April 30, 2017

Diamonds and Toads, Table of Contents


Here are the eight enchanting works that make the "Diamonds and Toads Issue" of Enchanted Conversation. I really enjoyed these works because all of them explore the emotions and difficulties that result from the fairy "gifts" the two sisters find bestowed upon them.

I hope you've noticed the artwork Contributing Editor Amanda Bergloff created for this issue. One of Amanda's many talents is creating digital art. So, what began with her creating one or two pieces for this issue ended in her creating all of them. I love the results, and hope that you do too.

Enjoy!

Table of Contents:
Carina Bissett

Aliza Faber

Penny Jo McAllister

The Diamond Princess
Cara McKee

Gerri Leen

Priya Sridhar

E.J. Hagadorn

Lorraine Schein

Diamonds and Toads, Aliza Faber


I gave an old woman two dollars,
Meant for my morning coffee,
And then handed her my coat,
For spring is coming,
But she looked so cold,
Standing in her rags on the corner of the street.

She looked at me and whispered;
“You have a good heart,
May God bless you.”
We both smiled,
And I went on my way.

In the evening after work,
It was cold,
So I bought a coat,
at a second-hand store.
When she saw it,
My aging mother cried;
“We aren’t made of money!”
Later, I discovered,
Five hundred dollar bills,
Stashed in the pocket,
Of my new old coat.

The next day I got a promotion,
It came with a raise,
And my mother was delighted.
In the coming weeks,
I found;
Two hundred dollars on the streets,
A winning lottery ticket forgotten on a bus seat,
And a diamond earing,
Strewn on the floor,
By a bench where I sat.

Before a month had gone by,
A distant relative passed away,
Leaving us a house,
Along with a small fortune,
And we gladly moved,
As fast as we could,
From the two-bedroom apartment,
We had called our home,
And lived like kings.

Late for work,
I pushed passed an old woman,
Knocking over her cup of coins,
And hurried along,
Barely noticing,
The familiar shape of her coat,
Or hearing the words,
That chased me down the street;
“Damn you.”

I lost my job,
By the end of the week,
And when I came home,
I found the big house,
Overridden with pests,
Roaches and rats and toads.

My wallet fell,
As I sat on the bus,
Those who found it,
Emptied my account,
And when I finally went,
To exchange the diamond earring,
I was told it was worth,
Nothing more,
Than shining plastic.


Aliza loves reading, writing and anything to do with fairy tales. She hopes one day she will have enough time to continue introducing less well known fairy tales on her blog taleaday.blogspot.com.

Art by Amanda Bergloff.

Madame Chlorisse and Associates, Penny Jo McAllister


Once upon a time there was an ambitious young enchantress named Daisy Bigelow who was just finishing her internship at the enchantment firm Madame Chlorisse and Associates. Daisy had just finished her final task as an intern and hoped to become a junior associate with the firm.

Confident that she had handled the case perfectly, she looked forward to her performance review with Madame Chlorisse and regarded the interview as a formality. The case had involved two young women, sisters. One had been very sweet and generous to Daisy when she appeared at the drinking well disguised as an old beggar woman who could offer her nothing in return for a drink of water. To reward the girl’s kindness, she caused diamonds and pearls to appear whenever she spoke, ensuring her a life of prosperity. Her sister had failed the same test, refusing her a drink even though it would have cost her nothing. So she caused toads and vipers to appear whenever she spoke.

Confident of her success, she was confused by the icy expression on Madame Chlorisse’s face as she handed her next week’s newspaper.

Daisy studied the headlines and read out loud. “Local girl mysteriously speaks diamonds, will marry prince next week.” Daisy beamed. “I’m so happy for her!  Why do you look so sad, Madame?”

“Some princesses find a palace to be a prison and their prince a jailor. Read on.”

“Woman found dead in wood surrounded by toads. Served her right! Why are you looking at me like that?”
   
“Remember last week’s proverb?”
   
“An act of grace can turn a beast into a beauty, but sudden riches can corrupt an angel.” Daisy’s eyes began to water.
   
They were both silent, and Daisy began to weep.
   
Chlorisse took the clock from the mantle, opened the glass, and turned the hands back several times. Then said, “I believe in you, child. I’ve turned back the days. Return to the well, and we’ll see how things turn out.”
   
Daisy waited at the well. She took the form of a pleasant-faced middle-aged woman. Eventually, a young woman approached carrying her water jug.
   
“Please miss could you draw me out some water? I’ve lost my pitcher.”
   
“Of course, ma’am.”
   
