Weird Fiction ~ a guest post by James Everington

James is the author of The Other Room, a collection of short stories I enjoyed reading a few months ago. Some are reminiscent of Lovecraft, some of M.R. James but all have a unique Everington flavour. Over to you, James:

 

Why I Sub-titled The Other Room a collection of “Weird Fiction”

My self-published collection of short stories, The Other Room, sits firmly in the horror section of the various virtual bookshelves it is for sale on. In terms of commercially defined genres there wasn’t really any other choice – and after all it does feature a brace of ghosts, a parallel universe or two, and many a scary noise and sinister figures glimpsed out the corner of the eye.

Horror fiction is a broad genre though, despite what those who have never read it might believe, and I wanted to give readers an indication of the type of horror fiction they might expect within its virtual pages. Hence the subtitle: Weird Fiction by James Everington.

‘Weird fiction’ is a term that was first used with reference to short stories by the likes of Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, and has been used intermittently by writers ever since. It’s a term which seems to have come into vogue again, especially with the publication of

The Weird, a vast (and I do mean vast) new anthology.  In a similar vein, Robert Aickman called his fiction ‘strange stories’ meaning much the same thing, I think – horror fiction that wasn’t quite horror, ghost stories that didn’t necessarily feature ghosts – weird, odd, strange, ghostly, uncanny fiction.

But what exactly is ‘weird fiction’? Well, like anything interesting, it is hard to define.

Maybe a definition of what it isn’t will help. Imagine a basic horror story plot:

zombies rise up

zombies start to kill people, who turn into zombies themselves

the central characters struggle to survive the growing zombie hoard

some die, some don’t.

the end.

The zombies in this story are scary, if the writer is any good, but within the context of the story they aren’t any more scary than a man-eating tiger or a tsunami, say. They are a physical threat to be overcome.

Now let’s imagine a weird fiction take on the zombie story:

zombies rise up

zombies return to where they used to live. They are silent and placid, but not dangerous

One man, finds his wife’s first deceased husband has returned and has his (somewhat smelly) feet back under the table.

He is gradually usurped by this imposter, and kicked out by his wife. He lives in a big camp of the similarly displaced.

He ponders suicide, as a way of coming back as a zombie and maybe winning back his life.

(I might actually write this one now I’ve thought it up!)

These two examples are somewhat contrived, but they illustrate the point: weird fiction uses the tropes of horror, but it’s tone is likely to be creepy and ambiguous rather than all-out carnage and loud screaming. What tends to be at stake for the protagonist is not simply their physical survival, but murkier questions of identity, ethics, or the nature of reality or perception. Examples abound, many from writers not always considered horror authors: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kafka, Joyce Carol Oates. And of course many of the best horror writers are firmly in this territory.

One of the key things that distinguishes this kind of writing, for me, is ambiguity. At the end of a piece of weird fiction questions will remain unanswered (one reason, I think, why this type of fiction’s natural home is the short story).

For certain it’s a sprawling and largely undefined tradition of writing, but one I feel very much a part of. It is more a feeling that anything that can be strictly defined. You know it when you feel it. And for me that feeling is like stepping into the ‘other’ room. One where everything initially seems familiar and safe, but you still feel that something, somewhere, is off-key…

For those who are intrigued I will finish with a ‘Weird Fiction 101’ reading list – not necessarily the best stories, but a good introduction:

The Swords -Robert Aickman

The Willows – Algernon Blackwood

The Turn Of The Screw – Henry James

The Summer People – Shirley Jackson

The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Afterward – Edith Wharton

The Companion – Ramsey Campbell

#

Bio:

James Everington is a writer from Nottingham, England. His first collection of ‘weird fiction’  The Other Room is available from

Amazon UK, Amazon US, and SmashwordsHYPERLINK “https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/69127”.

Along with some other great horror authors, he is one of the

Abominable Gentleman, writers of the semi-regular anthology Penny Dreadnought.

He talks nonsense on his

Scattershot Writing blog or on Twitter as @JHEverington .

Green Willow

Green Willow

The astringent smell of wet willow leaves filled the air as she pounded along the tow path, and danced in and out of the puddles. The cold spring rain lashed against her face and dripped off the peak of her running cap but the pounding of her feet and the drumming of the rain failed to drown out the music in her ears. Volume up as high as she dared go, she’d set her mp3 player to random and had let fate choose whatever songs it dared on this day. Let the music decide what she did. The one good thing about running in the rain was no one could see that her face was as wet with tears as it was with rain.

Pushing herself to run faster and harder than she liked, the miles added up and while her legs and her lungs begged her to stop, she couldn’t stop running till she finally stumbled and fell.

The fall knocked the breath from her body, and drove grit and filth into her hands as she tried to protect her face from hitting the ground. The chill of the day delayed the onslaught of pain and for a shocked second or two she lay still, face in a puddle, until both the blood and the pain started to flow. That was the point when a steady stream of tears became a torrent and she curled up and howled at the empty canal and beat her bleeding fists on the path.

In a movie, this would be when a kind passer-by would stop and comfort her and take her home, tend her wounds and help her heal. But there was no one, not even a solitary dog-walker, collar turned against the rain, and she sat in an icy puddle and sobbed till her throat was raw. She’d kept all the pain inside, never speaking of it, never allowing it to reach full consciousness and that morning, it became like a ghostly elephant, a ponderous foot pressing ever harder down on her heart. Her usual morning run had already been extended by significant distance and when she dragged herself to her feet, she could feel she’d pulled various muscles and strained her left ankle when she fell. There was blood oozing through her running trousers where the fall had gashed her knees, and her hands were pitted with gravel and dirt. Slowly she turned and started limping homewards, energy and hope spent.

There was no way she’d get to work on time, and she decided that as soon as she got in, she’d ring in sick. She’d run a hot bath and lie in it and…..Her mind wandered to whether it was possible to detach the blade from ladies’ razors. The fall had just released the pain she’d not wanted to acknowledge and like a shattered window there was no way of restoring that barrier between her feelings and her conscious mind any more.

And that would have been the end of that, a body found in a bathtub, friends and family horrified and totally mystified (“She was such a steady girl; what on earth made her do it? No-one can understand it!”) but for two things happening within moments of each other.

The first thing was the wind getting up and slapping her in the face with a slender branch of newly-opened willow leaves, knocking her backwards in shock.

The second was her mp3 player choosing that moment to start playing an old song:

All around my hat,

I will wear the green willow

All around my hat

For a twelve month and a day

And if anyone should ask me

The reason why I’m wearing it

It’s all for my true love,

Who is far, far away

Fare thee well, cold winter

And fare thee well, cold frost

Nothing have I gained,

But my own true love I’ve lost

I’ll sing and I’ll be merry

When occasion I do see,

He’s a false, deluding young man,

Let him go, farewell he!

The other night he brought me

A fine diamond ring, but he

Thought to have deprive me

Of a far better thing!

But I being careful,

Like lovers ought to be,

He’s a false, deluding young man

Let him go, farewell he!

With a quarter pound of reason,

And a half a pound of sense,

A small spring of time,

And as much of prudence,

You mix them all together,

And you will plainly see

He’s a false deluding young man

Let him go, farewell he!”

The wet leaves seemed to have a life of their own, and caught in her hair and her hat, and she struggled for a moment to free herself from the branch. It felt more like a briar than a  willow and she had to break the longest twig to free herself from it.

Staring at the shining brilliance of the new leaves, she felt a shiver starting and as the song thundered on, a queer little tugging began somewhere in the back of her mind. With a rapid twisting, she made a rough wreath of the willow twig, tucking the ends in. She didn’t expect it to stay in the oval circlet but it did and she took off her hat so she could arrange the wreath on that.

Grunting with a weird sense of satisfaction she put the hat back on her head and started to hobble more briskly homeward.   

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zzwbYyvWiU

The Gardener and His Apples

The gardener and his apples

Behind the high walls of crumbling red brick a garden was tended with immense and loving care by a man who knew every plant and stone and loved them all. The garden was one he had tended much of his life and his father and his father’s father before him. The garden was what you would call a working garden, and a greater part of it was a market garden. Once his father had grown potatoes and carrots and the usual array of vegetables but only a small plot was used for that now, and its produce was for his own table.

The gardener mainly grew the things the supermarket buyers wanted him to grow: soft fruits like blueberries, raspberries, red currants, and unusual and fashionable vegetables. He grew enough of such premium food to make a quiet living on top of his other part time job, and he was content with his life but for one thing.

That one thing was the orchard.

Now the orchard was a beautiful place, half an acre of mature trees that had mainly been planted by his grandfather. The trees were a mixture of fruit trees and the majority of them were apple trees. Not just any old apple trees but the glorious old varieties that you hardly ever see any more. Every spring time a local bee-keeper came with hives and while the apples bloomed fragrantly the leaves were filled with the contented hum of a million bees. A few jars of honey always came his way for this and he always looked forward to it. The problem had become the apples themselves.

People had become accustomed to only certain types of apples being considered to be apples. The varieties he grew not only tasted quite different to normal apples, they looked different too. Some were smaller than usual and had a colour that seemed different to the shiny green or red that the shoppers preferred. Since he never used any pesticides, or anything unnatural, most of the crop had at least a tiny blemish or mark on their skin. The apples refused to grow perfectly round and to a specified size. And their taste was far stronger and richer than most shop-bought apples ever were. So little by little demand for his apples dropped away until the last two years he’d been unable to sell any apples at all. The previous year’s crop had gone to feed pigs.

Now this year, as the September sun ripened his apples, he stood watching his beautiful orchard and wondered if it was time to chainsaw the whole lot and replant with modern varieties that the public might want to buy. The song of the birds soothed him and as he watched both the birds and the busy insects and saw the thousands of faces of flowers looking up from the grass beneath the trees, and smelled the rich fruity smell of the first windfalls fermenting in hidden hollows in the grass, he thought, not this year.

Pondering it over a quiet beer with his old friends at the pub, one of them suggested that rather than let them all just rot or be composted, he ought to fill up crates with them and leave them at his front gate with a sign telling people to help themselves.

People love getting things for nothing,” said his friend. “It’ll encourage all those kids who walk past your place every morning and afternoon to eat some proper fruit.”

What a good idea, he thought, and when he got home, he hauled out a wooden crate and filled it with some of the first apples that had ripened. The smell rising from them made his mouth water, and he wrote out a sign saying Free Apples and put both out by the front gate and went to bed.

The next morning, he watched from an upstairs window as the usual parade of uniformed school children trooped past. He saw heads turn and glance at the sign before rushing onwards. Of course, first thing in the morning perhaps apples aren’t what you want, he thought and got on with his busy day. As evening came he went to refill the crate with more apples and when he got to the front gate he almost dropped his basket. The crate was empty.

Excellent, he thought. The children love my apples.

For the next two or three days he filled the crate up every morning but then he noticed something when he went for his usual Friday night pint at the pub. All along the road were smashed apples. They’d been kicked to pieces, used as footballs, as missiles to throw at the ducks in the duckpond. There was no evidence that anyone had ever set tooth to a single one.

Well, then suggest a donation and put out an honesty box,” suggested his friend. “But leave it a few days to let the kids forget they used to be free.”

The following Monday he began again with a fresh batch of apples, a new sign and a cash box with a slit chained to the gate. The sign read, “Please take an apple, and make a donation if you enjoy it.”

Again he watched from a distance as people passing, not just children, stopped and read the sign and at the end of the day he came back to find some of the apples gone, and only a few littering the road. A core had been placed on the cash-box, but when he opened it, it was empty. The following day, the same outcome, except for a badly spelled note in straggly handwriting pushed into the cash-box, which read, “Your appels tast like shit.” And on the third day, he went to pick up the crate only to discover the apples were all wet; someone had urinated on them.

Discouraged, he took the sign and the cash-box down and threw the remaining apples into the compost.

As the rich September sunshine ripened more and more apples, he decided to have one more shot at it and this time he filled a few bags up with apples, put out the cash-box again and wrote yet another sign. This one read simply, “Apples, 8 for 50p. Put money in box; I am watching YOU!”

At the end of the first day he came to find the crate empty and the cash-box rattling. When he added up the money and the number of bags, it didn’t tally exactly. Undoubtedly someone had taken a bag of apples and not paid for it. But the next day, he filled more bags and set them out and so it went on.

One morning as he was setting the crate of apples out a schoolboy stopped.

I don’t have fifty pee,” said the schoolboy, and the gardener looked at the boy curiously. His uniform was clearly second-hand, probably a hand-me-down from an older brother and his face looked pinched and a little pasty. Poor kid probably needed some decent food in him, thought the gardener.

Tell you what,” said the gardener. “I’ll let you have some for nothing if you do a bit of tidying up for me out here. Come by after school and we’ll see.”

The boy’s face brightened, and then brightened some more when the gardener opened one of the bags and popped an apple in his hand.

You munch on that on your way to school and the rest’ll be here waiting for you later,” he said and the boy bit into the apple and began running to catch up with the rest of the gang of kids.

That afternoon, the gardener waited near the gate, weeding the path, until the school boy came back.

Hey mister, that apple was lush,” came the voice and the gardener got up from his kneeler and came to the gate. “What do you want me to do?”

The gardener had thought about this. He produced a big bucket of water and some cloths and a fresh piece of white card with a packet of coloured pens. Then he brought round a new basket of apples and some clear plastic bags.

