You were a very little girl, barely three.

Your mother was traveling, far away in Sinkiang, and our routine had adjusted. I began my day before dawn at the shrine, preparing myself for the spiritual strain of the work ahead of me that day. My devotions completed, I went to wake you, and we breakfasted together. We played at chess, and you defeated me, seeing much farther ahead in the game than I.

You were a prodigy, even by our family’s standards.

“Do you know everything?” I asked, not entirely in jest.

“Sometimes,” you replied simply.

I left you to entertain yourself in the hall, and went to my study to begin my work.

Not long after, you somehow entered the room yourself.

“Daddy,” you said, “Sminx coming.” Your voice was trembling.

I looked up from the codex I was transcribing, a startled shout on my lips. Never would I have allowed you into that room when that book was on the table, and to this day I do not know how you got in. But I read the fear on your face, and anxiety displaced the anger in my breast.

“No,” I said, “Sphinx is locked in her room in the basement; she can’t come out.” This was to reassure myself as much as to soothe you. The beast was a menace, and had been confined with much difficulty. I did not wish to learn what she would do if released.

“Another sminx coming,” you cried.

“There is no other sphinx,” I told you.

“Yes,” you said, “there is. She wants her sister.” These words you uttered with such certitude that I did not doubt you.

“Where’s the sphinx now?” I asked. I kept my voice very calm. I hurriedly closed the book and locked its clasps, gathered it up with my pages and locked them in the silver cabinet. I took the ruby talisman from its casket and hung it around my neck.

“Can you tell me where the sphinx is?” I asked again.

“Outside.  I can show you,” you said. You reached up to take my finger in your hand to lead me from the room. I stopped you at the door long enough to lock it by all earthly means, but did not take time to do more. You pulled me by the finger along the corridor to the east stairs, and I carried you to the upper floor.

“The Moon Room,” you said. I set you down outside the door and we entered. You ran across the carpets to the window looking out on the drop to the lake and I followed close behind.

You stood on your toes and pointed. “That way,” you said. I looked across the water to the forested island and beyond it to the mountains on the horizon. A tremendous wall of dark clouds approached from the north. It was very beautiful.

“Is the sphinx far away?” I asked. “Can we run to the refuge before she comes?” If your mother had been at home, we could easily have defended the house, but I was not confident I could do it myself. Whether our attacker simply desired to rescue her sister, or whether she wished for vengeance, I judged we would be safer in our ultimate sanctuary.

“Hurry,” you said. I had wanted to hear a more certain answer.

I lifted you up, wrapped you in my robe and tucked you under my arm. I rushed from the room and down the stairs. The rain had begun when we went out into the forest.

Two hundred yards; that’s all we had to travel along the mossy path to the refuge. Such a short distance to run. Such a short time that we would be exposed and vulnerable.

“Sminx coming!” you screamed, and I heard branches breaking above us. I dropped you; you were entangled in my robe, and I stumbled as I raised the talisman. I saw no sphinx. A great weight struck me from behind, and all went dark.

I regained my senses before very long, I suppose, lying on my face in the wet moss. I rose to my knees and wailed in despair when I could not see you.

I stumbled to my feet and ran off the path, madly calling for you as I crashed through the forest. I had no hope. Of all the ways the sphinx could have avenged her sister’s imprisonment, she chose the most horrible. She had taken you and I would not see you again in this life.

Yet, in my unbearable grief, I prayed. I envisioned the Icon, which I have seen only once, and which you will see when you make your pilgrimage, and prayed as I have never prayed in my life. The simple prayers I learned as a child, the greater tablets, I chanted them all, over and over, pausing only to cry out your name.

I still have you, so of course I received a miracle. I do not know how long I had wandered, but I stopped suddenly and fell silent, thinking I had heard your voice. I stood as a statue, listening to the wind and the falling rain for moments that seemed eternities, and then I heard, I was certain that I heard, what I so desperately wanted to hear, your tiny voice crying for me.

We called to each other, and in a little time I came to a little clearing, a perfect circle of grass and wildflowers. In the middle, the sphinx lay supine, her tawny pelt drenched in blood, her throat torn open by her own claws. You sat in the wet grass beside her, weeping. You held up your arms and I rushed to gather you up. We sobbed together as I carried you home.

Poor, foolish sphinx, she chose to toy with you of all people. She asked my “sometimes” omniscient child a riddle.

Carl Steiger is a career bureaucrat who is sometimes fortunate enough to find fulfillment on his own time.

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 average 4.5 stars • 2 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Genre-speak can be a perilous animal too. This is a good, strong, appealing plotline and characters to root for, but I thought it’d have a stronger punch with a more direct narration and a little pruning. Four stars. If the end had been show instead of tell, I’d have given you five.

  • Enjoyed this. Baffled by the riddle that drew blood, and would probably have liked more on that, but still found the ending surprising in a good way.

  • SarahT

    I am left feeling sorry for the sphinx.

  • I liked this very much. And I remembered that in myth, the sphinx kills herself when someone solves her riddle (i.e. Oedipus). Yet I feel kind of sorry for her too. Wonder what the girl grew up to be.

  • Tina Wayland

    Interesting and compelling. I don’t quite get the “sometimes” in quotation marks–it threw me a bit–but I love the pace and the mystical quality of the writing.

    • weequahic

      Yes, it threw me a bit also. But I trust the author enough, I assume there was “something” there.

  • Strong, evocative writing, and a compelling story arc with a neat twist, all in under 1000 words. Bravo!

  • I’m with Tina. Didn’t understand why the “sometimes” was in quotes but thought the pace was excellent. Plus the voice of both narrator and child was very well done, and their flight was hold-your-breath. Good read.

  • Really interesting idea, nicely done. Liked it a lot.

  • I believe the “sometimes” is a reference to the earlier part of the story, where he asks her if she knows everything.

    • weequahic

      Darn, I should read things more carefully.

  • joannab.

    a compelling story. one of those when i wonder how on earth the writer got such a brilliant idea. i do wish this story had not included the line “i still have you, so of course i received a miracle.” it didn’t seem necessary to give away the happy ending at that point. i wanted to be entirely in his mind as searching for her unfolded for him. as he wandered hopelessly, as he thought he heard her voice, as he regained hope, as she called to him, as he entered the clearing. to counter this criticism, i absolutely loved the last two lines, including the “sometimes.” thank you so much for a great read.

  • Carl Steiger

    Thank you all for the commentary! I’m new here, and I do appreciate the suggestions as well as the pats on the back.

    • weequahic

      Gee, never knew there were other Everyday universes out there.
      Re kids: Check out my grandson Nicholas/Nick Schulaner on either the PI or the other newspaper site. His mom was the wife of Patrolman Maher of Federal Way. About 10 years ago it was.

  • LeAnn Smith

    Loved it! I could visualize the whole story- very vivid imaging.

  • Michael Ehart

    Stunning. I wish I wrote it.

  • Maybe ‘sometimes’ is the next riddle!

    Nicely done, Carl.

  • Carl, I think you’re an amazing writer. This was so smooth, yet complex. I loved it.

  • Frank Schulaner

    Gee, never knew there were other Everyday universes out there.
    Re kids: Check out my grandson Nicholas/Nick Schulaner on either the PI or the other newspaper site. His mom was the wife of Patrolman Maher of Freedom Way. About 10 years ago it was.

  • Frank Schulaner

    Yes, it threw me a bit also. But I trust the author enough, I assume there was “something” there.

  • Frank Schulaner

    Darn, I should read things more carefully.