The Last Laugh.

I lift my head from the barn’s straw-covered floor. A muddy pair of boots step around my goats, and the suit of bells rattles down upon the ground.

‘The king wants his jester.’

I don’t say a word; they took my tongue many years ago. I simply undress and pull on my second skin. The faded velvet feels ever snug against my expired body. The guardsman leads me through the city and past the East Gate – open for the first time since the infant princess’ sudden death. The streets glint with the polished armour of knights in the morning sun; the ears of noblewomen droop beneath peach-sized pearls. A delegation from the South is heralded by the trumpeting of an enormous elephant, its body wrapped in copper-coloured armour. A procession of dignitaries stride behind it, shaded beneath umbrellas made from peacock feathers.

At the palace gates, a minister measures the loyalty of the King’s subjects by the weight of their purses. I abandon my escort and make the familiar climb to the Great Hall – my aged knees throb with each laboured step. Inside, the hall is thick with courtesans and ambition. I remove my rice-filled balloons from my pocket and juggle them high into the air. My performance begins.

Our King arrives at the middle hour. His sunken cheeks confirm the rumours of untouched platters being returned from his chambers.

The crowd hushes.

‘Five full moons have passed since my Elmeria was poisoned.’ The King of Axes’ voice has withered to weeds. ‘A father ought never know the anguish of burying his own child.’ He turns to the bronzed doors behind him. ‘But today, we shall restore justice.’

The trial is swift. Each of the nameless cooks confesses, undoubtedly desperate to spare their families the horrors of the dungeons. The sentence is clear and immediate. Dinah the Executioner swings her scythe truly, and the palace floor is painted red with vengeance. When the headless corpses are removed, joyous music bursts from the band, wafting up to the hall’s vaulted ceiling. My King’s dark eyes glitter toward me.

‘Cattelus – my trusted performer – would you dance for your King?’

I hobble into the room’s centre and begin my jig. The musician’s quickened pace betrays me, and my brittle bones creak as I rock ever faster. The audience’s complicit grins gurgle into laughter. My King beams from his throne. He has long forgotten the man imprisoned within this suit of bells: the youngest brother of a conquered rival. A man whose own wife and children were slain to avoid imagined future uprisings. My King is right – no father should ever know the horror of burying his children.

The music hastens; the wails of laughter lash my sweat-drenched back. They see Cattelus, the dancing hound – not the childless father who plots his revenge while delivering milk to feed their children.

Or princesses.

I dance faster for my King – breathless and revelling in his sweet laughter.

© Matthew S. Wilson, October 2021

This piece was originally written for October’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre.


I’d never imagined living in an attic.

Frank was the only one to come up here – twice a year to fetch and return the Christmas lights. Like everything else, he stopped doing that the year I died. Frank simply sunk deeper into his couch, unable to hear or see me, irrespective of how many chairs I upended or windows I rattled. He’d filtered my voice out long ago – why on earth had I expected him to hear me when I was dead? I spent the following months watching him and my houseplants gradually die. My Monstera outlasted him by a month. When the paramedics wheeled his body away, I was trapped alone in the house.

A young family eventually bought it. They seemed nice enough, but every time I attempted to befriend them, the house shook with their children’s screams. Their fear, mixed with my sadness of seeing my home erased beneath the wife’s ghoulish wallpaper, forced me into the only place I didn’t feel haunted. So for decades, I’ve dwelled here in the attic, where my only friends have been the spiders, whose knitted webs have slowly filled with blundering moths.

And then, one day, the house fell quiet.

Initially, I assumed it was just another of their family holidays. But when the weeks seeped into months, I ventured downstairs. A woman stood over a stove in the kitchen. A young girl next to her passed ingredients to her. I watched the two strangers sit at the table; they ate their dinner with chopsticks. Afterwards, the girl stood on two stacked telephone books and washed the dishes in the sink. Her mother reappeared from the hallway, now dressed in a waitress’ uniform.

