Ochre and Earth

This is the story I wrote for round 2 of the YeahWrite Superchallenge. It had to open with the sentence “Everything I had known was wrong” and incorporate this image:

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Everything I had known was wrong. The thought plagued every step as I returned from hunting, empty-handed again, to the hut I shared with Joséphine.

I thought I’d find her painting by the cabin’s tiny south window, but she was outside, tending the garden we’d started in the sunniest part of our clearing. A few blonde curls had escaped her sun-bleached scarf. Her welcoming smile faded when she saw that the game sled I dragged was empty.

“What happened, Isabelle?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” I sank into the dirt by her side. She slid my hat from my head and ran her fingers through my hair, loosening my braid. Her touch sent soothing shivers to unknot my shoulders.

“I think it’s the wrong wood,” I continued. “It’s too fragile – the deer just break the traps. It’s too dry, or too thin, or…I don’t know.”

I crumpled my hat between my hands. Joséphine extricated it before I could ruin it.

“You’ll figure it out – you always have so far.”

“I was a stationer’s daughter,” I snorted. “How did we ever believe that we could survive on what I read in books?”

Her hand on my hair froze. “Don’t tell me you want to go back to Sarlat.”

I caught her other hand and kissed it. Under the dirt were her omnipresent paint stains: scarlet and mossy green settled into the fine lines of her skin. “Never,” I said.

“Then we just have to keep trying,” she said. “Don’t discount all you’ve learned because of a few mistakes.”

“This isn’t painting, Josie, it’s survival. Mistakes out here will kill us.”

“We knew this would be hard, but what choice did we have?”

We could have chosen lies; I could have chosen Paul-Edouard. Joséphine could have hoped for a patronage, but most likely she would have ended up some merchant’s miserable wife, or in a nunnery, or worse. We’d chosen each other instead, and in this tiny cabin in the Aquitaine wilderness, we were piecing together a life of our own.
I smiled, tracing the outline of her stained palm. “The best choice.”

#

Later that week, I bartered the first of our pumpkins for lessons with a woodsman who traded at the tiny local market. He was reluctant to share his secrets, especially with a woman, but I must have convinced him that I was no threat to his business. As the summer passed, I cut lengths of the wood he recommended and treated the sinews the way he’d shown me. Finally, I spent an exhausting August day replacing every single one of my traps and setting new ones.

When I returned home at sundown, weary and nursing several blisters, Joséphine was painting.

It was beautiful – a walnut orchard, its soft dawn colors amplified by the golden evening – but she was supposed to have made our strawberries into preserves to sell, and the jars stood empty on the kitchen table.

“You’re back!” She set her brush down and kissed my cheek. “Look! It’ll be ready to sell next week.”

“What about the preserves?” I asked tightly.

“Oh – I didn’t get to them today. But the painting will sell for so much more than jam, Belle.”

I rubbed my temples. “Josie, we needed the money from the preserves to buy flour. We have less than a week’s worth left!”

“This will be my final painting, anyway.” Her jaw clenched in a way that I knew meant she was holding back tears. “This is my last canvas.”

I stared at her. “What?”

She nodded. “And tomorrow I’m going to find work in the village.”

“Josie, no – you don’t need to give up your painting! We’ll work something out – I’ve almost figured out these traps, and then I can buy you more canvas!”

“No, you were right.” She took my hands. A smudge of ochre transferred to my thumb.

“This is about survival.”

“Just give me more time,” I pleaded. “If it’s a bad winter, you can look for work in the spring.”

Joséphine withdrew her hands. “If you think that’s best.”

She closed the door to our room behind her. I stood in the fading light, watching the smear of ochre dry.

#

Joséphine was already gone when I woke the next morning. I assumed she was out foraging for mushrooms, or perhaps gone early to the market. I wanted to talk to her about the previous night, but there wasn’t time to wait – I had traps to check. I avoided looking at her unfinished painting as I left.

