Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Priscilla the Talented Rat

In the early twentieth century, there lived a pair of completely mundane people named Campbell. The Campbells liked to joke that since they had no human children, they passed all of their qualities on to their pets. They had an iguana name Samanatha who they taught to do arithmetic. She could easily add and subtract single digit numbers, indicating the answers by flicks of her tongue, although her communication broke down when the numbers got too high and an equation with a negative answer would make her emit a high-pitched whine guaranteed to cause migraines in all who heard it. Samantha never gained much reknown, possibly because as an iguana she simply wasn’t considered cute enough.

It was with Priscilla that the Campbells had the most success gaining notice. Unlike poor Samantha, Priscilla was considered cute by many, although she caused others to scream and flinch. Priscilla, you see, was a rat, and while rats do cause some people to become squeamish, they have a large fan base.

Priscilla started her artistic career as most artists do, by bucking against the idea that they need to copy the art of others. Although she lacked the words to express her frustration, it was very clear that she saw no need to repaint the scenes in the books of classic artwork she was given. That’s why, the Campbells decided, her version of the Mona Lisa looked more like an abstract construction of the Chineese word for squirrel than a secretive human woman and her impression of Dali was nothing but a bunch of loops. This could have been disastrous had Mrs Campbell not had an innate understanding of marketing and been able to convince people that these were actually deep commentary on the original subject matter. It soon became all the fashion to invite Priscilla to your party so that she could deconstruct famous artworks for your guests for sums of money that were really quite reasonable as the price was set assuming there would be a large amount of tipping, which there generally was.

Despite the steady income Priscilla had been providing, the Campbells were happy when they received an offer to purchase the rat outright. They had begun to worry that they had exhausted their social circle and its connections, and thus were they concerned that there might well be fewer bookings in future.

This is how Priscilla came to live with a man named Dmitri Marceou. Dmitri had no interest in parading Priscilla about for performances, for he didn’t care for people enough to attend more than about one gathering per decade. He also had no interest in her as an art critic.

Dmitri Marceou was a sorcerer, and as such he recognized the magic inherent in Priscilla’s works. What others saw as comments about art, or as random nonsense created by a rodent, if they were being more honest, Dmitri knew were actually sigils waiting to be fed magic. For example, had Priscilla’s stylistic recreating of the Chinese pictograph for squirrel been fed a moderate amount of magical energy, it would have summoned the subject of the Mona Lisa. Not the painting, but the actual woman who sat for it. In the case of that particular painting, it would have been entertaining. But I’m certain you can see why a person in possession of sanity might hesitate to apply the same procedure to Picasso’s Guernica or to pretty much anything by Hieronymus Bosch.

Over the next year, Dmitri collected sigils for everything he thought might be useful to have the ability to summon, from still lifes of apples to portraits of great generals, from depictions of puppies to images of prostitutes. At one point, it even occurred to him to paint a picture of Priscilla that she could then paint a rendition of so that he could revive her after her death. Then, the next day, he realized he could recreate the Fountain of Youth so neither he nor his precious rat need grow old.

And why, you may be wondering, have you never heard of Dmitri Marceou? Surely a man with such abilities would be able to conquer the world?

The answer is simple: Dmitri is a smart man. This means that he is fully aware how much work conquering the world involves. It’s not just the taking things over that’s a problem, although it is a challenge. What happens once you own the world? Now you have to run it, all the while protecting yourself from the people who would remove you from power if given half a chance. Isn’t it better not to bother? To live life in comfort and at ease with no one realizing you’re anything other than a person who happens to be wealthy but otherwise isn’t terribly interesting?

I will tell you a secret. You have seen Dmitri. He’s not called that now, and no one realizes how old he truly is, for as we’ve established he has access to the Fountain of Youth. He allows himself to age sometimes when he’s enjoying a certain life, then will bathe himself young again and create a new identity when he’s bored. His current identity is quite well known, although I would never betray his trust to the degree of telling you what name he wears. If nothing else, it would cost me my job, if not my life.

As for Priscilla, Dmitri never forgets to splash her with rejuvenating water every few months so that he will not have to resort to summoning an earlier version of her. Rats are quite companionable creatures and the pair have bonded over the time they have been together so that now it would wound Dmitri considerably to lose his furry companion. When he first purchased her, Dmitri did see Priscilla as a tool, but she quickly became a pet and is now more like a child. She is, in fact, quite possibly the most pampered rat on the planet.

Though I myself am not a sorcerer, I have tried to teach many other creatures, including other rats, to paint sigils. I have yet to have any success in the matter and can only speculate as to what it was that instilled the ability in Priscilla. Perhaps there are other creatures with the talent helping other sorcerers, unbeknownst to me. A part of me hopes there is, while the rest is happy to think that darling Priscilla is unique. Either way, she is a very good rat and I am honored to be allowed to clean her cage.

The above image was painted by Dylan Meconis, who can be found on Flickr as Quirky Bird at https://www.flickr.com/photos/quirkybird/

It was given as a writing prompt by my Wording Wednesday project. Other responses can be found in the comments on that site.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

There's Nothing Like the Slither of Little Scales

Kumar has taken the birth of his baby sister in remarkable stride. He did ask me at one point, “Mama, why is she a snake and I’m not?” but he was satisfied with my answer that while sometimes the child of a nagi will be born in human form and later develop the ability to change into a snake, other times the child is born as a serpent and has to learn how to turn into a human.

I wish I could say my husband took Aditi’s birth as well, but he stared at her egg in horror when I birthed it, watched her hatching with pale apprehension, and has yet to pick her up. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still saying the right things. He acknowledges she’s his daughter and claims that he loves her just a much as our human-born child. But to say that he’s freaked out would be an understatement. Likewise, I’d be lying if I didn’t report that he asks me at least three times a day, “So when will she turn human?”

Back when we were still dating, I did tell Jamil that giving birth to a snake was something I could do, and that, in fact, I myself was born in serpent form. He’d made a thoughtful sound at that before declaring that I certainly looked mammal enough now. I’d laughed, because my human form has a bustline that really does make me look extremely mamaline. But in answer to my husband’s question, I can only say that our daughter will never turn human. She will develop a human form, but she will always be nagi. Just like her mother and her elder brother.

“Look, Mama!” Kumar calls from next to his sister’s terrarium. “She’s giving me nose kisses!”

Sure enough, as my son move his nose to press against the glass, my daughter raises her head to touch her face against his. My heart swells as I try not to die from the adorableness of it all.

“Tini loves me!” Kumar proclaims, the words filled with a level of happiness known only to young children. He has already nicknamed his sister, saying that “Tini” is the perfect shortening of her name because of how teeny she is. “And I love her! Can I hold her?”

Smiling, I cross the living room to Aditi’s enclosure. I’m currently in my between form, with a body that is half human and half snake, so the traveling is more of a slither than a walk. I revert to scales when I’m upset, but thankfully Kumar hasn’t asked me about that. “If you promise to be careful.”

“Of course I’ll be careful. She’s just a baby!”

Tears tease my eyes over his earnestness. He really does adore her, and doesn’t hold her scaley form against her in the slightest. What did I do to deserve such a sweet kid? Two kids so sweet, I correct as I watch how eagerly Aditi moves from my hand to her brother’s. The kids both smile up at me, although I suppose you have to be pretty familiar with snakes to recognize what one looks like when smiling.

The floor creaks behind us and I turn over my shoulder to see Jamil watching us. His expression is harder for me to read than Aditi’s. He’s definitely not joyful like she is. He looks a little less horrified than he has lately, though.

“See how good Kumar is with the baby?” I ask him. “Aren’t you proud of him?”

“Very,” comes the easily given answer. It’s easy for him to show affection for the human-looking offspring, something I try not to feel bitter about. I know he’s trying not to be a narrow minded git; it’s just that it’s apparently more challenging than he expected. “He is an excellent big brother. She’s lucky to have him.”

Kumar nods solemnly, but doesn’t look as pleased as he usually does over Jamil’s praise. He may only be four, but he’s caught on that his dad has been acting weird about the new addition to the family. “She’s a very good little sister. I’m lucky. She doesn’t even scream like Claire’s baby brother.”

Jamil’s reaction surprises me a little. “She is a good baby, isn’t she?” He moves closer, his eyes caught on where Aditi has wrapped herself around Kumar’s little arm like a decorative bracelet. He pauses next to me and meets my eyes for a moment. Whereas there’s been a distant look in his expression for days, his face is suddenly filled with affection for me. “And she’s as gorgeous as your mother. Her scales have the same coloring.”

My breath rushes in. He’s praised my scaley forms before, always seeming to accept them without fear or repulsion. I’d never have said yes to marrying him, let alone had children with him, if he couldn’t handle all aspects of me. That’s why I was so sadly surprised over his reaction to Bitini.

“I love you,” Jamil whispers, too quietly for the children to hear. “I’m sorry I’ve been an ass.”

My eyebrows go up. “Who told you?”

With a chuckle and a shake of his head, Jamil puts an arm around me. “My mum called. Demanded to know why I’d married a snake if I was afraid of baby snakes. Then compared me to my dad.”

Together, we wince. Jamil’s dad had taken one look at his infant son, packed a bag, and moved out. He always sent his child support payments on time, but otherwise would have had to try really hard to be a worse parent.

“I’m not him,” Jamil says firmly.

“No, you’re not.” I reach up and grab his hand where it rests on my shoulder. “You’d never abandon either of your children.”

He gives my fingers a squeeze before moving away. “Hey, Big Brother, can I have a turn holding Little Bit?”

Kumar grins. “Ask nicely.”


“Alright. But her name is Tini, not Little Bit.” Our son turns his face to address his sister. “Tini, this our dad. He’s pretty cool most of the time.”

Maybe it’s the postpartum hormones or maybe it’s all the stress of the last few weeks suddenly breaking through, but I find myself having to cover my mouth to hold back the sounds of sobs as my son gently transfers his sister to his dad. Jamil takes the child with two hands, holding her like she’s made of glass but watching her with a wonder that’s definitely tinged with love rather than horror.

Jamil holds Bitini up to his face and tenderly rubs her tiny little head with a finger. “Hey, there, pretty girl. I’m your daddy. I’m sorry I haven’t been doing a very good job of it yet, but I’m going to do better from now on.”

“Dad,” Kumar interrupts, “she doesn’t understand all of that. She’s a baby.”

“I know.” Jamil smiles and lays a kiss against our daughter’s scales. “But I think she understands that I love her.”

Even as tears continue to torrent down my cheeks and goo fills my nose, causing me to sniffle, I smile. For the first time since I realized my second child would be born in snake form, I’m confident my little family is going to be alright. Maybe even more than alright.

My son quietly hands me a box of tissues and I wrap my tail around his waist while he leans into my side.

Yeah, we’re going to be better than alright. We’re going to be amazing.

The above image is called Look Mama! and is by Raissa Figueroa, who also goes by the name Rizzyfig. You can buy a copy of it on Etsy.

It was given as a writing prompt by my Wording Wednesday project. Other responses can be found in the comments on that site.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

A Promotion in Hell

As Xed Dilman walks into the office of Hellpower Company’s Chief of Personnel, Mr Zarus smiles in a way that should make at least one of Dilman's heads nervous. Normally, the head in Dilman's stomach is quick to pick up on details, but for some reason he beams back at Mr Zarus without a hint of hesitation and it's Xed's upper head, the one on his shoulders, that shoots me a nervously inquisitive look as Vice President Mr Zarus grabs Xed’s hand and gushes, “Congratulations, Dilman!”

I bite down on the tip of my tail, which I just realize I've stuck in my mouth again. It's a really bad habit that I seriously need to break. The other day I read an article that suggested putting foul tasting substances on your nails to stop biting them and I'm thinking that would probably work for tails too. I just need to think of something that won't stain my white fur.

Alerted by the volume of Mr Zarus's voice, several of the office workers appear in the doorway to see what's going on as Xed's lower head thanks Mr Zarus without seeming to wonder what he's being congratulated for. Our coworkers' eyes go to the paper our boss is waving around as they likely wonder about that as Dilman isn't exactly the strongest member of the marketing team. A few of them look at me, knowing I would have typed it up the letter, and I try not to go be anything away with my expression.

Mr Zarus moves his smile to the creatures gathered outside his office. “Everyone congratulate Dilman! He’s just been promoted to Head of Human Resources!”

“What?” goes one of Xed’s heads. “Oh, Heaven, no,” blurts the other.

Our boss narrows his eyes on Xed’s upper head. “No need to curse. Your work here has more than proved you perfect for this job.”

I hold back a whimper by sticking my tail back between my lips. That was an incredibly mean thing to say, even for a hellbeast.

“This calls for a drink!” announces Martinez, in whose opinion pretty much everything in life necessitates an alcoholic beverage. He clops a chipper hand on Dilman’s shoulder and pulls him toward the exit. “Come on, dude. First round’s on me.”

Forcing my tail from my mouth, I wrap its tip around my left horn as I watch Dilman leave. I’ll see him again, when he comes back to fill out his travel authorization. After that… Well, the last Head of Human Resources lasted a good month on earth, but she was a great deal more capable than poor Xed has ever been.

The version of me from my high school years would have been disappointed at the way I sit at my desk and quietly turn to my computer to print out the forms the widower of the last Head of Human Resources is going to need to fill out in order to claim the company sponsored life insurance payout. College me would have dipped her head in shame. Those versions of me still believed saving the world was something a lone demon could achieve if she just tried hard enough. College me would have stood up, quite possibly on the desk rather than behind it, and said it’s ridiculous that we keep sending people to die in the human world. And for what? The chance to sign a few more souls? Aren’t there enough souls in hell already? Don’t humans do a good enough job of damning themselves without interference?

Why is it, college me would have demanded at the top of her lungs, that we all take it as a given that we need to keep increasing the number of damned humans in the universe? Sure, their agony powers our energy grid, but itsn’t it about time that cheaper alternatives were explored? The humans have tech almost as good as ours these days and they’re not burning souls to power it. And Heaven is still operating, even though they have fewer souls than ever these days. Couldn’t that indicate that human ecstacy may be a more powerful energy source than agony?

Personal Assistant me agrees with college and high school me, but lost the energy to complain about it years ago. Last time I mentioned the possibility of running things off positive emotions rather than pain, my ex-girlfriend had rolled her eyes and told me to watch less human entertainment. Apparently they had a film where monsters learned that a child’s laughter was a more powerful energy source than a child’s terror. I haven’t seen this movie, but I have to wonder if it was written by someone from Hell who shares my opinion.

I take the printout, shove it in an envelope, and address it to poor Herman. It’s tempting to go ahead and print out a second copy for Dilman’s wife while I have the file open, but there’s just enough optimism in me that I don’t do it. The new job may fundamentally be a death sentence, but a million things could theoretically happen to save him. They probably won’t, but they could. In a universe of infinite possibilities, something could keep Dilman’s infant daughter from loosing her daddy before she even gets to know him.

My finger hovers in front of my screen for a moment before I close the file. I take a deep breath as I rub my horn with my tail. This job is robbing me of my sense of self… My eyes go to Mr Zarus. He sits at his desk with the empty stare of someone who has logged into a virtual reality program.

Nodding in silence, I open a new terminal and create an account at jobseekers.hell. Maybe I can’t save the underworld, but I can at least find a job that doesn’t involve cheerfully helping good-hearted demons die young.

The above image is from a text by fifteenth century Italian lawyer and bishop Jacobus de Teramo. I haven't been able to find the name of the artist.

It was given as a writing prompt by my Wording Wednesday project. Other responses can be found in the comments on that site.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Along Came a Spider and Sipped Tea Beside Her

When a person sees a picture of a spider pouring tea, most folks will assume that the tea pot is very small and the spider is “regular” size. Humans in general just don’t want to look at the image and assume the teapot is what is standard, because this would make for a spider of alarmingly large proportions. That’s what I assumed when I saw the sign outside the tea shop I just walked into.

While in school, I was told that giant spiders were impossible due to the weight of their exoskeletons. I remind myself of this while staring at the sight in front of me. Clearly, what looks like a spider with a body the size of a Great Dane must be something else. A robot maybe? But everything about the spider seems so... organic.

“It’s called Victorian Rose,” the spider says, talking about the tea she just offered me in a posh and melodic voice. I’m assuming she uses female pronouns due to the sound of her voice, but maybe that’s prejudiced of me. For all I know, the voice I’m hearing is deep for a spider. Or maybe it’s the male spiders with the high voices. It seems really inappropriate to ask. “It’s a black tea blend with bergamot, like an Earl Grey, but I’ve added rose and lavender. It’s really quite lovely.”

“Yes, please?” My mother taught me to be polite and refusal seems like it would be rude. I walked into a tea shop advertising free samples, so clearly society would expect me to accept one barring some valid reason to decline, such as an allergy to one of the ingredients. Citing the species of the person doing the pouring of the tea as a reason to decline seems tacky at best. Mama didn’t raise me to be tacky.

The spider makes a brief, happy-sounding hum as she pours. “It’s probably my favorite of our black teas. I’m a sucker for roses.”

I nod. It’s possible that I’m terrified. That would explain the complete numbness that’s wrapped itself around me. “Yes. Rose petals are very nice in teas.”

“My name is Jan,” the spider says conversationally as she holds out a delicate porcelain tea cup from which emits an aroma I must admit is rather appealing. For a moment, I think that the name confirms this is a female spider, but then I remember that the name Jan can be given to boys in some parts of the world. The human world. Our rules may not apply to giant spiders anyway.

Under the theory that running away from scary things is seldom the best option, I take the tea cup rather than fleeing in terror and give it a long sniff. As promised, there are notes of rose, lavender, and bergamot. If it was being offered to me by anyone other than a gigantic arachnid, I’d be really excited about it rather than somewhat ambivalent. Is that racist of me? It may be. Best to sip the tea before it becomes obvious that I’m nervous about drinking it. Jan lifts a second cup from a nearby shelf and pours herself a cup, which she begins to drink while I’m still pretending to take in the scent.

My first sip is small, but that probably doesn’t seem odd. Most people take small tastes of hot things, yes? The taste matches the aroma well. It’s floral and a little dainty, with an unexpected hint of smoke. “Is there lapsang souchong in the blend?” I ask, suddenly more intrigued than uneasy.

“Good job!” Jan claps with two of the hands that aren’t busy either holding the tea or keeping her upright. It’s more than a bit disconcerting, but holds a slight hint of silliness that helps me relax a little more. “I was inspired by the idea of Victorian London. You know that fog they were famous for was smoke, right? So I thought surely I needed a spark of smokiness!”

“Make sense,” I say. “And it works really well.”

“If you like smoky teas, you might also like our Witches’ Pyre blend. It’s both woodsy and smoky. Some people say its name is in bad taste, of course, but as I was cursed to this form by a witch, I’m actually more okay than I probably should be with the idea of burning them.”

“Oh.” I’m really not sure what one is supposed to say to a declaration like that. “Woodsy and smoky sounds good.”

She nods, which moves most of her body. “We used to call it Campfire, back in the precurse days.”

With a small sound to indicate that I’d heard her, I struggle to decide if I want to ask about the curse. She kind of seems to want me to. I shift my weight as I hold the tea cup with both hands and take another sip.

“If you’re wondering what I did to be cursed, it wasn’t anything bad,” Jan says. “All I said was that I could really use some extra hands. I think the witch might actually have thought she was doing me a favor.”

“Wow.” I blink. “Yeah, I’ve said that loads of time, but I didn’t mean that I wanted to be a spider. I just meant that sometimes it’s hard to juggle stuff.”

“I know, right? Some people just take things way too literally, I suppose.”

“Seems that way.”

As the last of the tea slips down my throat, I finally motivate myself to look around the shop. It looks like a perfectly normal tea shop with shelves of jars lining the walls along with the occasional display of a tea pot, cups, or infuser. I’ve been in dozens like it, although never before have I a met a shopkeeper with eight arms. “I suppose it could have been worse,” I say.

“How so?”

“She could have made you an octopus. Then you’d have to live in water and wouldn’t be able to make tea.”

A loud clicking fills the room. I think it’s a laugh, because when Jan speaks again, she sounds amused. “I’ve never looked at it like that. I guess you’re right.”

Behind me, the door opens. Someone lets out a scream and I hear feet running before the door closes again.

Jan sighs. “That happens so often. I usually don’t man the floor for that very reason. But one of my sales team just quit and no one else could fill the shift.”

“Really?” I smile. “Not to show joy at your misfortune, but my son just started school and I’ve been thinking I’d like a parttime job.”

Without eyelids, it’s impossible for Jan’s eyes to widen. They do seem to get brighter though. “I can start you at fifteen an hour. When can you start?”

I glance at my watch. “I have four hours before I have to be home…”

Above image is by Rose Tursi. I couldn't find this work on her website (it was on Pintrest) but you can get other things by her at www.tursiart.com

The image was offered as a prompt by my Wording Wednesday Project. You can find the post and some other responses to it at https://wordingwednesday.blogspot.com/2019/10/s3w2-and-creature-is-spider.html