Never be alone

PHOTO PROMPT © Karuna


 

By the time Diana reached home, night was snapping at her heels, the first fallen leaves of autum swirling in the wind.

What had her mother always said? Never be alone. Always be inside after nightfall. But despite her best efforts and being ‘striking’ in her youth (not beautiful, never that) she’d always lived alone.

Once inside the house, she locked and bolted the door, passed from room to room, closing the shutters on the darkness. Something warm pressed against her calf.

‘Hello, Grim.’

She lifted the cat into her arms, felt the rumble start in his throat as she ruffled the back of his neck. Not quite alone.

 

After dinner she lit the candles, three groups of three – earth, air and sky as mother had taught her – took a bowl of warm water to the dining table and began cleaning the toys she’d found at the allotment.

She didn’t bring objects home often but these had spoken to her. So much love poured into them, so many hopes and whispered promises. The dreams of a young heart had a potency that faded as people aged.

There were countless similar objects around the window and door frames, cluttering the fireplace. China dolls with missing limbs, brooches, rings, letters of love and loss and friendship, a fabric heart, hand-stitched, a token left for an orphan centuries before. Anything loved could work. Could ward them off.

Grim jumped to the window seat, eyes fixed on the shutter latch. Standing, Diana put aside the doll, its eyes rolling closed.

‘You okay, Grim?’

The cat leapt up, hissing, spitting, spinning on his claws, fur standing from his body like pins. The windows rattled, the glass chiming in the frames. Wind howled down the chimney puffed ash into the air. The floor shook beneath her feet, boards bucking, her chair falling.

She checked the candles, still alive in there holders … and watched in horror as they blew out one by one.

A moment of quiet. Ash fell like charred snow, the only sound her own breathing.

Three loud knocks on the shutter.

 


I wrote the first part of this for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers this week and the wonderfully talented Jane Dougherty asked me about the significance of the toys. That got me thinking. So here’s my answer.

The story that raised all the questions – Toy Soldiers – is here. And another tale of Grim the cat is here.

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Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge : After the Invasion

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Image : Virginia Frances Sterret


 

It’s getting dark as Sylvie reaches the top of the mountain, the last glow of the fat sun fading to violet and blue.

She loves nights on watch at the old Observatory. According to her friend Trad, there were ladders reaching floor to roof when the People first found the valley – cogs and wheels too, and a pulley system, rusted and choked with red vines. But it all must have been hauled away years ago, melted, broken, its use forgotten.

By the fire one night, she and Trad argued what the place would have been used for – a grainstore, a pump house, a torture chamber. Grin – the most knowledgeable of them when it comes to Before – said observe meant to look at things, though there isn’t a lot to see now: red vine (everywhere since the Invasion); the village; the distant wink of the sea.

‘A look out,’ Trad had said, sinking back, closing his eyes. ‘Top of the mountain – must have been a look out for Invaders.’

Grin shrugged. ‘Then someone fell asleep the one day they needed to be awake.’

Now alone under the empty dome, the mice scuttle round Sylvie’s boots, a barn owl glides, ghostly pale over her head.

She sits, settles her rifle at her side and gazes up at the stars.

 


Written for Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge. See the well chosen painting and write a story to go along. See here to join in and to read the other tales.

Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge : The slap and hush of the water

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Painting : Ilya Repin, 1896


 

I wondered if she was the oddest creature I had ever seen.

Her appearance was dishevelled – the hair tangled and uncurled at the temples and nape, the hem of her skirt dropped and fraying. A blue and scarlet feather hung from her hat band, dulled and heavy with grease.

Yet.

Her clothes had been good once, the fabrics expensive though worn, the tailoring better than my own, if my untutored eye was any judge.

On three consecutive evenings I passed as she stood on the north bank of the lake, her pale jacket seeming to float before the black, clinging pine trees like a child’s paper boat on a pond.

Each time I saw her, I considered introducing myself. But then each time she was held in a moment of intense concentration, gazing not at the glassy, limitless waters, but at the ground, at a criss-cross of sticks or a fir cone half buried by mud. I almost crouched beside the spotted hound lying sphinx-like at her heels, but his mind seemed to drift elsewhere too, perhaps to the far shore, to a chase of hares and twitching squirrels.

On the fourth evening I took the same path, saw the hound, head lowered to his paws beside a trail of  boot prints. The imprints began deep and dark, but soon faded, growing shallow where the water had lapped them away.

It struck me as I rushed back to the house, in the shadow of the pines, in the slap and hush of the water –

I never saw her face.

 


Written for Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge. See the lovely paintting and write a tale to match. See here to join in and to read the other tales.

 

Jane Dougherty’s microfiction challenge : Death on Black Wyrm Peak

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Photo ©Grantscharoff


 

They reached the foot of the mountain as the dew was drying on the grasslands.

Rand looked about him, at the meadow flowers waving in the breeze, butterflies and hummingbirds dizzying the air. Then he looked ahead. ‘So we climb?’

Sheathing his sword, Mitchell nodded. ‘If you want to eat again.’

Be an innkeeper like your Dad – that’s what my Ma said.’ Rand hooked his battleaxe on his belt, tucked his crossbow under his arm. ‘Soft beds, beer, barmaids – why didn’t I listen?’

They reached the nest just as the sun was lowering over Black Wyrm Peak. A storm head was gathering, clouds the colour of pitch bulging over the valley.

‘Could have done with a full moon,’ whispered Mitchell.

Rand pulled free his axe, the metal shushing the gloom. ‘So now you want me to fight in the dark? Maybe you can hog tie me too?’

Twin snaps, like wet sheets caught in a gale – a sound like knives scraping the rocks. Mitchell grabbed Rand’s arm, pulling him behind an outcrop just as a shadow blacked out the sun.

Mitchell could smell them, an animal smell but like nothing else – meat and ash and sulphur. His pulse beat in his ears. He edged round the outcrop to see their prey.

They were both there – the male wyrm taller by half a man’s height, scales shimmering, seeming to glow in the half light, spikes curving from his head, along his spine and tail. Hard as iron, hard as diamonds – that was how the legend went. The female was beside her mate, smaller, fewer spikes, but they were the venomous ones – one scratch from a talon, from a tooth and you’re dead.

The creatures began to circle each other, claws clashing on the rock, tails twining and as they did a sound – like bells chiming from afar. Depite himself, Mitchell was transfixed, the song echoing through his bones. As they moved faster round each other it was hard to tell where one wyrm began, the other ended, their scales glowing hotter, the colour of dawn over the mountains, lighting the rocks. He’d never seen anything more beautiful …

A whistling sound, a heavy thunk – another whistle, screaming, animal pain. Both dragons fell, shaking the ground, crushing stone to dust. A shape flew past Mitchell. Rand. The sound of an axe hacking flesh, clashing against scales.

The light died.

Moments later, Rand was beside him, gasping for breath, stinking of sulphur. ‘Got them both in the neck with a crossbow bolt – in the soft part under the chin,’ he said, grinning like a boy. ‘And guess what?’ He brought his hand from behind his back, revealing an egg the size of a newborn babe. It shimmered gold in the gloom. ‘Draco wanted the scales and the hearts, but how much will he give us for that?’

Mitchell sighed. ‘Let’s finish up. I need a beer.’

 


Written for Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge. See the pic and write a tale. See here to join in and to read the other stories.

And here and here to read Mitchell and Rand’s previous adventures.

 

 

 

 

Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction challenge : #floatingcityandme

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Painting by Makis E. Warlamis


 

It appeared overnight, a city rooted in the clouds hanging above our own city. People poured from offices to see it, phones pressed against their ears. They shuffled out of shops and supermarkets, basket in hand, unpaid for cans of beans and bunches of bananas squashed against the wire netting.

Photos of it went viral, countless teenagers sharing videos of themselves, the city lined up behind them so it seemed to perch on one shoulder – #floatingcityandme.

My neighbour set up his telescope, zoomed in on the shimmering glass, the pristine marble bridges and piazzas, fountains with water falling in rainbows, white driving pods arcing over terracotta rooves, plunging into banks of cloud like riders on a log flume. ‘It’ll be the Russians,’ he said. ‘Or the Chinese showing off.’

As the days passed I watched my fellow citizens change. Shoulders humped deeper, heads ducking behind upturned collars despite the summer heat. Slurs and curses were muttered under the breath or not voiced at all, a whole city scared of being overheard and watched, a whole city muted.

A TV sweaty evangelist said Jesus had arrived. That he had towed Heaven with him and was waiting patiently amid the clouds for the Chosen to join him. Though the evangelist stayed here, readjusting his polyester wig, hand to the screen, waiting for your call.

Probes were sent, drones with cameras and dials and measuring equipment humming like dragonflies over a pond, and returned with nothing but flattened midges and dirty ice crystals.

One night as I returned from work, my neighbour beckoned me over, pointing to the telescope. Through the lens I saw the floating city’s now smog smeared glass, the fountains clogged with oil and plastic packaging, the driving pods bumper to bumper, a tailback looping round the cloud three times as if congestion and pollution were diseases we had spread, contagious through the atmosphere. My neighbour just shrugged and screwed on the lens cap.

The next day the floating city had vanished, leaving only cloud behind and after a week or so of watching the sky, the city returned to normal, collars turned down, car horns and music and shouting and cussing floating to the gap where the city had shimmered.

And we were alone again.

 


Written for Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge. See the pic and be inspired. See here to join in and to read the other tales.

The painting reminded me of a news story last year, where a city appeared in the clouds above a city in China. Scientists have said it was a mirage but  of course, the general public had other, more sci-fi and millenialist interpretations. See here to find out more.

 

Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge: Diadems and dowries

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How will he choose between them, I wonder? What is there to make any single girl distinctive from the next?

Each is curtained with arctic fox and mink, buckling under the weight of velvet and wool, silks and satins shimmering in the candlelight like sun striking the troubled waters of a lake. They are snuffling, shifting dolls, symbols of their family’s wealth and clawing ambition, flaws cloaked by diadems and dowries.

Watching from the shadows I break a smile. These poor creatures have been trained all their lives, coached to be the perfect kotyonok for the Tsar. Each is silent, eyes turned to the chequered tiles, hands folded as in lazy prayer, features floating like dead leaves in milk pail faces.

I wonder what’s happening behind those half moon eyes, if ever a spark flares beneath the ashes. Do they have a spirit unrestrained by unbending fathers, grasping mothers?

My Galina waits for me in our cottage, kneading bread with her reddened fists, lugging wood from under the forest’s black veil. Full of fiest and fire, eyes filled with love or hate or lust, ready to kiss or claw me, depending on her mood.

I’ll take my girl over these varnished Babushka dolls.

 


Written for Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge. See here to join in and to read the other tales.

Kotyonok – a Russian term of endearment meaning kitten.

 

Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge: The flight of Little Wren

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Arnold Bocklin : Isle of the Dead, 1883


 

‘Is it beautiful?’

I wake from dozing, the swaying grass and humming bumble bees that escorted my dream still clinging to me as the dimly lit sick room reasserts itself. Something inside my chest cracks, I’m certain, as the meadow fades, stealing away the scent of leaves and summer flowers, sweet memories of Connie smiling, Connie happy, Connie struggling through the hip high grass, bedecked with daisy chains.

There is my Connie now. Lying in bed, arms pale as the sheet that covers her. Dark smudges blot the hollows under her eyes, though her cheeks are unnaturally red as if she’s just come from running in the meadow.

I’m unsure if I dreamed her voice, so I wait for her to speak again, or not. I have learned patience over these weeks, if not acceptance.

‘Is it beautiful?’

This time, I am not mistaken. I lean forward, smell the sour scent of her breath, the bitter tang of her body. Though we wash her daily, the smell clings, the grave staking its claim on her.

‘Is what beautiful, dearest?’ I whisper, lips close to her ear.

‘The Isle of the Dead.’ Her voice is so faint, I struggle to catch that last.

Is this some fairy tale that foolish maid has spun? She is full of old wive’s tales, of cures for coughs and broken hearts and ways to find a husband. I know Mama would want me to call the story out for a lie. Say the only way to redemption is through surrender to the Lord. But my sister is so tiny, so frail a thing, so very close to whatever lies next. The thing I wish for most is to smooth the worry lines from her face.

I take up her hand, no bigger than a wren cradled in my own and I begin to speak.

‘Oh, yes, a lovely place, dear one. Running with crystal waterfalls, so sweet on the tongue. And cypress trees taller than St Mary’s steeple. There are rocks to climb, though they will never cut your palms or graze your knees and birds that sing so sweetly, the sound will break your heart …’

I speak till I am hoarse, till the sun is full up and my little wren has flown.

 


Written for Jane Dougherty’s Microfiction Challenge # 20. See the wonderful painting and write a tale to compliment it. See here to join in and to read the other tales.