Category Archives: Free Story

Hellbound Hiatus – A Gods vs. Man Short Story

If you were a giant god sentenced to eternal torture, how would you entertain yourself during your vacation?

Artwork by Hugo Puzzuoli

Hellbound Hiatus

By D. L. Lewellyn

Tityus gave only half a thought to punching the obnoxious birds in their wrinkled bald faces because doing so was an act of futility. He knew this because he’d done it a million times over thousands of years, and it hadn’t yet stopped the two giant vultures from chewing out his liver every twenty-eighth day, starting precisely at six p.m., Eastern European Time. It was now seven.

The voracious creatures will finish digging into his side in exactly one hour, after which Tityus will endure more agonizing pain with the regrowth of his immortal organ, only to have the endless punishment repeated at the next new moon. In the lulls between, the giant often wondered who suffered the worst torment, the birds who were sent to Hell to eat the same meal every month for eternity, or Tityus from having to provide it.

He decided it would feel good to punch the bobbing heads anyway. It was worth the extra pain as strips of his flesh were wrenched from his body by the force of his own blow. At least he’d caved in half their ugly faces, and there was immense satisfaction in all the flapping of black wings and screeches through shattered beaks. It was even better when they went aloft to find a ledge and wait for their skulls to mend.

A sound between a moan and a sigh seeped from the giant, echoing through his stone and moss-covered grotto nestled deep below the base of Mount Parnassus. Zeus might be liberal with handing out sentences to his dozens of offspring when they went astray, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t keeping track of every single one. Tityus hoped his father had noticed his act of bored defiance.

Since he’d been given a bonus reprieve, he took the opportunity to recline more comfortably on his loamy pallet, which stretched along with him across his nine-acre earthen home. He picked up the remote and flipped through the three programs his sister had selected for him to view on the eighty-foot screen, which hung on his southern limestone wall. It was only recently that Persephone had come up with the ingenious device in her efforts to give him a diversion between bouts of torture.

He smiled at the thought of his sister. 

She was the only one who believed he’d been goaded into his crime of passion by Hera and pleaded his case every chance she got. Even the goddess who bore him and the one who raised him didn’t believe his side though both had reason to blame Hera for their problems. It seemed they stuck together when it came to condemning him, but not Persephone. His sister’s loyalty and affection never wavered.

She also understood that finding what he sought through his view to the human world was the only thing keeping him sane and that on those rare occasions when he found the perfect distraction, he could ignore the prospect of the gnawing and gnashing at his flesh, and the pain when red ropes of liver would be tugged out and slurped up like so many earth worms that shared his home.

***

It took the better part of the first week after his liver grew back to select his target, and Tityus was in the middle of planning how he would go about the couple’s torment when a leafy vine began winding up his leg. Since his limb was the length of three stadiums, it took some time for the greenery to get close to his face, but Tityus waited patiently for his sister to make her appearance. 

The vine stopped its horizontal travels at his hip, then shot straight up as it thickened into limbs that stretched into a torso. A neck and head appeared next, and soon the dulcet tones of the Queen of the Underworld chimed through his grotto.

“Hello, Brother. Have you made your selection?”

He had to dial down his voice to keep from blasting Persephone off his hip. “I have. Though each couple was as tempting as the other. Thank you for that. Choosing was half the fun.”

She clasped her hands together and grinned. “That is just what I hoped for. It has been too long since you’ve enjoyed yourself, Tityus, and I’m happy to do my part to make the point to Father that the retribution he inflicts on his offspring just as often spreads to mankind. You must know I have been pleading your case again. Not only were you manipulated by the jealous Hera, but your crime was incomplete, and this punishment has gone on long enough. Not to mention, it is agony to hear your groans of pain as they shake the very core of the Underworld.”

Green eyes as big as moons brimmed with affection, and he nudged her gently into his waiting palm. “Ever my champion, dear sister. I don’t know what I would do without you. Won’t you recline and stay for a bit?”

“That is why I’m here.” She reached out and patted his thumb. “I will convince Father one day soon. Meanwhile, you deserve a reprieve toying with the humans.” She laid back on her elbow and propped her head in her hand, while her vines wove a canopy over her and anchored themselves between her brother’s fingers. “Now, who did you pick?”

“If I only have time for one, this pair has the best potential to give us a top-rated show.” He clicked the remote, and the giant screen came to life. The sibling gods looked down on two people crouched in a square pit divided into grids in the middle of an archeological site not far from the west bank of the Nile.

***

Sarah had no clue what she did to him with that earnest look of concentration. Parts of him clenched uncomfortably when she pushed her glasses higher on her pert nose, which was smudged with red dust. Not only did his heart thump loud enough to give him away, but he almost groaned. That embarrassing prospect broke the spell she was weaving over him, and he turned the sound into a cough. Shit. It was getting harder to keep things casual, and if his boss could read even a fraction of his inappropriate thoughts, she would send him packing.

So, Nathan turned his attention back to the brush he held in his hand and focused on the shard of pottery they were painstakingly easing in stages from the three-and-a-half-thousand-year-old soil. This section of the dig had turned up another small cache, which was laid out on a cloth next to them, consisting of tools, a handful of human bones, two delicate cat skulls, and three nearly intact clay jars.

The shard wasn’t even the most exciting thing they’d unearthed today… except… “Is that cuneiform?”

Her sweet, yet husky voice got him going again when she said, “Yes. I believe our theory has been confirmed, Nathan. Do you agree?”

He was struck by her eyes that glittered with excitement and had to give himself a mental shake before answering. “It is harder to deny when we add this to the rest. But Sarah, we’ve been breathing the dirt in this six-foot square hole for eight hours. Let’s cover it up, stash our findings in the locker, and get out of here. It’s time to go to the city for a night of celebration.”

“You really want to finish the day’s work without cataloging these beauties? Don’t you want to know what these symbols tell us?” She cocked her head. “Have I worked you that hard?”

He laughed. “I just need to get clean and then go sweat at a club with dancing and liquor. Morning will be soon enough to study our treasure.”

“I suppose getting sweaty for a different reason would be a nice change of pace. You’re on.”

But those words passing through full pink lips and the vision of her moving on a dance floor forced him to stay crouched for a minute longer while waves of yearning rushed once more through his lower regions. Maybe torturing himself with an evening in her company wasn’t such a grand idea after all. Then, he decided it was, because this was the opportunity he’d hoped for.

***

Tityus paused the video feed, and when he spoke, small boulders slid down the embankments surrounding his prone form. “You can see he’s got it bad and has no idea she’s been exploring her sexuality. I’ve got a few moves set up to help her decide things.”

Persephone’s eyes gleamed. “So, I can assume her decisions won’t include poor Nathan?”

“That’s the plan, but only after we squeeze more entertainment from them first. You did good, Sister. I can already smell his pathos,” and he closed his eyes and inhaled the pungent air to demonstrate the sensory input, which caused a small cyclone to whirl a path around them and rattled her vines. “His suffering and their confusion will go a long way towards helping me endure my next round of torment. I’m already collecting images for my dreams.” He cracked an eye open to peer at his sister. “And we might even enjoy some collateral damage. There’s a third party involved.” 

The quiet when the giant ceased speaking left a vacuum in the subterranean chamber. Then the walls shook again when he chuckled and said, “Is our uncle aware of your new penchant for misguiding love-struck humans?”

The Queen of the Underworld let out an undignified snort. “Hades does not care how I occupy my time, only that he can call me to him whenever he wants. And speaking of the demanding one, I feel his pull now. I promise to be back for another installment. But don’t wait for me, you can catch me up.” Tityus was used to Persephone’s spontaneous appearances and abrupt departures, and didn’t mind when the forest of greenery disappeared with his sister in a wispy puff. He clicked his remote to open the next scene.

***

Nathan was sweaty just as planned, but he’d never had so much fun getting into this state of bodily dampness. Sarah had arranged for several of her friends from the university to meet them at the discotheque in Luxor, and the girls had made it their mission to keep him on the dance floor for the past two hours. He finally had to beg them for a break, so he could go to the restroom to cool down and freshen up.

Revived and happy enough with the results, he pushed his way through the crush of dancers and back to the bar where he’d left his charming companions with their drinks. When he was close enough to spot them through the crowd, he came to a dead stop, and his heart plummeted like a stone. 

Sarah was sitting on a stool facing her friend Eman, who had her lips buried in Sarah’s neck. At first, it looked like Eman was simply trying to be heard, but then he saw their clasped hands, and a pink tongue darting in Sarah’s ear. Sarah laughed and pulled back, and her eyes glittered with excitement, and something else. Shit. How could he have had things so wrong?

The shock wore off almost immediately, but that only let a whole slew of other confusing emotions overwhelm him while he stood there gaping, until the thought of what he must look like penetrated the fog.

Sarah spotted him before he could shake it off and act normal. Her smile froze, then she frowned.

Eman turned to see what Sarah was looking at, and it was clear she had no idea his world had just collapsed because she grinned at him and waved, then raised the drink she had waiting for him. His arm went up in a halfhearted answer, and he somehow got his legs moving again.

After another hour passed of being dazed, he had to wonder how he was still sitting in this raucous place hunched over his whiskey in the middle of the table Eman had grabbed for them. All he could feel after his third drink were the constant sharp jabs to his heart as he strained to hear the drowned-out chatter from the four girls still having a great time. If anyone asked him the topic of their conversation, he would not be able to relate one bit of it… for all the above reasons.

On the one hand, the pain confirmed his feelings for Sarah went much deeper than he realized. On the other, he feared it would be his new constant companion. The intensity that had felt so good at the dig today now ripped him to pieces, and he thought he might be on his way to suffocating in this night club that had turned garish and stifling. He had to get out of here.

“Will you be good with getting Sarah back to the site, Eman?” He’d spoken so abruptly that they each turned to him in surprise. He cleared his throat. “I’m going to call it a night and head back.”

Sarah laid a hand on his arm. “Are you okay? Maybe you should have a coffee first.”

That was sound advice, but the thought of watching Sarah and Eman whispering together another minute made him want to throw up. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you at eight tomorrow. Don’t be late.” He attempted to smile, but judging by how Sarah’s brow furrowed deeper, his face must have looked as wan as he felt.

He slapped some money on the table mostly to make sure she had enough to get back to the dig. “Enjoy the rest of the night. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Sarah nodded then turned to her friends without another glance in his direction. He forced his shoulders not to slump in defeat and left.

***

This time the flowering vines trailed down the side of the cavern before finding purchase on the giant’s arm that stuck partly up from the earth. The writhing greenery tickled, waking Tityus from a satisfying dream that kept playing back the moment Nathan’s puny human heart was crushed to a pulp.

He cracked open a giant green orb and waited for Persephone to materialize on a dirt mound that covered his shoulder. The more he buried himself in the earth, the better he dreamed. He didn’t dwell too much on the reasons for that, though Zeus would be the first to tell him he had a mother complex.

Persephone wore her favorite skull crown today and leaned on her staff to peer into his eye. “Well? Was it as entertaining as you hoped?”

The damp soil covering him rippled, and a myriad of stones were tossed up from the vibrations when he said, “Even more so.”

“What do you think Nathan will do now? Will he be able to endure working with Sarah after this?”

“You’ll be pleased to know it’s turning out better than I planned. You made it just in time for the next installment. When Nathan left the club about two in the morning, he was in a state of mind that made him the perfect mark for the rare Luxor mugger I ensured crossed his path. The thief took all his cash, then beat him senseless. That event alone will last me a good while, and the violence wasn’t even due to me. Sarah is about to discover he never made it back.”

Persephone raised her cupped hand and a bloodred mist swirled in her fingers. When it dissipated, she was holding several bunches of purple grapes, the size of which no human had ever seen. She plucked half the fruit off one and tossed them into Tityus’s mouth, then asked him a question, “Is he alive?” Tityus nodded as he chewed, and she said, “You realize having him harmed could make your plans head in the wrong direction.”

Her brother jolted her with another nod, swallowed more grapes, and said, “The gamble that humans might find their way despite our interference is what makes this so satisfying, Sister.”

She smiled. “Then let’s get comfortable and watch.” 

Tityus clicked his remote and the shadowy grotto lit up from the desert scene now spread across the limestone wall like a portal had just opened to Thebes. The morning sun gleamed across the sand and the ancient pyramid, and the archaeological encampment looked small in its shadow. A lone figure crouched in the pit under an umbrella and worked with careful precision on a spot in the strata at the level of her eyes. But the anxious archaeologist kept bobbing up the ladder at every sound to peek over the edge of the pit.

Her voice was overly loud as she called out, “Hey, Charles. Have you heard from Nathan yet?”

A man crouching in the adjacent pit answered her. “Not since you asked me a half hour ago. But I’m concerned, too. So, I sent Jack to hunt for him. I’m sure he just holed himself up in a hotel room to sleep off the whiskey. You know what a lightweight he is. We should both quit worrying.” 

As soon as that last word died out, the sound of a car had them springing up their respective ladders to peer over the edge of their pits.

From the spot on Tityus shoulder where Persephone reclined on her vines, she said, “That must be Jack with Nathan. If I’m wrong, I’ll find you eight victims for next month’s program.”

Tityus’s deep laughter cut off when he spotted an eagle much too large to be natural swooping over the dig site and around all the tents to land on a clothesline strung with colorful blankets flapping in the breeze. “Uh… Persephone. Do you think… ?”

