A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 3

Day 15

Inspired by 6music Make Art

Nine Plough Furrows

Lighting the peat fire in the morning Callum and Damon watched strands of thousand year old trees burn into the breeze. From each field on the hill they brought handfuls of clay. Some red, some yellow. Others grey as the sky. Throughout the morning they teased features from the mud and wiped grit down the sides of their jeans. Above them clutters of ravens gathered to watch.

The figure stood three feet high, swirls of colour in his limbs. With aching backs the two men laid him upon a bed of embers and covered him with sawdust and sticks. Sparks glittered through the afternoon as the fuel burnt to cinders, then a smear of ash. The sun set and the only light on the hill was the spatter of flames that burnt on under the clay back. Callum and Damon crouched beside feeding the fire sticks and themselves nothing.

Across the valley church bells hooked midnight from the sky. The two men stepped back nine plough furrows. At a safe distance they watched the fire shudder apart and life scorch through the finger shaped limbs. The pottery man stood and with blank eyeslooked north, south, east and west. Heavy footed he walked toward the village leaving smears of clay with each step. The men ran through the fields, mud clagging their shoes as they tried to catch up, and as the pottery man tore his way through the thorned hedge doubt burnt through them.

Day 16

Inspired by 6music Make Art

Six Strands of Music

Sofia saw the six strands of music glittering in hidden places across the landscape.

The first was light as air and had become entangled in the branches of a silver birch, bark pale as ghosts. She teased it loose with numb fingers, the sound of bells like mermaids whipsering filling her ears.

The next was at the bottom of a stream, weighted down by river cobbles. Taking off her shoes, Sofia waded into the middle, water cold as words. She held it high, the tail still fluttering in the current, and as the breeze made the strand of music dance the morning echoed with the sound of rich baritones and tenors.

To find the third strand Sofia fought her way to the middle of the woodland. Hard coated beetles danced on her arms to their own tunes, their shells the colour of spilt oil. The music was tangled in roots and it took until dusk for her to tease it free, swallowing the tune to feel the notes tickle on her tongue.

Returning to the town she found the next strand dangling from a lamp-post, glittering like amber in the sodium light. Hand over hand Sofia climbed up, wrapped the free end of the music around her waist and jumped, the song breaking her fall. She lay on the pavement, letting the words take her away.

Opening her eyes Sofia was back in her front room. A fire blazed in the hearth, flames dancing to their own tune. In the fallen ashes she spotted the fifth strand, twitching in the heat. Using a pair of tongs she pulled the music free. Once cooled she brushed away the grey ash and listened to the old folk song, each word echoing around the small room, singing of bowers, wax dolls and death.

Sofia searched the whole house for the sixth strand of music with no success. Tiredness overtook her and she burrowed into her bed. Her eyes blossomed sleep and she saw the last piece of music, a silver seam between sleep and waking, a lullaby, simple and clean, the notes carrying her into her dreams.

 

Day 19

Hatch

The hatch was no bigger than a postage stamp, made of thin planks and embedded in the back of Dani’s hand.

In the early days, when she was at Primary school, she would unhook the latch and poke her finger between the bones inside. Sometimes she let her classmates hook their nails in to make her fingers dance. That was a long time ago. The metal fittings had long turned to rough Verdigris that flaked off into her food.

It had been a hard night as most Christmas parties were. Sat by herself on the sofa she drained the last of the stolen Prosecco and started to fiddle with the hatch. The lock held, at first. Wrenching it open, the metal snapped, broken half falling in to lodge between her muscles. She folded the hatch a little too far against the frame and one of the hinges gave. Inside something crawled.

Her secrets mostly had three, five or seven legs, as if every one of them had suffered amputation to survive so long. They were blind, snuffling out. Some stopped to gnaw the twenty five year old timber with sharp mandibles, ignoring her skin and bone. She picked one up, reading the secret’s name scrawled in the fabric of its wings. Memory flooding back she crushed the thing between her fingers. The secret smeared across her skin.

