PodCastle 484: Flash Fiction Extravaganza! Seasons

In Spring, the Dawn. In Summer, the Night.

By Aidan Doyle

It always seems to me that people who hate me must be suffering from some strange form of lunacy.

            – Sei Shōnagon, The Pillow Book, Circa 1000 C.E.

On the third day of the third month, the good people of court traveled by ox-drawn carriage from the Imperial Palace to the Divine Spring Garden, the carriage boys running ahead to ensure the common people didn’t block our way. The colored sleeves of so many elegant ladies showing through the curtains must have been a wondrous sight as the carriages rattled past.

I had arranged my twelve layers of silk robes so the longest sleeves were innermost, displaying my choice of colors to best effect. Pale violet-gray offset with vivid green for spring leaves. I had consulted with the Minister of the Bureau of Clothing, ensuring I had something suitable to wear. At our previous excursion, Lady Nakagawa had been mocked for choosing a shade of green that clashed with yellow.

A directional taboo forced us to travel east, then south-west, rather than proceeding directly to the garden. When we finally arrived, we left the carriages and sat behind painted screens next to the stream that wound its way around the garden.

Empress Teishi wore a scarlet robe over kimonos of light plum, pale green, and yellow rose. As the Empress’ battle poet, I took my place on her right.

To feel truly close to someone you have to understand the things they don’t say. Her Majesty once asked me what I thought about the snow on Xiang Lu. At once I ordered the serving girl to lift the room’s shutters and raise the blind. Her Majesty knew I would understand the reference to the poem by Bai Juyi.

I lift the blind to gaze out at the snow on Xiang Lu.

It’s considered unseemly for women to know Chinese poems, but the Empress and I discussed them all the time. Words are how battle poets defeat the shadows. One can never know too many poems.

The sun shone down on the garden’s ornamental pond and the pine trees surrounding it. The Emperor was not in attendance, but had deigned to send his favorite cat in his place. The cat had recently been awarded the Fifth Rank, officially granting it access to the Imperial Audience Chamber and the right to wear ceremonial headdress. A chamberlain of the Sixth Rank hurried behind the cat, keeping a close watch as it stalked joyfully through the garden.

Unfortunately Lady Nakagawa sat on my right. She was notorious for refusing to pluck her eyebrows or blacken her teeth. Her thick eyebrows gave her face an unpleasing boldness and her teeth resembled peeled caterpillars, gleaming when she smiled. Her only redeeming feature was that she did not often smile.

Wood doves cooed in the branches above us.

“The wood dove is a most pure-hearted bird,” Lady Nakagawa said. “When it’s longing for its mate, it can be comforted by showing it a mirror.”

“Surely that makes it a selfish bird,” I replied, but my estimation of the quality of wood doves increased.

The Empress began a discussion of which part of the day was best in each season, to which I replied, “In spring, the dawn. In summer, the night.”

“And the other seasons?” the Empress asked.

“They are beautiful in their own way, but they do not compare,” I replied.

The Minister of the Left, Fujiwara no Michinaga, stepped from his carriage, looking resplendent in a damask cloak and grape colored trousers decorated with a wisteria pattern, the emblem of the Fujiwara clan. The Emperor was the descendant of gods, but Michinaga held the political power. Even though the Empress was his niece, he had drastically weakened Teishi’s influence at court and exiled her brother. It was hard to believe someone with such refined taste could do so much harm. For the Empress’ sake, I needed to defeat Michinaga’s champion.

The women huddled at the edge of our painted screens, granting glimpses of our sleeves. The men scurried back and forth, propelling whispered flatteries over the screens. I usually enjoyed such banter, but I was anxious for the contest to begin. A voice I recognized as belonging to an officer of the Left Gate Watch complimented me on my sleeves and then misquoted some lines from one of Kiminobu’s poems. Poetry should reflect the world around us. It’s quite depressing to hear a worthless person sullying one of your favorite poems.

I was saved the bother of responding to the officer’s clumsy attempt at flattery, when the voice of Captain Tadanobu came from the other side of the screen.

“You should rally your stones elsewhere, Akimitsu,” Tadanobu suggested. I heard the sound of the officer slinking away.

I normally enjoyed my verbal spars with Tadanobu, one of the court’s finest wits, but he was likely to be Michinaga’s champion and my only serious rival to winning the Battle of the Seasons. Tadanobu was renowned for the elegance of his next-morning letters and his fondness for discussing the court’s romantic intrigues in terms of go games. It’s strange when people get upset about gossip. Apart from talking about yourself, what is more interesting than talking about other people?