“Yes, it’s Father. Shit. How did he find out?” She barked out a laugh. “Never mind. Stupid question. We’re better off working on our plausible deniability.”

By this time, the car had arrived at the encampment and pulled under a cover, and a burly bearded man stepped out of the driver’s side, then opened the door to the backseat to help out a slighter man who was clearly in pain and struggling to move. 

Sarah scrambled the rest of the way up her ladder and ran to the car. “Nathan!”

The eagle made another pass over the scene, and Tityus and Persephone eyed each other when a screech that could only belong to the powerful god who was their sire sounded all the way to them in the grotto, even as the humans beneath the winged creature were oblivious. 

When Nathan heard Sarah call his name, he forced himself to straighten and face her. She came to an abrupt halt and gasped. “Oh my god. What happened to you?”

Embarrassment was visible through the damage on his face, but he summoned his dignity and said, “I had a little run-in on the way to the taxi stand and woke up in an alley with my pockets inside out. Thankfully, Jack thought to check the police station where I ended up this morning because I had no way to identify myself.” 

This time, they all looked up when another screech rent the air and watched as the bird of prey disappeared over the horizon.

Sarah turned back to her injured colleague who was starting to wobble a bit, and her voice hitched. “You scared me to death, Nathan.” She stepped closer and softened her words. “I am aware of what I did to you last night. I’ve been confused about things, and I’m sorry. Today, everything is different. Will you forgive me?”

Hope bloomed on Nathan’s face, which looked somewhat grim with his distorted lips and swollen eye. He cocked his head at her. “What are you saying, Sarah?”

“Eman is finishing her doctorate at Cambridge. We said goodbye last night. For good. You’re the one I want to be with. Can I hope for the same?”

The burly Jack cleared his throat which effectively brought the two back to their present surroundings, and he said, “While it’s clear this exchange is doing Nathan a lot of good, he’s about to drop where he stands. Are you ready to have a lie down, kid?”

Sarah raised her face to Nathan’s as she wrapped her arm around his waist and walked him to the med tent. The look she gave him was the final nail in the coffin for Tityus’s schemes this hiatus. 

The giant punched the button on the remote violently enough to crush the entire thing, and the view to the desert went dark, throwing the grotto into shadow.

Persephone was already turning wispy with her disappearing vines. “I’m sorry, Brother. But you understand I must return to Hades. I promise to do what I can to cool our father’s wrath.

His laughter was full of both irony and resignation as he said, “You will do better for me staying clear of Zeus for now, and away from here, but don’t wait too long for another visit, dear sister.”

In the lull after her departure, Tityus settled his huge body in his lonely grotto deep beneath the earth and hoped for nurturing dreams of humans suffering unrequited love, while he waited for the next new moon… and the vultures to circle.

The End… Until the Next New Moon

I wrote this for a short story contest. It didn’t make the top three, but I absolutely adore this premise. A friend is writing his own version of the tortured giant, Tityus, and how he might use a grotto-sized TV to spy on mankind and wreak havoc for the sole purpose of providing a diversion from torture. Most of you know the story of Prometheus, the lover of mankind, who endures a similar punishment exacted on him by Zeus, but here is the lesser known story of Tityus, tortured for being a cad.

What kind of story would you come up with for my bored giant’s entertainment? Let me know in the comments. I’m thinking of doing more of these to collect for an anthology. What do you think about that idea?

Artwork by Ygit Danacioglu

Change With Me, My Love – A Dystopian Fantasy Love Story

A lonely man in a dying world seizes a chance at happiness with a mythical being. Grab a cup of tea and settle in with your favorite snuggly blanket for an eight minute story that feels like getting lost in a novel. While you’re there, I would love to know what you think.

Click on the photo above to go to my Vocal Media story and feel free to comment and like. I would greatly appreciate it.

Excerpt

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. The view from this high place included a blue sky interrupted by puffy white clouds tipped in pink from the rising sun, and their shadows moved swiftly over a patch of turbulent sea. That spot was the focus of her longing.

It was the vast land flowing away from the sea that comprised the unknown, the part of this world she had never experienced until now, the part that required a pair of feet to traverse it. She looked at her toes in wonder, curling them just to ensure it was her will operating the strange appendages.

***

Escape into a Solstice Lore Fantasy During a Dark Winter

Enjoy a fantasy short story set in a parallel realm during the winter solstice. Meet Ray Jensen, husband, father and physicist, who disappears into an experiment and ends up in a place where his ideas about science and logic are turned upside down. Despite the fantastical world, the questions piquing his scientific curiosity, and his new friends, his only desire is to get home. Journey with him and Tsealie of the Sapphire Gnomes while he figures it out.

Excerpt

Ray Jensen pounded through the trees, then leapt with blind faith into the hole as an arrow whizzed past his ear. The opening sealed over his head like it never existed, as he dropped thirty feet.

Experience taught him the precise point at which to fold his tall body for the landing, and he hit the ground, rolled over the floor covered in thick straw, and came to a breathless halt against a boulder.

He coughed and spat out a mouthful of dirt. Just once, he would like to enter the realm of the Sapphire Gnomes without coming close to breaking his neck.

His eyes landed on a pair of Antlered Hare boots and the bottom of a crooked staff. The voice above them said, “You’re quite good at that. And I can see it was necessary.”

***

Click on the photo below to go to my story on Vocal Media. A like would be so appreciated, and comments are welcome.

Vintage Holiday Greeting Card

A Leap Through the Elder Oak is also available in four installments in My Stories.

Have you Ever Worked Furiously on a Short Story Submission, and Nearly Missed the Deadline?

Still, I managed it with fifteen minutes to spare! And I hadn’t even figured out the title yet. Yikes! My closest call yet. I had the deadline wrong. I’m typing away and thought I should check the submission requirements again. Due in Two Hours! What!! The story that resulted still has me reeling. I love it so much, I don’t even care if it doesn’t get a win. It is dear to my heart, and that is all that matters.

The prompt was to write a dystopian tale using the first sentence, “The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room.” I couldn’t resist this one! It’s short. Eight minutes to read. I’d love to know if it captures your imagination, too, only if you have a few minutes to spare, and need a dose of magic. If you do, click the photo.

A lonely man in a dying world seizes a chance at happiness with a mythical being.

The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room. The view from this high place included a blue sky interrupted by puffy white clouds tipped in pink from the rising sun, and their shadows moved swiftly over a patch of turbulent sea. That spot was the focus of her longing.

It was the vast land flowing away from the sea that comprised the unknown, the part of this world she had never experienced until now, the part that required a pair of feet to traverse it. She looked at her toes in wonder, curling them just to ensure it was her will operating the strange appendages.

A Little Cannibal Comedy, Anyone?

