"The Essay Alchemist,"Alex Dally MacFarlane
"The Grand Old Duke of Perth," Tom Conoboy
"An Old-Time Girl," Barbara Krasnoff
Here is the pot: a screen of light carefully arranged to show words black-on-white.
Here are the ingredients:
Alphabets pour tap-tapping in, consonants and vowels and punctuation marks swill together, mingling like ouroborean inks. The tail of an apostrophe curls with a lover's grace into the open fold of a 'c'. A hungry 'u' devours a cluster of lost commas.
Take up a knife, make an incision; a drill, make a hole; a small scoop, remove just the right amount. Five grams, say the experts. Any more and there might be damage. Any less and the concoction will sag, lacking that crucial element. In it falls, a grey lump at first until the heat makes it melt, and in strings of intellect it is mixed.
Books make mountains beside the alchemist's pot, speckled with post-it notes like trees. A page is selected, a choice phrase. Carefully excised, lowered in, they intersperse with the rest like lamp-light on a dark street.
A hefty sprinkle of the mechanical herb, time, is required for fullness of flavour. The alchemist grows it in a terra-cotta jar by his window. In sunlight the angled limbs shine metallic, the thin buds of second-hands growing from sturdier minute-hands that in turn branch off from the old hour-hands.
That final ingredient, that naughty ingredient, chocolate-sweet or coffee-strong, ribbons the mixture with delectable delight.
The alchemist stirs with cables and mice, he watches the broth bubble and steam. The hot product-clouds rise, are caught by an upturned funnel, channelled through the twisting glass intestines of the alchemist's laboratory. This impurity is extracted, that flaw is pasted into the waste beaker.
In the final chamber it curls, trapped, and with a flick of his wrist the alchemist turns the tap. Ground-cold water creaks from it at first, then gushes, cooling the glass so suddenly that the alchemist knows eventually it will crack and break and he will have to buy another. No matter. That is another day. Here, now, his labour is condensing, droplet by word-droplet, plopping down onto the paper-flat bottom of the chamber, lines of black-on-white carefully arranging themselves.
And ah! he sighs, gladdened. He sits, smoking a pipe, and watches the completed piece tidy into shape.
Alex Dally MacFarlane has been writing ever since the discovery of computer games made her think that if stories could be found on a 32-bit cartridge, why not in the mind of an eleven-year-old girl? Now she has a BA in War Studies and History from King's College London and works just outside London, proof-reading military specifications. Her short fiction has sold to magazines including Shimmer, Sybil's Garage and Farrago's Wainscot and to the Sporty Spec anthology from Raven Electrick Ink, and her poetry is in this month's issues of The Pedestal Magazine and Goblin Fruit. She recently guest-edited The Five Senses issue of Behind the Wainscot. You can find her on Livejournal as Alankria.
[ Tom Conoboy ]
The army passed along that ridge, Bonnie Prince Charlie's men, marching down to England to claim the English throne. There were hundreds of them, fine men, strong men, brave and ready for action. There were pipers marking the march, setting the pace. Flags there would be, and tartans, a gathering of tartans, representing the flowers of the clans, joined together, united against the enemy.
Down the Highlandman's Loan they walked, those hundreds of men, marched to their deaths, to ramshackle retreat and ignominious defeat, and a little boy stood there and listened, two hundred and some years later, listened to the turn of the wind for an echo of their sound, for a reflection of their glory.
And the history books, they tell lies that turn that little boy's head. Butcher Cumberland slew the Scots, Flora MacDonald saved the life of the bonnie, brave Prince. A nation wept, saw its nationhood taken, saw its young men fallen, saw its glory razed.
And a nation waits, like that little boy on the Highlandman's Loan, waiting for the stir of the pipes, the march of the brave, waiting for the moment it can gain revenge. A nation looks back, angrily back, unforgiving, unblinking.
The little boy thinks he hears something. He looks up and smiles, sees a battalion of ghosts marching in the distance, from the foot of the Highlandman's Loan. He hears the sound of their pipes, "Scotland the Brave," finest of tunes. And they march steadily, these heroes of his mind, coming ever closer.
When they are half a mile away he sees they are walking backwards, their plaids billowing behind them and rucking round their bodies. Their step is unsteady, uneven, the rhythm of the pipes swirling and swaying in drunken accord. Above their skirl the little boy hears a steady sound, deep and resonant, a constant moan like a man in pain, but louder than anything he has ever heard. The troops are close to him now, and he is uncomfortably aware of the smell, sweet like a rabbit dead in a ditch. As they pass, one by one, the heroes of his mind, they turn and stare. Some are missing hands, arms, eyes. All are bleeding. Their moans are crystalising into a single note, a single syllable, a single word.
"No," they moan as they pass by, hundreds of dead heroes, marching, limping, staggering up the hill. The little boy waits till the last of them has passed, a boy not much older than himself, red-haired, one-eyed, dying. The little boy holds out his hand, but the boy soldier shakes his head. They watch each other, child and echo, until the cloud of soldiers reaches the top of the Highlandman's Loan and falls like rain on the parched ground.
Tom Conoboy lives in England but was born in Scotland. He has been published in a variety of journals and ezines including The Harrow, WordRiot, Mad Hatter's Review and others, and has won around half a dozen competitions in the past year.
[ Barbara Krasnoff ]
The dimensions folded and unfolded.
When he ran into his living room, a little girl, around eleven or twelve, was sullenly bouncing a rubber ball against the worn ply of his living room rug. She wore a shapeless blue faded dress, a pair of socks that sagged at her ankles, and a pair of boots that looked as if they might have been brown once.
“Hello,” said Stanley, appalled. He had prepared for this moment for the last three years, and this was all wrong. “Um . . . Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you."
The little girl stared at him for a moment and sniffed
scornfully. "Like to see ya try it," she said, and continued to bounce her ball.
“Um . . . You may be wondering where you are. You’re in my living room,” Stanley said, feeling very awkward. "You've traveled through time."
"I'll bet you're a white slave trader. I saw a newsreel about stuff like that." She looked around, grabbed the laptop that was on the coffee table and raised it threateningly with both hands.
"Of course not!" he said quickly. "Please be careful of that. It's expensive technology." The little girl looked dubious, but she put the laptop down. Stanley breathed again. "You got anything to eat?" she asked. Stanley felt around in his jacket pocket, and found half a sandwich left over from lunch. He held it out wordlessly.
She stuck her ball carefully in her pocket, grabbed the sandwich, and took a large bite. "Not bad," she said indistinctly. "But you could be planning to drug me and drag me off to a sultan's harem." She shoved the rest of the sandwich into her mouth; and stood chewing, cheeks extended like a gerbil’s.
Stanley felt like crying. "To tell you the truth, I brought you here because you're my grandmother," he said desperately. "You disappeared when my mother was a baby. I wanted to meet you . . ." His voice trailed off.
The girl swallowed and stared at him. "Oh, jeez," she finally said. "So you're my kid's kid? What was she thinking of? Who the heck was the father?"
"Actually, I probably shouldn't have told you. I'm not sure about the whole causality thing, and just by telling you, I could have affected . . ."
"Hey, don't worry about it. My big brother reads Thrilling Wonder Stories, so I know all about it." She stared around critically, and Stanley had the uneasy feeling that she was figuring out the value of everything in the place. "You know, this ain't bad. I'll bet I can do a lot better here than in my crummy time." She raised her eyes to his, and slowly smiled.
"Hey, wait a minute!" Stanley yelled.
The dimensions folded and unfolded.
The little girl went back to the table and opened the laptop. "At least, I know I can do better than you did," she said, and gave the keyboard an experimental poke.
Barbara Krasnoff's short fiction has appeared in Sybil's Garage, Weird Tales, Descant, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Amazing Stories, and two anthologies: Such A Pretty Face: Tales of Power & Abundance and
Memories and Visions: Women's Fantasy & Science Fiction. When not writing fiction, she edits and writes about technology; you can find her Web site at www.brooklynwriter.com.
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