Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The first February Femme Fatale is... Susan May James

February Femmes Fatales - February 1st

It's what you've been waiting for... Twenty eight days of dark fiction and poetry from fourteen of the best women writers I have had the pleasure to meet in the virtual world. I am proud that so many took up my private invitation to contribute to the showcase. Thank you, you marvellous creatures of the pen.

Our very first Femme Fatale is Susan May James. Susan only began contributing to my weekly Prediction challenge back in November 2010, yet it feels as though she's been part of The Feardom for ages.

I love Susan's edgy wit and acerbic observations. The style and subject of her story here, Shadows reminds me of one of my favourite authors, Joanne Harris. I hope you enjoy it.

Shadows by Susan May James

Every day late in the afternoon the light shifts so as to cast shadowed stripes across the small damp cell. Ten stripes in all; eight are perfectly formed and cover half the cement floor while the other two stretch, distorted, up the wall. The shadows are an essential part of Magdalene’s day as they are the only method by which she can discern the time. Often as the light changes, Magdalene sinks to the floor where she sits cross-legged, her palms facing up. Slowly she passes her hands through the shadowed pattern, playing with the darkness as the sounds of Venice drift through the open window. The drone of tourists melts into the sound of lapping water while somewhere in the distance motor-boats hum and vaporetti thump against their docks. Soon the shadows will blur into dusk and it will be time to begin her daily preparations. With a sigh she stretches out her legs, relishing the coolness seeping into her bones. You should be thankful you are spared the scorching midday sun. Dario’s dismissive words, spoken with the threat of the temper and penchant for violence for which he is renowned, are etched into her memory; as if this one point should make up for the tedium and degradation of the girls’ lives.

All of a sudden Magdalene hears a screech as the metal lock slides open and she hastens to stand up. With her head lowered she follows Matron into what they refer to as the marble room. There she joins three other girls, each languishing in a deep bath. Matron leaves and as Magdalene disrobes a hush falls over the room. The other girls do not befriend her. Aware of their differences they whisper and giggle as Magdalene lowers herself into the large tub. She doesn’t blame them for their jealous behaviour. They are all foreigners passing through this city, ill-fated and vulnerable, although Dario often tells her that she is more fortunate than the others and, providing she obeys and puts in her time, her passport will soon be returned.

Baths finished, the three girls dress in short skirts and skimpy halter tops. They snicker when Matron carries in an armful of gold brocade and mauve satin. A masquerade ball gown fashioned after those of the nineteenth century, complete with full hoop skirt and lace trimmed sleeves. Magdalene looks at it with trepidation. Its heavy fabric and tight bodice will weigh her down and crush her ribs, making her performance in the orchestra difficult and exhausting.

The others leave, their heels clicking, as Matron dusts Magdalene’s face with powder and carefully nestles a bow in the tendrils that flow down her back.

“You know what to do,” Matron finally speaks to her as she hands her the cello and a pointed Venetian mask. Magdalene nods. After the concert, seek out one of the older gentlemen, flirt and proposition; get paid and fleece him for as much as possible. Move on to the next.

“Remember, cash is best, don’t bother with travellers’ cheques, they’re not worth the trouble, get plastic and be sure to learn the pin numbers. Watch over their shoulder as they pay or withdraw money; use your wiles, whatever it takes.” Matron issues the instructions while leading her down the hallway.

As Magdalene passes an open door, a small boy looks up from where he sits at a table. A colouring book is open in front of him and he clutches a thick crayon. “Mama?”

Her heart racing she stops but Matron grabs her by the wrist.

“You can see the boy when you return,” she says as she holds the door open and pushes her out into the shadows.

SUSAN MAY JAMES is a Canadian-born writer living in London. She writes flash fiction, short stories and is currently working on a novel. Her other passions include travel, photography and history and she can be found scribbling and scattering on her blog; Scribble & Scatter.


  1. A remarkable piece, of the first femme fatales, Susan!

    Exquisite language- the beginning wrapped me in a dark beauty, your prose flawless, and the subtle back story kept me enchanted to the end. Though your finish has a very satisfying conclusion, there's much to be told about the little boy and what Magdalene will do, and you can never go wrong with a finish that begs more.

    I will now share my secret lipstick blade with you ; )

  2. Beatifully written, intriguing, and dark all at once. Great job Susan.

  3. This story is so richly woven, I don't rightly know where to begin. The stark black and white of the cell, contrasted with the violent riot of colour in the courtesan's costumes; and her almost peaceful meditation compared to the turmoil upon seeing her son. You are a true word painter, Susan.

  4. Just beautiful, Susan. And to create such beauty among what surely must be also despair and heartbreak is a mark of real skill and talent.

    A very enjoyable read, and I loved the sadness of it. Almost made it... richer. :-)

  5. I love the magic in Shadows and how it softly twists and turns upon itself, a seemingly never-ending tragedy. I agree with Erin that there is a far wider story to this.

    A wonderful start, Susan. Thank you.

  6. Loved the imagery in this melancholic tale, Susan.

    A crackin' start to an inspired idea from our Lil.


  7. I want to read on!!!

  8. A great start to the series - very elegant writing, Susan!

    This piece had me asking questions from the beginning and with subtle clues you answered my queries! Some beautiful word-pictures here, with just enough hints to suggest a possible backstory without going into detail.

    And there are more unanswered questions - how long will it be before she and the child escape? What if they don't?

    I want to read more......! :-)

  9. Thank you so much for the lovely comments! I'm glad it has been so well received and I'm honoured to be taking part alongside such a fabulous line-up of female writers.

    Looking forward to tomorrow already!

    And thanks to Lily for inviting me in to a great project!


  10. Susan, this is exquisite, from the sun in strips to the bitter sadness at the end. Wonderful story.

  11. OH WOW! Beautifully told, and so sad! Very unexpected ending, considering the start -- great writing, great tale!

  12. Masquerade ball gowns, cello, and dark ribbons grace a dark front of a melancholy existence. I love the depth the inclusion of the boy with the crayon adds. It is the same sad tale in every culture. This story is told eloquently & elegantly and yet it the same viscousness that has been around since time began. Gorgeous kick off !

  13. I loved this one, Susan. It's dark, despairing and sad. Above all it is very well written indeed! Well done and a fab start to Lily's "party"!

    The other Femmes have it all to do after that one!!

  14. Fantastic piece! Totally agree with everyone else calling for more. I want to know more about Magdalene and her boy.

  15. This is like a beautiful dance of quiet despair. I love the beginning with the shadowed stripes and how she seems to go about her miserable life slowly, reflecting. A great start, Susan!

  16. glorious languishing, rolling prose the payoff divine

  17. What a cracking start to FFF month. Lovely descriptions, softly paced, with a shadowy twist and a lurking intrigue about Magdalene and her circumstance. Lovely stuff.

    And fab pic to go with it...

  18. So full of dispair, especially with the mention of the boy at the end. Great story.

  19. Wow. A beautifully written, sad story to start the FFF. I can tell it is going to be a thrilling month.

    Lily - I love the pictures you putting with the stories. Inspired choices.

  20. Hard-hitting and poignant at the same time. Great.

  21. This is fantastic! I'm a sucker for anything in Venice and this perfectly blends the surreal dream-like quality of the city, and the darker underside.

  22. Beautiful imagery in this piece, Susan. I hope there's more coming for this story!

  23. Susan, this is brilliant. It's such a beautiful piece of writing, so evocative and atmospheric. I love how you incorporated the sounds of the city going about its normal day, complete with tourists, and then delved into this darker, more sinister underworld nearby.

  24. What an existence to be trapped in...

  25. Extremely well crafted, and sadly, probably reflects the reality of some womens' lives too.

  26. Sorry to join in so long after the month has started, I've not been feeling well and now I'm catching up.

    I love the imagery in this one, it's beautiful yet a haunting tale.

  27. Sorry for the late posting.

    But, oh, the sadness, pain of her son.


Lily Childs is a writer of horror, esoteric, mystery and chilling fiction.

If you see her dancing outside in a thunder storm - don't try to bring her in. She's safe.