It’s that time of year again.
If you’ve not followed my annual project before the idea is that I spend the month running up to Short Story Day (Winter Solstice) writing a piece of flash fiction a day. Normally I search for inspiration where I can get it.
This year I’m using the 17th century book ‘A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne’ by George Withers, as a starting point. Ignoring the poems, I’m using the illustrations to kick off ideas. (You can see the book at The Gutenberg Project.
I put a new story up every day at my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/stevetoase1) and then collect them here. For each one I’ll put the link to the illustration from George Withers’ book.
The skulls wore stalks of wheat when the people of the town dug them from the fields. Discoloured with silt and too many years in the ground. Watermarks around the jaws and clay impressed between the bones.
The townspeople did not like to disturb the skulls, but the crops had wilted to ash, and the diagrams on the Church’s stained glass windows were clear.
They got their spades and mattocks, and lined the skulls up atop the blackthorn. Lit candles of pale blue wax to give the dead voices. Pressed husks into their own ears to hear what the skulls said.
What the skulls said was this. Next year there must be more of them to dig from the field.
The townspeople did not ignore them. Their crops had turned to ash for too long. They went to their sheds and barns. They readied their tools. Those that cut through clay. Those that cut through necks.
Our Lady of the Cloaks.
Sophie collected cloaks. Some were woven from sea glass. Others from thickened mist. One cloak was knitted from laughter collected in 18th century Vienna, a second from the sighs of dying men.
She wore them on special occasions. The hooded one of living coral when comets bisected the sky. The cloak of drowned bones when she slept on windowsills, just to be near the heat of the living.
One cloak she never wore. The glittering cloak cut from the skin of her father who fashioned the world, and still whispered her childhood name. There would be a time to dress herself in that cloak and that time was yet to come.
Mandy was desperate to raise the ghost of her mother, so at the correct time she went to the graveyard. From the first grave she saw she took a single syllable, from the next a scrape of lichen the colour of bloodless skin. From the flower borders she collected stems with the texture of old paper, and from the trees she tore free handfuls of leaves, drying each one with her own breath.
She built the fire on her mother’s grave, piling the coal directly on the tilled soil. Iron nails around the outside to hold the smoke in place.
Her jaw ached from saying the words and her arm numbed from the cold when she drew the charm on her skin with charcoal.
Her mother’s ghost heard the call. Rose through clods of dirt into the curls of smoke. Mandy tried to speak to her, but didn’t have chance. More ghosts came, clattering out of other graves. From under the walls. Dragging themselves up the tree roots.
They pressed against her skin. Crushed the air out of her lungs. The words she was going to speak stayed unsaid and they took Mandy to join her mother in the ground.
Each tree in the woodland had its own door. Some at head height. Others in the roots.
Daisy opened them in turn. Inside each one was a doll made from old dresses and yarn. Each doll stuffed with webcaps and destroying angels.
In some trees the dolls lay on tiny beds of straw or sat at tables with meals of powdered oak leaves before them.
Daisy walked past and the dolls turned to watch her go. Lowered themselves from the doors to the woodland floor. Followed Daisy’s footsteps and the scent of her perfume. Found the hidden knives inside their clothes of old dresses and yarn.
Time Waits for No Man
The hourglass appeared in the town centre, frame stretched from the tarmac of the road on which it sat.
Inside, the two glass halves were not joined. The union between the two bulbs was wrapped with ship rope and wax. On the first day Jack Sinders climbed the upright, opening the hatch to access the upper half. Undoing the clasp he dipped into the powder with an old mug.
“Cremated bone.” There was no doubt about it. Teeth and unburnt finger bones stayed once the breeze blew away the dust.
No-one knew what would happen when the sand ran through. They tried lifting the hourglass to turn it, but the base was part of the road. Tried cutting it loose. Tried digging. Slender roots spread deeper into the soil. Far deeper than their machine buckets could reach.
And all the time the sand ran through.
They tried to siphon the powder from the lower half. Nothing broke the glass. Diamonds barely scratched the surface.
They kept the hourglass topped up with the recent dead. At first. Cremated bodies and carried ashes in sacks to pour in the hatch. Soon, though those who passed naturally could no longer provide enough to raise the level.
The neighbouring town was easily subdued. They attacked in the morning before everyone woke. The guilt gnawed at them, but they could not risk the unknown threat once the sand ran through. But soon that too ran through. They took the next town, and the next, until their town was the only one still standing, and fear of the unknown turned them on each other to keep the hourglass from emptying.
After he drank from the cup of charred marrow, Sam saw death everywhere. His shredded cloak staining car bonnets with lichen, and snagging on pub garden walls. He saw him balled up in cribs like kicked loose blankets, and nestled in the metal tubing of hospital beds, his slivers of fingers clutching through oxygen masks.
Sam saw many deaths. Except his own. Swallowed from the cup of charred marrow. Nestled under his ribs. Waiting to unfurl.
The eye opened up in Jimmy’s heart. At first, he only saw the inside of his chest cavity. Meat stretched out over ribs, red and opaque. After the first day the eye showed Jimmy other things. Objects he desired. Places he wanted to visit. People. Lives he hadn’t lived and lives he wanted.
Everything was stained with blood. Hard to see beyond it. He tried to blink, but the eye in his heart would not listen and kept staring. Showed him new scenes. How to get the life he wanted. What he needed to do. What tools to use. What words to say. Which people to cut away.
The eye did not rest, and Jimmy did not rest. Each scene more opulent. Each stage to reach it more visceral.
Jimmy knew that unless he took action the eye would not let him sleep. He rose from his bed and found his carving knife. Sharpened it against steel until sparks flew across the room. Cooled to grey steel on the floor. The eye in his heart blinked faster and faster at the grind of blade.
By the time the Medical Examiner reached the scene the blood had dried. Jimmy lay in the centre of the floor, ribs open. Knife in one hand. His heart, now nothing but grey meat, in the other. Taking off his glove the M.E. reached out and ran a finger over ventricles, over the atrium. Inside his own chest eyelashes scraped against his ribs.
I hope you enjoy them. The next ones will be up soon, and if you would like to read the next a story a day for the next couple of weeks, please visit my FB page, www.facebook.com/stevetoase1