth arc, “in our sky.” His voice was tinged with what seemed to pass for humor. “Perhaps it is nothing more than a story.”

“An entrepreneur tried to start a line of service to the west,” Simon began and wondered how much truth he should reveal to chief… And decided with it all, “once someone speculated about the reach of native arrows, the interest in such voyages waned.” It sounded thin and strange to his own ears and imagined what it sounded like to Two Feathers.

The chief did something wholly unexpected, he laughed. “No matter how much your people believe in this ‘science’ they also have little grasp of the truth.”

Simon couldn’t argue the logic. Reining his horse to a slow stop he squinted at the surrounding scenery. “Why did you bring me back here?”

Two Feathers slid from the back of his horse and waited for Simon to do the same. Captain Moser took the reins of Simon’s horse and guided him to the humble shade of what might pass for a tree.

Simon sat down on a camp stool and whisked out his kerchief to blot at the rivulets of sweat forming at his hairline. “I’m waiting to see the necessity of this journey.” He heard the bitter slice of his words but  couldn’t seem to soften them, nor did he really want to. He waved a free hand at the wall behind Two Feathers. “I’ve seen these drawings the last time.”

Simon was a man used to action. He turned to Captain Moser, who hovered nearby with an expectant look on his sweat-beaded face. “You’ll have to forgive the chief, Captain. He enjoys twisting his words along with my patience. I think he enjoys seeing the veins on my forehead ebb and flow like the rivers that run through his land. I think he enjoys making me wait.”

The captain played his hand for all to see, turning to look at the chief with fear openly pulling at his features. It was a weakness and Simon couldn’t help the sour curl of his own lips.

A couple of grumbled statements cut through to his ears and he tried not to glare. Two Feathers’ son was not a man to suffer what he considered ‘insult’ and if truth be told, Simon had given him ample cause.

Two Feathers had reached his own limit. Hospitality had been given and not returned. “What is it you want of me? You came wanting to know if the legend was real. You took the rock you wanted so that your scientists could create your beasts of iron, your floating airships, your underwater boats. You took it and now… what more do you need of our lands or our history?”

Touching his face with his fingers, feeling the leathery wrinkles etched into his skin, even with the numbness invading his hands. He felt every inch a man of advanced age and weakening body, even though he was barely fifty five. He heard the subtle accusation in Two Feathers’ voice and knew he deserved them. “I came, and when you showed me the paintings… the cave where ancient souls had left their instructions… and I took what you said and left. I thought I knew what I was doing.” He saw the change in his friends eyes. The lessening of the dark judgement and the softness of something akin to respect dawning once again. “But there’s more, isn’t there? Things I didn’t see.”

It took a long moment, but Two Feathers lowered his chin in a dignified nod. With his left hand he gestured to the other side of the cave. When he had visited the cave on his last visit the sun had obscured the other wall in dark shadows. Now, in the other half of the day, the far was was nearly illuminated by the sun.

Unlike the first wall where they’d deciphered the drawings into instructions for distilling the minerals into a usable compound, the figures easily decipherable as that of humans , these images were taller, darker, and harder to distinguish.

“The Ancient Ones,” Two Feathers began, “they were the teachers of my people. They gave us knowledge of this land they had created.”

The figures were fascinating to Simon and he crossed the cave to study the long, hunch-shouldered bodies with no discernable feet beneath them. A host of figures spread across the flat surface of the wall, grouping together as the flat surface narrowed beneath a rough patch of limestone.

Bright sunlight flared along the limestone features and Simon’s eyes suffered the longer he tried to look at the images. A hand on his arm, turned his gaze away into the merciful shade. Two Feathers pointed at a cluster of images. “A cleansing.” When he was sure that Simon was focused he continued. “A part of our own culture. We use this cleansing for body and spirit. Perhaps,” his smile was a soft ghost on his lips, “you require both.” He gestured back to the horses. “Come, we have one more ride.”

# # #

The fire blazing nearby seemed to dry his flesh like jerky, but Simon could no more walk to save himself from the heat than he could look away from the flames. Two Feathers’ son began to transfer stones from the heart of the fire into a corner of the nearby mud-covered structure. Simon stood watching the process with rapt attention, barely aware of the voices he was surrounded with. His body had suffered much, the last few months had been the worst for him as he’d realized how quickly he was losing his health and soon his hope.

With his youngest holding the blanket away from the entrance, Two Feathers shed his clothing and crawled into the rounded hut. Other elders followed until there were only four left. With a gesture Captain Moser was invited to follow, but the younger man shook his head and backed away, pulling his coat tightly around his body. His eyes were curious but fear was the darkest emotion staring back at them.

Simon shook slightly, but it was hardly cold that affected him now. Reaching for his coat, he slipped the brass buttons free and laid the garment on a patch of grass. The rest of his garments followed suit and when he finished he met another man’s eyes with no shame or fear. He found, in another man’s eyes something he had in short supply, hope. He preceded the brave into the hut fighting down any last remnant of fear.

The only thing he could see within was the glow of rocks from the fire, a dull red warming the darkness as he settled on the floor, his hands and bare backside soaking up the chill from the ground beneath him. The heat rising from the glowing rocks pulled sweat from his pores, but there was a strange tightness in the air that promised more.

A voice from the darkness began to chant and beside him, Two Feathers’ steady voice gave the words meaning in Simon’s ears, a mix of legend and guidance for both body and spirit. Simon shifted uneasily where he sat, a tightness growing in his chest. He felt his skin flare with heat as if it had caught on fire, but when he opened his mouth to ask for relief no voice passed his lips.

The dark hut had gone silent and from that emptiness it came. A crash of sound as water poured over the rocks. He smelled pinon and pine in the air, felt the wash of steam as it buffeted him like a rush of water, filling his mouth and nose where air had failed to penetrate. It was the last thing he remembered.

# # #

Simon awoke as the train lurched forward. Looking about, he realized he was back in his private car. Turning in his chair he caught at the arms to keep himself from falling to the floor. Seated in his customary chair, Captain Moser avoided his eyes, keeping his gaze on the barren landscape slowly crawling by.

The man’s dismissive posture riled Simon and he stood to take the officer to task, but he found no words once he was on his feet. The mirror attached to the forward wall, pristine in its gilt frame, showed him an unexpected sight.

The man staring back at him was a man years younger than the man that had arrived at the station. He felt new vigor in his limbs, new vitality building within his body. He had not regained all of what he had lost, but there was more a man needed than youth. He was returning home with a new outlook on his ambitions and a new perspective on science.

As the train rolled down the tracks toward his laboratory and his future, the gilt mirror added a new focus to the whole picture.

~~~

Ray Dean was born and raised in Hawaii where she spent many a quiet hour reading and writing stories. Performing in theater and working backstage lead her into the delights of Living History, creating her own worlds through writing seemed the next logical step. Historical settings are her first love, but there is something heady about twisting the threads of time into little knots and creating new timelines to explore. There are endless possibilities that she is just beginning to discover. Her Website: My Ethereality www.raydean.net;  Her Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RayDeanAuthor She also contributes to this blog twice a month: www.ageofsteam.wordpress.com .

Another Eden, by Cassandra Arnold

We were happy before Adam came. How I laughed when he was thrown out, him and that stuck up rib of his. Anyone would think the garden had been created just for them. But it wasn’t. It was made for us.

You’re a Christian now. I see you making a protective sign, but that doesn’t scare me. I am a daughter of Lilith, and we still live in the garden.

You want to know where it is? You really think you will find it on a map and drive there? Haven’t you seenthe Middle East?

Come closer. Let me whisper this to your limited mind: Eden is what you will it to be.

I know, I know. You are over believing promises of any kind. Not just those involving rainbows and no more floods (How wrong that was!) but those invoking paradises that turn out to be rows of strip hotels With tip-seeking, fawning foreigners and dangerous food.

But I can take you there. To Eden. Just let me slip into your mind as you lie under the covers on the borders of sex and sleep. Let me learn the truth of your deepest desires. We can make them grow.

See how easy that was? You look surprised. I wish I was. Are there no men with original minds? Over and over again I am here, wearing minimal animal skins underneath a date palm with doves cooing in the background. Still, it is at least a garden. And nothing has yet been named.

What about Adam? You think we kept those monikers that he worked out with God as we paraded before him and all of us rejected as less than equal to his needs? Not a chance. But you get to do it. If you like. If it makes you feel at home. Just remember, some of us hid that day. Some of us have never been known. But we have to walk a while first, to the river, to wash off your scent of Earth and conquest and domination. You have to be reborn to walk here with me in the cool of the night. Here. Rest on this mossy bank and I will bring you fruit and wipe your brow. Sorry, just kidding. See that tree? The tall one on the closest hill? That’s the one that started all the trouble. The knowledge of good and evil. Who cares, I say? I wouldn’t eat from that one. Waste of time. But look beyond it, near the gate guarded by that flabby Angel. That one there is the Tree of Life.

What? Get into trouble? Not a chance. God’s busy somewhere else these days, on some planet across the Milky Way. A better class of soil I hear. Fewer trees.

Yeah, okay, but a girl’s gotta have a laugh at times. D’ya know you were put here to work at first? Till the soil and care for things? Boring, eh? I like your imagination better. I mean, look at them. Twelve little virgins all in a row. Don’t blush. This is your Eden. And we’re nearly at the river. Don’t stop now.

Shall I turn my back?

No, I thought not. But you shouldn’t have turned yours. For now I can reach your neck. If you struggle and your blood is spilt, the water will wash it away. My trusting lamb. I forgot to tell you. I do have a name. And so will you.

~~~

Cassandra Arnold is a writer, humanitarian doctor and activist, who believes that the mythic and the fantastic are at the core of what it means to be human. More of her work can be found at cassandraarnold.com.