A little bit late in posting the final group of stories, due to Solstice, Christmas, birthdays and New Year. Hope you enjoy these.
Ears clogged with doll wax, Celine walked the short distance from the village to the Shrieking Pits. Even with her hearing clagged by melted down legs and arms she still heard the retching cries that tattered the willows.
In the first pit, blood bubbled up, drying in the air into thick, hand sized clots. She rubbed garlic on her upper lip to block out the scent.
In the second pit soil tumbled aside, as if hands playing the parts of rodents shuffled under the dirt. Celine walked around the edge and the shapes tracked her. She paid them no heed. They were simulacra of death throes, and to Celine had no meaning.
The third pit was full of water. Under the surface things with faces of pondweed tumbled through tree roots, shaking them so catkins rattled and fell to choke the pool.
At the fourth pit the shrieking grew louder. Celine stumbled down the dirt bank, landing on hands and knees in the mud. At one side she dug down, uncovering the small fragile bones, not much bigger than a bird’s. Toothpick thin. Wiping them to ivory clean she spread the skeleton out and laid dried flower petals from her pockets on the small chest.
Dragging herself to the other side of the pit, she scooped out soil. Here the grave was shallow, her husband’s face barely below the surface. Iron nailheads just visible above his cheekbones. The knife she had found him with, she had left in his chest. She couldn’t stop herself turning the handle, turning the blade, though he was one year past feeling the pain. She buried her head in her hands. One day the Shrieking Pits would be silent. One day Celine would have no voice left.
Campbell and Simon never went equipped. There was always some rubble nearby. He picked up a nearby brick and pitched it through the Vauxhall’s window, glittering the footwell. Prising off the steering column cover was easy, then hot-wiring the ignition. The house owners never noticed, motorway two streets over too loud with traffic noise. Inside, they wound down the window, covered up the shattered glass with a bundled coat. Drove into the night.
They were three streets away when Campbell lost control of the car. Steering wheel wrenching from his grip. The air freshener no longer reeked of pine, but stagnant water and giant hogweed. He held the wheel once more. No matter how much he turned the steering left or right, control was not his.
The car moved sedate and steady down the street.
With no way to influence the direction, and Simon sweating in the passenger seat, Campbell tried to lift his hands. The leather of the upholstery covered his fingers, stitching snaking through his knuckles, thread sharp as needles. Sobbing, he looked over at his companion.
In panic Simon tried reaching through the shattered window. Attract attention. This was about survival now. A thick transparent membrane flexed as Simon’s hand pressed through where the window used to be. He held the arm on his lap, skin scalded and blistering. The wooden spheres of the seat cover pressed through his chest, clagging his throat to suffocation.
Still having breath and voice, Campbell screamed. The scent of drowning pools overpowered him and he retched until his throat burnt acid dry.
He had no idea where the car finally came to a stop. He vaguely registered the noise of branches scratching the side, just audible over Simon choking beside him. When the engine died there were oak trees arcing over him. Figures standing around the edge, faces masked with bark.
Someone lit a match and dropped it to the ground, a circle of flame erupting around the car. In the smoking light he saw number-plates, 57 of them. All cars he’d stolen in the last year. From the edge of the clearing a figure stepped forward, laying ferns thick with paste and oils on the roof. On the bonnet.
The car began to creak, metal compressing in. Campbell tried to loosen himself, but the knuckle stitches stayed tight. Simon pressed against him. Where his arm touched Campbell’s muscle became soft. Pliable. Joined with Campbell’s exposed skin. He tasted rotten meat in his mouth. The roof got closer. Campbell turned his neck. Brought himself nearer to the door. Window glass, still intact, molten when it touched. With nowhere else to go he bent his face forward to his arms. The roof scraped the back of his neck. Welded to his scalp.
Twenty minutes later the car was little more than a fridge sized block of fused metal and bone. Skin and glass. Hard to tell where thief ended and vehicle began. Welds started off in steel and ending in muscle.
Sophia stepped forward from the circle. They had all chipped in for the car. Not cheap. Valuable enough to attract attention. Inside the block she heard breathing. Lungs now coated in paint and oil but still working. Returning to her place she started the next ritual. There were creatures below the roots that needed feeding, and they did not care if the marrow was filled with copper wire. Spine column with brake fluid. They had no taste, just hunger, and that hunger would still be satisfied.
Between Wing and Limb
Late summer, the grasshoppers returned to the village. They wore masks of pig skin to fit in, eyeholes and mouth slits chewed in with jaws more suited to foliage. We gently helped them unfasten the faces, there true appearance much less frightening to the children.
We spread fans of grass at their feet, our sons and daughters lifting handfuls to our guests.
Around the edge of the square we waited for them to start playing. The tunes were complex, intricate and needed an experienced ear to appreciate. This was not an event that attracted tourists. Only us villagers stood by the pub door, swigging beer and swaying to the delicate tunes played out on wing and leg.
Beer was passed over for whiskey and the dancing started. Our steps as knotted as the tunes, until the uneven ground of village green and too much single malt tripped our feet.
When the grasshopper’s skin blistered from the pace of their tunes, we rubbed in salves and creams. Massaged joints at risk of dislocation from the speed of their playing.
After the pub shut its doors we carried on drinking from hip-flasks. Watched Jennings try and outplay the grasshoppers, splintering another cheap fiddle with the ferocity of his attempts.
The children sat transfixed around the man-sized insects. We tried not to watch them. Tried not to see which ones paid the most attention to the playing. Let drunkenness cataract our eyes.
When morning came, with hangovers and aching limbs, we did no head-counts. We knew some parents would be go back to houses and attic-pack toys. Burn cartooned bedding on small garden bonfires. We told ourselves that they would see their children again in a years time. Playing tunes for us to dance the harvest in. Jaws best suited to chewing foliage hidden behind pig skin masks.
On the first day the roads turned to hedges our main concern was how we would commute to work. Even those who worked near their homes struggled. These were not the neat box privets of country houses, or suburbia, but knotted twisted things of blackthorn and bramble. Living traps, bitter they were not forests.
The pavements went next, stone slabs cluttered with rose prickles and ankle breakers of fruit runners, tying themselves to door handles. Sliding into locks.
We knew creatures lived amongst the branches. Black caps and song thrushes calling from their nests. We did not know they were hunted. We did not notice the hunters. Their thorn skin disguised them, until they moved. Until they climbed over our doorsteps, and windowsills, with their hoods of newt-leather, crests decorated with the juice of blackberries.
They scratched warnings into the panes with their spines. We could not read the alphabets they used, and there were many. We recognised them as threats, and we shuddered at their razor teeth.
The hedges grew bigger, feeding on the bones of those who ventured out. We saw them, trapped in hawthorn, sharpened branches constricting muscles until they fell off to be scavenged by those who hunted birds in the hidden parts of the hedges.
We have not been able to leave our houses for days now. There is nothing outside anyway. Apart from the hedges. The hunters bang against the windows, then start to scratch once more. It won’t be long until the glass shatters. There is nothing left to do now but wait.
He had scared his wife. Scared his children. Left marks on them the colour of December skies. Now he could scare crows, but they did not frighten like children. The seed was deep in the ground, or rotting in the storms. The birds were hungry. Farmer Campbell’s eyes were very easy to reach through the gaps in the mask. His flesh through rips in the jacket. This winter the crows would not starve.
With no bodies of their own, the Elves shaped limbs from dried grass, and faces from the splinters of snail shells. Rotten cobwebs held their jaws together, eyes the sulphur smoked burnt tips of matches.
The house-owners had been generous throughout the year. In the ice mirrored months of winter they left out bowls of cream, and small crumbs of bread, though they had little enough to spare. When autumn came they cleared the fairy paths of leaves. Piled up rotten crab apples for their unseen neighbours to drink themselves into a stupor. Now was the time for the Elves to deliver gifts in return.
The locks proved no barrier. They and the Elves were kin. No Rowan hung over the door to spite their entry. Soon they sat on cold pillows watching the home-owners twist in their sleep.
First, the Elves rubbed pale foreheads with salve. Then they took up their flint blades. Cut away skin. Scraped through bone until small plumes of smoke rose in the dark. Underneath, the hidden pupil twisted blind in dreams.
When the homeowners woke at dawn they would see everything that was hidden. The corpses that could not leave the site of the gibbet. The boggarts that clung to the eaves, licking salt from the bricks. The Hobgoblins that spat at travellers from willow branches. To see the world as it really was. This was the elves most precious gift.
The Pit In The Garden
The children never believed their parent’s’ warnings. The pits had been at the bottom of their gardens as long as the children could remember. Grass covered hollows, shallow and empty.
No-one had ever gone missing in the pits. No-one had ever fallen into one to break their neck. When a new pit opened up in Bradley’s garden, the sides bare rock and mud, the children decided to explore.
With ropes fashioned from sheets, and packed lunches fashioned from whatever they could find, they clustered around the edge trying to agree who should go first. Rather than picking lots, they decided that as it was in Bradley’s garden, just beside the trampoline, he should have the honour.
First, he tied a sheet around his waist, then slowly turned to walk down the edge. Found footholds like his uncle had shown him, though the slope was far greasier than any climbing wall.
Clustered around the top, the children watched him until he reached the bottom, anchoring the rope as best they could. In the pit, Bradley fell to his knees, his forehead sinking into the mud. He let go of the rope and forced his fingers through the dirt. For a moment the children held their breath, unsure what to do.
When Bradley stood, they relaxed, and braced the rope to pull him back up. When he smiled, they smiled back. When he started to drag them into the pit, they had no way to protect themselves. When Bradley’s smile continued to widen, revealing teeth he did not have before, the children began to scream.
The wick of human hair reeked when lit, but was as necessary as her eel skin gloves for the invocation.
Tradition said winds were fickle and flighty. Changed at the drop of a hat. Sabine knew that winds were ones for routine and ritual, following the same paths around the globe. Bringing the same gifts. Snow or summer. Pollen or pestilence. To call them away from their trod roads, ceremony must be followed. She watched wren fat and marrow sap soak up the wick. Gutter into crimson flames.
The first winds to come were shallow, thin creatures. Whitebait to catch the pike. She nailed them to the table with plucked eyelashes. Watched them struggle to free themselves. Call to their siblings. Call to their parents. And their parents answered.
The typhoons battered the oak door and window shutters, screaming for their children. Seasalt leaked through the gaps in the walls. Sabine kept her nerve.
Waiting until the storms were at full anger she reached out of the attic room, unfurling thick curls of rope, hemp rubbed with samphire and hooked with crab shell.
The typhoons were too busy to notice the knots. Too distracted to feel themselves dragged between the fist tight fibres. Their voices quietened as the rope compressed them.
The storms would need to be hung for six weeks before they were ready to eat. Enough to feed her through the coming winter. The baby winds writhing on her kitchen table? Those were best dined on fresh, still twitching. She pulled the eyelashes out of the wooden top, gripped the first breeze between her fingers and dropped it down her throat.
The Two Villages of Giant Footprint
In December, two fires burnt in the Giant’s footprint, one of flame and one of frost. The village of Ball gathered around the frost and played drums, the villagers of the Arch clustered around the flames and sang.
Dusk came and the noise rose to a cacophony. All attempt at tune or rhythm was lost as summer distilled spirits were brought out of caves hidden in the Heel. First supped from glasses, then bottles, before handfuls were scooped from spigots in oak barrels. Smeared across lips. Tipped down throats.
As midnight came the villages intermingled. Those of Ball carrying kindling burning with frost. Those of Arch brought soil scorched to pottery.
They laid their markers in the land between their homes. They took off their shoes and they danced. They danced apart. They danced with each other. Sometimes their dances looked like fighting, other times rutting, They danced and did not stop until the sun rose above the horizon of the Giant’s Footprint.
When the first rays crested the cliff of Instep all the dancers from both villages sat in a circle, soles facing inward. Over the next hour the oldest of each village walked around, until they found the one person without a mark on their feet. Without a single smear of dirt. Without a single cut or bruise.
Some breathed a sigh of relief. Others wept for their lost loved one. Not a single villager from either settlement refused to trample over the unmarked, turning their bones to soil in the hope the giant would accept their sacrifice and return to the land.
Back in the height and heat of summer, Kelsey buried the stars in the forest to cool them, ready for the Winter Solstice. Now she returns to the woods once more. She has no map and her memories are vague. Neither matters. She has all day.
Kelsey brings no spade to break through the roots. Her fingers are her only digging tool. Nails cut short so they do not break on clods of clay.
The first she finds nestled in a hollow below a silver birch, bark of the tree glowing a little brighter from the starlight below. She clears the dirt away from the star as best as she can, lifts it from the ground. Holds it in the air until it starts pulsing once more. There are skeletal leaves and rotten bark stuck to the surface. She does not worry about these.
The following three stars are knotted together by shiro, the white strands creeping over and through the constellation’s burning heart. Kelsey teases out as much as she can and slips them into her bag woven from washed up fishing nets.
The next has not fared well. Hollowed by the tunnelling of badgers, edges gnawed away by bugs and wood lice. The remaining parts of the star still glow, but it takes Kelsey an hour with nettle thread and loom waste to patch up the pathetic looking thing. Finally she is happy and places it in her bag with the others.
The final stars are scattered in abandoned fox dens and beneath fallen beech trees.
She spends the rest of the afternoon finding them, humming Tam Lin and The World Turned Upside Down to herself. Dusk is coming. She is running out of time.
Kelsey is out of breath by the time she reaches the hill top, netting bag rubbing blisters into her bare shoulders.
One by one she lifts out the stars. Whispers to them all the secrets from that year. Tells each about the three names cats now call themselves, and where the sun goes when the fields burn. The expressions of the forty two princesses living in a hazel shell in a Saltburn delicatessen, and the way to transform feathers to oysters.
Each star rises with the power of these hidden words, and as they claim the sky once more she watches for those that fall, noting where they land. Ready to bury them beneath the cornfields until six months have passed and the next solstice arrives.
Thanks for taking the time to read these stories. If you’ve enjoyed them I have a storyletter that I send out every couple of weeks. Normally there is a bit of news, but the main focus is a free piece of flash fiction written exlusively for the mailout. You can sign up at; http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase