top of page
Night Picnic_Cover_v6i2eBook.jpg

JUNE 2023

2023  •  ISBN# 9781970033298  •  95 pp  •  6" x 9" paperback

Night Picnic is a journal of literature and art. We seek to share and celebrate all that is strange, dark, jubilant, complex, confusing, scary, mystical, fantastic, multidimensional, and metaphysical.

Noelle Shoemate, Plastic Fantastic

Halley Fehner, All She Asked

Katy Boyer, Also Fig & Apples, Almonds, Apricots

Russ López, The Love Potion

Mark Keane, Three Coats

Tim McHugh, Council of Shadows

Paul Mills,  The Toad Woman's Secret

Patrick Pfister, Visitation & other poems

David Summerfield, Lee Ashley

Laura Manuelidis, The Threat

Carolyn Sperry, The Little Mermaid

Enjoy work from this issue below:




Shadows hang from his shoulders,

and trousers slip off his hips

as he limps along one cobblestone

at a time,

his Fila track shoes timeworn

down to his encrusted socks.


Ghostlike grizzly face,

hollow forsaken gaze—

pull drag scrape shamble legs—

but he smiles at a fish

flashing upward

out of the Grand Canal,

hooked on the day’s last rainbow,

on its own last breath.


Later he appears in my hotel room,

holding the fish.

Water drips off pearly scales

onto the carpet.


If I am asleep, he wakes me.

If I am awake, he haunts me.


Not the bloodless sea creature;

not even his own loneliness,                

or the meal he brings,

but rather he alone.

He alone haunts me.




Rise Again


No other way,

but by tears

and live flame.


No noble placard,

no grit or valor,

no backward or forward,

no way up but yes down

onto hard ground,

down on knees,

forehead pressed into dirt,

pleading, praying,

deliver me please.


No other way,

too late, too lost,

by nature, by design,

first crushed,


burned on a pyre

into smoldering ash.                                      


Any other way,

no Phoenix.



Nowhere to Be

afternoon raining twilight

onto shadows like puddles


               the years rising like a tide

               back-alley breeze gusting


murky chuckhole avenues

always advancing, always


                               shoe onto asphalt

                               thought onto step


why all this walking

with nowhere to be?


                                     buried beauty

                                     latent longing


the ache of a hidden thing

onto night call down light


Lee Ashley


We searched in the wood for our own fears that day

And instead found Lee’s grotesque countenance

Sprawled liquor-faced in the grisly dirt

Under a dead and denuded umbrella of a tree

Unable to keep a bleak sun from worsening

The beleaguered bloat

Of his not wanting to be alive anymore

Along with two empty bottles of death

Alcohol poisoning

For twenty years stretched over a now finite eternity

The hollow-eyed specter looms behind me

An unseen warning of comeuppance

Called his wife he was a good man

I never saw Lee take a drink

We know that she snapped

And hung up the phone


The Threat


Time is walking under the fossilized elephants

And over the frozen fish

Flashing their fins.        Their eye sockets emptied.



Time barely contemplates the itinerant microbes

Born in the same instant of creation:

Their somethingness forgotten.



No one is threshing the fields of burnt wheat.

A swaddle of snow lulls each body of stone.

The lope of every star that inebriates the desert

No longer recognizes its gardens of repose.



Nothing else moves

Except time’s thinning foot falls

In a space beyond parallax

So distant.              The silence.



Where is your pulse?

How felt your breath?

Who unraveled the wind

Before the invasion of dust?



        Beyond Ukraine, December, 2022


The Little Mermaid



Each step will be like a knife, but that’s nothing.

The sinews of her fish’s tail spread and separate.

Her flesh knits itself into legs and she kicks up in a froth of the surf.

Drags herself to her new feet and they connect with the sand, 

sink in, push up to stand.

The pain is not as bad as she feared; and anyway,

the impossible has happened.

She is suddenly aware — the water in her mouth is salty.

She touches her new legs — skin like on her arms.

She slips her fingers in between them.

She thinks of the prince and his face, his face.

Fear races with desire.

Then she looks up and oh, the night sky.

What cannot happen has happened,

what always happens is happening.

If we could change enough, maybe we could be worthy of love.

The firmament is drunk on itself, filled with stars

blue and orange and white 

exhilarated in its own scintillation and planet shine.

Molecules of water evaporate from her skin.

She feels each one leave.

The keow of a gull and the sound of the waves

fill her drying ear like a seashell.

She wipes her face with her hands,

stares at the new construction, condos going up along the shore.

Is she wearing the air like a cape?

Like a crown?



Plastic Fantastic


“Does that tin-can roof turn your bedroom into a water park every time it rains?” asks Mike Novis. When I was in sixth grade, I won third prize for photographing the palm of my grandmother’s hand. Taking photos of people’s hands, especially older ones with all of the age lines, is nothing more than mediocre talent at best. My grandmother Vikki, however, had a tattoo in the center of her palm with the words: “Never let them see you cry.”

         I loved watching my grandmother’s face — even if she was trying to deliver a message of inner strength or telling me, “Frowning makes you ugly,” she was smiling, and the ghost imprints of her smile were etched around her eyes.

         Whenever I was upset, all she had to do was lift her palm up and flick her wrist. One look at her tattoo and I felt like a queen, steadied from the hurtful and disappointing things my classmates said, particularly regarding living in a trailer. So when Mike asks me the question about my tin-can house in sixth period English, I just smile.

         It is hot on the walk home, but as soon as I climb up the ladder attached to the double wide, I know that the heat from the New Jersey sun can almost melt my Keds on the tin roof. The roar of the cicadas turns all other sounds into bit characters in a play: the birds’ song; Olive Coorigan’s squeaky screen door that she toes open and closed while she gets a tan on her porch; and even Miss Folia’s beagle, George, who barks whenever anyone walks by the front door.

I crack my knuckles, even though my mom is always saying that I’ll be sorry someday as my fingers will resemble little Viennese sausages. The sound of my mother’s voice interrupts my peace, solitude. I snap on my noise-canceling headphones, but a minute later I hear my name, Dahlia, being shouted again.

         Refusing to answer her will only cause her to scream louder. Already people find my mom to be the most annoying person in the park. When she was eighteen years old, she won Miss New Jersey — and she never lets you forget it. Her blond hair still cups around her bottom, despite it making her look desperate. Every month she attempts to recreate the glory days by dyeing it straight from a box: #874328 “Blonds Have More Fun.” Instead of reclaiming her youth, her hair belies how poor she is, the strands split up the shaft from too much peroxide.

         “Hurry up!” she says.

         I scramble down the metal ladder, feet barely finding purchase on the rungs.

         “Look,” she says, thrusting a large manila piece of paper in my hands.

         Mr. Chapmin, who lives in the biggest trailer in the park, has sent out a wedding announcement with the words in puffy pink paint: “We eloped. Ms. Lana Soren and Mr. Calvin Chapmin.” Below the caption that says no gifts is a photo of them dressed in their wedding finery. He in a suit, she in a trumpet-style dress. The odd part is that the photo was taken of them from behind: no toothy smiles, no eye crinkles. His hand is placed securely over the back of her veiled head, blond hair shining in the sun, perhaps to prevent it blowing off her head, except the rest of the picture clearly shows that it was not a windy day, no rustling of their fabrics.

         “So?” I say.

         “Married! How romantic. Even unattractive people can find love,” she says, sniffing like she smells something unpleasant.

         I consider Mr. Chapmin for a moment: beady eyes, with his right eye lower than his left. And small dots on his face that look like Braille markings from uncooperative acne when he was young. Despite his faults, he is our school’s photography teacher and is mostly regarded as “cool” because he allows us to create art projects by simply adding filters to our latest Instagram posts.

The irony is that I am the only classmate who has a camera that’s not attached to her phone, as my trailer-park friend Olive loves to restore vintage cameras for free. Most evenings I struggle to find my composition as the trailer park is as far as I am allowed to explore at night. Stars dust the sky of most of my photos. Or birds crest over the metal roofs.

         I didn’t appreciate how much I would miss something until it was gone. Two weeks after my brother Catum left, my hair started falling to the floor. When I brushed it the one hundred strokes a night, layers of hair would be on the floor. Every night I would spend twenty minutes surreptitiously picking up each strand so that my mom would not ask questions. Eventually it was no longer strands but clumps. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with so much hair. I started making small, pale dolls that I placed under my pillow at night, like the Ecuadorian worry dolls my grandmother kept on her shelf — her favorite she called Fabian. She made a slit in his shirt and glued a small, fuzzy pompom to look like chest hair. When I asked her why she did this, she answered in a deadpan voice that “Fabian was going to find her a sexy man, maybe even a husband,” since my grandfather passed away eight years ago.

         Each night I imagined the dolls sending out silent prayers to the gods that bestow nice hair. I never got longer than a week for my prayers to be heard because my mother decided to change my sheets as a “favor” and screamed when she lifted up the pillow.


* * *

A week after Mr. Chapmin’s wedding announcement arrives, I’m sitting on the roof. The morning smells of tinned pineapple and sugar waft up to the roof of the trailer. The screen door rattles in its frame as my mom pushes it open with her hip. I move my camera out of the case and find an interesting angle of my mother walking over to Mr. Chapmin’s trailer. I zoom in with my lens and watch Mr. Chapmin hand my mother back her Pineapple Upside Down Cake.

         “No, thanks. My wife’s a big-city girl, and she prefers more sophisticated food.”

         “I’d love to meet her,” says my mom.

         I widen the lens, hoping to capture movement behind his front door as no one has seen her yet, but my mom is persistent, patiently waiting to be invited inside like a vampire. When it becomes apparent that Mr. Chapmin has no inclination to let her inside, she finally gets the clue and leaves.

* * *

The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.


All She Asked


I’ve been accused of being unable to love, of loving other women, of loving but just not enough. That’s what Diana said — that I loved her, just not enough — and that’s why she left me, on a warm night in early June when the air smelled like honeysuckle. That whole summer was mild and sweet the way summers rarely are, but I don’t think I noticed at the time. That was the summer I finally stretched myself to the end of longing.

         Diana took love so seriously. She would wake up, stretch, then turn to me and say, “Why do love me?” or “Would you still love me if I was in love with someone else?” or “How much do you think passion diminishes over time?” She asked a question almost every morning and expected an answer by evening. Some evenings, we sat out on the deck, and my tongue felt like stone in my mouth. Some evenings, I kissed her instead of answering. Some evenings, I made a joke. “Don’t you believe me when I say I love you?” I said finally. She flicked a mosquito off her knee. “I think you love me,” she said. “I just don’t think you love me enough.”

         She left the week before summer classes began. I was only teaching one class — Creative Nonfiction — because we’d decided I should spend more time at home. But that summer, I came home to nothing but Diana’s smell. I could smell her on the surfaces of the house, her scent caught in the curling corners of the wallpaper in the bathroom, or on the living room couch where some Saturdays, she and her sister would sit with coffee and talk for hours. Diana smelled like cedar and nutmeg — of warm, winter things.

         Better her smell than her voice, I thought. Better alone than together. Good riddance. But I could still hear her in my head, question after question, a torment I could not shake.


* * *

I’ve said before that I’m an advocate of self-preservation when it comes to matters of the heart, although that hasn’t always been the case. I’d been in love once before, with my best friend in college. Her name was Sarah, and she had a boyfriend, who was not good enough for her, but then again, neither was I. Sarah had tangled, curly hair and dimples that were too low on her face. She was a fantastic writer, and I fell in love with her in a fiction-writing class, when she wrote this story about a man who built his house on top of a mountain to be closer to his wife, who had died. In the end, the mountain killed him — he tumbled to a rocky death — and he was happy. She read the story aloud one evening as we sat cross-legged on opposite ends of her bed, and I knew I was the man in her story because I was willing to do anything to be closer to her.

         I kissed her once, at a party when we were both too drunk. She was dancing by herself, in this crazy, swaying way, and trying to get me to dance with her, holding out her arms to me. Without thinking, I grabbed her hands and pulled her into my lap. She tasted like oranges, and the weight of her made me realize the sudden unfairness of never having held her before. She kissed me back, but when we pulled apart, she said, “Well, I’m glad we got that out of our systems.”

         Before Sarah, I’d been too accustomed to women falling in love with me. I’m not especially handsome but women would believe I was sensitive (which I could be) and fixable (which it seemed I never was). I’ve been told I’m good in bed, but eventually this wouldn’t be enough. “I don’t think you’re emotionally capable of loving anyone,” one said, flinging my boxers at me like a slingshot.

         But Sarah wasn’t in love with me, or at least she never said she was, and maybe that was part of it. After college, she moved to California, and we wrote letters for a while, like some chaste nineteenth-century courtship. The letters dwindled, then died, and we fell out of touch. In graduate school, I slept with my fiction professor (sixteen years older than me, married) because she looked and wrote like Sarah. After one aerobatic session, while I lay panting on her office floor, I muttered that I loved her, and she laughed. “You’re in love with someone, but it’s not me.” Later, I slept with women who did and did not look like Sarah because they were willing.

         Then there was Diana. I met Diana at the Crittenden House, the living-history museum where she worked. I was there for research, for a story I was writing set in the seventeenth century. The piece never went anywhere, but I found Diana, dressed up like a colonist and talking to people in a fake British accent. I asked her once to seduce me in a British accent, just to see if she would. She didn’t do it again. “Why don’t you go watch the BBC, and I’ll come in halfway through,” she said, smacking me on the butt.

         Diana had brown eyes and brown, straight hair, which she tended to wear up in a bun at work and in a ponytail at home. She seemed familiar to me that first day, and it wasn’t until later that I realized I’d seen her picture on the back of the bus that circled around campus. It was an ad for the Crittenden House — a larger-than-life picture of Diana wearing a bonnet and holding a chicken with a charming, confused smile on her face. When I mentioned the ad, she laughed. “I’m thinking, ‘Why the hell am I holding this chicken?’”

         Diana started out like the other women did. We talked, and I asked if she wanted to grab coffee when she got off work. I said something about my story, how it was research. I was casual, non-committal. Coffee ran into dinner and dinner into after-dinner drinks, and before I knew it, Diana was in my bed, unzipping my fly. Afterward, she fell asleep curled into me, and I put my face in her hair, which smelled like vanilla. She didn’t look like Sarah, but she was Sarah’s shape and size, and her weight on top of me had felt like Sarah’s weight. 

         But in the morning, Diana rolled over and said, in this serious voice, “Do you love me?” It was the first question and the most important one, and for one reason or another, I lied.

“Yes,” I said, pulling her toward me. “Yes, I love you.”


* * *

The evening before summer classes began, I tried to write down every question Diana had ever asked me. It took some straining at first, and at one point, I got up and opened all the windows of the house, as if memory was something that could sweep in with the breeze. In the end, the questions spilled across four pages — would you leave someone if they cheated on you, do you love me more than you love yourself, have you ever loved someone even though you knew it would never work. On and on.

         The next morning, I stood in front of the classroom and told my students I was going to ask them one question every day. They would spend ten minutes writing about it, trying to be, I said, “completely and utterly honest.” I talked to them about artistic bravery and from there somehow launched into the dangers of plagiarism. A few students shifted in their seats. One girl dropped her pencil and sighed as it rolled across the floor. “But about the questions,” I said, “it’ll be a brainstorming activity. I won’t collect it.” I pulled out Diana’s list. “Our first question is, ‘Who is the first person you fell in love with?’”

         Montgomery College was an unpretentious organization — a two-year community college. The most difficult student in the class was Henry, who was mid-fifties and had written on his pre-class form that he was taking the class because his wife had nagged him to get out of the house. The best student was Marigold, who looked like her name, her wild, blonde hair framing her face like petals. I had had her the semester before, in fiction workshop, where she’d written a piece about a man who thought he could see his ex-wife in the clouds. The worst student was Gerald, also a double-offender. In fiction workshop, every one of Gerald’s stories had the same plotline: the main character went to Canada and realized he was gay.

         Diana used to sit on the couch and read all of my students’ work. It wasn’t entirely ethical, in retrospect, but she loved stories. “This Gerald-kid is a riot,” she said. “I adore him.”

         “He’s not any good,” I said, but she waved me away. She took fiction seriously. She would curl her feet under herself and hold the paper out like a script, her hand on her chin. She read the bad stories the same way she read the good ones — frowning at parts, nodding at others. The only stories she read differently were my stories, probably because I produced them so slowly that she treated each one like a treasure. “Good God, Diana, just read it and tell me it’s not horrible,” I said, but she would say she was saving it for when she could really enjoy it. Afterward, we had the best sex.

         “I loved the line where he describes why he loves her,” she said, sitting on top of me. “What was it? ‘To him, she was beauty and light, something soaring, a fabulous kite in the wind that she had placed in his hands and asked him to hold.’ Jesus Christ.” Then she took off my shirt and kissed her way down my chest.

         I started to think maybe I loved her because she loved my writing, as unpublishable as much of it was. So when she said “why do you love me,” what could I say?  Because you love me? Because you like my sad, sappy stories? Maybe I don’t but you make me feel better about myself? Saying nothing always seemed better.

* * *

The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.


Apples, Almonds, Apricots


She visits orchards whenever she can. She sneaks in at night and gathers fallen, busted, half-rotted apples and apricots, putting them into plum- and emerald-colored Easter baskets. The baskets still hold Easter grass, rose pink, which she changes out after each trip because she doesn’t want the baskets to stink. The grass cushions the puckered fruit and keeps them from rolling around in the wire basket of her bike.

         When she gets home from these nocturnal outings, she lays her palms flat against the casement window in the sunroom, now lit by different stars, and persuades it to open, transferring the baskets one by one from the dewy grass to the chilly concrete floor. Then, she climbs in herself and shuts the window, quiet as moonlight. She steps out of the sunroom for a moment to extract her terrycloth robe from the red-blinking dryer, strips and folds her clothes into neat parcels, and dons the hot robe, which has always smelled like flour to her. Her folded clothes go in the big droopy pockets of the robe. Her shoes, mud carefully scoured away with an old toothbrush, go by the front door.

         She pads back to the sunroom in cotton-socked feet. The warmth of the powdery terrycloth makes her feel relieved. However, once she takes her place on the battered Turkish rug that does little to mask the underlying frostiness of the smooth concrete, she knows she must work quickly.

         She pulls several things from under the ancient loveseat at her side: two glass jars, half-full, a mortar and pestle, a hammer, a paring knife, a roll of trash bags, and a box of latex gloves. She pulls a stained sheet of newspaper from under the rug and sets it before her crossed legs. With her baskets spread around her in a half-circle, she picks an apple from one and cuts it into eighths. She plucks out the seeds and puts them in one of the jars and nestles the soggy apple flesh in the trash bag. Then she takes another apple and does it again. The process is repeated until the apple baskets are depleted, at which point she balls up the Easter grass and throws it away, too.

         She moves on to the apricots, peeling the flesh from their hard hearts, the pits. These she must grind up so that they will fit into the other jar. Once her pile of pits is four inches high, she picks up the hammer in a steady fist. This is the tensest part of the night — she cannot bang on the pits too hard, or else he will wake. With short, firm taps, she shatters each pit into more manageable pieces and drops them into the stone mortar. She thinks about the future as she grinds them.

         Periodically, she dumps the fresh brown powder in the mortar into the other jar, carefully scraping the pestle free of the poisonous dust. She wonders if she will be able to find wild almonds to put in another jar. Her gardening books say that she lives in the right area for them to grow, and besides, they contain a much higher concentration of cyanide than the apple seeds and apricot stones. More efficient.

         She knows she should worry about efficiency and wild almonds, but the truth is that she likes the work. The peeling and scraping and grinding is methodical, mechanical, just like her day job, but something about hunching over innocuous, sweet-smelling poisons in the night-darkened sunroom makes her feel like a priestess of some ancient order.

         Look there at my array, she thinks. The mortar and pestle rest in the center of the spell circle, symbols of death and rebirth, change. At the circle’s north point is the knife, the flesh-opener, the blood-letter. In the south, the hammer, the rough cut, smashing son of Mother Mortar and Father Pestle. And the jars lie to the west, the east, glass afterlives for my apples and apricots, the fruits of my labors.

         The work is silent and care-filled. When she is finished, she peels away her stickied gloves. In truth, she would do the work without gloves, because she is in no danger of being poisoned, and the fruit, despite being a little rotted, still smells sweet. The apples’ smell is of fading morning sun, bright and crisp with a sweet edge, while the apricots remind her of beehives put under the smoker: gently buzzing and melting into sweetness. She cannot, however, afford to let her hands be stained with the smells of her nightly work. It would raise too many questions in the one upstairs in his bed.

         Once she has scrubbed her hands with the pearly soap in the powder room, she returns to the sunroom and stows her tools, which she has come to think of as magic implements. Everything but the full trash bag returns to its home under the ratty loveseat. That she takes right back out the casement window, which she has left open to air out the room, because she dares not risk the squeak of the back door or the creak of the front.

         She walks the quarter mile out to the edge of the property, right by the treeline, and dumps the fruit flesh and rinds. Back here, they won’t be noticed, and they stand a chance of making something else grow, even though there are no more seeds or pits that contain genetic material. When that is done, she makes her way onto her neighbors’ property, folding the stained bag like she folded her clothes before, tidy-tiny, and then tucking it in their trashcan under another bag.

She goes back across the scrubby lawn, back through the window, easing it closed tight behind her. When it is shut, the room feels blacker and more stifling than before, but she thinks that might just be because she doesn’t trust the silence.

         Glad to leave the cold concrete, she creeps up the carpeted stairs to go to bed for the second time in one night. When she reaches the top, she glances in the direction of her brother’s room: the door is shut; the light is off. She releases a breath she didn’t know she was holding.

By now, she has figured out which of the old russet floorboards will betray her movements and which won’t, so she steps quiet through the white doorway of her bedroom. It is cold. She takes the clothes from her robes, and then the robes themselves, and hides them at the bottom of her laundry basket. Her socks she keeps on, too chilly to do otherwise. She has been doing this for weeks, washing them each evening to rid them of good smells, spell-smells. Her wardrobe is growing a little threadbare from such constant attention, but at least she has a warm robe to embrace every night.

         After pulling on a cotton nightgown, she climbs into her antique bed, pulling the sheets and lumpy chenille bedspread up to her chin. She thinks of sleep. She thinks of her brother, who is bound to notice something, sooner or later. She thinks of witches and poisoners, her heart of heart’s bloodline. She thinks of dancing through the orchard at dawn, not midnight, unencumbered by baskets and other burdens. She thinks of the jars under the loveseat, so close to full. She thinks of tomorrow.  


The Love Potion


The blue bottle sat on her kitchen table an inch beyond her fingertips, but Señora Alba was unable to bring herself to drink from it. The potion tried calling to her in a seductive voice, “Drink me,” its silver-tinged voice beckoned, “and all your problems will disappear.” When that failed, it turned imperious. “Now!” it ordered. And when Alba continued to hesitate, it tried begging. “Why don’t you believe in me?” it pleaded. “For god’s sake, just one swallow.”

         Alba’s love potion was a best seller, attracting customers from Salinas to Santa Rosa. After word spread among her gay clients of its power, for example, they bought it by the gallon. She hadn’t understood how popular it was among young queer men until the nephew of a woman at church took her for a walk along Post Street one Saturday night and she smelled the potion’s distinct aroma as she passed several bars. Several satisfied patrons posed for selfies with Alba that evening. Women young and old clamored for it, with a blue bottle now a standard wedding present for most East Side brides, while aging bachelors constantly texted her for refills. To protect herself from the police, she had long ago prohibited anyone under the age of eighteen from using it, lest its power ensnare someone into doing something with legal consequences.

         Just last week, Prudencia Alvarez had come in for another bottle, grateful for it saving her marriage. “Calvin is losing interest in me,” she had tearfully told Alba when she made her first purchase. “He keeps saying he is tired from working two jobs, but I see the way he looks at other women.” Alba had sold Prudencia her first quart of the potion just a month ago. “Now I am the tired one,” she smiled. “He can’t get enough of me.”

         Lupe Vélez was another satisfied customer. “I had my daughter drink it every morning before going to work. I had given up on her ever getting married and giving me grandchildren. Men thought she was more interested in her career than in a relationship, but that wasn’t true. She was just shy. Now she is engaged to a wonderful young man, a lawyer in the district attorney’s office.” Lupe hugged Alba and promised to invite her to the wedding.

         Sometimes the results were mixed. Cassandra Sálazar, a popular teacher, tried the potion but had to give it up after it attracted the wrong kind of men. “I have a date lined up with Diego Calderón, the man of my dreams. But I can’t go grocery shopping without a dozen men exposing themselves to me in the bread aisle. The stuff is too powerful, bruja.”

         For Marisol Vázquez, the results were a disaster. “My boyfriend and I drank it together, hoping that it would cement a perfect relationship. Remember Antonio? He was such a catch with his trendy clothes, muscular body, and great dance moves.” Alba thought he was one of the handsomest men in the valley. “We were worried because we were both traumatized by our parents’ broken marriages.” Marisol’s parents had a particularly nasty divorce with dueling restraining orders and thousands of dollars wasted on lawyers’ fees. “We were happy until we somehow attracted the attention of my novio’s best friend, Dante, who became infatuated with both of us. For a while I was in heaven.” Dante was perhaps the only guy better looking than Antonio. Alba had seen the crisis coming and had tried to warn Marisol, who wouldn’t listen. “Alba! Two perfect, sexy men with me in between. We did things I didn’t know were physically possible.” Customers routinely shared their most intimate secrets with Alba. “But I grew tired from too much sex. I needed to sleep, but they kept me up all night long demanding more. I had to give up the potion or I’d lose my job.” Alba patted her hand in sympathy. “My boyfriend, however, kept drinking it with Dante. They dumped me for each other.”

         Interrupting Alba’s thoughts, the bottle called out in a melodic voice. “Isn’t it time you did something for yourself, bruja? You deserve me.”

         Alba wondered how she had gotten to this point in life where she was subjected to this intense temptation. She thought of her dear husband, whom she had met the old-fashioned way: she was set up with him on a blind date. Alba had been working in a wafer fabrication plant, one of those long-closed semiconductor factories that had given Silicon Valley its name, when a lady on her production line insisted she meet her brother after work for a drink.

         “I’ve never dated a bruja before,” Fausto Alba told her in a voice more excited than scared.

         “I’m not technically a bruja yet. I still have a lot to learn,” she answered. Fausto was handsome, dark cinnamon red with a big smile and a happy aura around him. Alba, a petite beauty with enchanting eyes, felt an instant attraction. But she could see that Fausto had a weak heart. A couple of years later after Fausto blacked out at work, his doctor confirmed what she had sensed. By then it was too late, though Alba never regretted marrying him. He died at the age of thirty, but not before leaving her with two wonderful children who were the highlight of her life.

         Angelica was a pediatrician at the East Side Clinic. Parents often thanked Alba for her daughter treating their children. “She inherited your gift for healing,” many told her. Without any assistance from Alba, Angelica had married a non-Mexican, Seamus, a redheaded, freckle-faced Irish boy with big ears she had met in medical school. He had an impish grin that had earned him the nickname “diablito” at the clinic where he was a gerontologist. He also had no need for a potion, his patients loved him. Sean and Angelica had produced three grandchildren for Alba, who believed they were the best-looking kids in the valley.

         Alba’s son Tyler had gone to UCLA where he supported himself by acting in telenovelas. Now he was one of the biggest stars on Latinx television. “They could at least let you wear a shirt once in a while,” Alba liked to tease him. Tyler was moving into directing and producing. He was married to a nice Mexican girl from a great family and had two adorable children, one of whom Alba knew would someday follow her into the bruja business.

         It was the need to support herself that prompted Alba to invent her now-famous love potion. Its base was simple, just grape soda that she would let go flat. Its power came from cempasúchiles, the marigolds featured on El Dia de los Muertos, for who could possibly know more about love and desire than the dead? To this base Alba added carefully measured out additives, including willow bark to guard against heartache, yucca to prevent a loved one from straying, and thyme to give the seeker of love courage. Finally, she chanted an old Nahuatl prayer that made the mixture bubble and ferment. The incantation had been given to Alba by La Malinche, Cortéz’s native interpreter and consort as he conquered Mexico in 1519. She knew quite a lot about how to attract a man.

         Cool, rational Angelica thought the potion was worthless, though she had referred dozens of friends to her mother to settle their romantic palpitations of the heart. Romantically-inclined Tyler drank a spoonful daily and credited his success to his mother’s alchemy. Inflation had forced Alba to raise her prices substantially over the years, but she reminded her customers that they couldn’t put a price on love.

