Category Archives: Short Stories (300+ Words)

The Castle of Souls

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin

“Who goes there?” Sparrow called to the darkness, as she walked the perimeter of the Castle of Souls.

Sparrow was a demigoddess sent to the earth realm to guard the castle and to spare undue calamity to human-kind by keeping the living outside the gate and “others” inside.

The Castle of Souls, or Purgatory as some call it, has existed since the beginning of time. It is nestled in the remote forests of Death Valley near the steep, rocky banks of the raging River of No Return and, most notably, features a sprawling garden of souls that glow eerily from skulls on bone posts where they reside until they are granted passage to heaven. It is certain death for any human unfortunate enough to witness such a sight, which is why Sparrow was so vigilant this dark, chilly night. 

She heard another sound echoing from the rocks near the river’s edge. “Hello! I know you are there. Identify yourself!” she demanded sternly.

“I’m lost,” a young voice cried from the blackness. “I’m lost an’ I’m hungry an’ I want my Mama, but she fell into the water when our boat tipped over and she never came out. I’ve been waitin’ and waitin’ but she never came…” the voice grew louder and clearer as a child with wild golden hair, shivering, wet from the river, wearing torn clothing that clung to her like skin, emerged into the light.

“Please don’t come any closer, child,” Sparrow pleaded, “I cannot help you. This is no place for a child to be. Follow the river this way,” she instructed, as she pointed down river, “soon enough you will find yourself in the village. Now run along.”

“But I’m cold and I’m tired. It’s dark. Can’t I just stay here with you?”

Sparrow took pity on the child and granted her wish, but only until morning, and only outside the wall of the castle grounds. She made a soft bed of leaves and wild flowers for the child and kept watch from the other side of the gate to make sure the girl didn’t wander inside.

Dawn of day is the time when souls arrive from death to the castle. It is a necessary cleansing of the veil between time and eternity. The presence of too many souls wandering the earth always creates chaos for the living. 

When the souls arrived, floating through the gate, looking very much like fog, many paused to gaze fondly at the sleeping child.  One soul lingered longer than most. Sparrow watched as it hovered over the child. She grew increasingly impatient with the soul, until she realized that it was the child’s mother. 

The allotted time for soul receiving was ending as the sun inched above the horizon. Sparrow urged the mother soul to come inside, but she refused to leave the child. If she didn’t close the gate soon, Sparrow risked a mutiny of the other souls in her keeping, so she made a deal with the mother.

“I see that you love this child more than eternity,” Sparrow said, “so I will grant you three days, and three days only, to stay with the child until she finds her way to the safety of the village. It’s a two day’s walk from here. Remember, three days only and you must return.” Then Sparrow closed the gate.

The booming noise from the shuttering iron gate startled the child awake. She remembered Sparrows’s instructions and set off down river. 

Her mother’s soul followed closely behind. She soon discovered that she could communicate with the child by sending a flutter of wind moving leaves to reveal bunches of tasty berries or by rustling shrubbery to redirect the child if she set off in the wrong direction. 

They traveled along the rocky shore of the River of No Return and through the canyons and salt flats of Death Valley until at long last a village came into view. The child’s pace sped up when she noticed people in the town square. A kind woman with several children of her own noticed the girl and took her in. The mother watched from afar a day longer to make sure the girl was safe and then, as she had promised, returned to enter the castle garden on the third day.

Sparrow noticed something different about the mother soul when she returned. She glowed warmer, brighter than the other souls. And one other thing; she did not wail and moan, which was a common practice that made the garden a miserable place to be. 

Sparrow was so inspired by the peaceful presence of the mother soul, that she declared that all souls would henceforth be granted three days to make their peace with life and the living before entering the the Castle of Souls.

You may have heard that the souls of the recently deceased linger three days, wandering amongst, and making their peace with the living before moving on. It was not always so. Now you know the story of how it came to be that when someone you love dies, you feel their presence ever so near, because my dears, they are!

~kat – 2 March 2017

A strange tale for Jane Dougherty’s Sunday Strange Microfiction Challenge inspired by the painting above by Ivan Bilibin, a Russian illustrator.


Seasoning – Part 29

Woman with a Tea Cup by John White Alexander

Seasoning – Part 29

“The letter?” Henry exclaimed. 

“Yes dear brother,” Helen nodded, “you know the one. I’m not sure how you found it. After all, it was me who Alice had asked to reveal it. Imagine my surprise, after rummaging through those vanity drawers like a mad woman, when Hannah interrupted me holding that very letter! Why do you think I came all this way? I had to see if the rumors were true!” 

“How did you? Alice asked you? What rumors?!” Henry rattled off questions without giving Helen a moment to answer. Exasperated, he slumped into his chair.

“Oh Henry, dear little brother,” Helen patted his hand, “let’s have some dinner and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Hannah, who had gleefully watched the two of them in silence, spoke up, “Yes! Let’s do, before everything gets cold!”

Henry looked at Hannah. She was beaming. He smiled softly. “God, you’re beautiful…” he thought, as his nerves settled to a purr, “oh, how I love you, Hannah.” Breaking the silence, he chuckled out loud, “Well clearly I am outnumbered here!” He reached for a slice of roast beef. 

The three filled their plates and savored several bites before curiosity got the best of Henry. 

“What I don’t understand, Helen, is how you knew about the letter. This is the letter we are talking about, right Hannah?”

“The very one!” Hannah blushed.

“Well Henry, you know you have always been a restless sleeper. Oh, the night terrors you had when you were young. Scared the dickens out of us! Especially Mother! I honestly thought you’d outgrown it. When Alice took ill and I came to care for her, she told me about your dreams. It seems you talked in your sleep, Henry, and Alice, the lovely girl that she was… well, she was so worried about you.”

“Worried? She never let on. I tried so hard to be positive around her.”

“Oh, you did Henry and you were. You were so kind and brave for her. But your dreams Henry; they told another story. There was a woman,” Helen glanced at Hannah, smiling softly, “there was always a woman in your dreams that you longed to find. Alice knew it was not her that you spoke of in your sleep.”

Henry’s eyes welled with tears, “I had no idea. She never told me.”

“Well, Alice wanted to be sure you would be alright…after she was gone. So she told me that she had written a letter to this mystery woman and asked me to hide it in the vanity. If her intuition was true, that one day you would find her, she asked me to give the letter to the woman of your dreams.”

“And how did you know, Helen? How did you know it was Hannah?”

“Oh my dears,” Helen cooed as she gazed at them across the table, “I knew the moment I saw the two of you together.”

Henry reached for Hannah’s hand, “So, what now, Helen?”

“Well, I think that’s up to the two of you.”

Hannah smiled and leaned into Henry.

“I think you’ll do just fine.” Helen softly remarked. “I suppose I’ll be leaving in the morning then.”

“So soon?” Hannah exclaimed, “but you just got here!”

“Oh, don’t you worry!” she winked at Hannah, “I’ll be back in the summer. I want to see that garden when it’s in full bloom! Well, enough talk!  Hannah, I would love some dessert. How about you Henry?”

“That sounds wonderful!” Henry replied. 

” Yes ma’am!” Hannah gushed. She glanced coyly at Henry adding, “…and kind sir. Dessert it shall be!” She sprang from her chair and skipped happily into the kitchen.

Henry smiled at his sister. 

“You both deserve to be happy, you know. Don’t let that lovely girl get away, Henry.”

“Oh, I won’t, Helen. Of that you can be certain. I never will.”

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Other installments of this series can be found HERE.


Saved by the Bells

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Painting by Gabriel von Max

There is a saying, “every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings”.

Once there was an evil King who hated angels. He blamed them for not protecting him from the horrors of his troubled childhood. Every child in his day learned from fairy tales told to them from cradle to school, that it is the angels who are charged with protecting children from harm, seeing them through to adulthood. The King fumed with anger over what he believed to be utter neglect by his angel. (In truth, he was a spoiled, dark-tempered child who was never satisfied.)

Hoping to eliminate all angels from the land, on the first day of his reign as King, he commanded every bell far and wide silenced forevermore. There would be no lauds or vespers tolled from church steeples, no hourly reminders in the town squares or dinner bell calls in the farmers’ fields.

The people feared him, so just as he had ordered, all bells were muted. The deafening silence had an unintentional consequence. Instead of gaining wings, every single angel lost their feathers until they were grounded. This pleased the evil King very much, until he learned that they retained all of their special powers of prophecy, wisdom, healing and the like. He was infuriated and ordered every angel killed, sending his armies out across the land to carry out the deed.

When the compassionate people near and far heard about the King’s plan to kill the angels, they opened up the cellars of their humble homes offering them sanctuary. In return for their kindness the angels prepared special oil lamps for their gracious hosts. To receive an angel lamp was a considered a great blessing and promised that your life would be charmed with good fortune for eternity – even after your soul left this realm and moved on to the next.

As more and more townsfolk harbored the poor angels in their midst, more and more light filled their dark villages. The blessings of the lamps also gave the people wisdom, strength and determination, the likes of which no one had ever seen. They realized that their selfish, overbearing King was in fact, selfish and overbearing and they started to grumble, “If they wished to ring their bells from the town squares, church steeples and farm fields, who was he to stop them!”  Who was he indeed!

So the people made a plan to ring every bell in the land at the very same moment and on every hour henceforth. When at last the bells began to sing and gong and ding-a-ling dong, the land started to vibrate and the people cheered one and…almost all.

