With no bodies of their own, the Elves shaped limbs from dried grass, and faces from the splinters of snail shells. Rotten cobwebs held their jaws together, eyes the sulphur smoked burnt tips of matches.
The house-owners had been generous throughout the year. In the ice mirrored months of winter they left out bowls of cream, and small crumbs of bread, though they had little enough to spare. When autumn came they cleared the fairy paths of leaves. Piled up rotten crab apples for their unseen neighbours to drink themselves into a stupor. Now was the time for the Elves to deliver gifts in return.
The locks proved no barrier. They and the Elves were kin. No Rowan hung over the door to spite their entry. Soon they sat on cold pillows watching the home-owners twist in their sleep.
First, the Elves rubbed pale foreheads with salve. Then they took up their flint blades. Cut away skin. Scraped through bone until small plumes of smoke rose in the dark. Underneath, the hidden pupil twisted blind in dreams.
When the homeowners woke at dawn they would see everything that was hidden. The corpses that could not leave the site of the gibbet. The boggarts that clung to the eaves, licking salt from the bricks. The Hobgoblins that spat at travellers from willow branches. To see the world as it really was. This was the elves most precious gift.
The children never believed their parent’s’ warnings. The pits had been at the bottom of their gardens as long as the children could remember. Grass covered hollows, shallow and empty.
No-one had ever gone missing in the pits. No-one had ever fallen into one to break their neck. When a new pit opened up in Bradley’s garden, the sides bare rock and mud, the children decided to explore.
With ropes fashioned from sheets, and packed lunches fashioned from whatever they could find, they clustered around the edge trying to agree who should go first. Rather than picking lots, they decided that as it was in Bradley’s garden, just beside the trampoline, he should have the honour.
First, he tied a sheet around his waist, then slowly turned to walk down the edge. Found footholds like his uncle had shown him, though the slope was far greasier than any climbing wall.
Clustered around the top, the children watched him until he reached the bottom, anchoring the rope as best they could. In the pit, Bradley fell to his knees, his forehead sinking into the mud. He let go of the rope and forced his fingers through the dirt. For a moment the children held their breath, unsure what to do.
When Bradley stood, they relaxed, and braced the rope to pull him back up. When he smiled, they smiled back. When he started to drag them into the pit, they had no way to protect themselves. When Bradley’s smile continued to widen, revealing teeth he did not have before, the children began to scream.
The wick of human hair reeked when lit, but was as necessary as her eel skin gloves for the invocation.
Tradition said winds were fickle and flighty. Changed at the drop of a hat. Sabine knew that winds were ones for routine and ritual, following the same paths around the globe. Bringing the same gifts. Snow or summer. Pollen or pestilence. To call them away from their trod roads, ceremony must be followed. She watched wren fat and marrow sap soak up the wick. Gutter into crimson flames.
The first winds to come were shallow, thin creatures. Whitebait to catch the pike. She nailed them to the table with plucked eyelashes. Watched them struggle to free themselves. Call to their siblings. Call to their parents. And their parents answered.
The typhoons battered the oak door and window shutters, screaming for their children. Seasalt leaked through the gaps in the walls. Sabine kept her nerve.
Waiting until the storms were at full anger she reached out of the attic room, unfurling thick curls of rope, hemp rubbed with samphire and hooked with crab shell.
The typhoons were too busy to notice the knots. Too distracted to feel themselves dragged between the fist tight fibres. Their voices quietened as the rope compressed them.
The storms would need to be hung for six weeks before they were ready to eat. Enough to feed her through the coming winter. The baby winds writhing on her kitchen table? Those were best dined on fresh, still twitching. She pulled the eyelashes out of the wooden top, gripped the first breeze between her fingers and dropped it down her throat.
The Two Villages of Giant Footprint
In December, two fires burnt in the Giant’s footprint, one of flame and one of frost. The village of Ball gathered around the frost and played drums, the villagers of the Arch clustered around the flames and sang.
Dusk came and the noise rose to a cacophony. All attempt at tune or rhythm was lost as summer distilled spirits were brought out of caves hidden in the Heel. First supped from glasses, then bottles, before handfuls were scooped from spigots in oak barrels. Smeared across lips. Tipped down throats.
As midnight came the villages intermingled. Those of Ball carrying kindling burning with frost. Those of Arch brought soil scorched to pottery.
They laid their markers in the land between their homes. They took off their shoes and they danced. They danced apart. They danced with each other. Sometimes their dances looked like fighting, other times rutting, They danced and did not stop until the sun rose above the horizon of the Giant’s Footprint.
When the first rays crested the cliff of Instep all the dancers from both villages sat in a circle, soles facing inward. Over the next hour the oldest of each village walked around, until they found the one person without a mark on their feet. Without a single smear of dirt. Without a single cut or bruise.
Some breathed a sigh of relief. Others wept for their lost loved one. Not a single villager from either settlement refused to trample over the unmarked, turning their bones to soil in the hope the giant would accept their sacrifice and return to the land.
Back in the height and heat of summer, Kelsey buried the stars in the forest to cool them, ready for the Winter Solstice. Now she returns to the woods once more. She has no map and her memories are vague. Neither matters. She has all day.
Kelsey brings no spade to break through the roots. Her fingers are her only digging tool. Nails cut short so they do not break on clods of clay.
The first she finds nestled in a hollow below a silver birch, bark of the tree glowing a little brighter from the starlight below. She clears the dirt away from the star as best as she can, lifts it from the ground. Holds it in the air until it starts pulsing once more. There are skeletal leaves and rotten bark stuck to the surface. She does not worry about these.
The following three stars are knotted together by shiro, the white strands creeping over and through the constellation’s burning heart. Kelsey teases out as much as she can and slips them into her bag woven from washed up fishing nets.
The next has not fared well. Hollowed by the tunnelling of badgers, edges gnawed away by bugs and wood lice. The remaining parts of the star still glow, but it takes Kelsey an hour with nettle thread and loom waste to patch up the pathetic looking thing. Finally she is happy and places it in her bag with the others.
The final stars are scattered in abandoned fox dens and beneath fallen beech trees.
She spends the rest of the afternoon finding them, humming Tam Lin and The World Turned Upside Down to herself. Dusk is coming. She is running out of time.
Kelsey is out of breath by the time she reaches the hill top, netting bag rubbing blisters into her bare shoulders.
One by one she lifts out the stars. Whispers to them all the secrets from that year. Tells each about the three names cats now call themselves, and where the sun goes when the fields burn. The expressions of the forty two princesses living in a hazel shell in a Saltburn delicatessen, and the way to transform feathers to oysters.
Each star rises with the power of these hidden words, and as they claim the sky once more she watches for those that fall, noting where they land. Ready to bury them beneath the cornfields until six months have passed and the next solstice arrives.
Thanks for taking the time to read these stories. If you’ve enjoyed them I have a storyletter that I send out every couple of weeks. Normally there is a bit of news, but the main focus is a free piece of flash fiction written exlusively for the mailout. You can sign up at; http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase