Faded

Last Friday’s “Flash Fiction Challenge” from Chuck Wendig had us randomly choose two items and make sure we include them in our story. If you’re unfamiliar with these, Chuck Wendig puts a prompt up on his blog every Friday and you have a week to write (usually 1,000 words). I ended up with (1) a distant outpost and (2) an ancient tree. I haven’t written fantasy in a while because my professors will refuse to read it, I got out of the habit, and I realized my longer fantasy pieces some of my weakest characters. That said, I’m working on flexing my fantasy fingers again. 

         Khaleb pulled the dust-scarf back over his nose and mouth and recorked his water sack. The sloshing was louder than before, the sack now three quarters filled with air. His guide, Ano, waited patiently, only his dark eyes visible. Khaleb nodded and his silent guide pressed his horse forward, the black beast stepping delicately over the corroded road. There were cracks and fissures in the surface that he would have thought came from mere age and weathering–a natural assumption this deep in the Outlands. On the first day of their journey, Khaleb swore as his own horse staggered for the hundredth time on their first day. He damned the road and everyone who toiled on it, provoked by his guide’s reticence.
         “Age cannot touch the Draha,” Ano said tonelessly, invoking the ancient name for the road. “It was not the years that did this.”
         Khaleb had tried to get more information from Ano, but the man retreated back into unyielding silence and Khaleb was forced to bite his tongue as his horse tripped again. He had made the mistake of staring at the road as they travelled; convinced it was the heat that made the crevices in the rock shimmer and writhe. He had not realized how long he had been hypnotized by the gaps until Ano rapped him on the top of the head with the wooden handle of his riding crop.
         “Nearly there,” Ano said over his shoulder.
         Khaleb rubbed the knot on his head in remembrance and jerked his eyes back up from the road. He didn’t need another bruise from Ano and his overactive imagination. Almost there, he thought, and even his horse’s ears pricked up in interest. The Ghan-mar Outpost was a lost cause. He knew it and his superiors knew it. If it wasn’t for a minor misunderstanding between him and the General’s daughter, Khaleb never would have been in the Outlands seeking answers from the men at Ghan-mar. There had been no answer to messages for weeks. Thieves, rapists, and a murderer or two. Those were the Ghan-mar elite. The rest of the outpost was manned by deserters and debtors serving out their time in service to His Supreme Eminence in the most godsforsaken corner of this godforsaken country. Khaleb thought longingly of the tavern by the oasis, of soft flatbread dripping with honey, of salted olives, of chilled wine, and of the buxom serving girls. He had no desire to traipse across the desert finding out why the scum of the realm was acting, predictably, like scum. He should be back in Caireb with General Logan’s daughter on his arm. Or in his bed. Miss Audra Logan, the virtuous flower from the Homeland, transplanted in the desert by her distinguished father. He grinned to himself. Audra was neither virtuous, nor anything like the fragile Homeland flower her father proclaimed. Neither of these facts kept him from being packed off to the Outlands and Ghan-mar on this godsdamned mission.
         Ano let out a wordless cry and his horse squealed, prancing backwards and nearly knocking Khaleb out of the saddle.
         “What in the name of–” Khaleb broke off as he saw what had startled the guide and his horse.
         A gnarled tree was sprouting out of the center of the road–in a place where grass could not even grow, in the middle of a sunbaked desert. Khaleb stared in awe at the tree, its trunk was wider than he could wrap his arms around and the twisting branches stabbed towards the lidless burning eye above them. The wood was gray and looked brittle but there were great round fruits hanging from the branches. He squinted against the heat haze and realized as his stomach heaved, that there were eyes staring back at him from bloated skulls. Not eyes–empty sockets that gazed blackly at him, still weeping tears of dried blood. Ano was praying breathlessly and if Khaleb hadn’t been so desperate to conserve what little water was in his body, he would have vomited. He swallowed against the bile in his throat and tore his eyes away from the faces, digging his heels into his horse until the beast took a few reluctant steps forward. He could see the hunched sand-colored outpost in the distance, blurred by the heat. There were stakes driven into the ground beside the road every twenty paces. The headless corpses slouched on their poles, grotesque sentries.
         “Who did this?” Khaleb demanded turning towards Ano. He could see the whites of his companion’s eyes in his dark face. “What barbarism is this?”
         “We’ll never escape,” Ano mumbled. “We have come too far, too far now.”
         “Escape? Escape what?” Khaleb whirled around, scanning the horizon.          There was nothing but the desiccated corpses and the unnatural tree.
         “They should not have built it here. We told them, when they first came, ‘build no house of man in the Greylands.’ We told them, ‘it is forbidden.’”
         “The Greylands?” Khaleb knew the phrase from a cursory reading of badly translated folk stories, he had never heard anyone use it in reference to a real place.
         Ano nodded, unable to tear his eyes from the faces in the tree. “It is from the Greylands that they come. The Faded Ones.”
         “The who?” Khaleb felt a modicum of relief. If Ano was babbling about ghost stories and this was all some superstitious nonsense, then he could go back to his superiors, tell them that the crazies in Ghan-mar finally offed each other and spend the rest of the evening playing the perfect gentleman to that minx Audra.
         “The Faded Ones,” Ano’s voice was barely above a whisper. “They come from the cracks that run between realms. They do not like those that do not respect their ways. That travel the Draha. That think they can tame these lands.
         “Ano, those stories are folklore.”
         Ano looked at him blankly, eyes wide.
         Khaleb repeated, “They’re just stories.”
         Ano shook his head. “They are coming.”
         As Ano spoke, a high keening wail rose. It sounded at first like the cry of a hawk but Khaleb knew it was coming from the heads on the tree. Khaleb drove his heels into his horse’s flanks and wrenched the animal’s head around. He didn’t care if Ano followed, didn’t care that he did not know the way back through the desert, that the road could well be covered by sand. He did not know how the heads could be wailing if their bloated tongues made no movement, but he lay on his stallion’s neck and urged the animal on with his spurs and his crop and his voice. The dirge filled his ears and he yelled to drown it out. He could hear Ano screaming and the dull thud of his horse’s hooves as the guide followed. Something splashed against his face and he tasted salt and rust. Ano was not screaming any longer.
         Khaleb closed his eyes as a hot wind rose in front of him, driving sand into his exposed hands and eyes like shards of glass. His horse balked and he opened his eyes, there was nothing. He dug in his heels and the horse reared, sending him to the ground before he could scramble for a better grip. He saw its dark tail fan out as the frightened beast disappeared in a cloud of powdery dust. He couldn’t breathe. Sand coated his tongue and his side where Ano’s blood clung to his robes. He refused to look back, trying to stand; he fell onto his hands and knees, trembling legs refusing to hold his body. He felt dizzy, there was a sharp pain in his side and he could not catch his breath. He stared at his hands on the road, at the silver-black fissures. There was a sound like a wind chime or pieces of glass being shaken in a dustpan.
         He looked to the side and saw a column of sand twirling slowly beside the road. It sparkled in the overpowering sun and he could not help but stare at it as it revolved. It spun faster and faster until it coalesced into a shape. The hooded figure shook once with a little shiver like a cat and sand fell from it like water. Khaleb was rooted to the road. He tried to force himself to crawl but, when he looked at his hands again, he saw that they had disappeared past the wrist, held in the vice of one of the gleaming cracks. The figure knelt beside him and he looked into its face. The face reminded him of the statues on the pagan temples in Caireb, their carven features indistinct, blurred by wind and scoured by sand. It reached out a hand the color of sun-bleached bone and touched his cheek. Its fingers burned like live coals and he tried to pull away. The other hand lifted to his face. It gripped his skull between its hands and pulled.

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Croisée des Chemins

Come one, come all to New Orleans, where drink flows like the Mississippi and the aura of ages past still lingers.

photo found here


         “Stohm comin, big stohm.” The old woman’s face was the color of wet slate, darkening in the furrows around her white, unseeing eyes and toothless mouth. Her knobby fingers worked deftly, sorting beans as if she had perfect sight.
        Adelaide looked up at the clear sky and back at Eula. Eula was never wrong about storms, not in Adelaide’s fifteen years. The girl watched the sunlight play over the peaks and valleys of her nanny’s face. She sometimes thought Eula was old as the Earth itself, older certainly than the Mississippi and New Orleans. She knew the answers to the questions Adelaide hadn’t asked.
        “You quiet today, chile,” Eula said, turning her face towards Adelaide.
        “I was thinking about the stories,” Adelaide said.
        “Which stories be dey?” Eula bobbed her head slightly in time with the sorting; good beans went in the iron pot, bad ones into a basket. She never missed.
        “The stories they tell at night in the courtyard, ‘round the fire,” Adelaide clutched the front of her pinafore and raised her eyes to Eula’s face.
The steady cthunk of beans ceased and Eula’s hands stilled on her lap. Adelaide saw the knob in her throat bob up and down once in her thin neck, roped with veins.
        “You been walking in de dark, chile? Creepin’ out your bed in de night? How many time Maman Eula tell you, they stories not for you,” Eula’s voice dropped and she reached out a bony hand until she found Adelaide’s smooth, pale wrist and gripped it.
        “I couldn’t sleep,” Adelaide said. “They were shouting again. Maman and Papa.”
        “I tol’ you before, chile, and I tell you again, you stay in dat pretty bed o’ yours and don’ be walkin’ de house in de night. Your maman and papa—dey be talkin’ loud to make sure dey voices heard to each other, dey don’ mean nothin’ by it.” Eula released Adelaide’s hand.
        “It has something to do with why they leave out the coffee and the cigars and the rum, isn’t it?” Adelaide said, defiantly, shoving her fair hair back from her face.
        Eula’s fingers returned to sorting, and she began to hum. Adelaide knew she would get no answers this time. She leaned back on the sun-warmed steps and, through slitted eyes, tried to see again the circle around the small fire.
         The figures were wrapped in black and white, shifting shadows in the firelight and they sometimes spoke a strange tongue that she almost understood. Neither French nor creole—something else, something that made her skin pebble and her eyes grow wide in the darkness, drinking in the light like a cat’s. Her eyes snapped open as the first raindrops splattered in the dust and rolled down her forehead. The steady drumbeat of thunder sounded like an echo of last night’s chanting and she helped Eula to her feet as they hurried under the portico and out of the rain.