“And what are you wearing today, Captain?” I asked.

Tadanobu laughed. “Even for a lady of court you spend too much time worrying about fashion.”

Tadanobu’s response from another man would have annoyed me, but I knew he only said it to tease me. He understood the importance of fashion for a battle poet.

“I don’t have your gift for describing clothes, but I am wearing a willow green kimono and a green and cherry jacket,” he said. “Do you see the pond rocks?”

“Yes.” Black stepping stones had been arranged in a straight line across the pond.

“The gentleman who designed the garden liked to think of the rocks as ships sheltering from a storm before they resumed their quest for treasure,” Tadanobu said. “Are you a ship or a treasure, Shōnagon?”

“May one be both?”

“No, one may not.”

“Then I’m a treasure. The idea of leaving the capital and going to uncultured places does not appeal.”

Tadanobu laughed. “You are most definitely a treasure.” He paused and cleared his throat. “The Minister of the Left desires to speak with you before the contest begins.” All trace of levity was gone from his voice.

This was most improper. I glanced over at the Empress. She frowned, but gave a slight nod.

I bowed to the Empress and left the shelter of my screen. I marched over to Michinaga, trying to ignore my heart’s rapid beat. The ladies of court normally remained behind their screens, but I was a battle poet and had fought the dark terrors. When a vengeful shadow had tried to possess Lady Yoshimitsu, it was my verse that had defeated it.

I kneeled before the Minister and waited for him to acknowledge my presence.

“The seasons are changing,” Michinaga said. “Come to me after the contest is over.” Then I was dismissed from his presence.

When Teishi’s father died, it left her position at court vulnerable. It was no secret that Michinaga wanted to make his own daughter empress. If Teishi lost her influence, my own standing would be diminished. I was sworn to protect the Empress, but Michinaga had just offered to reward me if I abandoned her.

Michinaga informed one of the priests in attendance that it was time to commence the festival and the priest began a most tedious speech.

I tried not to dwell upon Michinaga’s offer. The priest was frightfully ugly. Only handsome priests should be allowed to give sermons. You’re most receptive to someone’s message if you’re looking at their face as they speak. If your gaze is on other things, you tend to forget what you’ve heard. A priest with an unattractive face can make you feel quite wicked.

The ugly priest made his way to the top of the low hill and prepared the seasonal cups. He filled the spring cup with rice wine and placed it in the stream.

When the cup reached the Minister of the Left he plucked it from the water and took a sip of wine. He recited a line from a Chinese poem and placed the cup back in the stream.

In turn, the high-ranking men of court drank from the cup and recited the poem’s next line. Those who couldn’t remember the next line were forced to withdraw from the contest. The poetry games of men are but an imitation of a real battle poet’s power.

The ugly priest placed the summer cup in the stream and the Minister chose an appropriate poem to accompany the cup’s journey. The autumn cup and winter cup made their way down the stream, followed by another cycle of seasons. Waiting for men to finish drinking is never a productive use of one’s time.

The sun was setting by the time the Minister of the Left congratulated the men for their valiant drinking. Servants hurried around lighting braziers, the flickering light causing shadows to dance across the garden.

“It’s time for the Battle of Seasons,” Michinaga announced. He named Tadanobu as his champion representing summer.

Empress Teishi named me as her champion representing spring. She was relying on my victory to help increase her status at court.

Champions were also announced for the absent Emperor and the Minister of the Right, but neither man was half as witty as Tadanobu or myself.

The court would choose the winner based on the contestants’ performance in three rounds of naming things. The contest did not invoke the ritual power of verse, but as a battle poet I understood the rhythm and power of words and had a clear advantage. Did Michinaga want me to lose the contest? Was that part of his plan for unseating the Empress? Or did he want me out of the way after the contest? As much as I admire people able to subtly convey information, it’s annoying when they are not precise.

The ugly priest unlocked a lacquer box and handed a sheaf of paper to the Minister of the Left.

“Answer in order of seasons. Summer, autumn, winter, spring,” Michinaga pronounced. Then he read the first challenge. “Things that look lovely but are horrible inside.”

“The top of a cypress-bark roof,” Tadanobu said, drawing slight applause from the gathered crowd.

Autumn and winter disappointed with the dullness of their answers.

