Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 23

I love cup and ring marked stones, such as Roughting Linn. There’s something transitional about them, as if they mark the centre point between two worlds, whether horizontally divided territories or vertically separated worlds. The designs are also reminiscent of a gaming board. All these ideas inspired today’s story.

The Stone Game

Sat amongst the heather, we weighed the pebbles in our hands and played papers, scissors, stone to decide who would take the first throw for our side. The rest of the villagers stood behind us on the moor, watching our movements, our gestures, our breathing. Sarah won with scissors against paper and chose to go first. She tossed the pebble through the air watching it land on the rock carved ripples.

The air above the slab shimmered and a similar sized pebble arced out of the clear sky to land close to Sarah’s. Neither had hit the precise centre. I weighed the stones in my hand, chose one and threw it toward the ancient designs. My throw almost hit the middle point, but lodged on the nearest circle. I felt the crowd gasp as for a moment they thought we’d won.

The air shimmered once more and a second pebble came from the other side. We watched it land and for a moment said nothing as it nestled in the depression at the centre of nine concentric rings.

No one was surprised. No one was shocked. In over two hundred years the village had never beaten the other side.

Sarah and I sat in silence. We had no way to know how the other side chose. After a moment she turned to me.

“Can you hear it? Can you hear the music?”

I shook my head.

Without saying another word, Sarah stood and climbed the rock, standing on top of the cup and ring marks, her feet awkward on the pebbles. For a moment I smelt pond water, stagnant and weed choked. Then the stone turned to liquid and far too quickly Sarah dropped below the surface, her fingers leaving concentric ripples that stayed even when the water returned to rock.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 22 (The Birthday Story)

Every year my wife’s birthday is during Flash Fiction Month and every year I write a story to celebrate. Here is this year’s tale.

The Forgotten Season

The Forgotten Season was not like other divisions of the year, clustered around days and weather. Instead, it was hidden in the angle of sunlight and the glitter of leaves. Moments disguised amongst the slide of other seasons.

Annie knew where to look. Each day she searched the hours for The Forgotten Season. When she sipped hot chocolate after a frosted walk she collected the moment and clasped it close. Finding a fragment of The Forgotten Season in the glitter of blue in sleepy eyes just after storytime and just before lights out, she caught it in her palm and slid it into her bag.

In the early hours of a summer morning, she sat on the balcony with a book and cup of tea, reached out and let the sliver of Forgotten Season settle on her hand, watching it curl around her fingers.

As the projector flickered and the pawns clacked across the board, she reached out for the Forgotten Season moment and placed it with the others, delicate and fragile.

Over the rest of the year, that damaged and fractured year, she searched for minutes and seconds adrift from the time she lived in.

Sometimes she found moments of the Forgotten Season in slices of cake or glasses of rum. These she placed upon her tongue, savouring their flavours before adding them to her collection

When the deepest winter arrived, with its frost and darkness and isolation, Annie took out her collection of the Forgotten Season. She placed the sound of peaceful sleep next to a midnight hug. Stitched them together with the steam from a fresh mug of tea, and coated them in laughter, and a hard fought for half smile. When the gloom and the night threatened she dressed herself in the Forgotten Season and revelled in the joy she’d found in the most hidden of places.

The Forgotten Season was not a time of high suns or blossoms, of patchwork leaves or snowdrifts. The Forgotten Season was a time of whispered kisses and whiskey, of Hygge and Gem├╝tlichkeit. A time of laughter and restful sighs, and Annie treasured every single moment.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 21

Today’s story is once more inspired by a what3words code, this time robe.envoy.beans

This is also inspired by reading Clive Barker at a young age.

robe.envoy.beans

The envoy was dressed in the finest robes, the fabric precisely cut and coated in several different types of oil so it shimmered as they waited to be received.

Walking fast, the King’s Representative reached out her hand and tried not to flinch when the Envoy grasped it. Their skin was covered in mites that shifted at her touch. She repeated the Royal command over and over in her head, but treating this creature with respect took all her willpower.

“Follow me,” she said, not really caring if they kept up. They walked down the narrow corridors. Each turn she caught a glimpse of the sheen and shuddered once more.

In the throne room, the King sat on the seat of bones, his bodyguard arrayed around him like a fence of blades.

“Welcome Envoy,” he said.

The envoy inclined their head and clicked their jaws together. The King’s Representative watched the Envoy’s hands disappear into their robes and emerge with a handful of beans. She looked to the King for guidance.

“A gift. Please,” he said. The King’s Representative nodded and held out her hands as the Envoy gave her the beans.

The bodyguard parted ranks to let her through and closed up behind. She laid the offering out on the dais and stepped back, watching both the King and the beans for any change.

When the beans began to hatch, she tried to stamp on as many as possible, but there were too many and what emerged too armoured. First the creatures gnawed through the stone, then the bodyguard. The King’s Representative felt them in her bones, and as they eroded her insides to dust she watched the Envoy step over the slaughtered ranks, split the King in two, empty the Regent out and seal themselves up in the now vacant skin.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 20

All the twenties! Today’s story again started with a what3words code.

I hope you’re enjoying these flash fictions. If you would like to chuck me the price of a coffee, I have a ko-fi account here where you can make small donations. Anything is gratefully received. https://ko-fi.com/stevetoase

rear make ghost

The bridleway was narrow and edged with hawthorn. Reaching branches snagged at the horse’s flanks. Joan had ridden the route many times. On this day, with the clouds pressing down from the sky, something felt different. Patting Stoneheart on his neck, she ducked below a low branch and glanced behind her, unable to shake the sensation of someone following. The lane behind her was empty of people.

When Stoneheart reared she was still looking back, and had no way of knowing what made her horse react. Normally he was such a calm horse. Neither car nor storm could make him react. She tumbled from the saddle, the first impact smashing her ribs against the rough stone surface, the second Stoneheart landing upon her.

The first ghost to approach had no face, and when it spoke the words came from everywhere at once. Arms free, Joan tried to push Stoneheart off her, but her strength was not enough. More and more ghosts crowded around her, reaching down with cold fingers to drag her free. She looked at Stoneheart, though his breathing was laboured his chest still rose up and down.

“Don’t worry,” a voice behind her said. “They will find him. He won’t leave you alone until they come, and we have a horse ready for you.”

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 19

Today’s story was inspired by two things. Firstly by two place-names on a map I was working with (which gave the title), and secondly a piece of art by Hester Cox. It’s maybe a little more of a vignette than a story. Looking at it now, this feels like an opening to something else. I hope you enjoy it.

Green Eyes by Hollow Hill

There were bones within the cairn, green stained and weathered. Once they had been a man. Once they had been a woman. Once they had been a god. Now they were land and they were more godlike than they achieved while drawing breath.

Kate sat upon the rocks and rescued the remains, cradling them in her numb hands. With care she placed them on the ground, laying them in patterns never held together by tendons or skin.

Sprinkling salt over the bones, she scraped the lichen free and smeared her lips with the green slip.

The words came fast, though her throat struggled to shape them, guttural and ancient as they were. She let them slide out, watching the phrases stick to the skeleton before her, softening the bones to spectres.

Hooking her fingers below the ghost, she raised it from the heather and pressed it into her skin, twitching as the guest settled into the host. She felt her eyes become leaves, her gaze seeing through the surface to the origin and all the life and death between. She was stone and beast and sky and ghost and god, and the land would worship her once more.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 18

Today’s story is inspired by a spelling mistake.

Scarecraw

The birds kept coming and eating apart the fields. The farmers set up scarecrows of old clothes and baling twine, their rag covered bellies straw stuffed and distended. With sharpened beaks, the birds tore them apart and scattered the torn limbs across the furrows.

When the man arrived the sun had already set, and he took a corner table in the pub drinking nothing and eating little.

“I hear you have a problem with crows,” he said, words muffled by the scarf he wore high over his face.

“What’s it to you?” Someone said from the bar.

The man reached below the table for his bag.

“I may have the solution. For a price.”

The drinkers went back to ignoring him, and he returned to staring out of the window, but by the end of the night two of the farmers had drunk themselves to curiosity and courage.

When he showed them the plan the cries of disgust were enough to put off anyone else inquiring, yet, the next day a small group found him at the lodgings, agreed his price and took him to the morgue to begin the harvest.

From each corpse the stranger sliced away the larynx, piling them slack and wet on a surgical tray, then tipping them into his bag.

With uncertainty, they followed him into the bird plagued fields.

The curious watched him stitch the slack flesh into the man sized doll, larynx after larynx filling the torso. When he’d finished, he lifted the figure vertical, sprinkling dust and herbs around the barked wooden pole.

The screaming started small, barely a muttering, before rising in volume and cadence, the choir of amputated voices infecting the sky.

The birds tried to flee but as they took flight they perished as if the air itself scorched away their wings, until the soil was littered with the avian dead. Horrified, the farmers watched the stranger walk around the field, picking up the birds one by one and pushing them between his distended jaws. Unable to bear any more, they returned to the village and tried to drink away the image of feathers and teeth.

That night the stranger returned to the pub and stood in the middle of bar.

“And now for payment,” he said, but the patrons turned their faces from him. He did not approach them or speak again. When they still failed to respond, he picked up his bag and left with a shrug.

The scarecrow looked similar to the one the stranger had built in the fields. This one was tied to the market cross, mud covered ropes holding it in place. As people woke they gathered in curiosity and watched the stranger sprinkle herbs around the figure.

When the amputated chorus within began to sing, the adults dropped first. Writhing on the ground, they tried to scratch away the sound. With mud stained fingers the stranger distended his jaw, walked through the agonised bodies, and slowly began to feast.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 17

Today’s story is another what3words inspired tale. I collect these codes when I go out. Some are places on my morning runs and others on my motorbike rides. I store them until they inspire a story.

raving.utopia.indices

Jonas looked at the map once more. The indices laid around him, different pages marked with dayglo post-it notes. Entries about shimmering fields and clustered predators underlined in shaky pencil.

The research had taken several years, each turn of the calendar drifting further and further from family and friends until he was alone in the basement room with his books and his maps. Only the walls witness to his raving.

Utopia was a place. All the indications were there. In the way the golden leaves fallen from still branches lined the pavements for him to step along, and the cracks in the tarmac spelling out ancient names for the place of joy.

Utopia was the wrong word. Utopia was a human phrase for a place of no conflict. The place Jonas searched was the negative of conflict, and after so much destruction in his life, he craved that absence more than anything. More than human touch, more than indulgence, more than food or water or health.

He drew a third line across the creased paper landscape before him and placed a finger on the point of intersection, tapped it three times and stood up.

Encased within his largest coat, Jonas walked through the crowds to the centre of the road. Closing his eyes he saw Utopia begin to manifest around him with glitter and glances, the fabric of the sky and the street fraying as it made contact with his determination.

The roars of the cars around him became the roars of waves crashing on the perfect beach, the city beyond the dunes shimmering in his dust clagged eyes. The crest of the hill was lined with people, arms stretched to welcome him, and with shaky legs he stepped into the roar of water.

Flash Fiction Month Day 16

Today’s story was inspired by a news article I saw the other day. Residents of a street awoke to find someone had left porcelain elephants on their doorsteps.

The Gifts

Kelly couldn’t save them all, he knew that. Not all the people in the country. Not even all the people in the town. The best he could do was to save the people in his street. Outside the moon rose for the last time before returning full, revealing all the hidden places on the surface facing the earth.

The cardboard box was heavy and barely holding together. He steadied himself against the wall and evened out the ornaments so there was less chance of them chipping. With fumbling hands he locked his door and went to his nearest neighbour, placing the first porcelain elephant on the doorstep.

When he’d got the warning about what was coming, Kelly had spent weeks going around charity shops and antique dealers collecting as many of the pottery animals as he could. Didn’t matter if they were realistic are comical. As long as they were tusked and trunked, and as long as they were shaped from the dirt of the earth, they would work to turn the gaze of what was coming.

In the distance the church bell rattled three in the morning and he placed the next elephant on the next step, tucking it in behind the milk bottles. Throughout the early hours he worked his way up and down the street, the box becoming emptier as each house was protected by his gift. Finished, he returned to his bed and pulled the duvet over his head against the coming day.

Outside was dark by the time he woke. He turned on his phone and checking Twitter.

The tweet from the local police account was confused and slightly mocking, explaining that the residents had been unsure why someone would leave ornaments outside their front doors.

For a moment Kelly was tempted to open the curtains, but then he heard the clatter of claws down the street.

The Ancient Ones had returned, carrying only appetites and their fear of the tusk faced gods who once imprisoned them. Kelly knew there was nothing he could now do to save anyone else. Sheltering in his bed surrounded by many elephant statues, he listened to bricks crumbling under stained broken teeth and ten thousand years of hunger.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 15

Almost halfway through this year’s month of stories. Today’s is inspired by the Westray Wife, a Neolithic carving.

Between Stone and Sky

The stone figure was tiny, small enough to sit in the palm of Lisa’s hand. In the scratched features she saw echoes of her own. The way the brow creased and furrowed the glittering stone. The barely incised hands clasping each other.

She placed it in the finds tray and carried on trowelling the trench, waiting for the finds officer to collect the small statue and take it back to the finds hut for processing.

Waking in the middle of the night, Lisa felt the weight of the statue on her chest before she saw it, the figure laid upon its back. Her fingers ran over the carved stone, finding each subtle scratch that helped shape the personality into the object, each line that gave it meaning.

Holding it in both hands, she stepped out of her tent, not bothering to put on shoes, and walked across the wet grass to stand in the moon’s glare.

The statue might be thousands of years old, but it was her and the woman who carved it, and all the women in between. She held the figure up above her head, watching the moonlight slide into the lines that decorated the roughly carved face, finding new expressions hidden in the grain. Scowls and smiles, and ecstasy, and as she watched Lisa felt the same emotions fill her until there was no line between her and the goddess in the rock, and with her face turned to the sky she sang to the night.

Eligibility Post 2020

Related Work

The work I’m most proud of in 2020 is my article for Tor.com about portrayals of homelessness in Science Fiction and Fantasy which I think will be eligible for Related Work nominations.

I hope you can find time to read the piece as it’s a topic close to my heart and a people experiencing homelessness are part of society often overlooked.

www.tor.com/2020/04/15/confronting-the-default-portraying-homelessness-in-science-fiction-and-fantasy/

Short Stories

2020 has been a good year for new short stories with seven published since January.

These are;

Old Fashioned in Lackington’s #21

Old Fashioned is a story about cocktails and cosmic horror. Imagine The Repairer of Reputations with added Orange Bitters and you’re on the right track.

Children of the Rotting Straw in Weird Horror #1

Children of the Rotting Straw was inspired by the image of the sky obscured by wicker hurdles, and grew from there into some strange Jack and the Beanstalk, woollen, scarecrow populated hybrid horror story.

No Sun to Guide the Way upcoming in Speculative City

Schwabylon in Munich no longer exists. With it’s seventies sunburst frontage, Yellow Submarine themed club, and 600,000 litre water tank containing 30 sharks it seems more like something from a Bond villain’s fever dream. Schwabylon was the inspiration for my weird fiction story No Sun to Guide the Way.

Tides Breathe When Words Are Spoken in Not One of Us #63

Tides Breath When Words Are Spoken grew out of work I did for an exhibition in Munich. The story is based around the idea of a lunar language expressed through geology.

On a Bed of Flag Leaves at Unsung Stories

Where I grew up in Harrogate the disused railway track was known as The Airy Mountains (or sometimes The Hairy Mountains) so William Allingham’s poem The Fairies has a special place in my heart. Now I’m a parent, the devastating loss hidden in verse four really resonates with me, and was the inspiration for On a Bed of Flag Leaves.

Green Grows the Grief in Shadows & Tall Trees 8

Grief features a lot in my work, and Green Grows the Grief is one of the stories where I explore loss and how we mourn. The inspiration for the setting was a compendium of abandoned greenhouses put together by Messy Nessy Chic.

The Fugue of Winter in Glass & Gardens: Solarpunk Winters

The Fugue of Winter brought together some technical ideas I put together for a project pitch. These included taking inspiration from penguins for architectural approaches to regulate building temperature. I don’t often write upbeat stories. I wanted to write a story which was about discovering and valuing the beauty of music, enough to risk everything to preserve it.