        She sat up straight in bed, every nerve tingling as the lightning flashed and lit the whole room. There was shouting outside. She ran to her door and shoved it open. A figure rushed past, carrying something that smelled like overturned dirt and rust. There was a high, keening sound—one of the dogs, she thought—until she thrust herself through the silver-shot darkness and into her parent’s room. The sound came from the woman at the bedside—her mother—Adelaide realized. Her honey hair was loose down her back and Adelaide spared a moment to admire the way it shone in the torchlight.
        Maman was holding someone’s hand and Adelaide leaned around her to see. Her father lay in the bed, but something pooled around him and she saw that it streaked her mother’s silk nightgown and the floors. The smell hit her again and she gagged. Blood.
        “Chile, chile, don’ go neah dere,” Leon’s strong dark hands appeared out of the darkness and held her close.
        “Papa!” she struggled, but she was no match for the big man.
        He gently bore her down the stairs and into the kitchen where he deposited her next to the fire before returning upstairs. The old rocking chair smacked the floor in a familiar rhythm but Adelaide didn’t look at Eula. There was blood on one of her bare feet. She strained to hear voices outside the kitchen door through the battle sounds of thunder and lightning.
        “Leon say he was out in de Quarter—cards, mebbe—comin’ back from dere wit gold in he pockets…” the voice grew indistinct as the servants moved away.
        Adelaide glanced at Eula, rocking placidly in the corner, her head cocked towards Adelaide.
        “Don’ be ‘fraid, chile,” she said quietly.
        Adelaide barely breathed as she pulled one of the servant girl’s coats off the hanger and wrapped it around herself. She pulled open the big kitchen door and fled back into the main part of the house. Her father’s study was silent, and even the blinding lightning didn’t penetrate the velvety shadows here. She could smell tobacco and leather. She found what she sought and shoved it carelessly in her pockets, holding up coat hem as she crept into the hallway and let herself out the front door.
        The streets intersected in a wash of mud and darkness. The street lamps flickered, fitfully illuminating small circles of driving rain around their glass cages. Cold mud pressed between her toes and her breath steamed. She pushed back her hair, plastered wetly to her face, and stumbled on the too-large coat, sprawling in the mud at the crossroads.
        “Baron Samedi!” she cried, her childish voice almost lost in the storm. “Viens ici!”
        Her hands shook as she pulled her prizes out of her pockets—the decanter of her father’s finest rum from their plantation, miraculously unbroken, and a handful of his best cigars. It would have to be enough. There was a flash of lightning so bright it made the hair on her arms sizzle.
        “Bon soir, cher,” a high, nasal voice greeted her and Adelaide blinked.
        A tall man stood before her; he tipped his gleaming top hat, leaning on a cane he seemed to have conjured out of the darkness. He flicked the tails of his coat and bent down to grab her arm. His fingers were impossibly thin and her eyes ran over his black and white suit to his face. Dark flesh stretched tightly over bones, his black eyes gleamed, and his teeth flashed bone white.
        “Ah, p’tite,” he lifted her easily by the elbow. “What you be doin’ heah at de crossroads, cher?”
        “My papa, he’s hurt—dying. I know you can keep him here, m’sieur.”
        “What you be bringin’ me den?” he asked.
Adelaide held out the items with shaking hands. “I couldn’t find any coffee, m’sieur.”
        The baron threw back his head at this and laughed and Adelaide could more clearly see the bones beneath his skin. He grinned at her and reached out to pluck the decanter and cigars from his hands. They disappeared somewhere inside his coat.
        “Merci, ma belle, merci. How you come to know me, chile?” He asked.
        “I listen to the stories the servants tell at night,” she said.
        “And den dey tell you to call for me?”
        “No,” her voice shook. “My papa was dying and none of them were doing a thing to help him. Please, m’sieur. Please.”
        “Hush now, ma belle, stop de tears,” the baron smoothed her soaked hair back from her face and tipped her chin up with his long fingers. “Your fadder, he will not pass dis way tonight.”
        It took Adelaide a moment to understand and tears streamed down her cheeks, “Oh merci, m’sieur, merci beaucoup.”
        Baron Samedi tapped her on the cheek, “Jus’ remember de service I do today, me. And remember, if you need me again…” he bent in close to whisper in her ear, “…bring de coffee, ma belle.”

Baron Samedi is noted for disruption, obscenity, debauchery, and having a particular fondness for tobacco and rum. Additionally, he is the Loa of resurrection, and y he is often called upon for healing by those near or approaching death, as it is only Baron who can accept an individual into the realm of the dead. He loves smoking and drinking and is rarely seen without a cigar in his mouth or a glass of rum in his bony fingers. Baron Samedi can usually be found at the crossroad between the worlds of the living and the dead. When someone dies, he digs their grave and greets their soul after they have been buried, leading them to the underworld.

Dead Girl’s Slave

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge this week gave us a title (picked randomly from two lists of ten words) and asked us to write a story. To see past flash fiction pieces go here.

        The rats had ceased their gnawing at last. The silence struck her first. She peered out from beneath the dingy blankets that brushed the filthy floor. There was a strange sucking noise, like the snores of some giant beast. She slid back under the low bunk, clutching the reeking rags of her clothes around her wasted form. Her eyes, grimed with salt, and dirt fluttered shut as she curled around the pit of hunger deep in her belly. A thud roused her from her stupor and a whimper escaped her cracked lips. There were shouts and more thumps on the ship’s deck and she quivered.
        “Gods, the smell.”
        “They call it quarantine. If the people could see this—it’s not the plague that does them all in.”
        “At least it looks like this lot chose starvation.”
        “Starvation is the only real option.”
        “You say that now…hunger so bad, weeks on end, turns some rabid.”
        The voices and the footsteps grew closer and the door to the close little cabin swung open, letting in a draft of damp, nearly fresh air.
        “By all that’s holy,” the footsteps froze and there was the sound of retching.
        “Slit the babe’s throat and her own wrists; and I thought I’d seen it all.”
        “Nothing here but rot and putrefaction. We’d best go down to the holds—see if there’s anything to salvage before we burn it.”
        One of the men took a step closer to the bed and she shied away, her foot striking an empty tankard and sending it rolling across the deck floor. The filthy blankets were shoved back and a face appeared. She pushed herself back away from the bearded face, scrabbling against the wooden planks.
        “Hush, now, little one.” The man’s voice was soft.
        She heard people speak that way to animals as they cuddled them. She stared at the man mutely. He held out a hand to her as though he wished her to take it.
        “Come out, poor thing, come out of there,” his lips curved up in a smile and she put her trembling, dirty fingers in his.
        “Gods above.” The other man swore as the first lifted the little wraith into the crook of his arm. “But, Will, the plague…”
        “She breathes still, Thomas. Any still living this long have no plague in them. Think of what she must have endured.” William brushed the matted, stinking hair back from the child’s face.
        “Be it on your head, then,” Thomas said.
        The rowboat carried them back to shore and William shielded the child’s face from the ash as the pitch and old wood caught and the funeral pyre burned high. She did not speak or cry as the smell of ash filled her nostrils.

——–

        “But who is she?” Thomas asked as he and William waited.
        “I have checked the ship’s manifest. Only four children were noted—the cabin boy, and the three Martinus children,” William said.
        “And?” Thomas eagerly took the manifest and skimmed it.
        “The babe—a boy—and two girls, Lila and Jordana.”
        “Which is she?” Thomas asked.
        “She must be Jordana. Lila was a girl of sixteen and the poor waif can be no older than twelve.”
        Both men stopped speaking as the door opened. One of the Sisters ushered out a small girl in a clean dress with her dark, damp hair curling around her thin shoulders. William looked down into the huge dark eyes and remembered how they first looked when he pulled her from under the bunk. He shuddered at the memory. The poor girl must have been there for weeks, hiding beneath the bed that held the corpses of her family.
        William bent down to meet the little girl’s eyes. “Jordana?”
        Her eyes grew round and her face drained of color; she shrank back against the Sister.
        “No need to fear, child.” William softened his voice. “You are Jordana Martinus?”
        The little girl just stared at him, her hands clutching the front of her frock as the Sister drew her back protectively.
        “Sir, this child has seen things no living creature should bear. I have not heard a word out of her and I would ask you not to frighten her.”
        William stood, chastened. “My apologies, Sister, I mean the girl no harm. Her aunt and uncle live here—the family was coming to join them—if she is Jordana Martinus.”
        “If she is, then her aunt and uncle will surely know,” the Sister kept a firm hand on the waif’s shoulder.
        William bowed and departed with Thomas, casting a glance back over his shoulder at the dark eyed little girl.

——–

        Mahlah lay in the giant bed, rubbing her fingers across the silken coverlet. The aunt and uncle were kind. The aunt wept and pulled Mahlah into her arms and the uncle patted her head. They touched her hair and compared it to Lady Martinus’ and said she had Lord Martinus’ eyes. Mahlah remembered those eyes—black as night and always full of anger. He did nothing when Jordana struck her slave, when his daughter hit Mahlah so hard blood ran from her ears.
        He was the first to fall ill on the ship and when they dumped his body into the water, Mahlah knew it would poison the whole ocean. The Lady refused to leave her room after, even when the girls began to cough and vomit and when the servants fled in panic. Jordana kept Mahlah close, her fevered strength blazing from her black eyes and limbs. Lila did not last a week and the Lady turned her face aside when the sailors drug her body out. Jordana’s breathing grew labored and Mahlah clamped her hands over her ears to shut out the sound.
        Jordana only wanted a breath of fresh air, she said, one glimpse of the sky. And meek, obedient Mahlah half-carried her to the deck, let the girl lean on her shoulder. Jordana’s flailing body barely splashed when it hit the water. Mahlah snuggled into her pillow and smiled.

Réquiem ætérnam

Chuck Wendig’s latest Flash Fiction Challenge: choose from a list of conflicts* and write your face off.

Original Photo Here

Original Photo Here

         The simple pine box was plain and smelled of fresh sawdust, bright and clean against the heavy, damp scent of overturned earth. The top rested beside it, not yet sealed. The mourners stood in a huddle at the base of the hill, where the widow could not hear their whispers. Such a sad thing, to die so young. Lady Daria Vuldava’s shoulders shook with suppressed emotion.
         “Lady Vuldava,” the priest broke free from the flock and walked through the damp, blowing grass.
         “Father,” she took his thin, dry hands in hers. “Thank you so much—it was a beautiful ceremony.”
         “Lord Vuldava will be missed,” the priest’s smile quivered at the corners.
         “My Andrei,” Daria pressed her lips together and looked away, “would have appreciated your words. He so loved your homilies each Sunday.”
         “I am honored, Lady Daria,” the priest freed his hands from her grip, turning to look at the coffin.
         “Was there something else, Father?” Daria could not help but notice the way he clutched his rosary, fingers clicking across the beads.
         “Lady Daria, this brings me such grief,” the priest swallowed and Daria watched his Adam’s apple bob in discomfort.
         “Please, Father, speak freely,” Daria pulled her thick black furs tightly around her shoulders.
         “Your husband—God have mercy on his soul—died so suddenly, so unexpectedly…” the priest abandoned his rosary, dry-washing his pale, bony fingers.
         Daria looked expectantly at him, twisting the enourmous ruby on her left hand. When she did not speak, the Father’s shoulders heaved in a sigh.
         “The townspeople…given the circumstances of Lord Andrei’s death, would be put at ease if the old rites were performed.”
         ‘The old rites?” Daria’s hands clenched on her handkerchief. “You want to put a stake through my Andrei’s chest? To desecrate his body, consecrated unto the Lord, whom you claim to serve?”
         “Please, Lady Daria,” the priest glanced down the hill at the townspeople. Their pale, shapeless faces were all turned towards the Father and the widow. Daria stepped away from the priest, her black gown billowing out behind her in the gusting wind. The priest scurried after her, an errant leaf blown in her wake.
         Daria looked down at Andrei’s face. His skin was pale, almost translucent, in death. The thick eyelashes that rested on his cheeks like black crescent moons, the full lips forever stilled. She took a deep, shuddering breath and knelt next to him, crumpling as though her knees could no longer hold the weight of her sorrow.
         “Fine,” she rasped, looking up at the priest. “It shall be done. But not by you. He is—was—my husband. No one else shall touch him.”
         The priest finally nodded, his fingers twisting and twining like coupling serpents.
         “Lady Daria…it is no easy task…” he faltered at the look in her eyes and cleared his throat. “Those that prepared the body took the liberty…” he reached down a shaking hand and parted the thick furs and fine silks that draped Lord Vuldava’s body. A crude X was marked on his breast, just over his heart.
         Daria brushed her fingers over Andrei’s smooth, cold cheek, holding out a hand to the Father. She did not look at him as he laid the heavy wooden stake in her palm. Her fingers closed over it, feeling the splintered wood bite into her bare skin.
         “Leave me,” she said, her hand shaking as she examined the stake.
         “My Lady, I must bear witness—”
         “You will close the lid, will you not? You will see that I have done what is required of me. Now, go. If this desecration, this mutilation must happen, it will happen at my hands alone,” Daria waited until she heard the sounds of his hurried footsteps departing, the murmured reassurances he offered to the crowd of carrion crows waiting below.
She rose up on her knees, steadying herself on the edge of the coffin before gripping the stake in both hands and raising it high above her head.
         “To Thee, I commit his spirit,” she cried, loud enough for the gossips and their spiritual guide to hear.
         The stake met the resistance of cold flesh and bone. Sinews and muscle. Thick, black blood welled out like tar. Daria leaned heavily against the side of the coffin. Half the stake’s length was buried in his breast; the rest of the dry wood seemed to drink in the dead blood. Daria buried her face in her hands, ignoring the pressure of the priest’s hand on her shoulder as he came to examine the body. He lifted her gently away as the gravediggers came to seal the coffin. He released her long enough to make the sign of the cross and murmur “In nomine Patris, et Filis, et Spiritus Sancti” before the pine coffin disappeared into the hole. With the thuds of dirt on wood echoing across the hilltop, Daria let the priest lead her away.

——–

         The wind that blew as the gravediggers filled in the last of the hole picked up as the shadows drew and the day was devoured by the evening. Lightning rent the black sky with brilliant tongues of white fire, though no rain fell. The candles in the church flickered fitfully and the farmers and their wives closed the shutters tightly. No moon shone on the hilltop, but the windows in the Vuldava mansion glittered like a thousand eyes shining in the darkness.
         Daria stood alone on the hill, watching as the lightning lit the crosses and monuments with eerie, pale light. No veil of mourning covered her face and the wind whipped her dark hair free of its bindings and lashed it across her face. She reached down to grip the long fingered white hand that thrust out of the soil. She tenderly brushed the filth from his face as Andrei pulled the stake from his chest and cast it to the side, looking at her with pale, luminous grey eyes that drank in the lightning.
         Daria smiled exultantly,“Welcome back, my love.”

* a difficult funeral

The Groundskeeper

Chuck Wendig’s latest Flash Fiction Challenge: choose 4 items* from ten random objects and include them in your story. 1000 words is the aim. This is also my 100th post!

