Piecemeal—Sebastian Murdoch

content warning: violence, murder

Eudora Crosby would have sworn, on pain of death, that they did what they did to that Guerra girl in the most humane way possible. As far as she was concerned, there was no reason for the girl to be haunting the town the way she was. No reason at all.

“It’s just plain pettiness,” she said to Mrs. Rutledge over tea one day not long after the hauntings started. The two old women had not actually laid hands on the girl, but neither would deny having been present for the whole messy ordeal. Unlike some of the other townspeople, they had not been particularly possessed of any strong opinion about the awful business, except that they thought it best that it take place in the woods outside the town. For the sake of efficiency in the cleaning up and burial. Blood, they thought, would be difficult to clean out of the fountain located in the town square, where everyone else, including Amos Turner, had initially thought to do it. But who listens to a pair of old biddies anymore? And that was probably why the girl was back so soon after all.

“It’s a terrible nuisance, it is,” Mrs. Rutledge said, taking a sip of her tea, but only after staring into the cup for a long time. “Puts you right off your supper.”

“And wasteful too,” said Eudora. “All those leftovers gone straight in the trash.” She’d already lost two batches of green bean casserole that way, and she pictured all of that otherwise fine food piling up in her garbage can, untouched.

No one had been sure, at first, that it was pieces of Abigail Guerra in their food. But then it was Eudora herself who discovered the first lilac-painted fingernail poking up from the center of her casserole, as if it had a question in desperate need of answering. The nail polish had been so distinct to Abigail that there was no question that it belonged—had belonged?—to her, the Portuguese girl who’d moved to town by herself only six months past.

Now, everyone was finding pieces of her everywhere—in their cereal, in their mashed potatoes, even in their bundles of fresh produce. It was enough to put a person off eating entirely, which Eudora supposed was the point.

Eudora took a slow, careful sip of her tea—as far as everyone else knew, it was only the food stuffs that were in danger of turning up dead body parts—and stared out at the quiet stretch of road running past her house. She’d lived in this town all her life and had never once considered moving.

“I wonder,” she said, “if it’s the same way in the next town over.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Rutledge, “I heard Garland Weaver tried getting a plate of eggs in a diner just east of here and had the same problem. Found one of her ears, I think.”

“What did I tell you?” Eudora asked. “Pettiness.”

Garland Weaver hadn’t eaten a full meal in three days by the time he decided to try someplace out of town for his breakfast. His stomach gurgled and chugged inside him, paining him something fierce for his neglect. His stomach didn’t know why he hadn’t been feeding it properly and didn’t care either. 

He’d found the first body part about a week after Abigail Guerra died, a pinky toe mixed into his bowl of gumbo that he almost swallowed before realizing his mistake. He spat it out onto the dinner table, much to his wife’s dismay. The toe was small and would have even been cute under other circumstances, but as it was, the sight of it took away his appetite for any more gumbo that evening. 

The diner he’d chosen for his experiment stood about a mile outside the town limits, property of the town that bordered his and a place that acted as a kind of intermediary between the two. There, people from both towns met and communed over a host of breakfast foods and the occasional sandwich while grease sizzled and popped visibly in the galley style kitchen behind the counter. 

On this day, only one other table was occupied when Garland trudged inside, his stomach growling ever louder at the smell of hot food. Overhead, the fluorescent lights fizzed and popped, one blinking frenetically in the corner of the ceiling. He found himself seated beneath this light, the hostess stalking off before he could protest. With a huff, he hunched over the laminated menu, scanning it despite already knowing what he wanted. He liked the routine of coming someplace like this, being seated, looking at the food being purveyed and the accompanying pictures that showed the meals in all their grease-shined glory. 

Garland looked up at the sound of the diner door opening and spotted a young woman with a baby on her hip entering. She barely spared him a glance, her dark eyes roaming over the vinyl seats as if he were merely part of the diner’s landscape. A hot anger fluttered beneath his rib cage, a bird trapped, beating its useless wings. 

The girl—woman—sat down in a booth on the other side of the diner after situating the baby in a crummy highchair, the plastic legs peeling and flaking black onto the tiled floor. She dropped a kiss on the top of the baby’s head, simple as a thought, and sat down with her menu. 

“Coffee?” The waitress stood with hip cocked to one side, a coffee pot in her hand, staring down at Garland. At some point she must have placed a coffee cup in front of him because there it sat, but he hadn’t noticed. 

He nodded, and she poured the coffee, dark and steaming, in the cup. 

“That girl,” he said, pointing not indelicately at the woman with the baby. “She come here a lot?”

The waitress glanced over her shoulder for barely long enough for her to have registered the other patron’s presence. “I just work here, hon,” she said. She took his order—two eggs, scrambled and a side of pork sausage—and sauntered back behind the long counter. Garland watched her rump judder from side to side as she left, but he felt nothing, not even a twinge.

The problem had started right when he and his wife had decided to try for a baby of their own, having seen plenty of nieces and nephews pass through their house during the holidays and family reunions. They’d wanted more life in their house, to fill it with the sound of laughter and running feet and clapping hands. As it was now, the house sat silent as a broken jaw, empty but for him and her. They’d started trying about a year ago, enthusiastically at first. But then, when his wife didn’t conceive after the third or fourth attempt, their efforts slowed and then stopped altogether. Now, Garland could hardly raise the flag, so to speak, on his own. It was this, almost more than the lack of a child, that caused him such shame that he was like to choke on it if he ever tried to talk about it. Which was why it was so terribly quiet in the house lately. 

Then that Guerra girl had come to town. With her young, lithe body and her dark, almond-shaped eyes, the picture of perfection. Garland still remembered the way she moved through the town, easy and confident as if she’d lived there her whole life, as if she truly belonged. Sure, her confidence and her beauty had aggravated Garland in his impotence, but it wasn’t until he heard the rumor a month or so after her arrival that he was moved to actual anger. 

Out in the woods surrounding the town, there lived an old healer woman who was known to possess cures and methods for healing even the most egregious illnesses. Garland had always pictured her house as being full of little bottles and jars and smelling of herbs and the woods themselves, since the woman was supposed to have lived so closely with nature. She was also said to have a cure for unwanted pregnancies, and it was rumored that Abigail Guerra had gone to her for just such a cure not long after arriving in town. Who she’d been cavorting around with was anyone’s guess, but it didn’t matter so much who had gotten her pregnant as it did that she went so quickly to that witch in the woods. 

Across the diner, the baby slapped his hands on the highchair’s tray, laughing a high-pitched, baby laugh that set Garland’s teeth on edge. He glared at the young mother. It was bad enough that his stomach was hurting. 

He hadn’t thought things would go as far as they did with the Guerra girl. When Amos had approached him privately about her and what “needed to be done” about the way she was affecting the town, Garland had thought they’d give her a scare was all, maybe tell her to pick up her things and move somewhere else. He would tell anyone who’d listen that he hadn’t thought they were going to kill her.

That night, after they’d done it, Garland was one of the men who helped carry her body out into the woods and bury it. He’d held her feet and stared down at her belly, which he’d once imagined growing swollen with a child but was now as flat as a Bible. In the moment, his anger had felt justified, righteous even. What kind of a God would deprive him and his wife of a child when they wanted one so badly and then give one to someone who would throw it away without a thought? Surely, God had placed him in the Guerra girl’s path as some sort of holy retribution. At least, that was what he told himself when the hauntings started, and whenever his stomach growled its distress. 

The waitress returned to his booth, holding his plate of food aloft as she maneuvered her way from behind the counter. She set it down without even glancing at him or the plate and headed toward the mother and her child, presumably to take their orders. 

For a long minute, Garland Weaver did not look at his plate. He stared at the young mother and the baby and the waitress and the car passing the diner outside. And he prayed. He prayed that when he looked down, he would not find another piece of Abigail Guerra staring up at him, taunting him with the evidence of what they had done to her that night in the woods, that added cruelty that had been heaped on top of her already dead body. That hadn’t been his idea. Why should he be the one being punished?

But when he looked down, he let out a low, pained moan. There, where his side of sausage should have been, was a pair of Abigail Guerra’s fingers (not, in fact, one of her ears, as Mrs. Rutledge had been led to believe). The nail polish on the tips of those gray, mottled digits danced under the fretful fluorescent light from above. They were each severed at the first knuckle, where they ought to have met the rest of the hand, and the cuts were ragged and uneven, threads of skin lying limp and stringy against the plate. He thought he saw the wink of a finger bone amidst the red of the shredded muscle. 

Garland shoved the plate across the table and bolted from his seat, breaking for the door without stopping when the waitress called to him. He blew past the mother and her child, almost running into the highchair. But he skidded around it and was out the door without incident. He got in his car and kept driving away from his town, thinking that perhaps, if he just went far enough, he’d be safe.

Odessa Long found the tooth on her second bite. It seemed to be growing from the ear of corn itself, the end meant for chewing and grinding food facing her, so she knew it didn’t belong to her. She almost wished it had come from her, that she had broken off a tooth mid-bite and would now wander the streets with a gapped smile until she could afford a replacement. But no, it most certainly belonged to Abigail Guerra, as had the other assorted body parts Odessa had been finding in her food for the past few days. 

She flung the ear into the open trash bin, a cry of frustration and horror caught in her throat along with the first mouthful of corn. How was she to live if she could not go one meal without wanting to empty herself entirely of whatever she had eaten? Of course, she imagined this was the point of the curse, and she had half a mind to storm out into those woods and tell that witch to take it back this instant. It wasn’t fair that the whole town ought to suffer for what was, in truth, the fault of only a few and, really, was the fault of one in particular. 

Amos Turner had been in rare form that night. When he knocked on Odessa’s door and demanded that she and Tom join the ranks of men and women gathered behind him, she’d had no choice but to go, pulling her husband along behind her. Together, they melted into the crowd of angry townspeople, some holding shovels and others carrying lengths of rope looped around their shoulders. 

“What are you planning to do, Amos?” she’d asked, fear and excitement comingling in her belly the same as it had the night she gave her virginity to Tom. “She’s just a girl.”

“And the Devil was just a snake,” Amos said, not looking at her. His eyes were fixed straight ahead and did not waver as they made their way to Abigail Guerra’s home. 

She answered the door in nothing but her nightgown. Odessa remembered noticing her bare feet on the threshold and thinking that she ought to at least be wearing some socks with the weather getting cold as it was. Abigail Guerra stood in the doorway, looking for all the world like a child just woken from sleep, even going so far as to let out a yawn. 

Before she could say a word, Amos and another man grabbed her by her arms and dragged her out of the house. She started shouting, but someone hit her hard over the head and she went quiet, letting herself be ferried to the center of town, where stood a fountain flowing with water clear as gin. 

Amos stood back then, a pastor before his pulpit, and directed the men in the crowd. They backed Abigail Guerra up to the edge of the fountain and then bent her backward until her head disappeared beneath the water. Odessa remembered the way she kicked, her bare feet flying in the air until someone grabbed them and held them. She remembered the shuddering, gasping breaths she took whenever she managed to rise from the water. Which, in the end, was not enough. 

Odessa wouldn’t say that she had harbored any particularly ill will toward the Guerra girl, only that she disapproved of the way she spoke with so many young men so freely, her eyes alight and dancing with possibility. They all saw it, not just Odessa. But it needled her to see the girl go so gamely from one man to the next, when all her life, Odessa had been committed body and soul to Tom, whom she loved in that placid sort of way that anyone who has watched their youth slip away under the gaze of another can love that same person. She had sat by his side for many years now, since they were sixteen and their parents first intimated that the two should be destined to wed, and she had watched as other men, men she silently lusted after, paid her barely a passing glance.

Then, for this girl, about whom no one knew a thing apart from her name and that she came from the south, to glide onto the scene and steal the attention of so many of the available young men. Hate grew like a tumor in Odessa’s belly, turning hard and cancerous while she watched Abigail Guerra flaunt her looks and her exotic charms. And rumor had it that she’d even attracted the attention of Amos Turner, the preacher’s grown son, and he never paid the women of the town any mind. 

Odessa thought that the rumors must have been true too, the way he looked that night. He’d looked possessed, as if some unholy light had come up from the ground and sunk into him like wine into a tablecloth. His eyes had stayed fixed on the Guerra girl the entire time they had her in the fountain, and after it was done, he became even more frantic, hollering that they had to take her to the woods to bury her before the Devil brought her back to life. Odessa remembered thinking that it was odd, the way he was acting, desperate even, as if there was something in the girl’s dead body that he feared getting out if he didn’t act quick enough. 

Odessa stood over the kitchen sink, staring into the basin of soapy water and wondering what it had been like for the Guerra girl with her head stuck under the waves. Her stomach growled. She placed a hand over her belly and frowned. There would be no corn with tonight’s dinner then. If that made any difference at all, in the grand scheme of things.

Efren Peterson stood over the kitchen counter, filling the sausage casings. He hoped that, by making the food himself, he might somehow subvert Abigail Guerra’s curse, which had kept him from eating properly for days now. Efren Peterson was not one to forgo a meal either, or any indulgence as it were. He relished in sweet meats and salty breads and in long naps during the middle of the day. Comfort and contentedness were feelings with which he was closely familiar, but the inverse of those feelings left him twitchy and irritable. 

The Guerra girl had made him feel similarly when she was still alive too. Her laugh was too loud, too ever-present when it broke from her cherry-red lips. And she was always laughing at something it seemed, regardless of the day. Her laughter filled every corner of the town. Every crack in the sidewalk and hole in the wall seemed to burst with the peals of her laughter until there was nowhere Efren could go where he would not hear that high, warbling sound. 

The night they carried her body out into the woods, he remembered how quiet everything was. After she was surely dead, everyone went silent in the way a room goes silent in anticipation of a speech. But there would be no speech from Abigail Guerra. There would be no sound from her ever again. 

They carried her deep into the woods, until Amos Turner told them to stop, that here would be far enough from the town that her spirit could not easily return. Eudora Crosby and Phyllis Rutledge had said that it wouldn’t matter so much where they buried her if they killed her in town. That her spirit would linger where it first departed. Efren now figured they probably should have listened to the old women after all. But they hadn’t. Instead, they laid her body down in the dirt and started digging a hole deep enough for her. 

Only after they had dug about three feet deep, Amos stopped them.

“We have to cut it up,” he’d said as plain as anything. “That way there’s no chance of her coming back.”

At the time, the men exchanged glances that spoke to their doubts. Killing a girl was one thing but to chop up her body and scatter it like dirt on a fire? It seemed wrong in some way far worse than the actual killing had, and Efren hesitated to follow Turner’s orders. What if, by defiling the body in this way, they somehow brought God’s retribution down on them? But Amos was quick to say that it was God’s will that they should dismember the body so that the devil could not use it for his own vile purposes. They had to do this, or else they risked some demon coming to inhabit her body and wreak vengeance on the whole town. 

Efren thought of his little girl, Darcy, back at home, asleep in her bed. He hoisted the axe he’d brought from home onto his shoulder and went to work. 

Efren twisted off another link of sausage, letting it plop onto the counter with the rest of them, and stared out through the kitchen window. Darcy was out in the yard, playing with her dolls in the grass. Thankfully, she seemed to have been spared by the curse, as she never gave evidence of having seen the things that Efren and her mother had seen in their meals. He sent silent prayers of thanks up to God for that and entreated Him that He might see fit to pardon Efren as well, as long as he handled the food himself for the rest of his natural life. He could make do with those circumstances, if that was what it took to fill his belly again. 

He turned the handle on the meat grinder and watched the meat come out the other end. 

By the time they finished with the girl’s body, the men were sweating in the cold air, and their sleeves and pant legs were dark with blood. It shocked Efren how much blood could come out of such a little thing as the Guerra girl. The blood kept pouring from her as from a busted water pump, and it soaked the ground around her until it appeared as if it had rained suddenly and ferociously in just that spot. Still, no one dared complain while Amos was in earshot. They simply set to digging more holes, all of them strewn about the woods every few feet. 

When they had finally buried all the pieces of Abigail Guerra, Efren was exhausted and nearly falling over where he stood. But Amos seemed satisfied, so Efren kept his doubts and his fears to himself. The work was done, and there was no point in belaboring it. 

“Now if she comes back,” Amos said, “she’ll have to do it one piece at a time.”

Efren heaved out a sigh as he fed the last of the meat through the grinder and into the sausage casing in his hand. He twisted off the end and turned to the sink, sticking his hands under the hot water until the smell of the meat left his skin. The heat nearly scalded him, but he kept his hands under the water for a few seconds longer, letting the burn spread up to his wrists. When he at last removed his hands, they were bright red and stinging, but he barely blinked, feeling that anxiety he’d become so used to rise in his throat again. 

He turned back around slowly, keeping his eyes open in case it did anything to keep things as they ought to be. But curses do not abide by silly superstition and wishes. They simply work or do not work. In the case of Abigail Guerra’s curse, it worked. Where the coil of sausage links once was, sat instead a loop of mottled, gray intestines. They lay in a heap on the counter, their outsides dull but still recognizable as the chain of tissue and meat that winds through everyone. Efren didn’t smell anything coming off of them, but it was the sight of them that made his stomach turn over on itself. 

He whirled around and emptied himself into the sink, clutching the edge of the counter until the shaking subsided. When he looked back, the intestines still sat there, but beyond them, through the window, he could see Darcy still at play, oblivious and content. 

Amos Turner could not have known that this would happen. Though had he known, he might have still gone through with the murder of Abigail Guerra. Not that he had laid an ill-intentioned hand on her all night, but he had certainly directed the act as a preacher directs his flock to the pews. His father had taught him well in the art of guiding others along the righteous path, and Amos was certain that his father would have been proud of him, if only he could have seen the way he handled his slavering, witless congregation.

His father had died years ago, but Amos was still known around town as the preacher’s son, even though a new preacher had been installed not long after Amos’s father had passed from this life to the next. This new preacher had no wife and no children, and thus Amos maintained his customary role as the son of one who had once been the most well-respected man in the entire town. This role came with a certain amount of clout and power to which Amos had become accustomed, and Amos enjoyed these benefits as often as he was able. Men were like to do him favors, and women flattered him wherever he turned, and all this was his birthright and seemed unlikely ever to stop. 

Until Abigail Guerra.

Amos sat at his kitchen table, the house dark but for a few candles on the table. In the kitchen, one of the young boys of the town was fixing his supper: a meatloaf run through with rivers of ketchup and pocked with breadcrumbs and mashed potatoes smothered in a gravy. It was his hope that, since the children of the town seemed to be the only ones spared from the curse, perhaps having the boy prepare the meal would in some way circumvent the town’s affliction. If he was wrong, then it would be another day before he was able to work up the courage to try and eat something, and he had already gone three days without a full meal. Now, he trembled and shook with hunger, though he did everything in his power to hide these symptoms from the rest of the town, should they see and think him weak. 

“Sloth is a sin, boy,” Amos said. He touched his fork where it lay beside his plate, adjusting it so that it sat straight and flush with the knife beside it. 

“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said, a quaver in his voice. “It’ll be ready in a few minutes, I think.”

He had wanted the Guerra girl from the moment he first saw her on the street, walking home from the only bookshop in town, her arms loaded with hardback books thick as bricks. Her straight, black hair swung against the middle of her back as she walked, and he felt the urge to reach out and pull it, to yank her head back and expose the long, brown curve of her neck. But he restrained himself, hurrying home where he punished himself into the night for his treacherous thoughts, the ones that fed his painful tumescence, which he maintained even as he flogged himself. It was only when he finished that he came to his realization: his lust was not his fault but that of the Guerra girl, for her vanity and cocksureness was obviously the greater sin.

The next day, he followed her into her backyard, which was smaller than his but already full of flowers she had planted upon her arrival in town, whereas he knew his own to be sparse and barren, as that was how his father had kept it while he was alive. The yard was fragrant with the scent of the flowers, and their perfume clouded his mind, until he could hardly think straight. 

When she turned and saw him standing at her open gate, she did not cry out in alarm or run into the house as he had half-expected she would. Instead, she merely looked at him with her dark eyes and her lips turned up in a smile that mocked him flat-out. That smile burned inside him, and he felt hatred and fear mix together in his belly, for he did not know what she meant by that smile, and the uncertainty aroused him. 

He approached her, saying something he could not now recall about how she ought to be more vigilant when going about her daily errands, or someone who meant her harm might catch her out. The whole time he spoke, she only watched him, her expression never wavering from that impassable mien that did as much to cloud his judgment as did the flowers in her garden. Only when he raised a hand to touch her hair did she move, backing away from him a few paces. She dropped her eyes and told him she was sorry, but he must have gotten the wrong impression. She did not desire him in the same manner. 

In the moment, he was so stunned that he could not think of anything to say, only fled like a struck schoolboy back to his home, where he sat up all night, thinking of the Guerra girl’s face and that smile that he could not discern the meaning of. 

It was only when he later heard the rumor that she had gone to the witch in the woods for a cure for pregnancy that his rage caught up with him. The thought that she had rejected him but favored another man with her attention boiled inside him until he could do nothing but sit and think on the unfairness of it. It was during one of those long, sleepless nights that he was overcome with the notion that she ought to be soundly punished for her misdeeds. The question of how was never truly a question for him—only how to convince the rest of the town to follow his lead, which, as it turned out, was also hardly a question. It seemed that just about everyone had a grievance with the Guerra girl’s presence. 

But when Efren Peterson took his axe to the girl’s shoulder, preparing to do the job Amos had set out for him and a handful of the other men, Efren paused. He dropped the axe in the dirt and stood brusquely to his feet. When Amos asked him what was wrong, Efren turned to him with his face all pale and his mouth trembling like a girl’s and said, “She’s still alive.”

Sure enough, he was correct. The Guerra girl lay only mostly dead on the ground and had whimpered and moaned when Efren’s axe first cut into her flesh. Blood trickled down her arm and dripped onto the earth beneath it, and Amos stood by staring down at her. He watched as her eyelids fluttered and then lifted slowly, curtains rising away from a pair of windows. 

She mumbled something that sounded like a plea for help, but Amos couldn’t be certain. And he was sure no one else could be certain either, riled as they were from the mere fact of the girl’s presence there on the ground.

“Go to it then,” he said. He knew he wore an expression that brooked no defiance and waited patiently while the men gathered their courage and knelt around the girl’s body again. This time, even when she began to scream, they did not pause in their work.

When they had finished, he stood apart from the rest of them, looking out at the small plots of disturbed earth where they’d buried the pieces of Abigail Guerra. It was only as he swept his eyes across it all that he noticed a light in the distance. A cold wind blew through him, slicing through to the marrow of his bones. Though he had never been there himself, he knew the light could belong to only one house, the only house in these woods. The witch had been roused by the screaming no doubt, and she had probably watched the entire thing. He left quickly then, the rest of his impromptu congregation following close behind, and tried not to think of what this might mean. 

The boy pulled the meatloaf from the oven, heaping mounds of mashed potatoes alongside it, and ferried it over to Amos at the table. The smell of cooked meat was strong in the house, filling Amos’s nostrils and causing his stomach to growl in anticipation. It seemed, in that moment, that he had been right in his hypothesis. 

Only after the boy had set down the dish and shut the front door behind him, did Amos dare to look down at the meal. When he did, bile rose hot and acidic in his throat, and it took all of his strength not to fling himself away from the table. Instead, he gripped the edge of the table and forced himself to look down at the vision that lay before him.

