It’s been a while since I posted on my blog. I’ve been busy working on the next draft of my novel, and attending various events like Folk Horror Revival at the British Museum, and the Society of Authors North Ghostly Gathering (more on them later). If you want to get free flash fiction in your inbox every fortnight, and keep up with my writing, I have a storyletter you can subscribe here. http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase
One piece of news I can share now is that Aurealis Magazine have accepted my short story ‘Hyter and the House that Stands’ for publication.
For the past few years I’ve set myself a challenge; to spend a month writing a flash fiction story every day on the run up to Short Story Day at the Winter Solstice. This year I decided to do it again.
Below you can find the first seven stories. If you want to read them daily I post the new pieces straight to my FB page at www.facebook.com/stevetoase1. Otherwise I collect each week’s stories and post them here.
(Inspired by Lynn Hardaker’s fantastic new collage. You can see, and buy, more of her work at https://www.etsy.com/shop/BeneathTheBracken)
(Photo by Lynn Hardaker)
At the commencement of the séance, the gathered participants shaped the nest and placed it in the centre of the lace covered table. As well as twigs and leaves gathered from the garden, they used clay stained lengths of funeral shroud, three white feathers from a dove who died in the first frost of winter, a single flute shaped from a vulture’s wing bone, strands of hair from the deceased who those in mourning wished to contact, and spit from all those gathered. As a final touch Mrs Sanderby, whose parlour it was, wove lavender through the nest to bring rest to those who sought it.
Once the velvet drapes were pulled back to let in the winter sun, and the medium’s eyes had rotated to their rightful place, the gathered company peered into the nest. Three objects nestled together. A sea shell that had never housed the living, a stone round enough and large enough to splinter any skull, and a single pale egg.
The sea shell was covered in words, letters scratched with the charred sticks left out on hillsides for the dead by the grieving. One of the gentlemen held the empty vessel to his ear and shuddered. The sound curling around inside the mother of pearl was not of the ocean.
The more the light touched the stone, the more the image became apparent. The woman’s features were wan, her gaze distracted, looking off to something at one side. No-one recognised her, but several of those around the table thought they saw chains and hooks going through her clothing before the sun paled all but her eyes.
The egg was unadorned and the colour of lilies. None of those who had paid to be there dare touch the thing. It’s shell appeared soft, as if to place it on a hand would cause it to collapse. The medium had no such doubts, grasping the egg in one hand and steadying herself with the other.
The hole burnt straight through all her fingerbones, the heat cauterising the skin. As the smoke cleared they saw that the egg had smashed against the edge of the table during its fall. Something fibrous seeped through the cracks in the shell. In the shadows of the room hooks and chains glinted in the pale sun.
The Indecisive Man and the Goddess of Paths
“There are two ways out of this town,” said the Goddess of Paths, blocking the Indecisive Man’s way down the rutted road. “The first is to become a fox, rust coated and slaver jawed. The second is to become the storm, dancing slates from their battens and children from their wits.”
He stood too long. He stared at the sun, and the branches of dead trees. He stared at mud on his boots, and water in ditches. He stared at the birds, broken feathered and gasping, and he stared at the eyes of the Goddess who lost patience and split him in two.
On the outside she stitched fur the colour of dying suns, the tip of the tail white so he would always be found by those who chased him. On the inside she stitched the roar of the winds that could shudder walls and the souls of the weary.
And then the Indecisive Man ran from the Goddess of Paths down that rutted road. During the day he was hunted by his old friends with guns and sticks. During the night he walked through their towns, roaring torrents against their houses until they shook in their beds like frit toddlers. And that was how the Indecisive Man survived from that day to this, rust coated and slaver jawed, with a voice that never settled on anything, but screamed with a thousand thunderstorms.
Taking off his poncho, Lewis pushed the bike along the hallway and picked up the package from his doormat. Carrying it through to the kitchen, waiting until the kettle boiled and he had a cup of tea before looking at the parcel again. This was the moment he most enjoyed. The anticipation of what was to come. Like a bee circling a flower, dreaming of nectar.
Cup in hand and package under his arm, Lewis went through to the front room and took a sip. Using a Stanley knife he slit the brown string and folded back the edges. The handwriting on the short note inside was flourished with smiley faces, each downward stroke ending in an arrow. He approved. Such attention to detail. He flattened the paper and placed it on top of the discarded wrapping.
The book was covered with brown paper, worn in the corners, the dust jacket lost many decades ago. He ran his hand across the corrugated paper and opened to the frontispiece. The L Plate was familiar, though a lot of years had died since he pasted one in a book, the capital letter shaped from Pyramids and scarab beetles.
Many months he’d spent searching bookshops, both bricks and mortar, and virtual, until he found the volume in a small online seller in the south-west of England. Stroking the cracked leather spine he searched the bookplate for hidden letters, alphabet long out of use by the time pharaoh skin was compressed to parchment.
He read his name, his real name, throat muscles struggling to contort and form the syllables. The pages dissolved to dust, words scuttling off to the corners of the room. Lying on the yellowed board of the bookcover was his true face, thorn scarred and knife cut around the eyes. Still chanting his name, he reached through his thinning hair to undo the clasp fastening his mask in place. Peeling it away, draughts from the shattered windows chilled the exposed muscles along his cheeks. Blood clotted in the hollow of his neck. Lifting his face with both hands, he pressed it into place, powdered parchment dusting the lips. The skin crept over his hair, growing down the nape off his neck and cleaving to his limbs.
He was himself again and the towns would shudder themselves at his steps until their cemeteries were crammed full to bursting.
Blood Clot Magic
The crows were waiting for Sarah when she left the house. She smelt berries on their beaks and gobbets of muscles on their claws. Closing her gate, she waited while they took flight, all two hundred looping around her as she walked. Today was for blood clot magic and scar tissue spells, and she had need of their feathers.
The letting agents’ office stood at the end of the high street, a detached house none of their tenants could ever afford. The crows perched on nearby roofs, tearing apart sparrows and the corpses of pigeons.
Reaching into her dress for a sliver of flint Sarah sliced her finger, folded back the skin and jostled out the tiny bone. Raising it to her lips she blew down the holes drilled many generations before. On the roofs the birds turned as one at the whistle, notes far too high for any human to hear.
The crows took flight and circled the brightly coloured office. Sarah hid the blade and searched for her glasses. She did not need to see the photos to know they all lied about the condition of their houses. She did not need to see the cars parked outside to know where the money went.
With a final whistle the murder of black birds looped down. Each crow tore wing feathers from it’s neighbour until a shadowed, fluttering ring lay around the building. Sarah winced as she felt each barb wrenched from her own skin. She would have new scars in the morning.
Walking around the circle she sprinkled blood from her still injured hand on the feather’s vanes. It took time. In the office the letting agents tried to open the door, but locks never worked inside the severed circle.
By the time Sarah reached the beginning and fitted her fingerbone back in place, the first spilt blood had scabbed dry.
The trees erupted from the feathers, branches twigged with sharpened teeth. Sitting on the bench across the road Sarah stitched her hand back together with nettle thread and gnawed off the loose bits of skin.
Noticing the new covert, the crows flew in to roost. The teeth attached to them, rooting in their skin and each bird felt a hunger grow in its belly.
They made short work of the glass door. Food was inside the office. The crows wore the teeth on their feathers, like frost. Inside the small room they ground away at the letting agents until they were nothing but smears of mince and bonemeal in the brightly patterned carpet.
Without her hearing aid Sarah did not hear their screams, but by nightfall she knew her birds would be fat and fed, and her thieving landlords would be gone.
This story was inspired by the cabinet below in the British Museum
Wrapping the tea towel around the oyster, Cordelia slid the blade into the hinge. These days she could open them without the halves shattering. The splinters of shell trapped in her hand by scar tissue ached. She cut free the meat, dropping it in the bin, and dug out the pearl. First, she held it up to the light, placed it upon her tongue, rolled the sphere around her mouth, and crushed it to powder between her iron capped teeth.
The dust tasted of salt and choking. Of water forced into exhausted lungs, arms and legs hanging limp as the body dropped to be compressed by the weight of the sea. It tasted of tearing by the mandibles of a thousand blind fish, and digestion where light had never touched.
And under the flavours of death she savoured a slight seasoning of life, yet that life was not one she recognised. Not one she shared. The soul was not her husband’s who spent his time between her bed and the sea, until the waves embraced him for good.
She finished swallowing the pearl, taking what nourishment she could from the life and death of a man she did not know.
Placing the two halves of the shell in the near full cabinet, she sat back down at the table, reached for her shucking knife, and the next, unopened, oyster.
Sophia flinched as the last greenhouse panel shattered. From her bedroom she watched the girl climb the garden wall, kick through her prizewinning roses and recover the ball from the flowerbed. Only a week had past since the first window became a casualty. Now only splinters hung from the metal frame. Inside, her plants withered to brown in the draughts. The girl stared at the house. Seeing Sophia looking she swore at the older woman, emphasising her annoyance at been spotted with several hand gestures.
Opening a bedside table drawer, Sophia took out her polished saddle stone and balanced it in front of her mirror. From a pouch of muscle in her arm she siphoned out glasswort, devil’s horsewhip, and several stained splinters she had collected from amongst her tomato plants.
The blood dried on the glass tasted of coins against her tongue. She spat them onto the quern and used the heel of her hand to grind the mixture to dust. While whispering backwards to herself, Sophia blew the powder into the garden.
The girl started to shine before she was back over the wall. Once in the alley her skin was transparent, organs visible until they too turned to glass.
By the time Sophia got downstairs, house locked against further intrusions, the girl could no longer move. As solid as a vase freshly rapped from a blowpipe. Stood behind, Sophia pushed the girl to the floor and ground the splinters of her to sand against the cobbles.
On The First Turn
The labyrinth engulfed the front room. John stood at the quartz marked entrance, and looked for a different route across to the front door.
None existed. He stepped in.
The maze was fenced by flattened reeds, bundled into hedges, their stems blackened with damp and blight. Between, the path was worn to bedrock, surface scattered with a powder from a thousand footsteps that weren’t his.
On the first turn, he knelt to look closer at the barriers hedging him in. Beetles the colour of snow rattled the spikelets. They rubbed their legs against the rotten seeds and made music that ached his head.
On the second turn he tied a silk scarf around his mouth and nose against the dust clogging his eyes. A little dropped onto his lips, tasting of funeral urns and rain ruined petals.
On the third turn, he became disorientated and concerned he would lose his way. Slitting the back of his neck with the nail on his wedding finger, John drew out his spine, loose hanging nerves wrapping themselves around his fists. On the fourth, fifth and sixth turn he dropped a vertebrae, like Hansel crumbs. He did not notice the snow coloured insects skitter over his bones, growing fat on the marrow. For nourishment he scraped the black mould from the hedging and did not sleep when the visions came.
On the seventh turn, he screamed until his lungs bled, and spat scabs into the roots and soil.
On the eighth turn, the reeds arched over, pressing down into the scar below his scalp until the glumes scraped his muscles raw.
On the ninth turn, he entered the centre of the labyrinth, the flood ruined carpet sodden under his hands and knees. He stood, and opened his eyes.
John stood at the quartz marked entrance, and looked for a different route across to the front door.
None existed. He stepped in.
Hope you enjoy them. Come back next Monday for seven more stories.