PodCastle is the world’s first audio fantasy magazine. Weekly, we broadcast the best in fantasy short stories, running the gammut from heart-pounding sword and sorcery, to strange surrealist tales, to gritty urban fantasy, to the psychological depth of magical realism. Our podcast features authors including N.K. Jemisin, Peter S. Beagle, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Jim C. Hines, and Cat Rambo, among others.
Terry Pratchett once wrote, “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.” Tune in to PodCastle each Tuesday for our weekly tale, and spend the length of a morning commute giving your imagination a work out.
PodCastle 662: La Camaraderie du Cirque
La Camaraderie du Cirque
By dave ring
Gather round, and let me tell you the story of Veronica’s Oiseau de Feu.
They were dark times, for me. Every bloody day, Chuckles, Magda and Felix tried to trip me when I walked by, ugly faces snickering underneath their greasepaint. My everything, Michel, ignored them, even when they pull that shit right in front of him. It infuriated me. He said it was to preserve “the camaraderie du cirque.” I loved Michel. But when Michel stood by doing nothing while those painted-mouth idiots tormented me, my love was lost in a rage that could turn a forest into cinders.
On those days, I screamed into my pillow: “Fuck the camaraderie du cirque!” Though my pillow did just as little as Michel to salve my wounds.
Before my banishment from the tent, I used to lurk behind the cheap velvet curtains and watch Michel and Lars from backstage after all the tickets had been sold and the punters put in their seats. Dear Michel and sweet, foolish Lars. Our main act. Under the lights, they gleamed. They wore tiny silver posing pouches and white cords criss-crossed around their muscled limbs, like they’d been the pawns of bondage-minded sailors. As if you could pull at a loose string and the two of them would fall apart into a sloppy pile of oiled pectorals, triceps and thighs.
Lars was the smaller of the pair. When he balanced atop Michel’s head or his fist, it always seemed as if his gaze was transfixed by someone in the crowd. As if their shared gaze was the only thing holding him in place. Sometimes, later, you heard different punters saying that they were sure it was them that Lars was staring at. Not the girl next to them, or the swarthy guy on the other side. Them.
Before my fall from grace, Lars confided that he’s really not looking at anything. He couldn’t even see the crowd without his glasses. He was just staring at a fixed point in space, concentrating on his center of gravity.
Like the crowd, Michel stared at Lars. At his center of gravity.
Like them all, I’d stared at Lars. Wishing that just that once, Michel would twitch, and Lars would fall. But it never happened, no matter how much I wanted it.
It was summer when Magda discovered my spying. We’d made it all the way up to the City of Trees. Michel and I had spent the day laughing and chasing each other through the dappled light, staring in awe at the airships that cluttered the sky beyond the cathedral ceiling made by branches of elm and honey locust. I didn’t even notice her beside me until she put out her cigarette and the final, thin plume of smoke that rose up made me sneeze. I’d wiped away the tears on my cheeks even though she’d already seen them.
“They’re the real deal, Paolo.” I barely heard her over the orchestra. She dropped her cigarette butt into my beer.
My eyebrow cocked up, forming a question braver than anything I could have said. Besides, she knew I rarely spoke aloud. I hated my voice.
“You have your girlish charms.” This wasn’t a slur, not from Magda. Magda’s appetite for dark maidens was as legendary as it was voracious. With a bit of kohl and a careful fall of satin, I could play the part. Still, I knew the compliment was a feint.
“Lars cheated on him.” It felt like the hundredth time I’d defended myself. My words came out shrill and high as they always did. I tried not to care.
“And you had no part in it, did you?
I didn’t answer. Yes, Lars had cheated on Michel with me, but it wasn’t my fault. Not really.
She’d shrugged, disappointed I didn’t rise to the bait. “It doesn’t matter how you wormed your way into Michel’s heart. It doesn’t make you any less pathetic. You’re not worth a whistle in a rainstorm.” She spat on the groun
PodCastle 661: The Engineer of the Undersea Railways
* Author : Varsha Dinesh
* Narrator : Suna Dasi
* Host : Setsu Uzume
* Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
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PodCastle 661: The Engineer of the Undersea Railways is a PodCastle original.
The Engineer of the Undersea Railway
By Varsha Dinesh
The undersea engineer Persis Makhanwala cut a solitary figure to all those who knew her. The gossip rags reeled in the wake of her spangled saris and perpetually bruised eyes, scrambling to dredge up old dark-eyed paramours and sad, sparkling scandals. They called her such epithets as Queen of the Undersea and Siren of the Rails, crowding to get a glimpse as she emerged from a pincered little car at Bombay’s Marine Drive. Cameras clicked; lights flashed. Chai vendors, journalists and spectators jostled.
As Persis glowered, a train’s whistle sounded. The underwater tunnel lit up. The arc of it glimmered like a diamond necklace, stretching as far as the eye could see, into the mists of the Arabian Sea. A roar went through the crowd. Persis stepped off the promenade and into the waves, disappearing into a carefully concealed elevator.
It was a historic moment.
Later that evening the Bombay-Fujairah Undersea Express would embark on its maiden journey, slithering through an underwater tunnel like a gleaming white dragon. The media would play three clips in an endless loop. An aerial shot of the train as a bright white line, suspended in a field of azure. A deep-sea tour of the pontoons that anchored the tunnel to the seafloor. And Persis herself, stiff and scowling by the engine, brow wrinkled in irritation at the crush of reporters.
“Persis, Persis,” the journalists cried. “Are you going to live on the train? What about your family? Are the rumors about your infertility true?”
It was the biggest gossip to rock the Bollywood channels this week. Persis Makhanwala’s long-time flame had left her one week before the culmination of her years of work with the Undersea Railway. They had been childless. It had been her fault.
The camera’s exploitative gaze dropped to her stomach. Persis turned her face, said nothing. In her head she had gone far away, already dreaming of her next project.
The Automatic Conductor raced through the compartments on silver pachinko wheels. Its mouth shredded train tickets and glowed crimson when it spoke. Its eyes were carved glass, glittering in the semi-dark, capable of seeing through fake travel-permits or suspicious baggage. Wherever it went, it brought with it the tinkle of old Bollywood tunes, Kishor Kumar and R.D. Burman filling the compartments with sweet songs of yore.
Persis had built it out of silver and gold, etching stories from the Panchatantra onto its chassis. In her permanent first-class cabin, there was never any space to sit, berths and floor invisible under mountains of gears and sensors, actuators and capacitors. She gestated the Conductor in the red heat of the engine, tinkering and tweaking, gauzy underwater seascapes passing them by as she worked. She rocked it to sleep on the locomotive’s symphony, the scrape and spark of rails acting as its lullaby. For the Conductor’s mind she bought a copy of a diplomat’s brain, delivered at Fujairah Station by a strange gentleman on horseback. For the Conductor’s core she stole from the black market a rocket’s still-thrumming heart, silver fluid dripping down her fist as she placed it in the Conductor’s chest.
PodCastle 660: TALES FROM THE VAULTS — The Husband Stitch
* Author : Carmen Maria Machado
* Narrator : Gabrielle de Cuir
* Host : Kaitlyn Zivanovich
* Audio Producers : Peter Behravesh and Peter Wood
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First appeared in Granta. A Nebula and Shirley Jackson Award nominee.
Content warnings for sexual content and domestic abuse
This episode is a part of our Tales from the Vaults series, in which a member of PodCastle’s staff chooses a backlist episode to highlight and discuss. This week’s episode was chosen by associate editor Kaitlyn Zivanovich. “The Husband Stitch” originally aired as PodCastle 409.
The Husband Stitch
By Carmen Maria Machado
(If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices:
Me: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same.
The boy who will grow into a man, and be my spouse: robust with his own good fortune.
My father: Like your father, or the man you wish was your father.
My son: as a small child, gentle, rounded with the faintest of lisps; as a man, like my husband.
All other women: interchangeable with my own.)
In the beginning, I know I want him before he does. This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them. I am at a neighbor’s party with my parents, and I am seventeen. Though my father didn’t notice, I drank half a glass of white wine in the kitchen a few minutes ago, with the neighbor’s teenage daughter. Everything is soft, like a fresh oil painting.
The boy is not facing me. I see the muscles of his neck and upper back, how he fairly strains out of his button-down shirts. I run slick. It isn’t that I don’t have choices. I am beautiful. I have a pretty mouth. I have a breast that heaves out of my dresses in a way that seems innocent and perverse all at the same time. I am a good girl, from a good family. But he is a little craggy, in that way that men sometimes are, and I want.
I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled her off to a sanitarium. I don’t know what deviant pleasure she asked for, though I desperately wish I did. What magical thing could you want so badly that they take you away from the known world for wanting it?
The boy notices me. He seems sweet, flustered. He says, hello. He asks my name.
I have always wanted to choose my moment, and this is the moment I choose.
On the deck, I kiss him. He kisses me back, gently at first, but then harder, and even pushes open my mouth a little with his tongue. When he pulls away, he seems startled. His eyes dart around for a moment, and then settle on my throat.
– What’s that? he asks.
– Oh, this? I touch my ribbon at the back of my neck. It’s just my ribbon. I run my fingers halfway around its green and glossy length, and bring them to rest on the tight bow that sits in the front. He reaches out his hand, and I seize it and push it away.
– You shouldn’t touch it, I say. You can’t touch it.
Before we go inside, he asks if he can see me again. I tell him I would like that. That night, before I sleep, I imagine him again, his tongue pushing open my mouth, and my fingers slide over myself and I imagine ...
PodCastle 659: My Country is a Ghost
* Author : Eugenia Triantafyllou
* Narrator : Alethea Kontis
* Host : Setsu Uzume
* Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
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Originally published in Uncanny Magazine.
My Country is a Ghost
By Eugenia Triantafyllou
When Niovi tried to smuggle her mother’s ghost into the new country, she found herself being passed from one security officer to another, detailing her mother’s place and date of death over and over again.
“Are you carrying a ghost with you, ma’am?” asked the woman in the security vest. Her nametag read Stella. Her lips were pressed in a tight line as she pointed at the ghost during the screening, tucked inside a necklace. She took away Niovi’s necklace and left only her phone.
“If she didn’t die here, I am afraid she cannot follow you,” the woman said. Her voice was even, a sign she had done this many times before. Niovi resented the woman at that moment. She still had a ghost waiting for her to come home, comforting her when she felt sad, giving advice when needed. But she was still taking Niovi’s ghost away.
Stella paused. She gave Niovi a moment to think, to decide. She could turn around and go back to her home taking the necklace with her. Back to her unemployment benefits and a future she could no longer bring herself to imagine, or she could move down the long stretch of aisles, past the dimming lights and into the night, alone, her mother’s ghost left behind—where do ghosts return to in times like this? Niovi would be a new person in a new country, wiped clean of her past.
Foreign ghosts were considered unnecessary. The only things they had to offer were stories and memories.
Niovi had prepared herself for this, and yet she had hoped she wouldn’t have to leave her mother behind.
She gave the necklace to the impassive woman and let herself drift down the aisle as if a forceful gust of air ushered her away.
Her mother’s ghost waved goodbye behind the detector and Niovi’s thoughts was of the Saturday of Souls. It was a prayer, an invocation as she put more and more distance between her and the security woman, her and the necklace. Without her mother’s ghost she would start to forget soon. But this she had to remember. She needed to hang on to something now that her mother had been pried from her hands.
The Saturday of Souls.
When the ghost finally disappeared, Niovi’s legs felt like lead. Her arms felt like lead. Everything felt like lead and she could barely move.
“Welcome!” Niovi heard the driver say as she boarded the airport shuttle.
The first thing Niovi faced when she stepped out of the shuttle was the cold. It was only October. Snow would start at the end of November. But even now the cold was so utter, so complete, it seemed like a wall, an extra line of defense between herself and these people who had too many ghosts and her who had none. A final warning that foreign ghosts were a nuisance, a waste of space.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered to the frost. “You are too late.”
She started her new life in a small apartment in a badly-lit part of a street that led to a cul-de-sac.
In the mornings, as she waited for the days to pass so she could start her new job, she would walk around the city,
PodCastle 658: The Cursed Noel
* Authors : Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw
* Narrators : Jen R. Albert and Dominik Parisien
* Host : Setsu Uzume
* Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
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PodCastle 658: The Cursed Noel is a PodCastle original.
The Cursed Noel
By Tim Pratt & Heather Shaw
It was supposed to be a Very Zoom Christmas, but the internet went out on Christmas Eve, and out here, it usually took a couple of days to get going again. Travis didn’t expect things to happen any faster during the holiday. He could get a bar on his cell phone if he stood in the right spot in the cabin, but that wasn’t enough for a video call. He could always drive into town tomorrow where the service was better, but sitting in some parking lot in the cold, looking at the thumbprint-sized faces of his mother and sisters and cousins on his phone, all broadcasting from their own places of pandemic isolation, didn’t exactly sound festive.
