Here are the final stories of my flash fiction month. As with the previous three weeks each is linked to a location which you can visit via the hyperlink. Hope you enjoy them.
The couple decided to hold their wedding outside. Begin their marriage between sky and stone, not wrapped in brick and plumbing. Feel the geology underneath them, the hawthorn wearing the wind like rags.
Every word they said to each other was stitched with love, and time, the time behind them and the time to come. Hands bound with cloth, they sipped honey wine and made honeyed promises, oaths as sweet as anything the bees feasted upon.
Like shimmers from another world they stood upon the outcrop of rock and reached into the future; one year, ten years, twenty and many more.
With hands enwrapped with promises they spoke words that enwrapped them with memories to come and stepped upon their own bonny road toward a world of their own.
The swimmers stand on the glittered shore, feet coated in sand sharp as razors. When they swam out to the island, before the sun went down and chilled the land, the sea was soft and warm.
They watch waves erupt to swallow themselves. Soon the ground where they wait will gnaw upon itself. They can already feel it waking to taste the soil beneath them. The sea swirls and shifts, and with arms bare and lungs filled, they dive.
The sea is no longer soft and warm. Now it is brittle and murderous. They try to make progress, but are overwhelmed. The sea of shattered knives cuts the swimmers to the bone and continues slicing, smearing crests of waves with blood and severed tendons. There is no drowning, just muscle trimmed with a thousand cuts until the swimmers are carried beneath the sharpened tide.
They renamed her in the hope it would rob her of her power. Take the magic from her hair and bones.
Whenever they pinned her identity to a worksheet or receipt, they changed the letters of her name. Misspoke it when gossipping on the street, and whispering before sleeping.
She did not care. While they shuddered at having the syllables of her slide over their lips or brush their tongue, she went to the overgrown ponds and dressed in lilies, swam in reed choked waters, and sat in meadows where the grasses scratched all the names they called her into her back.
Some days, when she lay in her bed as the summer sun scorched the streets, she heard them talk about her. Call her Joanie, or Helena, or bitch (if they were feeling brave), but none of them had the nerve to obstruct her while she knelt in the street collecting gutter herbs or road ash.
None of them had the bravado to misname her when she bought calf hearts from the butchers, and collected blackthorns on the way home. None of them had the guts to criticise her to her face when she fed the stray cats gathered in her garden, that did not quite look like cats.
While they shuddered at her shadow and stayed silent, she spoke kindness to all those who showed it to her, and any chance she got whispered her own name to herself, and smiled.
Since starting her comedy career JoJo had bombed many times, but tonight was bad. Really bad. Tonight JoJo had hit her lowest point.
She stood on the stage, staring beyond the dust covered lights to the bored audience. That was the worst. Not the jeering or heckling, but the sheer boredom pressing back from their passive faces, stifling her attempts at jokes. Killing them before they were even born. The corpses of her humour lay around her feet.
She did not need to do anything else. The sacrifice had been made. From the side of the stage the compere tried to get her attention by glances, then sighs, then hands. She shrugged off his interruptions and refocused. Looked for the micro signals amongst those watching. A hand tapping a rhythm here, and an eye twitching in spasm there. Angles made by skin and the cloth of sweat stained shirts. Her words changed from attempts at humour to calls so quiet she barely heard herself speak.
The first portal opened up in the tear duct of a drunk stag sitting by the front of the stage. What came through was dressed in thorns and each one grazed sigils into the dying man’s eyes. The last thing he saw were the words that powdered his muscles, turning him to bone and dust. The second portal started as a single point in the chest of the compere. JoJo watched it grow and whiten, until it was pure light, though that was just the herald for the corruption that followed. What followed that light was tainted with infection and wounds. It paused before JoJo and recognised the names chiseled into her bones, then moved on through the crowd, defusing them cell by cell until they were little more than scrapings of dust on the cheap plastic chairs.