I dare you to ride along with the masked passengers and their eerie pilot in this story that came from a random prompt in a genre you don’t get …

A Little Cannibal Comedy, Anyone?

Browsing Vocal Media for Engaging Short Stories?

I’m there. I would love you to stop by and check out my growing and eclectic set of short stories. Fantasy fiction, an adult fairy tale, a romance triangle with a twist, a pair of aquarium fish who witness murdering mayhem, a historical fiction tale of a pioneering aeronaut, and even a cannibal comedy with an ending that will raise your brows, await you. If you enjoy them, like and comment while you’re there. Thank you!

Click on image to visit my profile and stories.

A Leap Through the Elder Oak, The Conclusion

  • Click here for Part One
  • Click here for Part Two
  • Click here for Part Three

A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Conclusion

Once again, Ray found himself dodging arrows as he leapt over fallen trees and ducked behind live ones. Tsealie would say it was a miracle he hadn’t been poked full of holes long before now. The elves were lethal with their uncanny aim and inhuman strength that sent the arrows flying so close, his skin prickled where they passed.

Another missile whipped by his face, splitting a small birch tree in two ahead of him, right where he’d been about to turn. He spun on his heels and changed direction as he cursed his hair that glowed like a silver beacon in the growing darkness of the shortest day of the year. He’d set out wearing a gnome hat Tsealie’s daughter had modified for him. The conical hat was absurd on such a tall man, but it disguised his humanness and used magical camouflage to make him disappear into nature.

It worked until the cap was snatched by a branch about a half mile back as he traversed a dangerous patch of woods. Not long after, the elf prince and his guard picked up his trail. Thwack! Another arrow lodged in a tree, this time taking a piece of him first. Ray reached behind his neck and felt the wetness of his blood. Another inch and the force would have taken his head.

Before this fateful jaunt into the bizarre, Ray had wished for more excitement in his life. Dropping into the realm of a supernatural race who did not welcome the intrusion wasn’t what he had in mind. Was leaving here too much to ask? He considered throwing himself on the mercy of the elf king. He’d meant what he said when he told Tsealie this was the last time he would risk the gnomes.

If he hadn’t broken so many laws when he first arrived, Tsealie might have managed to negotiate a sponsorship with King Seabrin, which might have gotten him home at the start of this venture. But laws were very different here, and the elves had little tolerance for law breakers, even if they were unwitting ones. Attempting negotiations was too dangerous a prospect for the lesser gnome kingdom to undertake. Once Ray learned about his situation, he refused to let Tsealie try.

He stumbled through a patch of thorny brush and almost fell on his face. He’d lost more blood than he realized, and his vision blurred. He didn’t even let himself dwell on the pain. Too many other worries crowded his mind, like making it to the portal before he passed out. He should try to staunch the blood. The elves had gone silent, which meant he had no idea how close they were, but he needed to rest a minute and bind his wound.

An opening between a spot of thick brush and a boulder provided cover while he crouched on the pungent forest floor and listened for signs of his pursuers. An owl hooted. Something skittered through his hiding spot, followed by another skitter. Twigs snapped under heavier steps. The prince was closer than he thought. As he listened, his vision cleared enough to make out his surroundings in the fading light. His heart thumped at what he saw.

He’d made it back to the Forest of the Fire Maidens and was in the middle of the ancient copse of yews Tsealie described. Ray knew what he must search for next, but he stayed hidden a little longer to drink his fill of water from the gourd on his belt. He used some to wash the blood from his hands, listened again, then pushed on in a direction away from the elves.

He only had to go another hundred yards before he spotted the mound of granite towering over a moonlit meadow, his last marker. An ethereal voice echoed between the trees. “If you don’t halt and turn yourself in, human, it will go worse for you.”

Of course, he kept going. He was so close; the sound of his wife’s laughter rang in his head. She was always ready to laugh, and it was the sweetest sound on earth. It beckoned him and hope gave him strength and stealth, so when he sprinted the last few yards, he made no sound.

He leapt over a log and vaulted around the monolithic rock, then stumbled to a halt. Ray had hashed out every detail of the epic solstice battle with Tsealie the past few days, but it hadn’t prepared him for the sight that met his eyes. Two trees, so tall they blocked the deepening starlight, swung their branches at each other as if they were swords. Their clashes thundered across the clearing, and electricity made its own noise as it crackled between them, growing in intensity.

He couldn’t make out faces because there weren’t any, but he imagined their expressions all the same, and it was clear the giant trees engaged in a fierce competition. One minute, they seemed rooted to the ground, the next, they would raise a gnarled root and step forward with another jab.

Movement caught his eye. It was an opening in the hollow of one of the warring trees, the Elder Oak, and it shimmered in an out of existence. His theory was correct. The portal wasn’t fixed in one spot, it moved around to meet certain conditions. And he watched those conditions unfold in a traditional clash that heralded winter. He calculated the war would end in about twenty minutes.

Before he could make his move, a beam of light blinded him, obscuring the snorting creature rearing up and blocking his path. A stag. He had to leap out of the way and barely managed to stay on his feet.

On the stag’s back was a fierce-looking blue-haired elf with a crown on his head that appeared to be made of water. The glowing being spoke in a deep voice. “Where do you think you are going, human? Do you really believe we would let you return without making you pay for your crimes?”

“My only crime is believing I was smart enough to know what I was doing with the portal. I admit conducting my experiment was the worst decision of my life. I only want to return to my family. I haven’t caused any harm here. Please let me go back.”

“It is the harm you might cause when you return that we are concerned with, and none of this is for you to decide. It is up to the king.” His brows drew together. “There is one possibility that might earn you your freedom.”

“What do you mean?”

“The human who seems set on discovering his way here must be stopped. The king will send you home after you help us with this problem.” 

“I’ve already been missing for six years. Longer is unthinkable.”

“It is either this or be locked away and never go home again.” Ray decided he had another choice and searched for his opportunity to make a run for the ancient oak.

Then, he got help when a familiar sapphire prism pierced the darkness, and snow began to fall. It fell so heavy it soon covered every surface, piling high. The blanketing quiet brought to the fore the sounds of clashing branches. Only a few feet separated Ray from his family.

An owl flew at the prince, flapping its wings around the stag’s head. The stag reared up, this time in defense, nearly unseating the prince. More owls swooped over the guards.

Ray recognized the cues given to him by a wizened old gnome to point him towards another leap of faith. In the winged chaos, he made a zigzag dash, then dove headfirst at the shimmering hollow while the king of the oak trees dueled with the Holly King, both giants oblivious to the drama playing out beneath them.

As he tumbled through a denser darkness than the one now shrouding Undine on the winter solstice, he sent his heartfelt gratitude to a tiny being who had turned out to be the best friend he ever had.

