Round two of the NYC midnight short story contest: Spring 2022 Placed: honorary mention
Prompts: Genre, comedy; Character, a stick-in-the-mud; Topic, perfection
The fur trim is modish but a little ratty.
“Torsten makes a good robe, but his frugality is a little wearing. I mean, used pelts? And is this rodent?! I guess it sends a message about thriftiness, but a shaman should have a certain presence.”
Sif is muttering to herself in the dim light seeping into her shelter. Morning dew beads on the hides and trickles steadily onto the packed earth floor. One benefit of her status, she thinks, is the acceptance of self-dialogue. Murmuring inaudibly is pretty much a prerequisite for a shaman. ‘Talking to the divine,’ they call it.
“There’s precious little else to recommend it,” she frowns, jabbing at the mass of once-flaxen hair with a bone comb bequeathed by her mother. “Certainly not the threads.”
Responsibility is heavy on the shoulders of the tribe shaman as the most important ritual of the year approaches; securing the return of the sun at Yule. The rest of the year can be spent pleasantly enough with auguries, purifications and the odd choreographed sacrificial feast, but winter brings the big question: Will an absent or imprecise ritual cause Sol to keep dragging the sun right on by into the cosmos with a sly backward glance at the rapidly chilling civilisation?
She turns to exit her goahti and groans as the gown drags through the newly formed puddle. “Oh bqllr!” she snaps, “now I have an actual drowned rat on my hemline.”
This year has thrown up a particularly gnarly obstacle in the form of Corey, a village elder with archaic ideals that run counter to Sif’s reforms. His place in the line-up of supporting celebrants was secured in the traditional way, reading portents from bird placement on the lake at sunrise. One loon west of the sand spit had swung it. Luckily Torsten, Sif’s dressmaker, confidant and alleged troll-botherer has been chosen by the same method. Good to have someone on her end of the seesaw. She has yet to meet the two youth attendants, but experience has taught her that too much familiarity with them can be a problem. Does the fox drink grog with the chickens?
Corey’s participation has already thrown up problems, first with Sif’s revision of the sacred syllables and then with the selection of the sacrificial attendants. There is a certain equivocation in their title as only one will see the new dawn.
“They should both be female, and maids,” he had insisted. “Makes the choosing easier; we can’t afford to lose a male.”
Sif had sighed and explained patiently that times were changing.
“Maids, Corey? Come now, those are Midgard guidelines. Every sex has a role to play before the gods.” Ignoring his hostile stare, she accepted one family’s kind donation of mixed gender siblings.
Sif is relieved to be settling into her role at last, after crippling imposter syndrome marred her early ceremonies. Rethinking her wardrobe and ditching the ill-advised woad at Torsten’s suggestion has done wonders for her self-confidence and she feels a certain gravitas creeping in as surely as her grey hairs. Her mother was a neopagan reformer but struggled with the practicalities of bringing innovation to the role.
“Move on or die,” she growled, a touch melodramatically, as she handed over the ceremonial ash wand on her death bed.
Sif shivers and collects herself.
“Come on girl are you a vole or a Valkyrie?” she mutters to herself and strides out into the morning mist for the pre-ritual briefing. Corey is first in attendance, fidgeting and clutching a bag of black feathers to his belly.
“Please tell me that is not the ceremonial raven?” Sif glowers.
“You may judge, but the larders have been empty of late, we all know that,” Corey fluffs evasively, his pinched face reddening.
“Brilliant. You ate the offering; is that what you’re telling me? Does something about sacrifice confuse you Corey?”
“I kept the skin and feathers; thought a decent shaman could fathom something from it. Long tradition of inanimate sacrifice there is.”
Torsten approaches silently as Sif shakes her head. A big, tousled pudding of a man, he is respected in the community but warily so; there is an ambiguity about him that throws folk off-guard. Exactly the quality that Sif finds so refreshing.
“Need some help here?” he asks gently? “I have a fine chicken that could stand in for this sorry carrion.”
Sif exhales. She is open to change, but sacrificial fowl may be a step too far. Corey starts to disagree, still fumbling with the disembowelled corvid, and Sif senses the imminence of one of his lectures.
“Fine. Fetch the chicken. Now where are the other sacrifices?” She turns just as the two siblings, Njal and Vitta approach nervously, eyes round as cornered fawns. They are pallid, timid creatures with the rufescent eyes of forest dwellers, more familiar with famine than feast.
“Ah! Our lovely assistants have arrived! And how delightful they look in your creations Torsten!” Sif ushers the children forward and fiddles with the girl’s crimson wool robe. “Delightful, and so practical.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Torsten smiles and leans towards the young girl. “Have you heard the joke about the bear hunter’s brown pants?” he whispers into her ear.
“No,” she ventures shyly, “can you tell it?”
“Torsten!” Sif booms, “not helpful!!”
Sniggering, Torsten pets the girl’s sallow hair.
“May Freya guide your choice tonight,” he winks at Sif, “they are both adorable.”
Corey has stood patiently through the exchange but clearly has more to say. “I hope the ceremony will adhere to the old ways,” he snaps, “nothing beats the paths well-travelled.”
“And nothing leads the wolf more clearly to the lamb,” Sif counters.
“Your last elixir was very poor,” he goes on, ignoring her. “I would recommend the recipe my father used as a more powerful aid to reaching divine ecstasy. A strong brew of lingonberry, birch bark and honey with a sanguine finish.”
“And end up face-down and senseless in the peat.” Sif sighs.
“If that is what it takes, yes,” Corey insists, his lips pinching, “the mythos decrees that a state of advanced inebriation is essential for a successful crossing to the spirit realm.”
Sif rolls her eyes. “Why does everything have to be about getting wasted? Fine, fine, you do the elixir if you feel so strongly about it. But no henbane or cannabis seeds for minors. We need this to come off consummately.”
Having sidled off to find his chicken, Torsten reappears to show it off. “A fine specimen I’m sure you will agree,” he grins, dancing the plump fowl on his knee.
“It is a pretty hen, but not a raven.” Sif sighs. “Children; what part does the raven play in the Yule ceremony?”
“The sacrifice, ma’am,” Njal suggests.
“Flying through the flames before the gods claim it’s soul,” adds Vitta.
“Good, very good,” nods Sif. “Now Corey, how are we to keep the ritual’s finesse with this flight-challenged pot roast? Do we toss it on the fire or watch it run around the pyre clucking it’s stupid head off?”
“I can hang it from a stick?,” Njal volunteers, “make like it’s flying?”
“Hideous, but probably the best we can do. Fine; chicken on a stick. Let’s gloss over the climax for now.”
“That’s the most exciting part!” Vitta pouts, her rapt face falling.
“Don’t worry, my angel, you’ll be centre stage tonight,” Sif beams, “run along now, it’s nearly showtime!”
As the sun melts from view behind the forest, the scene is set. Sif’s year of honing, bartering and rehearsing comes to its realisation among the dancing embers and looming basalt spires. A towering pyre of seasoned pine spits and crackles atmospherically in the chill night air as the community approaches in festive spirit and their finest furs. A wolf howls long and low in the glimmer-dim and a silence falls over the crowd as Sif steps into the circle of firelight, looking every inch the High Priestess. Flanking her are Corey and Torsten. He has worked a small miracle with the raven, whose feathers now adorn their shoulders in iridescent shoals.
Sif’s first fistful of henbane hits the embers like a bomb and throws up a putrid green smoke that quickly envelops the crowd. Covey has distributed his elixir heavy-handedly and some men are onto their third horn. The mood is buoyant, and as the two youngsters solemnly lead in the chicken tied to a birch branch, a wave of ribald laughter erupts. To restore some solemnity Sif raises her voice, intoning the sacred syllables commandingly over and over the noise of the crowd.
“Here we go,” she breathes, “let’s give these peasants something to gawp at.” She is relieved to have skipped the grog, confiding “I don’t mix my toxins” to Torsten as he passed the horn.
The planned culmination of the ceremony comes as the tethered raven succumbs to the flames and the hallucinating shaman slits the throat of one juvenile attendant with the ceremonial dagger. The blood, flames and bitter smoke combine in perfect theatrical crescendo, filling the throng with awe and reverence. Sif’s current view of two children attempting to swing a chicken through the air on a pole is somewhat less exalting, and she is briefly concerned by the sudden hush that has fallen over the congregation, but she is in her moment and starting to fly.
Abruptly Njal falters by the embers and crashes forward, relinquishing the hen to his sister just as it catches fire and starts shrieking ungodly but impressive avian arias. Vitta drops the pole in horror and sinks weeping into her skirts; her brother’s meanness combined with natural indifference means that she is the only other sober person on the mountain.
Slowly the chicken’s lament and the girl’s bawling bring Sif into her senses enough to glimpse the carnage that surrounds her. Bodies cover the clearing around the pyre like birches laid waste by the winter winds. Corey’s elixir has wiped out the entire tribe.
“You dauti bacraut what have you done?!” she screams into the night.
As if in answer, a series of stentorian booms echo down the mountainside and bounce off the valley walls, shaking Sif in her robe. “Thunder?” she winces, “or the laughter of the gods?”
It is a long trek up the mountainside to the Eagle Rock with the traumatised girl, but Sif and Vitta relish the warmth that climbing brings them. The cold feels oddly persistent and time seems to have stagnated since they left the ceremonial ground. From the rock there is a clear view across the silver sea to where the sun has returned every day since before the memories of the old ones. They huddle together in their cloaks and fix their eyes on the chalk line of the horizon, illuminated by the waning moon’s glow.
“What will we do if the sun doesn’t rise?” Vitta ventures as last, “I feel like it should be day already.”
“Hush child, I can spin it. Call it a new republic or independence from the circle of death. A neopagan rebirth.”
“But won’t it be cold and full of monsters?”
Sif puts her arm around the girl. “We have fire, sweet thing, and women’s wit.”
“All those people though, just wiped out like lemmings.” Vitta shudders.
“You can’t make houmous without squashing a chickpea darling.”
“Is that a type of bird?”
“No, just something I saw in the flames.”
Vitta’s eyes widen. “What else did you see? What will come to pass?”
“Well, I saw you and I tucking into a chicken dinner!”
“Oh, thank Frigg, maybe we can make a new future! What was it like?”
Sif flinches. “It was pretty dark.”
This story was written for the first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2022
Prompts: 'A morning routine' and 'a bellhop' Genre: Political satire
Position: First place
My name is Ximena. Only one name is allowed in our new life at the Hotel, to simplify and standardise. The induction is well under way but I am finding it hard to focus under the brittle glitter of the lights set in the high cerulean ceiling. It is world’s away from my familiar lifestyle and surroundings in the village.
“My family are labourers, Ma’am,” I said at interview, and noted the tiny fracture in my inquisitor’s smile.
“I see why they sent you to us,” she responded. “You’re not the build for shovelling.”
I didn’t tell her what I am; they told me not to. My parents were outraged when I expressed my desire to write. Dashed my hopes of letting my thoughts become words; the words, poems.
I noticed a verse on the way up from the basement entrance, after they lined us up to crop our hair and brand our hands.
“Dominant hand,” the great brute barked, and I held out my left. My writing hand.
I see the framed stanza again this time and pause so absorb the words:
Embrace the morning!
Each fresh day provides us with
A new beginning.
The office of Labour Resources is familiar from that first visit when I was signed over. We all earn a wage, so technically not slaves, but freedom is a receding horizon.
A woman enters and smoothly seats herself opposite me. Her badge bears the Hotel insignia and the name Claudia in gold on grey. She is an immaculate creation with perfectly painted lips and immobile hair. Tiny white knees tucked under the table. Her voice is soft and coercive so that I am forced to lean in slightly, breathing her manufactured fragrance. I find myself liking her by default, however, as one would a fawn or leveret.
“We start with the Credo every morning and return to it each spare moment,” she begins. Her smile has a forced quality which leaves me wondering whether fear or pity is appropriate.
“You should already know the first line of the Credo as your brand is there to remind you.”
My hand is smarting and I glance down to the angry red ‘Y’ on my thumb mound.
“Yes! Yes is the answer, no matter the question,” she beams. The empty eyes of a fanatic or an imbecile. “Now read the rest of the Credo to me.”
I stutter, but I make it through the bullet points on the embossed card.
• Yes is the answer, no matter the question
• Opt for the challenge
• Understand the parameters
• Check yourself and alter
• Asking is power
• Negativity has no place
• Heed your customer
• Obey to rise
• People are your business
• Embrace the morning! Remake yourself
This first morning will be spent shadowing a worker named Gerard to familiarise myself with the drill of the forenoon shift. I can tell that he is experienced by his palpable confidence. His posture is erect, and he carries his equine nose tipped up in a permanent sneer; a prominent Adam’s apple bobs disconcertingly over his immaculate white collar.
The routine is simple. A mild electric shock jolts each worker awake at their allotted shift time and a similar portable gadget alerts the waiters and bellhops to the whims of the guests and managers. The device makes my hip cramp and I have a growing thirst but pausing or hydrating do not seem to be an option. The Hotel Echelon is organised around a sky-high foyer with rooms and outlets named meteorologically. The workers rarely stray above the Cumulus floor as from there to the rarefied atmosphere of the Sky Bar is the dominion of Upper Management. The King Bee occupies the Cirrus Suite, above Nimbus and Fallstreak levels. The Alto C bar and the Pedestal Court lounge and grill are directly below, with the Stratus housing the staff facilities below ground.
Every half hour or so Gerard halts abruptly to deliver a short sermon.
“Some things you should know from the start,” he begins. “We belong to Hotel Echelon and here our choices are simple: obey and there is a chance that you will rise and be rewarded. Defy and you will fall. Those who sink are not seen again.”
He tips his face down to me for emphasis and I see spite in his eyes. Rounding a corner, the concierge desk rises gargantuan before me, sculpted from the same shade of marble as the floor and manned by a behemoth who I am told is Auberon. An imposing man, but fleshy, with a light beading of sweat and the soft hands of a desk worker. He flashes me a sideways look containing not an iota of compassion.
A flurry of activity startles me and I pivot in time to see an entourage sweep across the acre of floorspace. Unmistakable from the introductory literature, I recognise the King Bee.
Executive Director of the Hotel Echelon, the King Bee has a name which we are not encouraged to use, Gerard whispers, lest we sully it with our base voices. The master is a gleaming creature reeking of money and power, his face shining as if polished with beeswax. Golden cloth encases him and glints of metal hint at tasteful and expensive accessories. Following behind him like a wake are the Circle; those who have ascended to the upper tier and whose entire day revolves around agreeing with the King Bee.
“Your master and your model,” Gerard asserts behind me.
As the contingent sweep past, my attention is drawn to a bellhop standing beside the concierge desk; one hand resting on a ledge and the other pressed to the sacrum. A thick, felted uniform of red and gold brocade makes the wearer seem less human and more mechanical, a Nutcracker toy adrift from Christmas. The only hints that the bellhop is female are a fine, hairless face and alabaster hands. I am gazing without thinking when her eyes abruptly meet mine and jolt me to my senses. An unexpected humour and a hint of irony shine back at me.
Gerard is exchanging words with Auberon, and I learn with relief that I am temporarily released from his custody and will descend to the staff quarters with the bellhop for a meal. Another identically dressed worker steps into place as she beckons me to follow.
“I am Katrin,” she says with a tiny nod. Our eyes meet again momentarily, and I think of onyx. We manoeuvre to a space at one of the long tables once we have collected our trays of food, alongside a slew of other workers. She places her hat on the table after carefully checking for spills, revealing a close crop of thick hair which is a glorious yellow with a pronounced cow’s lick at the front. I realise that I am staring and look down at my tray. Brown liquid with lumps.
“Talk to me softly while smiling,” Katrin murmurs, “Eat loudly.” We are watched closely from the room’s perimeter by supervisors.
“I’m one of the ones they hate,” she continues, nodding slightly at the watchers. “Too smart to shovel shit but not in possession of the required discipline to rise.”
I am gaping, my food untouched, but at a slight inflexion from Katrin I pick up my spoon.
“I spotted you right away you know,” she continues. “That’s what they hate most about us; we can find one another and we can organise.”
“But how…” I begin, only to be cut off with a warning glance.
“They’ll never seat us together again. Even this much conversation will have been noted. Meet me at the Room Service hoist between shifts when you can.”
I nod and mirror Katrin’s motions as she clears her plate to a slop bucket, stacks and exits. I concentrate on my feet, but a spark has ignited, and I can barely keep a skip from my step.
Our meetings at the hoist turn out to be brief and infrequent, but I watch the rota and endeavour to intersect when I can.
