…LORDS A-LEAPING • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

It’s not so uncommon at holiday time, but —

“…folie à trois,” said Halko. “Three lords a-leaping.”

He was already at the club, relaxed, comfortable, when the others arrived for a restorative drink. He hadn’t gone to the funerals. No one could remember how he first intersected their circle. His membership privileges derived from a reciprocal arrangement with a comparable establishment somewhere else.

They were a rough bunch under their Egyptian cotton wing-collars but Halko unnerved them. They couldn’t figure out his angle and it made them doubt their own game.

His urbanity was authentic despite those bluntly rectangular workman’s hands. He had steel-colored hair like a Prussian officer’s allowed to grow slightly out of regulation.

He didn’t go in for baubles. His watch and wedding ring were good solid pieces. He never wore French cuffs. You had to lean in to catch the scent of his cologne which smelled subtly of pine.

The city duplex and the country estate were sublets. No one knew what he was worth. But he had a live-in European pair to run them and that beat everyone in status.

“…quite beautiful in its way,” Halko said, “flight in reverse. An elegant retort to gravity. The aftermath is less so, of course.” He ordered another round, smiling.

There was a horrible fascination to such a conversation. Who speaks that way? Fuck, the men ended up splattered like cat puke on the city sidewalks. Three days’ running. East side, west side, all around the town. There were hysterical wives and hollow-eyed children whose comforting had somehow to be fit into the calendar of the season.

And here was Halko, making it sound like a French art-house movie.

They mocked him, in private, as an arriviste, but in the tones of men whistling past the graveyard.

***

He’d arrived with Mariane and she made all the difference.

You know what curiosity does.

In their innocence that first season, the men accepted Halko’s invitation mostly for an opportunity to sport their current wives without tears. It was a crowd that played musical beds and there were always some raw feelings until everyone’d secured a new partner. They had a perennial shortage of neutral venues.

“My helpmeet,” he said, introducing her. “My marron glacé. For your delight.”

His arm was around her waist. They both looked jolly.

She was quite a confection, hair a cascade of mahogany and rosewood, and marzipan skin. She looked wonderful in black. Her body was sleekly muscular, like a fabulous sea lion’s.

Without adornment — with nothing to distract from the creaminess of her throat and her marvelous shoulders — she gave a shocking impression of nakedness. Her English was strangely flavored. Czech, you wondered, or Romanian? His accent was complementary but not quite matching.

She wore flat shoes, though Halko was tall and she wouldn’t have overtopped him. She made most of the other women look ridiculous, their expensive stilettos thrusting hips and breasts in opposite directions. You could see they knew it.

The serving pair set out aperitifs and then Mariane took a seat by the fireplace and picked up her violin.

Seven couples had come to dine, plus the host and hostess.

In intimate gatherings it’s hard to disguise your thoughts. A vanity wife, with her little vanity hobby.

The prélude put them to rights and they were flattened by the after-dinner masterwork. It was like watching the rout of an inferior army.

“Of course it is a somewhat altered experience,” said Halko, “without the other instruments. But it’s Mariane’s favorite piece.”

The coffee and pastries gave them cover. It’s best not to speak when you have a full mouth.

But one woman went up to Mariane and impulsively took her hands. “That was extraordinary,” she said; “you gave me chills.”

“We are so very glad you came,” said Mariane.

***

“An excellent beginning,” said Halko. He was enjoying, as he always did, the sight of Mariane massaging her hands with lotion.

Legende winnows the field so nicely,” she said. “But weren’t you surprised there?”

“I had my suspicions,” Halko said.

“One never knows, with couples,” said Mariane, laughing.

***

Guests received a little gift, a day or so afterwards.

“A token of our regard,” Halko said. “We hope you’ll enjoy it often.”

Mariane gave no public performances. “A collector’s piece, if that’s not too immodest,” Halko said; “we use a rather exceptional little studio in Berlin. It’s a sort of hobby of mine, sharing Mariane’s talents with people I’ve come to know.”

***

Another year, another small gathering, another morning after. Halko was on his comfortable sofa with Mariane curled up beside him. They were going over the names on their list. The usual little pile of wrapped CDs was waiting to be distributed.

Mariane’s pencil was poised.

“Naughty?” she asked. “Or nice?”


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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 average 3.3 stars • 39 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • JAZZ

    The best line in this story was:
    “They mocked him in private, as an arriviste, but in the tones of men whistling past the grave yard”. Excellent. However, I got a little weary of all the character-description.
    Two stars.

    • Paul A. Freeman
      How strange then that only one star was recorded, Jazz.
      • Joseph Kaufman
        Paul, how do you imagine you know what JAZZ voted? Please keep such speculation out of the comment thread. Even if you DID know what was voted, how does your remark provide anything constructive to the commentary?
  • JAZZ

    Let me go out in a limb here, Paul, by suggesting that other people get to vote too.

    • Paul A. Freeman
      Two votes of one star each. Shall I go out on a limb too, or will you consult your Math(s) tutor?
      • JAZZ
        What is your problem Paul, don't you have better things to do?
      • Joseph Kaufman
        Paul, please desist with whatever it is you are trying to accomplish here. What you see in the star system is far from some sort of damning proof that someone voted differently than they said. And even if a reader does vote differently, what matter is it to you? Any further posts along these lines will be deleted.
        • Paul A. Freeman
          My apologies for feeding the TROLL.
          • Joseph Kaufman
            I don't consider name-calling to be much of a step in the right direction, Paul.
  • Two votes of one star each while one of the two claims to have given 2 stars? Looks like the Petty Posse is up early today.

    • Joseph Kaufman
      All discussion of who voted how many stars will cease. Right now. Heavens, eight posts and hardly any comments on the actual story (except for Jazz mentioning a high point in the prose). Let's get back on track (because it seems rather hypocritical for you to be pointing out pettiness in such a petty way -- pointless).
  • Carl Steiger

    I for one loved it, and was delighted to have two of Sarah’s stories to read within one month. I thought we were in the Edwardian era until the very end, but I don’t rub elbows with the gentry much, so I’m not familiar with the culture of the private clubs. I give this… oh, but we mustn’t mention how many stars, must we?

    • Joseph Kaufman
      Is your final question related to my other posts moderating the discussion? To clarify, of course you may freely mention how you rate the piece, right down to a specific number of stars. You can even come up with your own rating system and declare how you value the work. That's never been an issue. Just don't cast aspersions as to whether or not other people voted the same way they say they did. Because that has nothing to do with a proper discussion of the story. And let me take a moment to clarify why it is folly to try to match votes up (no matter how few votes there are and how wonderful one perceives one's own command of mathematics): people make mistakes on star votes all the time. It only takes one slip of the mouse and two stars become one, or three stars become four. We have had several readers ask us if we can change votes after the fact. People visit the site from all over the world, on all kinds of devices, with all sorts of physical capabilities (or limitations). No one here can tell me they've never mis-typed a letter or clicked the wrong link when using fingers on a smartphone or tablet, for example. Additionally, votes come from a single IP address. That's techie speak for "one location, one vote". If I were to vote from my workplace, that is one "location". For all I know, another person from where I work was reading the story at exactly the same moment I was, and as I clicked on my rating I thought it registered -- but theirs had instead. Once the vote is in, that's it. Are mis-clicks and vote timing likely scenarios? Probably not. But they provide reasonable enough doubt such that we aren't going to start allowing some sort of witch hunt about who voted what. We'll ditch the entire star system before we let discussion devolve to such puerile levels.
      • weequahic
        Makes sense, thanks. Helpful for this survivor of the pre-internet era.
        • Joseph Kaufman
          You are very welcome, from a survivor of before, during, and now after the Internet "revolution". *smile*
    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      "East side, west side, all around the town" was a hint of place and time, with the CDs narrowing it down...
  • Joseph Kaufman

    A lovely flow, and I agree with JAZZ about certain lines just singing off the page.

    However, I am not sure I understand what is transpiring here. Yes, I could read the story two or three more times, but how the story settled with me is how it settled. I had a very difficult time getting into the piece at first because early paragraphs are disjointed and descriptive-only. The real gist of what is going on is glossed over (in my opinion): why are people jumping out of buildings is the first question I had.

    It would appear something supernatural is happening with the music, both the live performance and the distributed CDs — are these two arranging for people to become suicidal? If so, why? What is their motivation? Perhaps there is something in their names I am missing, something linking them to mischievous gods?

    Understanding why characters do what they do is generally far more important to me than understanding what they look like or how they carry themselves. If the end result here is lords literally leaping to their deaths, I’d love to understand what compels these two to bring that out in people.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      This one went through some painfully stilted iterations until the December Invitational showed me the light... It's a Mr. and Mrs. Bad Santa story, but the couple are not malicious so much as they are catalysts. The names have no secret meaning. I needed names with a European flavor. "Halko" is a hard, slightly brutal sounding name and Mariane is an elegantly sinuous name (to my ear). I find the history of 19th- and early 20th century European music very interesting; how much of what we now regard as mainstream classical was, when first presented, seen as disturbing or shocking or decadent or subversive by the state (monarchies and totalitarian societies which succeeded them); I liked the idea of music as the means of making people confront their own darkness. The essential thing here is that Halko and Mariane are using people's own greed and malice against them. Free will is never subverted. Halko invites but doesn't compel.
      • S Conroy
        Thanks for those last dots. I figured that the being surprised comment was connected with the woman, but didn't get it that the final piece of the puzzle concerned her husband.
  • This was a delightful excursion into the lives of two people who were envied and feared by those in their social circle. A fascinating mystery tale, perhaps too mysterious, as I am not able to connect the dots between the couple, their music CDS and the “suicides” that were mentioned at the onset.

    I thought the descriptions, as written with great style, were an integral part of the story and the mystery of who this couple were (or is it was?)

    Sara’s consistent creative writing style has no peer that I have found here. (Joe’s one story from December was a close tie.) This is one story I enjoy re-reading a bit in awe of the construction and wording of it.

    Four stars.

    • Joseph Kaufman
      Me Joe? *laugh* SCA is in a whole 'nother class when it comes to prose and flow, in my opinion. She's doing post-graduate work while I'm still in elementary school!
      • Note, I said your ONE story :)
        • Joseph Kaufman
          That, too. SCA's prolific nature is also impressive!
      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
        It's the EDF smelter, Joe, that refined the raw materials and burned off all the dross...
  • I think it’s really interesting to see our stories back-to-back like this, Sarah. You really couldn’t have a sharper contrast in terms of style. I’ll echo Joe’s comment – I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the artistry of the prose in this piece, but after reading through it three times, I’m still not entirely sure what’s happening. I’m assuming that there are some references being made here that I’m just not getting?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      As I keep drumbeating, about my own and everyone else's stories--in flash every word matters. At some point after I'd written a few stories I began to feel that I was really constructing something along the line of a small mystery, and there ought to be a certain compact between the writer and the reader: I'll give you all or most of the clues you need, and you need to read with enough care to find them. I try to write the sort of stuff I want to read myself; that was one reason I finally made the leap from reading to writing. It was time to put up or shut up, because I was editing in my head everything I read... Every description and detail in this piece enables the reader to identify place and time and to suspect purpose and mechanism.
  • S Conroy

    This kind of writing turns me into a snivelling sycophant, so will have to curtail the praise a little. I didn’t managed all the dots either, but think there was something about the ‘Legende’ piece which drove some of the lords to suicide, “winnowing the field” so to speak. But there might have been some other crucial hints in there concerning the swingers’ parties? Off for a reread…

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      You got to the heart of it. It wasn't that they were swingers' parties, but that there were so many divorces/remarriages within the same circle, and if you were friends with, say, a couple where the husband dumped his wife and remarried, but you were still friends with the ex as well as with the newly-constituted couple, then social engagements became awkward. The first crop of invitees had no prior association with Halko so they knew there wouldn't be any problem bringing their latest trophies to dinner... PS: I remember "slimy stalking," to which "sniveling sycophant" makes a nice addition...
  • Michael Stang

    There is so much to love and so much to understand about Sarah’s latest flash. I, for one, can listen to her descriptive telling forever (shades of Saul Bellow). The time period keeps me amused: Wife swapping, a tough bunch, Berlin, they speak the King’s English. So after the war, Germany’s lost hope ends in sidewalk mud (I suppose I already look foolish), but the music suicide connect keeps me reading.
    Most entertaining.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      It's more current than that, but Europe is Halko's home base. He and Mariane are here to clean up Wall Street a little bit...
  • Lots to say about this one. First, some of the writing –and especially some of the metaphor–was brilliant. I especially liked, “. . . in the tones of men whistling past the graveyard” and “she gave a shocking impression of nakedness.”

    While I enjoyed the rich descriptions, I found them to be a bit too much for a flash. I had hoped that more focus would be on the characters themselves, aside from their appearance. It didn’t really detract from the story all that much, but it was something I kept thinking about as I read.

    My problem with the story is that it’s too vague and confusing as to what’s going on. I couldn’t tell at all the location or even era in which the story takes place. No conflict really jumped out at me, nor did a resolution or explanation. I’m assuming the last line is the big reveal, but it didn’t reveal anything to me.

    This author has buckets of talent by my observation, but the construction and execution of this particular story left me a bit disappointed. Thanks for sharing.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      I think whoever started calling short-short stories "flash" needs to be hung by his thumbs, because it gives a misleading limitation to what can be accomplished in 1000 words. I think it plenty roomy for constructing a full world... The clues to place and time are in the story. Every word and allusion matters. I appreciate what you did like here.
  • Chris Antenen

    I had trouble understanding most of the dialogue, but maybe it’s because the cadence is off for me. I’ve decided that Sarah and I read in different rhythms and I stumble over beautiful sentences in her stories, especially this one. The atmosphere gave me that feeling I have when listening to or watching Sweeney Todd. Something is amiss, but I’m not sure what it is.

    I think the clues are in the title and the rather gross lines “The men ended up splattered like cat puke on the city sidewalks.” and the “…folie à trois,” referring to the cause for the three funerals–which Halko did not attend. I had to work on this one, but I’m not sure the story is any better for my having dug through a maze of beautiful language.

    A surfeit of adjectives and adverbs–. I might might have preferred less, but as always I enjoyed and learned from Sarah’s prose.

    Can’t stop without mentioning the title, it’s connection to the holidays and the planned coincidence of “…folie à trois.” Over that I just have to chuckle.

    4 stars, plus 1 for language and minus 1 for confusion.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      You have a sharp ear and the cadence deliberately changes within the piece. The "gross lines" were a way for me to change the voice of the omniscient narrator's point of view, from the neutrality of telling the story of which Halko and Mariane are the protagonists, to the point of view of "the men" who are vulgar hard-chargers finding themselves up against something they can't get a handle on. Halko speaks with a slightly exaggerated European English with which he mocks the Wall Streeters who think of themselves as the top of the social order... The spelling of "Mariane" is in keeping with her European origins. It's a Mr. and Mrs. Bad Santa story, presented for Twelfth Night...
      • Chris Antenen
        Thanks, Sarah. Always enjoy digging into your stories.
  • Kate

    A well written story with some french cuff sentences. I don’t understand what’s going on even after two reads. Makes me feel stupid and I hate that. Yet perhaps this is deliberate…style over story and no likable characters.

    • THAT is my problem with this story! I couldn't pinpoint it exactly until now. It's more style over story than just a good story. Thank you!