short story

A Character in That Story

This particular entry for the NYC Midnight short story competition is from last year and I really enjoyed writing this one. I drew fantasy, a private detective and an adoption as my prompts. I wrote my first draft so quickly that I had a good amount of time for editing, which was a rare luxury, and I ended up finishing at the top of my heat.

After growing up on a diet of fairy tales, I really wanted to subvert the genre and twist that oppressive ideal that the youngest and most beautiful sister is also the most good, gracious and deserving of love. I also came up with the idea that somewhere there exists some ancient scrolls upon which are written the seven archetypal stories and played with the possibilities of tampering with the originals. I wanted the older sister to be the heroine of the story, and for the sidekick to be a genie- fantasy creatures from Islamic culture are often overlooked in the new wave of fantasy creature popularity so I thought this was good choice.

I documented my brainstorming for this one. I found that mapping it out really assisted my thought process and it was an approach I have taken in all subsequent planning phases.

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I tried to play with some of the common assumptions in fairy stories, and twist them. Also, I deliberately chose not to have a happy ending for the same reason.

Synopsis: An older sister, fed up with the formula of the fair maiden story, sets out to put things right.

 

A Character in that Story

Smoke from the evening hearth-fire had settled in the canopy and the trees cast twisted shadows in the moonlight. Eduard, a young detective famed for finding wanted criminals and missing persons, had met with a poor woodcutter earlier in the day. The distressed man had offered him a pitiful sum of money to find his missing daughter.  Eduard tried to avoid charity cases, but this case seemed… intriguing. As he drew closer to the cottage Eduard took a mental note of the restless silhouette of a young woman he saw through the window. He smoothed his hair and tapped on the door. He could hear the deep rattle of a man’s voice. A woman whispering. A moan? It was not long before he heard the heavy bolt slide back and without pleasantries, was ushered into the kitchen.

The mother of the missing girl was sitting, ashen faced, clutching a small leather-bound book to her chest. The father was a large man whose face looked kindly in the flickering light, but his calm was betrayed by white knuckles as he clutched a heavy tankard of ale. Their younger daughter was the person he’d seen pacing the room, and she was introduced as Jasmine. She had long golden hair, fine features, milky skin. She should have been attractive but somehow the detective did not find her so. He glanced at her and established that she had been having a tantrum. The mother made a gesture for Eduard to sit, and he gently began trying to tease out the details.

The couple had two. The eldest was Petunia who her father described as ‘big boned with broad shoulders, large hands, thin brown hair and a plain face; an unremarkable girl. Not wicked but stubborn.’ They had found the youngest as a babe in the forest glade; she was so tiny and delicate they decided she must be of royal blood and made a petition to the King so that would be allowed to adopt her. Their wish was granted and the couple grew completely besotted with the angelic and good-natured daughter they christened Jasmine. ‘We just knew she was special, destined for great beauty, love and a happily ever after.’ The young detective was taking some notes and Jasmine moved beside him and touched his hand, at which he instinctively recoiled. This physical gesture, although slight, was enough to start her off pacing the room again.

‘Tell him daddy. Tell him what happened the day she left.’

‘It had been a really exciting time, with Jasmine getting so many marriage proposals. Princes from far and wide were making the journey just to get a glimpse of her beauty. Some were handsome, others rich, but Jasmine knew she had not yet found her true love.’ Eduard directed a question to the girl’s mother.

‘Did Petunia seem jealous of this attention?’

‘She never mentioned marriage. She was plain looking, but she could have become a scullery maid or similar. On the day she left, the girls had a huge fight. Jasmine had been singing to a nightingale when Petunia pushed past her with an armload of wood. The bird was startled and Jasmine had called her sister a “dirty toad”. As soon as the words were said, Petunia started hacking, and then…she coughed out a toad.’ Jasmine’s face contorted as she remembered the scene, and grew animated as she added more to her mother’s story.

‘It was disgusting, so I called her a toad again and she coughed up a second one! Petunia looked scared, shocked at her own repulsive behaviour.’ At this the mother began to sob and shake and Eduard put a hand on her shoulder to reassure the woman.

‘What happened next?’

‘Petunia grew agitated and went bright red in the face and we were worried that she would attack poor Jasmine. She kept saying she was fed up, that in the books she read- and in life- it was always the same.  She vowed to find the archetypal ‘beautiful maiden story’ and rewrite it so that plain girls and older sisters could have a fair chance in life, that youth and beauty would no longer be automatic predictors for finding love and happiness. Then she shoved her things in her bag and left. We didn’t try to stop her because we thought she would be back in her own time. We didn’t think she’d go through with it until we received her journal in the mail and all the other misfortunate events started to make sense.’

***

Tuesday, October 17th

The first days after I left were spent at Craegmoor Tavern, deciding exactly where to go. I had a little bit of money, and managed to win some coins from gullible strangers. No one I spoke to seemed to know anything about the origins of fairy tales, not least where the manuscripts were kept. But on the third day I met a travelling spice merchant who said that I should journey to the cradle of man, for surely the stories were as ancient as civilisation itself. This was good advice, and later on I versed him in a game of backgammon and won a purse full of exotic jewels. I was able to buy supplies, and this journal. Tomorrow I leave Craegmoor. I may be causing my family some anguish, although I do not pretend that they’ll miss me. All I know is that I don’t deserve to cough up a toad any time Jasmine perceives me doing something unladylike. I refuse to be a character in that story.

 

Sunday, December 12th

My travels have taken me along the Silk Road towards Egypt. The colours are so vibrant here: the golden egg yolk of saffron; the brightest blue crystal is ground to a paste and used to paint the city walls the colour of an Indian summer; bright blood red is extracted from the tiny gland of a beetle and used to dye cotton. I have seen Saris the colour of captured pink sunsets, dresses greener than apple juice and linen bedspreads the deep golden brown of ancient amber. My family would not recognise me now. I have stained my skin with a deep tannin tea so that I do not look like a foreigner. I have left the name Petunia behind. I’m no longer a garden weed and have taken the name Amal, which means hope. Hope is what I need, as I had resolved to travel next to Egypt.

Saturday, February 1st

I have acquired a unique travelling companion. Weary on the streets of Cairo I came upon a small shop selling rugs, pipes and lamps. While escaping the heat I noticed a small brass lamp, similar to ones I’d read about in the Arabian Nights stories. I tried to remember the magic words and came out with ‘abracadabra’. A voice inside the lamp snapped back, sounding cross and talking in Arabic, which I could not understand. Then I tried rubbing the lamp and out poured a genie in a puff of smoke; he bowed and introduced himself as Asmo. He insisted he was at my service and offered me three wishes. I knew it was a bad idea to accept, but I was so desperate to know the location of the stories I sought, that I made my first wish without considering the consequences. And that is how I set my journey course to cross the white hot sands of the Sahara Desert, destined for the ancient city of Timbuktu.

***

Jasmine remained agitated as Eduard turned his attention to the journal. He marvelled at the sketches, sighed at the poetry and found himself getting lost in the descriptions of foreign, exotic lands.

‘She’s a filthy hag. It’s all her fault.’

‘What’s all her fault?’

‘Everything is going wrong.  At first it was my singing voice. I woke up one day and found that I couldn’t hit the high notes.’ Jasmine wiped a hot tear from her eye and Eduard noticed that her voice did indeed sound a bit coarse. ‘Then a squirrel actually bit me when I tried to pick it up! Normally forest animals come and sit and snuggle in my lap.’ She showed him a nasty puncture wound on her hand which was beginning to fester. ‘But the worst part…the very worst part? I’ve had no marriage proposals in three months! The prince I finally decided I would marry sent me a short condolence letter, explaining that he would not be continuing his suit with me, and would instead be marrying the daughter of a local apple farmer. This woman is older than him and has sunspots on her face.’ Jasmine’s hands had closed into fists. ‘He said he respected her work ethic and the fact that she had solved the problem of an apple blight disease which had in turn saved the town’s annual harvest.’  She jabbed her index finger on the journal. ‘Every incriminating detail is in there. Just find her and bring her back so that she can be punished. I wish she was a toad. I wish she would disappear off the face of the earth forever.’

The woodcutter saw Eduard out the door and when they were alone he expressed a deep concern for Jasmine’s change in character. Rejection had made her bitter and he hoped that something could be done to bring back Petunia and resolve the conflict. Eduard tucked the journal inside his coat and offered assurances that he would do all things possible to find her. But when he got home he was not thinking of Petunia. He lit a candle and immersed himself in more of the wondrous adventures of Amal.

