Seven threads, p.1
By Jason Fischer
Copyright 2017 Jason Fischer
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“By the Laws of Crab and Woman” was originally published online by Review of Australian Fiction, Volume 17 Issue 6
“Rolling for Fetch” was originally published online by Aurealis Magazine Issue #49
“Defy the Grey Kings” was originally published online by Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #180
“The Dog Pit” was originally published in Cthulhu: Deep Down Under
“Pigroot Flat” was originally published in Midnight Echo Magazine #8
“The House of Nameless” was originally published in Writers of the Future Volume 26
“Gunning for a tinkerman” was originally published in Aurealis Magazine #44
This ebook edition published by Jason Fischer, January 2017
Cover design courtesy of canva.com
Layout by Jason Fischer © 2017
Dedicated to eager readers everywhere
By the Laws of Crab and Woman
Rolling for Fetch
Defy the Grey Kings
The Dog Pit
The House of Nameless
Gunning for a Tinkerman
About the Author
These stories have been published previously in one form or another, and are collected here to give new readers a taste of my work. In this carefully selected collection I delve into the fantastic, the sad, the horrible and the humane. Like a needle-work sampler, here are seven fantastic threads, woven together for your pleasure.
By The Laws Of Crab And Woman
For her heresy, Reft climbed up to the House of the Pale Daughters. The law dictated that she take the penitent's path, so she stood barefoot and bleeding in the front courtyard, picking thorns and slivers of glass from her feet.
Reft held a crab on a leash, a juvenile almost up to her waist in height. Its shell was fresh after a recent moult, streaked with blue and orange. Like the other crabbers, Reft had fastened a platform to its back, drilling deep into the hardening shell. From now on, as the crab grew, the platform would grow, and by adulthood it would have entire buildings bristling from its back.
The inner door to the House opened, a thick slab of stone that turned easily on a pivot hinge. One old woman pushed it open with the tips of her fingers.She was like a piece of driftwood in a robe, flinty eyes buried in a maze of scars.
"Reft the heretic," she said. "You have come."
Reft fussed nervously about the crab, unpacking the trunks and crates that she’d lashed firmly to its back. With the tip of a coral knife, she parted the wax seal around the lid of an amphora.
It was honey, gold and thick, filled right up to the brim.
"What does this get me?" Reft asked.
"Death," the crone said.
"Yes," she said, voice shaking. "But how long does it get me?"
The ancient woman trailed a finger along the top, and sucked at the goopy mess. Where a thimble of honey was beyond the means of most, this was worth a fortune.
"One year," the woman said, and Reft moaned. She cut away more netting, revealing further trunks and crates. She spilled treasures at the old crone's feet. A breastplate made of laminated crab-castings, set with pearls. A dagger smelted from an iron ore, worth a prince's ransom. A shell-backed guitar, a tapestry, bags of rice and a cask of mash liquor.
With each gift, the old woman added time. One year became two, two became five, and soon Reft was adding mere days, pulling rings from her fingers and toes, plucking the silver hoops from her ears. Soon she was pushing the crab's leash into the old woman's hands, and she kneeled, weeping, begging for more time. She grabbed for the hem of her robe, but the crone stepped on her fingers.
"Have some dignity," the old woman said, a little disgusted. "Everyone dies."
"I have nothing now," Reft said. "I am ruined."
"You were ruined the moment you strayed," the woman said. "I give you eight years, Reft the heretic, and may every moment weigh upon you."
She was not allowed into the sanctum of the House. Reft lay in the courtyard, broken and reeling, watching as a line of girls emerged from the stone door.
These were the Pale Daughters, dressed in the same felt robes that their door-keeper wore. Some were almost women, hard-eyed and sinewy. Others were gangly girls, others spotted with acne, many soft with pre-teen fat. Some were tiny, barely children, their hair thin and light.
Each of them a killer.
One by one, the Daughters looked down on her, as if searching for something in her face. After a long moment, each girl would shake her head and return to the House, a solemn line as long as the one that emerged.
They did not snicker or make mischief like Reft’s own children. Each of these girls had a serious cast to her eyes, an alien stare. Again and again, Reft was rejected, failing some criterion that she could not place.
Finally, a young girl stood in front of Reft. She was a skinny thing, perhaps eight or nine years old, with a doll's face and wispy brown hair. After a long piercing look into Reft’s eyes, she nodded. Turning as one, the other Pale Daughters returned to their House, filing in through the door with absolute efficiency. In moments, the stone door slowly shut.
"I am your daughter," the girl said, as if she was almost surprised to learn this. She sat down, cross-legged in the dirt, sharing an awkward silence with Reft.
The old woman reappeared.
"Reft the heretic, you are to raise this girl," she said. "You are to give her a place at your table. She shall labour for you without complaint, and honour your family that is now her family."
"Eight years from this day, your Pale Daughter will end your life," the woman said, with neither malice nor kindness. Reft felt the bubble of a hysterical laugh rise from her chest, and bit down on this with all her might.
"What is she called?" Reft asked the old crone, and then turned to the girl. "What is your name?"
"She is your Doom," the woman said, and the girl shrugged, as if the name were as good as any other.
Set on the upper tip of High Claw, the House of the Pale Daughters was a grey canker looking down on the island. High Claw was a mountain, tapering up from the Murk like a crooked finger. Across a narrow gulf was Low Claw, the lesser half of the island, and rope bridges and rambling wooden structures bound the two like a crab's pincer.
On the promise of future payment and favours, the penniless Reft bartered with the rope-gangers, buying a trip down to the tree-line. Her feet were bloody, and she didn't think she would survive another trip down the penitent's path.
Doom sat next to her on the sky-dock, a biddable doll. From here Reft could see the industry of High Claw, the First Island. The homes of the well-to-do clung to the cliffside, full of sunlight and fresh air. She'd dreamed of such a house once, had promised one to her husband in happier times.
Crops spiralled the stone finger, in terraces and windowboxes, growing in squares wherever there was a rooftop. Both High Claw and Low Claw were honeycombed with tunnels and poorer living spaces, long since stripped of ores and oils.
Below all of this, the Murk. Today it looked like a sea of milk, a miasma interrupte
They were miserable folk, who sweated and coughed often. The Murk pulled at the unlucky, drawing them down the islands as their fortunes dropped until finally, they were within reach of the tree-line. Many of them caught the jaundice, or had to run from the laws of crab and woman. Nothing for such but the belly of the Murk, that underworld of sickness and murder, no sunlight but the faint lick that reached through that swirl of filth.
Doom smiled over at her, kicking her legs playfully over the void. Her arms and legs were thin, and she looked so tiny that the wind itself might send her over the edge.
"It's amazing," the girl said, gesturing at the swaying rope-city, the planks and fibres held taut between High and Low Claw.
"Did you climb the path?" Reft said. "When they took you to live in the House?"
"I was born in there," Doom said, wrinkling her brow.
The rope-gangers came for them then, a crew as sinewy and tough as the ropes they worked. They hauled a wicker-basket to the top ledge of High Claw, working with levers and detachable pulleys. The crew were exhausted, and set the basket on the ledge with the last of their strength.
"Yer to pay a fifth again, crabber," their bosslady said, and Reft had no choice but to nod agreement. After a rest and a flask of spirits, the rope-gang set off on the downward journey.
Reft and Doom sat in the basket, built to take the weight of a dozen sheep, but even so Reft was terrified, starting at each creak, closing her eyes as the winds buffeted them.
Doom watched wide-eyed as the basket passed between draughty houses, all basket-weave and driftwood, flexible to the ways of the wind. Next a vertical market, the vendors arranged like flies in a spider's web. A meat hawker rappelled from his spot, matching the descent of the basket, wailing and waving his skewers of pigeon and crab.
Then they were through, and only the mother-ropes remained, falling down to the bottom of the twin islands, bound to anchor blocks just above the tree-line. Reft could see the big crabs now, lashed to the Pier.
There she was. Old Char, her beautiful woman. The crab hatched a century ago, and had served her mother, and her mother's mother. Where the other grand crabs were orange or blue, Char was red, her shell burnt to black in places, an ancient fire that had consumed the first platform in Reft’s mother's time. Now, her back bristled with new outbuildings, a nursery for the larvae, and a grand central hall, Reft’s home.
The rope-gangers stopped the basket by the Pier, exhausted from the long journey. The bosslady scratched out a promissory note on a lobster shell, and held it out for Reft to make her mark.
"Every month, a fifth again till yer pay the full toll," the ganger grunted. It was usury, but Reft had no choice but to take these terms. She'd never unload a cargo again if she cheated the rope-gangs.
Reft headed down the last stretch of path to the Pier, the carved steps sweaty and slick this close to the tree-line. Doom followed closely behind, gawking at the edge of the Murk, at the big crabs, jostling and chittering to each other.
Reft stopped. Her family were waiting on the pier, a row of figures dwarfed by Old Char behind them. Her husband, Eakr, and the three boys she'd birthed for him before her womb went still.
They were small, like all men and boys. Reft had prayed at the temples in High Claw for a girl, for a strong pair of hands to help on the deck. What she got was three boys, a dying marriage, and then her mad scheme, her crime against the laws of crab and woman.
Heresy had sent them the daughter nothing else would.
When Eakr saw Reft with the strange girl from the House, he fell to his knees, wailing. Reft rushed up to him, but he slapped away her reaching hands, only allowing his sons to help him to stand.
"How long?" Eakr asked.
"Eight years," Reft said.
"What did they take?" he said, looking behind Reft for porters, for any treasures she'd brought back from the House of the Pale Daughters.
"Everything. Every last crumb."
"You. You have ruined us," he said, pointing at her with a shaking finger. "Now your family starves, Reft."
"Eight years is time enough to raise more capital," Reft said, looking to her family for sympathy, finding only flinty stares. "I will fund an appeal."
Eakr laughed, a bitter trill with no mirth in it.
"Appeal to her," he said, pointing to Doom. "Appeal while she drives a knife into your heart."
Reft and her miserable brood filed up the gangway, dogged by their newest member. Doom looked around in wonder, examining the places where living shell met the carpenter's leavings.
Supper in the grand hall was a stew of gristle and oats. Reft suffered through every mouthful, watching her sons exercise their expensive table manners on a beggar's meal. Eakr would not allow Doom to eat at the family table, so the young girl squatted by the firepit, sharing her gruel with the infant crabs.
The girl was silent, the picture of innocence and good cheer. Eakr wheedled and one of Reft’s sons wept, refusing to eat the poor fare. Soon the young killer nodded, warmth and sleep reaching for her. Reft stood at Doom's feet, looking down on her for a long moment.
She draped a rough blanket over her Pale Daughter, and Doom drifted into slumber with a smile on her face.
To take on new cargo and refit the compound, Reft had to go deeply into debt. She ran the sums, and realised that for the first year of her borrowed life, they would eat gruel often.
The only good thing in her life was Old Char, who waded through the Murk without complaint. The crab was mature, clearing the tree-line in most places. Her legs were armoured and long, and found good purchase under the miasma more often than not.
Whenever a cacodrill tried to snap at her legs, she would either crush the beast underfoot, or snatch it up with her pincers, stuffing the dumb lizard into her maw. Old Char's favourites were the big eels, the ones that strangled and ate women beneath the Murk. Where the Murk opened up to the flow of a river, she would hunt schools of them, scooping them up by the dozen.
Reft took them on a trading run through the Archipelago, urging Old Char to each pimple of land that rose from the Murk. Like High Claw and Low Claw, the islands were thin and tall, slowly growing out of the swamp.
Tower was the tallest island, where the settlers had carved out a spiralling terrace to farm sheep and wheat. A lot of good trade came from Bridge, a slab of rock held aloft by three strong pillars. Other islands were not so impressive, failed settlements that barely rose above the Murk.
Reft had to lay off the crew, so Eakr and their sons worked now, unloading goods from the docks, winching everything up to the storehouse on the back of Old Char. Last year they had been wealthy, and Eakr described every indignity that he suffered.
"You promised me a house on High Claw," he said, hooking up another sack of coal for the winch. "Our sons were meant to be debutants at Bridge this season."
The boys were busy around the bins, bagging up the coal for transport. Pol the oldest was a mess, face streaked with sweat and black dust. Aeri and Luin were young, barely older than Doom, and they struggled with the heavy sacks. The boys dragged them across the docks, spilling lumps of coal with every step.
"This is just a setback," Reft said, cranking the winch lever. Normally two strong women operated this, and her shoulders ached from the work.
"Before that creature executes you, I want that house on High Claw," Eakr said. "You will set up our sons with the dowry that they need."
"Yes," Reft said quietly. She looked where Doom was filling her own sack full of coal, uncomplaining. When it was full, she hefted it up in her arms, like a big dusty baby. On her own she was matching the work of her three "brothers".
"She's not natural, Reft," Eakr whispered. "If you were woman enough, you would smother that thing in her sleep."
"If I kill my own Pale Daughter," Reft s
"We already suffer," Eakr said, closing his mouth when Doom drew near. The girl gave Reft a smile, placing the bag of coal gently at her feet.
Reft could finally afford to hire some deckhands, a pair of criminals exiled from Low Claw. Their only choices were to sign on with a crabber, or to take their chances in the Murk. Mal and Bon were rough women, marked with squid ink and copper piercings. They wore coral knives at their belts, and watched Reft’s sons whenever they walked the deck.
More than once they’d whistled at the boys, making scissoring motions with their fingers. Cock-cutters were often sent away from the islands, and Reft took to barring the great hall at night. Eakr wanted the pair evicted from Old Char. Where the old crew had been like family, he would not even allow this pair to eat at his table.
"A pair of crooked sinners," Eakr said. "They will kill us in our sleep, and abuse our boys."
"Nonsense," Reft said, but watched the women just the same. She gave them a building at the very rear of Old Char's shell, a shack once used for smoking meat. Here they spent their free time, drinking and cooking their rations over a small fire.
One evening, Reft woke for the chamberpot, only to see that Doom was missing from her spot by the fire-pit. Eakr would not give her a bed, so she slept with the crab larvae, nursing Old Char's babies with more skill than any crab-nurse Reft had ever paid for.
The doors to the great hall were ajar, the heavy beam set to one side. Fetching up her mace, Reft stepped onto the deck, heart pounding.
There was laughter from the smoking shack, the low sound of a grown woman talking inside. The high reply of Doom, her Pale Daughter.
"I heard she is a heretic," Reft heard Mal say. "Why set a waif like you onto a crabber?"
"It is the law," Doom said.
"Why wait?" Mal said. "Do your job now. We could all be very rich."
"We could help you," Bon slurred, and Mal laughed. "Kill that cursed bitch, and toss her brats into the crab. We could take Old Char."
"You cannot harm Reft," Doom said simply. "I will not let you."
Seven Threads by Jason Fischer / Fantasy have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes