PodCastle 540: Flash Fiction Extravaganza! The Three Phases of Equinox

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

The Mooncakes of My Childhood

by Y. M. Pang

The mooncakes of my childhood were hard as rocks. I killed a man with them, in the fall of ‘68. He didn’t deserve it. He was just the grain seller. But Mother had been killed by Red Guards and Father had hung himself after delivering his self-criticism. I changed from bossy Big Sister to all my brother had left. I had to feed him.

I’d meant to steal the corn meal. But the seller spotted me, and I panicked, and when I saw the glint of his knife. . .

It was nearing the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the mooncakes on a nearby stall lifted into the air. They shot toward the grain seller. One of them hit him on the head, and he dropped like a discarded puppet.

I ran. Not before tossing a sack of corn meal over my shoulder and grabbing an armful of mooncakes. Years later I’d laugh at the absurdity, that people on the other side of the Pacific were learning to breathe fire, to walk through walls, to rise into the air like birds. And all I gained was the ability to hurl mooncakes.

I stole a lot that Mid-Autumn. Food, mostly. Amazing what a small army of levitating mooncakes could do.

I wish I’d stolen more, because soon after Mid-Autumn I became mundane again.

My brother rolled hard patties with his stubby fingers, filled them with peanuts and called them mooncakes. I couldn’t levitate them. My powers, ultimately, were tied to what the world perceived as mooncakes.

You wonder why I’m not on the Registry? Why even during Mid-Autumn, I do nothing these days? Here. See that? I can still lift it.

You ever wonder why they make mooncakes soft now? The thin crust, the lotus paste, the egg yolk . . . The worst I can do to a man is smear his suit.

Sometimes I wonder if I could’ve done more back in ’68. Avenged Mother. Made Father proud. But sometimes I’m just glad we survived.

There is a Season

by Lynne M. MacLean

Her brother had sent out a group text this morning. Signs of a trespasser — the same Northern Goshawk brat they’d warned before for calling down the frosts too early. A family meeting tonight meant traveling today. It was time to get together anyway. It had been months.

“I’ll be there,” she messaged back. “Just let me finish putting the garden to bed.”

She was looking forward to the gathering: to the laughter, the jostling, the games and the puzzle tournaments, the affection that warmed the harshest of winters. She’d rather it was summer still, but winter would come nonetheless, and it was easier to bear with loved ones around. And if there was business to deal with, well, so be it. There was always something brewing with so many personalities at play. The equinox had just passed, the darkness was building, and they needed each other.

But now, she’d have to rush. She reviewed her autumn mental checklist. She had already dispatched her garden’s harvest: fruits and vegetables frozen, canned, or transmuted by kitchen alchemy into glistening jellies, torrid sauces, and syrups that would linger on the palate making sweet promises. Herbs had infused warm and fragrant oils and blossomed into ointments. They had hung in bunches until they were dry, and then, gathered up and stored, they waited, crisp and curled and powdered, until the touch of boiling liquid transformed them into bursts — of flavour, of health, of love, of altered realities.

Then, as the season had settled in, she’d tended the plants, leaving fall detritus to nourish the soil. After the first frost, she’d planted spring bulbs, a promise to remember when huddled for warmth, facing into wintry blasts that forced narrowed eyes and keener vision.

Today, she’d stowed the yard furniture and the small ceramic garden gods, leaving nature’s own shrines of death and resurrection to tide the garden over. She chortled a harsh “Hah!” of satisfaction at the summer memory of the hundreds of rapacious Japanese beetles she’d drowned in bowls of water laced with dish soap. She’d left their sudsy, iridescent corpses in the beds as sacrificial sustenance in atonement for their savagery.

Now for the final backyard tasks. Her feet were bare, the better to feel the sleeping roots. It was hard to dig her toes down into the mostly frozen dirt, but her autumn-lengthening nails helped. She missed the heat of the soft summer earth, the connection between herself and the pulse of the garden so easy to make and keep; the fragrances that clung to her fingers and toes, the solid strength of her summer-browned body; and the heavy, wet heat and languid days and nights spent surrounded by the million tiny songs of a million tiny things. She stretched her mind down through her feet and out to the vegetation. All was well, with the flora slipping into dreams. She walked about the garden and touched each plant, tucking it in with her goodbyes. Step by step, she freed herself from earth and nurturance. The ties to this season and this form fell from her body and soul like spent perennial vines. Fall made her calculating, sharper, like an arrowhead. Her shoulders ached, eager to stretch and spread. Her bones had lightened as the heavier chores had been lifted from her to-do list.

She locked the cleaned garden tools in their shed and turned to view her weather-tight house. The attic insulation was light, but she preferred a little heat to escape the roof over the winter. It was a comfort when you perched up there, observing the world. That’s why her roof was black, as obsidian and reflective as the glinting mass of her own head. Another gust of wind blew past. The last of the dead leaves rustled.

Some of her siblings had come by to travel together. They waited, fretting, on the other side of the wooden fence, where the tall, bare trees clustered. Hell, they were noisy. Her oldest sister called to her, shrill and impatient, sitting atop the fence. She hoped the neighbours didn’t complain.

She bade farewell to her sleeping garden, to her slumbering summer self. Another stinging gust brought the chill to focus her resolve. She shed her clothes, freeing the feathers that had arrived with the autumn equinox and which hid, itching, waiting, beneath her skin. She gave a final, agonized wrench that redistributed joints and organs, and shifted molecules to alternate spaces.

And now to business. The winter birds have their rights, she thought, but so do crows. And we will not tolerate trespassers. Sometimes, settling things the old way truly was best. Seasonal alterations complete, she honed her beak on a stone. With no roots to hold her to the earth, she rose, cawing, to the sky to greet her family, and thought of today’s matter, of turf and loyalty, of gleaming black eyes and blood.

Antler, Ash & Onyx

by A.C. MacLachlan

The September she turned fourteen, Cara broke the engine that powered the world.

Following a white-spotted fawn through the forest, she caught her foot in the sprawling roots of an old pine tree and tore a hole in a wizard’s burrow.

Brushing fragrant needles from her skirts, she found the guilty root had flipped up as if on a hinge. Through the gap, Cara could see a small cavern in the pine’s underground heart. With only a few tears to her stockings and one to her knee, she soon wriggled through to the snuggery beneath.

She had never seen an undertree before, but it seemed to Cara that this one was something special.

Wires plugged into the roots of the pine itself, and waxy green lichen grew over batteries of jarred fireflies. A puffing chemistry set held a blue-silver liquid, iridescent as dragonfly wings. The web of interconnected tubes and beakers piped the scaly brew straight into a hunk of limestone, which in turn sluiced cedar-scented smoke into a wooden pail.

Pinned beetles and framed feathers littered the tables and walls, some plugged into the machine. A stuffed marten posed, one paw perpetually outstretched, and on the highest shelf perched a particularly lustrous barred owl.

All ’round the burrow, bowls and sherry glasses and button boxes held congregations of pebbles and bark strips and flower petals. Somehow each vessel — from thimble to hollowed turtle shell — connected to the next.

Above it all, a set of brass scales hung, suspended by spidersilk. Its weights all but balanced, with a pile of white sand on the left plate and rich loam soil on the right. As Cara watched, a dusting of black dirt fell from the burrow’s roof, and the right scale sank infinitesimally closer to its fellow.

Directly beneath the scales, on a rough-hewn stool, snoozed the wizard himself, deep in hibernation like a great bear. The sorcerer’s nose twitched mousily with each snore. Green and grey mushrooms grew undisturbed along the brim of his squat wool hat.

Under his propped-up feet, a wide slab of shale hunched. Here and there, chunky metal gears stuck out, whirring and chuntering. Levers made of small animal bones protruded from irregular openings, and, in the far corner, a small white flame burned in a bowl-shaped nest.

It seemed frightfully confusing at first, but Cara soon found that — much like algebra — if you tilted your head and squinted, a pattern emerged. The way arithmetic books painted the world by numbers, so this strange room spelled it in another type of language.

She puzzled out pieces. The egg cup filled with coarse golden grains meant bumblebees. The lapis-tipped needle in a glass of water meant kingfishers.

And the small lever made of antler? That meant deer.

Cara took a step forward, mind on the fawn that had fled her. Her shoes crunched a bone-filled pellet, yet still the wizard slept.

So Cara gathered her resolve and stretched out a hand to the slender lever.

But as her finger touched horn, a pair of onyx eyes snapped open.

Not the wizard, but the owl.

Broad brown-barred wings bore down, and the black eyes’ silent intensity made Cara’s heart quail. Her courage broke, and she snatched back her hand.

Too hastily.

Her fingers caught the slender lever of antler, pulled it to its full measure. It snapped.

And then.

A cable broke. Then another. A phial of baby blue eggshells shattered. A pipette of soft, yellow blossoms burst into sudden flame. Shelves tipped and pebbles scattered, and every complex thread of the room’s web unravelled before Cara’s eyes.

The wizard vanished in a sulphurous puff of smoke, the owl wheeled away, and Cara stood alone in the silent ruined burrow at the heart of a pine tree.

She fled home. Closed the windows and dashed the heavy curtains shut.

But that night, onyx eyes haunted her dreams. She flew on brown-barred wings over the forest, and through the seasons. Thousands of deer tramped the bushes, stripping branches of every bud. By winter, the deer staggered through the bare trees, thin as skeletons. By snowmelt, they were skeletons in truth.

No wildflowers bloomed that spring. No songbirds nested, for the shrubbery lay bare. Summer wildfires had no bracken to burn, and so licked high into the old forest.

Cara awoke with the knell of midnight in her ears and the taste of ash in her mouth.

The next morning, and every morning after, Cara returned to the broken burrow. She fed ash twigs to the bowl of white fire. She caught pails of minnows and jars of fireflies.

The brass scales still hung suspended by spidersilk, mere grains from even. A comfort and a threat.

Like a squirrel scenting snow, Cara scurried through the woods, gathering, searching, storing. She patched cables and mended bent gears, desperate to restore the ruined web. And when a white-spotted fawn crossed her path, she shuddered and quickened her pace.

If the scales balanced before she repaired the engine . . .

Cara became a wild thing herself, spending every moment of the shortening daylight outside. She fetched asters to replace the burned petals. Dug river clay to mend the cracked bowls.

On the last day of summer, every beaker was filled, every cog replaced, every feather refletched. Yet the engine refused to start.

Cara turned out her pockets and searched for the missing piece until she ran out of tears and daylight. At last, she collapsed on the rough-hewn stool, exhausted.

With her face buried in her hands, Cara didn’t see the room flicker to life. The white flame burned sure and hot, the cedar-sweet smoke sluiced from limestone, and a shining took root in the depths of fine onyx eyes.

And as the last grain of loam balanced the scales and the chuntering gears whirred autumn into being, brown-barred wings glided down to Cara’s shoulder, and brushed softly against her tear-stained cheeks until she fell asleep.

About the Authors

A.C. MacLachlan

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A.C. MacLachlan has felt a yen for both nature and adventure since age four, when she rolled down her window and invited a curious black bear into the family car. Today, armed with the crucial knowledge of when not to let bears inside (always), Anne spends her days managing social media for Ontario’s provincial park system. Anne writes fantasy and reads everything (except instruction manuals — she’s rubbish at those). Catch up with her on Twitter at @AnneMacLachlan.

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Y.M. Pang

Y.M. Pang spent her childhood pacing around her grandfather’s bedroom, telling him stories of magic, swords, and bears. Her work is forthcoming in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Book Smugglers Publishing, and Razor’s Edge. She dabbles in photography, listens to music in a multitude of languages, and often finds herself debating the merits of hermitism. Despite this, she can be found online at www.ympang.com or on Twitter as @YMPangWriter.

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Lynne M. MacLean

Lynne M. MacLean is a writer and health research consultant from Ottawa, Canada. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in Stupefying Stories, On Spec Magazine, Tesseracts Fifteen, and Horrific History, among others. Previously, she also lived and worked as a mental health practitioner in Canada’s prairies and Northwest Territories, where much of her fiction is set. This one, however, takes place somewhere suspiciously similar to, but considerably less weedy than, her own Ottawa backyard.

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About the Narrators

Summer Fletcher

Summer Fletcher (they/them) has written for major and indie games, and narrated over 30 short stories for various fiction podcasts. More at summerfletcher.com

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Jen R. Albert

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Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.

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Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.

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