‘In bed by 8 o’clock.’

The front door closed behind her. I followed the little girl, no older than ten, around my disfigured home. She brushed her teeth and lay in bed, reading a book about dinosaurs. Her eyelids had begun growing heavy when I clumsily knocked a snow-globe from her bedside table onto the floorboards. The girl sat up rigid; her dark eyes pierced me. I retreated to the hallway, noticing the name on her bedroom door.


I lingered in the attic for several days, pondering the new tenants. When I crept downstairs again, the girl was alone in the kitchen. She climbed down her telephone books from a sizzling pan of vegetables on the stove over to the pantry’s spice rack. I watched her little fingers wind their way past jars of herbs. The stove growled. I turned toward a plume of flame leaping from the pan into the air. The little girl panicked and snatched a nearby jug of water.

‘Ruth, no.’

I slammed the nearby glass lid down onto the pan – the fire hissed as it died – and turned to ensure the girl was safe. The jug trembled in her hand.

‘It’s you again,’ she said.

© Matthew S. Wilson, September 2021

This piece was originally written for October’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre.

Woozy Bankers.

‘Coming, Tim?’

I logged off and followed my colleagues out of the office; attending company social events inadvertently influenced our bonuses. The downstairs function room of the nearby pub reeked of beer and despair; like a fallen tree, its scratched tables could be aged by the rings staining their surfaces. The only person happy to be there was Greg, our self-designated quizmaster. Wearing a tie covered in question marks, he resembled a white-collar variant of the Riddler.

‘Don’t forget, the winning team shares a dinner for two at Vue de Monde,’ he beamed, repeating the sales pitch he’d carpet-bombed our inboxes with for the past month. ‘This will be our best quiz night yet.’

Greg’s pledge was immediately broken when I was paired with Darren Jenkins, a lumbering investment banker with ruddy cheeks and cufflinks inscribed with ‘JFDI’.

‘It’s because my approach to making deals is like Nike’s,’ he’d explain to anyone who’d ever asked him about the acronym. ‘Just F’ing do it.’

People submitted their team names, most choosing cringey puns from Google. Darren proudly christened us the Woozy Bankers. I looked wistfully across the room to Hannah, the girl from Accounting with whom I traded witty emails at the end of each financial quarter. Why couldn’t we be teammates?

Round 1 was a disaster, with Darren fog-horning most of our answers to neighbouring tables. At the end of the round, we swapped our sheets with adjacent tables, and Greg read the answers aloud; the crowd whooped and groaned as if watching a Christmas pantomime. When we received our sheet back, Let’s Get Fiscal had penalised us half a mark for forgetting the squiggly line in São Paulo.

‘Details matter, Timothy,’ said Judy, shaking her head with genuine disappointment. I didn’t press the point; nobody ever won an argument against the Audit team.

We fared better in Rounds 2 and 3, mainly because Darren was busy flinging himself at waiters carrying trays of beers or satay skewers, allowing me to focus. The night nearly ground to a halt over Greg’s adjudication that Crowded House was an Australian band, not a Kiwi one. When the final scores were eventually tallied, the Woozy Bankers and the EXCEL-erators were tied in first place. A member of each was invited up to answer a tie-breaker question. With Darren wrestling someone for the final pork slider, I rose to face my opponent, Hannah. We shared an embarrassed smile. The question was the distance between Earth and Saturn. Hannah’s guess was half a galaxy nearer the truth than mine, and Greg proudly awarded her the voucher like a novelty cheque at a golf tournament.

‘Congratulations,’ I said, awkwardly offering her a Covid-Safe elbow bump. ‘The food is supposed to be terrific.’

‘Nigel has already been,’ said Hannah, nodding to her teammate at their table, who was yawning and checking his watch. ‘Perhaps you and I could go together?’

It was the easiest question of the night.

© Matthew S. Wilson, July 2021

This piece was originally written for July’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre.