Dead Girl Famous—Caelyn Cobb

I’m the talk of the cemetery before I’m even in the ground. I don’t know it in the moment, being busy with other things, but it makes a certain sense. My story is all over. My body, tied up in the closet, missed in the first three searches. My mother on the 911 call at five in the morning, reporting me kidnapped. My modeling photos, coy and cute all at once, too adult for a young lady of only thirteen, how could my parents allow it. None of the dead buried there can turn on the evening news or pick up the Sunday paper, but they hear my story all the same. It blares from cars driving through, taking shortcuts from one highway to another. Mourners whisper about it as they trek from the parking lot to gravesites. 

“Did you hear?” they ask.

“What a tragedy,” they sigh.

Wonder if we’ll get her, the dead muse.

It’s always so sad when the young ones come, old ladies lament.

Her father played ball with my boy, several of the dead old men declare. 

Everyone always has something to say. I learned that as a living girl. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s true about dead girls, too.

The day they bury me is a loud one. Forty-six broadcast networks show up with cameras and crews and correspondents. So many classmates and neighbors and straight-up strangers pack St. Stanislaus for my funeral that the church sets up an overflow location with live TV in the Catholic high school gym next door. Afterwards, a vehicle procession roars out for miles to the graveyard, filmed from above by two whirring helicopters. There’s the pulley lowering me down, click, click, click. There’s the thud of the dirt that my father and brother throw onto the lid of my fancy white coffin. There’s my mother’s wail, like a siren, unceasing in the growing distance between us.

I expect it to be silent beneath the earth. I’ve been looking forward to a few moments of peace. For days, I’ve been flung—from bed—to death (sudden)—to zipped-up body bag, black and dark and uncomfortable—to exam table (cold, searing, exposed)—to morgue drawer, blacker and darker and more uncomfortable—to mortician (creepy)—to casket, closed—to casket, open—to casket, closed again, bumping along the old road to my grave. Death is supposed to be like sleeping, a soft pillow, white noise tumbling over me like a quilt. I want it. I need it. But, no, here they are: the dead, thousands of them. They chatter on, with no need to take a breath or pause.

What a day! they exclaim.

I told you she’d end up here, they gloat.

Hush, dead old ladies admonish. Let her get her bearings.

How’s your father? old men call out. He used to be friends with my boy.

They keep going and they won’t stop. Days and days and weeks and weeks. They can talk for an eternity. There’s no reason why not.

From the sound of it, I’m the most exciting thing to happen to this cemetery in years. Before I got here, I learn, the gossip mainly revolved around whose monuments are the ugliest. No one can top Enver’s tombstone, which is six feet tall and features a carving of the burning World Trade Center towers, where he died with ten other members of his firehouse on September 11th. Even Enver agrees that it’s a bit much. Mine is boring: name, lifespan, in our hearts. No one can be bothered to talk about that, though. They have other things to discuss when it comes to me.

My girls were saying that it was her brother who did it, some say. Hit her on the head with a flashlight.

A few dissent. It was her father who found her, they say. Probably he was diddling her and had to cover it up.

What a thing to say, old ladies gasp. It was likely a stranger. Maybe one who saw those pictures.

A few plots over from me lies another teen, a seventeen-year-old who died when a man who kept a handle of vodka in his glove compartment slammed his car into hers. I don’t know why they don’t just ask you, she says. Who was it, really?

The truth is, I don’t know. One second I was filling up a glass of water in the kitchen and then bam—someone behind me swung something hard at the back of my head. After that, it was all blurry, just sensations of being dragged, something itching around my throat.

I bring a lot of foot traffic to this place. All those reporters, updating the public on the non-developments in my case. People swinging by to look at my name in stone after putting flowers on parents’ graves. Podcasters. Cyber sleuths. Friends from school, murmuring about how I was so beautiful. 

The dead over on the far side of the cemetery, the ones buried here way back when it opened in the 1850s, aren’t pleased. All this hubbub when we’re trying to rest, they complain. 

I was the first woman to join the army in this state, and no one gave me half the attention they’re giving her just for kicking the bucket, Ida in section 32 grumbles.