Daisy drank and thanked the girl, saying she wished she had something to give her in return.
   
“It’s all right ma’am. I’m just happy I could help.”
   
Daisy returned every day to the well and got to know the girl. She found out that her name was Ellarose, that she had a crush on the baker’s son, and that she loved to garden. Sometimes Daisy would bring flowers or seeds to her. Ellarose, in turn, would bring Daisy books, and they’d talk about their favorite authors. One day Ellarose told Daisy that she was the best friend she’d ever had and how she blessed that day she’d asked her for a drink.
   
Then one day Daisy found Ellarose weeping at the well and asked her what was wrong. It was the first time Ellarose had ever spoken of her family. She told of how her father had died, leaving just her and her mother and her sister Fanchelle. How they abused her and called her names and made her do all of the work and never allowed her to go out except to the well.
   
“I can’t take it anymore. I’m running away. But I can’t bear to leave  you, Daisy.”
   
“Come stay with me. You can live in my cottage just across the wood. I think my garden would love you. I have such a black thumb.”
   
So Ellarose and Daisy left together that very day.  They passed through the woods and came to Daisy’s cottage.  She saw so many beautiful plants and flowers she’d never seen before, and knew that Daisy underestimated her gardening skills.
   
“Perhaps you can find a way to keep the slugs away.”
   
Ellarose loved working in the garden. And even though she worked just as hard as she had at home, sometimes from sunup until late at night, she couldn’t have been happier.

But Daisy had been right about the slugs. They were impossible to get rid of, and they ate almost everything. They were unlike any other slugs she’d ever known. They were the size of her hand, moved almost as fast as she walked, and learned to recognize her traps very quickly, so Ellarose used almost all of her free time devising new ways to trap them and kill them.
   
Daisy still went to the well because Ellarose was afraid her family would see her and make her go home. One day Daisy was at the well, and a woman approached who could only be Ellarose’s sister.
   
“I see you are tired from the walk here. Let me draw some water for you.”
   
Fanchelle grunted a thank you, took some water, and turned home. Every day Daisy would draw water for Fanchelle getting only a grunted thanks in return. And after a few days Fanchelle began acting entitled to having Daisy draw water for her.
   
“I can’t see that there will ever be any beauty in that one. Maybe I should just curse her and be done with it.”
   
But being afraid to disappoint Madame Chlorisse again, she continued to draw water for the ungrateful Fanchelle.
   
One day Daisy waited until well after sunset, and Fanchelle hadn’t arrived. Thinking she’d finally seen the last of the ingrate, she decided to leave. But then she saw Fanchelle walking hurriedly towards the well looking more unpleasant than usual. When she got there she ordered Daisy to draw water for her and to be quick about it.
   
Daisy had had enough. “Vipers and toads! Get it yourself.” she spat. And she threw the pitcher at her and walked away.
   
“How dare you!” Fanchelle croaked as a toad jumped from her mouth. “Get back here and draw my water!” A viper emerged from her mouth, and she ran off into the woods in fright.
   
Daisy thought no more about Fanchelle as she and Ellarose started up a produce business that brought prosperity and health to all of the surrounding villages. Sometimes their yields were smaller because of the slugs, but they always had enough. Sometimes the slugs seemed to outsmart them, but Ellarose always found a way to control them.
   
One market day Daisy developed a bad cold, and Ellarose had to go town with her produce. She was no longer afraid of her family, so she set off with her goods. Halfway through the woods, she spotted a woman lying on the ground surrounded by toads. She got out of the wagon and went over to her. She recognized her sister at once. She thought she was dead at first, but a flicker of her eyelids told her otherwise.
   
All of the memories of how she’d been treated flooded her mind, and she turned back to continue her mission. Then, a pang of mercy made her turn back to her sister. She helped her to her feet, put her into the wagon and drove her back to the cottage where she slept for several days.
   
Ellarose attended to her sister, and when she awoke she fed her the best soups and vegetables to help her grow strong. Soon, Fanchelle had regained all of her strength; unfortunately her temperament was the same as Ellarose had remembered, and she regretted saving her life. Fanchelle demanded her meals to be ready at certain times, complained if the flavor was even slightly off, and called Ellarose every foul name she could think of. The cottage soon became infested with vipers and toads.

One day, after one of Fanchelle’s tantrums, Ellarose calmly said to her:

“Fanchelle, I did not have to bring you here; I could have left you to die. Because I stopped to help you, we lost a lot of revenue and will have to sell at least twice as much produce to keep the cottage. Please request things nicely or go out into the woods. I will not have our cottage and garden overrun by toads and vipers. If Daisy were not still ill, I would drive you back to mother’s right now.”

Fanchelle altered her behavior immediately because since Ellarose’s departure her mother had become unbearable, turning all of unpleasant attentions on her. She pitched in with all of the chores and spoke as sweetly as Ellarose.

Market day came again, and Ellarose went to inspect the week’s harvest. Slugs had eaten all of the squash and were advancing on the cucumbers. Their prospects of keeping the cottage were diminished significantly.

Fanchelle lost her temper. “Curse theses slugs!” And out jumped a toad who ate all of the slugs.

The two sisters laughed and ran around the garden together yelling “Curse these slugs!”

They’d found a solution to their slug problem, saved the cucumbers, brought in record profits that day, and begun to be friends.

Daisy, feeling much better, smiled at them through the window. The next day a letter arrived for Daisy with Madame Chlorisse’s seal.

***
Dear Ms. Bigelow,

We would like to offer you the position of Junior Associate Enchantress at the firm of Madame Chlorisse and Associates. We are much impressed by your work as an intern and by your creative use of garden slugs in the case of Ellarose vs. Fanchelle.

Please contact our office at your earliest convenience to negotiate your terms of employment.

We look forward to having you as part of our team.

            Sincerely,

            Madame Chlorisse


Penny Jo McAllister is a US-based writer. This is her second piece for EC.

Art by Amanda Bergloff.

The Diamond Princess, Cara McKee


Tell me, fair bride, of all your life
and all that did betide you,
I love to hear your gentle voice
and be the one beside you.

The Princess sadly bowed her head,
she held her tongue and power,
it was not her the fine Prince loved
but her diamonds and flowers.

She had been lost and all alone
since she’d run from her mother
but had not taken that great risk
for the greed of another.

Now speak, dear wife, of all that’s good,
of things best not forgotten.
But goodness lay within her heart,
her Prince’s heart was rotten.

So sadly then the Princess stood
and reached her hand out sweetly:
My voice is just for you, husband,
I gift to you completely.

She led him then unto their bed
and sprinkled it with flowers,
she whispered diamonds in his ear,
she whispered them for hours.

The sunrise painted diamonds red
heaped up beside the Princess
who went to sleep with petaled lips
and prayers for God’s forgiveness.

And underneath the diamonds there
the Prince forever slept.
He could not breathe the shining jewels
his wife’s sad whispers wept.

Born in Yorkshire, Cara L McKee now lives in Largs on the West Coast of Scotland with her young family and two kittens. She has recently had poems published in Product Magazine, Peacock Journal, and 404 Ink. She writes a column for Scotland 4 Kids and blogs at caralmckee.blogspot.co.uk. Cara loves reading (currently Beauty by Robin McKinley), is working on a modern retelling of the Tam Linn fairy tale. She wishes she was better at drawing.

Art by Amanda Bergloff.

Market Value, Gerri Leen


The palace isn't at all what I expected.  Granted, it's been years since I've lived in a fine house, with fancy sheets and pretty dresses, but still, nothing's wrong with my memory.  Our house with mother was much nicer than this dreadful place.

I get a shiver just walking through the door.

"You're the ratcatcher, then?" the cook asks me, and she's the stereotypical type: pleasantly curvy with a sweet face and a tone that invites secrets.

I nod and point to the writing slate around my neck.  On it I've written, "Mute since birth."

Not true but very useful.

She folds her arms over her ample bosom and casts me a doubtful look. "You don't look like any ratcatcher I've ever seen."

I resist rolling my eyes.  The girl I used to be would have—would also have given this uppity woman a tongue lashing harsh enough to make her cry.  But I've turned over a new leaf.  And I don't fancy spilling trade secrets.  So I just nod and make the gesture that's half shrug and half "I was hired, wasn't I?"

She gives in, as most people do, in the face of silent certainty.  She points me to the larder and I tromp past her, hearing the screeches of rats even as I shut the door.  "All right, my lovelies."

As I speak, a snake and several toads slither from my gullet.  Even years into this, the sensation still causes bile to rise in my stomach.

"Hunt, hunt, hunt."  Two more toads and another snake fall out of my mouth and to the ground.  I pick all the toads up and put them in the bucket I carry—I'll let them loose once I'm back outside—but the first snake crawls into the stacked foodstuffs, and soon there's the scream of a rat as it's swallowed whole.

The other snake lies watching me, coiled and spitting, and I roll my eyes and grab it faster than a human probably should be able to.  I've learned, you see.  How to handle my gifts—even the hooded, poisonous ones like this marvel.

The other snake comes out with a rat-sized lump in its abdomen.  I point back to the stacks, and it goes in again, and again, each time coming out with more lumps.

To send it in again would be dangerous for it, so I hold my hand out and let it climb, twining itself around my arm like an exotic piece of jewelry.  It holds on tightly—but not so tightly as to crush—and goes to sleep, its huge meal making it gravid and almost affectionate.

Meanwhile the hooded monster I hold is getting agitated.  I stride to the door, the hunting snake fast asleep, the toads creaking in the darkened bucket, and open the door a tiny bit, checking for guards or the cook, and seeing neither.

I know where I have to go: she is in the topmost room.  That's what the people I've talked to say.

Talked to—more like threatened with snakes such as the one I carry. It's amazing what someone will let slip when faced with a spitting viper.

They probably think I want to steal her, this figure of legend, the not-quite-queen that no one ever sees.  I don't want to steal her; I want to save her. She's my sister, after all.  It wasn't her fault our mother hated her.  Or that I did, too, until I had time alone to think about how mean mother was to me and how nice my sister could be despite how we treated her.

And we can help each other.  Win, win, which she should appreciate after her time in this kingdom where money is all.

She's the young king's bride but not queen.  Her husband has managed to put off the coronation, time and time again.

Can you imagine what would happen when she speaks the words of assent?  What a target she would become, she who spits gems and flowers with every word.

I've heard the witnesses to the marriage and the priest have all met untimely ends.  The king died of a stroke—or perhaps poison: the symptoms can be so similar.  No one left to know the story but the new king—my brother–in–law.

Well and I know the story; I've been living my version of it for years now even if most think I'm dead.

And Mother knows, of course.  But the king tracked her down.  After she threw me out of the house.  Before the wedding.  It's said she's on an extended vacation in the south—I imagine she's dead or on an extended vacation in the dungeon.

Not that I plan to go look for her.  In this case, she reaped what she sowed, sorry old hag.

There aren't guards in the back stairwell and miraculously I don't run into any servants.  But as I turn to the hallway that will take me to the highest turret—to the room they keep my sister in—two guards block my path.

One advances with a loud, "Who goes there?" and my spitting serpent lands a wad of venom in his face.

He screams and wipes desperately at his eyes.

It won't help.  I'm immune to the poison, but bites still hurt and I've still been spit at more times than I can count.  Being temporarily blind is not fun.

No temporarily for this poor man.  I let the snake go, and it whips up and fastens its fangs into the man's neck. He falls, leaving the other guard to me.

He doesn't advance on me the way I expect him to.  "You're her.  Like in the stories."

With half an eye on the snake I've let loose, I shrug.  What does he want me to say?  Anything, I suppose, so long as it's accompanied by snakes and toads.

"We've always been told there's two of you.  The good and the bad."

I lift my eyebrows.  Must we resort to such basic labels?  Does he have any idea how many pests my offerings destroy?  The toads eat bugs, my snakes take care of mice and rats and other pests.  What does a flower do other than look pretty for a moment then die?  Gems, fine, I see the value.  But offer me a spitting viper or a rose, and I'll tell you which I'd rather have.

Although perhaps a rose is easier to hack up?  There's the matter of thorns, though.  Can't be entirely comfortable.

The serpent has finished with the first guard and begins to slither toward the one I now face down.  I hold my finger up in the universal "Give me a moment" sign and grab the first guard's sword, plunging it into the head of the serpent and pinning it to the ground.  It writhes for a long time, its body whipping around the sword, before it dies.

Just because they're mine, doesn't mean I like them all.

The other guard seems to sag and says, "Thank you," as if he really means it.  He studies my arm, where my rat-catcher lies sleeping, and he smiles.  "That one's nice, I take it?"

I nod.

We stand in silence for a moment, then I point to the ceiling.

He makes an apologetic face.  "They'll kill me if I let you go up."

I gesture for him to turn around and knock him hard with the pommel of the sword.  I'm stronger than I look and he goes down.  I touch his forehead for a moment, mouthing that I'm sorry, and then head up the stairs.

My sister is standing at the window, staring out at her not-quite kingdom.  An elaborate device is strapped around her head, keeping her mouth shut.  Her hands are tied behind her back, I suppose so she can't remove her gag.  She turns to me with a look I've never seen on her face: hatred.

But it changes as she realizes it's me. Is that joy?  She's never, ever looked at me that way.  Just as I've probably never, ever looked at her with the affection I suddenly feel.

"Hello, sister," I say, and a huge constrictor comes out.  Perfect. We'll leave it for her husband.  I pick it up and settle it in the bed, covering it with less-than-luxurious linens.  All the wealth she's spit out for them and they make her sleep on these?

I get to work on the ropes that bind my sister's hands, and as soon as she's free, she unbuckles the gag-helmet and spits, over and over.

I rub my slate clean and write, "Want to get out of here?"

She laughs, ands says, "Yes, yes, yes," and her words are accompanied by a spray of pearls.

I wipe the slate again. "Why the gag?"

"My husband realized I was in danger of spilling things where he didn't want them—like in the presence of the common people. He comes up from time to time and has me read this or that proclamation so he can collect the gems that fall out."  This time tulips, gardenias, emeralds, and sapphires rain down.  "It's all control with him."

Of course.  Greedy bastard.

She grabs my hand.  "Thank you."

"Thank me when we're out of here."  I survey the toads and snakes that have joined us.  Nothing venomous has slithered out, so I try again, "You up for a fight?" Finally, one of the hooded snakes falls and I capture it before it can go for her.

She doesn't appear worried.  "Yes," is all she says, as an enormous diamond falls from her mouth.  She gathers up the gems and gestures to my bucket.  I nod and she puts all the gems in along with the rest of the toads, which she captures rather efficiently—I expected her to be too good to handle them, but she's gentle with them and blows on their faces, which they hate but still, it's sweet of her.

She studies the snakes on the ground, finds a small black one, one that can't capture anything bigger than a mouse, and lets it wind around her forearm.  She holds up her hand as if she's brandishing a sword instead of a garden snake.

With a genteel wave toward the door, she seems to be asking if I'm ready.  I nod, wondering what kind of sign language we'll come up with when we want to speak without words—or cumbersome slates.  She starts to go first, but I hold her back, then point at the snake I'm holding and shake my head vigorously.

Bad, the snake is bad, I am saying and she gets it, holding her hands up and backing away rather theatrically.  I laugh, the sound ringing through the room, and we both seem to be waiting to see if anything will drop out because of it.  But nothing does.

I've had no occasion to laugh before.  I was never sure if noise alone made the snakes and toads, or if it had to be combined with words.  Now I know.

She laughs, too, the sound lovely and also not one I have much experience with.  Our mother kept us apart, kept us at each other's throat.  It wasn't fair to either of us.

But now we have each other.

"Ready?" I mouth.

"Ready," she says and catches the lily that comes out, tossing it onto her pillow.

As we slip from the castle, the only sound is the hissing of the viper I hold in front of us.  The first guard's body still lies on the ground but the second guard is gone.  I tense, waiting to see if he's going to attack us or if he's called others to come, but there's no one in the corridor or the stairway.  I hear the cook in the kitchen, but she doesn't come to check on me.

I let the snake go once we're out clear of the building.  My sister urges the toads out, whispering to them as daffodils and rubies make a trail of her words.

I pick the gems up as we go.  We'll be well set for whatever comes at this rate.

"Wait," I hear from behind us, and I suddenly wish I'd kept the snake.

It's the second guard.  He's rubbing his head and he's alone.  He smiles at me, then at her. Of course at her.

She's the beautiful one, after all. The sweet one.

"I want to come with you.  You'll need help.  Someone to do the talking, right?"  He's looking at me now, not at her.

I frown.

"You're brave and strong and you care about family.  I like that in a girl."

I decide not to mention dear old Mom possibly moldering in the dungeon. But I do point at my mouth.

He laughs.  "I talk a lot.  Enough for both of us—or so my last girl said before she ran off with her music teacher. You don't have to talk much.  Unless you want to, I mean."

I laugh and in a charming harmony my sister laughs, too.  She makes a funny face as she glances from the guard to me and, and then does something rather lewd with her finger and hand.  I slap her hands.

Her little snake hisses at me, causing us all to laugh even harder.

"Do you think I could have one, too?" the guard asks. "I've always liked snakes."

I roll my eyes and give him the pursed lips/splayed hands combo that means: "Maybe."

He grins as if he expected no less.


Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle.  She has work accepted or appearing in: Nature, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, the Murder Mayhem and Dystopia Utopia anthologies, Daily Science Fiction, Grievous Angel, Escape Pod, Grimdark, and others.  She recently caught the editing bug and is preparing to edit her fourth anthology for an independent press.  See more at http://www.gerrileen.com.

Art by Amanda Bergloff.
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