“Are you still tied to Gerard?” She asks one morning. “He’s a zealot you know; most of them are.”
I nod blankly. Gerard scares the wits out of me.
“How long has he been here?”
“Who knows?” Katrin shrugs; “Months, years, it’s hard to tell. That’s one of their clever tricks; we never really know anyone, so we remain islands.”
“Do we stand a chance then?” I venture, “Is there any reason to hope?”
“The Credo,” she winks. “There’s a hidden message there if you have the wits to spot it.”
I long to hear more but already she is walking away from me as a skein of supervisors pass close by, their attention sweeping the corridor.
Aside from my meetings with Katrin, sleep is my only sanctuary, or the pretence of it. I squirrel away a stub of pencil and a couple of sticky notes and write blindly under the blankets, terrified lest my scratchings attract attention.
A week or so after our last rendezvous at the hoist, a blanket falls across my copy of the Credo as I tidy my scant possessions for the night, obscuring all but the first letters of the bullet points.
Y O U C A N H O P E
Freezing instinctively, my pulse quickens as I scan the room for possible observation. Either someone in the high clouds is with us, or they are even more cunning and dangerous than I had feared. Is this genuine contact or a trap for the unwary? Minutes pass before my breathing slows enough to complete my task calmly and climb into bed.
Safe in the dark I let my hand take dictation from my racing mind, the stump of pencil scratching across the scrap of paper. It is only a chance, but if I can use my poems to communicate, I might find some allies.
I pass most of the night awake with a frustrating parade of scenarios playing out before my eyes. I desperately need to speak to Katrin, but of late our schedules rarely permit more than a glancing exchange and I dare not seek her out at the front desk with no reason. Helplessly I scour the rota and spend the morning hours searching the corridors with my eyes, praying for a glimpse of a red felt hat.
It is late afternoon before I manage to volunteer for an errand that takes me to Auberon the concierge, and with rising alarm I see a different bellhop in place by the grand desk. The week’s rota is committed to memory, and I am a hundred per cent sure that this is Katrin’s shift.
“Do you have a note for me?” Auberon turns suddenly and fixes me with a look I cannot quite decipher. I stammer a negative and begin to explain the purpose of my visit.
“You need to be careful of notes; notes have more power than you know,” he cuts me off with an arched eyebrow. I can feel him relishing my discomfort.
“Your little friend wasn’t so careful with a note and now I don’t have the pleasure of her company. No-one does.”
I step back as if bitten, just as the King Bee and his entourage sweep across the foyer in battle formation. I almost forget to snap to attention, but muscle memory saves me. It cannot however save me from the tears that are clouding my view of the gleaming face as it turns in my direction.
I have no idea if I am the subject of his attention but sweat runs down my spine as I hold my blurred gaze on a point across the hall. The sound of a klaxon from somewhere outside breaks the spell and the Bee turns and glides towards Pedestal Court, trailing his arc of sycophants.
Feigning illness is a risky strategy but I need time to think, and I am so ashen that a supervisor nods my release. Alone in the dormitory I am quickly aware of how bone tired I am. The aches in my lower back and behind my eyes are overwhelming and my vision is marred by sparkles that remain when I close my eyes. Face pressed into the pillow I try to make sense of the day’s events, but my body is spent. A deep sleep takes me and even the disturbance of the back shift turning in fails to rouse me.
It must be around 3am when the fire alarm sounds, and I jolt awake with everyone else in the dormitory. Trying to get into my clothes is like wading through toffee, but my mind is racing. Opportunities for action are rare but I sense that this is one of them. I begin to ask the questions that I had not yet dared contemplate.
What if one dark night a fire alarms sounds through the corridors when even the sentries sleep, and raises the staff as one from their beds? If in the resulting melee a girl takes advantage of the watchers’ inattention to slip a note into her sleeve? If the note could be palmed onto the polished glass of the motivational quote in the second lowest corridor, along from the back of house store, would it go unseen?
Who then could tell the next morning how and why the worker bees find themselves reading a set of tiny lines in scratchy pencil on a square of paper?
Even the wingless
Can take to the sky, if they
Do not fear the wind.
The servants will not rise today as one, leap from their chains and take up the swords of rebellion. The armies of the proletariat are not on the march yet, but one girl has sketched the outline of a phalanx.