It’s time for some short stories from A Drift of Quills! I’m excited. Are you?
Our picture prompt today is this beautiful illustration by Laura Diehl. Isn’t it magical? I’m certain there is a great story for every single beautiful fish, and we are going to have a go at three of them. Let’s see what happens!
Fiction Shots #11
You might notice that this is the second Friday instead of our usual first, and we’ve been struggling with these stories all week. Or two, I guess. Wow, I’m just going to say “It’s 2020!” I have NO idea what we’ll say next year, but “2020” has been an awesome blanket-excuse for everything from forgetting the simplest things to writing to Getting Stuff Done. (Does “writing” qualify as “stuff”? It seems more special than mere stuff…) I hope you love the picture as much as we do, and I hope you love our stories, too!
Flash #1: Golden Girl
By Robin Lythgoe
The third plank in from the window was the one that squeaked, and Mashika avoided it as she climbed carefully through the window, shrouded in summer’s warm shadows. Getting caught sneaking back into the house after hours was not a good idea. Light came from downstairs in the kitchen. Someone was still up. She held her breath, and after a moment she heard voices speaking. Mama and Papa were still awake.
“There’s no choice,” Papa was saying. “We’ll start tomorrow night.”
“He can’t want all of them…” Mama murmured.
“Even if I refuse, the others won’t.”
“If he takes them all, where will he get his precious golden fish in the future?” Mama’s voice sounded funny, like someone was squeezing her throat.
Papa grumbled so low it was hard to make out his words. “Same place he gets his Menka birds.” The Menka could absorb illness from a person. It was said the colorful creatures then flew to the sun and burned the sickness away. The Menka had been hunted to extinction.
A chair scraped across the floor. “What do you want me to do, Tasa? Save the fish or save us?”
Mashika found herself clutching her own throat. The golden fish only grew in one place in the whole, wide world: the lake near their village. Beautiful, mystical, and magical, they’d been treasured for generations. Some people believed they could answer questions. Others believed they hosted the souls of the dead.
Papa said talking fish would make their village very rich, and if his grandfather’s soul was anywhere in that lake, he had a thing or two to say to him. But Mashika loved the fish. She’d never seen anything so wonderfully beautiful in all her thirteen years.
The emperor demanded a tithe of the fish, just as he demanded a tithe of everything else, though the village elders didn’t allow the collection of golden fish. Except for the emperor. Why did he suddenly need all of them? Maybe he wanted them for his private gardens. Or maybe he just didn’t want anyone else to have them. That seemed a very emperor-like thing to do. How would the fish survive the long journey from here to the capital?
As if he’d heard her question, Papa said, “The rich put whatever they like on their tables. They can only impress each other with rare things. Precious things.”
Mama had no answer for that, and the sound of Papa’s boots shuffling toward the stairs spurred Mashika to slip back out the window and press herself out of sight against the wall. Her heart beat painfully hard, and she pushed her fist against her chest to ease the hurt. She felt sick to her stomach.
Mind racing, Mashika waited until Papa passed the window. When she didn’t hear any movement inside, she crept across the porch roof and dropped silently to the ground. Papa and his friends couldn’t disobey the Emperor, but they couldn’t catch the fish if they weren’t there.
Out on the water, Mashika’s little boat rocked gently in the lake’s swell. The light at the prow cast an orange glow over the water, and beneath the surface the golden fish drifted lazily, shining like little suns. Utterly dejected, Mashika slumped against the slender mast. She’d tried the bait her father and uncles used to catch the common dawn fish, which were a sparkly pink and grew everywhere. She’d tried a net, but that only left her hands raw and throbbing. She’d even tried begging.
The golden fish, with their lovely flowing fins and tails, ignored her.
The sun would come up soon, and the golden fish would be nearly impossible to see. Or would they? Mashika squinted at the horizon, then turned her gaze upward. Storm clouds raced across the sky. Only the memory of last night’s twinkling stars and bright silver moon remained.
For all the good it did…
Already, the wind tugged at the sail. She couldn’t stay much longer.
With a sigh, Mashika cast her glance around the little boat. A simple thing built of rushes, it didn’t even boast a seat under which to hide things. She’d dropped her pack atop the oiled canvas bundle of “necessaries.” Biting her lip, she dragged it free and searched the contents: a slender silk rope, candles for the lantern, flint and striker, water jug, wax-wrapped sesame crackers, and—What was this? Her heart did a little skip as her fingers closed around a little drawstring bag.
Useku fa Sumiki, the Night of Fishes, had been over a moon ago. Traditionally, the village honored and celebrated the trust of their stewardship over the golden fish every summer. The priests prepared a special feast for the fish and passed it out to the celebrants in little scarlet bags. Her little brother had fallen asleep before he could spread the delicate flakes over the water. Mashika remembered being tempted to empty his bag along with her own, but Uncle had given her such a look of disapproval that she’d tucked the extra bag away.
Tears crept down her face as she peered into the dark recess of the little bag. What use was it to feed the fish now? All she could give them was a treat before they ended their lives on the emperor’s plates of gold. She scooped out a little and sprinkled it across the water, but she could hardly see for her tears. “Little fishes, little fishes,” she whispered. Those weren’t the words the priests sang. The priest’s words would do them no good now.
So she made up her own song.
Little fishes come away,
There is danger if you stay.
Hear me sing, hear me pray,
Come and live another day.
Golden light pooled beside the boat.
Mashika caught her breath, and the light immediately faded. So she sang again and scattered a little more of the precious food. She sang of the emperor’s plans to take them from this place and her sorrow for their loss, for they would never come back.
Behind her, the sail thumped and billowed, suddenly full. Hoping against hope, Mashika continued to sing as she set the sail. The little boat jumped, then settled into a path across the wide lake.
The golden fish followed.
Mashika sang until her throat ached. Until dawn lit the horizon beneath the scudding black clouds. Until she and the precious golden fish had reached the far shore where the mountain streams fed the lake. By then the wind had become fierce and the waves powerful. With a snap! and a crack! the boat broke against rocks that rose like teeth. Mashika tumbled into the wild water, down… down…
Darkness wrapped around her.
Shocking cold stole her breath.
She struggled to fight free, but which way to the surface?
One little light shone ahead. Then two. A dozen. A thousand. Golden fish thronged around her, pushing, pushing.
She would have laughed if she could breathe. Was she dead, and this was how they would claim her soul?
And then she was up, thrashing and gasping for air. The fish stayed with her, holding her up until she’d caught her breath and some shred of calm. The water was nearly still, and the wind had dropped completely. Overhead, the sky was—not sky at all, she realized, but the ceiling of a cave.
“Where are we?” she whispered.
Safe… safe… safe…
Astonishment flickered through her. The fish… talked?
“Which way to the shore?”
Buoyed by light as warm as a lantern’s glow, she glided through the water until her feet scraped against rock and sand. Slowly, she stood and pushed wet hair from her face.
The light came with her.
She held her hands out, marveling at the golden glow that chased across her skin. And—and—the clothes she’d worn were gone, replaced by a gleaming robe with wide, flowing sleeves.
Like the fishes’ flowing, glowing fins…
“Am I dead?”
No longer. You saved us; we have saved you.
A sense of wonder coursed through her. “You really are magic,” she breathed.
Yes, and so are you. So are you, our beautiful Golden Girl…
He Needed Her
Author of the Oathtaker Series
Crimson waxy leaves glistened in the waning sunlight, chattering amongst themselves as a cool breeze moved through. In the distance, the cat-like cries of black-tailed gulls sounded out.
Kaida flitted down the garden path toward the sea. On reaching the water’s edge, she came to a sudden halt. Before her and a short distance from shore, tiptoeing from one semi-submerged rock to another, an egret meandered. On sight of her, he spread his snowy white wings, then took to flight, joining the mewing gulls in their happy airborne ballet. Kaida grinned at the bird’s gangly legs that seemingly dragged behind, but then quickly turned serious once more. She had to get back to KanaRyu as quickly as possible. He needed her.
Spotting her boat hidden in the nearby rushes …
Author of The Unseen Chronicles
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Want to read more short-short fiction we’ve written? This link will take you there.
This is such a fun way to write a story. I hope you enjoyed reading our flash as much as we enjoyed writing it! This has become a regular feature now, and if you’ve got a title or a picture to inspire us, we’d love to see it!