PodCastle 787: Flash Fiction Extravaganza – Bargaining
“The Greenhouse Bargain” is rated PG
“Shattered Pearls of Celadon” is rated PG
“War Doesn’t Know What It Wants” is rated PG-13
The Greenhouse Bargain
by Tanya Aydelott
He sent my mother’s ghost to deliver the terms of the bargain.
I accepted; there was no choice. When I asked what to expect, she said, Ten good years.
The Whipstitch Man had visited me twice, once to take my sister and once to collect my mother. The second time, he caught me tucking my fingers into the cold pocket of his patched-metal coat. His pinch-hold on my mother’s elbow tightened as he gave me a choice: I could keep the silver I’d tried to steal, but I would also have to keep my mother’s ghost. She would never journey to the underworld. And when I, too, passed, we would stay and watch all the sunsets and sunrises together, forgotten and scavenged by whatever horrors lived in the night.
Or I could trade places with him. He would steal time from my human life, and then he would give me eternity.
Either I damned my mother and myself, or I damned myself to become a thing of metal and darkness — how was I supposed to choose?
But the Whipstitch Man had no patience for my begging. The dead cannot survive in the world of the living and my mother’s ghost was already beginning to sag. I shrieked that I would trade with him; I would take his place when my time came.
Three nights, his rusted-nail voice said. In three nights you will learn the final terms.
When my mother’s ghost came to the door, frail and already so unlike my mother, I wept. And when she told me I would have ten good years, I felt each of those tears as a needle through my skin.
I squandered the first year, and the second. The third I spent away from home, trying to outrun my nightmares. In the fourth year, too many scents reminded me of my mother’s house and I returned, chastened. Her gardens were in shambles and it took me months to repair the arbors, patch the hedges, and replace the glass in the greenhouse. Curious neighbors came, bearing gifts of plants and mulch, until finally my mother’s roses bloomed and the fig tree burst into fruit.
The stories started that year, too, the townspeople crowding into my greenhouse to report what they’d seen. How the Whipstitch Man came to collect a boy from the baker’s house, but paused at the doorway to sniff a bouquet of my hydrangeas. How one family had no payment in coin, and so bought their grandfather’s peace with the delicate roots of a cattleya orchid, bought the week before from my stand at the market. How he came for a neighbor’s son, and the mother watched him slip one of my nasturtiums behind his crushed-thimble teeth.
And every time he came for one of our dead, he arrived with a little bit more of him rusted patched over, clanking. What were the things he yearned for the most, down in his world of steel shavings and hissing pipes?
I am almost ashamed that it took me so long. Ten years, my mother’s ghost warned me, and I am now on year eight. It has taken four years to build my greenhouse and gardens, to encourage a riot of peonies and dwarf gardenias, to fill the arbors with honeysuckle, to overrun the trellises with hibiscus and mandevilla and star jasmine. My home is filled with plants that bloom in brilliant, exuberant colors. I have grown a paradise from the roots up.
When the Whipstitch Man comes to my town and the ones around us to collect his due, he is met with greenery. With pots and blossoms and strict instructions for how to care for each plant that is pressed into his thimble-capped fingers. My customers report how the sharp splinters of his eyebrows catch light, how his tin hands tremble when he holds the feathered ferns they offer. They remember what I tell them, and they say to him:
“This cutting is more than enough payment.”
“Do not crush it; tend it carefully so it will bloom.”
“Keep it near light but do not let it burn.”
They tell me he tries to smell the cuttings, pressing the small shoots to his crushed-copper nose, running them across the stiff astrolabe of his jaw, touching them to the iron tip of his tongue. When he leaves, one hand guiding the ghost he is charged to protect, they watch his footprints press into the tough soil: neat bore-holes from the steel pegs that hold his body up. His other hand, once heavy with silver and gold, overflows with vines and the slim green leaves of pregnant onions. His pockets fill with bulbs.