I couldn’t resist. “The prostitutes of Kojiri.”

The crowd applauded loudly. I was awarded the first round.

I took a moment to savor the applause. Even if I won the contest for Teishi, it was likely Michinaga would eventually gain enough influence to exile her. If I remained loyal to the Empress, I would be sent to the provinces. Our companions would be dull provincial women hoping for any scrap of gossip about the imperial court. My powers of battle poetry would be wasted in the provinces. If I sided with Michinaga, he could ensure I retained my position at court.

“Dispiriting things,” the Minister said.

“When a good person is possessed by a spirit,” Tadanobu said. “And the exorcist declares that the spirit won’t depart.”

It was a good answer.

Teishi had always been so kind to me, but was I really going to give up life at court? I would like to think it was my loyalty to the Empress that made me decide to win the contest, but perhaps the repulsive nature of losing a battle of wits to a man was a larger factor.

Again autumn and winter’s responses weren’t worth mentioning.

“When a woman has failed to visit a man and the night has grown late,” I said. “The man hears a knock on his gate and joyfully sends out a servant to open the gate. The servant returns, announcing the name of some other, boring person.”

To my surprise, the crowd sided with Tadanobu this time.

I had been thinking too much about Teishi and Michinaga and not enough about the contest itself. It was going to come down to the final round. I would not be defeated.

“Things that look worse by firelight,” Michinaga announced.

“Violet figured silk,” Tadanobu immediately said.

That was what I was going to say. My lips were dry and my throat was parched. Why hadn’t I had a drink before competing?

The other two contestants gave their answers, but I still hadn’t thought of something. The longer I took to respond, the harsher my answer would be judged. What looked worse by firelight?

Then I had it. Wisteria flowers are not suitable for viewing by firelight. The wisteria is the emblem of the Fujiwara clan. It would insult Michinaga, but the Empress was a Fujiwara as well. I didn’t consider how it would affect my chances of winning, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to wound Michinaga with such a brilliant barb. “Wisteria flowers.”

Silence met my answer.

To insult the Fujiwaras was unthinkably stupid.

Tadanobu’s silk won the round. I had lost the battle.

“Summer has triumphed in the Battle of Seasons,” Michinaga announced.

I made my way over to Empress Teishi. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” I whispered, but she wouldn’t look at me.

The women of court began their preparations to leave the garden. An attendant whispered in my ear. “The Minister of the Left wishes to speak to you.”

“Your Majesty,” I began, but the Empress turned her back on me. Teishi and the other ladies set out for the Empress’ carriage on the other side of the pond.

I trudged over to Michinaga. The wisteria pattern on his trousers did look unsuitable in the firelight. We must take our victories where we can.

“This world is mine, Shōnagon,” he said. “I shine like the full moon.”

His words made me shiver. The moon shone unnaturally bright. Michinaga was looking at the Empress.

A shadow-like figure followed behind the Empress and her ladies. There was something unnatural about the way the figure moved, reminding me of a snake’s slither.

Michinaga’s eyes glittered like frozen stars. “The Emperor will be building a new palace,” he said. “Where you would like your room situated?”

I couldn’t ally myself with a man that spoke to shadows. I turned my back on Michinaga and dashed towards the pond. If I made my way around the pond, avoiding the clusters of drinking men, I wouldn’t reach the Empress before the shadow did. I put aside thoughts of what was proper and dashed across the pond’s stepping stones, a mad dash in firelight and twelve silk robes. Fire and water. Shadow and Shōnagon.

I leaped across the stones one by one, each ship bringing me closer to treasure.

If the shadow turned out to be a guard and I slipped and fell, my humiliation would be complete. Things that look worse by firelight. A drenched gentlewoman emerging from a pond.

I kept my footing and reached the other side. “Your Majesty!” I called.

A thunderclap shook the air and rain started to pour down.

Women near the Empress screamed and stepped aside as a shadow strode through their midst. It was shaped like a human, but made of darkness. I leaped forward, putting myself between the Empress and the shadow.

Ice blue eyes glared at me from the darkness. “Stand aside,” a cold voice whispered.

I had fought shadows before, but terror filled my bones. I wasn’t going to abandon the Empress. A battle poet can defeat a shadow by quoting poetry written in the time it had lived as a human. The trick to working out when a shadow lived is to identify when its clothes had been fashionable.

The spirit was made from shadow but I could see the outline of its features. It had once been a tall man and wore a lacquered cap decorated with silver swirls that were fashionable around eighty years ago. If I was wrong, the shadow would eat my soul.

“Only a man with no heart does not shed a tear when he sees the rising waters of the Yoshino River,” I said.

The thundering sound of rushing water surrounded us.

The spirit broke apart into wisps of shadow, washed away by the force of my words.

The Empress still bore an expression of terror. I turned to see four more shadows coming towards us. I couldn’t identify them all before they reached the Empress.

A small shining white object flew past me and landed on the ground in front of the shadows. An explosion of light blasted two of the shadows into nothingness.

Lady Nakagawa stood beside me, half a dozen white teeth clutched in her hand. Her mouth was a bloody mess. “You should never blacken your teeth,” she muttered.

I stared at her in surprise. I’d had no idea she was skilled in the art of fighting spirits. She strode past me and hurled another tooth at the shadows.

I grabbed the Empress’ hand and dragged her towards her carriage. I reached for the door, but it opened and a shadow slithered out.

This spirit was different to the others. The only features I could make out on it were the cold eyes. I couldn’t tell what era it was from or even if it had once been human.

I stepped back, pulling the Empress with me, but the shadow came towards us. The air grew so cold that it burned my lips.

Nakagawa flung a tooth at the darkness, but the light was immediately extinguished.

“I am an eater of the light,” the shadow whispered.

I remembered what Nakagawa had said about wood doves. I fumbled in my belongings and grabbed a hand mirror. I thrust the mirror in the spirit’s face.

The sound of the spirit’s laughter chilled my heart. “I am not a wood dove,” it said.

I wasn’t ready to give up. The creature ate light, but there is always light if you know where to look.

“In spring, it is the dawn,” I said. “When the pale mountains are lit with red fire and wisps of crimson clouds float overhead.” I spoke the words into the mirror. Poetry reflects the world around us. A red sun appeared in the mirror and rays of light burst from the glass, incinerating the shadow.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

I motioned to the driver cowering in the front of the carriage and helped Teishi into the back. Nakagawa and I climbed in and the carriage rolled away from the garden.

“Are you all right, Your Majesty?” Nakagawa asked.

Teishi nodded.

“What shall we do about your uncle, Your Majesty?” I asked.

“I fear we have no proof and his influence at court is too great,” Teishi said.

“We can’t let him win!” I protested.

“Not everything should be a battle,” Teishi said.

“You are the empress, not his daughter,” I said.

“The seasons change no matter what we do. The splendor of court is not worth putting my life and that of my friends at risk.” She reached out a hand to both Nakagawa and I. “I would like to see my brother again. If I go into exile, will you follow me to the provinces?”

Nakagawa nodded without hesitation. “Yes, Your Majesty. I care not for the glamour of court. I am so unfashionable that if I ever came back as a spirit, none of the battle poets would be able to tell which era I was from.”

Teishi turned to look at me. “And you, my dearest Shōnagon?”

How could I survive life away from the splendor of court? No refined gentlemen writing me charming next-morning letters. No negotiating with the Minister of the Bureau of Clothing to ensure I had suitable clothes for every occasion. No access to the great library and its volumes of poetry.

But I wanted to stay close to Teishi, whether she was empress or not. Away from the intrigues of court, we would have more time to discuss our favorite poems, more time to admire the beauty of nature as the seasons changed. Perhaps I could convince Tadanobu to visit and bring me some volumes of poetry from the capital. Maybe I could even write something myself.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” I said. “We will become ships in search of new treasures.”

Autumn Jewels

By Shveta Thakrar

On the third of the nine nights of Navratri, the celebration honoring goddess Durga, a call slight as spider silk murmured through the temple. Most revelers heard nothing, but four-year-old Bhavna eluded her mother’s watchful eye long enough to sneak out of the saturated colors and lively music of garba, past a wild pumpkin patch, and into the night-shrouded woods beyond.

A yakshini swayed there, her lithe frame swathed in a sari of fall foliage. Fire gems tumbled from her fingers, ringed her throat, dotted the licorice-dark tresses twirling down her back. She wove about the trees, her skin the color of a freshly peeled cedar and just as smooth.

The trees, clad in leaves of crackling flame, sported the same gemstones in crimsons, oranges, deep yellows, and purples, the fruit dripping from their branches. These autumn jewels gleamed beneath the black of the midnight sky, ripe with story.

