Speculative Fiction has been defined as the ultimate 'What if?', combining unlimited possibilities with infinite imagination. What an amazing arena for readers to enjoy, and a wonderful scope for authors to offer their progeny.
Yes, progeny, because stories are like children. Before their creation, blank slates where anything can happen. As they grow and develop, personalities begin to shine. Bones, once pliable, form a working skeleton, though some may be broken and reset along the way. Stories and children also require frequent haircuts, to add shape and allow natural flow--but that doesn't meant we won't wince as those golden locks hit the floor. Of course, this comparison only goes so far. Unlike children, some stories are best shoved in the circular bin or left loitering on the hard drive. But bear with me.
The toolboxes of writers and parents also show marked similarities. Patience, repetition, and judicious choices smooth rough edges. Taking some time before revisiting a terrible scene encourages objectivity. Support groups, formal and informal, provide a lifeline for our solitary endeavors. Online, in the classroom, or at the coffee shop, these interactions allow us to learn from others' mistakes and triumphs. Participants can share helpful hints or full discourses on a range of topics, from character development to tips for culling bad language.
Writers and parents hail from a wide background of formal training, from high school dropouts to advanced degrees. Yet sometimes, books and lectures can't replace hands-on learning. The stream of dirty diapers or the one page that fouls up the story no matter how many times you edit. Staring at the clock after curfew or at the blank page until your eyes burn. The barbs hurled by toddlers, teens and literary critics. The sight of a sleeping child or sound of a well-crafted phrase that stills your soul with its perfection. And who hasn't felt that small rush of confidence when, surrounded by expert advice, you trust your instincts instead? Sometimes, we really do know what's best for our darling.
At some point, stories and children are ready to be unleashed onto the unsuspecting world. Will they be shrinking violets, with beauty undiscovered beneath a veneer of awkwardness? Ivory-tower professors, lauded in academia but misunderstood by the masses? Brash reality TV stars with minimal redeeming value but huge audience appeal? Interesting, insightful leaders, whose words stay with you long after they finish speaking? Pleasant and entertaining friends with whom to while away the hours?
We hope they will be welcomed for who they are, rather than pigeonholed into an ill-fitting classification. That's one of the beauties of Speculative Fiction. It creates a welcoming environment for stories that transcend established norms.
I hope you enjoy this carefully-nurtured offspring of my imagination.
Drim's wings ached. If I don't find food soon .... His antennae twitched, catching a sweet scent. There! Beyond the fence. He flapped vigorously toward the purple flowers. Choosing the closest bloom, he landed, unfurled his proboscis and drank. Relief, along with nectar, warmed his body.
Sound waves quivered through his wings. A squirrel rustling in a tree, muttering about lost acorns. The soft shuffle of another butterfly settling on a nearby flower. Drim flicked his wing in greeting. The heavy two-foot pattern of a human running, and a shout. "Billy! I'm going to kill you!"
Humans kill each other? To eat? Drim rose to see. A female stood with hands clenched, glaring at a smaller male. How will she do it?
Billy didn't look scared; he raised a hose and water sprayed. Self-defense? Or is he attacking? But water doesn't hurt humans.
He turned to ask the other butterfly, but it had flown off.
The female lunged, and Billy ran, laughing. The dripping wet female chased him around the side of a house, out of view.
Strange creatures, humans. Drim returned to his meal. He flitted from blossom to blossom--a quick sip here, a long drink there. When he was sated, and his wings rested, he lazily fluttered upward in the warm sunshine.
A rush of wind shattered Drim's calm He darted left as a bird's beak tore at him. Pain shot through his ripped right wing and he spun. Frantically he flapped his good wing, spiraling as the ground rushed up at him. Blades of grass bent under his weight and his abdomen slammed into the dirt. The shadow of the diving bird grew larger. Drim's legs scrambled as he tried to pull himself away. The ground trembled and his body shook as a human pounded toward him. The bird flew off with an angry "Caw".
Drim looked up into the face of a giant.
"Poor thing," she said.
A hand loomed over him, blocking out the sun. Have I escaped one death to be torn apart by this human? Drim stared at the ragged nails, then back at the human's face. The skin around her blue eyes crinkled as she showed her teeth, but not in a threatening way.
"It's all right. I won't hurt you."
He tipped an antenna toward her finger and brushed the skin. Young. A girl.
She stood up and moved away.
Drim tried flexing his wings. The right one throbbed and only twitched. He stumbled forward a few steps, his damaged wing dragging him off-balance.
The girl returned and crouched next to him, a slender stick in her hand. She poked him in the abdomen.. Drim flinched. She traced down his body and he instinctively grabbed hold.
"Here we go." The girl lifted him into the air.
Nauseated from the impact of the fall and the pain in his wing, Drim held on tight. The girl lowered his end of the stick onto her open palm. She wants me to climb on her hand?
If left on the grass, he'd be eaten within minutes. I would like a quick death. Two suns ago he had watched a frog eat one of his sisters. She had cried out once, twice, then it was over. So it had hurt, but not for long.
Drim lurched onto her palm. Through his feet, he tasted sweat and dirt. He hoped her fingers wouldn't close and break his good wing.
The girl cupped her other hand, shielding him, and started walking. Drim peered between the fingers as they approached a door and entered a house.
The girl called, "Mom, I've found a hurt butterfly."
A female with graying hair walked towards them. "Oh, Elise, it's beautiful. Look at the green and blue on its wings."
Drim preened. He hadn't seen himself since emerging from his chrysalis, but enjoyed gazing at the wing patterns of his brothers and sisters and acquaintances. Much nicer than his fat, flightless baby stage.
"Is there something I can put him in?"
The female named Mom opened a small door on the wall and pulled out a large, clear bowl. "Here, use this."
The girl--Mom had called her 'Elise'--lowered her hand into the bowl and Drim stumbled off. Soon he was surrounded by leaves and sticks and different flowers. A blue, his favorite. A yellow one he hadn't tried before. His antenna quivered as he caught its scent. He climbed onto it, tasting with his feet, then slipped his proboscis inside. Good, though a little tart. He could be comfortable here
Only... there was so much more to life than eating. Already he missed the sky, darting here and there, exploring gardens and treetops. And females to chase. At seven suns, he was just a third of the way through his adult life.
Elise carried him into a room with pink walls and purple trim. She placed the bowl on the sill of an open window. Drim flexed his wings, flinching as the torn one still refused to move. He gazed out the window at drifting white clouds and sighed. A nearby evergreen rippled in the breeze, its fronds brushing the windowsill.
A large black ant crawled along the outside sill. Near the evergreen, it stumbled on the threads of a spider web. The silken strands quivered as the ant struggled to free itself. A dark spider darted forward and the ant screamed. The spider injected it, then began to wrap the motionless insect. A red mark flashed from under the spider's stomach. It has strong poison, thought Drim. Like the spider I saw kill a lizard.
Elise placed a small cup of sugar water in his bowl. Though his stomach was full, Drim drank. She is kind.
The next afternoon, Elise brought Drim's new home outdoors. "So you can be back in nature," she said. She held a stick for him to climb, then carried him to a red flower. Drim stood on the blossom as it swayed in the breeze, the sunlight caressing him, then took a drink. Not as good as the sweet water or the blue flowers in his bowl, yet a shiver of happiness ran through him. Where you eat is as important as what you eat.
When Elise carefully lifted him and returned him to his bowl, Drim let out a small cry. Please, no. He pawed at the plastic wall. He crept to the cup of water and took a long drink, but the sweetness failed to comfort him.
Alone in Elise's room that evening, Drim heard her door creak open. Billy slipped in and shut the door. He darted to Elise's bed and wedged his hands under her mattress, grinning as he pulled out a book. He settled on her fluffy purple rug and began to read.
Several pages later, the doorknob turned. Billy jumped up as Elise lunged into the room. "You brat! That's private! Give me it!"
Billy stepped backwards, holding the book behind his back. "Elise and Jimmy, sittin' in a tree. K I S S I N-"
Elise kicked his leg. "Shut up!"
Billy's face crumpled and he began crying. Elise ripped the book from his hands.
Why would it bother Elise to sit in a tree? Trees are warm and friendly.
Mom appeared in the doorway. "What's going on in here?"
The words flew too fast for Drim to keep up. Billy left with Mom and Elise collapsed on her bed. "I hate him," she moaned, clutching a pillow covered with sparkly rainbows. "Hate him, hate him. The most horrible brother ever."
Drim stroked the plastic wall with his antenna. Elise had shown him many kindnesses. It saddened him to see her cry.
Light shone from the next window over, casting a glow into the darkened yard. Drim heard Mom's voice, instructing Billy, over and over, to get ready for bed. One bedtime story and two drinks of water later, the light switched off.
Drim stared at the round moon hanging in the sky. He would never be a real part of the world again. But perhaps he could repay some of Elise's kindness. He flexed his good wing. Yes. Help her. He climbed up the tallest stick to the edge of his bowl, then half-fluttered, half-fell to the windowsill, near the evergreen branch.
He crept to the edge of the spider web, partially hidden in the shadows. With one foot, he carefully strummed the silk. The movement was enough to draw the spider from its hiding place.
"Good evening," said Drim.
The spider looked him over with her eight eyes. "Come closer."
"No. Not yet. I have a deal to offer you."
"Why would I bargain with my dinner?"
"I'm not yours yet," said Drim. "But if you do as I ask, I will be."
The spider continued to stare.
"The boy that lives here," said Drim. "The next window over."
"I know him," said the spider. "Nasty thing. Tore my web with a stick. Took me two suns to rebuild it."
"Yes. That sounds like him. Is your poison fatal to a human?"
"Could be, if I use enough. Especially a small or sick one."
"The boy is horrible to his sister. She wants him dead. I do not know why she does not kill him herself." Drim paused and sighed. "But she has been very kind to me and I would like to help her."
"By killing the boy?"
The spider clicked her fangs. "That's a big request. Why should I help you?"
"If you bite the boy, I shall willingly enter your web."
"It's hard for me to walk so far," said the spider.
"You may take your time, I'm in no hurry."
"What if he smashes me?"
"I see the way you are looking at me," said Drim. "My body is plump and full, worth at least twenty of the ants you catch."
"All right," said the spider. "It's a deal."
Fireflies blinked around the yard. One flitted by the bush near Elise's window.
"Excuse me, friend," called Drim.
The bug flew closer. "Yes, day-flyer? What brings you out at night?" It saw the spider and pulled back, hovering.
"It is a long story, and I am no longer a flyer. But no matter. I have a favor to request, if you would be so kind."
"How can I help?"
Drim waved an antenna toward Billy's window. "The spider and I have an agreement. She is going inside to bite a boy. I cannot fly over to watch. Would you hover outside the window, then recount to me her activities?"
"You don't trust me?" asked the spider.
"I am giving you my life," said Drim. "I do not want to die in vain."
"I'm willing to watch and report," said the firefly.
With a disgusted glance over her shoulder, the spider scurried across her web. Her legs splayed and her body lurched as she scooted along the wall and onto the next window ledge. She was right, Drim thought, she runs awkwardly. After a pause, the spider scrambled through the open window.
The firefly blinked, then followed the spider inside.
A brave and trustworthy witness. I had only meant for him to watch from outside.
Drim waited. .Finally, the firefly flew out and over to Elise's window. "The spider's done what you asked. Two long bites, on the neck. The boy flinched and shifted but did not wake."
"Thank you, friend, for your report," said Drim.
"Good-bye, day-flier. Have a good death."
The firefly took off across the yard. Drim crept to the edge of the sill, yearning to follow. He watched the blinking light move along the bushes, then rise and disappear over the fence.
The spider climbed onto the windowsill, breathing heavily. "It is finished."
"Thank you." Drim dropped his antennae. "Please be quick."
The spider shook her head. "I used most of my venom on the boy. Two bites. You'll have to wait a bit."
Drim pulsed his good wing. "Very well." With trembling legs, he walked into the shadows. The sticky web caught at his feet, snaring him.
"Don't struggle," said the spider. "You'll damage my web."
Drim stilled. He fought the growing knot in his stomach and focused on the outdoors. The fireflies flickered. The night breeze brushed his wings, carrying the scent of flowers. A blue, a purple ... maybe a red. Slowly, the moon slipped behind the clouds.
A cry from Billy's room. "Mom? Mommy?" A sob and a heavy thump. "Mommy! Mommy!"
"He is not dead yet?" asked Drim.
"He will be. Soon," said the spider, sidling up to him. "Your turn."
Drim steeled himself as the spider's fangs pierced his abdomen. Heat flashed through his body, and he could no longer move his legs. Pain sliced across his back and a weight fell away. He watched his damaged wing tumble from the web onto the bushes below. His vision blurred. More pain, duller now, as the spider cut off his good wing. She began spinning him, twirling her silk around him.
Happy. Drim exhaled one last time. For Elise.
* * * *
Michelle Soudier is a writer living near Chicago, Illinois. She enjoys her family, traveling, Blackhawk's hockey and eating copious amounts of chocolate.
Penumbra's next issue will be released on May 1, 2012