My neighbors delight—they save their coins now to re-thatch their roofs, buy their children new shoes, celebrate the holidays with wine and mead and roast partridge. They bring me baskets full of pastries and breads braided into beautiful shapes. And when they leave me, the laden baskets unpacked in my larder, I send them home with my beloved rhododendrons, bromeliads, orchids, birds of paradise, dahlias, day lilies, roses, peonies, pansies.
I send them home with hope.
One day—I am counting down now, two years to go—I will follow the Whipstitch Man to the edge of the world and step across a border I do not recognize. He will leave me there, at the line that separates all I know from all I will come to know, and I will begin everything anew again. I imagine it will be a line of iron, crusted and flaky, and on the other side will be a meadow filled with untended plants.
I grew my mother’s garden back from ruin. What, I have asked myself night after night, might I do with a garden seeded already with the plants I love the most?
Shattered Petals of Celadon
Everyone has a heart box. Some boxes have mitered corners with beautifully contrasting splines. Some are dovetailed. Some have simple butt joints nailed from the outside. It doesn’t really matter. What grows inside them does. A curved seashell of curiosity. A hard scrap of metallic regret. An almost too-soft-to-touch feather of hope.
When I was seven, Logan stomped on my foot. He hadn’t thought anyone was watching. The moment he saw our teacher storming toward us, he called “Sorry!” and shoved his fear of being caught — an icy clod of earth — straight from his heart box into mine.
I started to cry. I wanted to throw away his fear, but I couldn’t touch it without getting my hands all muddy and gross. Red beads of distress popped into existence inside my heart box.
The teacher glanced between us. She poured her purple sands of exhausted-annoyance into my box. “He said he was sorry, Olivia. You’re supposed to say you forgive him.”
She was my teacher and she was upset at me, so I rummaged past the sand, dirt, and beads to where I kept a pale yellow daisy of patience, one I’d nurtured over the long, sunny weekend. I cupped it in my palm and reluctantly offered it to Logan.
He snatched it from my hand, crumpling and bruising it, laughing as he shoved it into his own box, then ran off to play.
“See? Don’t you feel better now?” my teacher asked.
I shook my head. There was nothing lovely left in my box, only the things that Logan and my teacher didn’t want to hold themselves.
“So selfish, Olivia. You can go in early from recess and write, ‘I will be kind to others’ a hundred times in your notebook.”
I tried to pass her a spiky ball of indignant shock, but she batted it away into a puddle. “Pick that up and get inside.”
I knew what was expected of me the next time Logan hurt me — with a tetherball, to the face, on purpose. Sometimes it was better when he didn’t get caught. Then I didn’t have to take his fear or give up whatever small, bright treasure my own box held.
I knew what was expected of me years later when I was rear-ended in the high-school parking lot. I knew what to do when my fast-food manager paid me my regular wages instead of the overtime rate. Or when my boyfriend cheated on me.
Everyone talked about apologies as if they always involved handing over nice things, like a clear marble of earnest regret or a silver star of empathy. And that did happen, sometimes. When that lady accidentally cut in front of me in the grocery store. When my brother was late to Thanksgiving dinner. When a hungry roommate poached my leftovers, felt bad about it, then ordered my favorite take-out for dinner.
The day I published my first research paper, my heart box overflowed with celadon petals of pride and confidence. Then I saw the list of authors. Me, the two other grad students who had worked on the paper, our professor, and James. Who had not worked on it at all.
Those petals all cracked into a fine gray-green dust of shock.
I knew that being upset would only leave me smothered in sands of derision or annoyance, but I drove to campus anyway and marched up three flights of stairs to our department, where James and the professor were already talking.
My professor spotted me and grimaced. “I knew you’d be the one to cause trouble, Olivia. I’ve already talked to Carlos and Paisley. They’re fine with it. James desperately needed a good credit like this to stay on track for a tenured position. You should be happy about helping him out.”
The professor pressed an oily ribbon of unwanted embarrassment into my heart box.
James rubbed the back of his neck. “The professor told me that everyone else knew. That it was okay. I didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable!” The two of them had lied and cheated together.
James hefted a granite block of guilt toward me, embedded with a speck of clear regret. I stepped back, guarding the lid of my heart box.
“Don’t be like that! I wouldn’t have agreed if I’d known, but it’s too late now,” James snapped, piling orange globs of annoyance on top of the granite. “Take this. Take all of it.”
“I’m apologizing! I’m sincere!” He pointed at the speck of honesty in that. Some part of him did feel bad.
But if I couldn’t take that speck without also carrying all of his guilt for him, I wasn’t going to accept it. Instead, I dumped out that oily snake of embarrassment. I dumped out my fine gray dust and my smooth gray coins of betrayed hurt. I didn’t try to shove them into anyone’s box; I let them scatter on the floor.
“I will be writing the journal,” I said in a calm, neutral voice.
“You can’t!” the professor wailed, shoving his tightly coiled springs of fear at me.
“You’re being terribly unkind.” James glared.
I’d seen kindness — those brightly colored pipe-cleaner-like things that were warm and fuzzy and fun to twirl around your fingers. Picking up that mess wasn’t kind. Not to me. Probably not to them, either.
“I’m not putting that in my box. I won’t try to shove it into your box, either. What you do with it is up to you,” I said firmly. Then I left.
When I got home, I wrote Carlos and Paisley. I wrote the journal. Only afterwards did I open my box again. For a moment, I thought a fuzzy white mold had taken over the whole thing — shame, perhaps? — and that my own box was condemning me.
I leaned closer, but it didn’t smell rank; it smelled like springtime. I poked the stuff with a finger. It was the cottonwood down of peace. Soft, still, calm.
For once, my box held only my own feelings. There wasn’t room for anything else.
War Doesn’t Know What It Wants
by Lindsey Godfrey Eccles
Every night I leave my children asleep on the subway tracks and climb up to the streets of the city to bargain with war.
But war doesn’t know what it wants.
My husband and I agreed that our son and daughter and I would be safe down here underground while he went out to fight. My husband and I agreed, though neither of us believed it, even at the time.
It was something to say to each other, instead of goodbye.
I try not to stay away too long. The children are hungry, and their sleep is fitful. I worry that while I’m gone to meet with war they’ll wake up and wander off into this endless network of tunnels.
But I have no choice.
I have to find out what war will take from me, before it’s too late.
War comes to me in many forms, but more often than not it’s a dog. The children miss the dog we left behind, though they try not to talk about her very often. War is a dog of a different sort. Our dog was fluffy, eager, and sweet, but war cannot be pacified with squeaky toys or scraps from the table. Its bark is thunderous, and it glowers from red-rimmed eyes.
War’s disposition is poor. As a puppy, war was not treated with kindness.
“Good doggy.” I offer war a tin of smoked oysters I found on the subway station’s defunct escalator. “Good doggy.”
War feints and shies, but every move brings it closer. War bares its teeth and knocks the oysters to the ground. I smell blood and rot on its slavering breath. I offer it my palm, which it disdains.
I offer it my neck.
“Give me all your eights,” my son whispers, leaning into the light of a fire I’ve built from old cardboard boxes. The cards are badly worn. In the dim, crackling light I can’t quite make out the pictures printed on them. I hide a smile and pass him two undersized cards, designed for the hands of small children. He lays down a set of four, all boyish pride, and his sister turns over, softly snoring. After he wins, I wake her and the three of us eat from a dented can with a tiny silver spoon, a gift from my mother-in-law to her first grandchild.
A month ago, I could have gotten twenty bucks for this spoon, at least. Now I can’t trade it for a bottle of water.
In my pocket are the last two apricots from the tree that blooms in our garden.
Bloomed in our garden.
War doesn’t care for apricots.
If war knew what it wanted —
it would eat the kibble I pour out on the kitchen floor —
it would watch cartoons on Saturday morning —
it would dive for sand dollars beneath the waves —
it would eat its hot fudge sundae cherry–first —
it would share a bottle of wine with dear friends —
it would bluff on a worthless hand and rake in its winnings —
— but war doesn’t know what it wants.
Tonight when I go out to bargain with war I bring my son’s deck of cards. I offer to let war go first, but war can’t get its head around the rules. Petulant, it refuses to play.
I insist. War is slow to respond, but then its face cracks in a bloody grin.
War asks for all my twos.
My lovely, precious, tousle-haired twos.
“Go fish,” I say to war.
I’d be delighted to give war our bank account, the house in the country, the family sedan.
Nothing would please me more than to hand over my best jewelry and my favorite cashmere sweater. Say the word and I’ll bake war a pie stuffed with every last fruit from my apricot tree. War is welcome to hog all the whipped cream and leave none for anybody else.
When I first brought my children to the subway station I bargained my coat away, not to war, but to an old lady, for a jar of pickles. They were sour and soft, and we couldn’t eat them.
The thought of those pickles now makes my mouth water.
When the children wake up we share the last two apricots among the three of us, but first I make sure no one else is around.
I approach war with my hands in the air, slowly, no sudden moves. War’s flashlight blinds me; I can’t see its face. It shouts for me to stop right there, and I do. It shouts at me to put my hands up, but my hands are already up. It shouts, don’t come any closer, but I’ve already stopped coming closer.
This is your last chance, war shouts.
I come to war as an accountant, adding and subtracting. I come to war as a lawyer, mustering arguments. I come to war as a psychologist, seeking reasons why. I come to war as a field biologist, peering through binoculars. I come to war as a nurse, offering blankets and tea because I have no bandages, no medicines. I come to war with my heart in my throat, my heart in my hands. I pull my liver from my body and offer it to war. I cut a hole in my skull and offer war my brain, a delicacy to be scooped with a small silver spoon.
I make a fort on the tracks from pillows, clothes, and sleeping bags and hide my son and daughter in it. We no longer speak to the others in the tunnels, and no one speaks to us. I deal the child-sized cards, but the children haven’t eaten today or the day before, and they’re too tired to play.
Tonight war is dressed in a trench coat straight out of a 1940s noir. It strikes a match and drawls. “Evenin’, kid. Care for a smoke?”
If I didn’t know better I’d say I know what you want, war. I’d simper and smile and let my skirt ride up in back as I bent over to pick up something very important from the street.
I try these things anyway, but war only laughs. It’s wearing my husband’s smile, except part of the smile is missing, meaning part of war’s face, my husband’s face, is missing, and where the graying skin has been torn away, black teeth grin through. I try again, ripping open my blouse to bare my breasts and taking war by the lapels. Its breath stinks. My fingers travel down below war’s waist, looking for something they can work with, but there’s nothing there, nothing at all, and war chuckles as my stomach turns over and I stumble to my knees.
“Here’s looking at you,” war says, and tips its fedora.
War cannot want a small girl, brown curls softly tangled, sleeping a toddler’s sleep in this dark place smelling of burnt things and death. War cannot want her brother, same curls but longer because he is vain, my son, vain in the way of six-year-old boys, in love with his hair and his reflection. War cannot want my children, neither one of them.
But in the smoky dawn I ask myself, what if war offered me a choice?
What if war said, choose one, to save the other?
Could I choose?
And if so, which one would it be?
A child-sized scoop of chocolate, or vanilla?
Tea with milk, or lemon?
Steak cooked medium rare, or well done?
Could I choose?
Could I deliver one soft bundle sweetly sleeping against my shoulder to keep the other?
I’m dizzy at the thought. My heart pounds. I can’t speak or breathe, and I need some water.
There isn’t any water.
It doesn’t matter anyway. War won’t let me choose.
Tonight war broods over the city, a giant carrion bird protecting its monstrous hatchlings. It spreads its wings and blocks out the moon and stars.
I kneel to pluck something from the wet pavement.
I offer it worms.
Back beneath the streets I do not check my children’s pulses. I do not listen for their breath. Instead I lay myself down between them and pull their sleeping bags up to cover their stiff, chilly cheeks. I cover my own face too and twine my fingers in their curls, soft and brown like their father’s, all that I have left of him. I hold them close. Together the three of us grow cold.
I’ve nothing left to offer war.
I don’t know what it wants.
I don’t know what it wants.
I don’t know what it wants.
Thank you to all our authors for their stories. It’s interesting how these not only have a common thread of bargaining, but of unasked bargaining. These are not active protagonists seeking out a deal with the devil at a crossroads out west: these are people forced into a choice, and making the most of it. It is the whipstitch man forcing a here-and-now decision; it is all the people around you, certain that they are good and well-meaning folk but also tired and worn down and wrapped up in their own bullshit, piling stuff on top of you and expecting grace in return; it is war, come to take everything you took for granted, and to force a new and awful calculus on you.
And I am reminded, then, of Vida Cruz Borja’s fantastic and award-winning essay in Fantasy Magazine, We Are the Mountain: A Look at the Inactive Protagonist: of how not everyone in this life has the choice and the opportunity to be an active protagonist, of how circumstances and the structure of society steal agency away, most especially from marginalised folk, and yet of how rarely that’s represented in fiction–indeed, how often “inactive protagonist” is looked down on, used as a criticism, seen as a problem to fix in the manuscript. And yet this boxing in, this forcing of choices by systems almost too large to comprehend, is a daily reality for billions. And as Vida’s essay tells us, and as we see here in these three stories, sometimes the only active choice you can make in life is to survive. Sometimes standing your ground is all that is in your power. And it may not be enough, as in our last story, War Doesn’t Know What It Wants; but you might find a power you never knew you possessed, as in Shattered Petals of Celadon, or map a path that no-one knew was there, as in The Greenhouse Bargain. The world has been oppressive, of late, I know: but plant your feet, stand your ground, and make your choice to survive.
About the Authors
TANYA AYDELOTT is a Pakistani American writer of speculative fiction. She earned her MFA in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught speculative fiction workshops through Writespace. Her short story “Flight” was included in the FORESHADOW: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA print anthology. She has been published in Dark Moon Digest, Tales & Feathers, and Flash Fiction Online. Visit her at tanya-aydelott.com
Lindsey Godfrey Eccles
A Houston-raised lover of enchiladas, Lindsey Godfrey Eccles lives and works in Seattle, spending as much time as she can in the mountains and occasionally practicing law. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart and The Writing Disorder, and is forthcoming in Fantasy Magazine and Orpheus & Eurydice Unbound from Air and Nothingness Press. You can find her at lindseygodfreyeccles.com and on Twitter at @lgeccles.
M.K. Hutchins regularly draws on her background in archaeology when writing fiction. Her YA fantasy novel Drift was both a Junior Library Guild Selection and a VOYA Top Shelf Honoree. Her short fiction appears in Podcastle, IGMS, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. A long-time Idahoan, she now lives in Utah with her husband and four children. Find her at www.mkhutchins.com.
About the Narrators
Sophie Barker studied to become a doctor but was rescued by translation before there was too much damage done. She has worked with authors such as Lucy Taylor, Priya Sharma, and Kelly Robson in bringing their work to Spanish readers. She is very lucky to be surrounded by a great community of literary friends that keep reminding her that she is loved. She lives in Madrid, but her Scottish blood keeps calling her to Edinburgh. You can find her fangirling about one female writer or another on Twitter @S_A_Barker
Kaitlyn is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and current speculative fiction writer. She is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Workshop and writes short stories to avoid editing her novel. Currently living in Japan with her husband and four loud children. Pre-coronavirus she spent her free time hiking, traveling, and learning new languages. Now she stress-bakes and binges Turkish TV shows.
Karen Menzel (née Bovenmyer)
Karen Menzel (née Bovenmyer) earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and Western Technical College. She is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writers Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her poems, short stories and novellas appear in more than 40 publications and her first novel, SWIFT FOR THE SUN, debuted from Dreamspinner Press in 2017.