 

***

February 28th

Asmo has a sorry story himself. He says no-one has any respect for a fantasy creature first mentioned in the Qur’an, not least an old one with a thick moustache, hairy arms, puffy pants and curly slippers. He says that creatures of European origin are far more desirable. Only sprites, fairies, leprechauns or elves ever got to go on human adventures anymore.

 

May 12th

Travel across the Sahara is by night when the sand is hard and the camel drivers navigate by the stars. My lips are cracked and my skin is burnt and peeling in patches, but after a month we have finally arrived in Timbuktu. I cover my hair in a muslin cloth and have taken to wearing thick kohl mascara in the local style. After the corrosive sand of the desert destroyed my boots I almost used my second wish for a comfortable pair of sandals, but Asmo reminded me that it would be wiser to purchase a pair at a bazaar, and save the wishes for more important things. By day I marvel at the golden mango trees, the pale sandstone buildings and the nomads draped in white or blue burqas. I have taken to drinking coffee that is black and ultra-sweet. The library here is filled with ancient manuscripts, and everywhere there are gilt statues, a reminder of the riches of a place that once provided the whole world with gold…and stories.

 

May 13th

I used my second wish today. After weeks of covert searching we discovered the location of the vault, deep in the tunnels below the city, containing the scrolls of the seven archetypal stories. The cell was locked so I wished to vaporise so that I could enter through the keyhole. It was the most curious sensation, as if I had become a tendril of smoke from an incense stick. When I gained my form inside the room, I’d never felt so heavy with the pull of gravity.

***

Eduard felt a deep yearning which he convinced himself would only be fulfilled by professing his all-consuming love for Amal. This was more than just a piece of detective work. He felt that deep inside he was an archetypal player in one of the most ancient of true love stories; that somehow Amal had rewritten her own destiny to include him.

In the Sahara, when even the night could not fight off the exhaustion of day, he would reread the journal. Amal shifting to smoke and travelling through a keyhole. Amal blowing dust away and taking down, one by one, the seven scrolls that contained the seven archetypal stories until she found the one she sought. She did not alter the story where the debt must be paid or the story where man suffers from a fatal flaw. She left alone the story of the love triangle and the story of the hero that triumphs in the face of fear. When she found the fair maiden story, she set about making the necessary changes…

***

May 20th

I’m sending this journal home so you’ll know I’m alive and safe. I have a sense that my words are already taking effect, and I hope that Jasmine finds her strength and comes to enjoy her new freedoms. Masa Mala, daughter of the ailing King, successfully petitioned to become a ruler without a husband, and today Timbuktu has crowned its first female King. But Asmo is deeply worried as he still owes me one more wish. He begged me to rewrite the story that warns us to be careful what we wish for, but I told him that care and caution are virtues not to be tampered with. 

***

Eduard wandered most days through the street markets of Timbuktu. He lingered in the marble library, always with an eye for people coming and going. He haunted the university foyer and frequented cafes, hoping to catch sight of her.  More often he spent the hottest part of the day inside an ale house. It was on one such occasion that he saw…Asmo? He resembled the old genie from Amal’s sketches, and was reclining heavily against the wall of the tavern. Eduard touched his shoulder and held out the journal. Asmo rubbed his eyes awake. ‘Do you know the woman who owns this?’ Asmo exhaled a long sorrowful sigh.

‘Oooh! Sir, she is gone. Oooh! Gone. I had no choice but to grant her final wish.’ And then Asmo revealed the final chapter of the story.

***

Amal grew restless with guilt for her sister. She finally summoned the genie to her chamber, and despite his protests, she wasted no time making her final wish: for Jasmine to be granted the thing she desired most in the world. But as soon as the words were spoken Amal’s skin began to change in texture. It grew grey and knobbly and she fell to her knees which had become curved and rubbery. Her eyes bulged from blue to murky yellow, and her body shrank until she was fully transformed into a large toad. Asmo tried to think; reversing an animal transformation was not impossible. But there was one even crueller event. As the genie scooped up the frightened creature it simply vanished. Amal had disappeared off the face of the earth.

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