Bhavna recognized them immediately. Hers was a heart shaped by narrative, as dreamers’ hearts always are, ever eager for new tales.

“Have you come to trick-or-treat?” the yakshini asked. “It is not yet All Hallows’ Eve, and I have no candy for your bucket.”

Shivering in the crisp, woodsmoke-tinged air, Bhavna shook her head.

“Have you come to chase away the old year’s shadows? It is not yet Deepavali, and I have no oil for your diya.”

Again Bhavna demurred.

“Then why have you come?”

Bhavna had come for adventure, for spells and secrets. For all the things her mother’s fables had hinted were real. The deepest part of her heart thirsted for them. She pointed to the grove of gems. “For those.”

The yakshini looked wary. “Autumn jewels are not for foolish mortal creatures. Begone.”

Bhavna stubbornly continued to point.

“I do like your jaanjar,” the yakshini allowed. Bhavna promptly unhooked the silver anklets and extended them in offering.

The yakshini considered, long enough that Bhavna grew antsy. She peered at the glittering landscape behind the yakshini, where witchy daayan cavorted, their long hair swinging freely as they hit their sticks together in dandiya-raas. Though they frightened her, with their eerie cackles and frenzied eyes, she still yearned to go to them, to strike her own dandiya against theirs in the fast-paced dance.

“No,” said the yakshini at last. She pointed to the heavens, where even the stars had closed their eyes for the night. “But you see we lack a moon. Bring me one the daayan will not eat, and you will have your jewels.”

In the years that followed, Bhavna hunted everywhere for such a moon. Even as others went to plays and parties, she perused leatherbound books of myths and lore. She filled journal after journal with curiosities: snippets of furtive nocturnal conversations, pressed moonflower petals, half-finished love songs scribbled on coffee-stained napkins. Each night, the daayan screeched invitations in her dreams, and the autumn jewels crooned promises of magic. Something more, something greater than this.

Five-year-old Bhavna brought the yakshini a small wheel of Brie which the daayan gobbled so fast, she barely saw it happen. In retrospect, that hadn’t been the best decision. Who didn’t like cheese?

Ten-year-old Bhavna brought a picture of the moon cut from a magazine. The daayan shredded it to ribbons and scarfed them down, then complained it tasted of newsprint.

“These things have no substance,” scolded the yakshini, pushing Bhavna back out. “Bring me a moon with meaning.”

Fifteen-year-old Bhavna returned with a lunar lantern, one she liked so much she’d purchased an extra for herself. This had to be the moon that would illuminate the late-October thicket.

Her heart pounding, she slipped the lamp from its hiding place in the pumpkin patch and hurried toward the trees. Finally she would win the jewels of story and soothe the ache inside.

Yet the clearing was bare. Not a twig rustled, no matter how long she searched; no branch shifted which she did not brush against.

They had left her. She had failed.

Eventually, knowing she would be missed at the temple, she left the moon lantern in the dirt. The toy’s light shone faintly, lost in the gloom.

Bhavna didn’t try again after that, just stayed at garba each Navratri and gripped her dandiya tightly as she danced, her jaanjar tinkling about her ankles.

As if the only story that existed was this one.

When the familiar chill stirred her bones in summons once more, twenty-five-year-old Bhavna scarcely dared to believe it.

The forest had faded from brilliant scarlet and pumpkin orange to dried blood and rust, and the leaves had fallen from the trees and crunched beneath her feet. Yet she didn’t mind, not when she’d been given one last chance to prove she understood.

The bhootinis whirled tonight amidst the trees, the vetaalis and rakshasis, too. A bone palace rose up around them, the yakshini in its doorway.

“You took too long,” the yakshini said, her mouth pinched. “But we still want for a moon.”

Bhavna smiled. “I brought you a moon.”

She spread her bag’s contents over the ground. Unfulfilled wishes in crystal bottles, tiny dreams she’d written down on scraps of paper—both hers and others’—and milky moonstones to bind them, all carefully squirreled away in a wooden chest in the hopes that one day, they might be needed.

A moon with meaning—her story for theirs.

The yakshini echoed her smile.

Together Bhavna and the yakshini assembled the shimmering bits of unspoken things into a mosaic, plump and lambent with silver light and longing. Once it had hardened, they mounted the freshly made moon on the shadowed-sapphire sky.

In response, a coterie of monstrous women emerged from the trees: daayan, harpies, faeries, apsaras, naginis, banshees, and more. Their beauty, their ferocity, glowed as each gifted Bhavna one autumn jewel. Story upon story soaked into her skin, quenching her thirst.

Then, led by the yakshini, the circle of women raised their dandiya and spoke:

“Welcome, fellow dreamer, to the Sisterhood of the Moon.”

Winter Witch

By Matt Dovey

I feel their grief moving through the forest. It is like a buried splinter tugging at my skin, working its way further inside. In part this is my deep intimacy with these woods, nurtured through all my thirty years, and in part it is the soft sound of their sobbing, carried through still air that is thick with pine and decay and more.

Their sputtering car could only bring them so close in these dense trees, and now they walk the narrow paths to my cottage. The cadence of footfalls on soft mossy ground tells of something small being carried.

There is only one thing so small and heavy with sorrow.

I stand from my simple kitchen table, my hot tea still steaming there, and greet them at the door. This is not a moment to stand on tradition and wait for their request.

They are heartbreakingly young, still only teenagers. Her hair is pulled back in a ponytail and his is scruffy, falling over his eyes. They are both pale and frightened, and their thin clothes are poor protection against the winter cold that forever clings to my cottage. She still cradles her fading bump: habit and loss both, I think.

The bundle in his arms is so tiny, so tiny. I always forget just how small a newborn is, and it steals my breath to see it.

I know what they’re going to ask, and I’m going to say no. Better that they blame me and have a focus for their anger than realise that sometimes the universe is simply cruel to no end. Anger without focus would only fester. Anger aimed at me will bind them together and give them support. It will give them each other.

The baby girl is cold when he hands her over. “Please,” he says, his voice scraped raw. “Anything you can do for her, just—please.”

His girlfriend sobs and he pulls her close, holding her with the fierce desperation of the young. I lift back the pink towel that covers the baby and see the closed eyes and blue lips and bruised marks around the neck where the cord caught it.

They must have been alone for the delivery. They can be no more than fifteen, at a guess, and there are still those around here who shame their children for youthful mistakes. They close off happier paths to leave only narrow avenues of misery. So many futures cut off with harsh words alone.

I shake my head softly, not trusting myself to speak. I hold the bundle out to them, to take her back, but the boyfriend looks me in the eye, defiant. “You’re supposed to find a way,” he says. “That’s what everyone says about you. That there’s always something you can do. Please.”

I was going to say no. But who am I to decide nothing can be done?

I step wordlessly into the woods with the baby girl held close to my chest, and the young couple follow, her crying the only sound in my winter forest.

My mother always said, “People think winter is death. But they’re wrong. Winter is potential.” Her gift, and now mine, is this: to see potential. To turn life’s misfortunes to what goodness I can.

I am the winter witch. My cottage is simple stone, deep in the woods. No matter the season, the trees around the house are always bare. They are not dead. They are merely…held. Waiting. This is their magic, and I am the custodian.

I am here when people need me.

I have tended injured soldiers, who have forgotten who they were before they fought. I take them into the woods a way and sit them against the base of a tree. In the dance of autumn leaves I show them what they could be, if they chose, and there is always more than one choice. I do not heal them—that is not my magic. The past is what it is. Potential is for the future, and sometimes people only need reminding that there is a future. That is all hope really is.

When the angry visit me, for their own selfish reasons, I instead show them a black acorn. I plant it, and make it grow through all its seasons in minutes; then they see how it steals the light and life from the wood around it. They see its cost. They learn its lesson. And they leave with a green acorn and my blessing.

Sometimes the walk through the wood to my cottage is enough. The disaffected rekindle their connection to nature, and see the possibilities of life writ large in the branches. Sometimes visitors knock on my door only to say thank you, my service already rendered.

And sometimes I don’t know what I can do. I can only try.

I step between bare trees until I reach the edge of my winter domain, where green ferns start to grow amongst the umber leaves and a hint of freshness carries on the air. I go to the winter tree farthest from my cottage—I know which one it is without thought—and lay the baby girl at the base of the trunk, snuggled between two roots.

I stand back, and pull the magic up through my bare feet, drawing on the potential for life that suffuses this wood. I let it build in me and roil in me, like hot tea swirling inside, and it fills my mouth with the taste of cinnamon spice; then I reach out to link it to the baby girl, acting as the river that carries life from the lake, as the shore that narrows the river, as the rock that shapes the cascade.