The rest of the secrets swarmed from within her, chattering and descending on the crushed body of their kin, gnawing upon its thorax. Their cloud of chemicals was so dense it rose to cloud her face and stung her eyes.

She tried to swipe them away. More came, childhood deceit and adult lies, until they covered every inch of her skin and she collapsed to the carpet with the weight of the hidden.

Day 20

Strands of White

Friedrich’s father told the authorities that his son had run off to the woods. He was an unreliable witness, and will not feature again in Friedrich’s story, but in this fact he was correct.

Like most, Friedrich thought he had the skills to live under the canopy of leaves. Like most, Friedrich was wrong.

After the first few days sheltering under piles of leaves and sticks, stomach rumbling and mouth dry, Friedrich realised he could not survive by himself.

Friedrich asked the animals of the forest for help. They turned their heads from him. He could not hunt. When he walked his feet crushed the casings of nuts and the scent of his skin warned the prey they were coming.

Friedrich asked the birds for help. They turned their heads from him. He had no feathers or wings. Just skin, and when he tried to fly he spun to the forest floor, limbs snapping like dried twigs.

Friedrich asked the trees for help. They turned their low branches from him. He had no leaves, and when he tried to turn sunlight into food his skin just erupted in blisters. The only water he had seen in days.

With nowhere else to turn Friedrich asked the fungi of the forest for help. Speaking for all the mushrooms and fungi in the forest, the fool’s mushroom dipped its head and said yes..

The honey fungus shared their mycelium with him, because he had none of the fine white strands of his own. They slid their network into his skin, between muscle and bone.

Next the truffle showed him how to camouflage his skin, turning it brown, and the green of sunfed moss. Better to hide from those humans who would come and pluck him from the forest to take back to the knives and ovens of the town.

The fungi knew that Friedrich still had much to learn to become one with the colony. Encouraged by their silent pupil’s progress, fly agaric taught him to split his skin as he expanded, tatters hanging on like flags.

Yet still he was too large to conceal himself from those who harvested the forest floor. With desperation and love for their new charge the avenging angel mushroom taught him how to separate himself into tiny white stems. Friedrich’s were of mineral and hollow, easily concealed in the dirt and mosss of the living soil around the shifting roots of the trees.

Months before Friedrich had asked the fungi and mushrooms of the forest for help. Now, finally he was hidden from those who would hunt him down.

Day 21

The Crow’s Gifts

The crow first appeared on the red gate at the entrance to Stacey’s garden, then the lilac tree at the far end.

Every morning Stacey fed the crow, leaving piles of peanuts in the nooks and gaps of the porch for the bird to find. Every afternoon the crow brought her gifts, laying them out across the the steps for her to gather.

Stacey took the gifts inside and rested them on the windowsill, a pane of glass between the offerings and the outside world; a spring from a wooden peg; a pink hair clip, metal tarnished to green by the wettest Autumn on record; a length of red ribbon with strands of blond hair still entangled in its knot; the ivory coloured hem of a wedding dress, rain sodden confetti still stuck to the lace; a pebble that turned the colour of the sea when wet; the wires of a pacemaker, insulation frayed and fibres of muscle still attached; a paper thin retina, the shadow of the last thing it saw ghosted in the surface; a single memory of childhood snatched from a woman in the final stages of alzheimer’s disease; the sound ‘ee’ from a toddler learning to speak.

Stacey arranged them all on a sheet of sunfaded red velvet, so the crow could see she loved the gifts.

The victims of the crow’s thefts cared nothing for the red velvet, sunfaded or not. Skin faded to transparency they crowded Stacey’s garden, more joining them every day to stare through the glass.

Between the red gate and the lilac tree they waited for the day Stacey joined them in their paper thin world and they could steal back what was theirs, and take compensation for their loss.

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A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 2

I’ve completed the second week of my flash fiction challenge. This week has been harder. I seem to have struggled a bit to get inspiration, but hopefully they’re enjoyable. Here are the next seven stories.

Day 8

Secret Santa

Michael locked his front door and slumped on the sofa. The Christmas meal had been as awful as every year. The whole office crammed around three scratched tables in the back of the local pub eating dried out turkey. He’d spent most of the time trying not to let the alcohol bring on a fit of honesty or blackmail worthy smartphone memories.

He picked up the secret santa gift, corners of torn wrapping still attached. The budget was £5 and the secret benefactor had not exceeded that. His present was one of those oh so humourous toiletries; a soap to help grow a thick skin. Probably from Jim the caretaker. He hadn’t got why some people might not find his jokes quite so funny as he did. It had only been an informal reprimand.

Michael opened the box. The contents fell into his lap, a yellow swirled bar that smelt vaguely of marigolds. He picked up the box, trying to focus on the contents.

“Horsetail, Calendula,” he read out loud to himself, struggling to pronounce the last word. “Powdered chitons.” He traced out the phrase in brackets (Not suitable for vegetarians.)

When he woke it was the early hours, neck cricked against the arm of the sofa. Picking up the soap he went to the bathroom, left the light off and turned on the tap, waiting while the water heated.

With his gift to hand he lathered up the soap and rubbed his face. It felt gritty, but not unpleasant. He rinsed his skin and touched his face. The skin felt odd. He stared into the mirror above the sink, trying to see in the light from the hall. His forehead had healed over with fans of mineral plates. He felt them spread over his face, down his cheeks, turning his lips to shell and sealing them across. Inside he pressed his tongue against the plates and felt them flex at the touch.

The alteration started where the soap cleaned but soon spread. He watched his hands turning to shell. With razor edged nails he tried to claw between the gaps, but there was no space to gain purchase. He watched his skin change until his eyes healed over and there was only darkness and discomfort and the weight of his changed skin.

For a few hours nothing happened. He could not see, and though he tried to feel his way from the room his muscles were too weak to move him in his blindness. Then, slowly but surely, his vision returned. First, eyes of mineral erupted in his back, then on his chest, until every part of his skin was covered in flexing aragonite eyes, their stone lenses twitching to see the darkened bathroom whose floor he was now ground into.

 

Day 9

Skins of Embers

After the Burning People arrived with the onset of winter none of our fires lit again. Sparks and flames all disappeared overnight. We watched these people of the inferno walk around the empty midnight streets with their skins of embers as we huddled around cold hearths with no candles to light our way.

The only burning we knew was jealousy. After our children started blueing from hard frosts, gangs broke the curfew and clattered the streets. They cornered and dismembered the Burning People to carry home glittering limbs, bones of smouldering charcoal exposed to the falling snow. Glowing coals fell to the ground and melted through the drifts like trails of burnt toast. That night we huddled close to the first hearth fires in weeks and ate hot food so fast it blistered our jaws.

We did not know that this was how the Burning People bred. How they increased their number. Now we have more flames than we could ever desire. Now our children are no longer blue. Now there is nothing but fire.

 

Day 10

Gift Wrap

Word reached Marco of a new Christmas shop selling wrapping paper for far less than the supermarkets. Word reached the rest of the town too. People queued down the street to save money on something only needed until little fingers found their way inside.

Reaching the front, Marco stacked Amy’s arms high with rolls of paper, each decorated with embossed stars or abstracted reindeer. Elegant, good quality and cheap.

Back home he wrapped the family’s gifts with care, marvelling at how the paper didn’t tear on sharp, awkward corners. He added curled satin ribbons. The perfect finishing touch.

Early Christmas morning the paper was scattered to be forgotten, attention focussed on the coloured plastic gifts. Marco gathered the wastepaper, pushing it down into black bin liners, ready for recycling.

During the night, skin scorching heat woke a still drunk Marco. Believing the central heating still on he tried to rise from bed and failed. Reaching down to unfurl himself from the duvet he felt embossed paper instead.

Trying to free his legs, he crashed to the floor. Torn paper pinned arms to torso, rolling him toward the door as it crushed his ribs to splinters. He saw Amy already cocooned, breathing her last.
Marco tried shouting. Decorated with reindeer, torn paper collapsed words back into his throat. Used sellotape, thick with dust, held it in place. Waste paper knitted across his face, blinding him. The pressure increased and glistening muscles erupted from gaps between the sheets, looped like satin ribbons.

Day 11

The Well of Words

The Well of Words stood in the middle of the town, edifice carved from yellowed bones of long dead creatures, like basilisk and cockatrice.

Each day the children would go to the well, stand on the edge and lower in empty pen barrels to capture the words in the narrow tubes.

On summer days newborns were placed in bassinets, thin reeds coming out of their mouths so they did not drown, and were lowered down the chamber to soak up words like sentience and rushing, erupted and agility.

The letters sat upon their infant skins until the daylight bleached them pale.

But it was on winter nights when we would stumble to the well and skim off feral phrases that rose to the surface like cream. Backs against the bones of long dead creatures we stitched words like rebellion and disobedience into sentences, and, as the snow melted on our skins, became drunk on their power.

Day 12

Clotting

The red and blue sky beyond the platform opened its veins and bled birds into the evening. Laura watched them fall to clot roads and pavements, feathers in such number they turned the snow black.

The trains could not run because of the weight of tiny corpses on the rails. The taxis were crowded and each step in the street was soundtracked by the snapping of tiny hollow bones. They tried to clear the feathered bodies from the street, but they had a weight far beyond their size. Far beyond anything that floated on thermals.

When the birds started walking again, on powdered legs, calling through snapped beaks, Laura was not surprised. The birds crawled over each other, shuddering as their feathers caught.

The birds tasted secrets. All through the city they crowded around people, clinging to them with claws that cut through clothes and needled skin. Once they attached they could not be unhooked, singing their calls at their victim through broken throats. Once they attached more and more came until the shape of the person underneath was lost in the softness of feathers.

Laura did not leave her flat, eating combinations of cupboard ingredients until no food was left. Using gaffer tape she sealed every gap and snick she could find.

She woke to find the bird gripping her headboard. It hopped across the bedclothes and knotted into her hair. Getting up, she poured a glass of tap water that tasted of floating birds, sat on the sofa and waited for the rest to arrive.

Day 13

Ghost Fishing (Inspired by a conversation with Dr Anna Macdonald)

Sailing out on erupted waters the crew of The Flying Cloud caught nothing. At first. After several hours at sea the lines snagged and they dragged them through the muttering surface of the sea.

Hand over hand Billy and Sam hauled the catch onto the deck and stared. Every line held a single pot, lost long before Billy and Sam started crewing. Each trap of wire was crammed to crushing with swimmer crabs, twenty to thirty in each. Some were still alive, claws still twitching against the shells of the dead.

Opening the pots the two fishermen tipped the crabs to the deck and watched the ones still alive grasp their way free. Billy delved in, grabbing two and taking them down to the galley, appearing a little later with two plates of crab meat that they ate as the weather tried to scrub the world to grey.

Over the next two weeks they gifted the catch to friends and family. Compressed the cooked meat into stone pots and turned creature after creature from blue to red.

The ghosts, only recently knotted into shell kept flesh, found new homes. One pale, shimmering legs they slipped easily from the dead sea creatures to take up residence behind the eyes of the fishermen. Behind the eyes of their children The ghosts liked knives. They reminded them of their lost claws. Soon they would start their cutting.

Day 14

A Winter Ride

Mike took the corner and wound open the throttle, the bike accelerating under him. A gust of wind snagged on the mirror, wrapping itself around the front forks.

Across the fields, the other end of the gust grasped the torn wing of a crow, pulling her off course. Unsure what was happening the bird clattered through a hedge, snapping its beak tight around the thorned branches. The drag shook most of the roots free of the field, a rain of soil falling through the air. The scent of crushed blackberries and mallow clothed the sky.

Under the dirt a single root tried to hold to the earth where it suckled, until it could resist no more and was dragged free, bringing with it the forty two sinews of plough furrows tattooing the field.

Mike came to a stop outside his garage. He killed the engine, around him a cocoon of branches and feathers. Breezes and soil. His skin was stained with the juice of blackberries. He risked a glance in the mirror, the countryside behind now scrubbed to fraying and pale as chalkdust.