Here are the stories from week three of my flash fiction challenge, all inspired by George Withers’ A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne.
On the corner of Benbachstrasse and Lindengasse stood a single tree. Though old, with tripped over roots and soot stained buds, it was the only tree in the city grew stones, but it grew them all. Granite pebbles hidden inside clasps of leaves. Limestone boulders weighed down branches, until they brushed the ground, collecting blown in rubbish around them. Rose quartz glimmered amongst the highest branches, and occasionally, very occasionally, sapphires and opals erupted from fissures in the bark.
No one tried to covet them. Everyone remembered what happened in ’61 when the gang of men came to the corner of Benbachstrasse and Lindengasse, searching for rubies and diamonds amongst the fallen leaves around the foot of the tree.
The men discouraged any interference in their endeavours, but the shop owners and residents of nearby apartments were not put off so easily. They had harvested stones from the tree at the corner of Benbachstrasse and Lindengasse for many years.
Going into their cellars they brought up cobbles and sheets of marble. Sandstone and geodes. Nodules of flint and fist sized pieces of basalt.
They weighed stones in their hands and said nothing. Took up position in silence around the men who came only for the precious stones, and when the shop owners and residents finished their task white and red glistened amongst the leaves though there were no diamonds or rubies in sight.
Eyes of Bone
Vermin ran rampant in the town since the cats all deserted the streets. The ratters did what they could, but the rodents snatched nets from their hands and gnawed on their limbs until they retreated behind locked doors. With no other option open to them the townspeople turned to conjuration for a solution.
First, they dug up skulls from graves where the soil had not settled and placed them upon the inscribed stones. Next, they rubbed clay into the scalp and filled the empty eyes with the flowers of the oak, and broom, and meadowsweet.
Nothing happened for the first few days, though the rats all deserted the graveyard. On the ninth night the owls emerged from the skulls, cracking them like eggs. Taking flight they surveyed the streets of the town with eyes of bone, and grasped the rodents with coffin nail talons. They coughed up owl pellets, each made up of hundreds of mice, until the gutters were filled with their sculptures of their feasts.
When they were done the owls clustered on roof ridges and waited for the people to emerge from the houses. When they saw their soft, hair covered scalps the owls swooped down to crack them like eggs.
Over the next few days more owls emerged from the freshly dead until nothing lived on the streets, apart from the birds with the eyes of bone.
Sheaves of Corn
With no children of their own, and an ache for descendants, the couple sprinkled red raspberry and milk thistle around the last two sheaves of the harvest. They wove torn bedsheets into religious icons and wore blackthorn around their necks, saying the five tiny prayers every time blood was drawn.
When the scars spelt out two names on their skin they returned to the field. To the last two sheaves of corn. The children emerged from inside, a girl and a boy, hair of wheat stalks. Fully grown they ran to their human parents, to be carried back to the house. To beds, open fires and warm food. And everything carried on that way. For a while.
When harvest time returned the husks fell away and the children’s thoughts rattled to the ground. Finding water and food on the dirt floor, the kernels of dreams and nightmares sprouted in the warmth of the house.
Tooth faced demons rose from the soil, anchored by thin roots that threatened to tear free. Cities made of glass growing in the cast of sunlight through the window. The shimmer of a sickle blade sending runners of light across the kitchen floor. More and more the dreams the children shed germinated to plough furrows, the sound of crops rasping in the breeze. The texture of dirt compressed as roots found their way to water.
With heavy hearts the couple led the children back to the field, to a corner where the scythe and plough never reached. From a distance they watched them shrug off their skins and return to two stands of wheat. Every year the couple visited to tell their once children about their lives until they too were in the soil.
Stilt strapped and bone footed he rested against the hazel tree to catch his breath. The road was metalled and would turn a normal ankle. Not the marshland of his home province, hundreds of miles at his back.
From his left pocket he took out a napkin, spreading it across the high branches, from his right some bread and the last of his ham. Reaching into the tree he plucked hazels fresh from the branch and shelled them, letting the broken pieces scatter into the roots.
“Are you a giant?” The children were sat upon the leaf litter, legs crossed, their hair the colour of tree bark.
“I am not,” said the man from Landes.
“Oh,” said the girl. “Are you an ogre?”
“No,” said the stilt walker, taking a bite of an apple, and two more hazelnuts, the broken shells landing beside the small boy.
“Are you perhaps a Prince of Hell wearing a human skin to disguise yourself in the world of people?”
The child’s voice sounded genuinely curious, as if this is a question he often asked,
“I am none of these things,” the man from Landes said, opening a bottle and taking a sip of water. “I am travelling down the road, and resting against this tree while I ease my hunger.”
“Resting against our tree while you ease your hunger. It is a pity you are not a giant, or an ogre, or a Prince of Hell wearing human skin. We would return below the roots. But you are not. You are just human. Soft and breakable. And we are hungry too.”
The girl widened her jaw and gnawed away the left stilt, and the boy widened his jaw and gnawed away the right stilt, stopping only to pluck the man’s hair from between their teeth and spit splinters of bone into the soil.
Twenty One Pebbles
The plant pot had been in the garden when Vicky bought the house. Narrow necked it never carried any plants. Every day she watched from the kitchen window as a crow flew over the wall and dropped pebbles into the plant pot. In the morning the bird would drop seven, in the afternoon seven and in the evening seven. Some were rounded and glistened in the rain as the crow carried them in its beak. Others were jagged and sharp like razors. All were dropped inside the plant pot. Twenty one every day.
Curious and bored, Vicky got up early, before the crow’s first delivery, and fitted a piece of gauze over the opening where no flowers grew. Held it in place with cable ties.
The bird flew around in circles, dropping its gift so it could cry its displeasure, finding it in the grass to try and force it through the metal gauze. By breakfast the plant pot was rocking from side to side. By lunch it had fallen and was rolling across the lawn. By tea the first cracks appeared in the sides.
The creature that shattered out had too many teeth to fit in its mouth, and too many eyes to fit in its face, all blinking in the darkness. First it ate the crow, squatting on the pristine lawn, sucking at the bones of the wings, then it came up to the house. Hidden inside, she heard the creature gnawing through the doors. Through the walls. Through the kitchen cabinets. All the time getting closer.
There was nowhere left to hide. Vicky had no pebbles to give the creature with too many teeth to fit in its mouth and too many eyes to fit in its face.
A moment of distraction had allowed the magistrate to capture Mother Stein.
Cat shaped, she was easy to force into the rowan cage, the wood scorching away patches of fur. She would not know if the burns would carry scars into her skin until she changed back, if she changed back.
Every morning the magistrate took the cage down from the dresser shelf and left her in the middle of the floor. Every day the rats tormented her.
Mother Stein did not know if the rodents had been transformed like her. If they laboured under the same enchantment they did not keep their human voices, though that was no indicator. Forcing her feline vocal chords to carry human language tired her to exhaustion, so she kept her words inside. The rats had the run of the house. If she had the run of the house, away from the cage of rowan, she would run past the weed choked ditches and frozen fields, back to her house to the north of the willow tree.
The rats were getting braver. Their teeth sharper. They circled the cage, nipping her tail. Retreating under cooker and cupboards.
All it took was one of them not paying attention. She nipped the nape of the rat’s neck. Let its blood splash across the bark that encased her. She forced her voice to shape the words even a human throat would struggle with. The bars dissolved and she stood, unfurling into her own shape. Stemming the blood, she found the enchantment knitted through the rat’s skin and unravelled the threads . Then the next, and the next.
She explained the plan to them as they stretched bone and muscle into their human skins once more. The magistrate had many knives in his kitchen. Mother Stein took one. Passed out the others. Their captor would be back soon. They would be waiting.
Bill had been curious about the carving at the edge of town since he was a child. A stone plinth with a face carved intaglio. No-one cared for it, and over the years moss and ivy claimed the stone as the years claimed Bill until curiosity finally won out.
With a scythe he cleared the flowered weeds from around the foot of the sculpture, and slashed away the climbing weeds from the stone.
With cloths and detergent he scrubbed the surface until the word long hidden gleamed. Terminus. No surprise as it lay on the boundary ditch marking the end of town and beginning of fields.
Freshly shaved he pressed his face into the carving, feeling the stone shift against his skin, and gazed through the eyes.
He saw the end of all things. He saw his own cascade into the earth where his bones were powdered by the crush of soil. He saw the wash of saltwater erode walls to dust. He felt the heat of the sun as it consumed its children and the chill of nothing that followed, and when he had finished gazing through those eyes of marble he carried the death of worlds inside.