  • Click here for Part One
  • Click here for Part Two
  • Click here for Part Three

A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Part Three

  • Click here for Part One
  • Click here for Part Two
  • Click here for Part Four

A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Part Three

The six-foot four human had given up applying science to the phenomenon of his two-foot-high companion covering distances faster than him, while appearing to stroll. His efforts these days went to keeping pace with the being who barely topped his knee. He was used to the strangeness now, so he was able to listen as they walked and Tsealie explained.

“It will be a process because as kings, the giant trees can move among their subjects. However, there are only so many locations that will accommodate their size, and as you pointed out, the locations are part of the tradition.”

His dark eyes glittered. “I am hopeful we can get you to the right one in time. I will alert the network at once. Then, you, my friend, will need to be ready to dodge the elves and make it there in one piece.” 

When Ray’s face filled with determination, Tsealie said, “Did I ever tell you that you could pass for an Ice Elf with that platinum hair? Especially when your eyes turn steely.”

“You mentioned it a time or two. And if I were to stay longer in this world, I would like to meet the race whose history my ancestors in Scandinavia might very well share, if my theory is correct.”

The two of them continued on, rounding yet another bend in the tunnel, and the yeasty fumes of mushroom ale invaded Ray’s nostrils. He rolled his shoulders and relaxed, inhaling deeper. His favorite soup was on the menu this afternoon. Leek and lentil. Prior to living with these diminutive beings of nature, Ray had been steadfast in his belief he wouldn’t survive on greenery and legumes, though his wife often tried to convince him to go vegetarian with her. It turned out he thrived on the savory concoctions the gnomes liberally dished out.

Tsealie’s smile thinned out his wrinkles. You know I will miss your stories and our games. But I wish this for you as hard as you wish it for yourself.”

“I know you do, Tsealie. And I have a feeling once I’m home, it won’t be long before I will want to come back for a visit, though I can’t see how that might happen. Do you?”

“Before you stumbled unwittingly through a Fae portal and wandered into the fern gardens to trample over my herd of snails, I would have thought not. But with you Raymond Jensen, anything is possible.”

Ray blanched at his words, even as he accepted the humor in them. “I still feel awful about the snails. At least you stopped me before my carelessness grew to unforgivable proportions.”

At last, they arrived at a set of double doors carved out of thick elm. A pair of gnomes, even shorter than their elder, and dignified in their sapphire livery complete with tall, conical caps, made way for them, then stood at attention. Guards were not a requirement in this peaceful realm deep under the earth. The little sentinels made themselves available in this fashion, seeming to appear from thin air, out of respect for Tsealie, who was the oldest among them.

But Tsealie’s age was another logic-bending mystery Ray decided long ago not to spend time puzzling over, so he pushed that last thought aside and bent in half to enter the Great Hall Under the Elm. Thanks to the hollow in the giant tree widening out to unbelievable proportions below ground, he could rise to his full height after squeezing through the door.

Since learning today about the symbiotic relationship between the trees and the gnomes, Ray took time to glance around the natural architecture with new eyes. He let the raucous noise fade away and listened to the sounds of the earth. A trick Tsealie taught him. An array of burls had been turned into small windows that staggered up the great height of the tree, and the dust moted beams of light bathed his face.

Part of him had been aware of the aura glowing off the surfaces of the underground kingdom, but now he could feel the rhythm of life that encompassed more than the tiny people.

Tsealie waited, as if he understood Ray’s need to absorb this new perspective of his surroundings. Then, the elder’s stomach rumbled loud enough to break the spell, and the hall turned lively once again.

Ray smiled and said, “I could use a meal, too. But even more urgent is the need to indulge in at least three pints, and a board game or two to calm me down. You’ve given me my first real hope today.”

“Your clever scientific investigations did that,” Tsealie said as they headed through the throng of citizens, all wearing the signature pointed hat, whether male or female. “Now let’s eat, so we can get to our next round of Lanard. You promised to leave me with a strategy memorable enough to be chronicled in the archives.”

Just then, a sentinel appeared as if out of thin air. His cap was askew, and his eyes were round as he said, “Prince Jonpril’s men are investigating much too close to our entrance, Tsealie. Linton is bolstering the shields.”

Tsealie laid a hand on his guard’s shoulder. “Thank you, Peddrie. You best go back and help him.” It appeared as if the miniature person turned and walked away, but he was simply no longer there. Ray blinked. He still wasn’t used to that.

Ray said, “The winter solstice cannot come soon enough this year for the Sapphire Gnomes. If I don’t make it, Tsealie, I will turn myself in.”

To be continued… stay tuned for the conclusion tomorrow! December 24, 2022.

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A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Part Two

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A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Part Two

The gnome stopped walking and spoke in his stern elder voice, gripping his staff hard enough to make the faceted sapphire cast its prisms over the tunnel. “You must have risked capture more than usual today, Raymond, to be the benefactor of so much information. You will want to be extra cautious next time you go topside. The elves might set a trap. They also might realize it is the Sapphire Gnomes  guarding the whereabouts of the human who evades them.”

When Ray opened his mouth to speak, Tsealie held up a hand. “That is all I have to say about that. I’ve taken the usual precautions to hide your tracks. As for the ruby, it is said to be a bloodred stone the size of a man’s fist and in the possession of the Siren of the Undine Sea Caves. If any mortal should survive the vicious tides that rise up at her will and all her other cruel tricks to reach the stone, they will gain immortality.”

Ray said, “From what I know of this man, that would fit with his purpose.”

Tsealie snorted and once again sounded like a carefree gnome. “First, the stone is a myth and not even the Undine Elves believe it exists. Second, humans without a Fae sponsor who are ignorant of the supernatural kingdoms have never found their way here.” He gave Ray the side eye. “Until you. And lastly, the siren who allegedly possesses the stone is deadly to all who cross her path, not just feeble humans.” He caught Ray’s eye again. “No offense.”

Ray laughed. “I am the first to admit to my human weaknesses.” Then, his jaw clenched, and his voice turned serious. “I don’t care what this man is close to doing. Let him risk himself over a grab at immortality. The king can worry about keeping him out. My only purpose is to get home to my family.” 

He inhaled, then let his breath out slowly. “Even though I’ve lived in Undine through the changing of seven seasons and witnessed many incredible things, as a dedicated scientist, I’m struggling to embrace the idea I must find a pair of ancient battling trees if I want to get home.”

“Well, my friend. That may be something I can help you with.”

“You have a way to locate them?”

“The trees and gnomes cannot exist without each other. Do you see what makes up these walls? He gestured around them as they moved again along the winding tunnel. “The interlocking roots are lifelines to the tree kingdom and the gnomes not only shelter within them, but care for them. The problem we will have this time of year is getting the kings’ attention because the two will be focused only on their relentless competition.”

He peered at Ray from under his pointy cap. “It’s not like they will ever be allowed to rule on their respective wrong sides of the year. That would defy the laws of nature. One king must always give way to the other every solstice. But they never stop trying. And they certainly won’t be bothered with human problems while they are at it.”

“They don’t have to be. The portal’s energy will be affected by the clashing kings, opening and closing as the season passes to the victor. I just have to be in the right place at the right time. I’ve waited so long, only to learn my window of opportunity is slim. If I’m too late, I’ll have to wait another year, or find another way.”

“It’s not like you to be negative, Raymond. Just think, you might have discovered this after the solstice. But how in the name of the Sapphire Imp did you figure it out?”

“Believe me, I am just as flabbergasted. But this wonderous place has taught me that science and magic are not so different. They operate on the same principles. And it all starts with miniscule elements that comprise what human scientists call atoms, which form molecules, which cause reactions to the energy around us. An example of that is what will happen at the site of this traditional battle.” 

Ray stopped and laid a hand on the small shoulder. “So, how will we find them, Tsealie?”

To be continued…

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A Leap Through the Elder Oak – A Winter Solstice Fantasy Story

A scientist who stumbles accidentally into a realm that defies the laws of physics (or does it?) might finally be close to getting back home to his wife and daughter.

I wrote this story for a private community blog whose members are dedicated to writing every day, starting with the Winter Solstice and into the Spring Equinox. Since I am sharing in installments there, I thought I’d do the same here, delivering the ending on Christmas Eve. I adapted a deleted chapter from one of my novels in progress to a Winter Solstice themed short story, and was thrilled to find the perfect home for it. I hope you enjoy Part 1.

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A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Part One

Ray Jensen pounded through the trees, then leapt with blind faith into the hole as an arrow whizzed past his ear. The opening sealed over his head like it never existed, as he dropped thirty feet. 

Experience taught him the precise point at which to fold his tall body for the landing, and he hit the ground, rolled over the floor covered in thick straw, and came to a breathless halt against a boulder. 

He coughed and spat out a mouthful of dirt. Just once, he would like to enter the realm of the Sapphire Gnomes without coming close to breaking his neck.

His eyes landed on a pair of Antlered Hare boots and the bottom of a crooked staff. The voice above them said, “You’re quite good at that. And I can see it was necessary.”

The wizened gnome beckoned to Ray with his sapphire-topped staff as the human rose to his full height, his joints protesting this latest drop with a few popping sounds. The tall man stooped to allow the very small Fae to swipe at his cheek with a thumb, which he drew back to show it was covered in blood, then he shook his head.

Ray smiled and said, “I’m only as good as your charm over that entrance, Tsealie. I never have to doubt it will work.” He held up a moss-colored stone, flipped it in the air, and caught it.

Tsealie said with the eagerness of a true friend, “Were you successful?”

“Yes. I confirmed two important things. My theory is correct about my arrival being somewhere within the Forest of the Fire Maidens. And I found out that the king sent his youngest son to investigate the human who has been attempting to cross the same portal, using my invention. But the elves had me on the run before I could find the exact location.

Optimism crept into his voice. “When I locate the Elder Oak, who will battle with the Holly King at the winter solstice, it should be the answer to my problem. I was so close, Tsealie. But it wouldn’t have done me any good because as a non-magic user, I need help from the tree kings four days from now. Not today. If only I hadn’t wandered so far when you found me. I might have been home long before now.”

“I’ve told you many times it was a miracle an uninvited human survived the hazards of the Realm after wandering dazed over such a staggering distance. It is another miracle you’ve been here all this time without being discovered, and your odds lower with each search.” Tsealie made sure to admonish him in this vein every time he returned from an investigation, and Ray took it for the worry it was.

The gnome tossed in a little hope with his dire words. “It’s a relief you made it back today, so you can prove me wrong again. And I’m thinking your latest efforts might indeed lead to your success. But it seems King Seabrin has upped the security.”

“I agree. I believe it means the arrogant human he’s trying to keep out and who is responsible for trapping me here discovered something that amped up his attempts.”

By now the two of them were walking along a tunnel, the walls of which were thick with fat intertwining roots polished to a shine. The warm wood gleamed from every spot not covered by all manner of green lichen and white moonflowers. Oil lanterns lit their way with a pleasant orange glow.

“How long do you reckon I’ve been here, Tsealie?”

“You’re the physicist. What do you think?” Tsealie’s voice was not unkind. He simply didn’t want to give an answer that would cause his friend pain.

Ray heaved out a sigh. “Though it has only been two years in the Undine Realm, I calculate six have passed on the other side. My little girl has grown up… And I missed it.”

“I am sorry, Raymond.” To Tsealie, Ray was Raymond from the start. No one ever called him by his full name until he met his pint-sized rescuer. The use of his name now conveyed sympathy, which also etched itself in the wrinkled face and showed from the deep-set eyes under bristly eyebrows. And it was for more than the loss of his daughter’s childhood.

Tsealie knew well what Ray endured each day he existed without his wife, who was his partner in all things. They were physicists and university professors who’d been together since college. A single semester of chemistry was all it took for them to fall in love and they had been inseparable since. Both his girls would have been fascinated by this place. But he’d left them behind and the hole in his heart would not mend until he was with them again.

Ray refrained from rubbing his hand over that spot and returned to his report. “I heard another interesting piece of news,” he said with a note of suspense, then watched his friend’s face. “The king believes the man is after something called the Ruby of the Ancients. Do you know of this?”

To be continued…

Happy holidays

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A Little Cannibal Comedy, Anyone?

I dare you to ride along with the masked passengers and their eerie pilot in this story that came from a random prompt in a genre you don’t get assigned often in a challenge.

The Ferryman guided the gondola along a watery path only he knew the secrets to as it transported a half dozen specially chosen masked passengers to an exclusive event. Though each eyed him with suspicion, they still appeared confident he would get them to their destination. They had to believe that because he was their only means of travel.

This sort would never admit they were at his mercy. They would talk instead as if the opposite were true. After all, they were in the business of terror. But he saw the questions in their eyes. He always saw the questions mirrored in each set of eyes exactly thirty minutes in. That was when the narrow boat passed the last shack squatting in the shadows of the densely wooded shore, casting its grudging light from tiny windows.

The rickety dwelling belonged to Old Maeve, and even if one of his passengers suddenly had a revelation and begged to be let off here, they would find no help, only the same hospitality that waited for them at the end of the line. But no passenger ever had a clue this early, which was why the Ferryman’s job never ceased to be entertaining.

It was always the moment when Maeve’s lights winked out and the dense canopy of moss-laden cypress shrouded the stars like a falling curtain that a dawning realization there was no way to get back on their own sank into each one. They would stare at the lantern full of lightning bugs hanging from the bow and search for the slim comfort of the crescent moon just before the nervous chatter started.