JoJo watched the things clasp together their rewards; the squirming souls of those shattered and eroded. They would not get all the cultural references in her routine, the dwellers from behind the meniscus of the world, but at least they would listen, and wait until she had finished before passing judgement upon her performance.
Constanza sat upon the stage surrounded by instruments with no-one to play them. Even with no other musicians in the room the strings and skins resonated just below hearing as if the ghosts of all those past performances could not stay silent. As if they needed to find a new home in the polished wood and brass that littered the stage.
She tipped her chair back until only balanced on two legs and then back forward, letting her bow find the tune in the cello. Call back all the performances lost over the years in that ancient hall.
Across the room the harps resonated an answer, finding their own voice in the tune she danced from memory.
The animals started to come in as if the tune she played was food. As if it could give them nourishment that they could not find in the desolate world beyond the building. She watched them skitter down the aisles; deer and wild boar. A bunny leading its family over the red velvet chairs.
They came closer as if she was not there at all. As if there was only the music and the music alone would fill their bellies. She knew this was not true, or she would not be near starving herself. Soon her own stomach would be full. There would be plenty to cook tonight.
Basecamp was deserted when Sally returned from the trench.
The rest of the team hadn’t had time to become unsettled by the most recent find. She cradled the artefact in her hands, the cuts and cracks in her skin full of clay and grit.
Now excavated, the object was smaller than she expected. She turned it over, watching as the last of the day’s sun caught each facet in turn, glittering with the dust of many deaths.
All the site huts were empty, traces of recent activity everywhere. A cup of tea cooled on top of a pile of paperwork. In another office a cigarette smouldered in a full ashtray.
She caught sight of herself in a murky hut window, just able to see her lips moving, saying the same thing over and over again. The invocation had already been recited, every step from site, like a penitent on pilgrimage. The world had already been changed. She glanced down at the artefact. Now she saw the faces. Now she saw the others. Now she saw the end of the world, and it came from muttered words that she could not stop from repeating over and over and over.
Bill would not make amends for what happened on that night two weeks ago. That walk back from the club at three in the morning.
Seline shuddered at the memory and carried on arranging icewort flowers on the kitchen table. The evening had gone smoothly; good music, good dancing, the floor not too crowded, then it was time to leave. Outside was warm and the moon was high, so rather than get a bus or call a cab they decided to take their time and go on foot.
From the bag by her feet she took out the blood soaked grit and piled it in the middle of the circle of blossoms.
The cat wasn’t doing anything, just being a bit loud. Trying to get some affection. Bill didn’t touch the animal, didn’t even pretend to hit it. Instead he stepped around the other side, cutting off its escape and giving it nowhere else to go when he shouted. The cat shot out in the only direction left, toward the road.
Seline didn’t blame the car driver. He had no time to stop. She had knelt by the side of the cat, but there was nothing she could do except take the collar and hope to track down the owners.
“It’s not my fault. Stupid creature,” Bill had said, showing no remorse. There had been a coldness in his voice. A disregard for death. If he could be so dismissive over that casualty?
From her pocket she took out the five small half moons of fingernails and dropped them on top of the pile of grit.
The words were easy to remember as all good magic was. She felt her mouth go cold and spat into the centre of the circle.
The dart was barely bigger than her hand, frozen, solid and sharp. She picked it up and whispered Bill’s name, his full name, not that it was strictly necessary. The fragments of him would guide the point to its destination, but ritual was ritual.
Opening the window, she watched the ice dart shimmer for a moment then take off in search of a heart to stop. Sat at her kitchen table, Seline remembered a cat no-one else had a chance to mourn.
Cathryn walked into the salon, feeling the blast of heat from above the door. She shook off her coat and let the assistant take it from her shoulders to hang it in the corner with those of the other customers.
“Morning, madam,” the stylist said as Cathryn lowered herself into the chair. The seat was difficult to settle in, but that was her, not anything she could blame on the establishment.
“What would you like today?” The stylist fastened the cape around her neck, smoothing it down.
“Just a trim please,” Cathryn said.
The stylist ran a manicured finger over Cathryn’s antlers, lingering for a moment at the branch of two tines.
“Are you sure? I have some new styles I’d really like to try out on you.”
Cathryn thought about it. She really did only want a trim, but maybe.
“I can do you a discount,” the stylist said quickly. “As long as I can take some photos.”
She had never been tempted by such delicate work before. Maybe a geometric pattern for a special occasion. Her friends who did spend their money on scrimshaw always managed to damage it during rutting of both types.
“Does it last?” She asked, still not certain.
“It lasts,” the stylist said. “I use a special technique that hardens the antler as I work. Am I okay to start?”
Cathryn nodded, the tip of one of her antlers touching the mirror. Beside her a faun laid back in his chair, eyes closed as the junior stylist carefully sculpted his horns, working away with a small saw.
From a small black table the stylist picked up a craft drill and changed the blade. Settling Cathryn’s head in place, she started to work.
The air filled with the smell of burnt hair as the stylist began to sculpt and carve. While she worked it was very hard for Cathryn to see what minuscule changes the stylist made with each cut. Up on the wall were photos of previous work; minotaurs with religious scenes carved into their horns, and minor woodland gods with bonsai forests of their own shaped into their horns.
After several hours the stylist put down their tools and stepped back, moving Cathryn’s head a touch to one side, then holding up a mirror so she could see the entirety of the sculpture; the delicate bridges with willow trees above, a glistening of snow on the branches, below that the figures sat around the campfire that seemed to move as the light caught them, brewing tea in precise teapots balanced in the flames. Further away, a small boat docked against a jetty while two more floated out into the middle of the river.
“Is it OK?” The stylist said, clasping their hands together.
Cathryn couldn’t speak, but as she nodded, the boats seemed to rock upon the carved water, shimmering through the tears in her eyes.
The trees tasted the power on the air and one by one uprooted themselves from the forest floor.
Unburied taproots became tendrils to drag them down hillsides and across tarmac, onward toward the cities that glistened in the distance. At first no-one noticed, though the ground itself trembled with the magnificence of that shift, that movement of pine and firs down toward where the people still went about their jobs and hobbies as if nothing had changed. After everything was finished, we realised that was the moment we should have paid attention.
The trees arrived at just the right time of year, clustering in toppled piles by the side of the roads, waiting for families to load them into cars and trailers. Waiting for families to take them home.
Once in living rooms the trees were decorated, covered in tinsel and glass baubles in the shape of fruit they would never grow. None of these interested them. Not the red and white candy-canes or the jagged snowmen made by tiny hands. The trees only cared about one thing; the lights and the energy they carried within them.
While the households slept the trees used their branches to cleave the bulbs to their trunks, shattered the fine glass casings, pressed the prongs against their bark, and as the electricity sparked through them they drank the energy directly into their timber, feeling it change them. Outside the streetlights flickered with the drain.
Pine needles smouldering, the trees left their living room perches, and found their way through darkened houses, lighting their own way to silent bedrooms. Twirling in the dark they unfurled the broken strings of lanterns onto the silent figures and watched without remorse as the families twitched and smouldered in their beds. The world had once belonged to the trees and once more the world would be nothing but forests.
The stones themselves yelled to cover the screams of the grass and the soil and the earth beneath them. From one side to the other, the circle was crammed with people, their heads turned in worship, no matter what they were worshipping.
Each person carried a little magic, a spark of a spell or curse buried deep in their heart. Not a lot, but enough.
The stones tasted the magic on the air, felt it dragged out of worshippers by the rising sun, held in the sky between the cold and the heat to come.
As the stones screamed and chorused so loud that no one could hear, they spiralled the enchantment into a tornado of devotion that enveloped the sky and the sun and the land and every single shimmer of life between.