You can make my apple stall look a bit nicer,” he said.

So he watched for a while as the boy washed, dried and bagged up apples and he went inside for a cup of tea. When he came back, he found the boy had not only finished bagging the clean apples, he’d made a good start on a new sign. He’d sketched out new words and was busy making each letter a work of art. They were like the letters in an illuminated manuscript, with little drawings worked into them.

Can I finish it at home, please, mister, me mum’s going to go spare if I’m not home soon?” asked the boy and the gardener nodded and handed the boy his promised bag of apples and saw him scurry off down the street with school bag, sign and apples all clutched in his skinny arms. 

The following morning, as he watched from an upstairs window, the gardener saw the children rushing by and he saw a familiar mouse brown head pause at the little stall before rushing on. Curious, he went to see if the boy had brought the finished sign. People were stopping to read as he got to the gate and he waited till the rush of school kids was gone before going to see what the final version of the sign said.

The sign, among the drawings of apples and bees and butterflies, read:

These are not just apples; these are carefully tended, specially washed and utterly delicious apples. Eat one and never crave Golden Delicious again.”

In smaller letters it then read:

8 for 50p but feel free to pay more when you buy some more

and in smaller letters still it said: I bet you will, too!

By the first frosts, the gardener had sold every single apple but for the ones he’d set aside in his shed to save for the winter, for himself and his helpful young assistant.

  

A fragrance of roses ~ a love-story for Christmas Eve

 

A fragrance of roses 

 

The scent of summer wakes me, drifting on the cool night air, and brings me to consciousness again. Roses in fullest bloom, warmed by June sunshine, great old fashioned cabbage-headed flowers that drop petals and trail their heavenly scent throughout the house. But it is late December and amid the scents of pine and baking, this scent is surprising and welcome, reminding me of sunnier days and long-lost memories of courtship and romance.

Every year at this time the fragrance of roses seeps into my awareness, a dim lovely thread of happy associations and a feeling of such intense love that my eyes prickle with tears of joy. I weep tears of sadness and broken-hearted sorrow almost every day, but this day, the scent of roses brings me the sweeter tears of purest delight and I know that I am loved for myself alone and not for what I may do for another soul.

Other times, a touch on my cheek as soft as brushing through cobwebs brings me that sense of being loved by someone who is not here. A phantom hand will stroke my hand or my face and I smile and shiver, grateful for the loving gesture and wishing I could know who it is who makes these gestures of gentleness and loving respect. I gaze into infinity and send my visitor the best I can do: my prayers and my thanks.

 

*

 

The old man eased himself off his aching knees and got to his feet, letting the folds of his battered cassock fall straight. It really needed replacing, it was getting so worn and faded, but every time he thought to buy a new one, he decided it probably wasn’t worth it. His had already been a long life, and each year from now on was a surprising bonus for someone who’d expected to die at eighteen, a terrified conscript soldier cowering in a foreign church waiting to be shot by his enemies.

The tiny candle flame flickered at the feet of the statue, and cast a rosy glow on her bare toes. The roses were already wilting, their smooth petals starting to crumple at the edges. A single petal had already fallen, and he lifted it and held it to his cheek as he gazed at the wise and serene face. It cost far too much to buy these roses every year; the florists only stocked the sterile, scentless red roses that might as well be paper or plastic, and he had to order these specially. But the sensuous perfume and the exuberance of colour and form and imperfections were what he wanted, not the uniform perfection of the bouquets of lovers’ roses. The Rosa Mystica was perfection that defied definition.

The impassive face seemed as thoughtful and inward-looking as ever but he sensed that beyond the plaster and paint was a real smile of benediction. She had saved his life once, long ago and for that, each year he brought the flowers that might remind her that saint she might be, but she was surely a woman first.

Drawing a blank

Drawing a blank

 

Isobel Hunter had a five pound note and a handful of change to get through the rest of the week and it was only Tuesday. It seemed that she might pay the rent and the essential bills on what she managed to earn but eating appeared to be an optional extra. The meagre contents of her purse were all she had to buy food with, having worked out her average earnings for a week of sketching, deducted the rent and so on, put aside a sum to pay for materials, what remained was the money she had left. Out of that money had to come everything else she might need, including food.

Her stomach rumbled like a distant aircraft taking off and she tried to remember when she’d had more than a few mouthfuls of food. Day before yesterday, she thought. It didn’t help that her chosen pitch was right next to a restaurant with tables set out in the sunshine. The aroma of food wafting over was distracting at best, maddening at worst. What worried her most was that she had mostly stopped feeling hungry at all. Oh there was the gnawing ache that nagged much of the time, but the usual anticipatory delight about eating was gone. Food had become fuel and scarce fuel at that. Maybe she’d have done better to have risked going to Paris and trying her luck round Montmartre.

At least it was warm. The thought of sitting here in the bitter cold made her shudder. She could imagine huddling up under her ex-army greatcoat, ten sizes too big for her, with about six jumpers and wearing fingerless gloves while her hands tried to hold charcoal or pencils.

Well, if things didn’t pick up by late October, then she’d go home, cut off the mouse-coloured dreads her mother loathed so much, die a slow death by respectability and get what her father called, a ‘proper job’. No one could ever say she’d not tried and tried bloody hard at that. Some times the odds were just too stacked against you to have much hope of making it. Right now she thought she would commit grievous bodily harm for a good square meal.

Customers(she refused to even think of them as punters; it went down too many unpleasant avenues of association) seemed thin on the ground today. People loaded with shopping bags hurried past her and avoided eye contact.

‘Maybe I’d do better selling the Big Issue,’ she said aloud, feeling just as ostracised and ignored. If things don’t pick up soon I may not even manage the rent this month, she thought and sighed.

The tall guy with the pony tail was due to come past again soon; every lunchtime, he came past, on his way to the sandwich shop at the end of the road. Every day, he smiled at her and she smiled back. It was the one fixed point of this life that she realised she was looking forward to each day. Feeling a lurch of something that might have been desperation mixed with hunger, she made a snap decision. If she didn’t have a decent meal soon, she was going to be ill. Alert now, and mind made up, she watched carefully so she might spot the tall guy before he saw her; it wasn’t hard as he was a good few inches taller than the majority of the shoppers.

At two minutes past twelve, she saw his distinctive hairline appearing above the heads of the mass of shoppers and fixed her eyes on him, rising unconsciously out of her folding chair so that she might better catch his attention when he got close enough. To her surprise she found her heart was pumping much faster and her mouth was dry.

Don’t be so stupid, she told herself sternly. What’s the worst he can do to you? Say no? Well, then, you’ll be no worse off than you are now.

He walked rapidly, but erratically, dodging people awkwardly as if he was loath to bump into people in the crowd and within seconds he was only a few yards away. As if from a mile away, Isobel noticed that his smile began the second he spotted her, standing uneasily by the easel and her chair, her box of materials laid open like a treasure chest.

She swallowed hard and was about to speak when he beat her to it.

Hello,” he said, and then stopped and looked uncertain, though his smile had just got broader.

Hello,” said Isobel, her voice suddenly quite husky. “I’m sorry to just stop you like this but….” She swallowed hard and made herself go on. “It’s been a bit of a slow morning, and I’ve had no customers today. I wonder, would you like me to draw you? For a sandwich, that’s all. I just need to have someone to draw and then people come and watch. It gives them something to see and decide.”

So where does the sandwich come in?” he asked cheerfully.

Isobel went a deep red.

I haven’t eaten for a couple of days,” she said, not meeting his eyes. This was so shaming.

He stood there, considering, and Isobel continued to flush with embarrassment.

Just a sec,” he said, pulling out a diary and flicking through it. “Yep, I can do it. Nothing fixed for this afternoon.”

She waited a moment before internally punching the air and saying, “Yes!” in triumph but outwardly she seemed calm.

Tell you what, though,” he was saying. “I reckon you’d do better on all counts if you had a proper meal over here and then drew me. You grab your easel, I’ll bring the rest.”

Before she knew quite what was happening, he had scooped up her chair under his arm and shut the box and picked that up too and was striding over to the restaurant that had taunted her so often with the glorious odours of food beyond her purse.

Table for two,” he said to the waiter who came out to meet them. Isobel kept her head bobbed so she didn’t need to meet the eyes of the waiter. “We’ll stay out here in the sunshine.”

Isobel felt slightly dizzy, but she wasn’t sure if it was hunger that was causing it.

White or red?” the guy was asking her and she stared at him without understanding.

Wine,” he said kindly. “You can have what you like but it’s a little cheaper to buy a bottle.”

White,” she said, feeling the sensation of vertigo increase but in a pleasant way. “What do you fancy then? Pencil, charcoal, pastels, pen and ink?”

I don’t know,” he said. “What do you like doing most?”

Isobel was stumped.

Painting, actually,” she said. “But that’s not something I can do on the fly. I usually start with sketches and work from there.”

Then we can start with a sketch,” he said, and then grinned at her. “But after lunch.”

He ordered a bottle of house white and the waiter continued to give Isobel quizzical looks; he was the chap who had seen her sneak a slice of leftover pizza a week or two back and had shouted at her.

What’ll you have, then?” the ponytail guy asked her, when she’d stared at the menu for five minutes without speaking.

You order for me,” she said, shyer than she’d ever been in her whole life.

To her surprise his grin became even broader.

Cool,” he said. “No one has ever asked me to do that before!”

He ordered a starter they could share and then a pizza with just about everything on it and a side salad for each of them.

We can think about dessert later,” he said.

From the now permanent smile, she guessed he was enjoying himself immensely and despite her anxiety that the waiter might come over and whisper in his ear that she was a vagrant and a thief, she realised that since they’d sat down, her own smile had barely dimmed at all. The waiter started to pour some wine but the ponytail guy held up his hand.

We can manage that, thanks,” he said and when the waiter disappeared, he commented to Isobel, “I got the impression he was making you uncomfortable.”

Isobel was impressed.

Well, he yelled at me last week for nicking some food,” she admitted and the guy laughed. “It was only going to go in the bin or be pinched by seagulls, so I figured why not? But obviously it lowers the tone of the establishment having someone like me stealing leftovers.”

Is it getting that hard for you?” he asked, and she could hear real concern in his voice.

Sometimes, yes,” she said. “I don’t seem to be able to make above a certain sum each week so the eating bit is kind of optional.”

How did you come to be here?” he asked. “Sorry, I don’t even know your name. We see each other almost every day and we’ve never spoken. How strange is that? You’re the only person who smiles at me.”

I’m Isobel,” she said, and then because she couldn’t help it, “Isobel Hunter, starving artist. I even live in a garret, sort of.”

Mickey Trelawny,” he said. “I’m hesitant to tell you what I do, though.”

She gave him a searching look.

I can forgive most things,” she said. “Just tell me you’re not an aspiring porn star, that’s all!”

He roared with laughter, throwing back his head and giving in totally to amusement.

No,” he said, wiping his eyes and taking a generous swig of wine. “I’m a trainee substance abuse worker. It’s pretty grim and I think I may have taken a bit of a wrong turn. So Isobel Hunter, how did you end up here?”

Simple,” she said. “I did a degree in art, didn’t want to go home and die of boredom while trying to find a job and probably take a PGCE and end up teaching bored teenagers how to draw still life. I figured I’d give it a try. So far so good. Apart from not eating that is. I have friends who went to Paris. I sometimes think I ought to have been a tad more courageous and tried that but hey, if I can rustle up enough money I might still do it.”

Don’t!” he said, and it startled her how sharp his voice was. “I mean, don’t rush into anything, that’s all.”

Chance’d be a fine thing,” she said. “I am keeping my head above water, just, but I think I am unlikely to get enough spare to consider getting over to France and trying my luck there.”

You never know,” he said, and a shiver went through her. “Your luck might change any time. Might even be today.”

Well, at least today I get to eat, she thought, and he seems like a nice guy. A really nice guy. I just hope he isn’t a nutter. Seems sane enough, even if he is having lunch with me.

The starter arrived and Isobel discovered her appetite had merely been suppressed and not gone away at all. She had to rein in her overwhelming desire to stuff herself with the piping hot potato skins and the garlic dip and be at least half way civilised about sharing the food equally. As she stuck an eager fork into the nearest potato her hand brushed his as he did the same and they both froze for a second or two, unable to meet the other’s eyes. Isobel broke the impasse by rapidly dunking her forkful in the dip and transferring it in one swift movement into her mouth.

Mistake. The potato was far too hot, despite its coating of chilled mayonnaise, and she fought not to spit it out as it burnt her tongue and the sides of her mouth. Bugger it, she thought, why did I have to be so greedy?

She grabbed her wine and took a hefty mouthful to try and cool things down. After a second or two, she found she was able to chew without it hurting too much and she forced herself to swallow and get rid of the embarrassingly full mouth. She’d been so pre-occupied with not spitting it out and trying to manage her mistake without being revolting that she hadn’t noticed that Mickey was almost crying with laughter.

I always do that,” he said when she glared at him. “Forget quite how hot those damn things are. Here, have some more wine.”

He refilled her mysteriously emptied glass.

My mother would be mortified,” she said, taking a more restrained sip this time.

Your mother isn’t here,” he said and she made herself meet his eyes and saw nothing there but kindness. “Look, I’d have stuffed myself if I were as hungry as you clearly are, if that makes you feel any better. I’ve never been that hungry in my life.”

It’s all down to stupid pride,” she said. “If I phoned my dad, he’d send me money. He’d never even think I might actually go hungry. He’d be horrified if he knew for sure how I’m living. But I’m not ready to give up just yet.”

Good,” he said, firmly. “Come on, let’s get on with these skins before they get cold.”

Isobel ate until she felt she might possible burst, or at the very least burp loudly, and then, the pizza reduced to crumbs, Mickey asked for the dessert menu.

Please don’t be one of those girls who are always slimming and won’t eat pudding,” he said, with another of those ear-to-ear grins.

I might be one of those girls who eats far too much and embarrasses everyone by belching the national anthem,” she replied. “But you can relax. Not today. And yes, if they have ice cream, I am up for dessert. It’s an ice creamy sort of day.”

He scanned the menu anxiously.

There is ice cream but the very boring sort,” he said. “Tell you what, since I am free this afternoon, why don’t we go down to the pier, and have an ice cream down there instead? They have about fifty flavours, including bubble gum and pistachio….”

His eyes held a pleading look and Isobel was reminded of a small boy angling for a treat.

Sounds good to me,” she said. “I need a bit of a walk to shake things down a bit and make room.”

Mickey paid and they set off, carrying her equipment between them. Sitting on the pier and nibbling at an ice cream that defied gravity with four scoops of pastel coloured sweetness, she sighed. The sunshine on her face was so pleasant, and her worries seemed to have disappeared. She was dimly aware that really, wonderful as it was, she should get back to her pitch and get on with some drawing but somehow she felt so relaxed and happy for the first time in God knew how long that she shoved it to the back of her mind.

The ice cream melted almost as fast as they could eat it and by the time Isobel was crunching down the cone, her fingers were sticky and her face was a mess. Mickey was almost as bad. She scrubbed at her face and hands with a tissue only to have it disintegrate into paper shrapnel and she burst out laughing.

I can’t thank you enough for a wonderful lunch,” she said. “But now I need to keep my side of the bargain and draw you.”

He made a face at that.

You can find someone much nicer to draw than me,” he said.

He got to his feet and started to arrange her chair and her easel and box and Isobel watched in astonishment as he flipped open the box and cleared his throat. The pier was crowded with families and young couples and old people still with their coats on against the mild sea breeze.

Roll up roll up,” he began, his voice taking on the timbre of a circus ringmaster. “World renowned artist Isobel Hunter is here to draw your portrait, a unique record of your beauty and character to treasure forever. First person gets theirs for just five pounds. Who wants their mug immortalised by this talented lady. Only five pounds for the first sitter. You, good lady? Why sit right down and smile that lovely smile….”

He opened the camp stool with a theatrical flourish and the nervously smiling middle aged woman lowered herself onto it and gazed at Isobel. Isobel swallowed hard and smiled her own best smile and switched her professional eyes on.

By the time the sun started to set, and the light became too dim to draw, Isobel had done more portraits than she’d ever done in one day, and had given away a handful of her own little business card (not that it said much beyond a few contact details in case someone wanted to commission her) and she had sharpened her favourite pencil down to a stub. She’d been so engrossed in her work that she had forgotten to be cautious of Mickey and as they walked off the pier, carrying all her clobber between them, she tucked her free arm in his as they strolled through the rapidly diminishing crowds.

That was some afternoon,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever worked so hard before. They were queuing up. I don’t know how to thank you for your help.”

I’ll have to think about that,” he said, with laughter in his voice and then said, “You can thank me by letting me buy you dinner. Please. I don’t want today to end, so can we just carry on as if it never will?”

Isobel stopped dead, letting go of his arm. He had that little-boy-pleading look on his face and she found that when she thought about what he’d said, it was pretty much the same as she was feeling.

If you let me drop this stuff off at home and get cleaned up, then hell, yeah. I’m up for it,” she said.

Later, much later, a little drunk on wine but high on the pleasure of being happy without having to worry, she stood at her door, feeling a chill at the ending of the evening. This was the test, the final test of who this man was, and if he failed it, then it would ruin what had been a virtually perfect day. There was some shuffling of shoes and avoiding of eyes as they stood in sudden silence after having talked all day and all evening.

I’m not going to kiss you,” he said, breaking the silence. “That’s not to say I don’t want to. But I want to save something for tomorrow, and the day after that. I want to go home and think, I have tomorrow to look forward to.”

She gazed up at him, noticing for the first time how much taller he was than her.

Then come and call for me tomorrow evening,” she said, feeling breathless.

His face lit up with another of those massive grins.

I’ll do just that,” he said and before she could weaken and ask him in, he was gone.

It was only as she put her key into the lock that she realised that even with all the drawing she’d done, she’d not drawn his picture at all.

Oh well,” she said. “Plenty of time for that another day,” and recalled what he’d said at lunch about her luck changing.

She had a strong feeling he might very well have been right.

(For whether or not this first date ever became anything more, you need to read Away With The Fairies

Across the Ages ~ a story for All Souls’ Day

Across the ages ~ a story for All Souls’ Day

I waited for you, lurking in the shadows of the agora, hoping to share what I had stolen from listening to philosophers, shawl covering my face and the food in my basket emitting glorious fragrance of ripe fruit and warm bread. They don’t like women, most of them, but they don’t throw things at me to drive me away any more. I have to lie to cover why I am so long but that day you didn’t come to find out what I had learned, so I risked another beating to see where you were. You were drunk, your mother told me and she told me not to ever come back; there was talk about that Socrates being a danger to our gilded youth. She could not have made it plainer that she feared what would happen if you continued to explore these things, even debated second-hand with a slave like me.

Of course they made him drink hemlock for the sake of our gilded youth, and I saw you in the crowd. You would not meet my eyes, and when I sought to speak with you, you shoved me away and called me whore. I think now the whole crowd heard my heart break, though perhaps all they heard was the crack of the flask I carried as it hit the stone. I died inside but it was a few years before a sickness the doctors could not treat carried the rest of me away. I did not fight it. I had become too attached to you to continue my journey without the meaning my task with you had given me.

I floated for many years, between worlds. I passed a few more lifetimes without catching more than a glimpse of you. There are others I dance this millennia old dance with, stepping the measure round through the passage of centuries. Each time I meet a familiar soul, I know that I know them somehow but when I am incarnate I seldom remember what ties me to them and sometimes we pass, without speaking or connecting, with only that electric spark, as eyes meet and for a millisecond, we know each other.

Some lives it takes me years or decades to remember who I am, others, I know from childhood that I have been here before, and I start to seek others as soon as I can be independent.

The Roman Empire in decline was a hard place to live, and I died a few times in ways I prefer not to recall. I saw you there, a soldier “just following orders” and doing things I hope you never remember.

The Dark Ages…well, what can I say? They have the name for a reason. Yet, I lived out one life in peace, a farmer in a remote spot, at one with the land and with God. I cherish that life. I have had so few where everything fell into place and I had peace and inner vision without conflict. I saw you at a distance, when you came to our village with your peddlar’s pack, and your eyes met mine and turned away. I think you knew me and chose not to speak, to renew our acquaintance. We go back tens of thousands of years, you and I, to times when people first tried to make sense of this baffling world we live in. And yet every time, you turn away, deciding it is too hard and that a happy life is one without thought. Believe me, the few happy lives I have lived have been as full of thought as the desperate hopeless pain-filled ones. It is not thought that creates misery, nor is questioning.

I wonder now if there is something lacking in me, in my ancient soul, that means you turn ever away, disappointed that I cannot be what you wish me to be. Perhaps one life we may find out why that is not to be; or whether even after all these centuries you are still not ready to face the truths. Each life I live, I learn more and as I learn, I realise that the intricate patterning of my existence is as much a part of the universe as the long slow march of the stars in the heavens, that my soul grows and changes and becomes yet richer and stronger each time I pass those blink-of-an-eye years wearing my human masks.

I am old now, beyond measure of most and still you seem young and untried to me, like a child who forgets his lessons when the sun goes down and has to relearn them every day for eternity. There’s a Greek myth about something similar, I think I even remember when that was new. A rock being rolled to the top of the hill and rolling back down. And one like us pushing it forever. Of course, so much real history is wound up and woven into myths and fairy tales; that’s why they survive, you see. To remind us, from aeon to aeon, who we truly are.

But I, like so few, remember from life to life, snippets and snatches of memories and some have sunk deep into my bones (so to speak) and I watch out for those who recur from life to life and try to reconnect so that we may understand the better why we are here and do what we are sent to do.

And one day, perhaps, while I float between worlds, waiting to be reborn, I will choose to go on, beyond this world and having served faithfully for so long, I will be allowed to rest and be at peace forever.

Until then, I shall dance the measure round and if you choose to turn away, again, then so be it. We will meet again, you know.

(This story and others of the same ilk are available in a collection called The Moth’s Kiss available here and at all Amazon stores.)

Dry Salvages ~ a story for Hallow E’en

Dry Salvages

The sea sucked at the shingle so gently that the frenzy of the storm of the previous night seemed like a nightmare. Soft white clouds scudded along with the breeze, and a distant gull soared low over the waves breaking along the sandbar a hundred yards off shore.

This was to be the last of her yearly pilgrimages here, but she had told herself this many times before and every year she came back. It was as if she were waiting for a sign, to finally give up and turn her
back to the sea one last time, never to return. Since that wild night
so many years ago, she’d never set foot on a boat again, vowing that
the sea that had widowed her would never get the chance to touch her.

She’d walked up from the town, leaving behind the shabby shops as fast as her aching heart would carry her. The flowers were already withered after the stifling heat of the train, turned up full in anticipation of October frosts. Each year she’d tried to choose something different. Often it had been expensive flowers, as if she were trying to bribe the sea by her gifts. This year, she’d bought
chrysanthemums. She couldn’t remember whether she’d ever done so before but she thought not. Chrysanthemums were such classic funeral flowers that she’d refused to consider them. After all, there had never been a proper funeral, to her thinking. If there is no body
then it is merely a memorial.

Yet the churchyards on this coastline were surely full of gravestones of men whose bodies were long lost at sea, fish-devoured and vanished  Sometimes the inscriptions reflected this. Sometimes they did not. Her husband’s did; she’d insisted on that. Lost at sea was a common enough fate of deep sea fishermen, but these days, the fleet was also gone. Just a few inshore boats now plied their trade along the coasts. It had become rarer and rarer for the kind of loss she’d grown up with as a child to trouble the town’s folk today; now a man lost at sea was deemed a tragedy and was given two minutes on the local TV news. In her young days, you shrugged; the sea gave, but she also took what she deemed her dues. It was an accepted fact of the life they led.

Her bungalow was a long way from the sea, but every year she came back, to make this offering and remember. The breeze played with her greying hair and tossed it this way and that as she stomped along the pebbles piled in huge drifts where the storm had flung it. The strand line was thick with debris, from man-made rubbish like flip flops, to frayed and faded tangles of rope and heaps of stinking sea weed. Feathers littered the beach, masses of them, and dead gulls too lay here and there to testify to the ferocity of the storm. The smell was powerful and rank, that mix of freshness and decay that characterises the seaside, but intensified by the sheer volume of the flotsam and jetsam.

As a child, she’d found amber washed up here, dredged up and transported countless miles, perhaps even from the distant Baltic. The power of the sea storms was incredible; mines and other ordnance from wars long forgotten sometimes washed up, creating days of havoc while the bomb squad came to deal with them. But bodies were seldom washed up; the North sea was too deep and a human body too fragile to withstand both the pummelling of waves and the voracious maws of fish. Many fishermen refused to eat mackerel, deeming them scavengers who’d surely dined on the odd unlucky soul. Sometimes the trawler nets dragged in a picked-over skeleton, still encased in oilskins and even sou’wester but the captains usually said a prayer or two and threw the body back. It unsettled families to get the body back, and the paperwork was unbelievable.

After this amount of time, she knew in her heart that nothing of him would ever be coming back, yet still she came, to be sure. A lone tear trickled down her face, and she brushed it away. Too late for that, and she’d shed too many tears already. Peeling away the wrapping of her bouquet, she took each individual spray and peeled away the stems of flowers. One by one, she threw each rust coloured flower onto the water, and as she did so, she said her own secret prayers. The flowers bobbed on the water, looking out of place. The rusty colour was so like old dried blood that she shivered and turned away as the last one fell into the waves with a tiny splash.

Done then, for another year. He was never coming back, never, never, never.

The past is finished,” she said to the sea and turned to go, scrambling up the banked-up shingle.

The pebbles shifted under her shoes and made her slip, falling face first into the piles of rubbish on the strand-line and she recoiled in
horror at what she saw, poking out of a tangled mass of seaweed and feathers. Unmistakeable in shape and size, a human femur jutted above the greens and dull reds. The bone was bleached and pitted with years of salt water, an old thing surely.

She pulled herself together enough to reach out and touch it. All these years and she’d never seen a bone on the beach. Tentatively she pulled the femur out of the weeds and gazed at it. A man’s arm, for sure, she thought, comparing it to her own.

Wrapping the relic in the paper the flowers had come in, she tucked the bone under her arm and began the long walk back to the station. She didn’t know why she’d brought the bone; it would have been better to just leave it. But after all these years, surely this was a sign?

The train ride home seemed far longer and she walked home in the dark, the bone still tucked under her arm. The bright lights of her home were a welcome sight after the miserable journey and her renewed anxiety. Her husband was making tea when she came in, and she went to hang up her coat while he poured it, taking care to hide the bone in a drawer. He never liked her pilgrimage days, objected to them on principle.

You gotta let the past go,” he’d say. “Joe died doing what he loved
doing; let him rest in peace.”

He never came back,” she’d say. “I just need to check, once a year.
I know it seems silly to you, but for my peace of mind….”

Her second husband had the sea-blue eyes of the archetypal sailor but he’d never been a fisherman. He got sea-sick, in fact. It had been one of the things she’d loved about him, the fact that the sea held no draw, no glamour for him. He’d smelled of land, not sea, not that mixed aroma of fish, salt, seaweed and engine oil from the trawlers that made her feel sick whenever she caught a whiff of it now on a man. 

That night she slept poorly, tossing like a rowing boat in a squall, and in the early hours, she woke, hearing the foghorn calling like an old cow in pain. Confused, she sat up, and gazed around. Her husband snored gently beside her, but she could hear the distant sound clearly and when she went to the window, the garden beyond was filled with dense fog.

Only along the coast did the fog-horn sound to warn ships they were too close to land.

Heart beginning to pound, she dragged on her dressing gown and left the room. The big patio door from the living room into the garden stood open and wisps of mist curled their way into the room. A smell of fish and rotting sea weed and of decaying gulls made her gag and she ran to the drawer where she’d hidden the bone.

Babbling half remembered prayers, Hail Mary Queen of Heaven, she rushed out into the fog, luminous with the vulgar orange of the street-lamps. At the end of the garden, there was an area her husband had been clearing to plant spring bulbs and the spade still stood where he’d planted it. Seizing it, she began to dig.

I’ll put you in a proper grave,” she muttered. “I’ll make you stay
there. If you wouldn’t stay at the bottom of the sea after all these
years, I’ll make sure you stay at the bottom of a six foot grave.”

As she dug, her feet bare on the earth, she remembered his surprised eyes when she’d struck him with a boat-hook, and the stream of blood that had rushed down his face. His eyes had seemed to say, “What did you do that for?” before he keeled forward onto the deck, unconscious. She’d checked his pulse, strong and steady, and knew she only had moments before he woke and fought back. Getting him over the side of the boat had been hard, but the splash of water below told her he was gone. Then she’d battened down the hatches and let the boat go where it would, making sure that as the storm raged, she was safe inside the cabin. She’d not slept, for the fear that the storm would wreck their little fishing boat, bought with Lottery winnings without ever asking her what she wanted to spend the money on.

The boat was found when the storm had waned and she’d sent up a distress flare; a fisherman’s daughter as well as a wife, she knew her way round a boat from childhood. But she never wanted to set foot on it again and it had been sold, a chum of Joe’s buying it from her after the inquest. They’d believed her story; too many were lost at sea like that to doubt her tale of Joe being washed overboard by a
massive wave.

So she’d moved inland, bought her own little home and installed her
second husband as soon as seemed decent. But each year, on the
anniversary of that night, she went back, just to be sure.

The fog was making it hard to breathe and her chest was heaving as she dug in the damp soil. The stench of dead fish and seaweed was growing stronger and as she looked back at the house, she saw standing in the doorway a familiar figure, clad in waterproofs of livid yellow and she let out a shriek of such dread that it seemed to catch in her own throat and stick there.

I can’t breathe, she thought and dropped the spade and sank to her
knees, holding her chest with both hands. The paper containing the
bone fell next to her and as she lurched forward onto her face, she
saw both the shining white of the bone and the yellow clad figure
running to her before her heart stopped completely.

*

He did everything he could to revive her, bring her back from the dead but nothing worked. The paramedic stood beside him and they both looked at the  dead woman.

What on earth was she doing out her at this time of night?” asked the paramedic.

I have no idea,” he said. “I woke and found her gone, and the house was cold. I saw the patio door was open when I went through and I saw her out there, digging. I didn’t know what to think.”

He pulled his dressing gown closer, the egg-yolk yellow terry towelling beading with moisture from the heavy mist that still filled the garden.

She’s always a bit odd on this day; it’s the anniversary of her first
husband’s death,” he went on. “She’s always been a bit obsessed
by the fact they never found his body. They rarely do, but it
bothered her. He was a fisherman, just got his own little boat. The
offshore fleet had made so many cuts, he lost his job. Then they had
a windfall and he got his own boat.”

The paramedic nodded. It was often better to just let people talk but it worried him what the woman had been doing out here, digging a hole at that time in the morning. He spotted something on the grass.

Have a look at this,” he said, holding it up to the bereaved man. “It’s a bone. What do you think?”

The other man took it and held it so he could squint at it.

Seal,” he said after a moment of intense scrutiny. “Probably. But
certainly not human.”

You sound very definite!” the paramedic remarked.

The bereaved man gave a short laugh without amusement.

I was a marine biologist before I retired,” he said. “My wife
didn’t know what I did when we met. She was a bit horrified, she
thought she’d got away from the sea totally. After that awful night
when her first husband was swept away, she never wanted anything to do with the sea. Of course, by then I was mainly in a lab anyway so it was never much of a problem.”

He shivered.

You’ll catch your death of cold, standing here in your night clothes,”
said the paramedic and started to usher him inside. “There’s
nothing you can do for her now.”

I know,” he said, sadly. “What do you think killed her?”

Oh, heart attack for sure, but there’ll have to be a post mortem,” said the paramedic. “You said she had a mild heart condition, I think.”

She did.”

He took one last look at her contorted face.

But you know, it looks to me as if she died of fright.”

Lost 9

Lost 9

The sound of the water gurgling over the rocks is lost beneath the thunder of my own heartbeat as I stare in shock at the little building. I’m not sure what I feel; fear and hope fight each other for supremacy over me but their effects are just the same. My knees wobble and I sink to the ground, shaking.

The blue thread of smoke wavers a little as a slight breeze catches it, and then settles back into a steady line. I make my legs work and walk very slowly down to the stream. The water is noisy, and my thirst is suddenly unbearable and I drop to my knees once more, scooping handful after handful of icy water into my parched and foul mouth. Thirst quenched, I back away but the sound is soothing and I stand a few paces away, before tiredness creeps up on me. I am exhausted and now one of my most urgent needs has been met, something in me gives way and as if bewitched, I curl up on the soft mossy ground a few yards from the stream and close my eyes. The voice of the stream becomes my lullaby and I drift off, aware how foolish this may be and yet not caring any more.

The sun far above has shifted a few finger-widths when I wake and I am thirsty again and I return to the stream to drink.

As I dip my hands into the fast flowing water, I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone is emerging from the hut. I freeze. I have no time to run, no time to hide. Like an animal, my only refuge is staying completely still.

The figure is clearly that of a woman, and by her long white hair, an old one at that. She wears long robes of simple design and muted greens and browns but for me, she looks……beyond human. She seems a goddess to my starved and frightened eyes.

She is watching me, as if she was long aware of my presence by the stream and as if like a gracious host, she has waited for me to wake up. In her arms she carries a large bowl that steams, and as I catch a whiff of the steam, I let out a groan of pure desire. I smell things I can no longer name, for the words have been so long unused that they have become dormant, sleeping in my memory like winter bears in mountain caves. But the smell is like every delicious foodstuff I might ever have smelled and I feel my dry mouth fill with saliva and I groan again.

Nodding to me, but not speaking, she places the bowl on a flat rock on her side of the stream and turns back and disappears into the little house again.

The steam rises, and the soft breeze carries the scent of the food to me. Saliva spills out of my mouth and down my chest, and I whimper. The food calls to me, calls so seductively but is this a trap?

As I watch the rising steam, my body acts without my conscious consent and I wade through the bitterly cold waters to the other side. I crouch, and see that there is a large carved spoon embedded in the food and I lift it to my mouth and cram in the hot stew as fast as I can, hardly chewing but letting the taste overwhelm my senses with bliss and swallowing to make room for more.

The bowl is soon empty and I drop the spoon with a clatter and wade back to my side of the stream. I should run away, I know this but my legs are not wanting to work any more. The shivers I’ve been feeling are growing and I ache all over. It seems so cold, and my rags of clothing are soaking wet too. I huddle up, trying to get warm, pulling tufts of thick moss to cover myself and I close my eyes and lose consciousness as the fever takes command of my body.

My last thought as I slip into darkness: was the stew poisoned?

Lost #6

Lost #6

   The change in terrain has spooked me a little; I feel like I have moved beyond my territory and into that of another creatures. I feel
vulnerable without trees I can scale if danger threatens and with
nowhere secure to sleep, I am worried whether I will sleep unharmed in this place.

I walk on, feeling every crack of a twig and rustle of leaves underfoot as much louder than it truly is, for it gives me away to anything that might be listening for the arrival of prey. It is far easier to walk here as there is little dead-fall and less undergrowth to slow
my progress and for the first time in a long while I can feel my legs
reaching their full stretch as I walk. It feels good.

After a few hours I see that the dim green light is getting less and I feel the chill in the air that signals that the sun is long past its
zenith and has sunk almost below the horizon. Night-fall will not be
far behind and I am scared, suddenly, of lying down and trying to
sleep. While the light lasts, I walk on, trying to find somewhere a
little more secure. A crevice in a tree trunk would do, but these
giants are in the prime of life and their towering trunks are intact
and unbroken. A fallen tree would be a welcome sight, but no.
Nothing.

As the last of the light slips away I can fool myself no longer that
night is still far off and I realise too that my limbs are tired and
my head is beginning that animal-like descent into  a dull
half-awake, half asleep state where I begin to see shapes in the
darkness. A night bird calls, shrieking like something evil and I
startle and begin to run, my instincts kicking in before my mind can
tell me it’s just a bird.

I run some yards before my mind tells me to stop, and as I stop, raw fear and horror take over and I curl up, like a damaged spider, hard against the bole of the nearest tree and sob bitterly. There is no
comfort to be had except from the shedding of tears, and when the
numbness they bring with them tips me into a deep slumber, still
upright and tense from flight.

I don’t know how long this sleep lasts, but when I wake the night still holds the forest in almost complete darkness except for a few very faint twinkles of starlight that penetrates the canopy as the wind
shakes the leaves and makes gaps in the thick cover. I open my eyes, but can see little or nothing, and I uncoil and stretch my legs out. I sit like that, eyes fighting back sleep.

For something has alerted those hidden senses I never knew I had and I know that unseen in the surrounding forest, something is watching me.

Lost #5

Lost #5

During the days that follow any memory of my life before the forest leaches away, until I cease to remember what it felt like to have a full stomach, to be comfortable and clean and to have any sense of who I am. Here I am a strange animal, walking on two legs for sure, but acting on instinct and impulse. I eat, not when I am hungry, for I am always hungry to the point of being ravenous, but when I find food. Seldom is it filling or tasty, but I swallow it down and after a few days where I vomit continuously till I think I may die, my body
adapts to the strange food and stops rebelling. I eat whatever is
edible, and no longer question this. Berries, leaves, nuts, grubs and
insects: but carrion is usually too far gone to risk eating, and I
have no means of making fire. A kill is a risky place to linger; the
predator will be close, if the meat is still fresh enough for me to
eat raw.

I drink water from the clear streams that criss cross the forest,
checking the soil by the banks for signs that any animals have been
there recently. At night I sometimes hear cries that tell me that
dangerous animals live too close to me and I shiver in whatever tree
I have chosen for my night’s rest. Sometimes, I find a deep pool and
swim in it, trying to rinse the filth from body and hair. My clothes
have become organic extensions of myself, ragged and dirty, but
somehow holding together enough to give me warmth enough to survive the nights. Gradually I forget that such things as beds exist. I
cannot imagine lying down to sleep; I doze, leaning against a tree
trunk, high up in one of the increasingly massive trees.

For as I journey deeper into the forest, either I have become infinitely smaller or the trees have become far taller than even my now distant memories of trees would have me believe. I have come to an area where the trees seem to have been growing since the start of time itself, and the spread of their branches keeps the forest floor clear of  smaller trees. No one has ever cleared away fallen wood; every branch that has fallen in a winter gale still remains undisturbed, home to a million insects and small mammals. I come to an area where many of the great trees have all fallen, leaving mountains of wood, piled against each other in shattered heaps. The trunks are many, many times my height, and when they stood, these giants rivalled mountains in their height. Once I might have told what manner of tree these were, but now I only know that I must scramble among them, for days at a time, to cross an area that may be less than a quarter of a mile across filled with treacherous heaps of decaying dead-fall and low growing vegetation like brambles.

When finally I get clear of the grove of fallen giants, I find that I am
among their living kin. Towering trunks, their skins rough and
fissured, soar skywards, and I can see only the tiniest glimpses of
sky through the dense canopy of leaves. The tree tops are hundreds of feet above me, and there are no branches low enough for me to climb up into the protective arms of the trees that night.

I shiver and wonder what beasts patrol this area of forest at night. I
must find somewhere to sleep or risk being prey myself when the deep velvety darkness falls and makes moving impossible. Among these trees, the canopy of leaves is so complete that even the sunlight filters through only imperfectly and the forest floor is filled with green shadows and little grows here.

I stand gazing up, mouth open in wonder, and begin to move among the columns of trunks that stretch miles in every direction without
variation, and wonder where I am to sleep this night when the cradles of branches are inaccessible to me.