The Ferryman could guess with precision who would be the first to speak, and on cue it was the chubby face under a fox mask who aimed a question at the skinny humpty dumpty. “I heard we had to have no less than twenty victims dead and buried in well-hidden places to get an invitation to this shindig. I’ve surpassed that. How about you?”

He wondered if the two noticed the mix-up in masks, a typical trick his employer played on a couple passengers each journey. It added to the drama and more importantly, served to break up the monotony for the Ferryman. An employment perk, one might call it.

Instead of answering, Humpty Dumpty, whose oval mask was too big for his pointy face, lifted his bony butt from the seat and swung around to sit on the other side of the gondola. Exactly the response the Ferryman predicted. He enjoyed his perks, but it would be nice if his passengers surprised him on occasion.

It was the lone female with a cat mask who answered the fat fox. “I’ve heard lots of things about these parties. The final feast is said to be unsurpassed for its sumptuousness. But that’s not why I came. There’s a rumor one of you is the famous Crescent Moon Vampire. I wonder if you will be able to control your urges this weekend,” and she parted her collar and stretched her pale neck like an offering. No one took her up on it, or even flinched a muscle.

After a brief silence, the fox let out a nervous snort, and the too narrow mask that exposed more of the doughy face than anyone needed to see fluttered, so that he had to grab it and adjust the strings.

The passenger in the snake mask who’d been keeping to the shadows rumbled in a deep voice, “You’re a brave one to travel with men who if they’re like me, love to hate women in creative and painful ways. But you must have doled out your own hate to be here. Still, sticking your neck out is a bit risky, don’t you think?”

“You pretty reptile, there’s no hate involved. I love to love men. It’s not my fault when they fail to survive it.

This was the first masked party in the Ferryman’s long memory in which twins were invited. One of the two identical gray-haired demons spoke now. “If she is who we think she is, watch your backs gentlemen, or more to the point, your willies.” The cat’s eyes gleamed, and the fox snorted again before he could stop himself.

He shrugged when the other masked faces turned towards him, then said as if to divert attention, “What’s with the Ferryman? That crow mask looks real. And how about those robes? Doesn’t he know it’s sweltering in this bog? And shouldn’t he have a sickle?”

The Ferryman produced his sickle with a swoosh of his robes and a ringing of steel, timing it so the crescent moon peeked through the canopy and glinted off the curved blade. He settled the staff at his feet and grinned to himself as stifled gasps rippled along the gondola. Achieving the maximum affect with his masterful reveal was another perk.

“We’re all overdressed. It’s a requirement, is it not?” The twin demon said, ignoring the dire implications and returning to the party discussion. He held up embossed paper to the feeble light. “It says, ‘To be allowed onto Isla la Sombra, you must be in possession of your invitation. You should be clothed in formal attire, wearing the masks provided to you, and prepared to be stuffed full of fine foods and wine and finally, to be wowed by the tricks of the trade and the experts in your field. Should you succeed through every challenge, you will partake in a special feast.’” He lowered the paper and said, “It is a strange mix of formality and mystery, to be sure.”

His brother chimed in, “The words on their own would not give me pause. But now that we’re deep in this watery maze, traveling in a gondola that seems out of place and time and operated by a silent, robed figure who should be plying the River Styx, I’m looking at the invitation with new eyes.”

Cat woman said, “Like any good party, it is merely the host tantalizing us with the amenities. After all, types like us go to great lengths to avoid exposure. But I for one couldn’t turn down the offer to immerse myself in the ‘tricks of the trade’ and meet the most notorious guest speakers from our ranks. Isn’t the underground chatter why you all ventured out of your nests?”

A bumpy outline rippled through the duckweed, and the Ferryman waited. The sounds of fear that followed could have been cues in a movie script as each passenger spotted Douglas.

“Shit! Look at the size of that alligator! Um… Ferryman. May I call you Ferryman? I’m going to take your silence as a sign we won’t be attacked. I’m sure our hosts don’t want us eaten.” That misguided assumption was from the pudgy fox. He voiced another concern that never failed to come up. “I wonder how far there is to go. For all we know, we could circle these shrouded waters forever if our pilot is as immortal as he looks.”

That comment had all eyes turning to the Ferryman, and each passenger flinched when he spoke in his best sepulchral voice. “Arrival is in thirty minutes. And Douglas will leave you intact, so long as you keep your limbs in the boat.”

Eyes wide behind the mask, the fox snorted, “Got it.” Then, under his breath. “A lot can happen in thirty minutes.” He lightened things up. “I’m sure it’s no surprise I came for the promise of excellent food. They say the finale will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven, not that I have any expectation of going there.”

The snake said, “Hmmm. That makes me wonder whether you might be the Cafeteria Killer, the one who likes to add special ingredients to the school menu. They say he’s rotund with the guileless face of a child. It’s astonishing how many kids disappear before the killer must move on. I bet the littlest tots were a tender addition to the tuna casserole.” He paused, then said, “So, what foods do you think might be offered at a banquet in honor of the best in the business?”

Petulant now, the fox said, “We’re not supposed to guess which legends we’re traveling with.” He tapped his mask. “It says so in the fine print. Didn’t you read it? And how would I know what an island at the ass end of nowhere has to offer? But it will be spectacular if our host lives up to his promise because like you said, we’re the best.”

“I wouldn’t think too highly of yourself, Fox Boy,” said twin number one in his cultured voice. “The host might have special plans for you. Didn’t you notice the fun being poked at you with that mask meant for the humpty dumpty wearer? Still, I wonder. Maybe it was assigned to you on purpose. Foxes are hunted. Your plump body would make a great main course. Fitting for the Cafeteria Killer.”

The fox retorted, “You all are making a lot of assumptions. If my mask means something, so do yours.”

Cat Woman burst out like she couldn’t help herself. “The details about these masked parties never have a source. They show up on the message boards, but I’ve never seen anything other than generic usernames attached to them.”

Snake Man said, “What do you mean?”

“There’s nothing to show they came from actual attendees. I wonder why that never occurred to me before?”

A twin demon offered a reasonable option. “It could simply mean the authors of the chats want to be anonymous. That’s not unusual for criminals of the most wanted variety.”

“I suppose you’re right. This eerie voyage is making me paranoid. But what if it’s all a ruse? Where does that leave us?” She seemed to be easily sidetracked and her eyes turned heated. “I think I know who you two are. There are not many twins these days who murder together. I’ve never had twins.” She ran her tongue over her teeth. “You both have fine mouths below those intriguing red masks, and lovely grey hair.”

“We’re flattered. But you couldn’t handle even one of us, my dear.” Two identical sets of perfectly white teeth flashed in the gloom. The Ferryman wondered if anyone noticed the extra-long canines.

Apparently, the chubby-cheeked fox had spent this time mulling over the idea he might be prey for a hunt, and he piped back in. “What if we were all invited to be nothing more than the main course? Who would ever know we went missing?”

The aloof humpty dumpty spoke for the first time, and his gravelly voice was ominous. “The messenger who sent my invitation went by Jeffrey Hannibal.”

“So did mine. So what?” Said the snake.

Cat Woman’s eyes squinted in a frown, then her brows rose along with her voice. “Mine was Lector Dahmer.”

Each of them began to sit straighter, and the Ferryman could almost see light bulbs clicking on over their heads. This inevitable perk was his favorite before the culmination of another successful charter, and he savored it.

The twin who read it before held the embossed paper to the light again. “This is signed, ‘Cordially, your host, Lector Dahmer.’”

There was a pregnant pause, then they all stood so fast the rocking boat flung them back into their seats.

The Ferryman said in the slow, deliberate voice of doom, “Settle down, passengers. You don’t want to fall in. Have you forgotten about Douglas?”

Each passenger gaped at him from under their masks as the gondola glided into a lagoon. Off in the distance, a steady drumbeat sounded, and savory smells wafted to them through the ghostly trunks of cypress.

The fox leapt up faster than anyone might imagine a pudgy serial killer could move and shoved the Ferryman over the side. His fellow passengers cried out in shock, then mouths widened into grins as they spotted the bumpy outline closing in on dark robes sinking beneath the duckweed.

Enjoy this story I was delighted to write under a tough challenge. The requirements were a 2000-word maximum (though I took liberties and went over that for this version), a new for me genre, Cannibal Comedy, an assigned character, Ferryman, and subject, a Masked Party.

It all happened in the Writing Battle Autumn 2022 Short Story Contest. I recommend participating for the fabulous feedback from peers, and the professionals… if you make it through the duels.

Artwork by me using the Photoleap A.I. generator and Canva.

A Message in the Clouds – a Short Story

A pioneering aeronaut takes on an unlikely passenger and reflects on life and loss as he floats above a gasworks to test his latest invention.

I floated a thousand feet over the Point Breeze Gas Works. From this vantage, one could imagine it was a gothic cathedral, complete with crenelated turrets, sprawling majestically along the Schuylkill River. The industry below, illustrated by billowing towers of black smoke, was muted in absolute silence from this height, adding to the impression of divine tranquility.

Even the Monarch butterfly that stowed away when I fueled our ride with hydrogen appeared to appreciate the stillness as it fluttered in random arcs around the ropes, landing intermittently on the lip of the basket. The slow beating of its wings seemed to speak to me in its need for companionship on our isolated journey among the clouds.

Today’s flight was meant to test my invention, but I welcomed the opportunity to escape up here, relishing the freedom and solitude to mourn the life ended too soon of an extraordinary woman.

My wife would have been proud of my latest patent involving a water gas process that increased the production of hydrogen, ever fascinated when my ideas resulted in record-breaking efficiencies and conveniences for modern living. The smile that would light her face when I shared my ideas was so clear in my mind, she could be standing in this basket with me.

Fluttering movement caught my eye. The more I watched the hypnotic orange wings, the easier it was to believe we were the only beings existing on or above the Earth. Not even a bird disturbed us. The crowds bustling along the streets of Philadelphia might not even be imagined, let alone the 485 men directly below us engaged in shoveling coal relentlessly into hellish, hungry boilers, just one task among many equally laborious ones that resulted in lighting an entire city.

I had to admit my inventions might make things easier for the average city dweller, but not for these men. Still, each of them, called by a piercing whistle, gathered for a break from their labors to watch me take flight today, and each grimy, sweaty face wore a look of pride as the gas they helped produce filled my balloon.

The absence of sound let me reflect on these rhythms of life; the men shoveling, the butterfly’s wings beating, my wife at my side celebrating each milestone of my career, then my pumping heart emptying of all that gave life meaning when she took her last breath.

I began to feel closer to my small, winged stowaway, having arrived myself at the end of a cycle of birth, growth, and metamorphosis. Though the cycle now seemed too brief, I marveled that I would have ceased to exist well before this day of testing another achievement if not for the bravery of my life’s chosen companion during a dramatic period in our lives, the lives of the whole country for that matter.

Absorbing the profound silence let me cast my mind back twenty years and the glimmering river, billowing gasworks, and even the surrounding clouds faded away, replaced by a vivid memory of being stranded on the wrong side of enemy lines.

Two decades ago, President Lincoln appointed me Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, and I was proud to operate the first telegraph aerial station for the purposes of reporting on the enemy’s position. My maiden assignment was the Battle of Bull Run under General Irvin McDowell. It went well, but balloons do not always cooperate when they come down.

Exiting my basket in a hurry, so I could finish stowing away what had become a beacon pointing to a spy in the rebels’ midst, I took a wrong step and sprained my ankle. Fortunately, I landed the balloon near a thicket, which allowed me to stay out of sight while I hoped for rescue. My fortune persisted when a Union troop came upon me, but I couldn’t walk with them owing to my injury, and they reluctantly left me behind. Still, my luck continued because they reported my position after arriving at Fort Corcoran. But it wasn’t the army who came for me.

The days and nights that followed, worrying over who might appear next in my little clearing, filled me with a case of nerves worse than anything I’d yet experienced when flying an object fueled by a volatile gas. Then, sounds I both dreaded and wished for made my heart thud as they drew closer to my hiding spot. I braved peeking over a fallen tree where I crouched in the shadows and took in the unlikely sight of an old woman driving a horse and buckboard stacked with canvas covers.

The traveler wore a pendant and at its glint, a jolt shot straight to my heart. I knew that topaz butterfly, and I looked closer at the face set above shoulders hunched beneath a matronly shawl. The blue eyes peering out from the bonnet were those dearest to my soul. I stood and raised my arm in a greeting.

The familiar dulcet tones sounding anything but old whispered across the clearing. “Do you need a ride, brave aeronaut?”

“No one who has ever set foot on this battlefield is braver than you, my dear.”

Orange caught my eye and my mind returned to the silent sky and a world devoid of the soul who had been my partner in every way.

It was time to descend.

Butterfly wings beat in time with the hiss of venting hydrogen, and the giant gasworks loomed closer, its booming, wheezing, and banging sounds displacing our peace.

I peered closer at the tiny creature, then at its topaz encrusted likeness that I pulled from my vest pocket. Maybe this lofty place was not so empty after all, and suddenly, neither was my heart.

This short story is one in a collection I have published in a sweet book called Priss Starwillow & the Wolf and Other Short Stories you can find on Amazon. In addition to being available in a 99-cent e-book, you can find my stories on Vocal.Media.

Thank you for reading. All comments are welcome.

Note: Story inspired by the real-life story of Thaddeus S. C. Lowe.