Short Fictions & Curiosities are monthly offerings: a sample of short stories, wonders, terrors, and experiments in speculative fiction: small slivers of darkness, horror, and wonders from the vault for your enjoyment.
I began this experiment partially for the love of the fantastic, and partially because I wanted to take mini-vacations from the novel I’ve been toiling over for the last year. I look at Short Fictions & Curiosities as a collection of oddities that didn’t quite want to fit anywhere else: misfit creatures that occasionally poked their heads out of the murky places where I’d hidden them.
As bizarre as they were, I still wanted to give them a home. And here we are.
How much is revenge worth?
Maybe the price of a birthday wish. Maybe three baby teeth. Maybe it’s worth all the memories from a year of life that hasn’t happened yet; like when you turn eighty-four or something, and you’re too old and senile to really care anymore about what flavor of mush you ate for breakfast for all those mornings over three hundred and sixty-five days.
The bottom line: Revenge does have a price, and I’m trying to pay in allowance money. Six months’ worth. Ish. Give or take a bit.
“You have problem. I have solution.”
This is an understatement.
Yaga works a droplet of her own blood into a paste, a swirl of red-black turning burnt umber with the herbs. It takes a while to recognize the stick of wood jutting out from her fist isn’t the handle of a spoon, but the pinky finger of her right hand.
I want to ask her how she lost it, but I can see Yaga’s collection of kitchen knives from where I’m sitting, and I have a good imagination.
My hand echoes a phantom pain; an after-impression that only registers when I see the prosthetic joins her knuckle. My pinky tingles, and I curl it as if to hide the digit from her paring knife. She uses it to cut up the roots of a gnarled plant before depositing the stubs into the concoction. I mop at my forehead.
“You drink; you understand.” She nods at the mixture of roots and herbs, dumping three shots of vodka over it from an opened bottle. “I fix.”
The tea towel thrown at me has worse stains on it, so I nudge it off my lap, trying to keep the transference minimal:
The less you touch in Yaga’s apartment on West 47th, two floors up behind an unmarked door with the ghost of the numbers one and four dusted into the wood, the better. It’s an old building, and old buildings always skip number thirteen, but you know it's there; someplace in-between, unremarked and unrecorded.
No one knows I’m here. Like that wasn’t obvious.
My butt barely hovers on one of her mismatched chairs. The linoleum crackles under one of its feet every time I fidget, keeping me locked in place so I can’t do anything other than lean away from the table. Drawn into that beetle black expression, it's hard to stay put.
Her cut finger daubs blood onto the table, and I have to force myself not to bolt.
She stares at me while she grinds the mixture into a poultice in a way that suggests she's done this before, but to human bones. Maybe the bones of kids. I wonder if my last school photo will end up on a milk carton.
“What your heart crave — more expensive than paper and coin,” she says, her accent rounding off the consonants into something biblical. I don’t know how she knows the exact amount. I’m not even sure the number’s right. I haven’t even taken the jar out of my bag. “You have two hundred forty-three dollar sixty-seven cent.”
The weight of her scrutiny is so heavy that I can’t even shrug.
"It's all I have."
"No." Her expression carries a weight I can't guess at, but I feel it: it slithers into my collar and rests there, like a thumb on my pulse. “No, is not,” Yaga says. “You have pain.” She taps her breastbone. “I have solution.”
This is an exchange: her services for a small payment. Like going to the dentist to have a tooth pulled, or a doctor to run a few tests. A smear of condensation evaporates on the table where I made the mistake of putting my hand down when I first came in.
I shouldn’t have done that.
Sweat, tears, spit, semen, blood -- these are differently weighted types of currency, and I know you can pay with them all, but I don’t know what you’ll get in exchange. I don’t want to know.
I spare a fleeting thought for the repurposed jam jars that Yaga keeps stacked on her kitchen counters; their contents too murky to discern the things that float inside them.
“You give pain, I fix problem. No more problem.”
I nod, nudging my backpack closer with the heel of my sneaker.
There’s a mason jar in my bag. The change rattles with every fidget. I’m not even wholly sure what I want yet — not exactly. She’s not Santa Claus. I can’t just draw up a wishlist of every punishment I’ve never even heard of, and I’ve done my research. We did a whole segment on the European Inquisition in History 304, and I read the supplemental material just in case I might miss a sudden streak of inspiration.
I thought I’d know by the time I reached Yaga’s door, but I think I have enough money… for whatever that is. Whatever it is to make them stop.
“Last boy paid with his name. Is cheap fix.”
Yaga’s ruin of a mouth draws back to reveal a grey-yellow smile that reminds me of cigarettes and coffee and vodka, and horrible things spoken in Russian with a black tongue. When her rheumy eyes don’t stray from my face, I know she can draw it from me with a breath:
My name is Emily Rosencrantz. I don’t want the witch to have it.
She laughs in a wheezing rattle that makes my ears buzz.
“What you ask is dearer than that.” I barely understand her around the hum. Bees’ wings on honeycomb: sticky and constantly in motion, working as if to protect their queen.
She taps her breastbone, her collection of plastic bead necklaces rattling against a wooden finger she wears like a semi-detachable wand. It doesn’t bend at all.
The finger curves around to point at me like a dowsing rod.
“If it worth less, you wouldn’t ask.”
Yaga is a witch. That's what Mary Christine heard from her cousin who dated a sophomore who's ex-girlfriend found a post on a subreddit that doesn't exist anymore; a post you can't even find on the internet archive. Some guy was getting his head dunked into a toilet until he heard from a friend about this ancient woman who'd lived in this rent-controlled apartment for a century and was probably older than that, even; some lady who knew something about charms that could keep the guy's hair free of swirlies... If he was willing to fork over his lunch money for a year. Or maybe it was one of his dog's puppies. Or his foreskin, even though he'd been circumcised as a baby. There were a few versions of the story.
I googled anyway.
The internet always provides.
Mary Christine stopped speaking to me six weeks ago when it became safer to disassociate herself completely.
I tug at my school tie, but gingerly. There are marks under my shirt sleeves I'm trying to keep hidden, and if I move too quickly, the cuffs show off the handiwork that raised the skin on my wrists in thicker white stripes.
It's been a rough year.
Her lips peel back over yellowed teeth, grinning like she knows all my secrets.
“This is a particular charm to stop a particular pain.” Her chin quivers. I tug at my sleeves. “I offer protection against this… hurting.”
“You’ll make it stop?” I ask because I can’t help myself:
A world free of social strata in the high school ranks is a contemporary fairy tale. You might not be born into your caste; maybe you made a misstep at a party, maybe you made a poor life decision by lunch table association. Maybe, like the devil, you find yourself cast out of that shining circle that remains buffeted by the latest boho chic hipster wear that designate difference between the rest of the plebeian hoards, and yourself.
I’m still not sure what I did. I only understand the results of my indiscretion.
I only understand the repeating text messages built in acronyms, characters dropped.
Yaga's apartment carries like that peculiar old-person smell that should be a mix of Preparation H and Gold Bond powder, but below that is a haze of something else that leaves a sheen on the walls. It coats my lungs every time I breathe in. Like inhaling grease.
She sneers, and drops something else into the mixture.
“You pay, I make stop.”
I wonder if six month’s worth of allowance is enough. I wonder if not, can still get up and leave without worrying after that single drop of my blood smashed into the mix of arrowroot and other things that burst when pressed with a pestle. Knobby fingers quiver around the spoon, holding something gelatinous in place. It squirms until it stops rattling the bowl, and somehow the silence is worse. There’s a chip in the side of the ceramic, even though the orange sale tag clings stubbornly to the base. Washed yellow, but I can see that these instruments of hers only cost a buck.
How much is it worth to me, that’s the question I can’t answer now that I’m sitting under the sinking miasma of boiled cabbage from the floor above. It lingers, turning every inhalation soggy, but doesn’t wash away the knowledge of the keyed letters in my locker:
Slut. The slur misspelled. The “t” cropped off in a hurry between periods — a task completed before the lunch bell without witnesses. Letters that scar the metal and hang around for the next unfortunate kid cursed enough to get your locker the next year. You think only laughter and a broken lock remain, books pasting the hallway in pieces with a few pencils and the shred of a jacket. Broken cell phone.
Screencaps of texts on Facebook linger, shared three hundred and twenty-two times at last count. Before I deleted the account. Before mom could see my wall.
Mom would never see the things the teachers don’t. Mom wouldn’t hear the whispers or the laughter or read my text messages. Even now, I can hear the low drone of my cell phone vibrating in my bag.
Bees fill my ears.
I put the jar on the table.
She stops mashing long enough to consider the Hello Kitty sticker pasted to the lid.
Sets down the tools with a clatter.
“What?” I ask, because I don’t think about impertinence. Your mind only translates from an acronym that blares in capslock. Double you tea eff.
Her wooden finger clicks against the table when she slaps her hand down.
She says something in Russian that I don’t understand at all, but it’s edged with impatience. Her other hand is on the knife, and I can see now, inspecting the table, that the stains from her previous clients have seeped into the wood.
The buzzing in my ears intensifies.
Yaga taps the lid of the jar. Shakes her head.
I understand. It’s not enough.
She lays both hands flat on the table, demonstrating.
“A pain relieved with the same.”
I swallow hard, staring at her finger.
Something shifts in her expression, but she doesn’t move, save to push the bowl towards me. It smells of oblivion. I think of my history classes: witch’s flying ointment brewed with a collection of psychotropic plants that made ordinary women hallucinate. Tripping balls, they thought they were flying, when in actuality they’d taken a dose of belladonna or woodworm or hemlock or some other poison diluted in fat.
The contents of the bowl are only a painkiller — something to chase the feeling away before she starts the actual work of undoing everyone who’s ever tried to do me harm. I push the mason jar of my allowance aside because I know now two things hidden in Yaga’s inkblot expression: everything has a price, and we pay for the pain dealt by revenge with pain of our own.
I also know how Yaga lost her finger.
My fingers cup the bowl. It’s contents tremble as I draw it towards me. Down her nose, she watches me with shrewd calculation, as if this is the final test to ensure that I really want what I want after all.
It burns the whole way down.
I place my hand on the table, and smiling, Yaga raises her knife.
Kira Butler writes speculative fiction for adults, new adults, and young adult readers. She especially appreciates dark urban fantasy and low key horror, and likes to write about everything in between. She lives in Montreal, where she is working towards the completion of her first young adult horror novel.