HWS Fantasycon Schedule

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Earlier on in the year I attended Follycon in Harrogate, and enjoyed it so much I booked to attend Fantasycon in Chester this coming weekend.

In the intervening period I decided that I wanted to step out of my comfort zone a bit and put myself forward for a couple of panels.

If you’re attending I’ll be on the Micro Fiction/Flash Fiction at 12:30 in Panel Room 3.

“In a changing world where consumption of texts is constant and attention spans appear to be shrinking, is the flash or micro fiction story the way forward for writers looking to attract a new young readership? Our panel discusses the craft of writing the ultra short.”

On Sunday I’ll be in Panel Room 3 on the Dead Bodies panel at 12:30.

“Many good stories involve a mystery. Whether the case at hand has remained unsolved for hundreds of years, or happened in the first chapter of the book, a good puzzle provides the writer with an opportunity to engage the reader’s brain iin finding the answer. Our panelists discuss unsolved conundrums, consider the role of accurate research, and look at a range of tools that are at the writer’s disposal to create intriigue for the curious reader.”

I’ll have some copies of Ruby Red and Snowflake Cold with me, so if you would like one come and have a chat.

Cover reveal

Now we’re not living in the U.K. these events are a great chance to catch up with people, surrounded by books and stories.

See you there!

It’s Been A While

Cover reveal

Hello, (taps mic). Is this thing on?

Well, that summer was long and hot and yet over too quickly. (Time is weird like that).

I’ll be honest I’ve neglected this place a bit. Between settling into life in Munich, writing as much as I can, and writing my fortnightly newsletter (sign up here www.tinyletter.com/stevetoase) I’ve not really given this blog much love. I’m hoping to change that.

So here’s a quick catch up.

It’s been a good year for publications. Since June (when I last posted here), I’ve had stories accepted for;

Fiends in the Furrows: An Anthology of Folk Horror

Pantheon Magazine: Gorgon-Stories of Emergence

Mad Scientist Journal

Mystery Weekly Magazine

Not One of Us

Shimmer Zine

A couple of publications have happened since I last posted.

Flick Illustration

(Artwork by William Cunningham)

My story The Flick of the Wyvern’s Tale has now published by Cameron Callaghan from ACDP in BUILT FROM HUMAN PARTS

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I’ve also recently had an article in British magazine 100% Biker about the Rustic Racer Ride, a café racer show here in Bavaria.

Last year British Fantasy Society published several of my flash fiction stories in Horizon. Recently I found out Mask made Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 10 Honourable Mentions Longlist, and was also given a shout out in the summation.

I’m busy behind the scenes with several articles, and have just finished the first draft of a novella. More on that later.

I’m heading back to the UK for Fantasycon and will be appearing on a couple of panels. Again, more on that later.

The big news is that I have a collection out with longtime collaborator Hazel Ang.

Ruby Red and Snowflake Cold: tales to warm the heart, is a distillation of my fiction and Hazel’s art into a beautiful booklet that gives a really good overview of the work we’ve done together. If you’re in Munich this weekend we’ll have some copies at Munich Comic Con, and I’m hoping to bring some to Fantasycon.

I think that’s everything for now. Have a good weekend and see you soon.

 

Newsletter Giveaway

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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.

Runs on the Board Flash Fiction Part 4

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These are the last of the stories in the Runs on the Board book. Tomorrow I’ll share other pieces of flash fiction written for the project. Out of all the pieces I wrote inspired by the cricket matches we watched, I think that 53.71704 N  is my favourite. It combines cricket, myth, and landscape. It also influenced the way I frame my newsletters.

 

Beating the Bounds

Law 20.1-Wisden 1963

“If flags or posts are used to mark a boundary, the real or imaginary line joining such points shall be regarded as the boundary”

 

These men from across the county, wearing white knit mummer’s guize, are of the travelling parish of the three trees. This is a fragile ward able to be dissolved by rain, or worn through by the fading of dusk.