And it goes nowhere. It builds and it churns but it does not flow into her. She is too far gone. I release my hold on the magic and it ebbs away.

No. There is always a chance. There is always something to be done.

I draw the magic up again, but this time I let it flow through me, spreading out like spray from a waterfall, without direction or intent. My mind is empty. I leave myself open to possibility.

The autumn leaves suddenly whirl up and twist around us, fluttering over the tiny bundle. As each leaf passes over, it turns green and flies up, lands on a branch and stays there. The baby is hidden from us beneath a flurry of movement, and as the last leaves flutter over and drift up, the bundle is gone, towel and all, as if nothing were ever there.

The girl breaks down in fresh tears, and the boyfriend looks at me in horror, but I feel what has happened. “Look!” I say.

And they look.

The tree is in full bloom, not only bursting with green but covered in flowers like little white kisses. Endless, countless flowers, light with spring’s sweet perfume, float off on a breeze so gentle it can’t be felt, but no matter how many drift away there are always more.

Through my own tears, I say, “This tree will always be blooming. No matter how bleak the winter, there will always be this one spot of beauty. There will always be a flower dancing on the wind, and who knows where they will land? In time, trees born of this tree will grow in every wood and their flowers will carpet the world. It is not the gift you wanted, I know, but it is the only gift I can give. And I thank you for your gift, though I wish you hadn’t had to give it.”

I step back and return through the woods. I don’t know how long they will stay there, standing in the blossoms, but it doesn’t matter; the tree will care for them until they are ready to leave.

My tea has gone cold, and I fill my kettle to make another, settling it on the stove. I stand alone in the quiet of my kitchen, leaning against the side as I wait, and look at my world.

Winter chill is soaked into the bones of my cottage, so heavy I can smell it. Bare trees surround it and everything is dull with shades of brown and grey. But I don’t mind; though my heart breaks to acknowledge it, I know now that one day this house will be surrounded by a bittersweet spring, each tree beautiful and fragrant, the only potential I could rescue from an awful situation.

My patch of winter will shrink and vanish beneath the grief of the world. But I will have given what gifts I can, and what comfort I can, and, more than that, I will have restored what potential I can. And who knows where that might lead us.


About the Authors

Shveta Thakrar

Shveta Thakrar

Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, Interfictions Online, Clockwork Phoenix 5, Mythic Delirium, Uncanny, Faerie, Strange Horizons, Mothership Zeta, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, and Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold. When not spinning stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames, Shveta crafts, devours books, daydreams, draws, travels, bakes, and occasionally even plays her harp.

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Shveta Thakrar

Aidan Doyle

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Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and editor. He is the co-editor of the World Fantasy Award-nominated Sword and Sonnet and the author of The Writer’s Book of Doubt. He has visited more than 100 countries and his experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia, and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. Follow his exploits at http://www.aidandoyle.net and on Twitter.

Aidan joined PodCastle as an Associate Editor in 2016.

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Matt Dovey

A head shot of author Matt Dovey. Matt smiles for the camera. He is wearing a grey vest, a white shirt, and a purple tie and had medium-long brown hair.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm from a ritual performed unto the Watchers Just Beyond, imploring them for the boon of great knowledge, but all he got were the lyrics to Dashboard Confessional’s album The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most stuck in his head forever. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.

His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog, and Diabolical Plots. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.

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A head shot of author Matt Dovey. Matt smiles for the camera. He is wearing a grey vest, a white shirt, and a purple tie and had medium-long brown hair.

About the Narrators


Ramakrishnan works for The Hindu (one of India’s major newspapers). He is currently working with the entertainment bureau and occasionally doubles as a video producer for the web team. He is 27 years old, male, and Indian and speaks English, Tamil, and a bit of Hindi. He loves good stories, good food and travel, ideally all three in combination, often!

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Nina Brady

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Nina Brady is half Japanese and spoke Japanese before she spoke English. When not doing school work she spends her time drawing and making music. She is currently working on her first story line for an RPG game. She would like to be an animator or game developer when she grows up.

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Julie Hoverson

Julie Hoverson is a woman of mystery. And Horror. And occasionally sci-fi. She writes, produces and acts in the audio drama series 19 Nocturne Boulevard, as well as appearing in many other shows. She also is working hard to promote all scripted audio dramas through the twitter feed @A_D_Infinitum, and hopes one day to take over the world.

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