Thank you to all who submitted to our Fall 2017 contest, and congratulations to our winners:
First Place: “Gold” by Mal Sklar
Mal is a senior majoring in Studio Art and English and therefore enjoys reading, writing, and painting in oils. They primarily write sci-fi and fantasy, particularly in short story form, and they are currently working on a series of queer poems.
Second Place: “In the Red Kitchen” by Matt Wall
Matt enjoys reading the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Neil Gaiman, and writing short sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction. He was elbows deep in ink for NaNoWriMo 2017.
Third Place: “Wings” by Davina Tomlin
Davina is a very tall, ballroom-dancing, tea loving sophomore from Oakland, California. She likes writing about women who dance on the edge of normal.
Find the winning submissions below.
“Many years ago I was quite young, only two or four hundred by my count. In that time it was the fashion for young dragons to take a princess, the same way it was a fashion for your ladies to wear white to be wed.”
The knight was silent. His armor glittered blue-black as a beetle’s shell.
The dragon unfurled its wings, dislodging a heavy, slithering slide of gold. The chamber was the size of a cathedral, and yet the thing’s wings brushed the singed tapestries before they were so much as half-spread. It shook its shoulders, rattling webby leather, before settling down. It draped its tail across its front claws, gold reflecting dully against the scales of its belly.
It put its huge face rather close to the knight and he resisted the urge to take several steps back. He focused on its nearer eye, as focusing on both proved to be beyond him. It was great liquid thing, amber-colored, a rich gold lit warmly from within. Its breath stank of flowery incense and, smartingly, of sulfur.
The knight tightened his grip on his sword.
“The queen suffers you in her household?” The knight had been astonished when he had thrown open the doors. He’d been informed that the queen kept some fabled treasure close to her, had been planning to discover it, to take or desecrate whatever amulet, music box, or gewgaw was most precious to her as its nature indicated.
But the dragon seemed momentarily distracted. “Your sword is red.”
“You killed to get to me?”
He had. “Does that upset you?”
The dragon swung its great head one way, then the other. “I did not know them. They feared me, I think.”
“Why are you here?” The knight asked.
The dragon cocked its head interestedly, the tip of its tail curling down in a question. “You weren’t looking for me?”
The knight shifted his grip again.
“I took a princess, years ago. Now she is a queen. She told me I could keep her and the gold of her subjects so long as I agreed to move out of my cave and to eat only the wild goats of the hills and the black meat of sacrifice.”
The knight felt a bead of sweat drip down his spine. “You are her dearest possession.”
“No, she is mine.”
The knight eyed the stone walls. “The difference is semantic. You are friends.”
The dragon deliberated on this point. “Yes.”
“Then I must kill you.”
The dragon turned its head, fixing the knight with its other great eye. “Must?”
“My king wishes to start a war.”
“Why does he wish such a thing?”
For the queen’s autumn fields striped with oceans of ripe garners and their smell of dusty sunshine possibility. To keep the king’s starving peasantry busy in battle, content in cruelty. “For glory.” Because when a body is hungry enough for long enough, it will begin to consume itself. “For gold.”
“Gold?” The dragon lifted a wickedly curved claw and scratched at the scales of its ribs, dislodging a small bright disk that fell, chinking, to the pile below.
“I understand gold. But you? Are you ready to die for the gold your king wishes to cool his belly on?”
Another bead of sweat. “Yes.”
The dragon crooned softly. “Good.”
In the Red Kitchen
Many things sweet and savory hung, dripping and glistening, by hooks from the rafters. Honey smells and gingerbread air wafted sweet and hot through the doorway, and the dark-haired, sallow-eyed waif hid outside the open door, his spittle wanting to rise, but evaporating to choking dust in his mouth. He had always been hungry, had never known a time when he did not thirst, and he swore he would die before he ate another of the grim leavings in the mousetraps.
The ogress was gone. She’d left the cauldron to boil, molten above the red-orange glow of the fire. He could do it. He could sneak and swipe a little cookie man from the big oak table, where laid a cornucopia of sweet meats and baked treats. And no one could blame him, a poor, growing boy whose need was great and whose belly was tight.
But there was the Law. The Law did not forgive.
The boy swallowed the dryness in his mouth, steeled his nerve, and bolted into the kitchen. He stood on tiptoe and reached a questing hand to the unseen tabletop. His fingers toppled a wooden cup, which came splashing, red and sticky, on his pale face. The wine — if wine it was — stained his tattered shirt, recalling the rat blood that had once dribbled down his chin. The clack of the cup on the cobblestone floor, he knew, had shortened his window of time. He needed to move, and fast, or be caught.
His hand fell on the object of his desire, a loaf of hard bread. It was not the sweetest thing on the table, but it was close at hand, and he had the grown up thought that it would last him longer than a sweet roll. He snatched it and brought it trembling to his breast.
The boy had no time to bite in and savor his prize, for down the hall came the staccato thumping of the ogress’s pegleg. Her shadow preceded her, cast by dying torchlight. He was trapped, for there was no way out into the dining hall beyond the kitchens, no way save through the ogress. Clip, pause, clop, came the broken rhythm, as though one foot were cloven hoofed, and the other bare flesh.
He scampered to the larder, reached up and hung on the handle. The door was taller than him by half, as were all things in this titanic, nightmare realm. How long had he been here, he wondered, starving and shivering in the dark corners of its labyrinthine, mad-angled corridors? When was the last time he’d seen the bright ball of morning that he sometimes dreamed of?
He skittered into the crack of the larder door and pulled it shut with a slow, agonizing groan of its wooden hinges. There, in the dark, he waited. He stuffed hard chunks of bread in his mouth and chewed, his fear having, for the moment, lost out to hunger. Besides, he reasoned, he might soon have need of strength.
The ogress’s misshapen mass appeared, silhouetted against the fireplace. She leaned on a gnarled cane, huddled beneath a dark cloak. Inside the shadowed hood, her nose writhed, tasting the hot, sweet kitchen air.
“Boy!” she bellowed, and pushed the kitchen door closed with her cane. “I smell boy flesh.”
Her face, every bit as gnarled as her oaken cane, twisted round, and her one eye widened to saucer size. She charged the larder with a hobbled gait.
The boy shrank deeper into the larder, and cowered behind a crate as the larder door swung open wide.
The ogress searched, sniff-sniffing, clip-clopping, and stood, right in front of the crate.
The boy held his breath and shut his eyes. His trembling back against the crate vibrated the wine bottles within, glass clinking against glass.
A twisted claw shot into the boy’s hiding place, and seized him by the wrist.
“Got you now, thief!” the ogress cackled.
She dragged him, kicking and flailing, up to the table. She swept pots, pans, and dishes to the floor, and held his hand firm to the tabletop. The boy’s terror climbed up his esophagus and crawled out in a horrendous scream, as she reached for the gleaming blade of a meat cleaver.
“No!” he cried.
“Everyone in the Red Kitchen knows the Law,” said the ogress. “For each thing given, something must be taken.”
The ogress raised the meat cleaver high, flashing with reflected firelight.
“Please!” said the boy. “I was just hungry. Please, let me go. I’ll do anything you want.”
She lowered the cleaver.
“Anything?” she said.
“Anything,” said the boy.
“Be my slave? Fetch my wood? Serve my customers?”
“Yes!” said the boy, grasping at the seeming reprieve.
The ogress scratched her chin, where stray hairs sprouted from odd bumps.
“I don’t know,” said she, “you look terribly scrawny. I bet you’d be more in the way than a help to me.”
“I can clean!” said the boy. “I can catch rats. You won’t even know I’m here.”
“Alright,” said the ogress. “I’ll take you on. Feed you, even. But that doesn’t invalidate the Law. The price must still be paid.”
And with one, swift, butcher’s stroke of the cleaver, the boy stood gaping at the hunk of bleeding meat on the table that once had been his own hand. His scream stuck in his throat.
“Now,” said the ogress, pointing with her cane to the mess she’d made, “clean this up.”
The boy did not go hungry that night. His remaining hand stabbed a fork at the roasted flesh. The meat was a familiar shape, but he did not ask what it was. Whatever it was — lamb or beef maybe — it tasted better than rat. The ogress had been kind to prepare him this meal, and he would not anger her by turning his nose up at it. If he was obedient, she said, he’d never go hungry again.
“Well, the first problem,” I noted, squinting at myself in the mirror, “is that the wings don’t work.”
Tillie rolled over on the bed and looked at me. “Definitely not.”
“But like, the wings never work. With anything.”
“True.” She got up and walked over, and I watched her reflection in the mirror as she approached. She appeared slightly greenish and brownish behind the gossamer.
“What about the black dress?”
“I wore that last time, plus there are no slits. Which is supposed to work, but never does.”
She shrugged and went back into the closet, rifling through dress after dress after dress. She meant well, I knew, but she didn’t know how to deal with this unique problem.
“Why not cut slits?”
“If they’re the wrong size, it gets painful real fast.”
She stopped and turned to me. “Why?”
I didn’t really want to tell her, it’s like telling someone about your yeast infection. I didn’t like to show anyone the base of my wings. People always thought it was like another limb, a smooth progression. But it wasn’t. The wings don’t just grow, they erupt. They bleed and tear. They stain all your clothes, and when they’re done they leave a scar, raised and bumpy, no matter how smooth and beautiful the wings are.
“Too tight and it chafes, too loose and it pulls on them.”
She made a face at that idea and turned away again. She held out a dress to me. I recognized it, it was the same color as my wings, greenish brownish like pond scum, worn cotton, pre-made slits. I slipped it on and turned to her.
“Well it isn’t all that sexy but–“
“I hate it.”
“Why’d you buy it then?”
“I just thought that if something matched it then maybe…”
“But then you put it on and you looked like you rolled down a muddy hill?”
Eventually I let her cut slits in the black dress, I had to let her see the base of my wings to measure, and she sewed something soft around the edges so that it didn’t chafe. I hated the look on her smug, smooth face, and I hated the gentleness with which she touched my back as she measured. But she was right, black goes with everything, and I could keep my wings folded up rather than out with some effort, and then I liked the way it looked.
She left around an hour before Meredith came, and for that hour I sat on my bed, tapping my foot. I could hear my wings ruffling nervously behind me, and I willed myself to calm down. It was just another date. Just another cute girl. Nothing to worry about, it probably wouldn’t work out anyway.
Meredith didn’t have wings either, like Tillie, or if she did she took care to fold them really well under her clothes. I had never seen under her clothes, so I wouldn’t know. When she came to the door, I summoned all my energy and muscle power, and kept my wings upright. I opened the door and there she was, all glowy and shiny. She had blonde ringlet hair and it just about sparkled. I couldn’t bring many words to my mouth. She smiled at me indulgently, and every muscle in me relaxed for a moment. Her smile widened.
I felt something brush against my bare shoulders and knew that I had ruined the effect. Mud colored wings were out for all to see. I swallowed. She reached out her hand and touched them so softly it sent a shiver through me.
“Do they actually…work?”
I didn’t know what she meant.
“Well, can you fly?”
“Amazing. I bet they’re like stained glass when the sun shines through.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
She smiled, this time tucking her head a little to the side and taking a deep breath. “You’ll have to show me sometime.”
Image by SulaMoon on DeviantArt