Waiting to Burn
by Michelle Ann King

She hadn't wanted it to end this way. She'd wanted to give them life, yes, but not like this. She'd wanted them to have motion and flexibility, little clay bodies dancing and flying and delighting her customers. Proving her worth. Instead, they took her gift of life and threw it back at her. Rejected it with morose movements and sullen stares.

When the fires started, she didn't understand. Thought maybe her husband was leaving cigarettes burning, even though neither of them had smoked in years and the tiny, bright flames were too intense for tobacco. They flared like fireworks, wild and sparkling, and she couldn't help but smile at their beauty.

She reached out a hand, and her husband snatched it back.

'It's evil,' he said, and it surprised a laugh out of her.

'Fire's the most natural thing in the world,' she said. 'Or, if you want to get mythical, the gift of the gods.'

Katie Gilmore          

'It was a theft from the gods,' he said darkly.

'I have to go,' she said, and pulled her hand out of his grasp. 'I need more materials. More clay. I have to keep trying.'

'I wish you wouldn't,' he said, but made no attempt to stop her.

Sometimes, she wished he would.

She enjoyed her trips to the market, to the stall of the woman who sold clay and dreams and long, tapering matches.

She enjoyed dawdling over her purchases, deciding between colours and weights while she listened to the woman's stories and watched her shaded blue-black eyes. Enjoyed it all very much. Too much.

'My name is Honey,' she'd told the woman last time, as she'd handed over her gold in exchange for clay and hope. 'But I don't know yours.'

'No,' the woman had agreed, with a new story taking shape in her eyes.

Honey tried to recreate that shape with her hands, but it was not to be. Still they would not whirl or dance for her.

'Why do they fail?' Honey asked.

The woman shook her head. 'They do not,' she said. 'They reflect, as is their nature.'

Honey took her new clay home and fashioned them wings, but the pressure of her husband's gaze--his eyes so pale, so piercing--crippled her fingers, making them clumsy and weak. In the night, all the wings smouldered and charred.

The next week, the woman's stall was not in its usual place. Honey walked the length of the market, once, twice, three times, but it did not appear. There were scars on the earth where it had stood, ashen burns. On her fourth return a food stall had taken its place, wooden trestles groaning with peeled fruit and fat cheeses. The owner offered her a smile and an overflowing handful of ripe pears, but she shook her head and turned her back.

'I am not hungry,' she lied, and went home.

On this visit, she filled her basket with other things: fabrics and seeds, gemstones and candies, peeled fruit and fat cheeses. She didn't look for the stall, for the burnt ground, for the woman with the blue-black eyes. She walked and wondered about paradoxes, about life stripped away in the attempt of giving, halved in the act of sharing. About whether you could only find what you were willing to lose. Or was it the other way round?   

She walked until the rains came, and washed her clean. Washed the dusty soil into rich, luminous mud. Or was it clay? She knelt and reached out a hand, palm up. Closed her eyes. Waited.

The pressure on her palm was light, soft, almost ticklish. She glanced up through dripping lashes and watched the little figure dance and fly.

It hovered in the air above her head, spinning in the misty, shimmering air. Sparks mingled with the rain and showered the earth with shaded, blue-black fire. The blaze sprang up around her in a vast, swirling circle.

The little clay figure split apart into a cloud of writhing shapes. They landed on her shoulders, still so light and fine.

Together, they all walked forward. She reached a hand into the fire and waited to see if it would burn.

Michelle Ann King was born in East London and now lives in Essex. She writes mainly SF, dark fantasy and horror--probably due to a childhood spent reading Stephen King and watching zombie films. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Penumbra Magazine. Her short stories are being collected in the Transient Tales series, and she is currently at work on a paranormal crime novel. Visit her online at www.transientcactus.co.uk.