PodCastle 733: Flash Fiction Extravaganza – Rough Patches
“Water We Made to Breathe” Rated PG-13
“Secret Keepers” Rated PG
“A Partial Record of Enchanted Cheeses I’ve Fed My Wife” Rated PG
Water We Made to Breathe
By Marisca Pichette
When we were fourteen we went looking for the ocean at the heart of the woods. I remember the smell: earth and algae and damp, air thick as water. Our sweat mixing with the summer sun, our clothes in a pile on the shore. Max jumped in, his shoulders swallowed by green waves.
I could never tell Max’s parents why I came back alone.
Eight years later I find myself in the woods again. Mosquitoes circle my face and sweat runs down my back. I haven’t stopped sweating since we found the pond, since Max jumped in and didn’t climb back out. I sweat, I drool, I cry. Water pours from me in every way it can.
Sometimes I think I’m melting. Turning into my own pond: an ocean in the middle of the street, seeping into the polyester carpet in my apartment, running between the driver’s seat and console in my car. I wonder what will happen then, if I’ll evaporate or freeze or fill with algae and water-striders.
I tried to forget our ocean. I went to therapy, sought the driest places and watched them dampen with my presence. I sweat in winter and drool in the desert, cry in my sleep.
Water, water, everywhere. And every drop reminds me of Max.
I let the air guide me through the woods, following the mosquitoes into deeper and deeper humidity. Water drips from my fingertips and chin. My clothes are soaked. I stop under a willow and take them off like we did that day, dropping them in a puddle of fabric.
I carried Max’s clothes back with me after. Did I think he would come back? If he had, he would’ve had to walk naked through the trees.
I searched the woods for days. The ocean was gone. Max was gone.
Mosquitoes thicken around me. Their buzz fills my head and I realize that they haven’t bitten me once. Is it sweat or memory that keeps them away?
Down between reeds, my feet sink into mud. The mosquitoes abruptly disperse, leaving me naked and dripping, staring at the place I’m unable to forget.
In my memory, the pond was small, a little puddle in the middle of the trees. We called it the ocean as a joke. But now I look out across an expanse of still green water. There should be trees on the other side — I know there are; the woods go on for miles. Searching for their shapes, all I see is water. Endless water.
The part of me that combed the woods and found nothing, not even a puddle, knows it’s ridiculous to think he’s still here — still alive, even. But the rest of me sees his reflection in every raindrop. The rest of me drinks him and cries him and sweats him and dreams him every night.
The rest of me is still a boy, confused and in love and naked on the shore, too scared to jump in with him. Too scared to make it real.
Across the ocean that shouldn’t be, a ripple disturbs algae, sends lilies spinning and dragonflies into flight. I swallow as it comes towards me, a single wave with eyes in its center.
Before he reaches the shore Max breaks the surface, standing knee-deep in his pond, algae wrapped around his arms, snails in his hair.
He looks nothing like the fourteen-year-old boy who jumped in, water snapping shut over his head like a toothless maw. His skin is green, mottled brown between his legs. His hair is long and coarse, a black horse’s mane. His eyes glimmer eft-red.
His voice is slithery, wet. It is the voice of my dreams, my thoughts, my everything since I left him here. Since he left me for water and green.
My mouth is full of saliva. I feel like I’m drowning, and I swallow. Swallow again. “Your parents think you’re dead.”
He blinks. His throat ripples, amphibian. “You said we’d jump. Together.”
“I couldn’t.” My feet sink deeper into the mud. I know I’m crying. I’m always crying.
Max looks at me. A dragonfly passes between us, somersaulting on the air. “We made a promise, Eli.”
“I know. Whatever shit there was, we’d face it together.”
Eight years. Eight years had turned him into this. Eight years had turned me back, driving six hours and walking two more to get here. Eight years of living that day over and over again, wondering what I should have done. What I should do.
Max glistens, his fingers webbed in green. I stare at them, remembering when they used to twine in my hair, before I dripped and dripped and dripped. My hair now is short and wet.
“I wanted to live,” I say, water running from my mouth. “I wanted to fight the shit and win. You can’t hide, become invisible. It doesn’t work like that.”
Insects buzz around us and Max closes his eyes. “I’m not hiding. I’m waiting.”
“For what? We searched for you and found nothing. Not a drop. I came two more times, and you weren’t there. This place was gone.” I’m shaking now, water running from me and pooling around my feet. The mud softens, sinking me further.
Max walks forward, rising from the pond in green and brown. He stops just before the shore. “We were kids. The ocean wasn’t deep enough. You would have left.”
“This place follows me.” I gasp, moisture filling my lungs. “Everywhere I go, everything I do. I wanted to live, and I can’t. I can’t ever escape it. People see me and turn away. Recoil at my touch. I’m more of a fucking monster than you are.”
He stares at me with his altered eyes. “Then what are you waiting for?”
“I . . . ” Water creeps up over my feet. It’s cool, washing the sweat away. Max is there, truly there this time. Not a reflection, never a nightmare.
“This isn’t a hiding place,” he says, taking my hand. I find myself wading deeper, algae climbing my shins. “It’s a future.”
Waist-deep in the ocean we created, I stop choking on myself. When he takes me under, I don’t need to hold my breath.
by Dafydd McKimm
That night, I bring home buckets of rocks plucked from the shore and spread them across the driftwood table in our dining room.
“Earth bones,” I say, when Jo, my partner, asks what they are. “Secret keepers.”
I remember reading to her from a book about local history when we first moved to this part of the country, her head on my lap, my fingers entwined in her hair. I recited from the page that when people in the scattering of small villages and hamlets nearby had secrets that were too overwhelming to keep, they would whisper them to the rocks, safe in the knowledge that those silent grey listeners would guard their darkest passions, their secret shames.
“Let’s open them up,” I say, fidgeting like a child on Christmas morning. I imagine them as cockles, ready to be pried open, the delicious meat within quivering, soon to be devoured.
Jo rolls her eyes, tells me I’m wasting my time and that she’s going to bed. I wait for her to add that I should come too, a coda which always assured me any bed lacking the other was somehow incomplete. But she has already turned away.
I say I’ll be up in a bit and doggedly make my way to the tool shed to fetch a hammer and chisel while she, quietly sighing, climbs the stairs.
We both mumble I love yous, a habit that neither of us has yet dared to kick.
I hold one of the rocks in my hand, a giant ostrich egg of dappled black, lay it down, and with a swift motion drive in my chisel, gouging a wound from which words long kept silent might escape.
The rock blanches, scarred for life, but nothing emerges, not a peep, not a whisper.
I repeat the act with all the stones until they resemble a brood of hungry birds, yearning mouths upturned to me, craving a secret I’m not brave enough to speak.
I stare at them for a long time. After a while I concede that yes, it’s late, put down my tools, and retreat to bed.
I find Jo softly snoring, the ridges of her spine and shoulder blades tracing the gentle undulation of the Pennines where we used to walk, it seems, a very long time ago.
The us of then would have stayed up all night together, cracking open rocks to hear their secrets, she indulging me perhaps, but enjoying my folly, enjoying me. How long have we been broken beyond repair? How long has she known this truth but, like me, been unable to admit it.
I place my hand lightly on the contours of her bone-house, imagine the rocks within her, imagine their secrets, wonder how long they will remain silent.
A light sleeper, she wakes before me. There is a noise downstairs, something unearthly and yet rooted entirely in earth. The rocks in the dining room are shouting.
Together, we boulder down the stairs and through the door.
Voices like the grinding of millstones clamour to be heard; long-forgotten diction dancing from quartzite older than the dinosaurs.
— Moira Green’s got a third nipple. I seen it when she was changing and she begged me not to tell no one or else they’ll call her a witch.
— Captain Bright never died at sea. He ran off with the barmaid at the Hind. Poor Doris. It’s better she thinks he’s dead.
— My husband didn’t drink himself to death; I put arsenic in his coffee and that done him in. He deserved it, the devil!
— Lucy Beynon. Good God, I’m in love with Lucy Beynon and she’s marrying my brother. What do I do? What do I do?
The old secrets flow, finally free of their silica cages. Jo looks at me, eyes shining, like she used to when we were adventurous and new, and together we listen to the secrets the rocks spill, laughing at some, gasping at others, wondering if the names we hear are still alive or long dead, now bones of the earth themselves.
When the rocks finally quiet, murmuring their last words like the tide retreating over shale, we sit together at the table, eyes lingering, quietly pondering if we too can be as open as the rocks, tell each other how we really feel, what we really want to say.
She yawns. “I’m going back to bed. It’s late. You should come too.”
“I’ll be up in a bit,” I say.
She stands, pushing her chair backwards, and the sound of it scraping on the floor as she rises is like a chisel hitting the rock inside me.
My hand shoots to hers, halting her retreat.
I open my mouth and speak.
A Partial Record of Enchanted Cheeses I’ve Fed My Wife
by Devin Miller
Werewolf’s Eye: sheep’s milk, rennet, salt, black pepper, moonlight
Peppery, mushroomy taste. The woman running the deli told me this cheese was enchanted by a local cheesemaker who’s been enchanting cheese for generations. Not sure if she was joking; she said it very straight-faced. I picked this cheese because Guin’s always liked werewolf stories, and she needs cheering up right now. We ate it on almond crackers. We did not turn into werewolves, but we did wake up simultaneously at midnight, both sure we had to go outside. The moon was full. We howled. Not sure if we were joking either.
End of the Rainbow: cow’s milk, rennet, salt, roasted red peppers, basil pesto, turmeric
I’m too queer to resist a rainbow cheese, and this tastes like a whole sandwich. The guy running the new Magus Cheeses stand at the farmer’s market looked like Gandalf, but with hair and beard neatly braided. Presumably to keep it out of the cheese. I figured if anyone enchants cheese, it’d be this guy. He winked at me when I asked. Guin and I ate this sliced and afterward the sun came out huge and golden. Later I saw a photo someone had taken of a rainbow over our neighborhood, looking like one end was in our roof. No pot of gold to be found, unfortunately; Guin’s medical bills are starting to pile up.
Cinderella’s Ashes: goat’s milk, rennet, ash
Semi-soft with a mild, sweet flavor. Now that I’m looking, I keep finding cheeses that seem magical. This one came from the fancy import shop near the oncologist’s. I was hoping a cheese called “Cinderella’s Ashes” would summon us a fairy godmother; Guin needs one. The label says the cheese has three layers: evening milk (the leftover curd at the end of a day’s cheesemaking), a thin layer of ash, and morning milk. Sounds like casting an enchantment to me. When I got up a few minutes before midnight to use the bathroom, I looked outside and saw our car had become a giant pumpkin with wheels. Right at midnight, there was a quiet pop and it went back to being a Subaru. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Troll Nose Mozzarella: cow’s milk, vegetable rennet, citric acid, salt, hope
Last week I went into a used bookstore while Guin was at an appointment and found a book called Cheese Magic. It’s about regular home cheesemaking, but I think the author is only sort of joking about cheese being magic. I also think: look, the Cinderella cheese turned our car into a pumpkin. Why can’t I make a cheese that will make a real difference to our lives? But I didn’t want to start too big — I’m not gonna cure cancer via cheese on my first try. Mozzarella looked pretty simple, so I ordered rennet and citric acid and had a go at it. It didn’t come out smooth and round like the photos. Guin said it looked like a troll’s nose, so that’s what we dubbed it. I don’t know if eating it filled us with hope like I wanted, but it did fill us with mozzarella.
Willow Bark Jack: cow’s milk, willow bark extract, vegetable rennet, mesophilic starter culture, salt
Willow bark is supposed to be a pain reliever. We ate this cheese on sourdough with tomato jam, and afterward Guin got up and started folding all the laundry, so maybe it did have some sort of pain-relief effect? But mid-folding, Guin’s long blonde hair turned into leafy willow branches. So did mine, only browner and slightly shorter. Before we ate this cheese, she thought I was just funneling my stress into cheesemaking; I don’t think she believed in enchanted cheese. After all, she didn’t see the pumpkin car. But secretly I think she wanted it to be real, because she was delighted by this unintended side effect. I suppose, if nothing else, the enchanted cheese is a good distraction. The effect wore off after an hour. Clean and herbal-tasting.
Zacarias Cheddar: cow’s milk, 30 years, the cheesemaker couldn’t remember what else
I figured a cheese that’s been aging for three decades probably has some sort of longevity magic in it. Guin’s meds are killing her appetite so she wasn’t very hungry, but she had a few bites. I guess we’ll see whether it worked. Strongest cheddar I’ve ever had.
Rosemary Chèvre: goat’s milk, starter culture, salt, calcium chloride, rosemary
I brought chèvre on our third-date picnic. Guin had never had it before. I still remember watching her licking cheese crumbs off her thumb and knowing I was going to fall in love with her. She’s not doing great. Rosemary’s supposed to boost the immune system. It made her smile, anyway.
Washed Thistle Cheese: sheep’s milk, thistle rennet, yogurt, geotrichum candidum, salt, calcium chloride
I started this cheese six weeks ago. Guin was doing okay, then — still sick, but she had the energy to chivvy me out for a walk. She likes to see what’s blooming in people’s yards. When I told her you could buy rennet extracted from flowers, she made me order some and find a recipe to use it with. This one had to age in a cool room, so I put it in the basement, and every three days I went downstairs and washed it in brine. I thought that the more effort and care I put into making this cheese, the more magic I’d be putting into it. Sometimes I even talked to it, telling it stories about Guin: how she remembers exactly what we ate on every special occasion, how enthusiastic she is about snow.
Guin is really, really sick now. If I have any power to enchant a cheese, I have used it on this one. It’s sour and creamy; I scooped it out of the rind and spread it on slices of baguette for her. Please let it work.
Shepherd’s Sunrise: sheep’s milk, rennet, mango
I don’t know for sure that my thistle cheese made a difference, but it’s been two weeks since Guin ate it and she’s not as sick as she was. It’s like the sun has come up inside her after a long night. She has more energy, she’s hungrier, in less pain. At our appointment yesterday, Dr. Berman gave us this cheese as a “congrats, you’ve responded well to treatment” gift; she’d heard about my cheese obsession. It’s just normal cheese, but it’s nutty and sweet, and we sat on the porch and ate it for breakfast with scones. Maybe what Guin’s body responded to was medical treatment and maybe it was cheese, but regardless, I’m ordering more rennet and a cheese press. I’m gonna keep getting better at enchanting cheese. Just in case it helps.
About the Authors
Devin Miller is a queer, genderqueer cyborg and lifelong denizen of Seattle, with a love of muddy beaches to show for it. Their short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies; their poetry can be found in Mermaids Monthly and on select King County Metro bus terminals. They have never enchanted cheese, but did once win a science fair by making feta. You can find Devin and their cat on Twitter @devzmiller.
Dafydd McKimm is a speculative fiction writer producing mainly short and flash-length stories. His work has appeared in Deep Magic, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, The Best of British Fantasy, and elsewhere. He was born and grew up in Wales but now lives in Taipei, Taiwan. You can find him online at www.dafyddmckimm.com.
Marisca Pichette is an author of speculative fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Further work by her has been published and is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, PseudoPod, Daily Science Fiction, Fireside, Uncharted, and PodCastle, among others. A lover of moss and monsters, she lives in Western Massachusetts.
About the Narrators
Scott Campbell searches for battles that will increase his skills for the battles to come. The slush pile underneath PseudoPod Towers is a worthy opponent. He also writes, directs, and performs for the queer (in every sense of the word) cabaret The Mickee Faust Club. He also write far too infrequently at the official online home of the Sleep Deprivation Institute (and pop culture website) Needcoffee.com. He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets.
Kelly is an award-winning short fiction writer. In 2018, her story “A Human Stain” won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and in 2016, her novella “Waters of Versailles” won the Prix Aurora Award. She has also been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, John W. Campbell, and Sunburst awards. In 2018, her time travel adventure Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach debuted to high critical praise. After 22 years in Vancouver, she and her wife, fellow Spec Fic writer A. M. Dellamonica, now live in downtown Toronto.
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.