A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 4 (and a bit)

 

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Apologies for the delay. Unfortunately a trip abroad, Christmas and my birthday got in the way. If you’d like to read more flash fiction throughout the year I now have a newsletter you can sign up to. The plan with be to send out a flash fiction story once a fortnight. http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase

Flash fiction month – Day 22

(This was written for my wife’s birthday)

Repairs

Taking me by the hand she led me inside, through the door sprinkled with glitter, below the roof shaped from whispered words.

Inside, she invited me to recline on the bed. Underneath me was a blanket crocheted with wool of many colours. As she made a pot of tea I pulled away strands and chewed them. They tasted of cinnamon and snow.

We drank from chipped mugs and she told me stories of who we would one day be. Her hair was woven through with stars the size of pine needles. She pointed at them and named the constellations. The swimmer and the embrace. The whispered name and the moth.

Then I slept.

When I woke she had taken out my heart. There was no scar. This was surgery, not theft.

On her table my heart lay in a Wedgewood bowl. Around the rim she had lit pale candles that guttered and sent soot toward the ceiling.

With a pair of bone tweezers she worked through the night. Straining her eyes in the candlelight she pulled loose splinters of rotten sash window frame and metal swarf from a Coventry cast engine casing. Scorched paper from a thousand abandoned story drafts, and the ice from too many nights spent shivering.

These were easy to find. Next, she reached for a magnifying glass and searched for the ephemeral. Words of dismissal spattered across the heart so long ago the serifs had been obscured by regrown tendons. She ran her fingers over the surface until she found several half forgotten glances in government offices, and she pressed into the blood vessels to find burrowing conversations, hidden by scar tissue, even I had no memory of.

By the time she had finished repairing my heart, dawn hung in the air outside.

She walked out of the door, collected mist and knitted it around my heart to hold it tight. Then, while I slept, she placed my heart back in my chest and kept me safe in her house, with the door of glitter and roof of whispered words.

Day 23

Spine Barked Trunks

Emma heard the same rumours as everyone else. Tales of trees erupting in empty houses. Stories of how they shaped needles from sponge soft floorboards and carpets frayed to ghosts. Spine barked trunks filling the air with the scent of snow, ragged fox pelts and bones picked clean by unseen grubs.

Some in the village went looking through dirty windows for the out of place branches. Made brave by cheap Christmas whiskey they pulled away chipboard shutters and went into the derelict buildings with bowsaw and felling axe. Their tools were often found rusting against the porches, though the amateur lumberjacks were never seen again.

By mid-December the trees appeared in the corner of family homes, including Emma’s. Where glitter and glass bedecked pines already stood, the newcomers dragged them to the floor, pulping them with sap thick as bread sauce. While families slept the trees wrapped bones in fresh pressed paper, scratchy embossed patterns uneven and twitching.

Out of sight, fibril mats of roots spread through rooms, anchoring themselves to the house foundations with tendrils pale as breath.

Like the rest of the village, when Christmas morning came, Emma sat with family around the tree in the corner of her living room. Over a breakfast of selection box chocolate they started to unwrap the shuffling gifts. Behind them the roots tore themselves free of the carpet, rose into the air and pressed into the pliable napes of necks.

Day 24

Muted Grey As Stone

The cold winds came and fluted down the hollow bones of the bifrost coloured birds, chilling them inside and out. They knew winter was coming, and they knew what they had to do.

First, they muted their colours. Each dawn they tore off sheets of the sky in the hours before dawn and used their beaks to rub the darkness into their feathers. Over the first week of November they turned themselves the tint of wet stone. As they flew the colour leached out into the sky, brushed against the sodden air, deepening the early nights and thickening the winter mist. The greyness spread from therm like watercolours on dampened paper.

Camouflaged, they dipped and rose through the sky, gripping every sound and tearing it free from the now dull days. They did not care about the source of the sounds. The now grey parakeets stole engine sounds of a spluttering black cab and the drunken singing from a Christmas party gone on too long. They swooped down on carol singers, taking every last note like greedy fledlings grasping food from their parent’s beaks. Perched on the open windows of nightclubs they stole the beats and the breaks, dragging them upwards, the torn tails of tunes buffeting against the frosted walls.

The days darkened and the sound of the city muted, until the parakeets clung to the glass of the highest buildings. Below them the city lost its voice, while they Knotted together the sounds they hadstockpiled. High above the city all 60,000 disguised parakeets hid, warmed against the winter in their nests shaped from noise.

Day 25

Roofs of Branches, Doors of Blankets

(Today’s story was inspired by something Dr Anna Macdonald told me about ants.)

Outside the gates of the city Belinda leant back against the chalk walls. Running off around the foot of the defences were small timber huts, with roofs of branches and doors of blankets. She reached into the bag on her belt, undoing the seal and shifting her hand inside.

The thieving ants crawled over her fingers and palms. Some bit her, but she ignored the pain and scooped out a handful, watching the insects stream across her skin.

Bringing her hands together she crushed them to paste and smeared the mixture across her brow, then down her cheeks, and finally over her lips. The broken pincers felt like grit. She carried on until every showing piece of skin was coated.