        Strange things happen in the bedroom of the dead. I’ve heard bagpipes in the middle of the night when there is no one else around. I’ve smelled gunpowder that faded like the mist that rises and falls without warning. I’ve seen the trinkets people leave behind disappear and reappear. I take care not to touch anything. Even the jewelry stays until the rain washes it away or rusts it or the wind takes it. There was a service for an officer and someone left his badge on the stone. I left it where it was, shining on the headstone in the setting sun. I never know what the families think when they come back to visit and things are gone. Maybe they think their loved ones retrieved their little treasures. Maybe they curse the groundskeepers. That’s what Momma said before she ran off: that the living–not the dead–ruined us. But Dad’s family owned this plot of land for centuries and he wasn’t leaving. You’d think living around death for your whole life—playing knights and cowboys among the mossy gravestones and the crumbling mausoleums–would make it all easier. Then, I buried Dad; and I finally learned why he didn’t leave.
         He wasn’t a pack-rat like I am, but there was enough clutter around to keep me busy, to keep me from noticing the silence. In the process of boxing up his stuff, I found an envelope on his desk. It sat on the welter of tangled rubber bands, stray papers and yellowed receipts. The old iron horseshoe he used as a paperweight held it down. It had my name on the front. I sat down in Dad’s chair and opened it with his favorite letter-opener, the iron horseshoe on my knee. I could feel the cold, familiar weight of it through my jeans. I remembered what he always said about horseshoes and luck and smiled as I pulled out the letter and read Dad’s spidery handwriting.
        I guess there are people out there who seek out destiny—for a sign that their life has a path laid out to greatness. I never thought about it. I would tend the dead until they turned into bones—until I joined their ranks. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I never knew Dad to be much of a storyteller, but, in that letter, he told of the early days when the world was still trembling from creation and drawing its first breaths, no need for us in that verdant beginning. Only after death came into the world did we become necessary. I’m sure you’ve heard the myth about Charon, the ferryman who takes the souls of the dead across the river Styx in his little boat. Same general idea, but without the boat. Now, we were just the Watchers, the Keepers. He left me a set of keys and a big silver ring with an emerald in it—the tools of a new Keeper. I thought it was Dad playing a final practical joke, albeit an odd one. I put the ring on my finger and the keys in a drawer.
        Almost a year later, I watched a hearse pull out of the gates from the cottage window. The cottage is set back from the road, where the oldest stones and tombs are. Something caught my attention—I knew this part of the cemetery like the back of my hand. Leaning against a wind and rain-scoured stone was a guitar. No case, nothing. The pale wood on the body was shiny, freshly polished and I thought I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke. I looked around—I knew better than anybody that this was a great place to find some solitude. I called out, but no one answered. There was the threat of rain in the low clouds and the wind was picking up. I walked over to retrieve the guitar. The wood was silky smooth when it met my fingers; the strings looked brand new.
        I carried it inside and laid it on the table to take a better look. There was a marking on the neck under the strings—carved into the wood. I looked down at the ring on my index finger—I always felt a little silly wearing it–and realized it was the same funny symbol carved into the silver band. It always puzzled me–a three-pronged trident and some kind of flower. I stood very still, feeling like icy snakes were wriggling under my skin and in the pit of my belly. I reached out to pick up the instrument, not sure why my fingers trembled. The wood felt warm in my hands, like it had been sitting in the sunlight for hours. I propped one foot on a chair and rested it on my knee, arranging my fingers on the neck and giving the strings a gentle strum. Perfectly tuned. The snakes in my belly writhed along with the notes hanging in the air. It seemed to shimmer around me, like a mirage. I hadn’t played in years, but it seemed like yesterday.
         “You know, the last time someone played an instrument for me there was a wager,” the voice behind me held repressed laughter. “You know the song, I’m sure. Of course, Johnny got it all wrong, can’t blame Mr. Daniels for that.”
         I was afraid to turn around, the strings beneath my fingers hummed with every word, thrumming like my heartbeat.
         “I hope you like it—you’re the first musical Keeper in centuries.”
         I turned then to look at the strange man. He looked young—no older than me–with fair skin and hair. I almost would have wondered if he was an albino if I hadn’t see the eyes; I swear they were black. My mouth felt dry and I didn’t know if I imagined the scent of sulfur.
         “You can play safely, you know. I prefer the fiddle,” he smiled and I saw that his teeth were black, too.
         He waved a long, skeletal hand at the guitar.
         “Besides, I already own your soul.”

*I chose: a police officer’s badge, an unopened envelope, an iron horseshoe and a dead man’s guitar

Another Brick in the Wall

I know, I know, I’ve had way too many posts with song titles lately, but I’m also not even a little bit sorry. This week the deviant and demented Chuck Wendig decided to torture us with TV tropes. Our random trope-selector chose the tropes we had to use in our story.* I’m not sure I entirely followed directions, but I like to think these challenges are more like guidelines than actual rules.
         *contains swearing (but it’s British, so I consider that not to count.)

brick_wall

        Royston Humphreys stared down in shock at the mangled body at his feet.
         The building wall had completely crushed Shafer in a welter of falling bricks and mortar that filled the air like snow. Royston waited for the bent fingers to twitch, for the crumpled, bleeding figure to rise. Nothing happened. He swore loudly and crouched down to shove some of the bricks away from the body.
         “Un-bloody-believable,” he said, staring down at the crushed skull, blood oozing through the dark hair. “How the bloody hell does someone let a bloody wall fall on them while they’re standing in an alleyway? Oh, right,” he addressed the dead man. “Someone got them self sloshed at the pub and couldn’t wait until they got home to use the loo. No,” he stood and glared down at the body. “Someone just had to bleeding piss in the alley.”
         The dead man made no answer. Royston’s shoulders slumped and he scraped a hand through his disheveled brown hair.
         “Christ. You were supposed to be the one–the bleeding prophecies had it all laid out,” he glanced around the alley suddenly. “Can’t say I like leaving you like this, but I think I’d better skive off before someone shows up and I’m completely buggered.”
         He strode down the alleyway in the opposite direction. Someone would have noticed a wall falling even at 3 a.m.; he couldn’t afford to deal with the authorities. He turned up the collar of his coat as it began to drizzle, his mind racing as he tried to process. It was a bloody mess and no mistake. The Council said al’Uttarak was the final piece—the One destined to save them from the destruction of the world. What that meant, exactly, he wasn’t certain. It was above his clearance. When the Council found Shafer, he fit every part of the prophecy: the physical type, the place of birth–Jerusalem–even his tattoo. They named him al’Uttarak.
         Of course, Shafer seemed like a prat to Royston, but that, again, was above his clearance. And now Shafer more dead than the language of the blasted prophecy. How could Royston know Shafer would piss on a condemned building? He was a bloody handler, not a babysitter. He was only chosen since he looked enough like Shafer to act as a smokescreen. Some of the Council members still couldn’t tell them apart.
         “Oh, sod it,” Royston muttered, pulling out his mobile and ducking under an awning. “Hello? It’s Humphreys. Put him on the phone? ‘fraid I can’t. Well, he’s rather…dead.”
         Royston held the mobile away from his ear as his handler, Felix Crowley, roared. When Crowley’s voice lowered to a safer decibel, he tried to explain.
         “A bleeding building fell on him. I know he’s supposed to be immortal—or indestructible. His head was completely buggered. I know a stiff when I see one. Sir,” Royston tried to moderate his voice. “Well, the blooming prophecy is wrong then, innit?”
         He ground his teeth as Crowley uttered a stream of invective laden demands. The rain worsened and lightning lit the roiling sky; Royston sighed.
         “Yeah, I’ll be there in ten,” he said.
         He stepped into the pouring rain, hunching his shoulders against it. By the time he reached the imposing brownstone, he was soaked and his dark hair was plastered against his face. Royston placed his palm against the door and was granted access after a moment, stepping through the huge wooden panel as if it didn’t exist. The plush Persian rugs drank in the trail of water he left as he trudged down the long hallway. The walls were lined with pictures of the Councils past and occasionally busts of the Chairmen. Some were women, but they always called them “Chairman.”
         Royston grinned bitterly, “Probably above my bleeding clearance, too.”
         When he entered the room at the end of the hall, the large oval table was full. The Chairman would have called the entire Council for this. He sat at the head of the table, his bulk as imposing as ever. Royston wondered if the Chairman slept in his immaculate three piece suit–if he even slept at all. The faces turned towards him; some easily recognized by any British citizen, others known worldwide, and some that might never have existed. Royston stood stiffly, water running down his face.
         “Report,” the Chairman’s voice always made Royston’s skin prickle. It was right unsettling a man that large had such a soft voice.
         “Shafer’s dead.”
         The pale faces stared in silence; Felix’s was the only one with any colour and he was slowly turning the shade of a tomato. “A bleed—a wall fell on him and splattered his brains all over an alleyway.”
         “There must be some mistake; the prophecy was clear,” the woman who spoke kept her voice steady, but Royson saw her hands tremble.
         “A partial sanskrit tablet thousands of years old surprises you when it’s wrong…again?” Royston couldn’t stop himself. He was tired; Shafer had been a git all night and Royston wasn’t entirely sorry the prick was dead. The table erupted at his outburst until the Chairman hefted his massive frame out of his chair. Silence fell over the room.
         “Royston, you were an orphan, yes?” he asked, gently.
         “Yeah, what about it?” Roystan wanted a drink and his bed.
         “You never knew your parents, or where you were born?” the Chairman asked.
         “No sir, that’s why they call it being an orphan,” Royston said. I’m dead, he thought.
         “You never knew, but someone did,” the Chairman smiled slightly.
         Royston’s stomach clenched, he chewed his lip, willing himself to stay silent. The Chairman continued to smile at him. He turned back to the Council.
         “Did you know, ladies and gentlemen of the Council, that our man here was born in Israel? In a city called Jerusalem. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?” The silence rang. “Pull up your sleeve, Mr. Humphreys.”
         “Oh bugger,” Royston said faintly, sinking into the chair in front of him that once belonged to Shafer.

*My TV Trope was the “Death by Origin” with an ode to “By Wall that is Holey” at the insistence of my friend August Howl.

photo

Bones

“I hate this song,” she said to the dashboard as the thrumming synthetic music pumped through the speakers.
Caroline didn’t realize it was true until she said it aloud, to the empty seat beside her, to the rain slipping soundlessly down the windshield. It was on her iPod, the computerized vocals and the dissonant electric background sounds that started a headache right at the top of her nose. He liked it, so Caroline did, too. Until she didn’t.
        It was at odds with the dripping trees and the rain and the heater clicking as it struggled to warm the car. Caroline turned the music off and listened to the silence. He could never have silence, not in the car, not at home, not in the bedroom. Always the radio, the television, the stereo. Always the noise grated and scraped at her. He fell asleep with the television blaring, the newscasters yelling their stories of horror into the room, the lurid light pounding pounding pounding against her eyelids. Once his breathing slowed and evened, she turned off the incessant racket. Caroline tried to breathe with him, to be with him in sleep. To be present. She felt her heart hammering in protest as she tried to match each inhale, each exhale. The rebellion of her lungs, protesting this jarring of her body’s natural rhythm.
        Her knuckles whitened on the steering wheel and she stared at her long, thin hands. Skinny, like the rest of her, he once said. All angles and bones, she thought. She relaxed her fingers, focusing on them instead of the lightning that heralded the rumble of thunder and mimicked the struggling heater. It injected hot air into the sedan, but the chill air outside still permeated her body. This black coat had never kept her warm. She wore it when they walked, side by side, almost-touching.
      She remembered the electric anticipation of the almost-touch, the almost-kiss. Before it became the almost-touch of hesitation, of doubt, of hiding. The noise was a mask, a wall, a whispered phone call in the dead of night when there should be only silence. The almost-touch birthed the space that widened between the sheets, the invisible line that he never crossed after their bodies that joined in passion separated. The empty space did not stay vacant; fear, doubt, denial, and revulsion crowded in, peppering the silence with their snickers and pinching fingers and the sound of his breathing that she could not match. Perhaps they breathed together on the phone, when he spoke to Her at night. Perhaps they breathed together as they clung to each other in a bed that had no space. Perhaps the Other never felt the pain of the almost-touch that turned to never-touch, to never-again-touch. Perhaps the Other was soft, not made of bones, but of flesh.
        Caroline took a deep breath, before pulling on her gloves, one of the fingers catching on the ring that clung to her thin knuckle, refusing to release its grip. She stepped out of the car and rain dripped down the neck of the black coat as she struggled to open her umbrella. Wet gravel slid beneath her feet. She looked at herself in the side of the dented sedan: long, thin legs hidden by thick dark stockings and her coat. Caroline walked over the wet grass through which the black dirt seeped upward in the steady rain that dripped from the hanging branches. The umbrella stretched out around her, big enough for two, holding only her. Rain sluiced down the sides. The crowd ahead was small, huddled under umbrellas and the small canopy sheltering the yawning hole in the ground. They stared into it, searching for an answer. Some half turned toward her as she approached, nudging one another. She was careful not to step on the flat headstones sunken into the ground, soaked by rain.
         I’m standing on your grave, Caroline thought as she glanced down at one of the stones. Do you feel it?
        Easier to look down at the dead than up into the eyes of the living. The preacher had spoken, the songs sung, and the woman standing closest to the waiting hole was weeping into an overused tissue, her sobs harsh against the gentle patter of the rain. The Other. She looked at Caroline as she approached, her red-rimmed eyes widening above the sodden tissue, mascara dripping down her otherwise perfectly painted face. Someone moved, as though to catch Caroline, to stop her from walking forward. Caroline saw it out of the corner of her eye, from inside her umbrella cocoon. The funeral home employee, oblivious to swirling social undercurrents depressed the button that began to lower the gleaming casket with its wreath of be-ribboned flowers into the hole. Caroline waited until it vanished from view before tugging off her gloves. The cheap knit catching again on her ring. She leaned down, her umbrella lowering like a deflating balloon, and gripped a handful of thick, spongy dirt. She stood and let it fly, listening to the shower of earth that echoed against the lid of the coffin. The woman stopped crying, anger stemming her tears. Caroline met her eyes. The other woman took a step forward, pricey heels sinking in the grass. The pastor reached out a hand to steady the other woman or to stop her and she gripped his arm, the diamond ring on her left hand sparkling like a grotesque, over-sized raindrop.
        Caroline wiped her hand on her cheap black coat, feeling the grime cling to the ring on her right hand, the paltry imitation of a claim. The space in the bed grew and grew until she was alone. Until he went back to the Other, to the Only. She turned and walked back to her car, feeling the grains of dirt work their way into the lines on her palm. Into the love line and the life line until both were etched in black.
        Now he was only bones.

Advice I Chose to Ignore

In classes and on blogs, I have read advice on writing–how to write, what to write, when to write, and on and on it goes.  Some people will tell you that you have to write short stories as a young writer because no one will read a 400 page draft of your novel if you don’t have some sort of previous experience/publication as a reference. Others will tell you that you absolutely cannot write “genre” fiction if you want to be taken seriously.  There is good advice and bad–much of it specific to the writer. I do believe there is truth in learning the rules before you choose to break them…but break them you probably will.

The Advice: Write What You Know

One of my favorite authors of ALL TIME told me this when I had the opportunity to attend a lecture he gave. At first I took his words as gospel because, come on, I was fan-girling that I was even in the same room. But then, I started to consider what he said, perhaps not the way he intended it, and I was disheartened. What did I, a young, female college student from a happy, secure childhood know about anything? I let this advice fester for a long time, bothered by the implications. If I could only write what I know then I might as well give up. No one wants to hear the day-to-day complaints of someone who has the kind of life many people lust after.

Finally I began to ask myself some things: Is it limiting to write what you know? Is that even a real thing? I write male characters, but I am female. I write fantasy and those places certainly don’t exist. I write love but I have never been in it. I write heartbreak when I have never felt it. I write loss when I have barely experienced it. I write murder but have never committed it.

If we only wrote what we knew, the literary world would be filled with the mundane, the 8-5, the unrelenting normalcy in which we live.  There would be no tales of dragons or far off space or the Nicholas Sparks brand of love. Maybe as writers, it is our job to delve into the unknown and bring a piece of it back to those that cannot go there themselves.

The Advice: Outline

I have had numerous professors/fellow writers/people who would not know writing if it punched them in the nether regions tell me that outlining is the only way to go. To them I say, “Not for me, thanks.” Maybe it’s an inherent dislike of being told what to do–especially when concerning my writing–or maybe that technique simply doesn’t work for me. It makes writing feel too much like an assignment and gives it a rigidity that I believe is the nemesis of creativity and inspiration. Once my story starts going, I may jot down a loose list of who will go where and do what, but inevitably that list is filled with gaps and vague descriptions such as : “A and B go here to do…something. A battle ensues.” Hardly a concise and developed plan of the story. But that’s just the way my mind works. I have my major scenes in mind and the rest fills itself in as I go. If outlining works for you, carry on. If not, don’t feel compelled to do it because someone said that was the only right way.

The Advice: Write Something Other Than Fantasy

This is more of a past tense rejection (I have since been forced to follow this advice). Interestingly enough, my first forays into writing were very much set in the real world with realistic, every day characters and problems. But fantasy (reading and writing) has always been my first love and I don’t anticipate that changing soon. However, since fantasy on my part tends toward the epic, I was forced to write out of my comfort zone (which is advice every writer should take) for classes. I ended up with material that got me into graduate school, and that was well received by my classmates–proving to your very reluctant narrator that I can and should write non-fantasy fiction. This advice is specific to me, but, if someone ever tells you to stop writing what you love, I give you permission to spit on them and walk away. Or just walk away, whatever. It’s true that you should try other styles and genres and settings, if only to find out where your weaknesses and strengths lie. Perhaps you are excellent at descriptions but your dialogue is lacking–switching genres can give you a chance to experiment with things that did not fit in the situation in which you originally placed them.

 

In other words, take each piece of advice someone gives you with a grain of salt and a good deal of thought. It could be that you need to take their advice to heart and it could be that you need to decide to take bits of it or ignore it altogether. In the end, it’s your writing, for better or for worse, for published or for unpublished, in agony and in ecstasy, for as long as you both shall live.

Unrelated to writing: Don’t eat that, don’t drink that, don’t touch that, don’t text him back, and don’t you think you’ve had enough?

But I’ll let you make your own mistakes in your real life.