2017 Publications

FT358

2017 was an excellent year. One of my best to be honest. I had at least one new piece published every month, as well as an article in Fortean Times, and a piece accepted by Folklore Thursday. If I can keep up the momentum in 2018 I’ll be very happy.

January The Broken Nail in Theme of Absence (Link)
February A Summation of Starlings in The Singularity (FB Page)
March Hyter and the House That Stands in Aurealis #98 (Link)
April Dial 0 for an Outside Line in JJ Outré Review (Link)
May Not All The Coal That Is Dug Warms The World at Tales to Terrify (podcast) (Link)
June Haunting Harrogate The Author (Link)
July Der Heilige Antonius von Padua Klinik von Geisterbefestigung in Mad Scientist Journal (Link)
Cars, Coins and Cursed Colours at Folklore Thursday (Link)
August Schneestern in Pantheon Magazine (UK/US)
Several flash fiction stories in British Fantasy Society Horizons (Link)
September The Forgetting Wall in Mad Scientist Journal (UK/US)
Hell On Wheels, Cover Story of Fortean Times 358 (Link)
October The Enamelled Crown in Hinnom Magazine (UK/US)
November Why the Sea Tastes of Salt and Why the Moon is Always Turned Toward Us in Typhon: A Monster Anthology Vol 2 (Pantheon Magazine) (UK/US)
December Fluted Bone in Tincture Journal 20 (Link)

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Flash Fiction Month and a bit.

Here are the last three stories from my flash fiction month.

As I mentioned at the start of the month, this year I was trying something slightly different. All the stories were inspired by images from the 17th century book, A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne by George Wither.

This could have backfired, heavily restricting the subject matter. Looking back on the month it’s been a mostly positive exercise. The content of Wither’s book is so numerous (over 200 entries), and varied that I never felt limited by only using this single source. It also meant that when I was lacking inspiration (after twenty or so days it can get pretty hard to find that fresh spark) I only had one place to go for it, rather than trying to pin down everything in my surroundings as inspiration. November is now a long way away, so I’m not sure what I’ll do for 2018. I think I’m unlikely to recreate this with another source.

So from my perspective, it’s been a success. I hope the stories have been enjoyable. If you would like to get free flash fiction in a similar vein every couple of weeks, you can sign up to my newsletter here.

 

 

Day 29

Reverse

Bernard found the book on his grandfather’s shelf.Page 134 described how to gain sight behind as well as in front. See in both directions at once.

First, he built the arch on his property boundary using only hag stones. Then he made a door to fit the gap, coating it in ancient skin found by the peat cutter’s spade. He used glass eyes prised from taxidermied animals as upholstery buttons, finishing off the portal with a silhouetted cameo of his own head, mirrored to look both directions.

Stepping through the now finished entrance, Bernard found a man with scalpels and intent.

First, the man of blades cut Bernard’s shadow from his feet, and stretched Bernard’s skin to fit two instead of one. Then the scalpel man slid Bernard’s shadow into his back, stitching its body of smoke to his spine with fishing line and cat gut.

Once Bernard’s echo was in place, the scalpel man flourished a vintage buttonhole maker and cut eyeholes for the shadow to see through.

Back through the door, Bernard tried to gaze behind him with his new eyes. All the shadow saw was the suffering in the world, and soon Bernard no longer saw anything but darkness.

Day 30

On Trend

The new candle sticks were the season’s must have. Five branched plants, each tip carrying a different flame. The instructions were very specific. Water the soil, use the enclosed plant food and don’t light them until Christmas Eve.

Soon the shops were emptied of the moss coated gifts, their stone plant pots balanced on window sills across the country.
The small packets of feed did not list the ingredients, but smelt of old frying pans and rotting herbs left to long in the rain. No-one cared. To not have the new candle sticks in your house? Well, one didn’t want to be behind the times. One didn’t want to be off trend.

As darkness came on the 24th mothers and fathers gathered excited children around the living candlesticks to light the wicks.
Flames caught and the bark fell away, exposing the mummified skin underneath, grey and shrunken against preserved tendons. Bones outlined underneath taut, dried out veins.

Smoke rose from each burning finger of the Hand of Glory, and reached the lungs of the waiting families. Across cities and villages parents and offspring fell asleep. The one handed thieves with rope burns on their necks were free to empty houses of goods and gifts, and when the families woke with the dawning of the sun, the only present left was a single mummified hand with fingertips scorched to charcoal.

Day 30

Lantern Light

When the old woman and old man arrived in the town there had been no winter for three generations. They called all the citizens to the marketplace and promised to bring snow to the streets in time for the solstice. The people were cynical and did not believe them, but promised to do what the couple said if it winter returned.

First, the couple asked the families to bring them all the cow horn and brass they had in their houses. Once all they scavenged stood in the centre of town the man began to thin the horn to translucent. The woman cast the alloys into strips, then pinned and hinged them in place.

The old man called the town’s children to him.

“Paint snowflakes on these panels,” he said, holding out the lamp horn.

The children looked at their shuffling feet.

“We don’t know what snowflakes look like,” they said, and in this they told the truth.

The old man opened his coat and took out a fold of wax paper.

“Look and memorise, because you won’t have long,” he said, and held out the tiny bundle. Inside was a single snowflake.

Though the children wept at its beauty they memorised the shapes of the arms, and delicate branches, even as the snow melted away.

When finished, the old woman fitted the panels into the lanterns and climbed the lamp-posts that lined the streets. Removing the bulbs, she hooked the lanterns in place and lit the candles inside.

As the sun shuttered for the night, snow fell from the glowing lamps, and the children danced below catching snowflakes on their tongues. And with the snow came other things. Hearth fires and stories. Shadows of antler figures on the edge of the woods, and barrels of glühwein between the houses.

When the sun came up the streets were white with snow and full of stories. The people could find no sign of the old man and the old woman, except for two smiling figures shaped from snow stood right in the middle of the town.

Flash Fiction Month Week 4

Day 22

(Every year I write a story for my wife’s birthday. This year it was Speckled Stars)

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.

Day 23

Germinate

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.

 

Day 24

Tethered

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.

 

Day 25

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.

 

Day 26

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.

Day 27

Seeds

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.

 

Day 28

Written

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.

 

Flash Fiction Month Week 3

Here are the stories from week three of my flash fiction challenge, all inspired by George Withers’ A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne.

Day 15

Stone Harvest

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.

Day 16

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.

Day 17

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.

 

Day 18

Resting

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.

 

Day 19

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.

 

Day 20

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.

 

Day 21

Intaglio

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.

Flash Fiction Month Week 2

Week 2 of my Flash Fiction Month

The idea is that I spend the month running up to Short Story Day (Winter Solstice) writing a piece of flash fiction a day.

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

 

Day 8

The Moth and The Spider

Timid and fragile, the moth carried seeds within its wings. Not knowing what flowers would blossom unnerved the moth. He landed on a hawthorn branch beside the spider.

“I do not know if they will become lilies or roses. Whether they will bloom once a year or if they will bloom once in a lifetime.”

The spider thought for a moment.

“Come here I will help you answer your question. Fly into my web.”

Rising into the air, the moth flew into the strands of silk, not worrying when it could not move. Not fretting when the spider cocooned him. After all, what was more natural for a moth than to be constrained, and the silk was much softer than any cocoon.

By the time the spider softened and feasted on the wings the moth was past caring. Not interested in eating the seeds, the spider let them tumble to the soil.

Over two months the spider watched them grow, then bud, then blossom. Beautiful lupins as purple as the moth. As faceted as his eyes. Eyes that would never see the beautiful flowers from the seeds he carried in his wings.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_18_1)

Day 9

Bringing In The Crops

The harvest turned to snakes. Instead of digging up potatoes, the people’s spades found vipers nesting in the soil. When children picked blackberries from hedgerows the fruit turned to garter snakes on their gloved palms. Wheat collapsed to thousands of rattlesnakes as the combines reaped the fields. In the orchards apples became windfall and turned to pythons, tangling in people’s hair, and around their necks.

With no food in the storehouses the people called meetings to decide what to do, and with nothing else to do they searched the internet for recipes. By the evening they had menus ready, with stir fry and fritters. Soups and breaded strips. That night they slept, knowing they would not starve in the coming year.

But the people were the harvest and the snakes found their way into the houses, into their bedrooms. Into their mouths. By morning the land was a writhing knot and the reptiles born of soil and wheat seed were fed and fat, and slept amongst the bones of the dead.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_5_1)

Day 10

Cutting
Bill knew all the prohibitions about taking the flowers that lay within the hurdle fence, but knew of no such rules covering the hurdles themselves. With his saw he severed the willow from where it was pressed into the soil and carried the armful of wood back home. Stacking them on the back porch he went inside and sat down, falling asleep from the effort.

By the back door, the willows staves sprouted, sending fresh branches into the air, and finding the thin garden soil. Spreading multiplying. Looking for nutrition to fuel their growth.

Their roots spread under the door, and across the carpet. Creeping over the sleeping man and softening him for food. Pressing roots into his skin and muscle, until they were ready to grow, filling each room until nothing inside the house remained apart from willow.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_6_3)

Day 11

Fused

The three moons were distant relations by light on their mother’s side, but had never met. Their lives around different planets in different galaxies kept them apart. One spoke of a valley on a nearby world where a river ran clear with crystal, each gem so tiny and precise that fish of iron swam the currents.

They agreed to meet, and over many centuries shrugged gravity and shed orbits to make their way to the distant planet. By the time they reached the unfamiliar skies the river had dried to solidity and the fish rusted within.

With disappointment they hugged each other, and the light from the double sun reflected from them to the still crystal river, and back into the air.

The moons were too close, embraced, and when the returned light hit them it melted rock and fused their crescents together. There they are there still, interlocked, waiting for the planet’s gravity to drag them smashing into the crystal river.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_49_2)

Day 12

The Left Hand

The mayor went first, placing his hand on the wooden block as the old man chewed through it with the metal teeth. Next came the parents, mothers and fathers, each giving a single hand to the fence that ran all around the village.

When they were finished the fingers curled toward the fields and the townspeople wrapped their wounds.

The sun went down and the creatures dragged themselves from the hedges, wearing skins of blackthorn and hawthorn. Berries pale and rotting hung from branches knotted into limbs, dragging on the floor as they slouched across the furrows.

Walking across the fields they became clotted with soil until they reached the fence of hands, just where the old man had said it would be. So far their prey had been down to luck and opportunity. Now they knew where to find them and they would feast until their thorns were white with marrow.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_36_4)

Day 13

Drawn

Abel drew things as he supposed them to be, bearing no resemblance to what they looked like in real life. His crocodiles had ears flattened to their heads. Elephants with manes and necks like horses, and the feet of large cats.

So when the demon appeared to him as a small child caught up in a hedgerow, caught by thorns from ambitious brambling, Abel failed to recognise the lord of hell. The demons of Abel’s paintings were armour plated, horned creatures. The blond haired, smudge-cheeked child did not have the lava red eyes of Abel’s paintings, but blue and pale. Questioning and lost. The fingers sunk into his chest, teasing away strands of his soul, were not talons. Instead, small fingers with blackberry skin under their nails.

There would be no chance for him to correct his drawings.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_50_2)

Day 14

Rasp

The rattle that Carver found was made of bone and gold, much larger than the tiny door he found it beside. He turned the object over and over, careful not to let it make a noise until he’d examined the sphere and the handle for warnings.

Finding none, he shook the rattle in the air, letting the sound change volume and tempo. From the tiny slits in the sphere the smell of rasping bone seeped out to coat his hand.

He wasn’t sure what he expected to happen, but when nothing did he found a rhythm and continued scenting the air with burnt knuckle bones. Still nothing happened, so Carver sat beside the tree and let sleep take him.

The skeletons had heard his call, but it took them time to dig themselves free and walk across the fields. They found the sleeping man beside the tree, the death rattle resting on his lap. Now silent. Its call still playing in their teeth.

First they set up their table, placing out their tools. Then they drew lots. Who would get the muscles, who would get the skin. The tendons. The nerves. Many more people would have to scent the air with the rattle before they would be complete again. They were patient, and their return had begun.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_1_1)

I hope you’re enjoying them. It’s interesting writing within the restrictions placed by the book, though there are a lot of symbols to choose from.

If you do like the flash fiction please consider hopping over to Ko-Fi and buying me a coffee. Two more weeks to go. I might need it! https://ko-fi.com/stevetoase

 

 

Flash Fiction Month 2017 Week 1

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.

Day 1

Stained Glass

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.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_21_1)

Day 2

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.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_31_2)

 

Day 3

Invocation

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.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_15_1)

Day 4

Old Dresses

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.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_23_1)

Day 5

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.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_49_1)

Day 6

The Sup

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.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_8_1)

Day 7

Heart’s Desire

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.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_43_1)

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

 

 

Why the Sea Tastes of Salt and Why the Moon Always Looks Toward Us

Story by Steve Toase Art by Calliope Den Ouden Twitter/Website/Instagram

 

calliope

Why the Sea Tastes of Salt and Why the Moon Always Looks Toward Us

The Witch of the Red House fell in love with the moon. With no wings to lift her through the sky, she went to the marsh and asked the stagnant waters for advice.

The drowning pools spoke in the voices of the hurdle crushed and the slit throats.

“You must slip off your skin. Lay it by the north wall of your house at the new moon. Until the full moon scrape the fat from the inside of your hide, the hair from the outside, and shape both into a candle. When the full moon rises, light the candle, and your skin will become a carpet of honeysuckle and magnolia to carry you to your beloved.”

When the new moon came, the Witch of the Red House peeled off her skin, stemming her blood with salt, the agony making her choke out the names of all Five Dead Gods.

For one month she scraped fat from the inside of her own hide, and hair from the outside, shaping both into a single candle.

When the full moon rose, and the light fell on the Red House, the Witch lit the candle. She stepped onto her cracked skin, hooking her feet into the eyeholes and grasping the now limp scalp to steady her balance. The skin rose into the air, fissures becoming petals of honeysuckle and magnolia.

Skitter-footed beetles and gnaw-toothed mites fell in mists to the garden below. The platform of flowers climbed through the clouds to orbit her beloved, the moon.

And the moon saw The Witch of the Red House without her skin. He saw her as a thing of tendons and tissue, of muscles and marrow. He saw her as a thing of gristle and gore, and slowly he turned his vast face from her.

In fury the Witch of the Red House tore out her ribs, turning the moon with the broken shards, and pinning him to look forever at the Earth.

With nothing else for her on land, and nothing else for her in the sky, the Witch of the Red House threw herself into the sea. The currents dragged her to the ocean floor. To the hidden land of scavenged whales and the pressure of one hundred fathoms. As she fell, the salt crusting her wounds spread through the sea, so all who sipped it would remember her pain.

Every month the moon tries dragging the Witch to him, begging her to snatch out the slivers of bone, but she is too deep, feasting in the dark on sailors whose lungs hold cold oceans of their own.

 

Flash Fiction Month 2016 Week 4 (and a bit)

A little bit late in posting the final group of stories, due to Solstice, Christmas, birthdays and New Year. Hope you enjoy these.

Day 22

Shrieking

Image may contain: sky, grass, nature and outdoor

Ears clogged with doll wax, Celine walked the short distance from the village to the Shrieking Pits. Even with her hearing clagged by melted down legs and arms she still heard the retching cries that tattered the willows.

In the first pit, blood bubbled up, drying in the air into thick, hand sized clots. She rubbed garlic on her upper lip to block out the scent.

In the second pit soil tumbled aside, as if hands playing the parts of rodents shuffled under the dirt. Celine walked around the edge and the shapes tracked her. She paid them no heed. They were simulacra of death throes, and to Celine had no meaning.

The third pit was full of water. Under the surface things with faces of pondweed tumbled through tree roots, shaking them so catkins rattled and fell to choke the pool.

At the fourth pit the shrieking grew louder. Celine stumbled down the dirt bank, landing on hands and knees in the mud. At one side she dug down, uncovering the small fragile bones, not much bigger than a bird’s. Toothpick thin. Wiping them to ivory clean she spread the skeleton out and laid dried flower petals from her pockets on the small chest.

Dragging herself to the other side of the pit, she scooped out soil. Here the grave was shallow, her husband’s face barely below the surface. Iron nailheads just visible above his cheekbones. The knife she had found him with, she had left in his chest. She couldn’t stop herself turning the handle, turning the blade, though he was one year past feeling the pain. She buried her head in her hands. One day the Shrieking Pits would be silent. One day Celine would have no voice left.

Day 23

Section 25

No automatic alt text available.

Campbell and Simon never went equipped. There was always some rubble nearby. He picked up a nearby brick and pitched it through the Vauxhall’s window, glittering the footwell. Prising off the steering column cover was easy, then hot-wiring the ignition. The house owners never noticed, motorway two streets over too loud with traffic noise. Inside, they wound down the window, covered up the shattered glass with a bundled coat. Drove into the night.

They were three streets away when Campbell lost control of the car. Steering wheel wrenching from his grip. The air freshener no longer reeked of pine, but stagnant water and giant hogweed. He held the wheel once more. No matter how much he turned the steering left or right, control was not his.

The car moved sedate and steady down the street.
With no way to influence the direction, and Simon sweating in the passenger seat, Campbell tried to lift his hands. The leather of the upholstery covered his fingers, stitching snaking through his knuckles, thread sharp as needles. Sobbing, he looked over at his companion.

In panic Simon tried reaching through the shattered window. Attract attention. This was about survival now. A thick transparent membrane flexed as Simon’s hand pressed through where the window used to be. He held the arm on his lap, skin scalded and blistering. The wooden spheres of the seat cover pressed through his chest, clagging his throat to suffocation.

Still having breath and voice, Campbell screamed. The scent of drowning pools overpowered him and he retched until his throat burnt acid dry.

He had no idea where the car finally came to a stop. He vaguely registered the noise of branches scratching the side, just audible over Simon choking beside him. When the engine died there were oak trees arcing over him. Figures standing around the edge, faces masked with bark.

Someone lit a match and dropped it to the ground, a circle of flame erupting around the car. In the smoking light he saw number-plates, 57 of them. All cars he’d stolen in the last year. From the edge of the clearing a figure stepped forward, laying ferns thick with paste and oils on the roof. On the bonnet.

The car began to creak, metal compressing in. Campbell tried to loosen himself, but the knuckle stitches stayed tight. Simon pressed against him. Where his arm touched Campbell’s muscle became soft. Pliable. Joined with Campbell’s exposed skin. He tasted rotten meat in his mouth. The roof got closer. Campbell turned his neck. Brought himself nearer to the door. Window glass, still intact, molten when it touched. With nowhere else to go he bent his face forward to his arms. The roof scraped the back of his neck. Welded to his scalp.

Twenty minutes later the car was little more than a fridge sized block of fused metal and bone. Skin and glass. Hard to tell where thief ended and vehicle began. Welds started off in steel and ending in muscle.

Sophia stepped forward from the circle. They had all chipped in for the car. Not cheap. Valuable enough to attract attention. Inside the block she heard breathing. Lungs now coated in paint and oil but still working. Returning to her place she started the next ritual. There were creatures below the roots that needed feeding, and they did not care if the marrow was filled with copper wire. Spine column with brake fluid. They had no taste, just hunger, and that hunger would still be satisfied.

Day 24

Between Wing and Limb

Late summer, the grasshoppers returned to the village. They wore masks of pig skin to fit in, eyeholes and mouth slits chewed in with jaws more suited to foliage. We gently helped them unfasten the faces, there true appearance much less frightening to the children.

We spread fans of grass at their feet, our sons and daughters lifting handfuls to our guests.

Around the edge of the square we waited for them to start playing. The tunes were complex, intricate and needed an experienced ear to appreciate. This was not an event that attracted tourists. Only us villagers stood by the pub door, swigging beer and swaying to the delicate tunes played out on wing and leg.

Beer was passed over for whiskey and the dancing started. Our steps as knotted as the tunes, until the uneven ground of village green and too much single malt tripped our feet.

When the grasshopper’s skin blistered from the pace of their tunes, we rubbed in salves and creams. Massaged joints at risk of dislocation from the speed of their playing.

After the pub shut its doors we carried on drinking from hip-flasks. Watched Jennings try and outplay the grasshoppers, splintering another cheap fiddle with the ferocity of his attempts.

The children sat transfixed around the man-sized insects. We tried not to watch them. Tried not to see which ones paid the most attention to the playing. Let drunkenness cataract our eyes.

When morning came, with hangovers and aching limbs, we did no head-counts. We knew some parents would be go back to houses and attic-pack toys. Burn cartooned bedding on small garden bonfires. We told ourselves that they would see their children again in a years time. Playing tunes for us to dance the harvest in. Jaws best suited to chewing foliage hidden behind pig skin masks.

Day 25

Hedge Roads

On the first day the roads turned to hedges our main concern was how we would commute to work. Even those who worked near their homes struggled. These were not the neat box privets of country houses, or suburbia, but knotted twisted things of blackthorn and bramble. Living traps, bitter they were not forests.

The pavements went next, stone slabs cluttered with rose prickles and ankle breakers of fruit runners, tying themselves to door handles. Sliding into locks.

We knew creatures lived amongst the branches. Black caps and song thrushes calling from their nests. We did not know they were hunted. We did not notice the hunters. Their thorn skin disguised them, until they moved. Until they climbed over our doorsteps, and windowsills, with their hoods of newt-leather, crests decorated with the juice of blackberries.

They scratched warnings into the panes with their spines. We could not read the alphabets they used, and there were many. We recognised them as threats, and we shuddered at their razor teeth.

The hedges grew bigger, feeding on the bones of those who ventured out. We saw them, trapped in hawthorn, sharpened branches constricting muscles until they fell off to be scavenged by those who hunted birds in the hidden parts of the hedges.

We have not been able to leave our houses for days now. There is nothing outside anyway. Apart from the hedges. The hunters bang against the windows, then start to scratch once more. It won’t be long until the glass shatters. There is nothing left to do now but wait.

Day 26

Mask

No automatic alt text available.

They fitted the death-mask over Farmer Campbell’s still breathing face. Loose shards of bark scraped his cheeks as the carved bracket fungus was tied to his head. Pinning him down, the villagers forced his arms into the mould stained donkey jacket. Fastened the buttons over the tattered trousers. Down his collar they rammed a hazel rod, thick as a man’s arm. Another along the seams of the sleeves. Then, using bailing twine, they raised him into the air, the foot of the post deep in the plough furrows.

He had scared his wife. Scared his children. Left marks on them the colour of December skies. Now he could scare crows, but they did not frighten like children. The seed was deep in the ground, or rotting in the storms. The birds were hungry. Farmer Campbell’s eyes were very easy to reach through the gaps in the mask. His flesh through rips in the jacket. This winter the crows would not starve.

Day 27
(by Hazel Ang)

Neighbourly Gifts

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.

Day 28

The Pit In The Garden

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.

Day 29

The Wick

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.

Day 30

The Two Villages of Giant Footprint

Image may contain: one or more people and close-up

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.

Day 31

Buried

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

Flash Fiction Month 2016 Week 3

Solstice is coming closer, and I can feel it in the air. The day’s are tainted with darkness when I do leave the house, and winter is gaining a momentum. We brace ourselves for contact.

While I haven’t gone for a theme (that would be too much pressure while writing thirty stories) there is a definite thread running through my stories this year. I’ve always leaned toward a moor and leaf mould setting for my stories. For 2016 the folk horror feel is stronger. This is intentional and has a lot to do with the material I’ve absorbed over the last few months. See what you think to the seven latest stories.

Day 15

And the Bluebells Did Ring

This was inspired by an article on Atlas Obscura. (www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-hidden-signs-that-mark-britains-ghost-forests)

The hikers did not know they were in the ghost forest until they heard bluebells ring out a funeral dirge.

They’d seen the signs of course. Old Ministry of Works plaques, bolted to the side of barns on the walk up. Stamped letters saying “You are now approaching one of England’s Ghost Forests. Walk with care.” The hikers thought them a prank or anachronism.

Once inside the ghost forest the hikers ignored the advice of the long forgotten Ministry of Works. They stumbled over dead trees and half chewed spines that hid in the sunlight. Each step they took crushed petals of flowers not alive for millennia.

Careless in their walking they collapsed dens in the ethereal woodland, though the hikers themselves did not hear the cries of sleeping animals disturbed with their passing.
But the things that made their home in the Ghost Forest heard the hikers, and shadowed their meandering route.

The sun dropped and the Hikers had still not left the ghost forest. Predators with too many teeth, and dried fur sticking to their claws, shuddered from the long dead past. Slowly, over several miles, they unveiled themselves, and when the hikers were little more than meat soaked in fear, the ghost forest had its feast.

Day 16

Jack Frost Hidden

When Spring came the warmth tore Jack Frost apart, and he hid himself throughout the fields and forests. On the return of winter, memory evaporated by the long hot summer, he searched for his body, carrying a single thread of spider silk to stitch himself together once more.

His breath was hidden deep in the lake, pressed down by stagnant water and rotting carcasses of fish that every so often floated detached scales to the surface.

He found his sight between the sapwood and bark of a dying yew tree. Breathing on his vision he blew away the splinters and insects ambered within.

His limbs were compressed into the mud of four forest paths, each leading in a different direction. The first to drowning, the second to mania. The third and fourth ran to a quarry in the middle of the trees where the only sound was a single echo of fire-cracked stone that had never found its way out of the hollow.

Jack Frost looked at himself in his own skin and though his face was stitched back on, and his legs carved mirrors of ice into the soil, there was still something missing. He held up his arms and stared at the ten rounded stumps, knucklebones exposed to the last of the year’s heat. His fingers! How could he forget his fingers.

They were hidden well, and hidden deep, and it took many nights of searching to find each one. Some hung from the stems of leaves, only veins remaining as a memory of their shape. Others were squeezed between the plates of a fox skull, his fingerskin crushed and misshapen after many long months in their hiding place. His thumbs he’d hidden together in the chest of a single brown robin, deep in the most knotted part of the woodland. With both hands he pressed nails through the feathers and withdrew the small bird’s heart, staining the robin’s breast red as he reclaimed what was his.

Then he used a single pine needle, and his one thread of spider silk, to stitch his fingers back in place. Once he was whole he breathed out his breath of winter killing, carving the gossamer of frost into ferns. A tribute to the deep forest that had hidden him so well through the long summer months.

Day 17

One Foot In Front Of The Other

 

Bill’s first mistake was stepping onto the path of fallen blossom.

His second was to not immediately sprinkle powdered ashes of his favourite book around himself.

Underfoot, the path turned to stone, then slate, sand then salt. Around him the scene stayed the same until it didn’t. The faces of people powdered to a dust of skin, bone hollowed and threadbare. Eyes of rosehips.

Bill tried to place even a toe beyond the path. A great sadness pressed out of him and he could not.

Barely more than six foot long, the path led nowhere, yet he felt unseen pedestrians brush against him as they passed.

With no food in his pockets, he harvested bitter nuts from amongst the leaf litter.

No one came to save him. Not the children with skin of shredded ivy, or the commuters with feathers for tongues.

With nowhere else to go, and no way to leave, he put on foot in front of the other, stepping onto where the path became unseen, until he too disappeared from sight.

Day 18

Enamel

“And when your teeth drop out, because you’ve eaten too many sweets, then he will come and take them.”

There was always the intake of breath when the child saw the sketch drawing, the tooth covered figure standing in a bedroom doorway.

Mr Fortnum never showed it without the parent’s permission. Only when the mother or father were at the end of their tether. Struggling to get their offspring to take care of themselves. See a future beyond the next foil wrapped sugary treat.

The child shuddered and took the free toothbrush and small tube of paste. He watched her swill and spit the pink liquid, before leaving the room with her smiling mother. Much calmer than when she dragged her daughter into the surgery.

She was the last patient of the day. Now alone, he reached under the trolley, feeling around until he found the small metal tray holding that day’s extracted teeth. Plaque and strands of gum discoloured the enamel. He held each in turn, running a finger over their shattered edges.

Reaching for a scalpel, Mr Fortnum made an incision in his chest and pressed the teeth one after the other into the pocket of skin.They clattered their way across molars already in place, and settled into empty hollows, severed roots knitting into his ribs. His stolen outer skin was starting to feel too tight as his hidden, enamelled, shell grew.

Soon the crowns would show through, then lacerate their way out. Soon he would have to shed his disguise. Soon it would be time to feast.

This story was inspired by a photo of a Channel Zero costume on Buzzfeed (http://boingboing.net/2016/12/06/full-body-costume-made-of-arti.html)

Day 19

Streetlight Laments

We hid in doorways and listened for the rustle of their paper faces. The beasts only came out on deserted streets. Hidden feet left no spoor for us to track. Just the sound of their skin and their bellows.

Passing under street lamps they became visible, the cone of sulphur burning away any disguise. The spells scratched into their hides glowed with the orange light. We wrote them down in our notebooks, so we knew what we were up against. So afterwards someone would remember.

Getting ahead of the creatures, we ran to the roundabout. Laid out sigils in road grit along the kerb. The beasts stepped in and became solid, the tarmac struggling to bear their weight. We turned away from their Polaroid paper eyes so we would not be trapped in their gaze.

Walking around the circle of lights we burnt effigies papier-mâchéd from free newspapers and rat bones. Their voices drowned out the cries of the beasts circling the grass. We watched smoke rise to settle in the air as clouds. Then the rains came.

The beasts did not scream in pain. We didn’t even know if they could. Over the next twenty four hours their origami hides soddened. Became pulp that clogged the gutters. We scraped it up with our bare hands and we sang laments for the last of their kind.

Day 20

The Peacock Man

Today’s story was inspired by this display I saw in a Munich shop window. Have a great weekend!

Glitter-faced and brittle-beaked the Peacock Man lurked in the December streets. Drunken singing and clinking glasses had tempted him from his nest of broken champagne flutes and discard bottles. Through frosted windows he watched work parties in full swing, his gibbet of fingers scraping along the wooden sill.

They never saw him, but he saw them, his cheek pressed against the stone. Saw the Prosecco glances that passed between co-workers under cheap paper garlands. Reaching out he stole those shared moments from the air. Let them dangle from his mother-of-pearl fingernails like dying rodents.

He turned the gazes over on his feathered palms then dripped them into his mouth. Tasted the honeyed smiles and bitter laughs. Let the vodka drowned flirtations sit upon the plumage of his tongue.

The party-goers never noticed the Peacock Man had stolen their precious moments from them. They barely registered sharing them with friends and crushes in the first place.

The stolen glances settled into the Peacock Man’s iridescent train as yet more blind blue eyes. Inside the party, the revellers’ skin turned a little greyer. Their laughter a little more hollow.

Day 21

Sleeping in Splinters

Today’s story was inspired by a display in Cotswold Outdoor Shop

The campers found the head of glass hidden in a crevice between two blocks of millstone grit. Lichen discoloured the dappled surface. Once cleaned with Sam’s shirt, they saw the thin slices of hazel inside.

The stoma in the neck was barely wide enough to slide in a finger. They forced their hands in anyway, stretching the glass edged hole in their eagerness. It pulsed and gripped at their touch.

Each hazel disc was marked with oak gall ink, dragged into lines by sharpened twigs. The campers could not read the writing, but made their choices anyway. Jill took the last and the glass head melted like sugar in rain.

With nothing else to do they each placed the chosen disc against the roof of their mouth and waited.

Splinters tore apart their palates, pressing through cheekbones and sinuses until they spined eyes to eyelids.

Unable to see, the campers stepped cautious, but not cautious enough. Each stumbled into a new world only they occupied, razor thin and a leaf’s breath away from us.

Sometimes a breeze blows through the pocket where they are trapped blind. We smell the moss growing on their skin. We run our tongues over the roofs of our mouths to check for hazel bark, and finding none we weep for our friends sleeping in splinters

Flash Fiction Month 2016 Week 2

No week in this challenge is easy, but week 2 is always a bit tricky. I’m not quite into a rhythm yet, and I’m not yet stockpiling story ideas. Mainly working from day to day. However, there are a couple below that turned out better than I hoped.

Day 8

Why the Sea Tastes of Salt and Why the Moon Always Looks Toward Us

 

The Witch of the Red House fell in love with the moon. With no wings to lift her through the sky, she went to the marsh and asked the stagnant waters for advice.

The drowning pools spoke in the voices of the hurdle crushed and the slit throats.

“You must slip off your skin. Lay it by the north wall of your house at the new moon. Until the full moon scrape the fat from the inside of your hide, the hair from the outside, and shape both into a candle. When the full moon rises, light the candle, and your skin will become a carpet of honeysuckle and magnolia to carry you to your beloved.”

When the new moon came, the Witch of the Red House peeled off her skin, stemming her blood with salt, the agony making her choke out the names of all Five Dead Gods.

For one month she scraped fat from the inside of her own hide, and hair from the outside, shaping both into a single candle.

When the full moon rose, and the light fell on the Red House, the Witch lit the candle. She stepped onto her cracked skin, hooking her feet into the eyeholes and grasping the now limp scalp to steady her balance. The skin rose into the air, fissures becoming petals of honeysuckle and magnolia.

Skitter-footed beetles and gnaw-toothed mites fell in mists to the garden below. The platform of flowers climbed through the clouds to orbit her beloved, the moon.

And the moon saw The Witch of the Red House without her skin. He saw her as a thing of tendons and tissue, of muscles and marrow. He saw her as a thing of gristle and gore, and slowly he turned his vast face from her.

In fury the Witch of the Red House tore out her ribs, turning the moon with the broken shards, and pinning him to look forever at the Earth.

With nothing else for her on land, and nothing else for her in the sky, the Witch of the Red House threw herself into the sea. The currents dragged her to the ocean floor. To the hidden land of scavenged whales and the pressure of one hundred fathoms. As she fell, the salt crusting her wounds spread through the sea, so all who sipped it would remember her pain.

Every month the moon tries dragging the Witch to him, begging her to snatch out the slivers of bone, but she is too deep, feasting in the dark on sailors whose lungs hold cold oceans of their own.

Day 9

On The Forest Floor


Today’s story was inspired by a newsclipping that went viral.

The Owls knew the men were coming with their Hi-Vis and Hymacs to cut down the woodland. The owls smelt the bearing grease and exhaust fumes on the breeze.

Aware that of all the creatures of the branch they must take the lead, the owls hunted nightmares hidden under roots and tree-fall. Plucked them from the forest floor like harvest mice.

They taloned the screams of children left amongst the trees to grow wild and matted. They swallowed mould bloomed breadcrumbs dumped in a root bole hollow by a stepmother turned glitter eyed and ragged skinned with jealousy. The owls drank water from five toed spoors of the three times turning hut, and pecked the last flesh from the skull fence, abandoned when the iron toothed woman flew the sky. The owls feasted on all the stories abandoned to rot under birch bark, until the words dripped black as oil from the end of their outstretched wings.

Then the birds flew to the clearing where the men would camp, far away from the fields and towns. Deep amongst the trees where the only food would be the skinned rabbit and the foraged bounty.

There the owls gathered on the forest floor, compressed themselves into the sweetest, gilled mushrooms, the lurking retching things compressed deep inside. Waiting until the mushroom knife’s blade and the cooking oil’s heat released once more.

Day 10
The Wept Family

The orphaned girl sat up in bed, catologues piled on the pillow beside her. Sipping her juice she flicked through the pages, only stopping on those with perfect families. Mothers and fathers playing boardgames with their children, content dog curled up at their feet. Staring and longing would do no good. She put the catalogues to one side and let sleep take her.

In the middle of the night, while dreaming of eight hundred ways too die by sharpened metal, the orphan wept. Her tears flowed over the duvet to collect on the floor, more and more until a pool stretched from bedroom door to the foot of the window.

Through the glass moonlight glittered the room. Under it’s drag the pool of tears rose into three peaks, a fourth staying low to the carpet. The mother and father born of her weeping stretched their arms around each other.
The transparent brother reached down to stroke the sodden fur of the dog. Reaching out, the mother stroked the orphan’s face, a trail of tears left across the sleeping girl’s forehead.

In the hours after midnight the wept family stood beside the bed, no way to express their own sorrow that their child would never know they came night after night. Then, as the sun rose, and the family evaporated to condense against the window, the orphaned girl woke to another day spent alone.

Day 11

Skitter

It started when Mrs Leopold was wrong about spiders, and Sam found a family of wild boar stood in his living room.

“Acorns in the corners. That’ll get rid of the little web grafters,” she said. Of course now he knew it was conkers to discourage spiders.

The wild boar were peaceful, but trying. They rooted the carpet up looking for food that simply wasn’t there. They gnawed wallpaper until it hung off in great chewed leaves. Ground their tusks against the walls, scratching deep grooves into the plaster.

On the third day Sam noticed a pattern to the marks. Noticed they weren’t random, but design repeated over and over again. Sigils. A summoning in no language issued from a human throat.

The trees came next. Oaks first, erupting from the acorns he’d brought into the house willingly. Their roots tapped through the floorboards. Branches scraped against the ceiling, bursting through the joists to the floor above.

Once the forest arrived the boar were nowhere to be seen, though he heard them snuffling in the undergrowth. Beetles scritched under bark and gnawed on the bones of things that had not been there a week before.

Sam sat in a clearing, drinking tepid water from pools soaking through the mud of the forest floor. Out of what remained of the windows he saw the woodland spread across his garden.

Mrs Leopold skittered along the edges, too many limbs, joints bending the wrong way. Trailedsilk between the leaf heavy branches that she snipped with jaws no longer fitting under the skin of her face. She knew more about spiders than she let on, and she was never letting Sam out.

Day 12

Lead The Way

Looking for alternatives to electricity, the town sent children out to the moors. Each held a trap to capture will’-o’-the-wisps. Jars rubbed with charred reeds and foxglove petals, tied on ash polls to dangle under the floating marsh lights.

The sons and daughters caught many, fastening on rusted wire lids, and fitting the next trap to their ash poles. When they returned to town their backpacks were stuffed with twisting hinkypunks. Enough to fill every streetlamp in town.

The adults worked all afternoon, chasing the will’-o’-the wisps into glass cages. By dusk all the streets were lit without a single kilowatt of electricity used.

They woke and dawn had not come. The adults, thinking they had all overslept, went to wake their families. The children had gone, bed hollows filled with charred reeds and gorse, a light frost coating the sheets. Foxglove petals on the pillows.

The adults tried to leave their houses. Faces of peat leather pressed against the windows, scraping the glass with blackened teeth, sharp as gorse.

The keylocks were filled with mist. Stagnant water seeped through the walls between crumbling bricks. Outside there was nothing but mile upon mile of marshland. Hinkypunks circled the smeared sky. The doors in the town would not open. It did not matter. There was nowhere left to go.

Day 13

Ashen

 

No one knew who set the fire, apart from the jackdaws.

When the embers had cooled they perch on sodden furniture, once clear varnish now bubbled loose. Hopping across the melted carpet the birds rubbed their already blackened faces in the ash and took flight.

The arsonist’s house was easy to find. The stench of petrol trailed from the fire to his front door.

Perched on sills, the jackdaws rubbed their faces against the windows until grey streaks were left in the shape of their feathers. They ground further until the charred marks pushed through the glass.

Then they sang. They sang to the bonfires of midwinter and the funeral pyres of the moor. They sang to the beacons of the cliffs and to the peat stained hearths of long gone cottages. They sang to lightning struck trees and man scorched heather, and when the jackdaws finished singing smoke seeped out of the ashen marks, finding the arsonist’s lungs and filling them to choking.

Day 14

Man of silence

The straw in Sally’s hand had dulled since late Summer when she’d wandered the fields. Picked it from amongst clods of turned soil. Back then, the short lengths of dried barley had been golden in colour. The sky too. Now both were greyed and past their best.

She walked down to the tarn edge and held her hand high, letting the breeze pluck the offering from her palm. Tiny stalks tumbled to turning. The frozen breeze bore them out across the water, searching for somewhere to settle.

The patch of still water was far from Sally, ignored by the compress of waves that dare not cross it. The straw floated down onto the silent spot, then spread out until they edged arms and legs, a rickety head and a crooked back.

The Man of Silence drew himself up, away from the tarn-water and strode toward her. Sally dropped a ring of acorns into the sand. Oak trees erupted around her. The Man of Silence held out his hand.

Reaching into her coat, Sally held out the photo. She’d taken it from the work website. Jeanine in her new job, sat in the office that should have been Sally’s. She gave it to the Man of Silence.

For a moment the photo swilled around the water of his palm like a child’s boat then fell to the ground, drenched and rejected. From deep inside himself the Man of Silence dragged out an earlier offering. A knot of lambswool and iron nails, their points hammered through another photo, this time of her.

He stepped across her barrier of oak as if the branches were nothing more than mist. With fingers of silt and algae he reached down her throat to take her voice and unravelled who Sally was, until she too was a thing of silence.

14 days in. 16 more to go. Come back next week for seven more stories.