There, nestled in the middle of the meatloaf, was what he assumed to be Abigail Guerra’s sex, gray and decomposed as it was. Though he had never seen this part of her, he could only assume it was hers, as every other part he’d discovered had been. This portion, however, seemed more alive than any other piece of her he’d yet seen. For there, crawling between her folds, were maggots, which wriggled and squirmed in and out of that dark passage that was only ever meant to sire a procession of slick-headed children. Dark hairs curled up from the skin, kinked and tight as they were. 

Amos Turner pushed his plate away and rose from his seat. Weak with hunger, he partially collapsed against the edge of the table, barely able to hold himself upright. The candles on the table burned on, even as he wandered the house, his moans hidden only by the sound of the wind blowing outside. 

Eudora Crosby and Mrs. Rutledge sat staring at the plate of devilled eggs laid between them. Neither had the appetite for them anymore, not after they uncovered them and saw that, sat between two of the egg halves, was an eyeball with the dark iris of none other than Abigail Guerra. Instead, they could only look at the plate, their bellies cramping at the smell of the mustardy egg yolks. 

“Perhaps if we ate around it,” Mrs. Rutledge said, though she made no move to touch any of the eggs. 

“Be my guest, if you want to risk it,” said Eudora. The thought was that, even if they tried to eat one of the actual eggs, the curse might transform it mid-bite, and neither of the old women wanted to chance biting into any piece of that girl, regardless of how hungry they were. 

“We can’t go on like this forever,” Mrs. Rutledge said, a low moan in her voice. 

“I don’t think we’re meant to,” said Eudora. She looked out at the street. Her eyes trailed down the path until they came to a stop on the house that had once belonged to Abigail Guerra. Even from here, she could see a sliver of the backyard, and there, bursting with life even after so many days without rain, were the flowers Abigail Guerra had planted. 

Sebastian Murdoch is a writer who was born in Montgomery, Alabama and now lives in Jackson, Mississippi. They received their MFA from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and have been published multiple times in the Johannesburg Review of Books. They are represented by Sharon Pelletier at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in New York, New York. 

Twitter: @SEMurdoch
Instagram: @smurdoch94

photo by khloe arledge and Franco Antonio Giovanella (via unsplash)

Two Poems—Andrew Walker

content warning: some gore

My Arm, Caught In A Bear Trap

I do not have nightmares 
               of my teeth falling out—
they are all there every night
               in spades, like spades.
I gnaw through this stubborn arm 
               caught, catch tendons between the gaps,
swallow enough boiling blood
               to make water taste weaker
than coffee. I can still feel
               my fingers grip the air as if they
have the strength enough to hold me.
               Dark now, the Sun 
is setting but I am still trapped, still 
               hungry, still ripping at the bulbous
veins that noose themselves 
               around my wrist, still chewing
as if the bones beneath were boiled
               in the sweetest brine
my prisoner tongue has yet to taste.

Consider Skin

Even a body rooted in soil 
enough for its anxious, 
tender breath can rot.
                                             Consider skin,
how it protects what is more vulnerable,
a starving mother watching
her children eat: It is not enough, it is not enough
                                             over & over.
It’s the waiting that does it, rips
fresh from dirt like skin from bone
between teeth & tongue. 
                                             Long enough &
the Earth will not recognize it,
this ravenous consumption.
Membrane holds a yolk.
                                             Sew what’s spilled—
hold the Earth & its bodies,
inhale the beauty of two things
blended, bound, together.

Andrew Walker is a writer living in Marquette, Michigan. He is a poetry reader for No Contact and his poetry and prose has appeared in Kissing Dynamite, HADPidgeonholesZero ReadersEckleburg and elsewhere. You can find more of him at his website, druwalker.com, but you can find most of him on Twitter, @druwalker94. 

photo by Raphael Brasileiro (via pexels)

The Fleshland—Surya Hendry

Today, the fleshland is brittle and aggravated. I step out to retrieve the mail, and each step I take shreds the skin below me, causing blood to well up and soak my slippers. I bend to massage the flesh, console it, but even my soft finger strokes provoke bleeding this morning. I grab the mail and race back to the house, leaving a small river in my wake. I chuck my slippers at the door. I consider telling my husband, Joshua, about this development. Instead, I step into the shower and scrub my feet and hands. I put on boots and venture out to see what is vexing the flesh. 

Joshua and I moved here six years ago. His programming job went remote and I had notions of becoming a homesteading housewife. We hunted for fixer-upper properties in the rural West, asked realtors if the land would be suitable for chickens and ponds and greenhouses. Joshua fell in love with this house’s sticker price and windowless basement office. Before we bought the house, I mentioned the odd quality of the ground. Joshua told me to think of everything I could do with ten acres, and I smiled wide, and we paid in cash.

Years passed. I tried to plant crops, but the land remained barren save for hair. I called in a local contractor to install a chicken coop, and he refused to dig into the land. Joshua and I communicated only in grunts and raised eyebrows. On the rare occasions when Joshua would initiate sex, I would think of how the skin looked near our house, how the pink and gray folds layered and rumpled, how the soft hair strangled my attempts at a flower garden. Joshua did not mind being pushed away. He had work. 

My friends from the coast would call with news of their children, their jobs and volunteering and marital problems. I stopped calling them back. I had nothing to say to them. Joshua did not require caring for or management. On the sunniest days, I would grab a bottle of aloe vera and a picnic basket. I would take lunch far from the house, where the skin became flat and leathery. I would walk until I found a patch of skin that was split and reddened from the sun, and massage it with the aloe vera and eat lunch beside it. 

Now, I walk across the entire property. The once-flat terrain is ridden with keloid molehills and cystic bogs. The ground is too slick for my boots to gain traction. I fall and crawl and stumble my way across the calloused land. 

Finally, I reach the edge of the property, where the flesh gives way to a dense, brambled forest. I immediately see the problem: a sturdy sapling has rooted itself directly into a softer patch of skin. I try to pull it out but only break it off at the base, leaving the roots intact. 

The next day, I return with a knife, to sever the roots from the earth. Every time I think I have found the end, I discover a new curve or twist. I scramble back home and find a shovel in the attic. I toss scoops of still-throbbing jelly flesh over my shoulder. Still, I cannot find the end of the root. Blood wells up below me and weighs down my jean cuffs. I place my left arm against the root and keep shoveling. Soon, my head is flush with the ground. Blood fills my nose and throat.

I think I am down here for a day and a night. I wonder if Joshua has noticed my absence. I imagine collapsing down here, getting swallowed up by the flesh, becoming a little tumor. If I scramble up the hole I have made, I can see that I’m digging closer and closer to the house. 

When I am nearly at the foundation of the house, my left arm slips off the root. I lose my footing and drop about ten feet and crunch onto my knees. For a moment, I gulp in my breath and try to swim upwards. I notice that my nose is breathing clear, warm air. I open my eyes. 

I am in something resembling a cave. Right above me is the hole I punctured, surrounded by dangling organic stalactites, which drip lukewarm water onto the ground. Soft cries are coming from the center of the cave, and I wade towards them. I find a creature, hunched into the fetal position, nose barely above the water. I bend to it. 

It takes me a moment to recognize the creature as a woman. For a long moment, I am only focused on her components: her muscles and tendons, her raw and wide eyeballs. Her body is bare from skin. I place my hand in hers. She grabs my wrist and sits up and stares at me. She opens her unlipped mouth. 

A needle is lanced through her tongue. She stays still and squeezes my hand as I ease the needle out of her mouth and toss it against the cave wall. Her cries diminish, and she buckles into my arms. 

Around me, the earth rattles. The hole in the ceiling sutures itself shut. I rise up, as if I have some chance of returning to the surface, but the woman tugs me down with tough fingers. I do not fight her. We sink to the base of the cave pool and hold each other. Fleshed and unfleshed hands intertwined.

Surya Hendry is a writer from Everett, WA. She currently reads for GASHER and Uncanny Magazine. You can find her work in The Leland Quarterly and The Foundationalist, and reach her at @suryahendryy on Twitter. 

photo by Vatsal Patel (via unsplash)

Corvus conjurax—M. A. Blanchard

On good days I get the kettle boiled before the sun comes up. I like to sit on the balcony and watch while dawn transforms into day. Sunrise swelling over the railings fills my cup with an amber glow. Some people take their tea with lemon, or sugar, or even – ugh – milk. I prefer mine flavoured with light. 

The tea I like comes in a red cardboard box. The red makes me happy, as does the fact that the box holds eighty sachets. Most days I let myself drink two cups. I never take more than three; that way I only have to go shopping once a month. It’s been a long time since going out was a pleasure. These days it’s best to stay home. 

I’ve been making friends with the crows. They like to gather in the tree across the parking lot. Between my first and second cup, some crow or another usually flaps over to see what I’m eating for breakfast. This morning there are four. They perch on the railing, looking down at my toast. I take one more bite, then tear the rest of the slice into bits, which I leave on the plate when I go inside to make that second cup of tea. When I come back out, the toast bits have vanished. In their place lies a shaggy grey twig. 

Crows are good with tools. They know how to select a seemingly-random object – say, a twig – and make its power their own. Twigs are an important part of crow life, so I know this gift they’ve left me must be significant. My hands shake as I pick it up; too much caffeine on a near-empty stomach. “Gaw,” says one of the crows who are watching from high up in their tree. I nod in agreement. 

In spring, the crow tree’s boughs are grey and bare. The crows, returning from winter vacation, line the smooth limbs until the tree’s nakedness is hidden away from the world. Last season’s wardrobe may be crumbling over the exposed roots, but the tree is resplendent in a dressing gown of stylish obsidian feathers. 

My own dressing gown is black watered silk, swirling with featherlike patterns. I wear it out to the balcony sometimes, to feel the wind lifting its hem. Covering my bark with facsimile wings helps me conjure caffeinated lightheadedness into a sensation approaching flight. 

The way crows fly looks so laborious. A study in flapping, methodical wings beating the air down in order to stay above it all. I used to dream of gliding, soaring, like ravens or birds of prey; these days I’d settle for a crow’s flight, nearly as plodding as my own steps when I have to go out. It’s hard to walk when I’m weighed down by heavy bags – and worse, by the eyes of the neighbouring strangers observing my sluggish progress. People like to look down. I could flap right over their heads and never be noticed. Crows flying sound like my dressing gown, flapping to get away when a thieving breeze snatches at its hem. A crow is too wary to let the air sneak up over top and push it down to the ground. And I won’t let the wind take my wings away without me. 

I used to play with the farm crows when I was a child. I think the first time was in winter. It had snowed all night, and the field behind our house scintillated reflected sunlight like an ocean of tiny gems. I don’t remember where I was going, but I sank to my knees in the drifts with every step. Two of the crows who sometimes lived by the barn followed me across the field, hopping from one footprint to the next. When I stopped, they stopped. I turned, slowly, and looked down into my tracks. Nestled in my boot wells, their bodies looked like spilled ink seeping into the opalescent snow. I started walking again. The crows hopped. I stopped, and they stopped. I looked at them and they looked at me and then at each other, muttering “Carh, arh, agh.” 

I didn’t understand, but I nodded. 

They nodded back. They remained about ten paces behind me all the way to the edge of the woods. I don’t remember where we went next, but I have wondered for decades what they were talking about. 

I drank the last teabag this morning. This means I have to go out. I’m low on food as well, down to the dregs of dried prunes and granola. Last night I shared the last tin of sprats with the crows. It’s been a week since there were crackers or eggs. I don’t always remember to get hungry, but there’s only so long even I can go without eating. 

I can still carry enough in my old hiking pack to ration out for a solid four weeks, though it’s been getting harder to hold up under the burden of my own appetite. When I was younger – when the doors were all open and the trails stretched on forever, when I did not yet know what a thing it was to go out – I thought nothing of walking for hundreds of miles with my whole life strapped to my back. I don’t miss the trails as much as I miss having a home I could carry around. The two kilometres to the grocery store are a long way to walk when you know everyone is looking. 

There’s a bag of green apples on the discounted produce rack. I like green apples. There was a Granny Smith tree in that field behind my childhood home. There were other trees in the orchard, but the crows preferred to gather in that one. I reach for the bag at the same time as the woman on the other side of the rack. Our fingers touch. 

Gaw!” The sound is involuntary, but I can’t regret its outcome. She recoils, wide-eyed. “Sorry,” I croak, clutching at a plastic-clad apple. “Startled me.” 

She backs her cart away. The Granny Smiths are mine. 

I take a bag of Golden Delicious as well. I don’t like them as much, but there is only one bag of Smiths. I wonder which crows prefer, tart or sweet? On the other side of the produce section I can see the woman speaking to a store employee. She points. They look, then laugh and shake their head at her. I shop here because the staff don’t seem to mind. 

When the shopping baskets drag toward the floor, I know it’s time to head home. 

“How’s it going?” 

I put on my human face for the nice cashier. I always shop on a day when I know she’ll be working. Her eyelids gleam gold, and glittering dangles swing from her brown seashell ears. She uses the same voice with me as with everyone else. “Good,” I lie. “Are you doing well in school?” I cannot remember what she is studying. 

She beams. “97 percent on the organic chem midterm! But I’m gonna get a 98 on the final.” 

“You are very smart,” I tell her. “Someday you will be great.” 

She blinks. Awkward. But then she smiles again. “Thank you,” she says. “You’re so nice.” 

My face goes hot. I stuff the groceries into my pack as quickly as I can. 

“Have a wonderful day!” she calls after me. I’m careful to not look back.

The crows keep bringing me gifts. Today a scrap of aluminum foil, gleaming and strange in its uncreased perfection. I have a growing collection of twigs, stones, and bones. A silver ring scaled like a fish’s cool skin. More and more visit each time, coming ever closer to me. They’re starting to trust my sincerity. 

I think they’re planning something involving me. It’s common knowledge that crows are as good with plans as they are with tools. I read that in a book, but you can see it in the way they combine their twigs and found objects to transform useless junk into new and necessary things. It takes foresight and imagination to relate and remake disparate jetsam until it becomes something useful. Before I go to bed each night I look and look at my growing collection, wondering if there’s something I’m supposed to be making. 

There’s something else I have to figure out. I don’t know what it could be, but something is hidden in my apartment. I should remember. I think and think, but only in the muddled margins between sleep and waking do I feel I’ve come close to glimpsing its nebulous shape. I wish I knew what it was for. That piece of foil bothers me. It should be crumpled, punctured, in some way marked from being picked up and carried in claws or beaks. Its smoothness taunts me, flaunting the presence of secrets I forgot to keep safe. It’s hard to imagine who would hide something in my home. 

This morning I have six breakfast guests, and barely enough toast to share around. One hops down from the railing onto the furthest edge of my table. I offer an apple slice. The crow only stares, glassy eyes warping my reflection into something unrecognizable. Feathers and silk rustle in an occidental breeze. One of the railing crows lets the air lift it away to the tree. The crow on the table keeps still, and so do I. 

Another thing crows know how to do well is hide things. They hoard their tools and treats, caching them in safe places to retrieve for later use. I wonder if I am a safe place, or only a tool.

Explosion. Outside, a great excitement of feathers and shrieking alarm. I see something broken on the hard grey ground, terrible and wrong. Before I can think what I’m doing, I race down the back stairs and out. It’s not one of my days to leave the nest – it won’t be grocery day again for weeks – but I can’t think about that now. These boys who don’t live here shouldn’t be in our lot. One of them holds an air rifle. The other laughs. I race at them, flapping, a broom in my hand, brandished like a straw-spiked halberd. “Go! Go away! Get!” 

Ugly laughter, pitched with nervous malice. “Go away yourself, old bag.” 

“What a loony.” 

Swat and stab with my polearm, sweeping them back toward the street. My rage is wordless, boundless, and vast. Language is too difficult to throw away on such trash. The boys break and run, swearing and spitting. “Aghk!” I shout after their cowardly backs. The vengeful chorus perturbing the air agrees. 

I kneel by the bundle of bloody, ruined feathers, cradling it up in my grieving hands. The others follow my funeral march to their tree, where I lay the fallen to rest in a root-sheltered hollow. A few bold scouts land. Duty performed, I can’t keep the awareness of being outside on a wrong day from crashing in anymore. Panic in waves, breaking. I don’t breathe again until I am safe, doors locked, keeping everything out. 

It’s a third cup of tea kind of day. 

Once my chest stops hurting, I creep to the balcony, the one piece of outside when I still belong. I hope the crows can tell from this distance that I’m keeping their vigil too.

My crows really know how to hold a grudge. I see those boys again only once. Their faces are known now, their ugly thick voices, the insolent strut in their steps. They cannot strut on our street anymore. The last time they come here, they run away scratched and bleeding. I am terrified someone will punish the crows for enacting their justice. I watch and watch, but no one comes. Perhaps the boys were ashamed to admit their defeat at the claws of their victim’s family. 

I still haven’t found the hidden thing. More of the crows have picked up the habit of perching on my table. It’s gotten so I can’t set my lunch down without displacing them. I eat standing up. They still bring me trinkets, trading for sardines. I’ve been wearing the fish-scale ring. They watch my hands while I eat my sandwich, waiting. Another appears, flapping over the crowd to drop a spool of red thread in the midst of the throng. A chorus arises: “Carh, arh, arh, aghk!” 

The new crow perches on the arm of the chair, clacking its beak. There’s a chip in its gnathotheca. I lay down the rest of my sandwich and let them feast. 

A collective of ravens make up a conspiracy. Crows, in crowds, are said to confabulate murder. I think that is unfair. No one who paid attention could doubt that crows delight in conspiring. 

Their feasting done, they stay put for once, so expectant it makes me feel nervous. Whatever has been building all summer, all fall, I think its time has come. I hope I won’t disappoint them. I fetch the tray of sticks and stones and foil and take my seat. They come closer. I sort and arrange. I cannot envision our objective. Impatient, the chipped-beak crow hops up from the chair to the table. The foil warps its reflection into mythical unfamiliarity. It points with its beak, guiding my hands, until the objects are in order. Another crow knocks over the spool of thread.

I tie the objects together, one by one. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, resolving the disconnection of pieces that don’t seem to fit together. I move a stone from one part of the pattern to a spot where it easily fits. The chipped-beak crow snaps at my hand. I put the stone back. I don’t recognize the shape we’re constructing, but my audience is raucous with excitement. I wrap the foil around a bone and knot the last wrap of thread around itself. It’s done. Whatever this it might be. Wait. I slide the silver ring from my finger and try to puzzle out where it must go. Another crow plucks it up from the table and pushes it back at my hand. A payment, then, for services rendered, for giving the crows my powers. 

The largest crow takes my work in its gleaming claws. I wish I had knowledge of their plans. They lift almost as one, the air beneath them a ladder for climbing the height of the blank grey sky. They don’t look back. Twisting my ring around and around my dull and clawlesss finger, I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to understand that the hidden thing has always been me. 

No one knows why only some crows travel in winter. Partial migration is one of the world’s great mysteries. Crows, I suppose, are as individual in habit as anyone else. I could wish for crows who would stay, but I wouldn’t trade my friends for anything. 

It’s spring again. I waited all winter, but my flock still hasn’t come back. The tree has nothing to cover its bark and long, smooth limbs. I can’t keep my eyes from staring, fascinated and ashamed. I have to go out. I won’t go far. It’s just that there’s no one else here to do the crows’ work, and the tree looks so helpless before it remembers how to make leaves.

The shaggy trunk is cool against my cheek. I wrap my arms around it, embracing the juxtaposition of its coarse skin against my smooth bark and silken wings. I climb. It feels almost as if the branches are helping me up. I perch at a juncture. My dressing gown drapes down my dangling legs, trailing over the limbs reaching up beneath me. The buds are just barely out now, sticky and red. If I close my eyes, I can nearly hear the whisper of feathers around me. Restful caws echo off asphalt and bricks as the crows in my mind shift and settle. If I look, nothing will be as I imagine. I keep my eyes shut and wait for the season to change. 

previously published in prairiefire, Volume 42 (Spring 2021)

M. A. Blanchard resides by a haunted forest on an almost-island. A linguist by training and a surrealist by inclination, she grows forbidden flora on a farm in the middle of very nearly nowhere. When not planting seeds, hexing weeds, or making up stories, she curates #sfstoryoftheday on Twitter @inquisitrix and reviews speculative short fiction for Fusion Fragment. Her fiction has appeared in PseudoPodDark Matter Magazine, and more.

photo by Ospan Ali (via unsplash)

Snow White Goes Gray—Jeana Jorgensen

For every silver hair I plucked
in my thirties, I am sorry;
now they spring up,
a reverse snowfall from
a bed of coal-black hair.

I am sorry too
about the red-hot iron shoes—
sorry that I accepted the corset stays,
the comb, the apple,
reveled in them, even;
sorry that I mistook
every sign from you as
hostility, not a warning.

Married to a prince anyway
I miss my mother,
and I am sorry
we will not grow old together,
because you never showed me how.

Jeana Jorgensen earned her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy tales and fairy-tale retellings, folk narrative more generally, body art, dance, and feminist/queer theory. Her poetry has appeared at Strange Horizons, Nevermore Journal, Liminality, Glittership, and other venues. Her recent book Folklore 101 is available and is perfect for anyone who wants to learn more about folklore.

photo by Priscilla Du Preez (via unsplash)

The Doll’s House—Elle Symonds

There is one light aglow in the little house. It flickers like a spotlight above the table, the resin food glistening beneath it. A glazed roast chicken. A basket of bread. Jam that never goes down. I watch you as you sit there, staring at the feast. Sometimes you stare at the newspaper, too, but you never pick it up. Your hands don’t work that way.

You have one of those painted faces. Beautiful, with a small nose and rounded cheeks, dashed with rouge. Curls frame your face; they are auburn and look like fire when the sun shines in through the tall window. Once, those curls were tidy, but that was a while ago, when you were boxed and new, when your clothes were free of stains and the dust hadn’t gathered beneath your eyes. 

You are young, but not too young. When you first arrived I wasn’t sure about you. Were you the lady of the house? You didn’t look as regal, but that was fine; sometimes we could dress you up, in a different frock. Sometimes satin, sometimes something flouncy with pleats, that would move as you twirled around in that little kitchen. I knew you weren’t staff – certainly not – you didn’t have the uniform.

You had a companion once. The man of the house. With his little oversized suit and mop of curly dark hair. He’d sit at the same table in the little kitchen, with his newspaper and coffee that he never finished. He’d read the paper but never turn the page, and the both of you would sit, all silent and unmoving. 

But he took a tumble. Down the slippery, wooden stairs, his porcelain body all smashed up. He was no good after that. That’s the trouble; you’re too fragile.

Now you wear that same expression each day, until you’re moved to another room in your big, open house. And I watch. I listen. 

I watch as they arrive with food left untouched, food you say tastes like wax because everything does to you now. I watch as they bring flowers, more and more, until they take up the kitchen and suffocate you with forced colour, forced apology, and I see your painted face, how it smiles when you see those people, how it vanishes once they’re gone and you’re back at the table, and the dust, the grey dust that surrounds your eyes – you wipe it away on your sleeve and sit there, sit there until the light flickers again.

You don’t move. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You don’t see me, or hear my silent shouts across the room. I’m here, I’m here. 

Because everyone knows dolls don’t speak. They can only watch.

When the last light goes out in the little house, I wait. Until tomorrow, when we will sit together again, silent and unmoving.

Elle is a novelist and flash fiction writer from Bristol, UK. Her words have appeared at Retreat West, The Drabble, 5 Minute Lit and more. She’s fond of the seaside, ghost stories and filling her house with too many books. You can find her on Twitter: @seventhelle

photo by edgeeffectmedia.com (via unsplash)

Persephone’s Seeds—Vanessa Maderer

In rolls a begotten fog 
Smelling boggish, of
Crushed sage and old pomegranate 
Seeds. The scent roots me here, like
Sleep paralysis dead awake. And,
In my periphery, there lurks
Some otherworldly shadow 
All made up of
Skeletal lace; petrified petals greyed and 
Sheathing an emaciated
Figure. Only her eyes 
Are alive, so quick and angry, and 
Trapped too. 
I tremble and think, is this his
Pomegranate queen?
Buried beneath the weeds, trapped by 
Just those few seeds? 
The injustice radiates from her  
Withered form, with just a wisp
Of former glory, old beauty. 
And then the shadow decays away, leaving 
Just a moldy fragrance that 
Reminds me of 
Rotten roses once 
Sublime
And I know I will never 
Accept the promise of seeds again 
Lest I become 
Persephone’s legacy.

Vanessa Maderer was a young reader turned editor, writer, and finally enthusiastic poet who has recently debuted her first chapbook entitled, Cusp of Dusk after a decade of revision. Now, she has an insatiable appetite for new ideas and themes, and can be found most easily through Twitter at @MadererV. 

photo by Thought Catalog (via unsplash, with credit to quotecatalog.com)

Hatchlings—Rose Biggin

Gretchen lived with her godmother in a cottage at the edge of the forest, but we mustn’t get carried away: this might just as easily have happened if she lived further down the hill, or far off in the middle of the village. This could happen to anyone. But it so happened that the cottage where Gretchen lived with her godmother was out at the very edge of the forest, and from the garden it was possible to look over the splintered fence (on tiptoes at first; after the growth-spurt, no problem) and see the trunks of the trees striping the darkness, and follow the bristling movement of the shadows, and watch the pinpoints of light staring back before flickering out.

‘Don’t go in the forest,’ was one of the first things she learned, and after that her godmother taught Gretchen all about herbs, history, generosity, inquisitiveness, common sense: the usual things. By the time we meet her, Gretchen is a young woman, and she can spin, maintain a garden, recite a poem, drive a bargain, milk a goat, climb a tree, follow a map. 

Gretchen, then, on her knees in the garden, pulling at some plant or other — let’s say it’s beetroot, a reliable crop beetroot, solid choice — when the calmness of the day is torn in two. A scream, ripping the sky. 

Gretchen, looking up, muddy stalks in hand, sees a dark shape spiralling in and out of the trees. It looks like a huge bird is battling a giant fox, a fight of outrageous ferocity, and in mid-air: both creatures are in a killing grip, a bundle of fury and spiked wings. The pair dive out of sight back into the forest and here’s Gretchen, rising, running to follow. Chasing the smoke and the unholy shrieks, pushing the brambles and thorns aside, going after the sound. You would, wouldn’t you?

She finds them in a clearing edged with ferns, the desperate fight still going on.  A tree stump nearby is splattered with blood, there’s gore all over the moss. It’s a battle with death in the balance, no question, and now she is closer to the creatures she sees their talons are sharp and many inches long, and the bird-creature’s wings have a jagged sharpness, more like a fan of blades than of feathers, and the fox-thing has more teeth than it surely should. 

The bird-creature is moving oddly. It keeps going, with juddery steps, towards a particular fern, clearly not wanting to move far from the spot: the bird-thing is on the defensive, and the fox-thing is on the attack, and the prize is hidden among those ferns. Gretchen, crouching, hiding in the thicket, understands this has been going on for some time. The fox-thing’s tail is bloody and thin, partially ripped away. Teeth are bared, talons are out, blood has spread over torn feathers and matted fur. 

As if sensing the last grains of sand slip through the hourglass the bird-creature bellows and performs one almighty leap, spreads its wingspan out fully to the size of an ironing-board and raises its talons for a final claw straight to the heart — just as an equally desperate death-lunge from the fox-creature mirrors its leap, and the fox-creature rips one last chance across the bird’s exposed body. Darker blood suddenly, terminal, and the creatures lock together once more and dark smoke rises to envelop them, and death-throes echo up to the forest canopy, and by the time the sounds fade and the smoke clears there is little in the clearing but lumps of matted fur and a pile of dark smoking feathers. 

The forest takes a moment of silence for these fallen things.

Gretchen, taking a few shuddering breaths, getting the courage to approach the bodies — or whatever’s left. When she does go to them, the sight is a puzzle as much as a shock: both creatures seem long decayed, hardly there at all. Their shredded flesh has darkened with a sticky clotted resin and their heads are sinking into themselves, the eye sockets shadowed and empty. The stench of old rot sits heavily over everything. It looks as if this battle was fought weeks ago, months: not seconds. Gretchen, standing over the scraps she’d swear were fighting to the death not a moment before. Gretchen, wondering what to do about this.

Perhaps she hears a sound. Or perhaps her body simply senses, the way bodies can, that she is in the presence of life, or at least something like it. Her attention swings to the ferns at the edge of the clearing. 

The bird-thing was protecting something. Gretchen has seen creatures go on the defensive before, and there’s really only one thing that inspires such ferocity.

She peers through the fronds, then pushes them aside. 

Among the dark bracken is a nest made from pieces of flaked slate. Possibly taken from roofs down in the village, she idly thinks, since tiles have been going missing lately. Most have been blaming the wind.

Within the nest sits a cluster of eggs, half a dozen, the size of goose eggs. A sickly pale grey: not the healthiest sight. 

Gretchen reaches out a tentative hand and picks up one of the eggs. Beneath, lining the nest, is a bed of white moss, dry as bone.

The egg is hot in her hands. She holds it a moment, looking at it. 

Almost imperceptibly, the egg is becoming cooler. Ah.

So.

Gretchen, running through the trees, the half-dozen eggs wrapped in the skirt of her apron, twigs snapping beneath her feet, a side-leaning branch for one heart-stopping moment nearly tripping her over. She reaches the edge of the forest, runs over the grasses, through the garden, shoulder barges into the cottage, heads straight to the fireplace and dumps the eggs into the coals. In a rush she arranges them at the back and uses the poker to cover them over, adds a sprinkle of ash and makes a few sparky pushes with the bellows. Not at any point fully understanding why she’s doing any of this; knowing only that her instinct is to do it. 

Gretchen, standing before the fireplace, the new lumpy arrangement safe for now in the glowing heat. Feeling calmer, sensing that she’s helped somehow.

Her godmother, suddenly, is standing beside her. Her voice is low and urgent: ‘Get rid of them.’

A sprinkle of panic goes through Gretchen, as if she’s been caught. 

‘What, why? What do you mean?’ She resists the urge to put her hands on her hips, but the temptation to be defiant is there. This feels, already, like her business. 

Her godmother shakes her head slowly. ‘They aren’t going to hatch into anything helpful. You should have left them where you found them.’ 

Gretchen describes the battle she witnessed, the creatures who died fighting over the eggs. It only makes her godmother reiterate: there are things that should not hatch. Gretchen sees her godmother’s point, nods in agreement. She should really get rid of the eggs. She knows this, she does know this.

Gretchen, as the days pass, keeping a corner of the fireplace covered over with ash, and occasionally touching the shells with the back of her fingers to check they’re still warm. Watching their greyness darken, and the hairline cracks appear.

And then, one afternoon — it’s spring, a lovely temperate spring day in the village, a festival day in fact, with bunting everywhere and music coming up from below — and Gretchen’s godmother is out, she’s been out all day, helping with the cake stall then masterminding the sack race — and Gretchen, kneeling by the fire, practically bending all the way over the ashes, hardly daring to blink never mind breathe. She sensed something, or perhaps she picked up a sound without knowing she’d heard it: she simply knew to be with the eggs. Gretchen, pushing the coals aside with the poker to get a proper look. 

The eggs are so much darker now, some are nearly the same colour as the coals. They’re ready. And the cracks across them are thicker, and glowing red. Like veins of lava through the dark shells. Gretchen, entranced, leaning closer in. 

The biggest egg has a web of fine cracks spreading out from a central point, and from within — lean in, listen, hear it — comes a slight but persistent tap, tap tap. The web of cracks grows more unstable and pieces of the shell fall away, a few at first and then, with a sudden sound, a clean sound like snapping bone, the shell cracks into two and a dark wet thing totters out.

Steam rises from within the broken remains of the egg: it was hot in there. 

It takes a few steps, stops and cocks its head. Shakes itself slightly. Its long beak has an edge like a razor. 

It already has purpose. Its dark grey body shines like rain on slate, and tiny eyes blaze within its bone-sharp head. For a moment it and Gretchen share a moment of silence, there in the fireplace. Then it takes a few more teetering steps towards her, and pushes its head against her leg. The feeling is sharp, damp, not exactly cold.

The other eggshells fall away too, and so half a dozen more are clustering silently around her. Gretchen, surrounded by these tiny things. 

The steam has mostly drifted away and their bodies are drying out to reveal more of their shape. They are flintier than geese, with the folded skeletons of their wings like sharp elbows. They have quickly become confident on their thin legs that bend very oddly. Their beaks and talons are white, pure bone. As for their eyes: ancient eyes, red and yellow and jagged like lightning, a furious concentration that’s epochs old.

Gretchen, looking at the hatchlings, suddenly breaks from the spell. She bolts up and backs away: from there it’s an impasse, and Gretchen’s godmother comes home to find her like this, surrounded by these creatures that make no sound, Gretchen pressed against the far wall, kneeling absurdly on a stool, the hatchlings snuffling and pecking at the legs.

‘Get them away from me!’ she cries, looking up through a panicked, tear-sheeted face at the sight of her godmother in the doorway.

Her godmother’s face is surprised for a moment, then suddenly very weary. She drops the basket she’s been carrying (full of trinkets and flowers from the day’s festivities, forgotten now, unimportant trifles now, including a jar of actual trifle, it’s all such a terrible shame) — Gretchen’s godmother runs a hand across her face and says in a scratchy, tired voice: ‘I told you to get rid of them.’

Gretchen’s face is a rictus. ‘I — I didn’t think—’

‘I’ll say you didn’t. You had your merciful moment when you rescued them, but I told you. You kept them?’

Gretchen gestures desperately at the creatures, who are trying to hop up onto the chair. ‘What do I do?’

‘Come here first, quickly all in one go. Run and I’ll stop them.’

Gretchen dashes off the chair and runs the width of the cottage — the hatchlings follow her, their heads lowered for speed, their bodies rocking side to side as they run, a small stampede of stomping skeletal feet. 

Gretchen’s godmother has picked up the broom. She wields it at the creatures. The hatchlings slow down and cluster together, eyeing it warily. 

‘Knew it,’ says Gretchen’s godmother, with some satisfaction in her voice. ‘The broom always works. Look at that, they can’t stand it.’

‘They’re scared of brooms? Like a — normal goose?’ Gretchen had assumed rules like that wouldn’t apply.  

‘A rake would work, the hoe, anything with a long handle.’

She holds the broom out further — the hatchlings move backwards as a group, ruffling their stony wings. 

Her godmother’s expression is grimly etched. ‘Were you the first thing they saw?’

‘Yes.’

‘That explains it.’ Her eyes narrowing as she looks into Gretchen. ‘They’re not chasing you. They won’t attack you. I’m afraid they’re following you.’

Gretchen’s mouth moves a little as she admits to herself that she understands, has known the whole time. ‘They think I’m their mother.’ 

‘Its worse than that,’ says her godmother. ‘They’re right.’

Compromise must be struck: Gretchen cannot now lead them into the forest and set them loose, because they’ll simply follow her back. 

‘Quickly — into the cellar.’

Her godmother opens the door and Gretchen runs in, and the hatchlings silently follow, their bone-feet tapping down the steps. Gretchen lets the creatures overtake her as they jump down, anticipating her own steps to the bottom, then she comes out. The door squeaks as she closes it behind her, and she locks it and strikes the bolt.

Gretchen, rubbing her face in something like relief, pictures again the bold stare of those red-yellow eyes. ‘What are we going to do?’

Her godmother picks up the forgotten basket of flowers, which has become helplessly crumpled. ‘Kill them.’

Gretchen, shaking her head. ‘I can’t do that.’

‘You’ve had your merciful moment,’ says her godmother. ‘But I’m not having those things living underneath this cottage.’

‘What do you want me to do, twist their necks?’

‘Ideally yes, exactly.’

‘I’m not doing that.’ Gretchen, sick at the very idea. Not that this is only squeamishness: she’s a country girl, she’s twisted necks before. But, ‘I just can’t.’

‘Then you’ll have to leave them down there: with no nourishment they’ll lose their energy, fade away, turn to dust. Then you can go in and sweep them out.’

Gretchen, mouth open, horrified. ‘That’s crueller than killing them now, isn’t it?’

‘Well, those are the options.’ Her godmother, hand on the door handle. ‘I’m going to pull up some carrots for dinner. Make the choice, and make your peace with it.’

When her godmother returns, Gretchen has chosen the war of attrition. The thought is too much, in that moment, of facing once again those skittering bodies with their blazing eyes. Her godmother nods, and they eat, and sleep to rise again and begin another day; and many days pass, the cellar an unspoken darkness below them.

Gretchen, taking tentative steps down into the cellar. 

Her godmother is out, and the curiosity has become too great. Has it been long enough? Might they be ash already? Gretchen tells herself she wonders these things, not admitting to herself she knows it hasn’t been long enough, nowhere near. 

The cellar is all darkness and cold air, and a sense of pure emptiness.

She waits.

There is a tapping from a far corner, and a shape detaches from the shadows and lopes towards her. She can recognise the first to hatch since it is bigger than the others, and seems to be the leader. It runs to Gretchen, its talons audible on the flagstone floor, and the others follow quickly behind.

She kneels to look at them. The creature cocks its head and watches her, its eye getting brighter as her own vision adjusts. They don’t seem to be starving to death, although, Gretchen thinks, how would she tell? The creature taps its beak on the floor several times, and the tap echoes. It looks at her again and opens its beak: inside are rows of jagged teeth. Gretchen knows she should feel frightened, but she has never felt calmer.

‘What do you need?’

She looks for another moment into that red-hot eye, and suddenly knows the answer.

Gretchen, back upstairs, heart pounding, kneeling at the edge of the fireplace, shuffling some coals and ash into a tin tray, then carrying it down into the cellar. 

She puts the tray beside her and watches the creatures. She half expects them to leap into the ash-bath and fritter around in there, taking comfort in the hot dryness of it. But they cluster together and back away, their feet dragging over the flagstones as if they would dig them up. Between clawing the ground and keeping together it’s clear that they’re nervous. Perhaps they don’t know what to do.

The biggest hatchling takes a few steps forwards, staring at Gretchen. She returns its look, forgetting the coldness of the stone floor on her knees, and waits until she sees something there, understands.

The knowledge of what it is she is about to do drops unbidden into her mind, which until this moment was fully taken up with the hatchling’s infinite eye.

Keeping its even stare, Gretchen reaches down and puts her hand onto one of the coals. She hears the faint hiss as it touches her bare skin but the pain is distant. She curls her fingers around it, picks it fully up. She reaches out, holding it before her. 

Holding it out with a flat palm, of course; there’s no need to be reckless.

It comes closer with a click of bone on the cellar floor. The steps echo suddenly, as if this dark space stretched out for miles. She keeps her focus on the red-hot glare of its eye, and reaches out with her arm just the smallest amount further. A calm has descended within her. Everything is only this. 

The hatchling takes another step closer and Gretchen’s sense of self curdles beneath the focus, and underneath its steady gaze she finds herself thinking, straight out and plainly, all the thoughts she usually hides, the thoughts she has to get through to get out into the day, the thoughts that put words to parts of herself she never admits to anyone. She doesn’t look away from the hatchling’s stare because the only other place to look is into her worst possible self, and to know the pain and the truth of who she is. She sees it anyway, knows herself fully. Such clarity. 

The hatchling reaches down, vertebrae of its neck clicking beneath the sharp spines of its feathers, and takes the piece of coal from her hand. It speeds back to the group, where they drop it and peck it up together. 

Gretchen stands on shaky legs, and exits the cellar to the sound of their bone-beaks pecking at the rocks.

Back upstairs, by the fire, making dinner by rote, and haunted — not by the eye of the hatchling, but by the things of her own the eye had revealed. No longer being in the darkness of the cellar helps, the real world with its soft ginger light and smell of garlic and rosemary and the feel of the worn rug goes towards putting some sense of distance between then and now. But Gretchen is not able to forget how it felt, who she had become, for that dreadful long moment down there in the dark. 

She goes to the hatchlings again, not long afterwards. Couldn’t really say why. Perhaps it’s as simple as, once you’ve done it once… 

Just one more time, she tells herself. To see. 

(She doesn’t ask herself: to see what?)

They’re cleaning themselves, running their sharp beaks through their wings — always an impossible thing to witness, the human equivalent of snuffling about in your own shoulder blades. They pull out spiked feathers and toss them aside, to land with a few spots of gristle and blood. She holds out coals and they gather around her, pecking away. And she feels, again, her worst self coming up to meet her.

She goes again, it gets easier to go. At first she says to herself: ‘I think I’ll go to them.’ 

It could be an argument down in the village — an altercation over who owes what for spilling a vat of goat’s butter or something like that, the details are unimportant, and that’s what’s so unnerving at first — anything that causes emotion, anything at all, makes the thought descend into her mind and the decision is, in itself, calming: and soon she’s saying to herself: I know I’ll go to them. I’m going to go home, to go to them.’ And the certainty is enough to lift her mood: never mind that the wording has changed, doesn’t imply choice as much as it used to, that as summer scorches the village and presses heavy air down onto everyone, her general state is one of waiting for the next time she’ll go to them. High emotion is, at first, the cause of a visit to the hatchlings — but soon she needn’t be upset or angry at all, sometimes she is calm, sometimes even happy, and in any case the thought descends: ‘I’m going to them.’ And Gretchen, opening the door to the darkness of the cellar and going straight down, taking the gaze of the hatchlings into her own, enveloped by the stillness as she feeds them, her worst thoughts gathering around her.

They’re getting bigger. The flinty down they wore as chicks has given way to their adult growth: long thin feathers like blades of slate. When they rub their bodies against her it is like being stroked with a wire brush. The first time the biggest hatchling lowers onto its haunches and lets her pick it up, her mind is taken over with such a calmness it is like getting into a bath of iced water. No, not a bath, too small: a clear lake, bigger than that, the sea. The hatchling snuggles its skull among its bony feathers as it sleeps and she knows her worst self as certainly as she’s ever known it, and the certainty is liberating, even as it’s terrible. When she leaves the cellar and the sound of their bone-talons scraping the flagstones, the sepia tones and herbal warmth of the cottage feels distant, the symptoms of a fake existence. The cellar is the truth.

On some level she knows the current situation is not, cannot be sustainable: they’re too big, they’re almost the size of swans now, the cellar surely can’t hold them. 

But the hatchlings need her, Gretchen thinks. They need her to survive.  

Autumn comes to the village, bringing chill and miserable drizzle. None of those golden autumnal days this year, no such luck, straight to winter. Chill in the air that soaks you instantly, and a bleak sky of unbudgeable clouds. The sun must be up there somewhere, pounding on them from above, but there’s no getting through clouds that heavy. It is dark until lunch and begins growing dark again just after lunch. Here, high at the edge of the forest, snow covers the garden, and long icicles hang from the roof.

And they’re suffering.

‘What is it?’

Gretchen, kneeling, as she does, by the cellar steps, and the hatchlings — although, no question they’re fully grown now, with feathers of delicate bone, the occasional red glow from within when they take on the heat of the coals — the hatchlings are keeping back from her, turning around each other, clawing at the ground. Groove-marks have been scratched deep into the flagstones. 

They’re shivering uncontrollably.

Gretchen, kneeling, whispers: ‘What do you need?’

The smallest one suddenly sneezes. Its head shakes with a clatter of bone and the red pulse shudders within its body, and along its legs the skin begins to bubble. The others peck at the dark blood seeping through its tattered feathers. Gretchen, scrabbling up the stairs and pacing across the kitchen, knowing full well that something is wrong, that something is — finally — breaking, but unable to let herself see an answer.

From outside there is a loud explosive sound, as if glass has suddenly shattered. 

She goes to the window just as, along the roof, another icicle explodes into bits that splash onto the snow, boiling it. Steam rises.

Gretchen, out in the garden, staring dumbfounded at this. Barefoot, having forgotten her shoes in the rush to get outside. Barely noticing the cold. Steam is still rising delicately from where the shards of ice landed. 

Another explosion: a thick icicle popping into a shower of boiling water. Then, a hissing noise from the fence: the pitchfork that had been leaning against it has melted and reset itself, and now it ends in a puddle with sharp spikes like talons. 

Gretchen, feeling the world shake and shudder around her —

A voice calls out: 

‘They’re migratory.’

Gretchen, mouth open, spins back to follow the sound. ‘What did you say?’

The cottage door is open. Gretchen’s godmother is leaning against the lintel. Then — pop! — another icicle bursts and shatters, and they both duck. 

Rising again, her godmother says: ‘Come inside and I’ll explain.’

Inside, with an onion-stewing scent from the cauldron, dried thyme giving its sweetness hanging from the ceiling beams, things almost seem normal. The only sign that something is wrong is the way the horseshoe over the door has begun dripping. Gretchen’s godmother gestures for her to sit at the table. 

‘They shouldn’t be here,’ she says, placing a bowl of stew down before her. ‘This place is wrong for them.’

‘We’ve always known that, haven’t we? I’m not hungry.’ Gretchen pushes the bowl away.

‘I know you’re not, but your body is.’

‘I can’t. It smells of soil.’

‘Nothing wrong with soil. Perfectly nutritious for worms.’

‘Do I look like a worm to you?’

Gretchen’s godmother looks at her carefully. ‘I don’t know any worms in the state you’re in, no.’ 

Gretchen puts her head in her hands. ‘I don’t want it.’ 

Since she’s been regularly going down to the cellar, she doesn’t really taste anything, and when she does eat there’s no joy in it. It’s just not as important as it used to be.

‘Come with me.’ Her godmother rises, goes to the window, pulls the curtain aside. For a moment they look out together at the herb garden. Suddenly the sage bush begins to go brown and curl at the edges.

‘They’re incapable of staying here,’ says Gretchen’s godmother, keeping her eye on the sage bush, which is now emitting curls of grey smoke. ‘They’re creatures of heat. They’re not going to last the winter.’

‘So what do I do?’

Her godmother sighs. ‘You shouldn’t have to do this. I don’t even know if you can. But I don’t know how else they might….’ her voice fades off. 

The sage bush has turned into a small pile of blackened twigs. 

Her godmother closes her eyes and speaks quickly, as if getting it all out at once.

‘They’re only meant to be here half the time,’ she says. ‘When they hatch they don’t know that. The first time they make the journey it’s their mother who shows them the way. Afterwards they know the route, and come and go by themselves.’

Gretchen pictures the hatchlings huddled together in the cold cellar, waiting for their mother to lead the way for them. She feels herself knowing the answer, asks anyway. ‘Where do they go?’ 

‘South, of course.’ Her godmother points to the ground. ‘Straight down.’

Gretchen, deciding, knowing ‘deciding’ isn’t accurate: it has to happen, even though it can’t. Even though the thought of the hatchlings going away leaves her empty, restless, itchy. They’re making her world unliveable, but who is she without them? However, needs must: in the cottage, the rug is curling inwards at the edges. The bricks of the fireplace are starting to warp, and the cauldron is merging molten metal with the food inside. The whole cottage is going to burn in on itself, warped by the hatchlings’ shaking inability to cope, an increasingly hostile environment causing their very existence to flail and shudder. One more night with those creatures alive down there is too many. Gretchen knows this. So. Gretchen, back in the forest. The hatchlings clustering around her legs. 

So quickly? Well, yes: the journey from the cottage had been surprisingly easy. She’d opened the cellar door, stood in the doorway, looked down into the darkness, waited. Made a series of low cooing sounds she didn’t realise she knew. The creatures had hopped up the stairs, and at the first sight of them — their plump grey bodies bristling with feathers of bone and shadow — she had turned and passed through the disfigured kitchen, out into the garden. She had been expecting a moment of tentativeness, the creatures standing in the door unsure of the change in atmosphere. But they had followed her directly — the biggest first as always, the rest close behind. Gretchen kept her head low and walked into the forest, followed the path until there was no path, until she reached the point where she now stands, in the clearing with the cracked stump, the place she found the nest. Where her godmother had told her to begin. 

A dreary autumnal dusk, the shadows heavy, the ferns brown and crisped. Around her feet putter the hatchlings, leaving scorch marks on the papery leaves.

Gretchen closes her eyes and remembers what her godmother told her. 

She opens her eyes again. 

The forest looks the same. The air is totally still, and all is silence.

‘Right. Come along,’ whispers Gretchen. ‘And I will… show you the way.’

She takes a step, and the hatchlings follow. 

The forest passes in silence. The light goes quickly, and soon the whole world is gloom, too dark even for shadows. There is only, now and again, the reddish glow of the hatchlings’ eyes.

Her steps make no noise. She can see nothing, feel nothing — 

Actually, no, there is something here. What she can feel is —

Clarity. It’s the same as when she fed the hatchlings down in the cellar, but bigger, so expansive it’s enveloping everything, no longer a secret, but out in the air of the world. She is joined on the journey by her worst self, that terrible shadow version of Gretchen no-one else knows. 

The air around her is growing hotter. 

The steps of the hatchlings make no sound. Gretchen keeps walking.

The humidity becomes difficult to move through. Sweat makes Gretchen itch, bothers her skin, slows her pace and makes her breathing harder. Her ribs ache with the weight of the air. Her worst thoughts press in more, and urgently. Her worst self is closing in on her mind, making a claim to the space. A very convincing claim — 

— and she knows, she knows, that if she could hear them, the worst thoughts of others are here too, that she is travelling through a dense mess of the despair and rage and hopelessness and fear and loneliness and spite and sheer unbearable things that hide in uncountable others — that this is a space to collapse into, to fall into and keep falling through, a space that will always be willing to reach up to meet her —

Suddenly, behind her, the hatchlings take flight.

Gretchen stops, too surprised to keep moving as they beat their wings and soar over her, flying through this impossible air. (Although that had been her godmother’s biggest stipulation: you must keep moving.) She hasn’t seen this before. She didn’t teach them this.

The hatchlings fly in a raggedy formation, their wings making no sound. All the hidden thoughts create the updraft, the channels and currents for them to manoeuvre — the hatchlings overtake Gretchen and land neatly onto the pitch-black lake in front of her she hadn’t even known was there.

The surface makes perfect ripples like oil, that spread and fade to nothing just before they reach her feet. 

The hatchlings ruffle their heads through their feathers and take a few trial kicks in the dark water. They cluster together and swim about. One drags a hole with its foot in the surface of the water, which reveals a dull red glow beneath like lava or an open wound. Then the surface closes itself over again, an eye going back to sleep. 

Her godmother had told her: when you get them there, come back immediately. 

Gretchen takes a step backwards and the branch comes from nowhere — a branch or perhaps a bone or who knows what it is, but it comes from nowhere and smacks her in the back of the leg — and she stumbles, turning as she falls, and her weight lands oddly on one side and pain shoots through her ankle. She closes her eyes and it’s no darker than with them open, and she’s lost her balance, and she’d almost done it, she’d come so close, and now she’s falling through this darkness — 

— Gretchen, landing heavily on the dirt-packed floor of the forest she knows. Taking a few exhausted breaths before realising the air is no longer heavy. That, in fact, breathing is coming easier than it has for a very long time.

She looks up to see, ahead of her, the light of a peaceful dawn, the sky pink and promising through the trees. 

It is only a matter of a few steps, limping on her sore ankle, to be out of the forest. From here she can see down to the village, and there is a temporary break in the clouds, and smoke rises peacefully from the chimneys, and the trees stand politely around the lake, and the morning sun shines on the flatness of the water.

Rose Biggin is a writer and theatre artist based in London. Her short fiction has been published by Jurassic London, Abaddon Books, Betwixt Magazine, The Cafe Irreal, Mango, NewCon Press, Brigids Gate Press and Egaeus Press, won the Jon Meyers Prize for Gothic Fiction (Dark Sire Literary Journal), and made the recommended reading list for Best of British Fantasy. She is the author of Immersive Theatre & Audience Experience (Palgrave) and Shakespearean novel Wild Time (Surface Press).

photo by Yana Gorbunova (via unsplash)

The Last Birthday—Ryan J.M. Tan

The last man on Earth sits on a pew in a ruined church. His silhouette cast by a flickering flashlight. He is gaunt, malnourished, wrapped in rags. His face is permanently darkened by soot; wrinkles on that face add years to his true age. Any colour on him has been robbed by dust, any expression ground down by reality.

Suddenly, he stands. His posture is hunched. He hobbles forward, rucksack in hand while humming a familiar tune. It is Happy Birthday.

He approaches the broken altar and wipes dust off its surface. He drops his rucksack and rummages within, pulling out a bottle, lighter, and photograph. His shuffling is the only sound in the church.

He looks at the photograph. It is of himself with a woman and child. Their faces are smudged, as though he has spent every waking day stroking their faces until the ink rubbed off. A hundred times. A thousand. His grim face, for a moment, betrays a smile. 

He unscrews the bottle and bathes himself in its liquid. A baptism in oil. He ignites the lighter and sets himself aflame, raising both arms as though he were on a cross. 

A burning phoenix crucified. 

A dead city. A bleak sky. Ash falls from above like a winter’s snow that powders the ground like white cloth draped on a corpse. Clusters of dilapidated buildings and rusted vehicles litter the streets while dust mummifies the city, once alive, now tomblike. Silence is all that stirs here.

Above, stars twinkle in the black sky. Each, a glimmer of warmth within infinite dark, beacons of hope that, somewhere beyond, there may yet be life. They had never shone so brightly until the final days. It is as if the death of the world kindles their flames. 

But the stars twinkle uncaring, as silent as the divine, eyes innumerable watching the last man burn below.

In the far distance, a flickering light like a faint candle can be seen, its smoke dissolving quietly into the grey twilight. 

Faraway screams. The only sound that travels through the concrete valley. The final vesper of a dead world. 

Ryan is a Malaysian writer residing in Kuala Lumpur. He studied law but chose not to go down that path. During his free time, you can find him watching horror films (with eyes shut), playing the piano (to an audience of one beagle), and baking (usually edible) bread.

photo by v2osk (via unsplash)

When Death Came to the Village—Tina Jackson

Death came to the village on the edge of the forest.

They came just before the spring, tiptoeing through the mulch on the forest floor, creeping softly along the paths that led to the houses. They came silently, a breath of frost-tinged air wafting in the spaces between conversations, but they were no less deadly because their approach was gentle. One by one the villagers found themselves short of breath, then gasping for air, then drowning, and as the churchyard began to overflow with coffins, the branches in the forest pointed their bare twigs towards the sky, accusing Death. 

‘Why did you come for our village?’ whispered the trees to the sad air. ‘Why could you not leave us in peace?’

The trees did not expect an answer. They were crying out to the air because they were in mourning. But it so happened that Death was resting from their labours, and overheard the forest’s laments. 

‘It is not our fault,’ whispered Death in their many voices. Death is legion, and comes in many forms, and each has its own tongue. ‘We do not ask why when we are sent. We just go, and we do our job.’

‘But it is a terrible job,’ said the trees, thinking of the villagers who no longer went courting in the forest, or sat under the trees for shelter, or rest.  ‘Look at the grief you have left behind you. Why do you not find another?’

‘It is our job,’ replied Death. ‘We have no other. We are here now, and we must do what we are sent to do.’

And because the trees were old, and wise, and stood quietly and noticed things, they listened to what Death said. 

‘Why do you carry out this terrible work?’ They asked. Their long years had taught them well that it only takes a tiny chink in the foliage to let the light fall in.

‘We do not know,’ said Death, sadly. ‘We only know that we should come here and take our toll. But we cannot stand here talking. We are weary, and hungry from our terrible labours, and still there is work to be done.’

And then Death sighed a deep sigh. 

‘That is not to say we like it,’ said Death, sorrowfully. ‘We are rarely welcomed and each house we leave to the sounds of tears and heartbreak. You cannot know what it is like never to hear songs that are not funeral dirges, and never to eat dishes that are not funeral foods.’ 

With that, Death picked up their scythe, and made their way with heavy footsteps back to the village.

But the forest had listened. In the tops of the trees the twigs began, very faintly, to rustle, even though there was no wind. Birds began to stir, and in the undergrowth, there were sounds of small, brown creatures on the move.

The forest was gathering its forces. 

The forest had a plan.

Tincuta was a bright, light spirit with the face of a flower and a singing voice like a blackbird. Her voice was cracked and clear and told of the joys and sorrows of everyday life. 

She lived in a pretty red hut in a clearing full of flowers, where everything was clean and neat, and even the toothbrushes were arranged to look beautiful, as well as useful.

The forest sent a small brown nightingale to Tincuta. It sat on her windowsill and waited for her to come back from her vegetable patch.  The nightingale heard Tincuta before she saw her, and despite all the sorrow in the village, the little bird’s heart lifted, because Tincuta was singing.

The nightingale raised her beautiful voice in song, and Tincuta matched it. The woman and the bird sang together and when the verses were over, the nightingale settled on Tincuta’s shoulder.

‘Have you come with a message for me, little bird?’ the woman asked.

The nightingale nodded.

‘I have been sent by the forest. Your help is needed to send Death on their way.’

‘How can I do that?’ asked Tincuta. ‘I am as scared of Death as any of the villagers. That is why I stay in my clearing and keep my own company. What can I offer that will make Death leave us in peace?’

‘Death is sad,’ replied the nightingale. ‘Death never hears joyful song.’

Tincuta stroked the nightingale’s head before she spoke.

‘If it will help send Death on their way, I will sing my heart out,’ she said. ‘Will that do?’

The nightingale chirped, and fluttered her tail.

  ‘I’ll go and tell the forest,’ said the nightingale. And then she flew away.

Tincuta’s mother, Tinka, had a bush in her garden where cooking pots grew. The branches were filled with pots and pans for all kinds of dishes, their bright, flowered enamel gleaming with cleanliness and making passersby’s mouths water at the thought of a meal that would feed their heart as well as their stomach. If a visitor asked nicely, and perhaps pressed some coins into her hands, the pan would cook a delicious dish that sustained and comforted. But if anyone passed by with the intention of purloining a pan without offering something in return, the stolen pan would boil over no matter what the cooking temperature, and the base would blacken and the enamel would burn and the food inside would be nothing but inedible crusts of blackened cinder.

Tinka’s hut was smaller than her daughter Tincuta’s, and partly hidden in the trees. Its walls were lower and its windows were smaller and Tinka fought a constant battle to stop the forest coming into the house and taking root in her small, pokey room. There was only the one, so she cooked on a fire outside and did her business amongst the trees some distance away. When she sang songs, it was to herself or to the ducks she kept, and passersby sometimes wondered aloud that Tinka’s ducks quacked at times when most other ducks were asleep with their heads under their wings.

When she came home from gathering roots and herbs in the forest, the ducks were nowhere to be seen and there was a small brown vixen sitting on her doorstep next to a brightly flowered cooking pot.

‘Why is my best pot on the doorstep?’ said Tinka in a cross voice.

‘Because you’re the best cook,’ said the vixen. ‘Everybody knows that.’

‘I hope you haven’t come for my ducks,’ said Tinka. She scowled at her visitor but the vixen held her ground.

‘I promise I’m not going to touch your ducks. I’ve come from the forest,’ she told Tinka. ‘To ask your help in sending Death on their way. Death is sad, and only eats food that is cooked on the ashes of sorrow.’

Tinka rolled up her sleeves. 

‘You’ve come to the right place,’ she said. 

So the vixen told Tinka what she needed to do. 

‘And serve it in that pot,’ said the vixen. ‘It’s for a most special occasion.’ 

Brush in the air, the vixen went back to let the forest know that Tinka was ready to cook Death a meal that would warm their heart as well as fill their stomach. The vixen was cross about the ducks, which had looked fat and tasty, but she’d given her word.

Tea, Tinka’s mother and Tincuta’s grandmother, lived wherever the wind took her. She blew in with the leaves on a blustery night when the driving rain tossed witches on their broomsticks over the mountains in high winds, and when she came to ground it was in the land beyond the forest. She didn’t sing, but she could caw like a crow, and there were some that said she looked like one too, because her clothes were dark rags that hung from her shoulders like raggedy feathers.  She only had one cooking pot, which she brought with her on her broomstick, and all she ever cooked in it were spells, that people asked her for – or at least, the ones that dared approach her. 

Sometimes she collected the bits and pieces of a life that made people unhappy, and wrote them on scraps of paper, and burned them in her pot. And other times, she collected things that were not nice at all – cat poo, and dog poo, and the bits of dead animals that birds of prey spit out – and used them to effect… changes.

She wasn’t all bad. But she had to be asked nicely.

For all their differences the three generations of the family, Tea, Tinka and Tincuta, rubbed along nicely together. They understood each other. Accepted each others’ ways, laughed together when times were good and looked out for each other when times were bad. They were family, and all each other had, and that’s what families do. And other people knew that if they wanted a song that would brighten their day they were to ask for Tincuta. If what they wanted was food for their souls and their stomachs, Tinka was the one to go to. But if what they required was something they didn’t want to put into words for others to hear and remark upon, they needed to look for Tea, and approach her quietly, when no-one else was looking. 

The forest sent jackdaw to search for Tea, and beg her to do what she could to send Death on their way.

‘Take your most precious treasure,’ said the forest. ‘It’s worth more than gold for her to come and send Death from the village.’

So the jackdaw searched in his stash of jewels, and selected a magnificent diamond necklace. It pained him to part with something so lovely, but it was the biggest sacrifice he could make in order to conquer Death.

The jackdaw took flight with the necklace in his beak, and he flew and flew. Whenever he settled, he sat in the highest branches and scanned the ground, and peered. He knew what he was looking for. And even though he was hungry, and thirsty, he kept the diamond necklace clasped in his beak, so he could neither eat nor drink.

Eventually, spotting a movement in the undergrowth, the jackdaw swooped on silent wings and landed at a polite distance from where a bent little woman in rags was digging through roots, with her hands, like a mole. 

Eventually the woman stopped digging and stood up, with her back to the jackdaw. 

‘I know you’re there.’

All the same, she turned around. As she did so, the jackdaw laid the diamond necklace on the ground.

‘I know what you want, too.’

The jackdaw ignored being spoken to in such an ungracious way, and bowed deeply.

‘What do I want with diamonds?’ said Tea. ‘All the diamonds in the world are of less value than the tears of a person who has lost someone they love. So take them back. I don’t have any quarrel with Death. They’re just going about their business. Go on, flap off.’ With that Tea made a rude gesture and turned her back on the poor jackdaw. He stood guard over the diamonds for some time, but the old woman went on ignoring him.

Eventually the jackdaw picked up the unwanted necklace, and he flew, and flew, and returned to the forest. He was bone tired, and his stomach was empty, and his throat was parched. He laid the diamonds on the forest floor and wished they would turn to water that he could drink, and he admitted his failure. 

‘It’s not your fault,’ said the forest. ‘You tried your hardest. We have learned that Tea will not be persuaded with gifts. Perhaps we need to send someone who will command her. Boar, will you try?’ 

So the boar set out, and marched and marched, with all the ferocity of a general in command of an army that was facing a mighty enemy. He marched through the darkness until the glint of a tiny fire alerted him to Tea’s presence in a clearing ahead. Because he was a noble commander, and knew the value of ceremony, he trumpeted his arrival so that Tea would understand he saw her as a force to be reckoned with.

‘We are at war,’ the boar roared. ‘I have come in person to command you to join in the battle! It will be a fight to the death. Can we count on your support?’

Tea looked right into boar’s tiny red eyes. He was a fearsome beast, bristly and spiny, with tusks jutting like armour from his mouth, and he filled the clearing with his warlike body and his red-hot anger. 

‘You’re very impressive,’ said Tea appraisingly. ‘A ferocious opponent. But then so am I.’

Before the boar’s astonished eyes, Tea rose up and up, higher and higher and higher over the trees, her ragged clothes becoming bark and branches, her clawlike fingers extending into spiky twigs, until she towered above the entire forest. She grew so high she blocked out the moon, and the stars twinkled through the spaces between her outstretched fingers.

‘Even with all our forces, we cannot conquer Death,’ she shrieked. At the sound of her voice, flocks of birds fled from their perches. The air throbbed with the vibrations of their bodies and rumbled with the thunderous sound of their wings.

Even this terrible spectacle did not make the brave boar flinch. 

‘I am not afraid of you,’ he bellowed. ‘And I am more afraid of dishonor than I am of Death. Join me, and together we will conquer them.’

‘You have courage but if you think that you are a fool,’ cackled Tea. ‘Death will slaughter you in a second and fell me without a second thought. But I have no quarrel with Death. We are old acquaintances, and we know each other’s powers. Leave me in peace, valiant commander. I will not answer your call.’

So the boar marched back to the forest. It was the first time he had been defeated, and he was ashamed.

‘Lay down your arms, and rest,’ said the forest. ‘It is not your fault. We have learned that Tea will not meet her foe in combat. But what are we to do? We’ve offered treasures and the chance of an honourable battle. And if Tea does not help us then Death will take the whole village, and there’ll be no-one left.’

The forest fell silent, lost in thought, and wondered what it should do next. 

And then there was the sound of hooves, moving with gracious purpose, and stag stepped into a clearing. All eyes were on him as he lifted his great head to the moonlight. It bathed him in light, turning the antlers on his head into a silver crown.

‘I will go,’ said stag. He filled the clearing with a presence so regal that the forest fell silent in admiration of his majesty.

Stag progressed through the forest at a stately pace, neither fast nor slow, until he came face to face with the wizened old woman. 

‘So you have come,’ she said. ‘The King of the Forest. Do you intend to command me, my lord?’

‘No,’ said stag. ‘I have come to beg for your help. Your daughter is ready, and your grand-daughter too. But without you we can do nothing. We have no power without you. You are the only one who can take Death away from the village.’

The majestic stag lowered himself onto his knees in front of the old witch, humbling himself in front of her, and bent his magnificent head until his crown of antlers touched the ground by Tea’s feet.

‘What have you to offer me, my lord?’ she asked. ‘If you want me to do as you request?’

Stag raised himself to his feet, and lowered his head to his chest.

‘My living heart,’ he said. ‘I will pierce my flesh with my crown of antlers and give you my bleeding heart. I will lay down my life if you turn Death away from the village.’

Tea looked at the stag for a long time, and the air between them trembled.

‘I don’t need your heart, and the village does not need your sacrifice,’ she said at last. ‘There’s enough death. I don’t need treasure, and I have no desire for battle. But your nobility has made me see what the jackdaw and the boar could not. Invite Death to a feast. Tell my daughter and my grand-daughter I will see them there.’

On the appointed night, the forest made ready. A ceremonial table was laid in the clearing, decorated with bouquets of the spring bluebells that turned the spaces between the trees into bright pools of green and violet. Tincuta stood waiting by the head of the table, dressed in her finest, and Tinka stirred the brightly flowered enamel pot that hung over a carefully set fire. The food smelled mouthwateringly of sweet herbs and tangy roots. Fireflies hung over the table and round the edges of the clearing, filling the space with twinkling light.

Death was the first guest to arrive at the feast. Handsome and elegant in a velvet frock coat, they sat with quiet dignity at the head of the table.

The forest gathered itself, waiting. When it was time, and the moon had risen in the sky, Tincuta began to sing, her voice soaring in a lilting, lovely song of welcome as Tea’s procession arrived.

First came nightingale, then jackdaw, then vixen. Then the other creatures of the forest, rabbit and hare, mole and badger, dormouse and hedgehog and rat. The birds flew in their masses: robin, crow, thrush, blackbird, raven, owl. And then boar made his entrance, then stag, and finally, a small, veiled figure.

Death waited as Tea’s procession made its way to the head of the table.

Stag and boar, king and commander of the forest, each stood aside. Tea, shrouded in her veils, moved to stand next to Death. As a well-mannered person should, Death rose to their feet. 

‘You have invited us to this feast,’ they said. ‘Will you not show us your face?’

So Tea raised her hands to her veil, and lifted it from her face.

Tincuta launched into a new song, more joyful than the first, as Death looked into the face before them. This was not the face of the wizened old crone, but that of a young woman in a pure white dress, more beautiful than any person they had ever seen. Death felt a stirring in body and soul as they looked at Tea, and in great excitement they rose to greet her.

‘I come to you as your bride,’ said Tea, lowering her eyes. ‘Will you not kiss me?’

So Death placed their mouth on Tea’s, and their hands clasped, and breath passed between their lips.

‘My grand-daughter has sung our wedding song, and my daughter has prepared our wedding feast,’ said Tea. ‘Will you not eat with your bride?’

So Tinka served Death and Tea with great bowls of her sweet-smelling stew, and Death raised their spoon to their mouth again and again, until the dish was empty. 

‘And now will you come away with me, as is only fitting on our wedding night?’ said Tea. Then Death rose, eagerly, and stretched out their hand to her, and she took it, willingly. Because as Tea knew, Death cannot be overcome by precious gifts, or defeated by an army. Only love can conquer Death.

The forest creatures watched as Death let their bride lead them away from the forest. Hand in hand, they walked through the village, and went on their way. And though long years passed, and the villagers went courting in the forest again, and Tincuta sang songs to serenade every wedding in the village, and the birth of every child, and Tinka cooked the feasts to celebrate, Tea and her bridegroom were never to be seen again.

Tina Jackson is a writer, journalist and variety performer whose creative work encompasses secret lives, suppressed history, liminal spaces, everyday magic, and the borderlands between reality and imagination where extraordinary transformations take place. Her debut novel The Beloved Children was published by Fahrenheit Press in 2020 and she is the author of Stories from The Chicken Foot House (Markosia, 2018), a collection of grungy transformation tales illustrated by Andrew Walker, and Struggle and Suffrage in Leeds: Womens’ Lives and the Fight for Equality (Pen & Sword, 2019). She has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University and her short stories and poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies.

Website: https://tinajacksonwriter.wordpress.com/
Twitter @TJacksonwriter

photo by Jay Mantri (via unsplash)