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Mrs. Darwin Has Visitors

The man who smelt of electricity was shown into the drawing room while the maid looked for Mrs Darwin.

Emma Darwin was doing the household accounts but was glad to stop. The man’s card read:

Andrew.J.Salt

Creation Museum

Petersburg, KY

She bustled into the drawing room and offered her hand, Americans, she knew, being less formal than the English.

“Mr Salt. My husband is out at the moment.”

Charles was on the sandwalk, which he paced around for several hours each day, thinking. He said walking helped clarify his ideas. Like butter, Emma had remarked.

It seemed Mr Salt had completed a difficult journey today and was impatient. He was in possession of a powerful new idea that must be brought to Mr Darwin’s notice.

She offered her visitor a seat.

Mrs Darwin was a believer, Mr Salt understood, an Episcopalian?

“Church of England,” corrected Emma.

Mr Salt was on his feet again, the powerful new idea bursting out of him. Intelligent Design. Mr Darwin must not publish his infamous book again.

Over the years, Emma had become a gatekeeper to the stream of callers at Down House. Sometimes these were gentlemen from the Royal Society, fellow scientists or explorers. Sometimes they were not gentlemen at all. Naturally, selection of who would usefully disturb her husband had fallen to her.

“Perhaps you would like tea while you wait.”

Salutary experiences with servants had taught her to be firm.

He declined tea. Also cake or biscuits. Likewise sherry. He had no polite conversation and finally Emma excused herself to see to Cook, but could not settle.

Americans drank coffee. She returned. “Mr Salt…”

The drawing room was empty.

Once more she martyred herself with the accounts book, wondering if Annie should be sent to inform her father, conscious that this itself would constitute the interruption she sought to avoid. While Emma prevaricated, the maid announced a second visitor.

“Mrs Darwin, this is an honour,” exclaimed a plump American. Her gaze took in his shirt, which displayed an advertisement for a Harvard University. He too bore the faintest whiff of ozone.

“Your husband is justly famous, but your own contribution to The Origin is neglected I think.”

“The origin of.. ”

“Exactly. I’m here to encourage your husband. To remove any doubts about the problems he identified. His great work must be published this time.”

Emma often told Charles that knowing little instils more confidence than great knowledge.

“I wonder do you know Mr Salt, a fellow countryman of yours?”

“Salt? Here? But I thought…”

“He also had advice for my husband.”

“So much for the Truce!” With a hurried apology the American rose and left. Charles returned at four-thirty, detouring through the kitchen to wash his hands after visiting his pigeons.

As the tea brewed, Emma related her interesting afternoon, while Charles absently smoothed his thinning hair across his head. A few more years and not even that subterfuge would suffice, the poor lamb.

“Your book, Charles…”

“I wish they would make up their minds. I have delayed for twenty years.”

There was a commotion outside, and raised voices. From the window they watched the two Americans grappling on the gravelled drive.

“They seem to feel very strongly about it,” observed Emma.

The visitors panted past the window, the pursuer brandishing a young shrub.

“Prunus insititia,” said Charles, regretfully. “My favorite damson plum.”

“Survival of the fittest, my dear.”

Charles raised his forefinger, a caution that he was about to be droll. “The fleetest.”

“The fattest.”

“Unkind.”

Emma was struck once more by the strangeness of the future. She wondered what year they were from.

“Your tea is growing cold.”


David Barber

David Barber lives anonymously in the UK. He used to be a scientist, though he is retired now and writing stories. He is a puzzle to his friends.


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Straying from the Path

It was a wolf, rather than an ailing grandmother, that tempted Red into the woods. All day his cries echoed, small, plaintive sounding things that filled the forest. By the time she found him, night had fallen and the blood on the snow looked black.

By moonlight, she pried his paw from the rusted jaws of the trap. He ran from her. And why wouldn’t he? It was her kind that set the trap to begin with. The wolf limped through the underbrush, tail between his legs. Later, if you asked her at what point she fell in love, she would’ve said that night. At the time, all she knew was how his injured gait made her heart lurch.

That night, Red spied his yellow eyes from well beyond the woodpile at the edge of the forest. The next evening, she left a meat pie on the lowest stack of wood. By morning, the tin had been licked clean.

And so went the winter. As the days grew colder and her supplies dwindled, she cut back on her own portion of meat. She could go without, but the wolf was still healing. Now when she walked in the forest, she never feared brigands or the overly-friendly woodcutters. When men called on her, they found the howl of a single male wolf so unnerving, they left their teacups half full, crumb cake uneaten.