When I returned from the forest at sunset, Joséphine was waiting for me at the edge of our clearing.

“You were gone so long – I was worried.” Her eyes widened when she saw what I was dragging on my sled. “A deer! It worked!”

“All those hours with that grouchy hunter finally paid off.” I kissed her, feeling her lips smiling beneath mine. “I’ve found a second game trail, too. Soon we’ll have enough to be comfortable this winter, and to buy you more canvas!”

Her smile faltered. “Isabelle, I went to the market today. I sold my paints.”

The sled’s rope fell from my hands. “Oh, Josie.”

“I knew we’d need money long before winter, and it seemed…for the best.”

“But Joséphine, you love painting!”

She stretched out her hand. I could see green and ochre, the colors of the walnut orchard, on her fingers. My heart broke to think she would never finish that painting, that instead of paint on her hands, she’d only have dirt. Her upturned palm encompassed the canvas upon which we’d made our home: the clearing, the wooded hills, the setting sun tingeing the low clouds with gold.

“Yes,” she said, “and perhaps we can afford paint again someday – but I love this life with you more.”

Her lips touched mine and for the first time in weeks, I felt certainty: that about love, at least, I could never be mistaken.

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Summer’s End

Seven miles later, we exited the trees into sunshine over the glittering river. There are many trails on this mountain, each one a new view.

The fires took them all.

At the mountain’s ashen feet, we say goodbye until it greens again: someday, whether it takes months or years.

A Fire Burns Without Regret

“3…2…1…Happy New Year!”

Squeezed among the crowd on my building’s roof, I find myself suddenly alone as the people around me twist away to make out with their partners.

I try to keep my attention on the fireworks overhead. The colossal elementals spin and dance in the sky over the Space Needle, their rippling arms throwing sparks of red and gold. Occasionally one soars close to us, sticking out its white-hot tongue before rocketing skyward to explode in a shower of light.

Elementals this size come from volcanos. I always wonder if these performances make them sad, if they regret having to die over a strange city, but these seem to be having a great time.

So do the people around me.

“Hey.”

The bottom falls out of my stomach. It’s Tom, his smile as dazzling as the fireworks. My roommate invited him – she knows I like him, and she’s pretty sure he likes me, and she was probably hoping the midnight revelry would inspire us. She doesn’t know I’ve typed and deleted a dozen emails to him, trying and never managing to tell him how I feel.

“Hey.” I’m pretty sure I pull off sounding cool and collected. “Happy New Year.”

“This show is amazing, huh?” He offers me a cigarette.

I’ve accepted it and instinctively pulled out my old silver lighter before I remember. “Can I borrow your light?”

He looked down at the one in my hand and his smile turns wistful. “Saving your old one?”

I shrug, trying to look nonchalant. “She’s old.”

“She came from your grandfather, right?”

The lighter had been a wedding gift from my grandmother to my grandfather, engraved with their initials and their anniversary. It’s all I have left of either of them, but by the time it had come to me, more than half the life of the elemental within had been used up. Over the last few months, she’s been changing – weakening.

I hold it out on my palm and we both watch the polished surface catch the colors. “She’s dying,” I say, feeling foolish. Who gets sentimental over the fire in their lighter? It’s not like I’m weeping for the fireworks.

But Tom just gives that gentle smile. The fireworks momentarily light his face blue and I remember how close I came to asking him to dance at the jazz club near Christmas. Yet another regret of the ended year.

His finger traces the engraving. It’s the first time we’ve been this near, this close. So close. “Remember that time she got us out of that creepy basement senior year?” he asks, chuckling.

“God, that was awful. I remember using her to help Ophelia find her ring.”

“She’s been a good little flame.”

I chew on the inside of my lip, determined not to cry. “You don’t think it’s silly to get emotional over a lighter?”

“Of course not. They’re living beings, and that one’s been with your family a long time.” He closes my fingers around the lighter. “I’m going to miss her, too. She came on so many of our misadventures.”

“I’ll make sure her final year is just as adventurous.”

I light the cigarette. The elemental’s feathery arms wrap around the paper, just like she’s done since I snuck my first cigarette in ninth grade, but I can see its tiny face is turned upward, gazing with white-hot eyes at its enormous cousins dancing overhead.

“Can you see that?” I ask it. The flame wobbles in excitement.

“Need a better look?” Feeling somewhat silly, I hold the lighter up. Tom watches it rise. The little flame glows brighter and the wisps stretch skyward. Then, with a faint squeal and a flash of white, the fire launches itself out of the lighter. It circles Tom’s head, illuminating his smile, before it shoots upward like a child’s lost balloon. It spirals closer to a huge gold sparkler, which beams and spreads its many-limbed arms wide to greet it.

There is a boom and a shower of bright sparks, and then both are gone.

It takes me a moment to realize that the silver case in my hand is an empty shell now. It takes me another moment to realize she probably lived longer than I will, and she went out gloriously.

I might go out gloriously, too, but what’s the point of waiting that long?

I kiss Tom, and the response is a new kind of magic and light.

I’d Like To Thank

(CW: self-harm)

#

Night after night, she stays at the studio late, bent over her costumes.

Too derivative, the critics said, so she sought new silhouettes, new textures. Bizarre, distracting, the critics said, so she embraced classic lines, safe colors. Her work lacks imagination, so she crafted in metallic, in vinyl, in light.

She tried to love everything she made, but the nominations never included her, so she didn’t love them, really. Obviously they weren’t worthy. She wondered if she was worthy anymore. No genre seemed to suit her; no awards acknowledged her. After the incident with her last director, no producers even contacted her.

But she has a good feeling about this current project: it’s sure to impress the people who matter.

She doesn’t hear the ticking wall clock anymore, only the hum of the sewing machine, and the failure that whispers when it’s silent.

She doesn’t miss home; everything she needs is here. She used to sleep with her head resting on the bolts of black wool.

She used to sleep.

She keeps herself awake by pricking her thighs. She’d prick her fingers but the one time she did, on accident, she dripped red on the white cotton and it spread like rust, like rot. Now she hides her blood even from herself. It, like her need to sleep, like her failure, is a weakness she can no longer indulge.

The machine stills and the shirt is finished. She presses it in a few swift strokes, then hangs it with the others. There’s almost a whole wall of shirts now. The rows of crisp white are so soothing. She could fall asleep gazing at them.

She cannot sleep. Not until she’s done. The walls are not done.

Her legs and fingers ache.

It is time for black. The trousers take longer. She wishes she could hem them; he’d be so much happier with them if she could hem them. How many hours since she slept?

She likes the wall of black less, but they always wear black pants. He always wears black pants. He won’t be happy with anything else.

She wakes herself with a swift jab of the needle. Somehow she can hear the ticking clock again. It thunders like oxfords marching down a hallway, marching to tell her she wasn’t nominated, the lead hates her dress, the stuntman tore another jacket, the director wants to see her later, privately.

Jab. How many hours since she slept? She only has one bolt of black left, not enough for a pillow, barely enough for all the trousers she must make. Jab. She can’t buy more, can’t leave, she has so much work to do.

She presses neat creases into the legs. His legs will fill these spaces soon. Then he’ll be happy. Then he’ll let her be happy again.

Jab. She doesn’t remember sitting back down at the machine. She’s threaded white when she wanted black. Now the pants are ruined. How many hours since she slept?

The wall of white calls to her, but it’s a different wall of black that consumes her.

unsplash-logoLAIS

The Wind-Up Murder

It’s just past sunset when Anusha and I are called down to the Scuttles. We make our landing approach slowly, red and blue lights spinning. A few people look up; some make rude gestures. Most ignore us. The sleepas want their next fix; the workers just want to get home.

The car doors open and we’re greeted by a rising tide of odor: fuel, frying food, sweat, and the sweet breath of crank. It’s almost relaxing, especially compared to when Krimson was still on the streets and a bitter scent foretold violence.

Colin waves us past the blinking “caution” barrier. “Victim is male, 24,” he says. “The perp, the victim’s brother, emptied a clip into him, then started screaming for help.”

Anusha frowns. “He didn’t run?”

“He was still there screaming when we arrived. Only reason he stopped is because he blew his voice out.”

The apartment doors open and two cops emerge, hauling a struggling figure between them. The perpetrator is around thirty, with the pallor of someone on a computer too much. The distinct aroma of crank accompanies him. As they pass, he reaches toward me with bloody hands. “Wind it up,” he gasps, staring vacantly. “Wind it up.”

Anusha wrinkles her nose. “Pia, you take me to all the nicest places.”

“You get drug-fueled murders in Pearltower, too.” I lead the way inside. “Usually not because of crank, though.”

Inside, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. The walls are covered in antiques: clocks, fading photographs, travel posters. The gentle tick of the multitude of clocks is soothing, like listening to rain.

Wind it up, I think. But there are dozens of clocks here, and as far as I can tell, they’re all working. I squeeze past one of the evidence techs as they scan blood splashes in the perpetrator’s office. The walls are half high-tech, half museum, with computer towers and monitors crowding two walls and the others loaded with clocks. I study them, but none of these need winding, either. If the room wasn’t full of people talking and scanning, the soothing ticking would envelop the space.

“Why does a sleepa tech geek have a bunch of old junk?” Anusha asks, tapping the glass on one of the clocks.

“Why did a sleepa tech geek shoot his brother repeatedly, then call for help?”

The victim’s body lies surrounded by shards of glass and shattered wood; he’d staggered back into some clocks, destroying them.

“Here.” Anusha kneels and waves a hand over a tagged twist-ignition pipe. At her gesture, a display blooms from the tag, confirming the presence of crank and the perpetrator’s DNA. “What kind of crank causes rage?”

“No kind.” I circle the room. The ticking clocks are spotless; he must dust them every time he winds them. I scan them, but there’s no trace of hidden tech. The biggest clock hangs over the desk. It has three hefty weights that would need winding daily – and mounted behind the weights is a camera.

“Hey!” I wave the techs over. “Got a hidden camera. Probably recorded the murder.”

I make way for the techs as they crowd around, scanners flashing. Almost immediately they turn back, looking disappointed.

“It’s not real,” one of them says. “Lots of Scuttles residents put up fakes to deter thieves.”

“What now?” Anusha asks.

I study the room. My gaze lands on the tagged pipe. It’s self-igniting, but requires a twisting motion – like winding a clock.

I pluck the pipe from the floor and twist.

“Pia! What are you doing?”

I smell the crank start burning inside the pipe, but I catch the scent of something else – something bitter.

“Do you smell that?”

She kneels beside me and breathes. “No way. Krimson?”

“Masks,” I order, but even one breath has had an effect: Anusha’s proximity is suddenly infuriating, and the racket from these goddamn clocks –

A mask seals over my face. Techs pin my arms to my sides; one of them has put the mask on me. We’re in the hallway. Anusha is nearby, similarly restrained, bleeding from her hairline.

“You’re bleeding,” I say.

“Yeah. You hit me with a keyboard.”

“Sorry.”

Seeing we’ve recovered, the techs release us. A squad of masked cleaners rushes past to secure the drugs.

Anusha presses gauze to her forehead. “So who hated that guy enough to dose him with Krimson?”

I think about the man’s bloody hands: there were really two victims here tonight. “We’d better get to work.”

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

Sloane Keaveney’s Fightin’ Automaton

“Boys!” Nora hollered over her shoulder. “Ellen’s here!”

“Coming!” They thundered down from the top floor of the boarding house. Ma emerged from the kitchen, drying her reddened hands on a fraying rag.

“Ma, I wish you’d consider getting one of those auto-dryers.”

She snorted. “You know I don’t trust those steam contraptions. Besides, we could never afford one.”

