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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Flash Fiction Month 2016 Week 1

It’s been a while since I posted on my blog. I’ve been busy working on the next draft of my novel, and attending various events like Folk Horror Revival at the British Museum, and the Society of Authors North Ghostly Gathering (more on them later). If you want to get free flash fiction in your inbox every fortnight, and keep up with my writing, I have a storyletter you can subscribe here. http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase

One piece of news I can share now is that Aurealis Magazine have accepted my short story ‘Hyter and the House that Stands’ for publication.

For the past few years I’ve set myself a challenge; to spend a month writing a flash fiction story every day on the run up to Short Story Day at the Winter Solstice. This year I decided to do it again.

Below you can find the first seven stories. If you want to read them daily I post the new pieces straight to my FB page at www.facebook.com/stevetoase1. Otherwise I collect each week’s stories and post them here.

Day 1

The Hatchling

(Inspired by Lynn Hardaker’s fantastic new collage. You can see, and buy, more of her work at https://www.etsy.com/shop/BeneathTheBracken)

lynn-nest

(Photo by Lynn Hardaker)

At the commencement of the séance, the gathered participants shaped the nest and placed it in the centre of the lace covered table. As well as twigs and leaves gathered from the garden, they used clay stained lengths of funeral shroud, three white feathers from a dove who died in the first frost of winter, a single flute shaped from a vulture’s wing bone, strands of hair from the deceased who those in mourning wished to contact, and spit from all those gathered. As a final touch Mrs Sanderby, whose parlour it was, wove lavender through the nest to bring rest to those who sought it.
Once the velvet drapes were pulled back to let in the winter sun, and the medium’s eyes had rotated to their rightful place, the gathered company peered into the nest. Three objects nestled together. A sea shell that had never housed the living, a stone round enough and large enough to splinter any skull, and a single pale egg.

The sea shell was covered in words, letters scratched with the charred sticks left out on hillsides for the dead by the grieving. One of the gentlemen held the empty vessel to his ear and shuddered. The sound curling around inside the mother of pearl was not of the ocean.

The more the light touched the stone, the more the image became apparent. The woman’s features were wan, her gaze distracted, looking off to something at one side. No-one recognised her, but several of those around the table thought they saw chains and hooks going through her clothing before the sun paled all but her eyes.

The egg was unadorned and the colour of lilies. None of those who had paid to be there dare touch the thing. It’s shell appeared soft, as if to place it on a hand would cause it to collapse. The medium had no such doubts, grasping the egg in one hand and steadying herself with the other.

The hole burnt straight through all her fingerbones, the heat cauterising the skin. As the smoke cleared they saw that the egg had smashed against the edge of the table during its fall. Something fibrous seeped through the cracks in the shell. In the shadows of the room hooks and chains glinted in the pale sun.

Day 2

The Indecisive Man and the Goddess of Paths

“There are two ways out of this town,” said the Goddess of Paths, blocking the Indecisive Man’s way down the rutted road. “The first is to become a fox, rust coated and slaver jawed. The second is to become the storm, dancing slates from their battens and children from their wits.”

He stood too long. He stared at the sun, and the branches of dead trees. He stared at mud on his boots, and water in ditches. He stared at the birds, broken feathered and gasping, and he stared at the eyes of the Goddess who lost patience and split him in two.

On the outside she stitched fur the colour of dying suns, the tip of the tail white so he would always be found by those who chased him. On the inside she stitched the roar of the winds that could shudder walls and the souls of the weary.

And then the Indecisive Man ran from the Goddess of Paths down that rutted road. During the day he was hunted by his old friends with guns and sticks. During the night he walked through their towns, roaring torrents against their houses until they shook in their beds like frit toddlers. And that was how the Indecisive Man survived from that day to this, rust coated and slaver jawed, with a voice that never settled on anything, but screamed with a thousand thunderstorms.

Day 3

The Frontispiece

Taking off his poncho, Lewis pushed the bike along the hallway and picked up the package from his doormat. Carrying it through to the kitchen, waiting until the kettle boiled and he had a cup of tea before looking at the parcel again. This was the moment he most enjoyed. The anticipation of what was to come. Like a bee circling a flower, dreaming of nectar.

Cup in hand and package under his arm, Lewis went through to the front room and took a sip. Using a Stanley knife he slit the brown string and folded back the edges. The handwriting on the short note inside was flourished with smiley faces, each downward stroke ending in an arrow. He approved. Such attention to detail. He flattened the paper and placed it on top of the discarded wrapping.

The book was covered with brown paper, worn in the corners, the dust jacket lost many decades ago. He ran his hand across the corrugated paper and opened to the frontispiece. The L Plate was familiar, though a lot of years had died since he pasted one in a book, the capital letter shaped from Pyramids and scarab beetles.

Many months he’d spent searching bookshops, both bricks and mortar, and virtual, until he found the volume in a small online seller in the south-west of England. Stroking the cracked leather spine he searched the bookplate for hidden letters, alphabet long out of use by the time pharaoh skin was compressed to parchment.

He read his name, his real name, throat muscles struggling to contort and form the syllables. The pages dissolved to dust, words scuttling off to the corners of the room. Lying on the yellowed board of the bookcover was his true face, thorn scarred and knife cut around the eyes. Still chanting his name, he reached through his thinning hair to undo the clasp fastening his mask in place. Peeling it away, draughts from the shattered windows chilled the exposed muscles along his cheeks. Blood clotted in the hollow of his neck. Lifting his face with both hands, he pressed it into place, powdered parchment dusting the lips. The skin crept over his hair, growing down the nape off his neck and cleaving to his limbs.

He was himself again and the towns would shudder themselves at his steps until their cemeteries were crammed full to bursting.

Day 4

Blood Clot Magic

The crows were waiting for Sarah when she left the house. She smelt berries on their beaks and gobbets of muscles on their claws. Closing her gate, she waited while they took flight, all two hundred looping around her as she walked. Today was for blood clot magic and scar tissue spells, and she had need of their feathers.

The letting agents’ office stood at the end of the high street, a detached house none of their tenants could ever afford. The crows perched on nearby roofs, tearing apart sparrows and the corpses of pigeons.

Reaching into her dress for a sliver of flint Sarah sliced her finger, folded back the skin and jostled out the tiny bone. Raising it to her lips she blew down the holes drilled many generations before. On the roofs the birds turned as one at the whistle, notes far too high for any human to hear.

The crows took flight and circled the brightly coloured office. Sarah hid the blade and searched for her glasses. She did not need to see the photos to know they all lied about the condition of their houses. She did not need to see the cars parked outside to know where the money went.

With a final whistle the murder of black birds looped down. Each crow tore wing feathers from it’s neighbour until a shadowed, fluttering ring lay around the building. Sarah winced as she felt each barb wrenched from her own skin. She would have new scars in the morning.

Walking around the circle she sprinkled blood from her still injured hand on the feather’s vanes. It took time. In the office the letting agents tried to open the door, but locks never worked inside the severed circle.

By the time Sarah reached the beginning and fitted her fingerbone back in place, the first spilt blood had scabbed dry.

The trees erupted from the feathers, branches twigged with sharpened teeth. Sitting on the bench across the road Sarah stitched her hand back together with nettle thread and gnawed off the loose bits of skin.

Noticing the new covert, the crows flew in to roost. The teeth attached to them, rooting in their skin and each bird felt a hunger grow in its belly.

They made short work of the glass door. Food was inside the office. The crows wore the teeth on their feathers, like frost. Inside the small room they ground away at the letting agents until they were nothing but smears of mince and bonemeal in the brightly patterned carpet.
Without her hearing aid Sarah did not hear their screams, but by nightfall she knew her birds would be fat and fed, and her thieving landlords would be gone.

Day 5

Lustre

This story was inspired by the cabinet below in the British Museum

 

shell

Wrapping the tea towel around the oyster, Cordelia slid the blade into the hinge. These days she could open them without the halves shattering. The splinters of shell trapped in her hand by scar tissue ached. She cut free the meat, dropping it in the bin, and dug out the pearl. First, she held it up to the light, placed it upon her tongue, rolled the sphere around her mouth, and crushed it to powder between her iron capped teeth.

The dust tasted of salt and choking. Of water forced into exhausted lungs, arms and legs hanging limp as the body dropped to be compressed by the weight of the sea. It tasted of tearing by the mandibles of a thousand blind fish, and digestion where light had never touched.

And under the flavours of death she savoured a slight seasoning of life, yet that life was not one she recognised. Not one she shared. The soul was not her husband’s who spent his time between her bed and the sea, until the waves embraced him for good.

She finished swallowing the pearl, taking what nourishment she could from the life and death of a man she did not know.

Placing the two halves of the shell in the near full cabinet, she sat back down at the table, reached for her shucking knife, and the next, unopened, oyster.

 

Day 6
Parison
glass

 

Sophia flinched as the last greenhouse panel shattered. From her bedroom she watched the girl climb the garden wall, kick through her prizewinning roses and recover the ball from the flowerbed. Only a week had past since the first window became a casualty. Now only splinters hung from the metal frame. Inside, her plants withered to brown in the draughts. The girl stared at the house. Seeing Sophia looking she swore at the older woman, emphasising her annoyance at been spotted with several hand gestures.

Opening a bedside table drawer, Sophia took out her polished saddle stone and balanced it in front of her mirror. From a pouch of muscle in her arm she siphoned out glasswort, devil’s horsewhip, and several stained splinters she had collected from amongst her tomato plants.
The blood dried on the glass tasted of coins against her tongue. She spat them onto the quern and used the heel of her hand to grind the mixture to dust. While whispering backwards to herself, Sophia blew the powder into the garden.

The girl started to shine before she was back over the wall. Once in the alley her skin was transparent, organs visible until they too turned to glass.

By the time Sophia got downstairs, house locked against further intrusions, the girl could no longer move. As solid as a vase freshly rapped from a blowpipe. Stood behind, Sophia pushed the girl to the floor and ground the splinters of her to sand against the cobbles.

Day 7

On The First Turn

maze

The labyrinth engulfed the front room. John stood at the quartz marked entrance, and looked for a different route across to the front door.

None existed. He stepped in.

The maze was fenced by flattened reeds, bundled into hedges, their stems blackened with damp and blight. Between, the path was worn to bedrock, surface scattered with a powder from a thousand footsteps that weren’t his.

On the first turn, he knelt to look closer at the barriers hedging him in. Beetles the colour of snow rattled the spikelets. They rubbed their legs against the rotten seeds and made music that ached his head.

On the second turn he tied a silk scarf around his mouth and nose against the dust clogging his eyes. A little dropped onto his lips, tasting of funeral urns and rain ruined petals.

On the third turn, he became disorientated and concerned he would lose his way. Slitting the back of his neck with the nail on his wedding finger, John drew out his spine, loose hanging nerves wrapping themselves around his fists. On the fourth, fifth and sixth turn he dropped a vertebrae, like Hansel crumbs. He did not notice the snow coloured insects skitter over his bones, growing fat on the marrow. For nourishment he scraped the black mould from the hedging and did not sleep when the visions came.

On the seventh turn, he screamed until his lungs bled, and spat scabs into the roots and soil.

On the eighth turn, the reeds arched over, pressing down into the scar below his scalp until the glumes scraped his muscles raw.

On the ninth turn, he entered the centre of the labyrinth, the flood ruined carpet sodden under his hands and knees. He stood, and opened his eyes.

John stood at the quartz marked entrance, and looked for a different route across to the front door.

None existed. He stepped in.

END

Hope you enjoy them. Come back next Monday for seven more stories.