When at last the snow melted, and the sun heated the earth, Red took to bathing in the stream behind the house. No one dared disturb her. Every night, she set out a meat pie. Every morning, she collected the empty tin.

Except for the morning, she didn’t. Flies buzzed around the remains, chewed and pilfered by tiny mouths and claws. She threw on her cape and ventured into the forest–alone.

The trail was easy enough to follow. Drops of blood, tufts of gray fur, the farther into the forest she walked, the slower her steps. What was done was done. All she could do was delay her own knowledge  of it, spend a few more minutes in a world where, every time she closed her eyes, all she saw was blooded fur and severed paws–far too many to count.

That night, for the first time in months, she did not bake a meat pie.

The scratching came when the coals in the fireplace were mere embers. There, at the door, sat her wolf, bloodied but no weaker for his fight. He cocked his head as if to say: Where’s my meat pie?

She buried her face in his fur, arms tight around his neck, and cried until the dirt in his fur became streams of mud.

When the townsfolk came, bearing axes and ropes, she threw open the door for them.

Why no, she hadn’t seen any wolves at all lately. In fact, she’d stopped her treks through the forest for fear of them. Instead, she now cared for her grandmother here, in her very own cottage.

The men tiptoed from the room, not wishing to wake the old lady. The women rubbed their chins, hoping old age would not bring such a crop of whiskers.

After that, suitors stopped visiting. Although Red always sent them on their way with a meat pie, they found her grandmother’s beady eyes unsettling.

People forgot about Red, her grandmother, who while always ailing, never departed this world for the next. But on moonlit nights, townsfolk stumbling from the tavern swore they saw a streak of silver gray and a flutter of red in the woods beyond the town square, laughter and howls echoing in the night air.


Charity Tahmaseb

Charity Tahmaseb has slung corn on the cob for Green Giant and jumped out of airplanes (but not at the same time). She’s worn both Girl Scout and Army green. These days, she writes fiction and works as a technical writer.

Her short speculative fiction has appeared in UFO Publishing’s Unidentified Funny Objects and Coffee anthologies, Kazka Press, with forthcoming stories in Cast of Wonders and Sucker Literary Magazine.


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A Song, Against the Metronome

Nafti bent double outside the door to his hut, coughing to catch his breath as Ilanaya labored inside. When word had reached him at the textile factory that his child’s time had come, he had left the midwife’s boy awkwardly stuttering among the scouring kiers and raced through the surviving underbrush. The parched rainforest had begun its evening song, the sleepy chirps a buzzing counterpoint to the thudding cadence of Nafti’s workboots.

Now he glared around his darkening village, hating the silence. Births were always accompanied by celebration, songs, dance. . . but not this one. For this springtime arrival, silence in the village for a child that should have been born to the summer.

The runner had said that the baby might survive for a few minutes, if the gods were kind. The season had been too dry; the drought had robbed the mother’s strength and a daughter could not thrive in an arid womb.

A few minutes.

He kicked his bare foot at the dusty clay of the ground, trying to convince himself that the tightness in his throat was from anger. Someone switched on a battery-powered radio nearby, and switched it back off immediately among hushed, scolding voices.

Silence again.

Then the curtains of the hut parted, and Nafti followed the midwife inside. The baby had arrived, though there had been no cries.

Ilanaya lay on the mats in the middle of the floor, spent and breathing hard. Nafti stroked her wet hair away from her forehead, and she turned her face to his hand. The dampness wasn’t only from sweat. Salty drops slid between his fingers to be sucked deep into the swept hardpack floor.

Next to Ilanaya lay a tiny bundle.

“Hold her,” Ilanaya said. “I can’t. . . .”

“Rest, mother.” Nafti said. “You did well.”

Ilanaya closed her eyes, and her breaths came regular and deep. Nafti unwrapped the bundle, and clenched his fists.

He had expected some deformed thing, some monster. He had wanted to see a twisted, unidentifiable creature among the folds of cloth, one that he could return to the gods without even bothering to teach it their Glorified Names.

But this was his daughter. She was. Spindly as a bird’s claw, she lay limp and still in the blanket. He saw that her eyelids were sealed together. They would never open.

He felt a bitter surge of love, and placed his hand on her chest. It covered her whole torso; underneath his palm he felt the weak thud of her heart. Slow. Far too slow for a newborn baby.

He found himself counting the beats. How many would there be? He could count them all. He pulled his mind away as if he had been burned.

He knelt beside his sleeping wife, suddenly desperate to lift his daughter away from the thirsty earth. Most of the weight of her was from the blanket.

A few minutes. If the gods were kind.

How could he be a father in only a few minutes?

“Nafti?” he asked, an unplanned prayer to his namesake among the gods. But he did not know what to ask the god of songs; what guidance could He give?

How fitting, how cruel it was that his daughter’s life would shine for only the length of a song.

A song.

Unbidden, the Children’s Melody sang into his mind. The first song taught to a child of the village, the listing of the Glorified Names. The cheerful one that always made Ilanaya laugh when they passed the open-air school. It began with the children bellowing out to the gods they had been named for, each trying to outdo the others. The clamor shook the jungle and Ilanaya said it could open the doors of heaven itself.

“Abeyeh,” Nafti began, and choked on the name they had chosen long ago. Kindness and mercy, the gentle goddess of summer rain. He realized he had only mouthed the word, that no sound had come out. The tiny heart thudded in his arms, though Abeyeh did not stir. He swallowed, clenching his eyes shut against tears.

“Abeyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh!” the name tore from his throat, drawn out to its longest so the gods would know on whose behalf he called. The name was a plea; it was an accusation.

Ilanaya’s eyes opened at his voice, and he laid a hand on her forehead.

“Abeyeh,” he sang. “Paresha. Kitayen, Fald, Tipantise.” His daughter’s heart beat like the metronome that had plagued him during his brief course of study at the university ten miles away. Each phrase of music had been a prayer to his namesake, but none so holy as this song, in these moments. He found himself singing out one name for each tiny, slow thud. No, not fast enough. Abeyeh might run out of heartbeats before he finished. He sped up. “Nipas, Ilanaya, Beyshe.”

Ilanaya took in a breath and joined him, weak though she was. “Hena. Weyat.”

Nafti lay down next to Ilanaya on the mat, Abeyeh cuddled between them. The song was upbeat and joyful, and it rang through the village as their neighbors came out of their huts to help them break the silence of the night. A celebration of the fleeting life in their arms.

Abeyeh’s heart slowed, and they held her closer, singing as fast as their mouths could form the Names. They couldn’t help but laugh when they stumbled over the syllables, and they wiped away each other’s tears before the thirsty ground could take them.

As the tiny thuds came further and further apart, Nafti knew he was a true father to this brief spark of life. A song in place of tears, fierce love instead of silent despair.

And laughter. Abeyeh had heard the sound of laughter.

As they sang the last of the Glorified Names, the tiny heart gave its final beat.

Outside the hut, the first drops of rain whispered the Children’s Melody into the arid earth.


D. T. Friedman

D. T. Friedman’s work has been published in venues such as Shimmer Magazine and the Dark Faith Anthology, as well as a previous appearance in Flash Fiction Online. In her other life, she is a doctor of Internal Medicine with a focus on urban underserved populations, and is about to take a fellowship position in Palliative Medicine. She also occasionally provides medical scenario advice to be used in fictional contexts; she has consulted with over two dozen authors independently and through the Science and Entertainment Exchange, and recently assisted with an episode of the TV show, Castle. She is currently doing research on sickle cell disease, writing a novel, and taking some classes towards an MBA degree. She lives with a neurotic calico named Spoon Avocado, which is her brother’s fault. She is a member of the Codex writers’ group, and is the newest member of the Altered Fluid writers’ group.  Sometimes she juggles fire.


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If you enjoy Flash Fiction Online, consider subscribing or purchasing a downloadable copy. Your donations go a long way to paying our authors the professional rates they deserve. For only $0.99/issue that’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. Or subscribe for $9.99/year.

 

Birds Not of a Feather

This week I saw a robin in my yard. That means something in the western United States. It means spring is definitely coming despite all the doubt that harsh January and February snows brought with them.

Soon to follow that robin were woodpeckers and magpies and seagulls and others, a new and welcome cacophony of sound and color and motion in my back yard when only a week before it had been nothing but the raucous calls of very monochromatic ravens.

Our selections this month are something like those birds–poly-chromatic. Not much alike at all, different habits, different diets, different plumage, different places on the avian food chain, but they all appear as March approaches. So to our stories for this month.

From Danielle Friedman, a returning Flash Fiction Online alum, we offer “A Song, Against the Metronome.” Heartbreaking. There is nothing else to say.

From Charity Tahmaseb, a new take on that classic fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood, titled “Straying From the Path.”

And finally, from David Barber, a time-bending take on the evolution debate, “Mrs. Darwin Has Visitors.”

Enjoy!

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