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The Nine of Swords: A Litany of Terrors

by Tisdale Flannery

Today, my doppelganger is taking a sick day. She’s not really sick, of course, but she has to try to experience everything, including lying to her boss. I know she’s watching telenovelas and eating chocolate chip cookies. I’m not worried about it. We’ve all been there.

What I am worried about is my assignment. The nine of swords, they said. It’s not what you think.

I guess that’s good, because it’s hard to think good things about a woman sitting in bed, face in her hands, with nine swords on the wall above her.

The address they’ve given me is that of a modest but tidy home, a little 1940’s bungalow with a swept front porch and a bed of zinnias on either side of the front steps. A decorative flag, with smiling pumpkins and cute little witches circling a cauldron, hangs from the eaves. I feel as though at any moment, a handful of kids will zip around from the backyard, playing freeze-tag. The silence, however, remains.

I hold my breath. I knock on the etched glass of the door.

It swings open wide, revealing a little woman with carefully set curls. She wrings her hands, her plump arms buckling the apron in front of her. “Oh, oh, I’m so glad you’re here!” she says. “Come in, come in, come in.” She bustles me inside and quietly shuts the door behind me. “She’s upstairs.” She presses her lips together and shakes her head. “We haven’t been able to-”

“Haven’t been able to get her to write a damned thing.” This is from a gray man with rosy cheeks and wire rimmed glasses, emerging from the room next to us. He sighs. Folds his newspaper. “The poor thing’s been stuck with writers block for, what? Weeks? Months?”

“Years,” says the old lady gently. “Oh, I just know you can help her. Help her get some of those stories out. She has so many good stories to tell.” She emphasizes the word good.

“Just come right this way,” says the old man, gesturing to the steps that lead up in front of me.

At this point, though, a thunder of footfalls comes from above, and a strapping young man runs down the stairs. “This must be the journalist,” he says. “Good, good, you’re just in time. I’m sure she can find her way, pops. Right at the head of the stairs,” he says, and passes me, running out to the back.

The stairs are polished, a little oval rag rug on the tread of each one. Pretty framed pictures hang at perfect intervals. I hear two voices from within a room, and look in the open door; this is definitely not the right room, for here, two well-brushed and polished children look up from their game of dominoes. They stop what they are doing when they see me.

The little boy looks around me, to the door across the hall. He looks back at my face, pointedly.

I knock on that door, and when there is no answer, open it. There she is, in her white nightgown, the sheets twisted around her. Her hair is wild and matted. She keens, letting out a high thin rhythmic wail. In contrast to everything else in this house, the room is dark, dirty, neglected.

A desk with blank sheets of paper on it stands in the center of the room. I take the chair from beside it and pull it over to the bed. She does not look up, but she becomes silent and still.

I clear my throat. “Uh…They say you have writer’s block.”

She says nothing.

“It’s not forever,” I tell her, blithely. “You can get past it.”

She shakes her head.

“Why not?”

In answer, with a small movement, she points. On the wall beside the bed, nine gleaming swords hang in perfect parallel.

Somehow, I’d forgotten. Sharp, shining, and threatening, they must have been impossible for her to forget, awake or asleep. “These are your blocks?”

She whimpers and buries her head deeper into her arms.

I climb up onto the bed, to look more closely at these swords. The blades have words written on them. All in caps, all bold and bright.

YOU BROUGHT THIS ON YOURSELF, says the one at the top.

“That’s an odd thing to have hanging over you,” I mutter. “Did you put that there?” She shakes her head. “Who?”

Now she looks up at me, eyes red, wild, full of anger and sorrow and grief and pain and confusion. “My mother.” Her voice is raspy from disuse.

“The woman downstairs? The one with the apron?”

She nods.

This is a much bigger problem than I thought.

Now I look at the next.

YOU JUST WANT ATTENTION.

“My father,” she says.

YOU’RE BROKEN, USELESS.

“Let me guess: your brother.”

She nods.

YOU’RE CONFUSED. She wipes her eyes with the sleeve of her nightgown. “That one was from a doctor.”

We’ve read four of the swords now, and I have an even bigger picture of what’s going on. I have to ball my shaking hands into fists, thinking of the false concern showed by the family downstairs. They knew the truth, and did everything they could to suppress it. After some deep breaths, when I can control my voice, I say, “They were right about one thing. You do have stories to tell. Just not the ‘good’ stories they want you to tell, right?”

Her jaw clenches. We read the rest.

THIS COULD ONLY HAPPEN IF YOU WANTED IT TO.

YOU’LL ONLY HURT INNOCENT PEOPLE.

SOME PEOPLE HAVE REAL PROBLEMS.

GOD HATES A LIAR.

One thing about these swords, though:  They are double-edged. You could work with either side facing you. I take down the top one, and flip it over. It is blank. “What if,” I ask her quietly, “we write the real truth on this side?”

She draws into herself further.

There is one last sword on the wall, at the bottom, closest to the bed. It says, IF YOU SPEAK OUT, IT WILL DEFINE YOU FOREVER.

“Who wrote this one?”

“I did.”

I know exactly what to do. I leap off the bed, fetch my messenger bag, and pull out my writer’s mask. It’s a black feathered Mardi Gras mask, one that I like to use for storytelling. “If you use the mask of the storyteller,” I tell her, “then you can say anything you want. You take the past and shape it to support the future you want to see. You expose the real truth, your truth, the emotional truth, through story.”

Her eyes brighten. She gently takes the mask, wraps its buckskin ties around her wild red hair. The iridescent black feathers reflect the window’s faint light in fearsome greens and purples. She looks far less vulnerable, now, and a little bit dangerous.

“Come on.” I take the sword over to the desk, sweeping the blank paper off to the floor. “Write the truth with this.” I reach into my messenger bag again, and bring out my shiv. She wraps her fingers around the palm-sized handle. She presses the keen edge to the face of the first sword. Carefully, she scratches, all in caps. The sound is teeth-gritting, but the words are needed. I get the next one down, and she does the same. Sword by sword, she carves the new meanings, leaving the finished weapons scattered on the floor around us.

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED.

IT WAS NOT MY FAULT.

YOU CHOSE TO BELIEVE THE LIES, BECAUSE THEY WERE EASIER THAN FACING THE TRUTH.

She gets stronger with each letter she carves.

I ask her, “How does this make you feel?”

“Angry,” she says, but her eyes are bright now, her face full of strength and determination.

“Good,” I say.

She carves messages of power on the rest of the swords.

I WAS BROKEN, BUT I HAVE PUT MYSELF BACK TOGETHER.

THAT WON’T HAPPEN AGAIN.

NOW YOU MUST ANSWER FOR YOUR ACTIONS.

YOUR INCONVENIENCE IS NOT MY CONCERN.

I AM NOT ALONE.

The last one, on the sword she wrote herself, reads:

I AM SO MUCH MORE THAN THIS.

She stands, finally. Her white nightgown hangs to her ankles, covering her like a suit of armor. She is barefoot. She needs no shoes. She picks up a sword, tossing it a little to heft the weight of her words.

“Are you ready?” I ask.

In answer, she opens the door wide, the sword in her right hand.

I pick up my own sword and follow.

 

A bit about the columnist:

I am a writer, a mother, and a disciple of all things fierce and wild. Visit author page