Travis went to the window in the kitchen and looked out at the whitened evergreens. Loneliness settled onto him, like the weight of all that snow on those branches. The smell of his morning coffee was already dissipating in the chill air. The original plan, back when everyone thought the pandemic would surely be under control by the end of the year, was to fly to Chicago for the traditional giant gathering, but the Midwest was even more ravaged by the virus than everywhere else. So he was staying here instead, wintering for the first time in the cabin in the North Carolina mountains he’d inherited from his grandfather, and only used as a summer place before. The isolation hadn’t bothered him much so far, but like the snow in the song, the pandemic didn’t show signs of stopping, and it had all become a bit wearying.
He was on sabbatical, working on his next book, which was mostly about epistemological nihilism. His editor wanted to call it Knowing and Nothingness; he preferred Cogito, Ergo So What? Since he wasn’t teaching at the moment, Travis had been spared the necessity of navigating the whole remote-learning thing, though it looked like he’d have to come to grips with it next year, at this rate; he couldn’t imagine teaching a Philosophy 101 class or even a senior seminar through a screen. The whole point was engaging with other thinkers, and doing that remotely would spoil the flow of conversation he cherished so much when teaching. But, he supposed, life was about making adjustments.
Not seeing his family for Christmas wasn’t an adjustment he’d wanted to make, though. The life of the mind was all well and good, but he also wanted the life of the eggnog, and Christmas carols, and spiked apple cider, and twinkling lights, and presents he could actually present in person.
Looking out at the trees, he smiled. Adjustments. Okay, so, he couldn’t join his people for the holidays. That didn’t mean he couldn’t be a little more festive himself. The junk his grandfather had left in the back room included strings of Christmas lights and the most unloved family heirloom ornaments and the metallic tang of out-of-fashion tinsel. He had an axe. He owned two acres, positively infested with pines of all sizes. He would by God go out and cut himself a Christmas tree, decorate it, get a fire going, pour some rum into something (maybe just into a glass),
PodCastle 657: White As Soap
* Author : Teresa Milbrodt
* Narrator : Setsu Uzume
* Host : Sofía Barker
* Audio Producer : Peter Behravesh
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Originally published in Pleiades: Literature in Context.
White as Soap
By Teresa Milbrodt
I’m not sure what to think when the people from the soap company call and ask about filming a commercial at my unicorn ranch. They want to feature unicorns wild and free and running across the open prairie and all that other romantic shit.
“Unicorns have a great universal appeal,” says the director. “They’re mythic and romantic. That’s the sort of thing that will sell soap.”
“Oh,” I say because I sell unicorns and not soap. After raising unicorns for twenty years I’ve learned that there is nothing romantic about them. I also have a vague notion that doing a commercial could be classified as selling out, but I’ve also been told that the kind of people who talk about “selling out” are the kind of people who can’t sell anything. What matters is if you can live with yourself in the morning.
I’m not worried about being able to live with myself, as my primary morning concern is if the unicorns will get fed, not only on that morning but on subsequent mornings. People aren’t buying unicorns like they used to. They’re considered a luxury item, even though I argue strongly against that idea. Most people overlook the practical uses of unicorns as work animals–a unicorn is no more expensive than a good horse, and just as strong. Unicorns owners and breeders simply have to be aware of unicorn biology and certain medical concerns like horn rot. But I digress.
In the end it comes down to having more food for the blessing versus less food for the blessing, so I say yes. The director says she and a camera crew will be out in two weeks. She doesn’t sound pleased when I tell her that the nearest airport is four hours away, but this is Wyoming so what do you expect?
I say she and her crew should schedule three days to be around before they start shooting.
“Do you really need three days?” she says.
“It takes the unicorns a while to get used to new people,” I say. “Some of them will be curious and some will be scared.” By the time the camera crew arrives I will have selected the unis that would be good candidates for the commercial, but I’ll need to see their reactions to the crew and their equipment to be certain.
The director agrees but sounds a bit grudging about it.
“These are domesticated unicorns,” I say, “but they’re not used to cameras. If you need trained unis, I can tell you who to call.” I’ve sold a few unicorns to wranglers who train animals for the movies. I’ve saddle broken a few of my unis, but I don’t have time for much beyond that.
The director says she wants to use the “wild backdrop” of Wyoming and so my untrained unis will be fine. I figure she’s probably working on the cheap and doesn’t want to shoulder the cost of more expensive animals and handlers.
She says she’ll get my contract and all the necessary forms in the mail to me this afternoon.
I explain the arrangement to my ranch hand Orrin when we eat lunch in the farmhouse. He nods like he’s not excited about the idea. I’m not surprised at his reaction, but pretend that I am.
“What’s wrong?” I say.
“Nothing,” he says.
“You’re worried,” I say.
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