Flash Fiction Month 2016 Week 3

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

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

Day 15

And the Bluebells Did Ring

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 16

Jack Frost Hidden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 17

One Foot In Front Of The Other

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 18

Enamel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 19

Streetlight Laments

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

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

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

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

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

Day 20

The Peacock Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 21

Sleeping in Splinters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flash Fiction Month 2016 Week 1

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

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

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

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

Day 1

The Hatchling

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

lynn-nest

(Photo by Lynn Hardaker)

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2

The Indecisive Man and the Goddess of Paths

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

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

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

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

Day 3

The Frontispiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 4

Blood Clot Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 5

Lustre

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

 

shell

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

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

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

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

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

 

Day 6
Parison
glass

 

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

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

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

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

Day 7

On The First Turn

maze

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

None existed. He stepped in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None existed. He stepped in.

END

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