From behind her the smell of cooking rose into the air. Pomegranate and pumpkin soup. Rich stews of lamb and parsnips. Syrup treats with the texture of snow, and the lingering taste of one thousand different sugars.

Across the motorway the City of the Dead rose in mud clumped towers, shedding dust into the air. Belinda stepped carefully across the tarmac and tried not to cough as the powder caught her throat. The dead never coughed. Taking the first step into their streets a jolt went through her. What if the scents on her skin did not fool them? A group walked toward her, their limbs tattered and transparent. They passed by, ignoring her flesh and her breath.

She went from house to house, finding the hearts beside the hearths, and rested each in a lead lined box, the shape of a lover’s sigil. Using a copper nail she scrawled the name of each in the soft metal. By sunset she had collected twenty in the second bag upon her belt, and the dead had not stripped her skin from her muscle.

Walking back across the six lanes, the barrier in between, she placed the lead lined containers of rescued hearts beside the doors and stepped away from the entrance to the city. In her absence her fellow citizens had come out and built a new wooden hut, with a roof of branches and door of blankets. This was her home now. She would never see inside the chalk walls again.

Day 26

Not Surgery

Callum stood outside the house at the end of the cul de sac. The neighbour shuffled three children into an estate car and tried not to catch his eye.

The yellowed uPVC door opened and a woman left, cradling something to her waist. Callum could not see what it was. He did not want to.

“Go into the living room,” the old man said. “Lay down on the sofa.”

Callum did as he was told. The small coffee table beside him was covered in dirty coffee mugs and overflowing ashtrays. The old man re-appeared, the heat of a fresh cup steaming his glasses.

Taking a sip he put the drink down and picked up a piece of cheesecloth from the carpet. To Callum it looked like an old shirt with the arms cut away, scars of an unpicked pocket just visible.

The old man placed the fabric over Callum’s face.

“Close your eyes,” he said, and Callum did.

The cheesecloth smelt of bucket sand and candy-floss and seaside rock and then nothing.

When he woke his death was on the table. A small white figure, skin cracked like porcelain. It twitched its arms and flexed its fingers, painted lips shuddering. Callum’s hands went to his stomach.

“There’s no scar,” the old man said. “This isn’t surgery.”

He held the little death. the tiny figure flinching from the nicotined touch. Next he picked up the fabric. He wrapped the little death until only the face was showing. From under the coffee table he brought out a small wooden coffin and slid the parcel inside.

Callum sat up and the old man passed him the bundle.

“You only have so long until it recovers its voice, so bury the coffin soon. Somewhere old. Somewhere between stone and soil, and until dirt covers its face don’t try and lipread the mumblings.”

Callum nodded, and left the house. Shutting the door he felt the still clinging air of the house slew from his skin. Clinched in his palms the death struggled against its bindings. Callum tried to concentrate on the tarmac of the path, but the cold skin was against his hands. The lips stilled for the moment. The eyes watched him, wanting Callum to keep looking. Then it started again.

Instinct kicked in and Callum’s thoughts followed the twitch of the mouth. He mouthed the words. Like found like. His words became the death’s words.

With cold porcelain hands the death reached up and started to pull Callum’s breath from his lungs, and did not stop until it’s white cracked skin was clothed in the thing that used to be Callum.

Day 29

Glitter in the Tarmac

The whiskey in Sampson Brown’s breath fogged the wndscreen and fogged his eyesight. Not that it made much difference. Outside, the fog littered with strands of orange light. Something in the motorway didn’t move quick enough. An animal glanced off his bumper and became vapour behind him and then nothing. Sampson Brown did not notice, all effort going into fighting the pull of malt and peat in his neck.

In the road they sensed the peat and marsh mixed with spit, so out of place in the three lanes they called home. They blinked and stretched, some green and others red. The car passed by and they turned to follow the red lights that juddered between their kin.

They bristled the tarmac around them into fur, each strand thick as treacle and hard as stone. Tongues red with the blood spilt upon the lanes. Then they ran. They chased the mist of single malt, their whisper thin whiskers brushing against the rear lights of the car. Their legs never tired. This was their home, and nothing could outrun them.

Climbing the boot the cats crowded out the rear window. Turning liquid they seeped over the now blistering metalwork, pulling loose flakes of atomic silver paint that glittered like their eyes when they moved. Covering the passenger windows they pressed against the window seals until the rubber perished at their touch and the tang of whiskey was replaced with the throat hook of tar. The temperature of the car rose and inside the alcohol found its ignition point and burnt light blue. The cats of the road danced to the heat, their eyes glittering in the flames.

Day 31

Branch Children

Bark skinned and knot eyed the branch children turned up on Mary’s doorstep one solstice morning.

“Would you like to come in?” she said, as she would any visitor.

They just stood in the rain, paper thin fingers brushing the painted timber of the door.

“Would you like to come in?” she asked a second time, but the branch children did not move.

“Can you speak?” she asked.

When they answered their words were all stitched from stolen sounds. A branch falling from a tree to crush its own seedlings, the panic of a badger as it hears the edge of steel collapse soil into its sett. The snick, snick, snick of a trap around the almost severed limb of an animal it was never meant to snag.

Making no progress Mary knelt and stared the two children straight in the eye, rings rippling out like echoes of a drowning. They held her gaze.

She felt the pressure of the soil as a seed forced out the first shoot, the first questing root. The crush of teeth pulping leaves to paste. The swipe of the coppicer’s knife as he winnows and shapes. The burn of lightning scorching to charcoal.

When Mary had finished she tried to stand, but she was bark skinned and knot eyed, and with the two branch children who were now her kin she walked up the path of the next house in the street.

A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 3

Day 15

Inspired by 6music Make Art

Nine Plough Furrows

Lighting the peat fire in the morning Callum and Damon watched strands of thousand year old trees burn into the breeze. From each field on the hill they brought handfuls of clay. Some red, some yellow. Others grey as the sky. Throughout the morning they teased features from the mud and wiped grit down the sides of their jeans. Above them clutters of ravens gathered to watch.

The figure stood three feet high, swirls of colour in his limbs. With aching backs the two men laid him upon a bed of embers and covered him with sawdust and sticks. Sparks glittered through the afternoon as the fuel burnt to cinders, then a smear of ash. The sun set and the only light on the hill was the spatter of flames that burnt on under the clay back. Callum and Damon crouched beside feeding the fire sticks and themselves nothing.

Across the valley church bells hooked midnight from the sky. The two men stepped back nine plough furrows. At a safe distance they watched the fire shudder apart and life scorch through the finger shaped limbs. The pottery man stood and with blank eyeslooked north, south, east and west. Heavy footed he walked toward the village leaving smears of clay with each step. The men ran through the fields, mud clagging their shoes as they tried to catch up, and as the pottery man tore his way through the thorned hedge doubt burnt through them.

Day 16

Inspired by 6music Make Art

Six Strands of Music

Sofia saw the six strands of music glittering in hidden places across the landscape.

The first was light as air and had become entangled in the branches of a silver birch, bark pale as ghosts. She teased it loose with numb fingers, the sound of bells like mermaids whipsering filling her ears.

The next was at the bottom of a stream, weighted down by river cobbles. Taking off her shoes, Sofia waded into the middle, water cold as words. She held it high, the tail still fluttering in the current, and as the breeze made the strand of music dance the morning echoed with the sound of rich baritones and tenors.

To find the third strand Sofia fought her way to the middle of the woodland. Hard coated beetles danced on her arms to their own tunes, their shells the colour of spilt oil. The music was tangled in roots and it took until dusk for her to tease it free, swallowing the tune to feel the notes tickle on her tongue.

Returning to the town she found the next strand dangling from a lamp-post, glittering like amber in the sodium light. Hand over hand Sofia climbed up, wrapped the free end of the music around her waist and jumped, the song breaking her fall. She lay on the pavement, letting the words take her away.

Opening her eyes Sofia was back in her front room. A fire blazed in the hearth, flames dancing to their own tune. In the fallen ashes she spotted the fifth strand, twitching in the heat. Using a pair of tongs she pulled the music free. Once cooled she brushed away the grey ash and listened to the old folk song, each word echoing around the small room, singing of bowers, wax dolls and death.

Sofia searched the whole house for the sixth strand of music with no success. Tiredness overtook her and she burrowed into her bed. Her eyes blossomed sleep and she saw the last piece of music, a silver seam between sleep and waking, a lullaby, simple and clean, the notes carrying her into her dreams.

 

Day 19

Hatch

The hatch was no bigger than a postage stamp, made of thin planks and embedded in the back of Dani’s hand.

In the early days, when she was at Primary school, she would unhook the latch and poke her finger between the bones inside. Sometimes she let her classmates hook their nails in to make her fingers dance. That was a long time ago. The metal fittings had long turned to rough Verdigris that flaked off into her food.

It had been a hard night as most Christmas parties were. Sat by herself on the sofa she drained the last of the stolen Prosecco and started to fiddle with the hatch. The lock held, at first. Wrenching it open, the metal snapped, broken half falling in to lodge between her muscles. She folded the hatch a little too far against the frame and one of the hinges gave. Inside something crawled.

Her secrets mostly had three, five or seven legs, as if every one of them had suffered amputation to survive so long. They were blind, snuffling out. Some stopped to gnaw the twenty five year old timber with sharp mandibles, ignoring her skin and bone. She picked one up, reading the secret’s name scrawled in the fabric of its wings. Memory flooding back she crushed the thing between her fingers. The secret smeared across her skin.

The rest of the secrets swarmed from within her, chattering and descending on the crushed body of their kin, gnawing upon its thorax. Their cloud of chemicals was so dense it rose to cloud her face and stung her eyes.

She tried to swipe them away. More came, childhood deceit and adult lies, until they covered every inch of her skin and she collapsed to the carpet with the weight of the hidden.

Day 20

Strands of White

Friedrich’s father told the authorities that his son had run off to the woods. He was an unreliable witness, and will not feature again in Friedrich’s story, but in this fact he was correct.

Like most, Friedrich thought he had the skills to live under the canopy of leaves. Like most, Friedrich was wrong.

After the first few days sheltering under piles of leaves and sticks, stomach rumbling and mouth dry, Friedrich realised he could not survive by himself.

Friedrich asked the animals of the forest for help. They turned their heads from him. He could not hunt. When he walked his feet crushed the casings of nuts and the scent of his skin warned the prey they were coming.

Friedrich asked the birds for help. They turned their heads from him. He had no feathers or wings. Just skin, and when he tried to fly he spun to the forest floor, limbs snapping like dried twigs.

Friedrich asked the trees for help. They turned their low branches from him. He had no leaves, and when he tried to turn sunlight into food his skin just erupted in blisters. The only water he had seen in days.

With nowhere else to turn Friedrich asked the fungi of the forest for help. Speaking for all the mushrooms and fungi in the forest, the fool’s mushroom dipped its head and said yes..

The honey fungus shared their mycelium with him, because he had none of the fine white strands of his own. They slid their network into his skin, between muscle and bone.

Next the truffle showed him how to camouflage his skin, turning it brown, and the green of sunfed moss. Better to hide from those humans who would come and pluck him from the forest to take back to the knives and ovens of the town.

The fungi knew that Friedrich still had much to learn to become one with the colony. Encouraged by their silent pupil’s progress, fly agaric taught him to split his skin as he expanded, tatters hanging on like flags.

Yet still he was too large to conceal himself from those who harvested the forest floor. With desperation and love for their new charge the avenging angel mushroom taught him how to separate himself into tiny white stems. Friedrich’s were of mineral and hollow, easily concealed in the dirt and mosss of the living soil around the shifting roots of the trees.

Months before Friedrich had asked the fungi and mushrooms of the forest for help. Now, finally he was hidden from those who would hunt him down.

Day 21

The Crow’s Gifts

The crow first appeared on the red gate at the entrance to Stacey’s garden, then the lilac tree at the far end.

Every morning Stacey fed the crow, leaving piles of peanuts in the nooks and gaps of the porch for the bird to find. Every afternoon the crow brought her gifts, laying them out across the the steps for her to gather.

Stacey took the gifts inside and rested them on the windowsill, a pane of glass between the offerings and the outside world; a spring from a wooden peg; a pink hair clip, metal tarnished to green by the wettest Autumn on record; a length of red ribbon with strands of blond hair still entangled in its knot; the ivory coloured hem of a wedding dress, rain sodden confetti still stuck to the lace; a pebble that turned the colour of the sea when wet; the wires of a pacemaker, insulation frayed and fibres of muscle still attached; a paper thin retina, the shadow of the last thing it saw ghosted in the surface; a single memory of childhood snatched from a woman in the final stages of alzheimer’s disease; the sound ‘ee’ from a toddler learning to speak.

Stacey arranged them all on a sheet of sunfaded red velvet, so the crow could see she loved the gifts.

The victims of the crow’s thefts cared nothing for the red velvet, sunfaded or not. Skin faded to transparency they crowded Stacey’s garden, more joining them every day to stare through the glass.

Between the red gate and the lilac tree they waited for the day Stacey joined them in their paper thin world and they could steal back what was theirs, and take compensation for their loss.

A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 2

I’ve completed the second week of my flash fiction challenge. This week has been harder. I seem to have struggled a bit to get inspiration, but hopefully they’re enjoyable. Here are the next seven stories.

Day 8

Secret Santa

Michael locked his front door and slumped on the sofa. The Christmas meal had been as awful as every year. The whole office crammed around three scratched tables in the back of the local pub eating dried out turkey. He’d spent most of the time trying not to let the alcohol bring on a fit of honesty or blackmail worthy smartphone memories.

He picked up the secret santa gift, corners of torn wrapping still attached. The budget was £5 and the secret benefactor had not exceeded that. His present was one of those oh so humourous toiletries; a soap to help grow a thick skin. Probably from Jim the caretaker. He hadn’t got why some people might not find his jokes quite so funny as he did. It had only been an informal reprimand.

Michael opened the box. The contents fell into his lap, a yellow swirled bar that smelt vaguely of marigolds. He picked up the box, trying to focus on the contents.

“Horsetail, Calendula,” he read out loud to himself, struggling to pronounce the last word. “Powdered chitons.” He traced out the phrase in brackets (Not suitable for vegetarians.)

When he woke it was the early hours, neck cricked against the arm of the sofa. Picking up the soap he went to the bathroom, left the light off and turned on the tap, waiting while the water heated.

With his gift to hand he lathered up the soap and rubbed his face. It felt gritty, but not unpleasant. He rinsed his skin and touched his face. The skin felt odd. He stared into the mirror above the sink, trying to see in the light from the hall. His forehead had healed over with fans of mineral plates. He felt them spread over his face, down his cheeks, turning his lips to shell and sealing them across. Inside he pressed his tongue against the plates and felt them flex at the touch.

The alteration started where the soap cleaned but soon spread. He watched his hands turning to shell. With razor edged nails he tried to claw between the gaps, but there was no space to gain purchase. He watched his skin change until his eyes healed over and there was only darkness and discomfort and the weight of his changed skin.

For a few hours nothing happened. He could not see, and though he tried to feel his way from the room his muscles were too weak to move him in his blindness. Then, slowly but surely, his vision returned. First, eyes of mineral erupted in his back, then on his chest, until every part of his skin was covered in flexing aragonite eyes, their stone lenses twitching to see the darkened bathroom whose floor he was now ground into.

 

Day 9

Skins of Embers

After the Burning People arrived with the onset of winter none of our fires lit again. Sparks and flames all disappeared overnight. We watched these people of the inferno walk around the empty midnight streets with their skins of embers as we huddled around cold hearths with no candles to light our way.

The only burning we knew was jealousy. After our children started blueing from hard frosts, gangs broke the curfew and clattered the streets. They cornered and dismembered the Burning People to carry home glittering limbs, bones of smouldering charcoal exposed to the falling snow. Glowing coals fell to the ground and melted through the drifts like trails of burnt toast. That night we huddled close to the first hearth fires in weeks and ate hot food so fast it blistered our jaws.

We did not know that this was how the Burning People bred. How they increased their number. Now we have more flames than we could ever desire. Now our children are no longer blue. Now there is nothing but fire.

 

Day 10

Gift Wrap

Word reached Marco of a new Christmas shop selling wrapping paper for far less than the supermarkets. Word reached the rest of the town too. People queued down the street to save money on something only needed until little fingers found their way inside.

Reaching the front, Marco stacked Amy’s arms high with rolls of paper, each decorated with embossed stars or abstracted reindeer. Elegant, good quality and cheap.

Back home he wrapped the family’s gifts with care, marvelling at how the paper didn’t tear on sharp, awkward corners. He added curled satin ribbons. The perfect finishing touch.

Early Christmas morning the paper was scattered to be forgotten, attention focussed on the coloured plastic gifts. Marco gathered the wastepaper, pushing it down into black bin liners, ready for recycling.

During the night, skin scorching heat woke a still drunk Marco. Believing the central heating still on he tried to rise from bed and failed. Reaching down to unfurl himself from the duvet he felt embossed paper instead.

Trying to free his legs, he crashed to the floor. Torn paper pinned arms to torso, rolling him toward the door as it crushed his ribs to splinters. He saw Amy already cocooned, breathing her last.
Marco tried shouting. Decorated with reindeer, torn paper collapsed words back into his throat. Used sellotape, thick with dust, held it in place. Waste paper knitted across his face, blinding him. The pressure increased and glistening muscles erupted from gaps between the sheets, looped like satin ribbons.

Day 11

The Well of Words

The Well of Words stood in the middle of the town, edifice carved from yellowed bones of long dead creatures, like basilisk and cockatrice.

Each day the children would go to the well, stand on the edge and lower in empty pen barrels to capture the words in the narrow tubes.

On summer days newborns were placed in bassinets, thin reeds coming out of their mouths so they did not drown, and were lowered down the chamber to soak up words like sentience and rushing, erupted and agility.

The letters sat upon their infant skins until the daylight bleached them pale.

But it was on winter nights when we would stumble to the well and skim off feral phrases that rose to the surface like cream. Backs against the bones of long dead creatures we stitched words like rebellion and disobedience into sentences, and, as the snow melted on our skins, became drunk on their power.

Day 12

Clotting

The red and blue sky beyond the platform opened its veins and bled birds into the evening. Laura watched them fall to clot roads and pavements, feathers in such number they turned the snow black.

The trains could not run because of the weight of tiny corpses on the rails. The taxis were crowded and each step in the street was soundtracked by the snapping of tiny hollow bones. They tried to clear the feathered bodies from the street, but they had a weight far beyond their size. Far beyond anything that floated on thermals.

When the birds started walking again, on powdered legs, calling through snapped beaks, Laura was not surprised. The birds crawled over each other, shuddering as their feathers caught.

The birds tasted secrets. All through the city they crowded around people, clinging to them with claws that cut through clothes and needled skin. Once they attached they could not be unhooked, singing their calls at their victim through broken throats. Once they attached more and more came until the shape of the person underneath was lost in the softness of feathers.

Laura did not leave her flat, eating combinations of cupboard ingredients until no food was left. Using gaffer tape she sealed every gap and snick she could find.

She woke to find the bird gripping her headboard. It hopped across the bedclothes and knotted into her hair. Getting up, she poured a glass of tap water that tasted of floating birds, sat on the sofa and waited for the rest to arrive.

Day 13

Ghost Fishing (Inspired by a conversation with Dr Anna Macdonald)

Sailing out on erupted waters the crew of The Flying Cloud caught nothing. At first. After several hours at sea the lines snagged and they dragged them through the muttering surface of the sea.

Hand over hand Billy and Sam hauled the catch onto the deck and stared. Every line held a single pot, lost long before Billy and Sam started crewing. Each trap of wire was crammed to crushing with swimmer crabs, twenty to thirty in each. Some were still alive, claws still twitching against the shells of the dead.

Opening the pots the two fishermen tipped the crabs to the deck and watched the ones still alive grasp their way free. Billy delved in, grabbing two and taking them down to the galley, appearing a little later with two plates of crab meat that they ate as the weather tried to scrub the world to grey.

Over the next two weeks they gifted the catch to friends and family. Compressed the cooked meat into stone pots and turned creature after creature from blue to red.

The ghosts, only recently knotted into shell kept flesh, found new homes. One pale, shimmering legs they slipped easily from the dead sea creatures to take up residence behind the eyes of the fishermen. Behind the eyes of their children The ghosts liked knives. They reminded them of their lost claws. Soon they would start their cutting.

Day 14

A Winter Ride

Mike took the corner and wound open the throttle, the bike accelerating under him. A gust of wind snagged on the mirror, wrapping itself around the front forks.

Across the fields, the other end of the gust grasped the torn wing of a crow, pulling her off course. Unsure what was happening the bird clattered through a hedge, snapping its beak tight around the thorned branches. The drag shook most of the roots free of the field, a rain of soil falling through the air. The scent of crushed blackberries and mallow clothed the sky.

Under the dirt a single root tried to hold to the earth where it suckled, until it could resist no more and was dragged free, bringing with it the forty two sinews of plough furrows tattooing the field.

Mike came to a stop outside his garage. He killed the engine, around him a cocoon of branches and feathers. Breezes and soil. His skin was stained with the juice of blackberries. He risked a glance in the mirror, the countryside behind now scrubbed to fraying and pale as chalkdust.

A Month of Flash Fiction-Week 1

Every year, on the month up to short story day (21st December in the UK) I write a piece of flash fiction a day. This is the third year I’ve set myself this challenge. Each day I post the stories on my Facebook writer page, but this year I thought I’d collect them here at the end of each week. I hope you enjoy them ,and if you do please spread the word.

Steve

Day 1

Glaze

Crammed between old prams and grandfather clocks Chloe felt like she was another artefact in the Antique shop. Near the back of the room the owner fussed over his cat, feeding it sardines, head first. Tomato sauce dripped on the counter.

Staying out of sight she searched amongst the blue and white pottery for the design Bernie had spotted. The two ghosts stood on a doorstep, screaming. It was nestled near the back, behind some cheap transfer willow pattern. A small cup. Pocket size. Chloe checked over her shoulder then looped her fingers around the glaze, easing it between the other crockery, and slipped it into her coat.

The cup would not detach, surface clasping her skin. She felt the glaze spread up her veins like infection, skin turning a pale blue. She tried to shout to to the owner, but her tongue shrunk to a blackened stump and she had no words anymore.

The owner fed his cat the last fish, wiping his fingers on stained trousers. Easing his way through his stock he found the small blue and white cup on the floor beside the shelves. Picking it up he held it to the light, though truth be told little light made it through the dirty windows. He turned the cup this way and that. On the doorstep stood three ghosts, eyes hollow, glaze filled mouths stretched wide as they screamed.

Day 3

Ghosts of Suns

Dandelion clocks repeated across the once perfect lawn like ghosts of suns. Mary watched Brendan stand in next door’s garden. Over the wall the congregation of weeds crowded out every last trace of the garden. Hers wasn’t that bad. Yet.

Next door Brendan stood with the grey sphere in front of his mouth. She didn’t know for certain his breath had carried every seed across, but until he started his daily routine of counting the hours by plant, her lawn was flat and even. Clear of the yellow flowers and their haunting.

In the pestle Mary crushed the floating seeds, parachutes smearing to pulp. She poured in Canada balsam. Drew the grass blade across her palm and let blood pool into the bowl.

Outside, a ripple went through the clocks. First, the parachutes crowded Damien’s eyes, seeds burrowing into his softened corneas. The rest of the plants released their bounty, rising into the air and floating toward the twitching boy. One by one they slid into the pores of his skin until every inch was obscured by the wilting white hair of dandelions.

Mary sipped her tea, manicured nails tapping on the cup, and as yellow toothed flowers erupted through the remnants of the boy she closed the kitchen blind.

Day 4

Clothed in Leaves (after Allingham)

Twig haired and clothed in the bones of leaves Selina sheltered beside the lake. Around her left wrist she wore a single string bracelet soaked in the fat of a gibboted man, threaded with dried amaranth and aconite.

Beside her, the parade of creatures walked up the mud deep path, away from the lake. Their stick legs scratched through the dirt, knotted fingers finding tunes in instruments draped with pond weed. She blocked her ears with silt to shut out the drowning polka they played.

The final Faery passed. Selina swallowed the gill herbs and lowered herself into the lake, opening her mouth to let standing water fill her lungs. Diving beetles tickled inside her chest.

It took time she could not count to walk to the centre of the lake bed where Bridget lay. The flag leaves had long since rotted in a way her daughter did not. Eyes forever open Bridget stared up at a fluttering sky, above the lake her body could not leave.

With no other way to take her Bridget home, Selina rubbed her own belly with skin bane and pressed the child through the flesh of her stomach. A return back to her womb.

Tears turning the lake brackish she closed her eyes, reached behind her back for the rusted knife in her belt and waited for the thieves of her daughter to return.

Day 6

When The Sky Splintered

Most people were inside the day the clouds shattered. Injuries were minimal. We wandered housing estates lifting armfuls of splintered cirrus and cumulonimbus, wearing them like coats of steam.

School children held jigsaws of thermals in gloved fingers, shoving fragments of heated air into jackets and laughing as they floated inches off the ground.

The next day we found strands of sunlight fallen into branches and powerlines, stretching as gravity dragged them to the soil. Once they hit the ground they dirtied, losing any gleam. We bagged them up, these ropes of glowing, took them home and washed away grit to let them shine once more.

In our houses we draped ropes of light across our hearths in place of candles that stood unlit. The sunlight soon dulled and turned to ash.

Soon after, people started to find pieces of the sun itself, none bigger than a scatter of loose change. These did not stretch or dirty, just glowed in our hands as we threw portions between us, reliving childhood games of piggy in the middle. Pretending we were gods or the laws of physics. We ignored those struck by the falling shards, their bodies smouldering in the street.

Waking this morning we discovered lawns spattered by fallen stars. Each one nestled in a palm. We slid them into pockets and watched the power of galaxies shine through the threads of our coats. The constellations we carried burnt themselves out without burning and we stumbled through the unlit day.

We do not know when the rest of the firmament will fall amongst us. There is no light anymore. We shelter in our houses, away from the darkness outside and wait.

Day 7

A Summation of Starlings

Standing on the field margin Barney and Mark watched the birds dip and loop through the air. Beside their feet patches of blackened grass smouldered. None of the starlings came close enough for the two friends to see the words imprinted on the feathers. The summation graced and spun, as a single dancer, acting out the scenes tattooed upon them.

Mark hadn’t meant to lose so much to the casino. Lose so much Jane packed up and left. The birds twirled above them, for a moment becoming a croupier pushing cards across a table, hooking back a stack of chips, then sorting themselves into another scene, the texts on their wings a script they didn’t know they were following.

Barney handed Mark the sheet of paper and he wrote down his account of the evening. What he could remember through the whiskey sours. Balancing it on the clods of mud, he placed his last poker chip on top. The red and white plastic caught the light, starlings zoetroping in front of the sun. Barney drew the flint blade across the back of Mark’s hand and his blood dripped like jet onto the disc and paper. Pouring on paraffin they set fire to the pile. Plumes of acrid smoke rose into the clutter of birds, snagging the beak of Mark’s starling.

The bird erupted from the summation, a dead pixel falling, finding its own flight to land amongst the flames. The morning air filled with the scent of burning keratin as feathers and beaks charred.

“Only until charred,” Barney said, putting his hand on Mark’s shoulder. “And remember to stay silent.”

Mark picked up the starling, hands sticking to melted barbs, and pushed the bird into his mouth. Crushing the bones he felt the moment he placed his last all or nothing bet slide down to pool in the pit of his stomach. Burnt feathers rustled against his tongue and tickled his throat. The cough was shallow and fleeting, but enough. Above them the starlings turned as one and flew to crowd the men. One after the other flew down the narrow channel of Mark’s throat to follow their companion until their was no more room inside and his skin split with the eruption of feathers and beaks and claws.

Steve Toase

My short story Red Clay, that first appeared in Pantheon Magazine, has been republished as part of the Writers for Calais Refugees project.

Writers for Calais Refugees

Red Clay

1.

From our cab we saw the road obscured by thick red clay, a quilt of receded floodwater washed from crop bare fields on either side. Every so often an abandoned possession poked up through the mud. A mobile phone long out of charge. Three cheap, rusted, pans. The frayed edge of a blanket hooked, flag like, on the splintered corner of a bed. Beyond the blockage we saw what was left of families gathered. They looked for limbs and faces in the surface. Clay hardened to brittle porcelain in the bake of the sun. There was no way for us to reach them.

2.

During the night the potters came, breaking off the crust and digging down to the still moist clay underneath. In plastic buckets they carried away as much as tired shoulders could bear, each tying the razor sharp metal handles to thick rope draped…

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Haunt – Upcoming Events

I’ve a busy few weeks coming up.

This week I’m going into Wordspace Radio at Trinity University to record a podcast about my writing.

Next Tuesday, 27th October we are launching the Haunt anthology at the Royal Pump Room Museum in Harrogate. The event starts at 4:30pm and will include readings of work by the participants, myself and Becky Cherriman, as well as a talk about the background to Haunt.

On the 11th November Becky and I will be performing work from Haunt at Speakers’ Corner in York.

On the 24th November we have the first of two new workshops for people who have experience of homelessness or vulnerable housing in Harrogate. The second will be on 1st December.

We hope you can make some of the events around this project.

Celebrate by Candlelight – a new piece of flash fiction

Twelve months had gone by too fast. Callista turned down the lights and lit the candles. Twelve months since Bale had taken up residence. She had invited him of course, but as with anything she couldn’t say it had turned out how she expected.

Wiping her forehead she arranged his food on the plate, glad she didn’t have to taste it. She shuddered. It was his favourite and he’d asked her to make an effort. Well, insisted if she was honest.

She set the meal on the table and rearranged the knife, trying to get the setting just right.

It wasn’t that he was difficult to share space with, they barely passed in the night most of the time, like ships. Deserted, hollow ships.

Closing the curtains she changed out of her work clothes and sat down to wait. Outside the sun dropped and the candles flared, the only light in the room now.

She felt him slide like a mat of roots between her skin and muscles, a taste of marrow as she receded. Her vision faded to glimmers as he untied her from the optic nerves she once had sole use of.

There were benefits to the possession, and she had achieved much in the past year. Her bank account had never been healthier and her love life was much improved.

She hid, seed like, in some deep bone cavity while he scraped into her jaws, muscles and tear ducts.

The last thing to go was her hearing. She didn’t feel the blue bottles fluttering out of what used to be her mouth alone. Before sound went totally she heard the flies’ wings and the hopeless screech of the goat on the plate, still alive enough to know what was happening.

Orthros – My first performance at Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe

Orthros

Autumn hangs ragged on tree branches, while the sun succumbs to the night. Follow Orthros, guardian of the Underworld, into the darkness to hear heart-breaking and disturbing stories. Join Steve Toase and LMA Bauman-Milner as they sprinkle grave dirt, rattle dungeon doors and fashion poppets from fears and mould.

This October I’ll have my first performance at the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe, alongside the very talented LMA Bauman-Milner. We’ll be performing a set of unsettling stories that captures the onset of Autumn and the darker half of the year.

The show is free and will be at 9:30pm, 5th October in the Wildman Studio at Ilkley Playhouse. No need to book, just come along. We do have a FB events page for the night, just to get an idea of numbers.

Orthros is the two headed brother of Cerberus, another dog that guards the underworld.

CaféStadt

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CaféStadt could be navigated by scent alone. Most places in the south held to the tradition of Kaffee und Kuchen. None followed it with the religious fervour of CaféStadt.

Not the real name of the small river bound settlement, but real names count for nothing. Given names have old magic.

Arriving by train was different than anywhere else in the Free State. Most central stations, Hauptbahnhof in the local language, hung thick with the death reek of oil, the burning of diesel or sparks scorching the air. In CaféStadt oil stood no chance. The platforms were thick with two competing aromas. The beginning and the end. The beginning was the rich cracking of the roast, coffee beans toasted deep in the fireboxes.

The end was above. The vast boilers of the trains, stoked on their journeys across the alps, in any other principality would be filled with water to be wasted. Here their work was doubled by crushed arabica, taps on the side of the engine to fill grande and venti cups held by weary travellers.

This was mass production, weak and vague. The only richness came from bulk rather than refinement.

The streets piped out from the station, ribbons of craftsmen, working fruit and flavours into small hearts of pleasure to be consumed after the sun had peaked. Each street housed bakers specialising in different confections.

Running down toward the main bridge the street was lined with pâtissier specialising in pâtisserie flavoured with flower petals. Though rivals they avoided too many conflicts by each only using a single flower.

Herr Bansett owned the shop nearest the top of the road. He made his concoctions only using the flowers of the honeysuckle. Once picked they hung to dry above his doorway for three days. On the fourth day he picked the best flower heads letting the others fall into the gutter.

Across the road his estranged brother, Herr Bansetter, made the same recipes, only using Jasmine. It was not clear if his choice of scent was the reason or result of their feud. One opened only during daylight hours, the other between dusk and dawn.

Further down, rosehips and violets suspended from racks, petals picked off in the breeze. No matter what time of day a visitor walked down the street their boots crushed the skin of petals into the cobbles refreshing the air with tones of forgotten gardens and childhoods hiding in bushes. The pâtissier had no need of adverts. Visitors carried the taste of their cakes enwrapped in their clothes if not within their stomachs.

Running cardinal opposite was a different kind of street. LuitpoldStrasse only sold one type of torte, each MeisterBäcker claiming to make the best. The finest in CaféStadt if not the nation. In the morning each MeisterBacker would send his apprentices down to the river to buy the best apricots from the morning’s barges. Each seller would hand around a sample of their cargo. Each apprentice would examine the fruit in turn. Test the firmness, run their fingers over the hair. Bruise the skin and scent the fruit on their fingers.

The MeisterBäckerei of LuitpoldStrasse did not choose their apprentices for their baking prowess, but their speed and aggressiveness in the street. The route from the docks to LuitpoldStrasse ran with blood every morning, and it was said the poorer quality PrinzeRegenteTorte tasted more of iron than Apricot.

In the alleys, behind the main street narcotic bakers, used purple apricots, but anyone tasting them was sworn to secrecy on pain of drowning.

Across town were the coffee yards, each one a self contained world where the fumes were cycled back in to try and prevent rivals from guessing at the blends each tribe of Baristas used.

Some yards were vast complexes, walls so stained with caffeine it was said to touch one would absorb enough through the skin to burst a person’s heart.

Others were nothing more than a single chair in front of a single table that held a single espresso cup. Reservations were passed down generations like green eyes. They called it The Death of Drinks, because when the flavours filigree’d over your tongue every beverage afterwards paled to ghosts.

In the centre of the city sat the House of Geshmackpassenden, whose experts wore cloaks of pure dew to keep their skin free from the fragrance of the city and blindfolds to mark their devotion to taste. Each spent a lifetime finding the perfect pairing of cake to each blend of coffee and their word was sacrosanct.

This was written as an exercise for the writing group I meet up with when in Munich