Flash Fiction – Haunted

The story that came out of this eye-catching photograph wasn’t quite what I expected, but I think it turned out better that way. It reminded me just how much I love writing flash fiction.

Photo via Visual hunt

As I unfold the silky blue cloth wrapping keeping them safe, the fragrance of the daisies drifts through the air; sweet as grass, clean as raindrops, haunting as the pages of an old book. Fresh enough that if I close my eyes, the image of a sun-kissed meadow, scattered with the confetti of wildflowers, forms in my mind and lulls me into a sense of peace.

Exactly as they’re meant to. It startles me, shaking off the drowsiness, and I bring the flowers closer to my face, inspecting them. I guess I didn’t really believe, even though I let myself be tempted into buying them. It seemed like a good story, to buy supposedly magical flowers from the witchy lady at the Renaissance Faire. She sold jewelry too, rings twisted to silver flowers and ravens and Celtic knots, everything as dramatic and beautiful as the pentacle at her throat. Her ears, glinting with gold earrings, tapered almost to a point, and as her papery voice whispered about dreams and escape, I believed her. Head spinning with overpriced mead and an edge of adrenaline, I’d laughed and agreed, lumping the flowers into the cost of the bronze ring now curled around my finger.

“They’ll bring peace and inner calm,” she’d said.

“Who doesn’t need that?” My voice rang, brash and hard, drawing too much attention. Her mouth smiled in response but her eyes stayed slated as mirrors.

I want it now. Tranquility, a reprieve from the curl of nervousness that pinches my stomach and dries my mouth. Even a placebo effect will be enough to give me a moment of peace, if I believe hard enough. I put the flower in my tea, as instructed. It shrivels in the hot water but tastes purer than chamomile.

My heartbeat slows, a steady drumbeat instead of the thrum of a hummingbird’s wings. Warmth steals through my veins, droops my eyelids. I sling my body against the couch cushions, half-listening to the sound of music drifting through the open window.

I wake with sourness and a needle-jab at my temples. My ears hum. Slowly, the nervousness creeps back, sharpened to an edge now that I’ve lost another day and success matters all the more now.

I work all day to make up for precious lost time, dragging my attention from one task to another with methodical resignation. My bones ache with weariness, thoughts drifting like obscuring mist over a mountain peak. At night, I drink a glass of wine, resolutely focusing on the rest of my to-do list, ignoring the flowers.

At bedtime, my resistance crumbles like chalk, and I lift the second flower to my mouth. Its white petals are velvet against my lips before I swallow it whole and let blissful ignorance and apathy wash over me. Dreams don’t exist; I float as nothing, forgetful and calm.

The after effects linger much longer this time, and on the fourth day, I stare at the last flower for ten minutes before gritting my teeth and lifting it into the flame of a lighter held over the sink. The heat stings my thumb, and as the bittersweet smoke curls into the air, I drag it into my lungs.

The shadowy peace twirls out of reach, nagging at the corners of my eyes, fidgeting its way through my fingers. Destroyed, it won’t work again now, and after moment of mourning, a sense of relief rinses over me. The anxiety comes back, but I embrace it because it feels like something. The shining moments need darkness to make them gleam like a pinprick of light.

 

The Pets of Queens

The lives of queens through history are often so overwhelmed by politics and court ritual that it can be difficult to sense their personalities as individuals. Finding the small details that provide a spark of illumination into a queen’s hobbies and penchants are thrilling, especially for a historical author. During my research for my forthcoming novel, The Wardrobe Mistress, I remember the surge of excitement I felt when I discovered that Marie Antoinette preferred purple and disliked orange, that she loved children to the extent that she’d often call out to them in a crowd, that she liked dogs and some of hers had been gifts from friends. These are all things that brought her to life for me, showed me why my protagonist, Giselle, who worked for the queen, would be sympathetic to her.

In her fondness for pets, Marie Antoinette was not alone. Many queens enjoyed the company of their pets, especially dogs, which many modern people can relate to as well. Historical figures weren’t always so different from us as we think. From dogs to parrots, here are some famous queens through history and their beloved pets.

From the 2006 film, Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette with Mops.

Marie Antoinette had a pug named Mops, whom she brought with her to France from Austria. Nervous to be leaving her home and going to a foreign court, she clung to Mops and was said to be extremely fond of him. Sadly, he had to be sent back to Austria with most of her other belongings, in order for her to start fresh as a new French dauphine at Versailles. Thankfully, she was later able to send for him, and princess and pug were reunited.

She also received a dog as a gift from Count Axel von Fersen, the courtier often believed to be her lover. While it’s difficult to find absolute proof of this, it’s undeniable that the two were quite close. Little is known now about this dog, but it’s was likely a Swedish dog, similar to Fersen’s own, which was called Odin. Marie Antoinette also had a red and white spaniel named Mignon, a gift from her dearest friend, the Princesse de Lamballe. The spaniel was called Thisbée originally, but Marie Antoinette’s affectionate nickname of Mignon eventually stuck. Mignon was left behind at the Tuileries after the chaos of the invasion of the Parisian palace during the revolution, but was later reunited with the queen at her imprisoned lodgings within the Tower.

Anne Boleyn was also fond of dogs. There are records of her greyhound, Urian, as well as a little lap dog called Purkoy. His name is thought to be derived from the French word ‘Pourquoi’, meaning ‘why’, so it’s easy to imagine that Purkoy must have been an inquisitive looking little canine. His exact breed isn’t known. Purkoy came to a tragic end, falling out of a high window. It’s said that all the courtiers were afraid to tell Anne, knowing how distraught she would be, and it fell to Henry VIII himself to break the bad news. Anne also had a songbird that was sent to her by Lady Lisle, wife of the Governor of Calais. She found great pleasure in listening to it sing.

Mary, Queen of Scots is another queen who could usually be found in the company of one of her beloved lap dogs. In fact, her Skye terrier, usually recorded as being called Geddon, was found huddled, frightened and blood-spattered, under her skirt after her execution by beheading. I don’t know what happened to poor Geddon after this, but I hope someone gave him a kind home. It’s nice to think that these three doomed queens – each of them executed – found some comfort in their last days through the company of their pets.

Catherine and Zemira

Fortunately, many other queens through history found joy in their animal companions, without the executions. Catherine de’ Medici is said to have possessed a long-tailed monkey from the Indies. Queen Isabella of Spain had a pair of Cuban Amazon parrots, brought back to her by Columbus. Catherine the Great of Russia was extremely attached to her little greyhound called Zemira. The dog slept in the queen’s room in a pink silk-lined cradle. She was also painted with her mistress, since one of Catherine’s favourite activities was walking with her little dog. Zemira’s likeness lives on in various sculptures as well, since the queen’s affection for her meant she became something of a muse for artists seeking the queen’s patronage.

In China, Empress Dowager Cixi apparently owned over a hundred Pekingese dogs and was so fond of them that she supervised their daily baths. Pekingese dogs were quite exclusive, and for a period of time in history, they could only be owned by members of the Chinese Imperial Palace. With their unique lion-like appearance, the little dogs were believed to bring luck and protection against evil spirits.

Imperial ladies holding pekingese dogs

In Egypt, gazelles were common pets through history. Queen Isiemkheb loved her pet gazelle so much that she couldn’t bear to be parted from it after death. Unfortunately, the gazelle’s name is unknown to us today, but it’s custom made sarcophagus still exists, carved with the image of the gazelle. The mummified gazelle was found with Isiemkheb in her tomb, both preserved in such a way and possessing amulets to ensure that they would someday be united again.

And of course, in more modern history, Queen Elizabeth II is famous for her pack of corgis, as well as for being an excellent rider, even venturing out on horseback at ninety years of age. That’s dedication to spending time with animals!

Plenty of writers have pets too, so if you enjoy linking up adorable or eccentric pets to famous faces, I’ve blogged about the pets of writers, too.

 


The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, publishes on August 15th.

Pre-order links:
Amazon | B&N | IndieBound | BAM | Macmillan

Add to your Goodreads shelf

Flash Fiction – Goodbye

For some reason, the word ‘goodbye’ popped into my head as soon as I saw this picture. And then a story about a mother and daughter grew from there.

Photo via Visualhunt.com

When I took that photo, Sierra was thinking about how to say goodbye. I understood that now. The oversized burgundy sunglasses shielded her eyes, but her lower lip drooped in the way that meant she cringed inwardly. Usually it meant I’d said something embarrassing – which seemed to happen often enough, in spite of my efforts to be a ‘cool Mom’.

Last week, when we’d taken advantage of the slanting golden light for a photo session, I thought she was merely pouting for the camera.

“We don’t need new photos already,” Sierra had complained, glancing up from her pink-cased iPhone. The silvery glitter on her nails gleamed as she scrolled. “My portfolio is fine. And Instagram is better anyway.”

“I know, but it can’t hurt to take a few more. You can put some on Instagram, too. It might be nice to post a few more before Nationals.”

She’d sighed, but that was nothing new, really. Teenagers sighed all the time. She flexed her foot en pointe and tossed her phone on the counter. Even that motion looked graceful. “Whatever. Let’s go now, then, because I have to do my barre exercises still and then I have math homework.”

“We’ll have plenty of time.” I tried to sound encouraging. “We can stop for Chinese takeout one the way home.” Even as I said it, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible, not with Nationals coming up.

Sierra rolled her eyes. “Yeah, right. I can’t eat that right now.”

“I’ll make grilled vegetables and some fish,” I said, talking too fast, trying to cover my mistake.

Without her, the emptiness of the townhouse crushed in around me, and the tick of the clock echoed, knocking on my spine until I could hardly bear it. I imagined Sierra at her dad’s house, curled on the couch in the basement. I’d seen it once, when I picked her up. It was grey and soft. Maybe she’d be perched on the edge, eating pizza and laughing with her friends. She’d told me that he was letting her have a sleepover to celebrate her moving in with him.

“Are you coming back?” I remember how much I’d hated the tremor in my voice when I asked.

She lifted her hand to chew her thumbnail, a habitual nervous habit, and then dropped it again. Her lashes covered her eyes. “I don’t know. Not for a while.”

Panic bubbled in my chest, threatening to shatter. “What about Nationals? Are we still going?”

Her face scrunched up and she looked at the ground, kicking her toes against the corner of the tile. “I don’t know. No.”

The pain in my leg stabbed, sharper than the steady ache I’d been left with after a car accident smashed my bones and my own ballet dreams. I hobbled to the living room, and stared blankly at the muted TV.

Yoga for Desk People

A couple of years ago, I started doing yoga. I didn’t have any real intention to start, but the opportunity came up and my friend was also going to the class so I figured I might as well go too. Between my office day-job and my evening and weekend writing time, I spend an awful lot of time sitting at a desk, so any chance to stretch and move needs to be taken.

I loved the class, and I’m still doing yoga a couple times a week now, two years on. I’ve even managed to reach a point where I can have a decent session on my own at home. (My previous attempts ended with my mind going blank on what poses to do after about five minutes). Over time, I’ve become stronger and more flexible – not that I’ll be doing any crazy pretzel moves, but I can reach poses that I couldn’t at first. I’m better at those long, slow breaths than I used to be.

But it’s the mental benefits of yoga that surprised me the most. I never thought I would be a meditative person. I’m always thinking of plot holes and making up dialogue in my head and wondering what to cook etc. I certainly haven’t perfected the ability to let my mind enter a blank, quiet state, but improvement comes with time there, too. I find that regular yoga practise helps me to stay calm and focused. It can also re-energize and help me to shift gears between the very different worlds of my office job and slipping my mind back into the historical setting of the novel I’m currently writing. As an added bonus, I’ve also noticed it’s easier not to stress out over little things, like traffic.

Since I clearly recommend yoga, I thought I’d share my three favourite gentle stretches here, which are particularly useful for if you’ve been sitting at a desk all day. I’m not a yoga instructor though, so I’ve kept it to fairly simple stretches. I don’t want anyone to get hurt! I included additional links for each for added explanation.

Photo via Visualhunt

Arms and Shoulders

Stretch your arms as if you’re a cactus. Elbows bent at ninety degrees, fingertips pointing toward the sky. Look upward, stretching your neck and taking a slight back bend if that feels good (only go as far as it feels like it’s helping, there’s no need to force yourself deeper). It’ll open up your chest by pressing your shoulder blades toward each other. It’s especially helpful if you’ve been hunched over a mouse or keyboard all day. Take a deep breath and feel how much more open your chest and lungs are. This link has some further description.

Next, bring your arms forward as if you’re hugging someone, wrapping your arms around an invisible person (keep hands about face height or a little lower), right hand stacked on top of left, and round your neck and shoulders forward as well. It’s a gentle stretch between your shoulder blades.

Repeat steps 1 and 2, switching with hand is on top during the ‘hug’ part. You could easily do this one at your desk, if you’re not shy about any co-workers possibly seeing you. (The next two are better to do at home).

Low back and legs

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.  Bending at the hips, move into a forward fold, trying to press your stomach to your thighs. It’s okay to bend your knees – in fact, it’s easier to start that way to deepen the fold. It’s a good stretch for your low back. Do whatever feels comfortable with your arms; rest fingertips on the ground, gently grasp the back of your ankles, or clasp your elbows and rock gently from side to side. Hold for a minute or two, as long as it feels comfortable. If desired, you can gradually straighten your legs to extend the stretch into your hamstrings as well.

This link has a photo and some further description, while this one shares some more information on the benefits.

Legs

Lie down on the floor (use a blanket or a towel if the floor is too hard and you don’t have a yoga mat) and scoot as close to the wall as possible. You’re going to be lifting your legs up, resting them against the wall. It’s easier to start sideways, so your legs are parallel to the wall, and then inch closer as you lift the legs into the air, letting them rest against the wall. Feet can be touching, side by side, or you can stretch them further apart if that feels better. Keep your feet flexed so your toes sort of point toward your shins. Rest here for a minute or two, however long feels good. This one is also very nice to do before bed. It’s very calming.

More description and benefits at this link.

Bonus – eyes

If, like me, you spend way too many hours per day staring at a computer screen, it’s good to stretch your eyes once in a while too. Gentleness is the key here though. Let your eyes rest, unfocused, for a minute before starting the stretch.

Sit straight and raise your gaze upward, sweeping to the right, down, and back up, so that you do a full circumference of looking all around without moving your head. Try to move your eyes smoothly. Do this a few times, then switch directions, so you go to the left first for the second set.

Next, stretch your arm out in front of you, thumb up. Stare at your thumb while you slowly bring your hand all the way to touch your nose, keeping your gaze focused. Do this about ten times. Switch hands partway through if your arm gets tired.

Lastly, make sure you rest your eyes for a minute, letting them gently drift closed or stay unfocused before going straight back to another screen.

Check out this link for more details as well.

Happy Stretching! And make sure to do some deep breaths as well. Try to count to three for a big inhale, and then slowly exhale for a count of five. Doing that for even a minute really helps ease stress and reset focus.

Photo via Visual Hunt

 

And stay tuned for a new Bad Decisions in History next week!

 

Flash Fiction – Whispers

Now that it’s finally spring, I wrote a winter story for some reason. Still, it’s a pretty picture and I loved the idea of hearing eerie whispers in this setting.

 

His legs ached as he plodded forward, snow churning around his shins. Every gasping lungful of air squeezed his chest, and the exhales frosted his glasses. He focused on the nearest crooked pine, determined to pass it, and the next, each a landmark of laborious progress. The effort frustrated him, though it’d been his idea to go outside. His weakness felt unavoidable, almost appropriate, because it matched the stagnant crush of his repetitive days.

He was breaking that pattern, though, so it made sense that it hurt. Breaking something meant jagged pieces, cracked foundations. Painful rearranging. The thought unfurled a burst of energy and he charged forward in a cloud of snow. This was a good workout, if nothing else. After everything his sister said about nature and healing – well, it made sense to her; she did meditative yoga, too. The idea sounded dumb to him. And yet, here he was, voluntarily freezing and sweating at the same time, stumbling around in the dark.

Reaching the top of a swelling hill, he lurched to a halt. The heavy stillness of the clearing helped ease his breath. A hissing sound skated through the air, and he whirled, heart leaping. Only the friendly silhouettes of the trees circled, nothing else. A flicker of movement lifted his gaze, and he saw the sky, painted red and green. Mesmerized, he watched the colours sway across the stars and realized with an awed pang that the noise poured from the sky. The auroras crackled and whistled. Goosebumps prickled his skin.

It was just the sky, and it wasn’t. It was vast and cold but vital. The moment burned, imprinted on his bones, echoing through the trek home and through every step tomorrow. Just like hiking past the trees, the small milestones could make him free.


Here’s a link to a video if you want to hear the eerie sound of the northern lights.

 

Flash Fiction – Letters

I felt drawn to this beautiful, evocative photograph as soon as I saw it – the letters could contain so many secrets! The story that resulted ended up a little darker than I expected, though.

Photo via Visual hunt

The effort of moving the massive oak desk leaves me winded, with a dew of sweat on my forehead. Even with its drawers emptied, it wasn’t easy to drag its bulk sideways. It’s easy to imagine that the ancient desk was here before the house, that the walls of this study were propped up around it. It’s at least as old as the house; the soaring bird silhouette of the vineyard’s logo, designed by my great-grandfather, is scratched onto one corner.

I turn my attention to the loose floor board, the reason I’d needed to move the desk aside. It creaks as I prod it with my finger, but seems simple enough to hammer back into place. Small maintenance for century-old house.  The board resists the claw of the hammer, until I use both hands to lift and straighten it. An entire foot-square section of floor lifts up instead, hinging like a jaw over a gaping mouth. In shock, I nearly drop the hammer.

The small wooden box fills up the hollow space under the hidden trap door. I carry it carefully to the desk, and my fingers fumble over the latch. The papery smell of old books ghosts through the air, carrying a whiff of dust and a tinge of almonds. It isn’t books inside, though. Not exactly. Gently, I spread the contents out on the desk. An old diary, photographs of the vineyard in its first years, back when the California wineries were all new, and a packet of letters bound with crumbling black thread.

Fascinated, I pour a glass of wine and sit down at that sprawling desk, first examining the photographs. The binding of the diary threatens to dissolve under the lightest touch, and I must turn the pages very slowly. The string fastening the letters snaps under the barest pressure of my fingertips, and the letters themselves turn out to be the most illuminating of all, once I manage to decipher the twirls of faded brown ink.

My neck aches, and the clock chimes an echo of hours passed. One sip of ruby wine remains in my glass, which seems fitting. I swirl the glass idly, watching the crimson droplets scatter in the golden lamplight. One last taste – if I share the contents of the hidden packet, it would be the last vintage I bottled, the last produced by the vineyard under my name. The details of these papers would transfer everything to the overlooked but true heirs of the vineyard’s legacy.

I drink that mouthful. Against my dry tongue, it tastes bitter as old family secrets.

Replacing the floorboard cubbyhole is easy. I hammer it all the way down, so it can’t be lifted again, its hollow space, now empty, hidden forever. My head throbs when I lug the desk back into place. As I shove the packet of sepia-toned papers into the fireplace, the old book smell sweetens to vanilla, mingling with smoke and the sour emergence of a chemical odour, probably from the photographs. That bittersweet perfume lingers in my nostrils even when the ashes break to dust under the fire poker.

Flash fiction – Magic

This flash fiction piece is pretty short, less than 400 words. This photo made me think of magic – how could it not?

Photo via Visual Hunt

Photo via Visual Hunt

The scrape of curtain hooks sliding open provides scant warning before a shard of sunlight pierces the room. And my head. Eyes squinching closed against the red-bloom of light burning along my eyelids, I burrow my face into the pillow and resist the tickle of a lurking sneeze.

“Mom.” Molly’s whisper is soft, more soothing than the brash sunlight.

I crack one eyelid open. Her lower lip is tucked between her teeth, gnawing worriedly. “Dad said to let you sleep, but I brought you something.” Her small fingers curl around a white saucer, balancing a cup. “It will make you feel better.”

“Thank you, sweetie.” Sleep would make me feel better, dark nothingness to temporarily erase my aching temples, the parchment feel of my feverish skin. Sleep let me drift to a place where my sinuses weren’t bruises tracing the shape of my cheeks. “I’ll drink it when I wake up.” I make a kissing sound for her, helplessly drifting back against the pillow.

“No, please drink it now. It’s not too hot. I checked.” She places the cup on the bedside table with a quiet chink of glass. “You have to drink it all.” The desperation of her tone reminds me we’d just finished reading Ella Enchanted at bedtimes, and the story involved a fairy who could make curing soups. Always imaginative, Molly had loved it.

“It’s special tea,” Molly insists. “It will make you better, but you have to believe.” She stares at me. “Do you?”

My elbows ache as I dig them into the mattress and heave myself upright. Thankfully, the cup appears absent of any mysterious potion-like additions. I can’t smell ginger, but its taste heats my tongue as I inhale the steam.  I have to say something to appease Molly. The tea is thoughtful, and there’s something wondrous in her childlike belief in magic.

“Yes.” I lean close to the cup. The sunlight reflects in the golden surface of the tea. “I believe.” I imagine the steam drifts like spell smoke, wafting like clouds across a dawn sky. The sun would pierce through them, washing away the heavy moon. A flock of birds scatters, soaring with freedom, the whole world open to them. In an ephemeral, fever-dizzy moment, I see it all. Molly watches me with wide eyes.