Sometimes, the parish is found below chiselled stone moors or pressed against the inside of a walled garden. On other summer days it weighs down on the corrugated earth of a thousand years. The boundary is vulnerable, soft and porous and must be walked to remember its course.

Like Yeoman Warders, in Pathé’s newsreel gaze, these men step out in ones and twos with willow under their arms. Pausing, they let linseed soaked wood rest between white flags. Each second motionless pins the boundary to the grass before the walkers set off once again.

Moving anti-clockwise they pass the black faced house, whose sightless windows flicker with white numbers, while one man faces eleven. By the ground tethered sail they wait while pace plays out and the grove at the centre is defended. On the far side of this smallest of parishes they walk tight between fence and flags. Not once do they cross the stuttered line, all the time marking the circuit with spiked steps. The men in white knit mummer’s guize return to the lime-washed hall, where they wait for their turn to stand in front of the three trees.

END

Distracted by Shadows

Law 41.6-2000 Code

“While the ball is in play and until the ball has made contact with the striker’s bat or person, or has passed the striker’s bat, no fielder, other than the bowler, may have any part of his person grounded on or extended over the pitch”

 

Waiting by the pavilion the shadows attached themselves to the spikes of players walking out to take the field. Each time the sun emerged from behind strands of cloud the shadows became young once again.

They played their own game, leeward of these men whose height did not change with the lengthening of the day. The players ignored their tissue paper companions. Except when the shadows lay across the footworn pitch and the unchanging men turned to statues, as if waiting to catch the shadows moving on their own.

Staying still the shadows wove themselves into the grass. They kept their arms solid and their legs planted, even as the afternoon stretched them across the cracked ground. Then, when they heard the snick, the shadows ran for the ball, elongated by the shifting sky.

END

53.71704 N

Law 9-Wisden 1963

“The popping crease shall be marked 4 feet in front of and parallel with the Bowling crease. Both the Return and Popping crease shall be deemed unlimited in length.”

 

Kneeling on the worn turf he brushed thin whitewash onto the ghosts of old popping creases and reincarnated the line once again.

Reaching the return crease the line became too faint to see, picking up speed as it headed toward the boundary. Outside the ground it coasted across the moors, drawn on by the scent of the sea. Listening to the songs of fallen rocks before slipping under the water.

The crease continued. It could have floated on the waves, or plunged through the water where nets and lines draped from boats. Instead it sank to the sea floor. Drawing itself through Doggerland the crease marked across long drowned valleys and long forgotten forests, now only remembered as archaeologist’s survey data.

Making landfall on the island of Nordeney it passed to the north of the hospital. None of the ambulances noticed the fine, thin, mark under their wheels.

Travelling across North Germany the crease continued east, passing through the heart of forests so dense only trees whisper folktales about them.

In Belarus it touched the northern shore of a small lake, watched from under the surface by three reed dressed sisters with sand coloured eyes.

Making harbour at Portage Bay on Wislow Island the crease mixed its flecks of whitewash with the cooled, grey dust of Makushin Volcano.

Through Canada the crease stayed in open country, to the north of Hwy. 37. The road markings whispered to stay with them. To press itself to the tarmac where they hid when the season of darkness came, but the crease paid them no heed and carried on its route.

Outside Edmonton dawn turned the sky rust and corroded through to the day behind.

From the western side of Lake Michikamu the Toad Man whispered,

“You will always stay here in the Lake.”

The crease shuddered fit to blur its edges, but kept on moving.

Avoiding the  grasp of fish jaws and blind ocean dwellers the crease made landfall in Ireland. In Muckloon it saw the shell of George Moore’s house and heard from deep inside the hill the song of Drithliu, a sound like trees burning in autumn.

Crossing the Irish Sea the crease found itself at the junction between the M65 and M6, where it nearly ended up heading toward Lancaster. Realising its mistake in time it continued on, back across the county border.

Passing through Luddenden Foot, where there is a full moon every night, the crease felt on safer ground and accelerated on.

Breaching the ground’s boundary the unseen line came to rest against the return crease, where the groundsman applied the last brush of whitewash onto the ghosts of old popping creases, reincarnated once again.

END

 

Corridor

Law 31-Wisden 1963

 

A light flickers in the panelled ceiling above me. No, not one. Two. Three maybe. The rhythm is syncopated, slightly uneven. Just when I think I’ve nailed down a pattern it throws in an offbeat. The candle dim glow doesn’t quite reach the walls. I know there is no entrance behind me in this corridor, nor an exit in front.

I can just make out three doors in the long wall to my right and, if I squint, one to my left. I walk along, running my hand over the frames and the doors themselves. All feel in need of sanding and several thick coats of varnish. No-one takes care of this narrow ginnel.

An inquiring mind gets the better of me and I open the first door, by my right shoulder. The scene is warm, not the height of summer, the sun dressing the field in a fine webbing of heat. The grass is empty apart from the echo of footsteps crossing the outfield toward the pavilion. I follow the sound. The scene changes. Now the view is from inside the changing room. Outside I can see my team-mate (at that moment I can’t remember his name). Next in the batting order he takes his position and taps his bat against the popping crease. I try to close the door, but the wood is warped, or the frame has shrunk. A little pool of light leaks through onto the corridor floor and I step to avoid it.

Though doubt sets in I open the second. There is nothing to see. The view is scrubbed out. The emptiness of a scoreboard waiting for the white to appear. There is only noise, the repetitive echo of the fielder’s appeal. I was wrong. There are no options left through this door. I lift it closed, preparing for this one too to be warped against my efforts, but it shuts easily. Moments later, as I step away, it swings open once again and I can hear that appeal looping on itself.

The third doesn’t wait for me to turn the handle, instead drifting open. The scene is from my perspective. I am unbuckling my leg pad as if all the games ills are stitched into its gambeson-like surface. Once undone I drop it into the kitbag and rub my shin before leaning on the window frame to watch the rest of the game I will no longer take part in.

My curiosity is depleted. Little is left, yet there is a little. With a pause to take a breath I open the single door on the left. The view is toward the boundary. The flattened patch of grass beyond the line of flags tells me all I need to know. The scene through the door pivots and is now staring at the white coated umpire whose arms grow vertical as if hydraulic. I have no intention of closing this door.

Turning, I stare deep into the gloom at the end of the corridor. A single red pixel appears in a sea of between-station noise. With four doors open around me I wait.

END

Runs on the Board Flash Fiction Part 3

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The original inspiration for my approach to Runs on the Board was Italo Calvino’s Time and the Hunter (UK/US), which led to me writing Willow;

Willow

Law 25-Wisden 1963

“The ball shall be held to be “dead”-on being in the opinion of the Umpire finally settled in the hands of the Wicket-keeper or the Bowler or pitching over the boundary”

 

With a gardener’s steady hand he planted the willow shallow in the short grass. Roots take well here. Branches sprouted in all directions, each bearing a single red fruit, skin like bruised pomegranate. He chose one curving bough and watched it arch to the left. Those rejected crumbled to dust on the breeze until the one remaining fruit settled in the grass. Seed to windfall in a glance.

END

Using this as a starting point it gave me to approach cricket from a different direction.

 

Hawk-Eye

Law 47-Wisden 1963

“The Umpire shall not order a Batsman out unless appealed to by the other side”

 

There are no Hawk-Eyes here. Only a vulpine gaze dusted with half a century of pollen, scored by the track of a thousand overs worth of leg break and off spin. Behind oval pupils the ball plays out again and he makes his decision. The players wait, a choir of appeal, their chorus scrubbed by distant traffic. The umpire raises his finger above his head. Applause ripples from the fielders, surrounding the retreating batsman like heat haze.

END

The Gamemaker

Law 23-Wisden 1963

“The ball shall be bowled from each wicket alternately in overs of either 5 or 6 balls according to the agreed condition of play”

 

Suspended dust hung from twine thin light that somehow found its way through the sawdust glass of the windows. The Gamemaker lifted the workshop door shut, breathing in the linseed oil and cork air. He shrugged off his old fleece, hanging it on a nail, instead slipping on his axle grease coloured, once white, coat.

The radio struggled to find a long-wave signal in the heat-haze. With a shake of his head he let the words fade in and out, delivering updates in stretched, cracked voices.

His latest creation sat in the middle of the bench. A wooden slotted drum balanced on a lathe turned stand. Reaching his glasses from a pile of shavings the Gamemaker peered at the recently dried timber, thirty layers of varnish pinning light to the woodgrain.

Nodding to himself he ran a palm over the drum. With his other hand he turned the polished brass handle, a series of hidden tooth and nail gears rotating the cylinder. A slight breeze born of still air spun out from the centre. Satisfied, the Gamemaker dragged across a stool and sat down, stretching out his back and hands. Life returning to stiff tendons.

From behind the radio, still singing with faint Raudive voices, the Gamemaker pulled an old manilla envelope. He read the crossed out address on the front. For a moment a memory of a brick, wood-fronted, hut by a white flagged line made him smile. Unfolding the seal-flap he pulled out the thirty paper strips inside.

Holding the first up to the light he was surprised the half century old paper survived. In places red marks and grass stains risked obscuring the sketched figures. For a moment he thought about cleaning the strips, then shook his head. Marks and scars are earned and should be worn with pride.

Each figure was faint, the pencil scored lines in the paper marking the shape as much as the sun faded graphite. Satisfied he placed the first in the zoetrope, pressing the strip into the thin slot running around the inside edge of the barrel.

Pausing, he poured a cup of tea from a lukewarm chipped pot, drinking the brick red liquid in quick mouthfuls. Through the slots the figures waited, unmoving. Resting.

Drink finished the gamemaker lowered his stool and grasped the zoetrope’s handle. The players came to life. The bowler’s arm released the only intentional colour on the paper strip. The batsman met the fleck of red, sending it careering to the upper edge of the Zoetrope. From the base of the device came a sound of applause across a sun-bleached ground. He played the strip five more times. Each revolution the bowler released the red spark at a different moment, the batsmen streaking it toward a different point. After the scene had played six times the Gamemaker took out the paper strip, flattened it before placing it back in the envelope and slid the next paper strip into the device.

END

 

Pearmain

Law 5.2-Wisden 1963

“Except in the United Kingdom, or if local regulations provide otherwise, after 200 runs have been made off a ball in First-class matches, the captain of the fielding side may demand a new one”

 

A battered Pearmain of a thing the ball sat half hidden in the grass beside his feet. Every so often a confused, drunken wasp crawled slowly over the surface and finding no flesh to feast on took off again.

Holding the ball high the boy eclipsed the late afternoon sun.

Shivering with the disappearing light he tried to rub life back into aching arms. The game had been long that day with overs of four, five and six balls running into each other. As much time spent searching in the field scrub for the ball as bowling it down the stamped grass, makeshift pitch.

By the end no-one was quite sure if the boys who lived up-field or the boys who lived down-field were victorious. It mattered little. The joy was in the pitch and the bat and the sprint of the fielders.

Having done service in a millennium of overs, leather scuffed to bunting edged the surface of the ball. The boy grasped a scrap and pulled it loose. Coming away in his hand the fragment dislodged a length of seam, drawing it free from the stitching. Dropping the first piece to the ground he noticed a second strip had come loose. With a compulsion usually saved for scabbed knees he grasped the leather and pulled it free. Instead of tightly wrapped string underneath he glimpsed the shellac shine of fresh red leather. Curiosity gripped and he tore away the next strip then the next. Gold leaf print of the fresh ball caught the tail end of the day’s light as he peeled away the last of the skin from the old ball, revealing the new underneath.

Fresh, unscarred and unbowled the Duke County International felt just right as he walked out to the crease. Glancing across the ground he saw those boys from up-field and down-field standing at slip, mid-wicket, extra-cover.  Now, many years after those long summer games, they all played on the same team. These days the aching arms were already there before the game, but the joy was still in the pitch and the bat and the sprint of the fielders. He smiled to himself and prepared to bowl the first over of the game.

END

Flash Fiction Month and a bit.

Here are the last three stories from my flash fiction month.

As I mentioned at the start of the month, this year I was trying something slightly different. All the stories were inspired by images from the 17th century book, A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne by George Wither.

This could have backfired, heavily restricting the subject matter. Looking back on the month it’s been a mostly positive exercise. The content of Wither’s book is so numerous (over 200 entries), and varied that I never felt limited by only using this single source. It also meant that when I was lacking inspiration (after twenty or so days it can get pretty hard to find that fresh spark) I only had one place to go for it, rather than trying to pin down everything in my surroundings as inspiration. November is now a long way away, so I’m not sure what I’ll do for 2018. I think I’m unlikely to recreate this with another source.

So from my perspective, it’s been a success. I hope the stories have been enjoyable. If you would like to get free flash fiction in a similar vein every couple of weeks, you can sign up to my newsletter here.

 

 

Day 29

Reverse

Bernard found the book on his grandfather’s shelf.Page 134 described how to gain sight behind as well as in front. See in both directions at once.

First, he built the arch on his property boundary using only hag stones. Then he made a door to fit the gap, coating it in ancient skin found by the peat cutter’s spade. He used glass eyes prised from taxidermied animals as upholstery buttons, finishing off the portal with a silhouetted cameo of his own head, mirrored to look both directions.

Stepping through the now finished entrance, Bernard found a man with scalpels and intent.

First, the man of blades cut Bernard’s shadow from his feet, and stretched Bernard’s skin to fit two instead of one. Then the scalpel man slid Bernard’s shadow into his back, stitching its body of smoke to his spine with fishing line and cat gut.

Once Bernard’s echo was in place, the scalpel man flourished a vintage buttonhole maker and cut eyeholes for the shadow to see through.

Back through the door, Bernard tried to gaze behind him with his new eyes. All the shadow saw was the suffering in the world, and soon Bernard no longer saw anything but darkness.

Day 30

On Trend

The new candle sticks were the season’s must have. Five branched plants, each tip carrying a different flame. The instructions were very specific. Water the soil, use the enclosed plant food and don’t light them until Christmas Eve.

Soon the shops were emptied of the moss coated gifts, their stone plant pots balanced on window sills across the country.
The small packets of feed did not list the ingredients, but smelt of old frying pans and rotting herbs left to long in the rain. No-one cared. To not have the new candle sticks in your house? Well, one didn’t want to be behind the times. One didn’t want to be off trend.

As darkness came on the 24th mothers and fathers gathered excited children around the living candlesticks to light the wicks.
Flames caught and the bark fell away, exposing the mummified skin underneath, grey and shrunken against preserved tendons. Bones outlined underneath taut, dried out veins.

Smoke rose from each burning finger of the Hand of Glory, and reached the lungs of the waiting families. Across cities and villages parents and offspring fell asleep. The one handed thieves with rope burns on their necks were free to empty houses of goods and gifts, and when the families woke with the dawning of the sun, the only present left was a single mummified hand with fingertips scorched to charcoal.

Day 30

Lantern Light

When the old woman and old man arrived in the town there had been no winter for three generations. They called all the citizens to the marketplace and promised to bring snow to the streets in time for the solstice. The people were cynical and did not believe them, but promised to do what the couple said if it winter returned.

First, the couple asked the families to bring them all the cow horn and brass they had in their houses. Once all they scavenged stood in the centre of town the man began to thin the horn to translucent. The woman cast the alloys into strips, then pinned and hinged them in place.

The old man called the town’s children to him.

“Paint snowflakes on these panels,” he said, holding out the lamp horn.

The children looked at their shuffling feet.

“We don’t know what snowflakes look like,” they said, and in this they told the truth.

The old man opened his coat and took out a fold of wax paper.

“Look and memorise, because you won’t have long,” he said, and held out the tiny bundle. Inside was a single snowflake.

Though the children wept at its beauty they memorised the shapes of the arms, and delicate branches, even as the snow melted away.

When finished, the old woman fitted the panels into the lanterns and climbed the lamp-posts that lined the streets. Removing the bulbs, she hooked the lanterns in place and lit the candles inside.

As the sun shuttered for the night, snow fell from the glowing lamps, and the children danced below catching snowflakes on their tongues. And with the snow came other things. Hearth fires and stories. Shadows of antler figures on the edge of the woods, and barrels of glühwein between the houses.

When the sun came up the streets were white with snow and full of stories. The people could find no sign of the old man and the old woman, except for two smiling figures shaped from snow stood right in the middle of the town.

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 Week 2

Week 2 of my Flash Fiction Month

The idea is that I spend the month running up to Short Story Day (Winter Solstice) writing a piece of flash fiction a day.

This year I’m using the 17th century book ‘A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne’ by George Withers, as a starting point. Ignoring the poems, I’m using the illustrations to kick off ideas. (You can see the book at The Gutenberg Project.

I put a new story up every day at my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/stevetoase1) and then collect them here. For each one I’ll put the link to the illustration from George Withers’ book

 

Day 8

The Moth and The Spider

Timid and fragile, the moth carried seeds within its wings. Not knowing what flowers would blossom unnerved the moth. He landed on a hawthorn branch beside the spider.

“I do not know if they will become lilies or roses. Whether they will bloom once a year or if they will bloom once in a lifetime.”

The spider thought for a moment.

“Come here I will help you answer your question. Fly into my web.”

Rising into the air, the moth flew into the strands of silk, not worrying when it could not move. Not fretting when the spider cocooned him. After all, what was more natural for a moth than to be constrained, and the silk was much softer than any cocoon.

By the time the spider softened and feasted on the wings the moth was past caring. Not interested in eating the seeds, the spider let them tumble to the soil.

Over two months the spider watched them grow, then bud, then blossom. Beautiful lupins as purple as the moth. As faceted as his eyes. Eyes that would never see the beautiful flowers from the seeds he carried in his wings.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_18_1)

Day 9

Bringing In The Crops

The harvest turned to snakes. Instead of digging up potatoes, the people’s spades found vipers nesting in the soil. When children picked blackberries from hedgerows the fruit turned to garter snakes on their gloved palms. Wheat collapsed to thousands of rattlesnakes as the combines reaped the fields. In the orchards apples became windfall and turned to pythons, tangling in people’s hair, and around their necks.

With no food in the storehouses the people called meetings to decide what to do, and with nothing else to do they searched the internet for recipes. By the evening they had menus ready, with stir fry and fritters. Soups and breaded strips. That night they slept, knowing they would not starve in the coming year.

But the people were the harvest and the snakes found their way into the houses, into their bedrooms. Into their mouths. By morning the land was a writhing knot and the reptiles born of soil and wheat seed were fed and fat, and slept amongst the bones of the dead.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_5_1)

Day 10

Cutting
Bill knew all the prohibitions about taking the flowers that lay within the hurdle fence, but knew of no such rules covering the hurdles themselves. With his saw he severed the willow from where it was pressed into the soil and carried the armful of wood back home. Stacking them on the back porch he went inside and sat down, falling asleep from the effort.

By the back door, the willows staves sprouted, sending fresh branches into the air, and finding the thin garden soil. Spreading multiplying. Looking for nutrition to fuel their growth.

Their roots spread under the door, and across the carpet. Creeping over the sleeping man and softening him for food. Pressing roots into his skin and muscle, until they were ready to grow, filling each room until nothing inside the house remained apart from willow.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_6_3)

Day 11

Fused

The three moons were distant relations by light on their mother’s side, but had never met. Their lives around different planets in different galaxies kept them apart. One spoke of a valley on a nearby world where a river ran clear with crystal, each gem so tiny and precise that fish of iron swam the currents.

They agreed to meet, and over many centuries shrugged gravity and shed orbits to make their way to the distant planet. By the time they reached the unfamiliar skies the river had dried to solidity and the fish rusted within.

With disappointment they hugged each other, and the light from the double sun reflected from them to the still crystal river, and back into the air.

The moons were too close, embraced, and when the returned light hit them it melted rock and fused their crescents together. There they are there still, interlocked, waiting for the planet’s gravity to drag them smashing into the crystal river.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_49_2)

Day 12

The Left Hand

The mayor went first, placing his hand on the wooden block as the old man chewed through it with the metal teeth. Next came the parents, mothers and fathers, each giving a single hand to the fence that ran all around the village.

When they were finished the fingers curled toward the fields and the townspeople wrapped their wounds.

The sun went down and the creatures dragged themselves from the hedges, wearing skins of blackthorn and hawthorn. Berries pale and rotting hung from branches knotted into limbs, dragging on the floor as they slouched across the furrows.

Walking across the fields they became clotted with soil until they reached the fence of hands, just where the old man had said it would be. So far their prey had been down to luck and opportunity. Now they knew where to find them and they would feast until their thorns were white with marrow.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_36_4)

Day 13

Drawn

Abel drew things as he supposed them to be, bearing no resemblance to what they looked like in real life. His crocodiles had ears flattened to their heads. Elephants with manes and necks like horses, and the feet of large cats.

So when the demon appeared to him as a small child caught up in a hedgerow, caught by thorns from ambitious brambling, Abel failed to recognise the lord of hell. The demons of Abel’s paintings were armour plated, horned creatures. The blond haired, smudge-cheeked child did not have the lava red eyes of Abel’s paintings, but blue and pale. Questioning and lost. The fingers sunk into his chest, teasing away strands of his soul, were not talons. Instead, small fingers with blackberry skin under their nails.

There would be no chance for him to correct his drawings.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_50_2)

Day 14

Rasp

The rattle that Carver found was made of bone and gold, much larger than the tiny door he found it beside. He turned the object over and over, careful not to let it make a noise until he’d examined the sphere and the handle for warnings.

Finding none, he shook the rattle in the air, letting the sound change volume and tempo. From the tiny slits in the sphere the smell of rasping bone seeped out to coat his hand.

He wasn’t sure what he expected to happen, but when nothing did he found a rhythm and continued scenting the air with burnt knuckle bones. Still nothing happened, so Carver sat beside the tree and let sleep take him.

The skeletons had heard his call, but it took them time to dig themselves free and walk across the fields. They found the sleeping man beside the tree, the death rattle resting on his lap. Now silent. Its call still playing in their teeth.

First they set up their table, placing out their tools. Then they drew lots. Who would get the muscles, who would get the skin. The tendons. The nerves. Many more people would have to scent the air with the rattle before they would be complete again. They were patient, and their return had begun.

(http://www.gutenberg.org/files/50143/50143-h/50143-h.htm#Ill_1_1)

I hope you’re enjoying them. It’s interesting writing within the restrictions placed by the book, though there are a lot of symbols to choose from.

If you do like the flash fiction please consider hopping over to Ko-Fi and buying me a coffee. Two more weeks to go. I might need it! https://ko-fi.com/stevetoase

 

 

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

No automatic alt text available.

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

Image may contain: one or more people and close-up

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.