(Every year I write a story for my wife’s birthday. This year it was Speckled Stars)
Stars grew under the hill. Not the vast balls of gas that hung in the sky, holding planets in their rapture, but tiny speckled glowing ones you could hold in your hand. Their scent drifted across the fields. Apples and nectarines. Nutmeg, ice-cream and elderberries.
The girl climbed the hill, though it tired her and she stopped often to drink tea. At the top she laid out a circle of summer flowers. Using a paper blade she sliced through the soil and reached her hand into the hollow below the turf.
With cold fingers she lifted out each star, clasping it in her right hand until all were uncovered and freed. Balancing them in two toppling towers, she climbed down the hill, again stopping regularly for cups of tea, cake and occasionally sandwiches, because sometimes climbing down is more tiring than climbing up.
On the path leading away from the hill a man sat in the road dirt, hands in pockets and face toward the ground.
“Are you OK?” Said the girl.
“I’m lost and don’t know where I should be going,” he said.
“We all feel like that sometimes,” the girl said. “Hold my hand and you can come with me.”
“But your hands are full of stars.”
“Nonsense,” the girl said, which was one of her favourite words when she heard nonsense being spoken.
“They are small and fit in one hand,” she said, and held them in one palm. The man placed his fingers in the other.
The child was at the edge of the road, looking lost. When the girl saw them, she asked, “What is the matter?”
“I don’t know how to make my way,” the child said, looking at the girl’s boots, because the girl’s boots were fabulous and warm looking with blue fleece and several buckles.
“Where are you going?” She said.
“To the next place,” the child said.
“Hold my hand, and I’ll help you get there,” the girl said.
“But you already have the man’s hand in yours, and in your other hand many stars. I’ll just wait here.”
Taking the stars in turn the girl slid them into her eyes where they sparkled and shone. She held out her hand, which the child took.
And the stars still shine in her eyes, and she still holds the hands of the child and the man as they travel along the path.
Dead wood started growing again.
Tables and chairs unfurled branches, carved legs sending roots deep into the soil. Front doors fluttered with fresh leaves. Fridges shattered by vegetable trays sprouting and cupboards became coverts.
Forests grew from window frames, pushing bricks apart from each other.
Inside people, in the churn of their stomachs, vegetation germinated in the darkness, until ribs and skin burst from the pressure of the green world finding life in death.
They hauled Marianne into the village square and chained the anchor to her feet. Said it was for straying, though they never told her what she had strayed from. Her duty? Their expectations? A husband she did not have?
Night and day she stayed on the cobbles, that vast hook of iron shackled to her ankles as her clothes got more ragged in the gales they did not protect her from. Eating the scraps she could reach, though the metal links were few and her reach was limited.
The magic was hidden in a rhyme told to her by a grandmother, scented by fire ash and the steam of tea.
“Come sail, come sail, come sail with me.
Transform and we can crest the sea.
Skin to cloth and bone to plank,
Past the pubs where sailors drank.
Come sail, come sail, come sail with me.
Transform and we can crest the sea.”
The nightwatchman took the bribe, though she knew he would pocket more valuables from her house than they agreed. He brought her the box of salves leaving it just within reach. The top layer for scalds, the middle layer for burns. The lowest, hidden, layer for transformations.
The mast grew from her spine, pushing her skull forward as the vertebrae extended to the main boom, her skin stretched as sails. Ribs stayed as ribs, but softened to wood, then hardened once more as they coated with tar. Arms and legs filled between as planks, nerves caulking the gaps between. By midnight she was fully ship, and still woman, her face, wood carved, where the figurehead would normally hang.
With chains of her own she raised the anchor onto the deck and let the breeze carry her through the village. To the harbour where she would sail away from these people and their shame that they made others wear.
Bees of the Battlefield
The first thing the scavengers noticed was the lack of flies over the battlefields. The lack of stench that came from skin and muscle turning to rotted meat. Rusting limbs littered plough furrows. Circuit boards snapped in two. No life thrived on the battlefield at first.
Frayed wiring exposed to the air became anchors for spider webs. Meadow flowers thrived through the gaps between metallic jaws and shattered fingers. Then the bees came.
Upturned robotic heads became hives, swarms finding paths in through corrugated necks and the shattered glass of blind eyes.
They festooned the lifeless heads of never living metallic men, building up their wax to host their young and their food.
Soon, beekeepers shaped their hives in forms , carving in eyes and unspeaking mouths. The bees strayed from the robotic dead to the timber replicas.
The honey did not taste much different, a slight metallic tang hidden in the sweetness. No-one paid any attention to their lack of exhaustion, and the improvement in vision. The hardening of skin. The bees noticed, and they found new homes in skulls and tissue turned steel. In the ribcages of the people who would harvest their food. In the mouths of those who would eat their honey, and soon, very soon, all the bees lived in echoes of those who were themselves echoes of the living.
The Sea of Eyes
The chains they bound him in were embroidered with the words he inflicted on others, the venom of those sentences branded into his skin.
On a pallet of bones they carried him to the Sea of Eyes and lowered him under the vitreous surface. In the gloom the stares of his victims pivoted as he dropped lower and lower, pressed against him, slick and damp.
As he slid toward the seabed they showed him. In those irises and pupils they reflected back the fear and anger. Hundreds of eyes in turn returning his gaze unflinching. The press pinned his own eyes open so he could not glance away. By the time he lay still breathing on the sea bed his skin hung in grey tatters from the wet friction of unblinked tears, and still those stares did not look away.
May came with a rush of weather. The villagers walked into the fields to replace the scarecrows. After a winter of breath stripping frost they knew each field guardian would be flensed and frayed.
At the foot of each cross of brooms sat a child, not dirtied by the mud or blue lipped by the spring winds. Forty in total, all identical from eyeteeth to eyelash.
They fed the children grass and ash because the food of the table bloated their stomachs and made them cry in pain. They drank only rain collected in barrels below the eaves, and they thrived.
Soon the babies were not babies but children, though little more than a month had passed. They did not speak to the villagers, only amongst themselves. What they said the villagers did not understand, but they cared for them anyway.
Winter came with frostbite winds and lung splitting cold. The children hibernated, curling up in season long sleep that they could not be roused from. The villagers rested them by hearths and nesting them in haystacks, but nothing woke them from their slumber. Until snowdrops cracked the crust of soil.
The children of the field hatched into scarecrows with the first thaws, the now abandoned shells lying around the villagers’ floors like broken dolls. The scarecrows were bare, and crept upstairs on limbs of mildewed crop, surrounding the villagers in their beds. First, the scarecrows emptied the villagers’ skins to fill their empty stomachs, then they emptied the villagers’
wardrobes to clothe their mould spotted bodies. Dressed and fed they dragged themselves to the plough furrows. In the fields crows and gulls flocked, ready to be feasted upon.
When they first rose from the pages of abandoned books, the owls were novelties, far tamer than their wild cousins. With eyes of marbled endpages and wings feathered from spine stitching, they capered on desks and sat calm and quiet on the arms of the curious.
Everyone knew their cardboard talons left ink words upon their perches and the paper they bedded down in at night. Those sentences were a curiosity, though no-one took the time to read them. The warnings hidden in the scratched letters.
When the pools of ink flooded out of the pages of abandoned books people were unprepared. They did not hide themselves away as the owls had tried to warn them, instead stepping across the tepid blackness, unable to escape when the hooked teeth that grasped their ankles. Dragged them under, to be coated in words human throats could not form.
The owls tried to save them, but were not strong enough with their spine stitching wings, and could do nothing but watch with eyes of marbled endpages.