Newsletter Giveaway

FOTWT

As some of you know, I also run a newsletter every couple of weeks. The format is pretty simple. It contains updates about my work, a bit of waffle about stuff I’ve found interesting, the occasional bit of archaeology, or art, but mainly it’s a delivery system for free flash fiction. Every newsletter includes a flash fiction story, just long enough to read on the train or while you’re having a coffee.

At the moment I’m having a bit of a membership drive. Anyone who is on the subscriber list on the 9th May will be entered into a draw to win the t-shirt at the top of the page.

The design is by William Cunningham and is from my story Flick of the Wyvern’s Tale in the anthology BUILT FROM HUMAN PARTS edited by Cameron Callahan.

To be in with a chance to win the t-shirt all you have to do is sign up for my newsletter at www.tinyletter.com/stevetoase (remember to check your spam filter for the confirmation email). That’s it. I’ll do the draw on the 9th and in the meantime you’ll get some hopefully enjoyable, definitely unsettling, flash fiction in your inbox.

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Flash Fiction Month Week 3

Here are the stories from week three of my flash fiction challenge, all inspired by George Withers’ A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne.

Day 15

Stone Harvest

On the corner of Benbachstrasse and Lindengasse stood a single tree. Though old, with tripped over roots and soot stained buds, it was the only tree in the city grew stones, but it grew them all. Granite pebbles hidden inside clasps of leaves. Limestone boulders weighed down branches, until they brushed the ground, collecting blown in rubbish around them. Rose quartz glimmered amongst the highest branches, and occasionally, very occasionally, sapphires and opals erupted from fissures in the bark.

No one tried to covet them. Everyone remembered what happened in ’61 when the gang of men came to the corner of Benbachstrasse and Lindengasse, searching for rubies and diamonds amongst the fallen leaves around the foot of the tree.
The men discouraged any interference in their endeavours, but the shop owners and residents of nearby apartments were not put off so easily. They had harvested stones from the tree at the corner of Benbachstrasse and Lindengasse for many years.

Going into their cellars they brought up cobbles and sheets of marble. Sandstone and geodes. Nodules of flint and fist sized pieces of basalt.

They weighed stones in their hands and said nothing. Took up position in silence around the men who came only for the precious stones, and when the shop owners and residents finished their task white and red glistened amongst the leaves though there were no diamonds or rubies in sight.

Day 16

Eyes of Bone

Vermin ran rampant in the town since the cats all deserted the streets. The ratters did what they could, but the rodents snatched nets from their hands and gnawed on their limbs until they retreated behind locked doors. With no other option open to them the townspeople turned to conjuration for a solution.

First, they dug up skulls from graves where the soil had not settled and placed them upon the inscribed stones. Next, they rubbed clay into the scalp and filled the empty eyes with the flowers of the oak, and broom, and meadowsweet.

Nothing happened for the first few days, though the rats all deserted the graveyard. On the ninth night the owls emerged from the skulls, cracking them like eggs. Taking flight they surveyed the streets of the town with eyes of bone, and grasped the rodents with coffin nail talons. They coughed up owl pellets, each made up of hundreds of mice, until the gutters were filled with their sculptures of their feasts.

When they were done the owls clustered on roof ridges and waited for the people to emerge from the houses. When they saw their soft, hair covered scalps the owls swooped down to crack them like eggs.

Over the next few days more owls emerged from the freshly dead until nothing lived on the streets, apart from the birds with the eyes of bone.

Day 17

Sheaves of Corn

With no children of their own, and an ache for descendants, the couple sprinkled red raspberry and milk thistle around the last two sheaves of the harvest. They wove torn bedsheets into religious icons and wore blackthorn around their necks, saying the five tiny prayers every time blood was drawn.

When the scars spelt out two names on their skin they returned to the field. To the last two sheaves of corn. The children emerged from inside, a girl and a boy, hair of wheat stalks. Fully grown they ran to their human parents, to be carried back to the house. To beds, open fires and warm food. And everything carried on that way. For a while.

When harvest time returned the husks fell away and the children’s thoughts rattled to the ground. Finding water and food on the dirt floor, the kernels of dreams and nightmares sprouted in the warmth of the house.

Tooth faced demons rose from the soil, anchored by thin roots that threatened to tear free. Cities made of glass growing in the cast of sunlight through the window. The shimmer of a sickle blade sending runners of light across the kitchen floor. More and more the dreams the children shed germinated to plough furrows, the sound of crops rasping in the breeze. The texture of dirt compressed as roots found their way to water.

With heavy hearts the couple led the children back to the field, to a corner where the scythe and plough never reached. From a distance they watched them shrug off their skins and return to two stands of wheat. Every year the couple visited to tell their once children about their lives until they too were in the soil.

 

Day 18

Resting

Stilt strapped and bone footed he rested against the hazel tree to catch his breath. The road was metalled and would turn a normal ankle. Not the marshland of his home province, hundreds of miles at his back.

From his left pocket he took out a napkin, spreading it across the high branches, from his right some bread and the last of his ham. Reaching into the tree he plucked hazels fresh from the branch and shelled them, letting the broken pieces scatter into the roots.

“Are you a giant?” The children were sat upon the leaf litter, legs crossed, their hair the colour of tree bark.

“I am not,” said the man from Landes.

“Oh,” said the girl. “Are you an ogre?”

“No,” said the stilt walker, taking a bite of an apple, and two more hazelnuts, the broken shells landing beside the small boy.

“Are you perhaps a Prince of Hell wearing a human skin to disguise yourself in the world of people?”

The child’s voice sounded genuinely curious, as if this is a question he often asked,

“I am none of these things,” the man from Landes said, opening a bottle and taking a sip of water. “I am travelling down the road, and resting against this tree while I ease my hunger.”

“Resting against our tree while you ease your hunger. It is a pity you are not a giant, or an ogre, or a Prince of Hell wearing human skin. We would return below the roots. But you are not. You are just human. Soft and breakable. And we are hungry too.”

The girl widened her jaw and gnawed away the left stilt, and the boy widened his jaw and gnawed away the right stilt, stopping only to pluck the man’s hair from between their teeth and spit splinters of bone into the soil.

 

Day 19

Twenty One Pebbles

The plant pot had been in the garden when Vicky bought the house. Narrow necked it never carried any plants. Every day she watched from the kitchen window as a crow flew over the wall and dropped pebbles into the plant pot. In the morning the bird would drop seven, in the afternoon seven and in the evening seven. Some were rounded and glistened in the rain as the crow carried them in its beak. Others were jagged and sharp like razors. All were dropped inside the plant pot. Twenty one every day.

Curious and bored, Vicky got up early, before the crow’s first delivery, and fitted a piece of gauze over the opening where no flowers grew. Held it in place with cable ties.

The bird flew around in circles, dropping its gift so it could cry its displeasure, finding it in the grass to try and force it through the metal gauze. By breakfast the plant pot was rocking from side to side. By lunch it had fallen and was rolling across the lawn. By tea the first cracks appeared in the sides.

The creature that shattered out had too many teeth to fit in its mouth, and too many eyes to fit in its face, all blinking in the darkness. First it ate the crow, squatting on the pristine lawn, sucking at the bones of the wings, then it came up to the house. Hidden inside, she heard the creature gnawing through the doors. Through the walls. Through the kitchen cabinets. All the time getting closer.

There was nowhere left to hide. Vicky had no pebbles to give the creature with too many teeth to fit in its mouth and too many eyes to fit in its face.

 

Day 20

A moment of distraction had allowed the magistrate to capture Mother Stein.

Cat shaped, she was easy to force into the rowan cage, the wood scorching away patches of fur. She would not know if the burns would carry scars into her skin until she changed back, if she changed back.

Every morning the magistrate took the cage down from the dresser shelf and left her in the middle of the floor. Every day the rats tormented her.

Mother Stein did not know if the rodents had been transformed like her. If they laboured under the same enchantment they did not keep their human voices, though that was no indicator. Forcing her feline vocal chords to carry human language tired her to exhaustion, so she kept her words inside. The rats had the run of the house. If she had the run of the house, away from the cage of rowan, she would run past the weed choked ditches and frozen fields, back to her house to the north of the willow tree.

The rats were getting braver. Their teeth sharper. They circled the cage, nipping her tail. Retreating under cooker and cupboards.

All it took was one of them not paying attention. She nipped the nape of the rat’s neck. Let its blood splash across the bark that encased her. She forced her voice to shape the words even a human throat would struggle with. The bars dissolved and she stood, unfurling into her own shape. Stemming the blood, she found the enchantment knitted through the rat’s skin and unravelled the threads . Then the next, and the next.

She explained the plan to them as they stretched bone and muscle into their human skins once more. The magistrate had many knives in his kitchen. Mother Stein took one. Passed out the others. Their captor would be back soon. They would be waiting.

 

Day 21

Intaglio

Bill had been curious about the carving at the edge of town since he was a child. A stone plinth with a face carved intaglio. No-one cared for it, and over the years moss and ivy claimed the stone as the years claimed Bill until curiosity finally won out.

With a scythe he cleared the flowered weeds from around the foot of the sculpture, and slashed away the climbing weeds from the stone.

With cloths and detergent he scrubbed the surface until the word long hidden gleamed. Terminus. No surprise as it lay on the boundary ditch marking the end of town and beginning of fields.
Freshly shaved he pressed his face into the carving, feeling the stone shift against his skin, and gazed through the eyes.

He saw the end of all things. He saw his own cascade into the earth where his bones were powdered by the crush of soil. He saw the wash of saltwater erode walls to dust. He felt the heat of the sun as it consumed its children and the chill of nothing that followed, and when he had finished gazing through those eyes of marble he carried the death of worlds inside.

Flash Fiction Month 2016 Week 4 (and a bit)

A little bit late in posting the final group of stories, due to Solstice, Christmas, birthdays and New Year. Hope you enjoy these.

Day 22

Shrieking

Image may contain: sky, grass, nature and outdoor

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.

Day 23

Section 25

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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.

Day 24

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.

Day 25

Hedge Roads

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.

Day 26

Mask

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They fitted the death-mask over Farmer Campbell’s still breathing face. Loose shards of bark scraped his cheeks as the carved bracket fungus was tied to his head. Pinning him down, the villagers forced his arms into the mould stained donkey jacket. Fastened the buttons over the tattered trousers. Down his collar they rammed a hazel rod, thick as a man’s arm. Another along the seams of the sleeves. Then, using bailing twine, they raised him into the air, the foot of the post deep in the plough furrows.

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.

Day 27
(by Hazel Ang)

Neighbourly Gifts

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.

Day 28

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.

Day 29

The Wick

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.

Day 30

The Two Villages of Giant Footprint

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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.

Day 31

Buried

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

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.

 

A new newsletter

After seeing that the month of flash fiction was so well received I’ve decided to give it an afterlife. Every two weeks I’m going to send out a newsletter, the core of which is a new piece of flash fiction, free and straight into your inbox. The first one went out yesterday with a short tale about the true nature of the world.

If you’d like to receive a new story every couple of weeks, you can sign up at the link below;

http://tinyletter.com/stevetoase

These stories are the perfect length to read in those gaps in the day when you don’t have time to tackle anything longer. So if you’re stood in the supermarket queue, waiting at the petrol station, trying to get your baby son to sleep, or just want a break from spreadsheets, this might be the answer.

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

 

IMG_9970.JPG

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.

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.