Apologies for the delay. Unfortunately a trip abroad, Christmas and my birthday got in the way. If you’d like to read more flash fiction throughout the year I now have a newsletter you can sign up to. The plan with be to send out a flash fiction story once a fortnight. http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase
Flash fiction month – Day 22
(This was written for my wife’s birthday)
Taking me by the hand she led me inside, through the door sprinkled with glitter, below the roof shaped from whispered words.
Inside, she invited me to recline on the bed. Underneath me was a blanket crocheted with wool of many colours. As she made a pot of tea I pulled away strands and chewed them. They tasted of cinnamon and snow.
We drank from chipped mugs and she told me stories of who we would one day be. Her hair was woven through with stars the size of pine needles. She pointed at them and named the constellations. The swimmer and the embrace. The whispered name and the moth.
Then I slept.
When I woke she had taken out my heart. There was no scar. This was surgery, not theft.
On her table my heart lay in a Wedgewood bowl. Around the rim she had lit pale candles that guttered and sent soot toward the ceiling.
With a pair of bone tweezers she worked through the night. Straining her eyes in the candlelight she pulled loose splinters of rotten sash window frame and metal swarf from a Coventry cast engine casing. Scorched paper from a thousand abandoned story drafts, and the ice from too many nights spent shivering.
These were easy to find. Next, she reached for a magnifying glass and searched for the ephemeral. Words of dismissal spattered across the heart so long ago the serifs had been obscured by regrown tendons. She ran her fingers over the surface until she found several half forgotten glances in government offices, and she pressed into the blood vessels to find burrowing conversations, hidden by scar tissue, even I had no memory of.
By the time she had finished repairing my heart, dawn hung in the air outside.
She walked out of the door, collected mist and knitted it around my heart to hold it tight. Then, while I slept, she placed my heart back in my chest and kept me safe in her house, with the door of glitter and roof of whispered words.
Spine Barked Trunks
Emma heard the same rumours as everyone else. Tales of trees erupting in empty houses. Stories of how they shaped needles from sponge soft floorboards and carpets frayed to ghosts. Spine barked trunks filling the air with the scent of snow, ragged fox pelts and bones picked clean by unseen grubs.
Some in the village went looking through dirty windows for the out of place branches. Made brave by cheap Christmas whiskey they pulled away chipboard shutters and went into the derelict buildings with bowsaw and felling axe. Their tools were often found rusting against the porches, though the amateur lumberjacks were never seen again.
By mid-December the trees appeared in the corner of family homes, including Emma’s. Where glitter and glass bedecked pines already stood, the newcomers dragged them to the floor, pulping them with sap thick as bread sauce. While families slept the trees wrapped bones in fresh pressed paper, scratchy embossed patterns uneven and twitching.
Out of sight, fibril mats of roots spread through rooms, anchoring themselves to the house foundations with tendrils pale as breath.
Like the rest of the village, when Christmas morning came, Emma sat with family around the tree in the corner of her living room. Over a breakfast of selection box chocolate they started to unwrap the shuffling gifts. Behind them the roots tore themselves free of the carpet, rose into the air and pressed into the pliable napes of necks.
Muted Grey As Stone
The cold winds came and fluted down the hollow bones of the bifrost coloured birds, chilling them inside and out. They knew winter was coming, and they knew what they had to do.
First, they muted their colours. Each dawn they tore off sheets of the sky in the hours before dawn and used their beaks to rub the darkness into their feathers. Over the first week of November they turned themselves the tint of wet stone. As they flew the colour leached out into the sky, brushed against the sodden air, deepening the early nights and thickening the winter mist. The greyness spread from therm like watercolours on dampened paper.
Camouflaged, they dipped and rose through the sky, gripping every sound and tearing it free from the now dull days. They did not care about the source of the sounds. The now grey parakeets stole engine sounds of a spluttering black cab and the drunken singing from a Christmas party gone on too long. They swooped down on carol singers, taking every last note like greedy fledlings grasping food from their parent’s beaks. Perched on the open windows of nightclubs they stole the beats and the breaks, dragging them upwards, the torn tails of tunes buffeting against the frosted walls.
The days darkened and the sound of the city muted, until the parakeets clung to the glass of the highest buildings. Below them the city lost its voice, while they Knotted together the sounds they hadstockpiled. High above the city all 60,000 disguised parakeets hid, warmed against the winter in their nests shaped from noise.
Roofs of Branches, Doors of Blankets
(Today’s story was inspired by something Dr Anna Macdonald told me about ants.)
Outside the gates of the city Belinda leant back against the chalk walls. Running off around the foot of the defences were small timber huts, with roofs of branches and doors of blankets. She reached into the bag on her belt, undoing the seal and shifting her hand inside.
The thieving ants crawled over her fingers and palms. Some bit her, but she ignored the pain and scooped out a handful, watching the insects stream across her skin.
Bringing her hands together she crushed them to paste and smeared the mixture across her brow, then down her cheeks, and finally over her lips. The broken pincers felt like grit. She carried on until every showing piece of skin was coated.
From behind her the smell of cooking rose into the air. Pomegranate and pumpkin soup. Rich stews of lamb and parsnips. Syrup treats with the texture of snow, and the lingering taste of one thousand different sugars.
Across the motorway the City of the Dead rose in mud clumped towers, shedding dust into the air. Belinda stepped carefully across the tarmac and tried not to cough as the powder caught her throat. The dead never coughed. Taking the first step into their streets a jolt went through her. What if the scents on her skin did not fool them? A group walked toward her, their limbs tattered and transparent. They passed by, ignoring her flesh and her breath.
She went from house to house, finding the hearts beside the hearths, and rested each in a lead lined box, the shape of a lover’s sigil. Using a copper nail she scrawled the name of each in the soft metal. By sunset she had collected twenty in the second bag upon her belt, and the dead had not stripped her skin from her muscle.
Walking back across the six lanes, the barrier in between, she placed the lead lined containers of rescued hearts beside the doors and stepped away from the entrance to the city. In her absence her fellow citizens had come out and built a new wooden hut, with a roof of branches and door of blankets. This was her home now. She would never see inside the chalk walls again.
Callum stood outside the house at the end of the cul de sac. The neighbour shuffled three children into an estate car and tried not to catch his eye.
The yellowed uPVC door opened and a woman left, cradling something to her waist. Callum could not see what it was. He did not want to.
“Go into the living room,” the old man said. “Lay down on the sofa.”
Callum did as he was told. The small coffee table beside him was covered in dirty coffee mugs and overflowing ashtrays. The old man re-appeared, the heat of a fresh cup steaming his glasses.
Taking a sip he put the drink down and picked up a piece of cheesecloth from the carpet. To Callum it looked like an old shirt with the arms cut away, scars of an unpicked pocket just visible.
The old man placed the fabric over Callum’s face.
“Close your eyes,” he said, and Callum did.
The cheesecloth smelt of bucket sand and candy-floss and seaside rock and then nothing.
When he woke his death was on the table. A small white figure, skin cracked like porcelain. It twitched its arms and flexed its fingers, painted lips shuddering. Callum’s hands went to his stomach.
“There’s no scar,” the old man said. “This isn’t surgery.”
He held the little death. the tiny figure flinching from the nicotined touch. Next he picked up the fabric. He wrapped the little death until only the face was showing. From under the coffee table he brought out a small wooden coffin and slid the parcel inside.
Callum sat up and the old man passed him the bundle.
“You only have so long until it recovers its voice, so bury the coffin soon. Somewhere old. Somewhere between stone and soil, and until dirt covers its face don’t try and lipread the mumblings.”
Callum nodded, and left the house. Shutting the door he felt the still clinging air of the house slew from his skin. Clinched in his palms the death struggled against its bindings. Callum tried to concentrate on the tarmac of the path, but the cold skin was against his hands. The lips stilled for the moment. The eyes watched him, wanting Callum to keep looking. Then it started again.
Instinct kicked in and Callum’s thoughts followed the twitch of the mouth. He mouthed the words. Like found like. His words became the death’s words.
With cold porcelain hands the death reached up and started to pull Callum’s breath from his lungs, and did not stop until it’s white cracked skin was clothed in the thing that used to be Callum.
Glitter in the Tarmac
The whiskey in Sampson Brown’s breath fogged the wndscreen and fogged his eyesight. Not that it made much difference. Outside, the fog littered with strands of orange light. Something in the motorway didn’t move quick enough. An animal glanced off his bumper and became vapour behind him and then nothing. Sampson Brown did not notice, all effort going into fighting the pull of malt and peat in his neck.
In the road they sensed the peat and marsh mixed with spit, so out of place in the three lanes they called home. They blinked and stretched, some green and others red. The car passed by and they turned to follow the red lights that juddered between their kin.
They bristled the tarmac around them into fur, each strand thick as treacle and hard as stone. Tongues red with the blood spilt upon the lanes. Then they ran. They chased the mist of single malt, their whisper thin whiskers brushing against the rear lights of the car. Their legs never tired. This was their home, and nothing could outrun them.
Climbing the boot the cats crowded out the rear window. Turning liquid they seeped over the now blistering metalwork, pulling loose flakes of atomic silver paint that glittered like their eyes when they moved. Covering the passenger windows they pressed against the window seals until the rubber perished at their touch and the tang of whiskey was replaced with the throat hook of tar. The temperature of the car rose and inside the alcohol found its ignition point and burnt light blue. The cats of the road danced to the heat, their eyes glittering in the flames.
Bark skinned and knot eyed the branch children turned up on Mary’s doorstep one solstice morning.
“Would you like to come in?” she said, as she would any visitor.
They just stood in the rain, paper thin fingers brushing the painted timber of the door.
“Would you like to come in?” she asked a second time, but the branch children did not move.
“Can you speak?” she asked.
When they answered their words were all stitched from stolen sounds. A branch falling from a tree to crush its own seedlings, the panic of a badger as it hears the edge of steel collapse soil into its sett. The snick, snick, snick of a trap around the almost severed limb of an animal it was never meant to snag.
Making no progress Mary knelt and stared the two children straight in the eye, rings rippling out like echoes of a drowning. They held her gaze.
She felt the pressure of the soil as a seed forced out the first shoot, the first questing root. The crush of teeth pulping leaves to paste. The swipe of the coppicer’s knife as he winnows and shapes. The burn of lightning scorching to charcoal.
When Mary had finished she tried to stand, but she was bark skinned and knot eyed, and with the two branch children who were now her kin she walked up the path of the next house in the street.