“You trust Ellen to drive me to the fights in a steam contraption…”

Ma sighed and crossed herself. She’d long ago given up on keeping her children from watching the fights, settling instead for praying a contingency of saints over them. “And who’s the metal devil fighting this time?”

“He’s no devil, Ma.”

Ma shook her finger. “It’s the devil in a steel suit, mark my words.”

Colin and David arrived in the front hall. Nora noticed David’s cardigan was missing another button. “Tonight he’s fighting King Conrad!” David announced. “Conrad’s got the best odds yet!”

“Not that we’re gambling,” Nora said hastily, as Ma’s expression began to contort. Outside, Ellen tapped the horn.

“Goodnight, Ma!” Nora shoved the boys, still half out of their coats, through the front door.

“Promise me you’re not gambling!” Ma shouted after them. Nora waved vaguely as Colin and David clambered into the backseat of Ellen’s coupe. Ellen flashed Nora a wink and they tore down the street with a screech of steam and a blast of heat. In the back, the boys cackled.

“Who do you think will win?” Ellen called.

“Sloane Keaveney’s Fightin’ Automaton!” shouted David. “He always wins!”

“Not always!” Colin shoved him. “King Conrad’s gonna lick him!”

“Is not!”

“Is so!”

The shoving increased. No wonder they were missing buttons. “Boys! Don’t make me regret bringing you.”

Her brothers resorted to surreptitious pokes that Nora decided to ignore.

“You sure you want to do this?” Ellen asked in a low voice.

“I have to. We won’t get through the winter otherwise.”

They parked a few blocks from the arena. Already they could see the glow of floating lanterns. The arena sold them to spectators, who bought the color of their favorite: yellow for the Automaton, red for Conrad. Only about a third of the floating lights were red.

“You boys want to buy a lantern?”

“Yes, please!”

Ellen dropped a penny each into their gloved palms – Nora noticed Colin’s had holes in each fingertip – and they raced towards the lantern booth, still arguing.

“Go straight to your seats after!” Nora shouted.

“Let’s go.” Ellen led the way into the crowded lobby. Nora’s stomach growled at the smell of hot dogs and crackerjack. Ellen stopped near the restrooms.

“That way.” She tilted her head towards an unmarked door. “I’ll place your bet.”

“Thank you, Ellen. ”

Ellen squeezed her hand. “You’ll only have a few minutes. If Sloane finds out –”

“I’ll be careful.”

Nora tied a white kerchief around her head as she walked. By the time she slipped through the door, she looked like an employee – she hoped.

In the steam-clouded kitchens, Nora picked up a tray of glasses. No one gave her a second glance. She walked the tray down the hallway, her heart pounding.

The fighters’ doors weren’t guarded; Sloane’s people were confident in their external security. Outside the Automaton’s door, Nora hesitated. Awful thoughts circled: suspicions that Ellen would betray her to the Keaveneys, fear over what she’d see inside. The devil in a steel suit.

She opened the door.

The Automaton lay silent, a man-shaped collection of cold pistons and plates. Nora uncorked the vial she’d brought: undiluted cleaning solvent. She poured the whole thing into one of the machine’s elbow joints and watched it corrode. She threw the vial in the trash, picked up her tray – and the door opened.

Sloane Keaveney frowned at her. “What are you doing in here?”

She held out the tray. “Refreshment?”

Sloane accepted a glass of water with a scowl. “Thanks. Now clear out.”

Nora left her kerchief and tray by the kitchen and ran.

#

“Unbelievable. Forty to one and he pulls it off.”

“Sloane’s mechanics must’ve missed something. Did you see how slow the left hooks were?”

Nora counted out her payment while the clerks wrapped her purchases: buttons, yarn, and two boys’ sweaters, plus a fancy French lotion for Ma. The rest of her winnings were safe under her mattress. It would give her away to spend it all at once, but she took a catalogue of steam gadgets for the home – just in case.

Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash