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.

 

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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.

Haunting Harrogate – Article from The Author

In Summer 2017 The Society of Authors kindly published my article about Haunt in their journal, The Author. With their kind permission I’m reproducing the article here.

Haunting Harrogate

 

‘Then the lapwing sang, and it sang of eloquences and springs. It sang of the genteel and the waters. It sang of tulips and tea blends, and when Kenny went to speak the lapwing had taken all his words, leaving him no voice for his own story.’ From Haunt.

 

Harrogate. The English Spa with an air of opulence. Entertainments available include afternoon tea at Betty’s or walks through the elegant valley gardens. Yet there is another side to this most genteel town – for five years voted one of the happiest places to live. This side is rarely acknowledged or discussed; many people in Harrogate experience homelessness or vulnerable housing – far more than might be expected for a town with such an enviable reputation.

I know this personally. At 16 (just before my GCSEs) I was kicked out of home, spending three years either with no fixed abode or in bedsits. In Harrogate, bedsits tend to be in large town houses associated with the Spa’s opulent past. In cheap, vulnerable, accommodation you are haunted by Harrogate’s other wealthier identity in the fixtures, fittings and very walls of the building. Many sleeping rough bed down in woods or fields on the edge of town, so they too are not visible. A study by Harrogate Homeless Project (HHP) found over 60% of residents surveyed believed there was no homelessness in the town, or very little. These stories are hidden from most of Harrogate’s population, in houses whose multiple-occupancy can only be recognised by the cluster of doorbells on the outside wall. In these bedsits the town is a spectral presence that can appear suddenly, as all ghosts do, in the form of an evicting landlord, or a hungry and expensive electrical meter causing lights to cut out, like a manifesting poltergeist. People living in a town known for healing are not healed.

 

The idea for Haunt, the collaborative writing and performance project that started in late 2014 and ran in Harrogate until July 2016, grew out of my own experiences, and my realisation of how homelessness is hidden in the town. The name Haunt reflects three aspects of being homeless or vulnerably housed in a place like Harrogate. Firstly, it encapsulates the idea of being haunted by the identity of the town. The name also reflects being haunted by our own experiences, as well as haunts as somewhere people gather.

Haunt was developed with Imove Arts, an arts company with a focus on human movement in specific spaces, a perfect fit for Haunt, a project exploring how people move in and out of accommodation. My fellow author Becky Cherriman, who experienced homelessness in Harrogate whilst a teenager, was involved in creating Haunt. From the start Haunt was seen as having three stages. We would start by running writing workshops for people experiencing homelessness, then publish their work in an anthology alongside stories and poems by myself and Becky. The final stage was to use all the work created throughout the project to develop a site specific theatre performance, bringing the audience through a different Harrogate, into a bedsit space.

 

Our core principle was that people experiencing homelessness should have space to tell their own stories in their own words. Working with Harrogate Homeless Project, the local homelessness charity, and Foundation UK, who support young people at risk of homelessness in Harrogate, Becky and I visited drop-in centres and hostels. We had conversations there, and these were the key to the project. Firstly, they allowed people to speak for themselves –  to say what they wanted to say in places they felt comfortable. Secondly, it allowed us to talk about our own experiences, share our common ground, and show we were not imposing a preconceived view.

The workshops ran over six weeks. Sessions varied from free writing about Harrogate to a ‘Hauntological’ walk around the town. The walk used disruptive ways of seeing the town (for example imagining a ship docking at Harrogate pier,  choosing a distant building to pick up and put in a pocket, and discussing the fires that have affected the Majestic Hotel, (a major symbol of Harrogate’s past opulence). In another session we asked participants to think of Harrogate as a person. What would they eat? How would they speak? What would their hair be like? What shoes would they wear?

Life for people in precarious accommodation can be chaotic, so at the end of each session we secured permission to use work in later stages of Haunt.

The sessions were very positive. One (anonymous) participant wrote a beautiful poem, his first creative writing since school:

The river runs through the woods,

past the old oak trees,

a place to reflect.

Another participant, Nathan, delivered a visceral spoken word performance:

You sit there looking at me through the glass like I’m something off the bottom of your shoe which you probably got from Primark but you still think you’re better than me.  Harrogate is beautiful but you make it ugly.

 

Combining the stories with work by myself and Becky, we next published an anthology with very specific design requirements. The book was pocket-sized, so participants who were rough-sleeping could carry a copy. The font chosen was from a 1920s brochure promoting Harrogate, embedding participants’ words in the town’s history.

 

Harrogate Museums invited us to contribute Haunt work to the Royal Pump Room Museum’s Harrogate Stories exhibition, as well as hold our anthology launch there. This was significant in that it recognised the importance of these experiences, and moved them into the core narrative of the town. We held pop-up readings at the cafés Bean & Bud and Corrina’s, and held an exhibition of photographs by Paul Floyd Blake, portrait photographer and winner of the 2009 NPG/Taylor Wessing National Portrait Prize. With these events, we attempted to disrupt the single narrative of Harrogate as a wealthy spa town.

 

The final stage was a site-specific theatre piece, involving projection artists, physical performers, sound designers and, most importantly, project participants’ words. This took the form of a ghost walk through Harrogate. The performances happened three times a day over three days in late June, early July. The events were ticketed and part of the Two’s Company programme of site specific theatre run by Harrogate Theatre. The event was advertised nationally and selected by The Guardian as one of the top five theatre tickets for the week.

The audience wore headphones to hear the soundtrack, and to separate them from the wider public. The walk started at the Royal Pump Room Museum, surrounded by the scent of sulphur water, with historical voices who could be part of a normal ghost walk.  Partway through these voices became disrupted: first by stories of homelessness from the 1960s (this was the story of a contributor’s sister), then by modern stories of those experiencing homelessness. The walk concluded at an installation of a bedsit set up in a room in the basement of the Carnegie Library building, a strong central symbol of Harrogate and feet away from a small park where people experiencing homelessness congregate. In the claustrophobic bedsit setting, inspired by some of my own teenage accommodation (with mattress on the floor, empty cans and full ashtrays), the audience members realised that they were playing the role of the ghosts of Harrogate, haunting the performers.

I was pregnant

Homeless

Often drunk

This was the Sixties

Meant to be swinging

Sandie Shaw and Petula Clark

Did not live like me. (Richard H.)

 

Haunt had two clear aims. The first was to give people whose voices are not often heard in Harrogate a chance to write about their own experiences and have those stories, poems and experiences brought to a wider audience. With the anthology, inclusion in the Harrogate Stories exhibition, and shortlisting for the Saboteur Awards, we achieved this goal.

The second aim was to use the disruptive methods of pop up readings, exhibitions and site specific performances to jar peoples’ attention toward the homeless and vulnerably housed part of their community they might not be paying attention to. Again we succeeded, and set off several conversations and shifted perceptions.

On a personal level, Haunt was a chance to explore a town that had a huge impact on me, even when I was living no fixed abode and didn’t necessarily feel part of the wider community. Through the project we met many people. I met my 16 year old self and saw how much things can change.

Haunt shows the impact writing projects can have by allowing participants who are not writers to find their own voices, and by including their stories in the narrative of a town. Stories build empathy. An audience can learn to see homeless people in these situations not as an unknowable other, but as parents, plasterers, gardeners, pet-owners – as fellow residents. As people like them.

 

Our Sundays were the opened-up

dog ends of rollies, bedsit gravel

and guitar – even Leeds was forever just out of

reach. This town has ways

of paralysing its young. (Becky Cherriman, Our Harrogate from Haunt)

 

To generate interest in the project amongst people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing, we ‘strewed’ envelopes containing quotes about Harrogate (“…a wild common, bare and bleak, without tree or shrub or the least signs of cultivation.” Tobias Smollett 1771) and old photos about Harrogate, (for example about the Bower Road Bridge collapse In 1862), pencils and blank paper, so people could start writing about the town as they experienced it.

We left origami dragons (To echo Dragon Road and Dragon Parade in the town) and birds (paper ghosts of the pigeons and jackdaws that congregate in the centre every sunrise) with questions written on such as “If you could fly away, where would you fly to?” to kickstart conversations. We used large A0 sized maps to collect quotes and stories about places important to people. The origami, maps and quotes were later displayed in the Royal Pump Room Museum as part of the Harrogate Stories exhibition.

 

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

 

 

Hell on Wheels-Bikers, Forteana and the Occult

FT358

One of the joys of what I do is getting to write about subjects that interest me, and for magazines I enjoy. Recently I combined both. I wrote an article for Fortean Times about the occult and Forteana in biker films and books.

This gave me an excuse to sit down and watch Werewolves on Wheels, Psychomania, and re-read loads of NEL pulp biker paperbacks. (If you’re not familiar with these particular books I’d recommend the documentary Skinhead Farewell. While it focuses on the better known Richard Allen books, it has a decent section on the biker books too. You can find it online here.)

The article also gave me an opportunity to bring one of my favourite authors, Jim Fogg, to a wider audience.

What I wasn’t expecting was for my article to be the cover story. Fortean Times is a well loved publication by many (including me), and I know it has a very loyal readership, so it feels like a real honour.

Issue FT358 is in the shops now. If you don’t live in the UK the best way to get a copy is via subscription.

Guest Post : “Otherworldly: Folk Horror Revival at The British Museum” by Steve Toase

Priya Sharma invited me to write a guest post on her blog about Folk Horror Revival’s Otherworldy British Museum event. Read it here.

priya sharma fiction

Folk Horror Revival Facebook group (www.facebook.com/groups/folkhorror/) has been going for two years, and in that time has gathered together in excess of 16,000 members. While the core of Folk Horror is the unholy triumvirate of The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan’s Claw, discussions explore everything from Hungarian Folktales to Indonesian Horror Movies, Church architecture to Japanese Rock Museums.

On 16th October Folk Horror Revival held Otherworldly at the British Museum. To give you some idea of the popularity, all 350 tickets sold out in two days. For a first event Otherworldly was extremely well organised. On registration each attendee was given an enamelled pin badge to identify each other amongst the throngs of the BM.

fhr-badge Enamel badge by Otherworldly

Chris Lambert, curator of the Black Meadow (http://blackmeadowtales.blogspot.co.uk/) was compère for the day. Chris kept proceedings on track, and filled the occasional…

View original post 816 more words

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

Haunt and Collaboration

Since Haunt got shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards I’ve been thinking about the collaborative part of the project a lot. Throughout the last eighteen months we’ve worked with a lot of participants. Some were improving their situation. Others had chaotic lives. Many we didn’t see every time we ran a workshop. Some of the participants only attended once, leaving us with several pieces of work, or insightful conversations that helped tweak my worldview.

One participant has been present all the way through, yet until now I’ve never really talked about him. My 16 year old self.

It may seem like a twee sentiment but there’s an important point here. To be actively engaged in writing creatively for Haunt I’ve had to meet the person who I was just after I was kicked out of home 24 years ago. His language is not mine. His view of the world is not mine, and his relationship with Harrogate is certainly not mine. It’s been a disconcerting experience.

We change by degrees and it’s only through Haunt that I’ve looked back and seen how much I’ve altered  since I was that 16 year old, still doing my GCSEs, living in a bedsit with no contract and not quite enough money to get by.

Recently a good friend passed away. He was very supportive around the time I was kicked out. His illness and passing brought back a lot of memories of what a great generous person he was. Those memories also collapsed time and made me feel 15 and 16 again.

The fear about making my 16 year old self an active participant is the fear I’ll slip back to who I was then. That somehow the ghost, who was hurt, angry and upset, still lives in me somewhere and will become too easy to wear. But if I see him as a participant, a collaborator in Haunt, then I can listen to his stories without tumbling into my past.

I’ve found that by listening to who I was, as the person I am now, it’s helped me be compassionate, patient and have empathy. Maybe, personally, that 16 year old past self is my most important collaborator.

Saboteur Award Shortlist and Collaboration

Shortlisted-768x384

(Warning. I use the word collaborate a lot in this post.)

At the weekend we had some fantastic news. Haunt has been shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards in the category of Best Collaborative Work.

I’ve been thinking about Haunt and collaboration quite a lot over the past couple of weeks. I chat about it in my latest newsletter but wanted to go into the subject in a bit more detail.

I’ve had the idea at the heart of Haunt since at least 2009, wanting to explore how people living in Harrogate bedsits or experiencing homelessness are haunted by the opulent identity of the town.

Even before I discussed the idea with Tessa at Imove I knew for Haunt to work it would be a collaboration and that meant allowing other people influence Haunt. On a day-to-day basis I’m a page writer. I sit in a room by myself and write stories by myself. This was going to be very different. If you’d asked me in 2009 how I felt about this you might have got a different answer, but now, in all honesty, I’ve found the collaborations the best part, and am really excited about working with different artists and participants on the performance and installation part of Haunt.

Part of the reason I’m really looking forward to working with others on the next stage is that so far the core idea has stayed unchanged, but the way Haunt has grown as a project is far beyond anything I could have hoped for. That’s down to all the people who have collaborated so far.

And there have been a lot. At the core of Haunt is the collaboration between Imove Arts (Tessa Gordziejko and Elenid Davies), fellow lead writer Becky Cherriman and the particpants who have experienced homelessness or vulnerable housing. Without those core relationships there would be no anthology, no performances and no Haunt. Beyond that there have been many, many more, for example Harrogate Homeless Project and Foundation Harrogate who helped us find people interested in participating in our workshops. Bean and Bud who hosted on exhibition of Paul Floyd Blake‘s photos alongside words from Haunt, as well as letting us hold a pop-up reading and selling copies of the anthology for us. Corrina’s Homeless and Vulnerable Project also let us hold a pop up reading in their cafe.

Harrogate Museums have worked with us, allowing us to launch the anthology at the Royal Pump Room Museum, and included stories from Haunt in their Harrogate Stories exhibition. Both these events were symbolically important, because it meant the words of people normally excluded from the narrative of the town were repositioned and included.

In the next stage we’ll be collaborating with Harrogate Theatre, choreographer Zoe Parker, Dancer Tom Hunt, music producer Kwah, Al Orange and Steph Jones, as well as still keeping up those key relationships.

On all levels, Haunt is all about collaboration, working together to make experiences of homelessness more visible, while preserving the core idea, which is why I’m so pleased we’re shortlisted in that particular Saboteur Award category.

(If you like what we’re doing with Haunt, please consider following the link, clicking on ‘Vote here’ and giving us a vote. http://www.saboteurawards.org/)