The King who had been lazing in dreary silence that fateful morning was startled to his feet by the clanging racket. He cupped his ears in rage and called for his commander to dispatch the army to quiet the blasted bells.  But no one could hear him above the cling-clanging cacophony and the castle that had languished in disrepair, began to shake and crumble and quake until it came tumbling down, silencing the King forever.

Never again were the bells kept from doing what bells are created to do. And the angels soon regained their wings, never forgetting the kindness of the poor and lowly, blessing them graciously with music, hope and true happiness forevermore.

~kat – 16 February 2017

For Jane Dougherty’s Sunday Strange Microfiction Challenge based on this Gabriel von Max painting.

 


Seasoning – Part 26 & Part 27

I’m afraid I’ve gotten behind on the installments of our story. So this week, two installments. Happy reading!

“Charles Dickens” a painting by William Powell Frith


Seasoning – Part 26

Henry could not get away quickly enough. He’d had his fill of his sister’s meddling. He hated leaving Hannah alone to fend for herself, but he had learned firsthand that she was quite capable speaking her mind when it was necessary. Still it troubled him, imagining Helen grilling her relentlessly as he knew she could and would.

“She’ll ruin everything,” he muttered to himself as he bounded the stairs to his office. “At least I have work to occupy my mind.”

Charles was waiting for him. In a small town it is impossible to maintain any sense of privacy. News of Helen’s early arrival was already buzzing through town. She rarely visited. Two times in a week was certainly something that required further investigation!

Charles glanced nonchalantly at Henry when he walked in the door; nodding with a smile. He noticed that Henry was clearly flustered and slightly disheveled, which was not at all like Henry who has impeccable taste when it comes to grooming and attire. 

“You look a bit bothered, Henry. Is everything alright?” Charles queried with all the concern he could muster, so as not to be found out for knowing the answer before he asked it. 

Henry never looked up as he rushed to his work station, but he growled in passing, “Helen.”

Taking the invitation to delve deeper, for a busybody like Charles a simple whimper was an open door, he followed Henry, “Oh, your sister, am I correct? I do hope…”

“Oh, she is very much alive and well. Save your worries, Charles, and she is in my house this morning as we speak.” Henry fumed.

“Not that I notice such things,” he lied, “but you have never mentioned her before this week and I thought you said she left to go back a home days ago. She’s back?”

“Oh yes! She is definitely back and meddling as usual. She infuriates me.”

“Hmmm, meddling, you say?” Charles couldn’t resist., “is everything working out with the housekeeper? I think I remember you mentioning it was Helen who hired her. What is her name again?”

Hannah, Hannah is her name,” Henry was growing impatient with Charles and his questions. “Hannah is perfect.” Henry stopped himself, refocusing, “What I meant to say is that she is doing a splendid job. There is absolutely no reason why Helen needed to barge in the way she did.”

Charles curiosity tweaked, “Barge in, you say?”

Henry glanced at Charles. He looked like a cat poised to pounce on a mouse. “Oh, never you mind Charles,” he brushed him off curtly, “Helen was just being Helen. Don’t let me keep you from your work.”

A deflated Charles turned to walk away, “I was just worried for you my friend. You looked…”

“Rushed is all. I have a full day ahead of me.” Henry countered as he picked up his pen and scribbled on a piece of paper on his desk. 

Normally counting the hours until the closing whistle, Henry hoped today would linger as long as it pleased. He dreaded facing what waited for him at home.

Image from fashion-era.com

Seasoning – Part 27

Helen patted Hannah’s hand. “What have you got planned for the rest of the day Hannah? I don’t know about you, but I could use a shopping trip to help all of this settle.”

Hannah thought for a moment. “Well, I have completed my household chores, and dinner is prepped and ready. I have been meaning to go into town to get a new dress. Henry arranged for me to go to Stephen’s Tailor Shop to find a replacement for the one that got ruined in the fire. Do you know the place?”

“Oh indeed I do. I love Jonathan. He is an artist with fabric and thread. It’s settled then. Go put yourself together. We shall have a shopping spree.”

Filled with excitement, Hannah giggled and hugged Helen before skipping happily out of the room. 

Helen smiled as she watched her leave. “I like her. I like her very much.” she thought. Then directing her comment to the vaulted ceiling, she spoke aloud, “Well Alice what a surprise this has all been. My my, you were right, my dear. She was out there somewhere just as you suspected. I do think you’d like her. She’ll be good for our Henry.” Helen blew a kiss into the air and gently tapped her chest over her heart before leaving to join Hannah in the parlor.

The market was bustling with activity when they arrived. Hannah couldn’t resist pausing at each shiny storefront dressed with a variety of wares. There was a bakery shop displaying stacks of crusty bread and pastries, a hat shop, with velvet, feathered wonders and an emporium with household odds and ends. 

Helen chuckled at her shopping companion, “Hurry along Hannah. We have a dress to find!”

When at last they had arrived, Hannah’s eyes grew wide as she gazed at the most beautiful gowns and dresses she had ever seen. 

Helen took the lead as a slim well-dressed man with a measuring tape draped over his shoulders met them at the door. He wore round black-rimmed spectacles and had a thin mustache and slicked back straight black hair. “Jonathan my dear! How very nice to see you. We’re looking for the perfect dinner dress for my friend here. Hannah, meet Jonathan, the best tailor in the region and our good friend for many years!”

Jonathan eyed Hannah from head to toe, as if calculating her measurements in his head. She extended her hand to shake his, “So nice to meet you,” she smiled.

Jonathan took her hand in his and gently cupped it with his other hand, “We meet at last Hannah. Henry mentioned you would be coming. Let’s see what we can find.”

Jonathan directed the ladies to a rack of wispy frilly dresses in silk, chiffon, crêpe, and satin. He slid hangers left to right, glancing frequently over his shoulder at Hannah. At last he stood back with a sigh and turned to present his find to Hannah and Helen. “Let’s try this one on you my dear,” he said with a wink and a smile directed at Helen.

“Oh Jonathan! You have outdone yourself. This one is exquisite.” Helen gushed. 

Hannah gingerly took the dress from Jonathan’s hands and turned, stopping for a moment. 

“The dressing room is just ahead to your left dear,” Jonathan instructed. “We’ll wait for you here. Don’t keep us in suspense too long!”

Hannah slipped the yellow silk chiffon dress over her head letting it cascade in a whoosh around her ankles. It fit perfectly. She gazed at herself in a full-length mirror feeling like a princess. 

Helen and Jonathan were waiting in a sitting area chatting and snickering over the latest gossip when Hannah appeared in the doorway.

“Oh my dear! You are stunning! Jonathan you are a genius! Of course we will take it!”

Jonathan beamed proudly. 

Hannah giggled, twirling full circle, “Really? Oh I do love this dress. Thank you. Thank you so very much!”

“Absolutely my dear. Now hurry along. We have an important dinner to prepare.” Helen turned to Jonathan, “As always it has been a pleasure my friend. You are a genius. I’ll say it again! You are a genius!”

“Thank you ladies. The pleasure has been all mine,” Jonathan called to them as they walked out the door. “Come back soon. And enjoy your evening!” 

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To read other installments of this fiction series click HERE and scroll down to the story entitled Seasoning.


Along the Selchie Shore

There was a legend told of old by fisherman who ought to know…

“To find yourself a bonnie bride, when the moon is full, high in the sky, get thee to the northern shore to spy the selchies sleeping on the rocky shoal. They lay their her heads upon soft beds of silky skin that they have shed. Choose the lass most beautiful and hide her pelt before she wakes. Forevermore she will be yours unable to return into the deep.”

Some townsfolk swear the legend is true. And if you doubt it they’ll tell you this tale.

One stormy evening at a local pub, a young lad named Benjamin overheard a few old salts prattling at the bar about this and that and the selchie legend. He decided to see if it was true. On the very next full moon night he set out for the selchie shore with a shovel and an empty satchel.

Glistening in the pale moonlight, not one but four maidens slept upon their silken hides. Benjamin crept silently from one to another to the next and the next, his heart racing with indecision. Each one was more radiant than the former and he feared the witching hour would pass before he chose his bonnie lass. 

So Benjamin did what any young lad would do when faced with a such a choice and nothing to lose. He gathered all four pelts, stuffed them in the satchel and rushed inland to bury them.

He returned to the shore, as the sun was rising with cloaks to cover his lovely maidens. One by one they stirred awake and when they set their eyes upon his face, each was overcome with pure devotion. 

It was a young man’s dream. Benjamin swelled with pride as he led his harem into town to his simple stick-built shack. Never was a man happier than Benjamin on that day and the many days that followed.

But as the blush of new love faded, each selchie maiden became jaded, not happy to share their Benjamin with the other. They came to see that being human was not at all what they dreamed it would be. Oh, how they longed to return home to the freedom of the sea.

Together they devised a plan to rise before the cockle doodle, while Benjamin was fast asleep, to search for their pelts along the selchie shore. They would never find their treasure, and Benjamin, who had become accustomed to having four-fold attention, never gave away his hiding place once he learned of their scheme. 

Alas, these poor selchie maidens four were immortal, yet cursed to a life of human misery. Benjamin eventually died an old man with a secret and they continued to scan the beach, some say, even to this very day. 

You might even catch a glimpse of them there,  by setting out before the dawn, just as the amber sun is cresting along the selchie shore.

-kat – 7 February 2017

A tale for Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge based on the painting above by Frederick Leighton.

 


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