Category Archives: Fiction

“The Golden Key” – Fiction by Carlea Holl-Jensen

illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, circa 1895

For a hint of all the fantastic treasures you can find in our Spring 2018 issue (coming March 20), here’s Carlea Holl-Jensen‘s mysterious & alluring flash fiction “The Golden Key.”

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IT’S LATE WINTER WHEN HE FINDS THE BOX, winter right on the cusp of spring, that restless stretch when the woods are no longer dark by midday but the frost hasn’t given up its grip on the air.

Of course, it isn’t the box he sees first. That’s still buried under a foot or more of snow.

What he sees, instead, is a crop of new crocuses growing in amongst the trees. He isn’t looking for flowers, doesn’t much care for them. He isn’t sentimental; in fact, he’s about as unsentimental as they come. He once fought in a war and refuses to remember the last time he cried, but it was certainly not while remembering the death of an animal in a movie he watched often as a child. In short, he’s not the type to notice flowers, and he wouldn’t have noticed these flowers at all if the snow weren’t so deep. He’s surprised to see them, these flowers—after all, even late winter isn’t quite spring. The buds haven’t opened yet, and they look to him like the bulbous nipples of tiny baby bottles.

He crouches down to look at the flowers more closely and wonders how they aren’t frozen. He’s pretty cold himself, even though he has on an expensive jacket designed for extreme weather conditions. The flowers don’t seem to feel the cold at all.

Something must be warming them from below, he reasons. He’s extremely logical, this man. He appreciates marching orders and ranks and maps with little pins stuck in them. He keeps schedules, wears a watch set by a satellite, leaves no room for uncertainty or doubt. Faced with this improbable inflorescence, he thinks of hot springs and geothermal vents.

He brushes aside the snow that surrounds these little yellow nubs, and then brushes away some more. Not too deeply buried is a key, the kind that opens coin op lockers in bus stations and public swimming pools.

The flowers have grown up to mark the spot, he thinks, and his having had this thought surprises him even more than the flowers growing there. He feels queasy at the mere idea. He’s not, as I’ve said, a man over given to fancy.

More likely, he tells himself, this key fell from someone’s pocket as they walked along the trail. He feels better once he’s explained this to himself in plain terms.

But the man’s mind, now that it’s started rationalizing, has no intention of stopping. If there is a key, the man finds himself thinking, quite against his will, there must also be a lock.

Continue reading “The Golden Key” – Fiction by Carlea Holl-Jensen


“The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss” – Fiction by Abhishek Sengupta

Saraswati – Nandalal Bose, 1941

The grand finale of our Winter 2018 issue is Abhishek Sengupta‘s brilliantly Byzantine and Borgesian short story “The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss.”

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HAVING WORKED AS A LIBRARIAN in the Egyptian National Library and Archives (ENLA) for forty long years, visiting it for ten years as an ex-librarian subsequent to his retirement, and concentrating on reading each book housed there thrice, Uziah Greiss discovered that the 13013th word in each book is a number. Always. Without exception.

He also noted that although they appeared in different formats, each one of them was a different number (or a sign denoting a number, or terms we could map numerically). For example, in a book named A History of Martyrdom, the 13013th word is “gross”. It appears in the sentence ‘A gross misconduct on the part of the king announced the beginning of war.’ Numerically, the word “gross” stands for one dozen of dozens, or more simply, the number 144.

After years of studying, Greiss came to another startling conclusion: each number appearing as the 13013th word in a book was unique and appeared only once throughout all books ever written. Never repeated.

This synopsis attempts to uncover, as well as understand, the only (and yet, incomplete) text ever written by Uziah Greiss, which is as much of an enigma as it is a catalogue of his finding.

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Let it be known that this is my final attempt at publishing the short synopsis of The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss (that is not the real name of his book, but then, his manuscript had no name – real or otherwise, and it remained incomplete for someone killed him before he could complete it). All my earlier attempts at writing and publishing the synopsis have met with failure in some mysterious circumstances, but I promise to stay true to the history of writing this synopsis by recording my failures as well. So, let me start by quoting the circumstances leading to each of those failures.

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Attempt # 1: I completed the synopsis in my first attempt. A publisher in town showed interest in it. I had been traveling on a bus with my completed manuscript when I suddenly started feeling drowsy. Although not in the habit of falling asleep on a bus, that day I did. On waking up, I found my bag, which sat on my lap and contained the manuscript, had been stolen.

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Attempt # 2: I stumbled half-way through the synopsis when the news broadcast confirmed reports of war breaking out. My wife claimed the city we stayed in was not safe anymore, which happened to be true. So, we moved to a different city, one supposed to be safer. When I unpacked my belongings, however, I could no longer find my half-finished synopsis.

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Attempt # 3: A letter arrived when I was about to complete the synopsis. My wife opened it. A clear warning surfaced, attempting to prevent me from trying to publish my synopsis. It told grave consequences awaited my family and me if I tried. The sender’s name didn’t figure anywhere. I didn’t want to pay much heed to an anonymous warning, but my wife was reluctant. She said she was afraid for our son’s life. She tore up the pages on which I had been writing the synopsis.

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Attempt # 4: I started writing the synopsis in extreme secrecy this time. I didn’t mention it to anyone, not even my wife. One day, when my wife and son went to the market, I received a phone call. The voice on the other end claimed my wife and son had been in an accident and were admitted to the nearest hospital. By the time I reached the hospital, it was too late. Both were declared dead. When I returned home a broken man, I found someone had broken into my home. The synopsis I was working on was gone.

Continue reading “The Forbidden Book of Uziah Greiss” – Fiction by Abhishek Sengupta

“The Louse” Fiction by Ian Kappos

Portrait of a Philosopher – Lyubov Popova, 1915

A philosopher encounters a metaphysical parasite in “The Louse,” Ian Kappos‘ bitingly bizarre flash fiction from our Winter 2018 issue.

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He discovered it during an attempt to see into the future. He had been sitting on the edge of his mattress, looking into his scrying mirror, when something caught his eye that quite literally made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. In the light spilling through his window, it was unmistakable: tracing a wild path through his thinning hair, like a confused grain of brown rice, was a louse. A godforsaken louse.

In a burst of panic, the philosopher jumped up and looked around his studio apartment for something with which to deport the louse: a spear, a hammer, a solvent of some sort. A sealant or maybe helmet that he could affix to his head in order to suffocate the thing. But he found nothing. As luck would have it, he had traded most of his belongings at the pawn shop in exchange for the scrying mirror. He admonished himself for his lack of foresight. He leaned out the window, curled his fingers into a fist, and thrust the fist up at the sky.

He stared directly into the sun, as if trying to burn the memory of the louse from his retinas.

Wait, the philosopher thought. That’s it.

He grabbed the scrying mirror, poked his head again out the window, looked up at the sun with suspicion, then drew his head back inside and inspected the scrying mirror.

He would not have long.

Due to nonpayment, the electricity had been turned off, leaving the philosopher no choice but to make do with the resources at his disposal. But he would do it, he vowed, and fell quickly into work.

The philosopher reviewed what he knew about classical electrodynamics. He studied the scrying mirror, turning it over in his hand, examining it from all angles.

f = pE + J x B

He racked his brain. He racked his scalp. After several minutes of fervent racking, the philosopher concluded that if he used the Poynting vector as his basis for directional flow of energy, the surface area of the mirror (“B”) should concentrate and redirect a sufficient enough charge distribution (“p” being the density of the charge and “E” being the speed of light) for his purposes.

In other words: it should concentrate and redirect a sufficient enough charge distribution to blow the little bastard to smithereens.

He scrutinized his reflection in the mirror, sifted a hand through the sweaty tassel of hair on his head until finally, with a tiny yelp of victory, he located the louse, and, feeling his way over to the windowsill, lined it up in the crosshairs of the mirror.

Almost immediately he felt the handle of the mirror grow hot with the concentration of electrical energy transmitted from the sun. But just as he was beginning to feel triumphant, the heat of the handle rose to an uncomfortable level. When it got so hot that it started to burn his fingers, he bit his lip and blinked through his tears, determined to keep the louse in his sights.

The philosopher’s head erupted in fire. He ran screaming around his apartment, overturning everything in his path, running to the faucet and finding that the water had been turned off, too. He dove headlong into his mattress, driving his skull beneath a pillow, and rolled around there until the fire was out.

He rose from the blackened sheets, venturing to feel, hesitantly, that he had won.

When he turned around, there was the louse, standing over him. It was now at least twice his own size. The philosopher sank back into the mattress.

“Please don’t eat me,” said the philosopher.

The louse stared. Continue reading “The Louse” Fiction by Ian Kappos

“Betula nigra” – Fiction by Avee Chaudhuri

CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
An artist reminisces about a relationship with a problematically eccentric innkeeper in “Betula nigra,” Avee Chaudhuri‘s beautifully twisted short story from our Winter 2018 issue.

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BEFORE MY LIFE IN RADIO, I LIVED WITH THE WIDOW OF A PREEMINENT PSYCHIATRIST in Eastborough, Kansas. I slept in the carriage house where I also set up a small studio. Working mostly with acrylic, I painted about three and a half dozen versions of a Venetian noblewoman defecating into the Grand Canal after what must have been a hearty and fibrous meal. I would change her dresses and décolletage, the expressions on her face, the time of day, and the color of the dwarves in her retinue. After viewing each new iteration of La Contessa Cacare, my landlady would be kind enough to give me an injection of psychotropic drugs, as well as an exacting, vengeful handjob and a stoppered vial of champagne to be enjoyed in solitude on the roof.

We met at a farmers market in Wichita. I was working the aubergine stall. She’d just lost her husband. She noticed the splotches of paint on my shirt and the paraffin under my fingernails and when asked I told her, yes, I was a struggling artist, had no money and had not spoken to a single member of my family in five years. We locked eyes for an instant and then fell to making love under the stall, among rotting eggplants and fruit flies, just like they do in the movies. I followed her home like a stray capybara.

I lived with her for almost three years and did most of the domestic work. She was something of a gourmand, so I taught myself charcuterie and also kept a kitchen garden with living basil and Moroccan spearmint. At the time of her death, I was in the process of clearing out a root cellar.

She was an ample woman of about 50, with striking yellow irises, brown skin and a touch of gout. Sometimes she drank too much bourbon and could become violent, even once destroying the fragrant kitchen garden with a full set of Chinese throwing stars. On moonless nights she set the carriage house on fire. Either she would douse the English Laurel in gasoline, or aim a flare gun at the open window of the steeple where I kept turpentine and linseed oil. I started to sleep in flame-resistant aramid pajamas. She bought me them for Christmas.

When old friends came by for money I’d borrowed, she would brandish her husband’s ancient glass syringe, caked in her blood, and threaten to inject air into their veins.

Her husband did leave her with plenty of money, and there was no need to convert her large, drafty Victorian house into a bed and breakfast.  But two years into our friendship, she began to pursue the idea, and one day I came home to find that the house was filled with strangers admiring the framed pictures of Union soldiers on the mantle as well as the handsome decanters full of amber and green liquids. My studio had been converted into a honeymoon suite, and my Shitting Countesses, ranging from euphoric to doleful, had been unsystematically moved to the attic.

She wasn’t an ideal innkeeper. She undercooked the eggs and sausage. She asked awkward questions at the breakfast table: don’t you think age of consent laws are ruining this country? When the house was booked up, she liked to dress in a negligee, cover her body in baby powder, and pretend to be the ghost of a woman who was mutilated by Comanches. She shouted ‘godless prairie nigger’ on the front steps as the neighbors were leaving for work or to take their children to school. I thought she had finally gone insane without her husband to care for her. He treated her with a few injections a week and some lazy psychoanalysis. That and a handful of corrective rapes. The reality is he was a cruel man and it is a perfectly acceptable and palatable theory that she murdered him in his sleep, by setting fire to his flannel pajamas.

But she wasn’t going mad. The strange dialogue at the breakfast table, the food poisoning, the cultivated halitosis, playing a murdered homesteader, they were all part of a grander design. In each bedroom there was a guestbook on the nightstand. She’d taped the same note onto every single one, urging her guests to give honest feedback since she was just starting out in the business and could use their insights. Many of them left entries that are savage and heartfelt and faintly matricidal. I considered tearing these pages out to spare her feelings, but then I remembered all the times I had dislocated my shoulder, after leaping out of the carriage house in flames. Though as it turned out, had I intervened she would have likely castrated me. Those guestbooks were her prized possessions. She was after a kind of truth.

Continue reading “Betula nigra” – Fiction by Avee Chaudhuri

“Polis” – Fiction by Gary W. Hartley

City – Olga Rozanova, 1914

“Polis” is Gary W. Hartley‘s droll yet haunting flash fiction from our Winter 2018 issue.

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THIS IS A CITY OF THE LOST. They all dry washed up here, quicker than you’d imagine. Quicker than you can say the word cliché. Quicker than you could utter ascertain, dichotomy or paradigm. Quicker than you can say Ken Dodd’s Dad’s dog’s eaten Russell Brand’s dog and now Ken Dodd’s Dad’s dog’s dead. The lost. The lost have been known to try decisiveness from time to time. It wasn’t anything resembling a city before they rocked up, and they did rock up, sure enough. The lost, they washed up and rocked up and just arrived. It was akin to a shed before, some well-tended grass around the perimeter, space for expansion and hope of something better. The lost hope of something better. There are lots of them, the lost, and they swing from one day to the next knowing they’re lost and starting to come to terms with it. The knowing lost. Lost and swung. Rejecting those terms and coming around to the thought that they might well be liberated, actually. They are very mobile. The lost and mobile. The mobile lost. Moving around seeking to un-lose themselves, blaming the latest geographic circumstance while feeling completely static as they quest without mission from spot to spot. Cities of the lost are transient places where the population can always be replenished, losses of the lost are less. The transient static lost. New blood, and lots of it. The fresh blood of the lost. Old blood, unremembered. The forgotten blood of the lost. There were lovers – lost lovers – who had other lovers but none of them had much belief in love any more, they prefer buildings and hiding in them. There is changeable uniform in three-year cycles. The lost are not very good at finding each other and though this is a city they all say they’re alone and watch series after series occasionally uttering a laugh – the laughing lost – or letting a tear drop softly, tasting for salt content.  They see themselves in minor fictional drama characters, newsreaders and reflections in electronics store windows. The lost electronic generation. Vaporise vaporising vaping vapid poison poison poison is coming this way. All the stats and pundits agree. The lost pundits. They will live their lost lives as normal right up until then. Very few see their lives as normal even though they are as pie crust as anything when viewed against anyone else in this hall of mirrors. The normal lost looking at their reflections in the faces of the found, when they can be found, which is rarely. The urge to stampede, lost losing themselves. Normality or lack of it is rendered irrelevant when stampedes happen. In disaster they will in a way be found but will not be present in the moment long enough to appreciate it. This togetherness thing can be found in all sorts, brilliant to absolutely awful. The awful and the brilliant lost shoulder to shoulder, cheek by jowl. This story is going to keep focusing on the awful from now on. The reportage of the deaths and gore will be kept to a necessary minimum. They will say it was a mistake, all a bad mistake and there will be an enquiry to make sure it never happens again. The enquiring lost. Enquiries never say anything and this one will be no different. No-one will care too much because cities are in a ranking system that everyone knows by instinct but is not written down anywhere. The rank lost. What’s gone is gone, the last biscuit in the tin you were warned about as a child.  It won’t have been appreciated quite enough when it was there and will be mourned only by a niche crowd. Niche crowds are always less niche than they think. The city of the lost. Every city may well be a city of the lost yet no-one’s checked the stats and everyone’s stockpiling weapons and saying it’s purely defensive, so they don’t have time anyway. It may sound like a cliché but this is the end.

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Continue reading “Polis” – Fiction by Gary W. Hartley

“The Headless Mule” – Fiction by H. Pueyo

From our Winter 2018 issue, “The Headless Mule” is H. Pueyo‘s blazingly surreal flash fiction based on Brazilian folklore.

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TOUCH, YES, BUT JUST A LITTLE—she said, her, the mule, the one who would stop having a head. Sitting on the church’s pew, she waited, blouse unbuttoned and skirt lifted, looking at the altar. Many things crossed her mind as he helped himself: his hands, hot like maize cake, freshly baked. The wooden cross, gilded, the thrushes outside, singing. Not a word to anybody, yes?—he said, and she nodded, blushing. How glorious it was, to be loved, again, and touched, by someone, anyone, even if it was him, even by a priest.

The widow covered herself, and kissed the tip of his nose. Will we see each other again?—she asked. Tomorrow, or the other day, or on next Sunday’s Mass?

Sure thing—he said, covering his crotch with his cassock. She leaned for another kiss, but didn’t receive any.

Outside, it was night, well, almost. It was that hour where the clouds fog the furious lightness of the day, and orange and pink turn slowly into blue, purple and black. I will miss you—she said, finger twirling around a loose curl. The priest disappeared in the shadows of the closed church.

She hid under the veil, as dark as her clothing, and hurried to leave as well.

Some children still played in the park, and their nursery rhymes could be heard between the birds: last one there is the priest’s wife, the priest’s wife, the priest’s wife… She hugged herself, feeling strange. Her forehead felt numb, her hands and feet throbbed, her nape hurt. The wind erased the day’s hotness, and a chill went down her spine.

There was still a long way to go to reach her home, but she could only think of him—the priest’s wife, the priest’s wife, the priest’s wife—his hands, his smell, his ways. If they had been lucky, they would have been born far away, and this secret wouldn’t have existed in the first place.

The widow looked up, walking beneath the trees, following the path of the dirt road. Slowly, she realized something was happening to her: her weak knees hit the floor, her elbows contorted, turning, breaking. Her skirt furled around her legs, and she screamed, thinking again of the priest: if someone saw her, would he help her? Or would he turn his back on her, and pray, washing his own hands? Continue reading “The Headless Mule” – Fiction by H. Pueyo

“X-Ray” – Fiction by Rosie Adams

Eye – M.C. Escher, 1946

From our Winter 2018 issue, “X-Ray” is Rosie Adams’ unnerving yet captivating flash fiction, which we recently nominated for inclusion in the 2018 Best Small Fictions Anthology.

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WHEN THE STEREO BEGAN TO BUZZ AND DISTORT I knew it was time and my heart leapt up to take its place in my mouth his voice was garbled and faraway as if speaking into the phone through a glass his profile picture was a close up of his EYE the picture had an effect added to it the name of the effect might have been X-Ray it turned light colours dark and vice versa giving the picture an unnerving quality inverted colours everything a variation of green I saw the EYE when I closed my own it followed me into my dreams I had the feeling of my organs clasped in an icy grip I stopped breathing out I passed the time waiting for Messages and Signs the relationship seemed to be taking place on another planet he had to be the one to contact me if I tried to initiate he would not respond there were rules that were never said out loud some of them I might have imagined whether imagined or not I devoted all my energy to following them I needed to keep the EYE on me without it I knew I would become hopelessly depressed
finally we met in real life I knew him by the way he crept towards me his lips did not move when he spoke he immediately placed his hands on my breasts and put his mouth over mine I was sure I could hear something inside him I imagined that it was his heart the details of him I can remember his clothes made a great deal of noise squeaking leather I could hear his steel toed boots walking a street away he wore a lot of glinting silver attracting attention from local birds his flesh was cool to the touch turning blue in some places today I search for him on the internet I find him commenting on message boards for a television programme that has been off the air for ten years I feel the EYE urging me to do the things I did in my youth the undoing of my shirt and jeans the slow pulling of a sock from the end of my foot the teeth of his zip raking along my cheek on the mattress on his floor he said I was sexy enough to be a glamour model now the skin of my breasts is growing slack a cluster of spidery veins has appeared on my left calf I would be ashamed for him to see me still I yearn to be watched I find myself scanning the blank faces of people in the vicinity customers I’m serving passersby I realise I am taking stock of their EYES as I do this I recite a minor prayer waiting for my breath to catch then hold and hold.

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Continue reading “X-Ray” – Fiction by Rosie Adams