I serve beer down at the Rescue and Conquer. Woodsmen and wolves come to us in droves. It’s odd to see them getting along, nuzzling and stroking each other, sitting at the same tables, filling the tavern with their laughter. Paying for drinks.
It’s as if they were never enemies.
I’m standing at the counter waiting for a tray and arranging my cleavage when Cassandra touches my shoulder. “Come on. You’ve got a wolf in Room 7.”
I know who this is. At least I’ll have a break from serving.
Room 7 is cool and dark, lavish in red silk. An enormous silver wolf is lying on the bed, pointing his gaping wound right at me. “Again?” I ask, faking surprise.
“You know it, my sweet.”
“You must be addicted.”
“And you should remember that the customer is always right. Now stitch me up.” He taps me with his heavy tail as he orders me around. I know he paid three pieces of gold for this. It’s flattering to be his regular maid.
The sewing kit is sterilized and ready for use. I choose a long, sharp needle and our best silver thread. “Do you want to talk about it?” I ask. Sometimes they want to talk, and other times they go into a kind of trance that won’t let women in. They’re so damn proud of their wounds.
“I’d rather hear you talk about it, my dear.”
That is the one thing I did not want to hear. Now I wonder if he paid double. I take a deep breath and will myself to be interested in this very old story. “Let me see,” I begin. “She was young and blond.”
“Yes, a brunette. And all alone.”
“With her mother—no, her grandmother.”
“Indeed. Twice the female flesh. You could not resist. Did you talk to her this time?”
“I get tired of talking to them. I shouldn’t have to ask for what I need.”
All at once I hate this wolf. I tie a knot in the thread and wonder if I can get out of this, or somehow get through it quickly. “Of course not. You should not have to ask. She should read your mind.”
“Watch it, pretty maid. I can request someone else, you know.”
I almost call his bluff. I have my favorites too. There’s one woodsman I truly connect with. I know he loves me. We could leave this tavern and move into our own pretty cottage.
But we never do. Something stops us every time.
“All right, my vicious one. You didn’t talk to her. You didn’t want to know what was in her basket, or where she was going. Let’s say, for instance, that she was already safe inside her grandmother’s cottage, at night. They were sewing together by the light of a single candle or perhaps they were in bed already. The girl was dark-haired and as docile as a frightened doe. Hers was a life of perfect obedience.”
“Give her some spirit!”
“And she had fire inside.”
“That’s more like it.” The big silver wolf purrs like an enormous cat. His breathing grows faster and faster. He is at his most vulnerable.
(Cassandra always says that now would be the time to kill one of them if you’re ever going to do it.)
I drive the needle into his flesh—that first piercing sensation makes even the biggest of them wince—and begin stitching. “You knocked down the front door. The two women screamed, clutching each other. Their fear was so great it could have killed them. The sweet girl offered herself as a sacrifice to save her grandmother. She dropped her gown and gave you all her red, wet parts. You consumed her whole. Still, you were not satisfied. You took her grandmother, too, in one enormous gulp.”
The wolf’s breath is moist and warm and smells of death. It wraps around me as I stitch. He grins and nods.
“And then, in the moments before your own demise, you did a funny thing. You baked yourself some little cakes in their kitchen even though you were full. It’s your own special way of completing the kill, so that you can taste a bit of their life. Then you stretched out by the fire.”
The wolf wraps his arms around me as I complete the final stitches, but I stop him: “That, sir, will cost you extra. Besides, I need to finish the story. The woodsman burst inside, ax-proud and ready for victory. He split your belly with the blade before you could blink. The girl and her grandmother emerged unscathed. And you were defeated, gushing red, split open.”
The wolf is healed, save for the stitches on his belly. He gets up on all fours and howls so that the windows shake. I take a step back. The merchant on duty opens the door and points a rifle at the restored beast.
On his way to the back door the wolf stops and turns. He comes close and whispers in my ear, “You’re a good girl, Sally. How did you know about the baking?”
My face burns. The merchant pokes the wolf with the rifle. “Get out, you.”
Back at the counter I ask Cassandra why we put up with his type. She raises one eyebrow at me. “How is he any different from your fair-weather woodsman?”
“He’s completely different. He’s violent, for starters.”
“But do either of them really do anything for you? Be honest now. Besides, where else would you work? What other safe place pays room and board?”
I have no answer. Then I remember the baking fetish. That kind of detail can make a girl feel powerful, and I want to brag about it to Cassandra. I reach for her arm but she is already gone.
Another tray is waiting for me.
About the Author:
Jan Stinchcomb’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Strange Little Girls
, A cappella Zoo
, Happily Never After
, Rose Red Review
, Luna Station Quarterly
, The Red Penny Papers
, and PANK
(online), among other places. She reviews fairy tale-inspired works for Luna Station Quarterly
. Her novella, Find the Girl
, is now available from Main Street Rag. She lives in Southern California with her husband and daughters. You can find her at www.janstinchcomb.com
Image Credit: ©
/ Dollar Photo Club
The Conium Review will be exhibiting at the 2016 AWP Conference, and we’re featuring three signings at our table. We’re located at table number 1238, and we hope you’ll swing by to meet these talented authors. Please share the details invite others to the Facebook event pages for each event. We hope to see you there!
Caitlin Scarano — Thursday, March 31st, 2016, 3:00pm to 4:00pm
Caitlin will be signing copies of her Conium Press micro-chapbook, Pitcher of Cream. This story won our 2015 flash fiction contest, judged by Laura Ellen Joyce, author of The Luminol Reels and The Museum of Atheism. Pitcher of Cream is also scheduled to be anthologized in the Best Small Fictions 2016 (forthcoming from Queens Ferry Press). Laura Ellen Joyce calls Pitcher of Cream “haunting and beautiful.” Copies of this micro-chapbook are free during the signing! We’ve done a limited-run of just 50 copies, so be sure to snag one for free while supplies last. Find this event on Facebook.
Carmiel Banasky — Friday, April 1st, 2016, 4:15 to 5:00pm
Carmiel Banasky will be signing her Dzanc Books novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, directly after The Conium Review‘s innovative fiction panel. Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic, calls Carmiel’s book “Daring, precise, and linguistically acrobatic,” and Publishers Weekly says The Suicide of Claire Bishop is “A memorable, intricate, and inventive debut. . . . both an intellectual tour de force and a moving reflection on the ways we try to save ourselves and others.” Find this event on Facebook.
William VanDenBerg — Saturday, April 2nd, 2016, 2:00pm to 3:00pm
William VanDenBerg will be signing copies of Lake of Earth (Caketrain Press) and Apostle Islands (Solar Luxuriance). Brandon Hobson, author of Deep Ellum, says Lake of Earth is “a terrific and daring book, and Michael Kimball, author of Big Ray, says “William VanDenBerg writes so much story into so few lines that it’s easy to get lost in these bright fictions.” Find this event on Facebook.
Caitlin Scarano‘s “Pitcher of Cream” has been selected for the Queen’s Ferry Press Best Small Fiction anthology!
Caitlin’s story recently won our 2015 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Laura Ellen Joyce. It was published on our website, and it will be re-released as a limited-run micro-chap later this month. The micro-chap will be available for free at the 2016 AWP Conference in Los Angeles, CA. Caitlin will be doing a signing at our exhibitor table (#1238) on Thursday, March 31st from 3:00pm to 4:00pm.
Last year’s Innovative Short Fiction Contest judge, Amelia Gray, also had her piece “These Are the Fables” selected for the Best Small Fictions anthology. Additionally, Amelia’s story “On a Pleasant Afternoon, Every Battle Is Recalled” was named a finalist.
John Englehardt‘s “This Is Great But You Don’t Need It” was also named as a semifinalist—this piece was originally published on our website and was made into a micro-chap for the 2015 AWP Conference in Minneapolis, MN.
Lastly, Daniel Aristi (former contributor to our website) had his Sand story, “Tempus Fugit,” selected for publication, and Mercedes Lawry (former contributor to our website) was named a semifinalist for her recent Cleaver Magazine story, “Was there transposition?“
We’re excited to see so many contributors and friends of The Conium Review on the long list and short list for Best Small Fictions, and we hope you’ll all pick up a copy when Queen’s Ferry Press releases the anthology later this year. The full list of semifinalist, finalists, and winners is available on the Queen’s Ferry Press website.
The psychic at the Missoula County Fair says I was a warrior in a past life, which is a thing I want to believe because I feel like a warrior now. It’s hard being an Oakland girl in Montana. Each day, my blood is angry and alienating. If you were to slice my neck open, it’d come spraying out bright red, thick, and stinging like chili oil. Then, the psychic asks me if I am in love, and before I can say anything, she tells me I’ve already met my soulmate.
Asking me to believe in soulmates is on par with asking me to believe in psychics and enneagrams. I saw the super blood moon eclipse during the Mid-Autumn Festival, and I did not feel raw or overcome with emotion. The moon lowered and rose above the Rattlesnake Mountains and I did not begin ovulating. I’m so out of my touch with my body, I wish I could evolve out of being a woman and into being a fucking cyborg—how dope would that be!
Three weeks before the County Fair, I’d started dating someone. He seemed OK. Better than OK. Pretty cool. But it was early. I didn’t know if he was my soulmate, or if my soulmate was one of the men or women I’d already said no to. Because I say no to a lot of things, a lot of people. I could say no now, if I wanted, and maybe that’s what power is. We played Mortal Kombat the first time we hung out, and I kicked ass with a character whose special move is to bust men’s testicles with her fist. I told him I wasn’t looking to date, and he was cool with it. But as I left his apartment that night, I turned on the landing, mouth open, ready to take it all back. For that moment of hesitation, we were on the same page. I noticed how great his hair was when he looked confused as hell in the light of his doorway, and I wanted to apologize for having no idea what I wanted or how I felt. Instead I said, “Good night,” all coy, like I knew what I was doing. I ain’t afraid of no ghost.
I swipe my Visa on the psychic’s iPad, and when she lays out the cards, she doesn’t lie to me. That’s one thing I really appreciate. Even if none of it is true, she’s actually reading them—a brain full of metaphysical wisdom, interpreting itty-bitty cups and infinity symbols, things that girls tattoo behind their ear and inner wrists. I’ve always wanted to get a reading done but my disbelief made $10 feel so necessary in my wallet. I don’t know how to invest in my future, but I’ll drop $10 on a sweater at H&M that comes apart in three months, or on a super burrito that I can make disappear in a minute.
On a road trip last spring, my friends and I asked each other those questions from the New York Times, the ones that are supposed to make you fall in love with anyone, and now I’m obsessed with finding people brave enough to answer them with me. “What if we fall in love?” they say. “So what?” I tell them. “I’ve been in love plenty of times, it’s no big deal.” “What if we fall in love?” they ask. “I’ll break your fucking heart,” I say.
At the close of the reading the psychic says, “Do you have questions for me?” I look down at the grid of tarot cards and want to ask what they all mean. Not because I believe, but because I hate not knowing. I want to learn to read the cups, the infinities, the little moons. Instead, I ask her if I am doing good work. “You are,” she says. “And it will pay off in November.”
That’s not what I asked, I want to say. I don’t care about payoff. I think I really want to ask if I am doing the right thing. If I am a good person—the thing everybody wants to know. Not if I will be happy, but if I deserve to be. This psychic has to get on my level. Is this the greatest challenge? I want to know. Is this the final boss? I imagine myself throwing punches at apparitions, writing an angry comment on an empty comment thread. One day I’ll be in love, I promise myself. And it’ll be for real this time. One day I’ll learn to stack Mortal Kombat combos like nobody’s business, and I will have all the answers without ever having to believe in them.
About the Author:
Ari Laurel’s work deals with Asian American icons and youth identity in the ever-shifting Bay Area. In addition to her feature in the 2015 Kearny Street Workshop APAture Festival, she was a 2012 finalist for the PEN/USA Emerging Writers Fellowship, recipient of the Candace K. Brown Memorial Scholarship, and her work has appeared in Bitch Media, The Toast, Quartz, Duende, Kweli Journal, and Hyphen. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Montana.
This story was a finalist in The Conium Review‘s 2015 Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Laura Ellen Joyce.
Image Credit: © mhatzapa / Dollar Photo Club