         In the decades since Fausto, the hauntingly good-looking Alba had many affairs, everyone in the barrio talked about her love life. There had been Ernesto, the handsome director of the Mayfair Community Center; José Bernal, an enterprising man who went from a long career as a cooper at the pickle works on Altadena Street to opening his own business to sell half barrels to yuppie condo owners after the pickle company closed; and Anders Martín, a radiation tech at County Hospital. Alba only seriously considered marriage to the last. But Anders would always bring up his desire to return to the Philippines every time Alba suggested matrimony.

         Early on, Alba had sworn off helping customers with revenge, a significant source of income for many other brujas. She would have nothing to do with promoting miscarriages, arranging car accidents, or causing rivals to lose their teeth and hair. Her favorite work was protecting children, believing that her ability to assist new parents to keep el mal de ojo away from their babies was a gift from God. Frequently asked to solve money problems, her financial advice was simple: buy low, sell high, invest for the long term, and avoid crypto currency. She didn’t need to be a bruja to dispense common sense, and when stumped, she could always consult one of her dead colleagues.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.


Three Coats


Tony France came looking for me in the garden maze where I was pruning the hedges.

         “You can leave that for now,” he said. “Mr. Davidson has a special job for you.”

         “What’s he got in mind?” I asked.

         “I’ll let him explain.”

         I followed Tony into the house, and up the marble staircase.

         We waited on the second-floor landing for Mr. Davidson to join us. He led the way into a room with floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with books. Tiffany lamps in each corner cast diffused light. The Bocote wood floor was burnished to a rich brown sheen.

         In front of one set of shelves stood a four-sided structure with a zig-zag arrangement like an expanded concertina. Four grey plastered surfaces, nine feet high and fifteen feet wide, each with a six-inch wooden skirting board. Three plastic tubs stacked to one side of the structure bore labels that read: “Brilliant White.”

         Mr. Davidson pointed to the tubs. “You have been provided with six gallons of paint. Three coats will be required.” He adjusted the cuffs of his bespoke suit. “I want the final effect to capture the whiteness I witnessed following a heavy snowfall in Quebec in January 1981. You will receive credit for any paint you do not use. That credit is of course predicated on you achieving the requisite whiteness of the Quebec snow.”

         He paused, hands clasped behind his back. “On no account are you to get any paint on the wooden border or on the floor. No dripping is permitted. You will not be given any cloth or tissue. If you attempt to cover up mistakes, there will be grave consequences.” He pursed his lips. “Joe Spain certainly regrets his carelessness.”

         Muffled buzzing came from Mr. Davidson’s pocket. He took out his phone and checked the screen. “I have a meeting to attend. Tony can cover the logistics.”

         He exited the room, every inch the autocrat used to getting his way.

         I waited until he was definitely gone.

         “What did he mean about Joe Spain?”

         “Joe Spain won’t be painting anything for some time.” Tony nodded his head slowly, eyebrows raised, making it clear he had nothing more to say on the subject.

         One thing which had struck me as odd since signing on with Mr. Davidson was that all his employees had countries for surnames: Tony France, Ivan Israel, Hugh Peru, and now Joe Spain.

         “What’s the reason for the painting?” I asked. “What does he want, all that stuff about Quebec snow?”

         “Don’t ask me, I just work for the man.”

         “Is it a test?”

         “Who knows?” Tony puffed out his cheeks. “If it is, you’d better pass it.”

         Up close, the four surfaces were not smooth but covered in dimples and ridges, edges, and corners.

         “How am I to know if I’ve got the right color?”

         “Use your imagination.” Tony shrugged. “The boss suggested three coats of paint, and he should know.” He glanced at his watch. “Time to lock you in for the night.”

         He took me to a small adjoining room where I was to sleep. It contained a cot with a hessian cover, a wooden chair, and a chamber pot. There were no lights, no bulb hanging from the ceiling, or lamp.

         “Someone will be back at eight in the morning with your breakfast. Probably me or Ivan. Get a good night’s sleep, you’ve a lot of painting ahead of you. One coat per day. Not as easy as you might think. Heavy work. Not physically, but mentally. Mr. Davidson will be here on Friday to check the final result.” Tony leaned a little closer. “I remember Joe Spain’s first night. He was cocksure of himself. ‘Painting a wall was a piece of piss,’ I remember him saying. He’s not saying that now.”

         Tony locked the door. His footsteps faded, and an eerie stillness pervaded the enclosed space, inky-black apart from a grey line where a gap under the door seeped pale light from the outer room. I lay on the cot and didn’t sleep.


* * *

         The following morning, Ivan unlocked the door. I sat up, and checked my watch — it was coming up to ten o’clock.

         “I know I’m late, Taffy.” Ivan put a tray on the ground. “Better dig in. You’ve got to finish the first coat by five o’clock. Mr. Davidson’s instructions.”

         I hadn’t had much to do with Ivan Israel, and found him off-hand to the point of hostility. Tall and paunchy with a precarious comb-over and perpetual sneer, he always gave the impression I’d wronged him in some way.

         I needed no encouragement to dig in. A top-notch breakfast, but I expected nothing less from Mr. Davidson. Blueberry porridge, crispy bacon with waffles, and maple syrup, Eggs Benedict, freshly-squeezed orange juice, and a carafe of Columbian roast.

         Ivan reappeared in the doorway. “This is a one-brush job,” he announced.

       He handed me the brush, large and unwieldy with thick bristles. I turned it in my hand and could see it had been used before, white stains on the handle and dried paint at the base of the bristles.

         “Is this what—”

         “Same brush Joe Spain used.” Ivan cut me off. “I hope you do a better job than him.”

I thought about the wooden border, and Mr. Davidson’s warning about mistakes. “Do you have a second—”

         “One-brush job. Mr. Davidson’s instructions. You better crack on, Taffy. No time to waste.” Ivan turned away and called over his shoulder, “Someone will bring you lunch at one o’clock.”

         I stood in front of the structure. The dimples and depressions I’d noticed the day before appeared arbitrary and not part of a design. A series of intricate rucks reminded me of the backbone of an animal. The light from the lamps threw complex shadows that caused the undulations and hollows to shift position. Hardly the best light for painting. Mr. Davidson was testing me and, as Tony said, I’d better pass the test.

         I lifted the top tub, my arms wobbling with the effort, and lugged it over to the structure. Ivan had provided no tools other than the brush, nothing to lever the lid from the tub. A hard plastic sheath ran around the rim, which had to be removed before the lid could be released. I pulled and twisted, cut my fingers on the hard plastic, and finally ripped it from the tub. Using the key to my bike lock, I pried open the lid bit by bit, until it popped up.

         My fingers throbbed, fingernails broken, cuts stinging. I tore the hem of my shirt, and wrapped the cloth around the cuts. The paint was thick and yellowish, anything but “brilliant white.” I tried using the brush handle to stir it but that made no difference. Five hours to go, and I still hadn’t applied a single drop of paint.

By the time Hugh Peru showed up, I had covered the upper half of one surface. To reach the top, I stood on the chair from my room. Getting up and down from the chair, I worried about dripping paint on the floor and kept my hand cupped under the brush. The paint missed out depressions in the surface. I poked the white tip of the bristles into the hollows. The brush wasn’t up to the job, the lighting inadequate and misleading.

         “Something smells good.” Hugh held up a dome-covered platter. “Better eat while it’s still hot.”

         Unlike Ivan Israel, Hugh Peru was invariably cheery. A small man in his mid-thirties with curly black hair and an enormous moustache, he could have stepped out of a Velasquez painting.

He handed me the platter and moved to one side to examine the wall. “You’ve made real progress.”

         “It’s hopeless,” I said. “The paint isn’t going on properly.”

         Hugh shook his head. “The first coat always looks like that. You’re too much of a perfectionist. I’ll leave you to eat in peace. Bon appétit.” 

         I lifted the dome and the warm waft of flavors got my digestive juices flowing. Venison steak in a red wine sauce, garlic mash, and white asparagus tips. A glass of burgundy to wash it down and cheesecake for afters. Whatever about paint brushes, Mr. Davidson didn’t skimp when it came to food. I refused to linger over the meal, no time for such luxury. When Hugh returned, I had resumed painting.

         “How was lunch?”

         “Very tasty.” I held out the brush. “How am I supposed to avoid getting paint on the wood with this?”

         “I see.” Hugh grimaced. “Very difficult. I suppose you need to be extra careful. We don’t want a repeat of the Joe Spain incident.”

         “There must be a second brush I can use, a smaller one to do along the border.”

         “Afraid not. Instructions from Mr. Davidson. A one-brush job, that’s what he said. You’ll work it out.” He patted my shoulder. “Better get a move on. You have to be finished by five. Ivan will be here to shut up shop.” He dawdled in the doorway. “You’ll get it done. I’ve every confidence in you. You’re nothing like Joe Spain.”

         I picked up the pace, moving down the first surface to within three inches of the wooden border. Any closer and I risked getting paint on the wood. I needed a smaller brush. Using my key, I hacked off enough bristles to fashion a precision brush. I should have kept the knife from lunch which would have come in handy to cut the bristles and to open the other tubs. No doubt Mr. Davidson wouldn’t have permitted it, as part of his instructions.

         I removed a shoelace and tied it around the bristles to bind them together. Then, I got down on my knees, and applied paint with this bristle brush. Slowly, painstakingly, I moved the bristles from left to right, covering the area above the wooden strip. It worked. Starting at an angle of forty-five degrees, the tip just above the border, I let the paint grip and then drew the bristles away from the wooden edge. I followed this with a horizontal alignment, and a smooth motion to the right. Inching along, knees bruised against the ground, my breathing synchronized with my hand movements. Nothing existed but the wooden strip. I kept going, all the way to the end of the fourth surface.

         I eased myself off the ground. Ten minutes to four, and I had the better part of three surfaces to complete. I attacked the paint, shoved the big brush into the tub, pulled it out, paused and painted — upward stroke, downward stroke, to the right, up and down, a check to fill dimples, pressing the tip into corners, another press and twist. Back into the tub, careful not to drip paint. I persevered, mechanical, indefatigable; a painting machine. When the tub was light enough to lift, I carried it with me, minimizing the chance of spillage and working much quicker. I brushed, and dipped, and probed, and squeezed, until I completed the final section.

         Ivan arrived at five o’clock. I hid the makeshift bristle brush in my pocket.

         He walked from one end of the structure to the other. “Looks like you got it finished after all, Taffy. Very messy though.” He hunkered down and inspected the border. “Better hope you don’t slip-up. Mr. Davidson will be here on Friday with special lamps to check for mistakes.”

         I said nothing, too exhausted to speak or think. Ivan checked the tub of paint.

         “There’s still a lot left, you might have stinted on the paint. Right, put the lid back on and I can lock up.” He picked up the brush. “What were you doing, Taffy? Painting or scrubbing the walls? I’ll have this cleaned so it’s ready for you in the morning.”

         He locked the door behind me. I lay on the cot, curled into a ball, and fell asleep.    

* * *

The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.


Council of Shadows


An icy chill leaked through the cracks in the stone wall and flowed through the large stone council room. It bent between the semicircle of massive stone chairs that were carved from the rocky ground and finally broke against the dual wooden doors inlaid with swirling veins of bronze and silver. The five elders, three women and two men, sat in thick pools of shadow, silhouetted by the haunting green glow of the alchemical lamps set along the back wall.

         Colton’s footsteps made loud, clapping echoes as the doors creaked shut behind him. He approached the center of the room bringing a deeper chill with him. After a vicious look at the five elders, he knelt at the foot of the chairs and bowed his head. The man on the center throne, Elder Leoric, leaned forward off the tall, flat back letting a green glow splash over his face.

         “Brother Colton.” His hoarse voice boomed, “We summoned you to assign a new target.”

Colton’s head shot up in a mix of surprise and anger, “I’ve killed five in as many days…” he said through clenched teeth, “…elder.” He added hastily.

         Leoric let the silence hang in the air for a minute then continued with a sharp edge in his voice, “You know the danger the guild faces.”

         If we stop killing them, they’ll stop retaliating.

         “There are bounties on each of our heads.” The hoarse voice continued.

         So we just kill them all?

         “We are a brotherhood.”

         Yet I do the killing.

       Colton dragged out the silence, knowing it would anger the man more than his words could. The low whistling of the wind filled his ears as he kept an easy composure. The green light bounced off his glare, illuminating the cold malice in his burning eyes. Finally, Elder Annora, sitting to Colton’s left, broke the silence, “Your target is Cassian Audovera, a ship merchant whose estate is on—”

         “Ashton Hill,” Colton interrupted. “I’m familiar.”

         “Very well.” She waved her hand dismissively.

         “May I ask why this man must die?” Colton said with contempt dripping from his lips.

All five glared at him, shocked by his insolence. “Have you lost trust in the guild?” One of them said.

         “Of course not, but—”

         “Then leave.”

         Colton bowed, then walked from the room, hands clenched at his side.

* * *

Colton left the underground temple in common clothes and a threadbare black cloak, hood pulled over his messy brown hair. As strained as his relationship was with the council of elders, they were right to be cautious. Although the crown had established the guild a thousand years ago to maintain peace for the kingdom in the ways the king could not, a new ruler, with no trust in the assassins, had risen to the throne.

Colton strode through the whirling cobbled streets of the city but couldn’t enjoy the warm blaze the sun was casting over his pale face. He turned down the tight streets and grimy alleys, drifting through the low buzz from the masses of people going about their business. He was slim and lithe, almost dancing to avoid knocking people over.

         He hesitated and looked over his shoulder, making sure he was alone, before he turned into a thin alley, barely shoulder-wide between a bookstore and an apothecary. He walked halfway towards the dead end then turned right down a short staircase leading into a stout, rickety-looking building.

         He was smacked with a strong chemical odor as he walked into the laboratory. The room was small but well-lit with warm colors from ten different alchemical lamps. The alchemist was bent over his worktable in the center of the room.

         “Godric, you busy with work?”

         The man looked up and took off a pair of circular goggles. He was short and thin with streaks of slightly-charred white hair.

         “Would you call ‘inventing a new alchemical process to turn iron into gold’ work?” He talked a little too loud as if his ears were ringing from an explosion.

         “No,” Colton said with a smirk.

         “Then no, I’m not busy.” He said taking his thick leather gloves off. “What can I do for you my friend assassin.”

         Colton looked over his shoulder to make sure the door was closed, “Watch it, Godric. It’s a dangerous time for us.” Colton came by the alchemist’s shop often for supplies, the man was tight-lipped and good company.

         Godric waved it off and turned to inspect a vial of purple liquid on the far counter, “My lab is soundproof.”

         “I need a tool,” Colton said getting back to business.

         Godric turned and raised an eyebrow, “Thought you were done with the guild? The other night you said the council was turning rotten.”

         Colton felt his ears get hot. He had shown up at the alchemist’s laboratory last night after killing a wealthy property owner in the city. He had been distraught and in dire need of company. They drank a fizzy silver substance of Godric’s design that had loosened Colton’s lips considerably.

         He told Godric all about the silent war that was being waged, how his brothers and sisters were being slaughtered by the king’s men. He also mentioned that he suspected the council, who was established to ensure the guild never took contracts out on innocents, was sending him out just to retaliate against the crown. 

         “Nothing I can do about it.” He couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice.

         “Never say never!” Godric yelled eccentrically.

         Colton pursed his lips, “I don’t think I did...”

         Godric tilted his head, “You sure?” he waved his hands as if he were pushing the thought aside, “So what do you need?”

         Colton took a step forward, “Would a house on Ashton hill have reinforced glass windows?”

         Godric turned back to his purple vial and put it over a burner, “Of course, they would’ve been alchemically hardened.”

         “Do you have anything that could break through that?”

         Godric turned to say something then stopped himself. He walked to the back corner of the room and dug through a tall wooden cabinet. Odd-looking objects clattered to the ground around him as he searched.

         “Ah hah!” He yelled pulling out a small item that looked like a miniature pickaxe. Godric tossed it over the center work table. Colton, surprised, grasped for it in the air and was barely able to hold on to it without impaling himself. Godric went back to work as if Colton wasn’t there.

         “Will this work? It looks like normal steel.”

         “Of course, it will work!” Godric threw his hands in the air, “It’s made of Osmium, not steel, and if you look closely, you’ll see it’s tipped with a diamond shard.”

         Colton held the little axe up to his face and squinted at the tip, “I don’t see any diamond, Godric.”

         “Well, yea! You’ll need a magnifier!” Godric yelled as if he were talking to a child.

         “Do you have one?”


         Colton shook his head in amusement and dropped a small leather pouch on the work table. Godric turned at the noise and quickly examined the package.

         “I don’t deal in coin, Colt.” He said with slight disappointment.

         Colton smirked, “Just open it.”

         Godric walked around the table, picked up the pouch, and lifted it up and down as if he were testing the weight. He finally pulled open the top and plucked out the stone within, holding it in front of a yellow alchemical lamp to examine it.

         “Oh wow.” He mused.

         He opened a drawer under the work table and Colton shook his head as he saw a collection of magnifiers within. Godric pulled one out and took a long look at the stone in his hand. It was a near-perfect cube with a surface smooth as glass. It looked as if purple smoke was frozen into a block of midnight black ice.

         “I’m sure I could find a use for this.”

         “Glad I could help.” Colton turned on his heel and stepped back into the bustling streets of the city. He disappeared into the crowds and started the long trek to Ashton Hill.

* * *

The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.


The Toad Woman's Secret 


The marketplace was almost too small for the crowd of people who had gathered there. This was becoming the norm these days. A year ago, few people had bothered to turn out on a Monday morning to hear the bellman read the notices, but since the war, people were taking more and more of an interest in them, and now, not only were crowds like this common, but the notices themselves were coming more and more frequently. Today the crowd was there before the bellman even arrived and started ringing his bell, but he rang it for a good minute anyway; it was the form.

         As this was a public gathering, the people of the town who thought of themselves as well-to-do had dressed up in whatever finery they had, and never mind that as soon as the notices were read, they would go back to their houses and change into their ordinary, less-respectable clothes. However, unlike most other public gatherings, there was no set place designated for the common folk and the more respectable people, and when the bellman read out his notices, the gentry in their fine clothes rubbed shoulders with ordinary tradesmen and women and even beggars wearing little but dirt.

         "Good people of Blake's Town," the bellman read, in a voice so formidable that it could be heard clearly right at the back of the rabble, "I crave your attention, for I have no fewer than three notices, each of which is vital to the wellbeing of our town and of our nation."

         "What of the war?" called a voice from the crowd.

         "How many Dordans did our men kill?" called another.

         "But before I begin," said the bellman, "it is my duty to remind you that water will be drawn from the river tomorrow for brewing, therefore any person or persons caught urinating or defecating in the river today will meet with severe punishment, which may include — but not be limited to — a month's imprisonment, including daily floggings, being dragged through the town, and/or confiscation of one half part of the malefactor's or malefactors' property."

         "Balls! Get on with it!"

         "What of the war? Tell us about the war!"

         "Good people of Blake's Town,” the bellman continued, “The first notice regards the town of Hardwood, which is, it seems, afflicted with miner's sickness. Gates of Hardwood are locked and all travel to and from Hardwood is hereby forbidden until further notice."

         He now paused, listening to the people calling out at him, trying to discern individual voices among the cacophony. It was customary that after each notice was read out, he would allow people to call out questions, a few of which he might repeat to the crowd and provide answers to.

         "A young gentleman near the front asks: Is miner's sickness always fatal?

         "It is fatal one time in three, although two people in three afflicted with the sickness are lucky enough to survive it. Prayers from the patient and from his family and acquaintances are known to increase the likelihood of survival, as is the consumption of sugar." The bellman's brother was a spicerer, and sugar was one commodity he very often had among his wares.

         "What's that? Ah, an excellent question: Which God should prayers for the sick be directed to? Now, I am no theologian, but my understanding is that prayers for specific sick people should be directed either to the Pale God or to the Silent God. Opinions differ as to which is more effective in this instance. However, if possible people planning to pray should coordinate beforehand, so that they are all praying to the same God." He scanned the crowd for a priest. "As I say, I am no theologian, and I am prepared to be contradicted, but..." The priest was nodding, vigorously. "Ah, I see my Holy friend is signaling his approval at my answer.

         "Another concerned young gent asks: How long will the travel restrictions be in place?

        “Government alchemists are expected to arrive in Hardwood tomorrow. It is not known for how long it the town will be sealed, but we are likely to have more of an idea as to timescale this time next week."

         Actually, the notice said nothing of government alchemists or how long the quarantine might last. Often people in the crowd asked things that he had no way whatsoever of knowing, but to admit his ignorance might undermine his authority, so he simply made up any information that he did not have to hand. So long as he sounded confident, he knew that nothing he said would be questioned, even if it was contradicted by notices he read out in the coming days and weeks.

         "My second and third notices relate to..." He left a dramatic pause.

         "Tell us of the war!" demanded half a dozen different voices in the crowd.

         "...The war!" he confirmed, and a great cry went up.

         "My second notice is, I am afraid to say, not cheerful. The inferior Dordan army has nonetheless been able to inflict heavy loss of life on our men on the front in the west, while strengthening their position temporarily to the west of the River Frist. Reports at this moment indicate that we have suffered as many as three hundred casualties. Needless to say, our men fought bravely to the end, and it is estimated that several hundred Dordans were also killed. A list of names has been posted on the gate of the town, but I do not think there are any names from this region. This atrocity was made possible by a betrayal by a group of godless Sawa, who sold our brave soldiers out to the Dordans."

         The reaction to this last news was deafening, but somehow the bellman managed to make out one or two questions amid the uproar.

         "There is of course no need to send prayers for the dead, since they all died in battle, and are now in Heaven. Nor is there any need to send prayers for the families of the dead, as the government will be taking good care of them." He looked once more to the priest. "Is that right? What? Ah, of course. Prayers for revenge — and there should be many — should be directed to the Joyful God."

         Near the edge of the marketplace, to the bellman's left, there was a tall, pale man who had been trying to make himself heard for some time. The bellman frowned with the effort of trying to hear what he was saying, but once he had understood, he chose to ignore him and focus on another questioner.

         "I see the toad woman has a question for me. Speak up, good toad woman, what's that you say? Have the Sawa who betrayed our men been killed? You can rest assured that however many Sawa were involved in the betrayal, an equal or greater number have been executed. I am informed that some of them tried to escape justice by converting to their animal forms, but they were hunted down and brought to justice regardless.”

         The man to the bellman's left was still shouting. The bellman spared him little more than a glance, before shaking his head and moving on.

         "My third notice is, I am happy to say, much more cheerful, and regards the battles going on a few hundred miles further south. There are reliable reports hundreds of Dordan soldiers fleeing from Vanrosh. Captured Dordan soldiers report that morale among their compatriots in Vanrosh is so low, that the Dordan army have had to resort to massacring deserters' families, yet even this is not enough to halt the exodus of Dordan conscripts who have no wish to meet our advancing men in battle. It now seems all but certain that Vanrosh will be taken by our glorious army within the next two weeks!"

               A cheer went up from the crowd.

         "What's that? Ah! A rather chubby, unexpectedly ugly fellow near the front poses a frankly moronic question, which I shall nonetheless deign to answer: Will the Dordan army really massacre the families of deserters?"

         The man who had posed the question was the Bellman's drinking buddy, and he cackled appreciatively at the insult.

       "The Dordan government and its despicable leader are known for their brutality, and massacring innocent people for the supposed crimes of members of their families is well within the bounds of belief where these monsters are concerned. This is a reminder why the people of Dorde are so anxious to be liberated, and become part of the Holy Empire."

         The roar of approval was the loudest yet, and the tall, pale man at the edge of the marketplace was quite drowned out.



Later that morning, Mother Yamama, frequently referred to by the townspeople as the Toad Woman, was accosted by young Hatata, a ruddy-faced boy of fifteen, as she had just stepped into the bakery. "Good Mother Yamama," he greeted her.

         Yamama's face lit up. People, especially boy the age of Hatata, rarely went out of their way to talk to her unless they had wanted something from her, and there was only one thing people ever wanted from the Toad Woman of Blake's Town.

         "What can I do for you, young Tata?" she said.

         "My... er, my mother sent me to find you."

         "Oh yes? And what does your mother want from me?"

         "Well, you see, I have been accepted into the Glorious Army," said Hatata.

         Yamama gasped. "Oh Tata! Oh your mother must be so proud of you.” She turned to the baker's sister behind the counter. “Etta, did you hear that? Tata here is in the army. He's a soldier!"

         "My mother wants to make sure I start my army career with plenty of good luck," Hatata said.

         "Ah," said Yamama. "You'll be needing some toads then."

         "If you have any. My mother would like three, if that isn't too many for you."

         "Not at all. Three toads, and you'll have the best luck of anyone in the army! Oh, your mother must be so proud! As a matter of fact, I caught some fresh toads just a few days ago, and I've been preparing them. They should be ready by tomorrow, and I'll bring them to your mother, show her what to do with them for the best results."

         "Thank you Mother Yamama!"

         "So how long before you're on your way to the front? How long before you're in battle?"

         "Well, I have to be trained first," he admitted. "I'll be staying here, working in the castle, under the Town Commander for at least the first few months, possibly longer, depending on the situation. They need some soldiers stationed in the towns as well. I might not be going to the front any time soon."

         "Oh, I'm sure you'd like to though, wouldn't you?" said Yamama. "I can just see you hacking down Dordans, hunting down Sawa."

         The atmosphere in the baker's changed very suddenly. Hatata's face registered shock, but only for the briefest of seconds, as he glanced over at Etta. "Um. Well. The Sawa aren't actually our enemy," he muttered.

         Yamama spat. "Hardly friendly though, are they?"

         "Um..." Tata was suddenly very embarrassed, but Yamama appeared not to notice.

         "If you ask me, anyone who spends half his life shifting into the form of an animal deserves to be treated as an animal!" she said.

         "Well, I must get home. Thank you good mother. I'll tell my mother you'll be round tomorrow with the toads." With an apologetic, and rather sheepish look at Etta, Hatata left the shop.

         Yamama turned to Etta, oblivious to the hostility in the baker's sister's face. "I'd like two loaves, and I wonder if you have any sweetbread for me?" she said.

         Etta said nothing, just glared at her for several moments. Then, when Yamama was on the verge of repeating her request, she stopped glaring, as it was having no effect, and instead selected her two smallest loaves and placed them on the counter. "No sweetbread today," she said.

         "No sweetbread? Why ever not?"

         "Not today."

        "Your brother always has sweetbread for me. He knows I like it. He sets some aside for me. Doesn't charge me for it."

         "Not today," said Etta. "Pay for your bread and leave my shop, please."

         "Oh Etta," said Yamama. "You're not all sullen like that because of what I said about the Sawa are you? Obviously, I wasn't talking about you!"

         "Pay for your bread and leave."

         "Oh, of course I wasn't talking about you and your brother! Of course I wasn't! I know you're not like that. I can't imagine you or your brother shifting into a wolf, tearing out people's livers! Ha ha ha! Don't be absurd!"

         "There's another bakery the other side of town. I suggest you get your bread there in future. You aren't welcome here."

         "But my point is that you aren't like that! No one thinks you're one of them!"

         "One of ‘them?’"

         "Oh come on, be—"

         "I am one of ‘them’ you stupid hag! I am a Sawa, I have always been a Sawa, I always will be a Sawa. Just like you always will be a hag!"


         "Now get out of my shop!"

         "I take back everything I said. You are one of them, and you're just like all the rest of them! I hope they arrest you! I wouldn't buy your filthy Sawa bread! How dare you! How dare you!"

         Yamama stormed out of the shop, and spent much of the rest of the day seething over the incident. She had been called a hag! The insult was unbearable, no matter how much she told herself that the Sawa were little better than animals, that the opinion of a Sawa meant nothing at all to her. She vowed never to set foot in the filthy Sawa bakery ever again, although later in the day she relented a little, and vowed instead only to set foot in there while the baker Jame was running the place, and not his evil Sawa sister.

         Come the next day though, she found the feeling was still so strong that she couldn't go near the bakery, even though Jame would be in charge today. In fact, she couldn't bring herself to go back to the scene of her humiliation at all, and did indeed start going to the town's other bakery instead, although the baker there looked at her like she was mad when she suggested that he might like to give her some free sweetbread on account of how old she was.

         Passing the Sawa bakery a few days later, she saw that someone had smeared feces over the little shop in the night, and several people were laughing at the distressed siblings and their efforts to clean the place up. She couldn't quite decide how she felt about this.

The rest of this story is available in Volume 6, Issue 2 of Night Picnic.

bottom of page