If she wasn’t pretty and blonde and white, one guy says, she’d be forgotten.

Don’t listen to them, my fellow dead teenage friend on the row tells me. She had her share of chaos after her death, when the drunk driver went on trial and then later, when he got out of jail. They’ll get bored and move on eventually, she says.

My mom visits a lot, too. Sometimes with my dad and my brother, sometimes with a cameraman, sometimes just alone with flowers. Every time, she’s crying.

Will she move on too? I ask my friend. She doesn’t have an answer. Her mom lives in a nursing home and stopped visiting years ago. 

My mom’s tears on television don’t go unnoticed. A few years in, they’re all the sleuths above ground talked about as they tour my grave. “She always did want to be famous,” one of them says authoritatively. “Makes you wonder why she pushed her daughter so hard into modeling. Maybe she got jealous that her kid was having some success.”

“Or maybe she wanted out, and mom couldn’t handle it,” another suggests. 

It wasn’t like that, I protest. I wanted to model. My mom modeled when she was my age, and I always wanted to be just like her. It was our special thing. Sometimes we argued—we didn’t always like the same outfits or the same shots. She had her opinions, that’s for sure. But she was proud of me. She always looked out for me. If I’d wanted to quit, she wouldn’t have cared, if it was what I wanted.

You know, the old ladies in my section say, these kids are making sense.

Only some kind of degenerate would let their baby girl dress up like that for strangers, the women in section 21 agree.

I was thirteen! I exclaim. Not a baby girl!

Where was her father during all this, is what I want to know, the old men in section 6 say.

Shame. I always thought he’d grow up to be a stand-up guy, say the men who allegedly remember him from little league.

You’re sure you don’t remember anything? Don’t you want to? my friend presses.

What good would that do? I say. It makes me tired just thinking about it. Not like they could hear me tell them up there if I did anyway.

My daughter is a medium! shout two hundred and thirty-six Sicilian ladies throughout the cemetery. 

Don’t fall for it, Mrs. Raskin in the next plot whispers. That shit does not work.

It might be nice to have closure, my friend says. Maybe you should try it. 

You know who killed you, I point out. Do you have closure?

I imagine her rolling her eyes, if she had them. If there was such a thing as closure, none of us would be saying a thing.

When some men from the cemetery bring their backhoes over to my plot, my neighbors speculate that I’m being exhumed. There must have been a break in the case, the old ladies all assert.

But that’s not it. A crane pulls back the dirt, and then they’re staring down: the priest from St. Stanislaus; my dad, greyer; my brother, taller. They lower another white coffin down next to me. It lines up snug.

Hi, sweetie, my mother says. I’m glad to see you. I know it’s been a while.

It has been. Month and months and weeks and weeks. What happened? I ask.

I got sick, she replies. I hadn’t had any idea. I had thought she was getting on with her life. I was a little sad, then, but mostly relieved. There’s something wrong with living people spending as much time in graveyards as she did.

Did you do it? the old ladies ask her.

Shut it, my friend scolds.

Sweetie, I’m so sorry, my mom says. I’m so sorry all this happened. Are you mad at me? You deserved better. 

That sounds like a confession, the dead say.

You should have gotten to grow up, she laments. Get married. Have kids. Walk around up there like your dad and big brother.

Up there. It’s strange how little it comes to mind, really. When I first died, I thought I would be seething with a righteous vengeance at it all being taken away so early. Sometimes I do miss feeling the sun on my face. Having a face at all. Lipstick and eyeshadow: they were fun. But it is what it is. My place is here now, and there’s no need for makeup anymore. And from what I can tell, husbands and kids are mostly a nuisance. A few visit this place, but most dump their families in the ground and then forget about them until they end up getting dumped here too. No need for that, either.

Are you mad at me? my mom asks again, her voice very small.

She definitely did it, the dead all agree.

I thought I told you all to shut it, my friend says.

I ignore them all. Don’t worry, Mom, I say. I’m not mad. None of that stuff matters now. Everyone goes quiet. They all listen, waiting for what we’re going to say next. I hold onto it as long as I can and I don’t speak one little bit. Finally, I think: finally, peace.

Caelyn Cobb’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages NorthX-R-A-YWAS Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Queens, NY. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @caelyncobb.

photo by Julia Kadel (via unsplash)

All the ghosts are women, and all the women drowned—Lily Beaumont

She learned to be a ghost from trees–
to bind herself below ground 
without burial. To linger, skin worn
papery and silver, to drop the signs
of her existence in coldness,
even if the river, curling 
at her ankles, never froze.

Lily Beaumont’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Ligeia Magazine, Prolit, and Molecule: A Tiny Lit Mag. She holds an MA in English from Brandeis University and currently lives in Central Texas, where she works as a curriculum/study guide developer and editor.

photo by Peng Yang and Wesley Tingey (via unsplash)

Kintsugi Caryatid—Avra Margariti

I will make you better 
You promised, and for a time 
I believed you 

When you called me 
Your caryatid stolen, 
A marble statue of a woman 
Crying out for her homeland; 
Your vase thrice fractured, hairline

Fissures, fault lines traversing 
My clay visage. 
Broken things 

Such as myself 
Are meant to be fixed 
You said, a technique 
Learned on your travels 
Through space and time, 
Above and below.

And I choke now as you pour 
Molten gold down my throat, 
An aureate agony I strive to sweat out
Through my eyes, rolling back
Into the darkest recess of my skull
As I’m petrified into submission
By Midas’ touch.

Caryatids, you say 
Weren’t always bleached bone 
But vibrant color;
When earthenware crack from use 
They are sealed with veins
Of godly gold.

These are only some of the things 
That are true. 
While you deem me sufficiently
Purified,
I call my fate a burning inferno.

Artworks don’t speak 
But if they did, their crumbling voice 
Would never be trusted 
Over that of their self-appointed
Conservator.

Avra Margariti is a queer author, Greek sea monster, and Pushcart-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Vastarien, Asimov’s, Liminality, Arsenika, The Future Fire, Space and Time, Eye to the Telescope, and Glittership. “The Saint of Witches”, Avra’s debut collection of horror poetry, is forthcoming from Weasel Press. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

photo by Simon Lee and David Tovar (via unsplash)

The Fox Bride and the Hawthorn Queen—Constance Fay

The house on the edge of the forest was as twisted and malformed as the trees that loomed around it, blocking the sun and the air and anything else that would allow the house or its denizens to grow straight and strong. The house had a slippery, winding iron staircase on the outside rather than the inside, so if someone wanted to venture from kitchen to bed, they risked a dousing in rain or pollen or hoarfrost-edged moonglow. Three people lived in the house; a mother, a father, and a little girl named Ember who was so naïve that she still dreamed at night.

Ember grew up in the shadow of the house in the shadow of the woods and, like most light-stunted things, she was small and sharp and eager. She learned when acorns were in season and that, if she filled a shell with water from the nearby stream and left it on a broad flat rock by the bank, the shell would be dry and rough the next day and a tiny woven crown of aster would be left encircling it. She learned that the wind snatched her name from her lips if she stood on the edge of one of the forested peaks, and that someone on the other side returned it to her in her own voice. She learned that shadows ate fire in the woods and not the other way around as was normal. She learned the names for all the trees that bordered her house but her favorite was the hawthorn, solitary and wind-swept, standing apart from the other trees as though they had retreated from its blood-bright berries and needle-sharp thorns. 

And, she learned that she must never open her window at night, not even when she heard the spider-stick tapping of twigs against the glass. Not even if they whispered her name. 

Her mother gave her fragile cobwebs of lore, iridescent yet sticky enough to cling to the mind in strings and fragments. One could tie a lock of hair to a rowan tree to overcome grief. If, instead of hair, the same tree was watered with milk, the cows would be protected. Ash could be burned to bring about a rainfall. 

“But, whatever you do my little love, you must never make a wish on a hawthorn tree.” Her mother cautioned, glancing skittishly out the window as though the tree was listening. 

“Why not?” Ember asked. She asked this question frequently and rarely listened to the answer.

“Because the Hawthorn Queen is listening.” Her mother wouldn’t say any more and wishes were boring subjects anyway. What could Ember want beyond what she already had? 

Although their luck was as stunted as Ember’s growth, her parents provided enough for a childhood. In the morning there were warm oats and butter. There was nearly always meat on the table for dinner. If the hearth did not warm the house enough, there were blankets of wolf skin or deer hide that made Ember’s bed a cozy nest. On the solstice, packages wrapped in wood bark and twine rested near that same feeble hearth. 

Ember would unwrap them one at a time, savoring the paper-soft bark on her fingertips as she peeled away the mystery. They usually contained found things; a river-polished pebble, a beetle preserved in amber, once a baby raccoon who she raised until it was grown and nipped her mother’s ankle so hard it drew blood. The raccoon disappeared after that and Ember learned that her parent’s indulgence stretched to the point of bloodshed but no further. 

No one ever mentioned that raccoons didn’t have kits until spring, yet this one was found alone and squalling near the twisted iron stair in the bleak month of December. 

They lived in a borderland, not quite the forest, but not the town either. Strange things happened in liminal places, far stranger than a raccoon found out of season. For a whole year, the cow had produced thin blue water when milked in the day and rich cream at midnight. One autumn, leaves had shed from the trees to the rich, loamy earth in whorls and swirls that looked almost like a language. In the henhouse, they had found a dead martin that looked like it had been stabbed by a thousand tiny swords. It was not a place for the natural and Ember thrived, not unlike the feral creatures of the forest, until she turned fifteen. 

Strange things happened at liminal ages, as well. 

Ember had grown, if not tall and straight as wheat then at least not as broken and withered as the trees in the forest. She had bright brown eyes, a crow-sharp face, and a thatch of hair that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be brown or red. In the dark, it was a shadowed mystery. In the day, an autumnal blaze. In the between-times, it flickered between the two, a fire dying. Or being born. 

She was strong as a vine, hearty as a doe, and wild as a cat. These had been charming traits for a girl. They were less appealing in a woman. 

There was a town nearby. A collection of buildings big enough for a bakery, a market, and a store that sold everything from pickled vegetables to garden shovels. There was also a school, which Ember had never attended because, until she was nearly a woman, there had been no need to show her off to boys who were nearly men. Now there was, so Ember was stuffed into the costume of a sweet young girl who knew nothing of the sharp teeth and whispered mysteries of the forest. 

She could barely move her arms in the narrow shoulders of the dress her mother made. Her new boots pinched toes that were used to curling in the soil. They tied her wild hair back from her face with a bright pink bow. Her parents dressed her like prey to meet strangers. 

Ember didn’t yet understand that this was how people worked. That it was a competition to look the most like prey so that one would be approachable and eventually a protective herd would form. She had been too long among the hawthorn and the beasts. No costume she wore could cover her thorns and splinter-sharp claws. 

No herd formed about Ember. She wouldn’t let it. 

She had the hawthorn tree, the fleet-footed deer, and the inhalation of the forest as the sun slipped over the horizon. She had the familiar tap tap tap of spindly fingers on her windows. She had dreams of other things that lived beneath the thick leaf canopy. Darker things.  

How could children compare to that?

There were no mysteries in other children, their lives unrolled before them like a spool of ribbon, straight, glossy, and unchanging until they ended with a sharp snip of the scissors. There were only ten students in her school, more boys than girls. All the girls would marry and the remaining boys would leave, to find the same future with a different girl somewhere else. Ember looked upon them all with scorn.

Which is why it was so surprising when one tried to find a future with her. 

Brone wasn’t a bad boy. It may have been better if he was.  He was pale and plain as a potato with dirty blonde hair and skin that always carried a sheen of sweat. Broad and soft with a parsnip nose and eyes like a stagnant-hot summer noon. When he touched something, it was as though he was wearing gloves. It took a moment too long for his flesh to understand what it felt. When he thought about something, it was the same. Those humid eyes did not mask a feverish mind, but rather one that had gone fallow. 

His father, however, was as hungry for the forest as Ember was, although for different reasons. His hands always stroked the whittled handle of his hatchet and his gaze covetously catalogued one tree after another.  He had decided that Brone and Ember’s union would give him access. Ember’s parents could afford no real dowry for her—had nothing to offer but the trees and the dark spaces between them. 

Ignorant of his plotting, Ember climbed trees and the wind filled her up until she returned to the ground smelling of sap and smoke and speckled with downy feathers. She swam in the river searching for the silver-quick dart of the water spirits. She braided vines like hair and flowers bloomed under her short, deft fingers.

The forest loved Ember as much as she loved it, but affection is not the same as protection, and the devotion of a wild thing does not guarantee it will not bite. 

One day, Ember returned home, wet from the river and goose-pimpled from the breeze, lips chapped from smiling, to discover a collection of people waiting at the bottom of the winding metal stair. Brone slumped, awkward in new pants and suspenders that wouldn’t stay straight on his rounded shoulders. His father was behind him, eyes on the wood, fingers fondling the ax at his waist. Ember’s mother and father stood on the stairs, a new russet dress and a beaded blindfold in their hands. 

Ember was to be married five days hence, eyes shuttered and shoved down an aisle that pretended to lead to mystery but instead led to the same future every woman had. Blinded until her new husband gave her the gift of vision and showed her the world at his whim, on his timing. It was an added insult that the first thing she would see, at his hands, would be Brone’s vacant glassy eyes and wet-soft skin. 

“I won’t.” She stomped a foot into the ground.

“You will.” They told her, shaking their heads at their willful daughter. 

“You can’t.” She glared.

“We can.” They folded up the dress and the blindfold and tucked it in a trunk for her wedding day. 

“You’ll see.” She threatened.

“We won’t.” They shrugged, sitting down across the table now that Brone and his father had left. 

No amount of argument helped and it never occurred to Ember to plead. When the moon rose in the sky and the sounds of the forest stilled, she tried to run—packed a bag with a sharp paring knife, five hard pink apples, and a blanket. 

Her forest was a different place in the night than under the disdainful gaze of the sun. The branches caught at her, spindly strong fingers snagging her cheeks, her tunic, and her bare feet. They grasped like greedy fingers at a sweet store, ripping fire-spark hair from her head and carrying it away. 

The river waters were thick black ink at night, agitated with razor-sharp fins and weed-twined hands with too-long fingers that reached from the shallows, sinking into the mud on the shore up to their knuckles. Ember fled before whatever it was pulled itself completely from the depths but she heard the wet-stumpy sound of a footstep behind her. She tripped and fell over a tree root that she swore hadn’t been there before and, when she looked up, her wide gaze caught that of a deer frozen by a tree. It stared back with the eyes of a human and grinned with predator-sharp teeth. 

She returned to her room then, tattered and scared for the first time in her life. The spindly fingers of the trees tapped on her window and whispered her name and Ember pulled a wolf skin over her head and shuddered. The next day, in the butter-safe light of the sun, she sat over her oats and considered her options. Ember was not the sort of girl built for consideration so instead she constructed a wall of “wouldn’t.”

She wouldn’t run. She wouldn’t marry the boy. She probably wouldn’t stay. 

The forest was alive and leaking magic but none of it was tailored to her problem. Ember had no grief to get over, nor did she particularly care for the health of the cow. She wanted a lover to spurn her but there was no elder spell for that. The hawthorn tree in the corner of the yard caught her eye, furred in green leaves and speckled with red berries. Her mother’s words whispered through her head. 

“The Hawthorn Queen is listening.”

Ember had forgotten the first half of her mother’s warning.  

That night, she snuck down the winding iron stair again, but this time she did not venture to the woods. She stood below the sprawling hawthorn tree with a long strip of beech bark in one hand. She’d used the paring knife to carve a single request in the bark.

I want to be free.

She reached up through the snarl of branches to tie the bark to the tree but thorns pierced her flesh until blood flowed down her hand and pooled in the grooves of the carved bark. I want to be free. Now written in blood as well as wood. 

She waited under the tree until the moon was high in the sky, blood dripping from her fingers into the earth, but nothing happened, so Ember returned up the iron stair to her room and fell asleep once again. 

On the third night, the tapping on her window was different. A scrape of nails, of thorns dragged over glass. The voice that whispered her name was new, and muffled. On the third night, Ember answered the voice, following it down the iron stair until she stood under the hawthorn tree, beneath the note soaked with her blood. A woman waited for her there.

Or, at least, something shaped vaguely like a woman, in the same ways that a tree trunk could be said to have a human form, or a bag filled with vegetables may, at some angles, resemble the structure of a face. The woman was tall, narrow, and awkwardly jointed with arms that were too long and fingers that were gnarled and pointed. Her face was featureless, like burlap wrapped over skin, and a wild crown of thorns and flowers sat atop her head. When she spoke, the skin over her mouth sucked into her face, as though she inhaled through a membrane. 

“I am the Hawthorn Queen and you have made a wish.”

“Yes.” Ember said, fervently. It occurred to her that she should be afraid, but it equally occurred to her that it was too late for the emotion. 

That membrane sucked in again and the Queen stepped forward one pace, an ungainly motion, like the scuttling of a spider. “You must make three sacrifices and you will receive three gifts. If you use those gifts, your wish will be granted.”

“What do you want?” No one had ever mentioned sacrifices. 

The Hawthorn Queen’s head tilted at an unnatural angle and her fingers rattled against each other, almost like skinned bones instead of wood. “The sacrifices must be worthy of your request.”

“What if they aren’t?”

She heard the sound of wood cracking and creaking, snapping and splintering, and realized that the Hawthorn Queen’s face was twisting into something akin to a smile in the same way that a scythe was kin to a butter knife. “See that they are.”

Ember blinked and the Hawthorn Queen was gone, melded back into the trunk or vanished to wherever wish-granting creatures went when they were not granting wishes. She went back to bed, considering her sacrifices. 

The fourth night, Ember again climbed down the iron stair and stood beneath the hawthorn tree. She used a paring knife to shear hank after hank of her firelight hair until only an unruly crest stood around her head. She buried her hair in a hole on the east side of the tree. Teeth bared and eyes squinted shut, she cut off the smallest finger on her right hand and buried that in a hole on the west side of the tree. On the north side, she buried an ever-fresh flower chain that had been left for her in the forest in exchange for a rich slice of cake covered in clotted cream. The petals were bathed in the pain-tears that fell from her bark-brown eyes.  

Vanity and flesh and magic that she had touched.  They seemed like fitting sacrifices for a life with no fences.

She fell asleep with her hand wrapped tight in linen and her blood pounding in her ears. The next morning, her finger and hair were still gone but her skin was healed over and the pain was not so present. Her mother shook her head when Ember came down for breakfast, as though she had cut off her glorious hair in order to make herself unattractive to her husband. 

“You’d best get used to the idea.” She warned her daughter. “You’ll be married with or without hair. You should be happy. Brone will take you to town and you’ll live in a nice house. The woods won’t tap on your window or whisper your name anymore.”

Ember ate her oats and simmered in anger, hiding her maimed hand in her skirts. 

She stayed out that evening, a twilight girl in a twilight place, watching the sun’s fiery eye sink below the horizon and the forest shift in one instant from fanciful to treacherous. The shadows separated from trees and explored on their own, eating light and sound. The chickens fled into their coop. The night stilled and ground to a halt around her, as though someone had captured the moon in their hand and stopped its inexorable climb.

Under the static starlight, Ember unearthed the holes she’d dug the night before. On the west side of the tree, where she’d buried her hair, she found a crown made of waxy red berries. They smelled sticky sweet and overripe, a tang that coated the inside of her nose. On the east side of the tree, where she had buried her finger, Ember found a dagger made of bone shaped like a needle-sharp thorn. Grasping the hilt felt like razor-sharp fangs digging into her palm. In the final hole, where she’d buried the tear-stained flower chain, there was a mask made of rich red fur. It was soft and smooth to the touch, lined in the back with supple leather and tied with evergreen ribbons. 

What a crown, a dagger, and a mask would do for her remained a mystery. 

Ember took them to her room and tucked them under her narrow bed, turning her back to the tapping on her windows and ignoring the wind-thin whispers of her name. She had no more answers the next day, which was the day of her marriage. Her mother dressed her in the russet gown. It looked like dried blood. There was nothing to be done for the tattered crest of her hair and, when Ember offered her mother the berry crown, she placed it on her head as though that would hide the damage. The fruit was heavy and soft against her scalp, pregnant with juices. 

When her mother wasn’t looking, Ember tucked the mask in her bodice and hid the bone dagger beneath her skirts, reachable through a cut seam. Finally, it was nearly time, and her mother pinched her cheeks to try to bring color to her daughter’s wan flesh. 

“Bite your lips. It will make them plump and red.” Her mother instructed, demonstrating on her own narrow mouth. 

Ember smacked her lips together and, when that didn’t produce the desired result, reached up and plucked the softest berry from her crown. It burst in her fingers and she painted her lips with the juice, careful to let none of it touch her tongue. 

That seemed to please her mother, who led her to the little wooden church that stood in the center of town. It had once been painted white but the wind and the rain and the indifferent gaze of the sun had burned the skin from its bones. The wood-grain was gray and worn now. Inside, there were five rows of pews and a narrow altar covered in a yellow cloth that was supposed to be gold. 

Brone waited by the altar, with his mouth hanging slightly ajar. His father glanced over his shoulder and grinned, hungry as a wolf for entry into the woods. Something murky and red rolled behind his eyes. His ax sat beside him, even in the church. 

Ember’s mother slapped the blindfold on her face and she sightlessly walked to the altar, penned between her parents. Her hand was placed in another that was warm and damp and felt like day-old bread. It engulfed her fingers like it owned her. 

The preacher said something but her blood was rushing to her ears and Ember couldn’t hear him. She couldn’t hear what Brone said when he replied or what he said to her next, words rushing together and jumbled—drowned out by the hectic thunder of her heart. 

The wet-bread hand squeezed hers and there was an expectant silence. Ember opened her mouth to say “no” but only a slight wheeze came from between her lips. There were dry masculine chuckles around her and a hand clapped her on the back, as though she were overwhelmed with emotion. 

The blindfold was removed from her eyes and she stared up into Brone’s soft potato face. It was too late. She was married. She hadn’t been saved and she wasn’t free. She would have to look at this extra flesh sewn into the shape of a near-man for the rest of her life. Ember opened her lips again, to snarl or swear. To threaten. 

Instead Brone covered them with his own. It felt like two leeches wriggling against her mouth, an eel thrusting between her teeth. Like that thing that tried to crawl from the river had its arms wrapped around her. Just before she could bite down on the offending flesh, he staggered away, damp eyes wide and lips stained red with the juice of the berries rubbed on her mouth. 

His fingers raised to his mouth. Traced its shape. His tongue crept out and touched his lip. Retreated. His fleshy skin paled until it was like he was lit by moonlight instead of the noon-day sun. His tongue emerged again, this time black and thick and the near-man collapsed on the ground with white froth spilling from between those red-stained lips. 

Brone’s father jerked Ember away from the altar and his son. Wrapped a large hand around her throat and squeezed. Her parents were rooted to the floor, staring at Ember’s now-dead husband with glassy eyes. It was like they were a story that someone had stopped reading in the middle of a page. The preacher fled the church screaming of devils.

Ember’s gaze returned to Brone’s father. She studied the shine in the back of his eyes, like an animal’s but not. Animals didn’t have that sick, milky twist. His lips peeled back from his teeth until she could see his gums, wet and red like fat worms plucked from the earth after a storm. Ember grasped the dagger through the rip in her skirt and thrust it between his ribs. The milky red glow was the first thing to go. Whatever spirit had possessed the man fled the body like a rat from fire. 

She hadn’t just killed the thing, though, she’d killed the man. Ember stood with two bodies at her feet and her russet dress stained by blood in truth. Her parents were still stuck in place, like that beetle in amber they’d gifted her many solstices ago. Not knowing what else to do, Ember fled the little church. She ran through the town, hands full of skirts, until she entered the forest. 

Her forest. 

The spring sang a babbling song, the wind danced through the leaves, and the soil was soft and warm under her bare feet when she kicked her shoes off. At some point in her flight, she’d lost the dagger and the crown. Her own tattered crest of hair and blood-stained gown were all that remained to her. Ember considered going home and packing a bag.

It sounded like so much work and she was so tired. She would never have to marry Brone, but she wasn’t free any more than she had been before him. Ember sat at the base of a tree, skirts rucked up around her, and leaned her head against the gnarled bark. It was firm and strong at her back, cradling her like the lover’s hug she’d so recently foresworn. 

When she woke, it was night, and the forest had changed. The bark of the tree had nearly engulfed her completely and she had to wrest herself free of its avaricious embrace, skin scraped to bleeding by its refusal to release her. The earth was either cold and hard or wet and slurping under her feet. The buzz of insects sounded like two metal blades scraping together.  She wandered until she was on the edge of the dark forest, under the canopy of the hawthorn tree with silver-sharp moonlight scattered on her skin.  There she paused, studying a home that no longer felt like it was hers.  

A familiar deer approached, gazing at her through a swarm of knife-sharp antlers with blue-green eyes.  It smiled with the needle-thin teeth of a pike. A bunny came after, fur matted and red around its mouth, eyes glowing yellow. A wildcat slunk between two trees with paws that ended with fingers like a woman’s—if women grew retractable claws. A monstrosity of creatures assembled under the canopy of the hawthorn and watched her with too-human eyes that were entirely devoid of humanity.

A rustling drew her attention. It was only a squirrel. A normal one that was captured in the fist of the wildcat and squeezed until it squeaked and cracked like ripe fruit.  The cat licked blood from its finger-paws but its eyes never left Ember’s.  

There were three holes at her feet beneath the hawthorn tree. Three gifts that together granted freedom.

Ember had only used two. She dredged in the bodice of her ruined dress for the mask, sure that it had been lost along the way. Soft fur met her fingers and she pulled it free. It sat in her hands like a promise, gazing up at her with tilted empty eyes. She looked at the hawthorn again. It was still and silent, one step removed from the rest of the forest. The Queen was not among the creatures who gathered around her, either disinterested or asleep. Her work was done, after all. Three gifts for three sacrifices. No guarantee the sacrifices would be good enough.  

As the moon rose higher in the sky, Ember tied the mask over her eyes.  Only then did she consider that the three sacrifices offered may not have been hair, flesh, and flowers at all.  

The mask stuck to her skin. Pierced her like it was covered in a thousand tiny spines. She tried to tear it free but it was too late.  It was already fused to her flesh and it was spreading. Red fur flowed over her cheeks, down the sloping curve of her neck, to the hollow of her back. Her legs popped and stretched, rejointing themselves and twisting into clever, clawed paws. Her nose and mouth stretched into a muzzle, lips thinning until they were gone and teeth razoring from sensitive gums. 

She grew a tail of fur, lush and red as the mask, and a brindled crest of hair flowed from between her ears down the center line of her back, the exact not-quite-fire color that her hair had once been.

On new fox-feet, Ember pawed the earth beneath the tree, nose filling with a thousand new scents and wind ruffling her fur. When the rabbit thing snarled at her, she pounced on it, quick as lightning, and broke its spine in one clean bite. She licked her muzzle, registering the taste even as her mind lost its grip on other things. Less important things like a family, a home. A name. 

She was no longer Ember the girl. She was a creature that hunted, ravenous, in the night and slept through the mellow days. No longer liminal; gloaming transitioned into dark. No delicate flower chains were gifted to her, even if she left the corpse of a bird on the long flat rock by the stream. The silver flash of the water spirits was replaced by a spindly creature of river-weed and mud.  

Some nights, she approached the house on the edge of the woods, twisted and familiar with a winding iron stair. She watched as the twig-sharp fingers of the trees tapped on windows and she learned that she had enough voice left to whisper the names of those who lived within the walls.  

For years to come, in a town on the edge of a swelling wood, crones would tell the story of the fox-bride and her forest. Every time, the story ended with the same words. 

“You must never make a wish on a hawthorn tree because the Hawthorn Queen is listening.”

Constance Fay lives in Colorado, USA and works in R&D for medical devices by day and writes poetry and prose by night.  Her work may also be found in 99 Tiny Terrors, a horror anthology. Visit her online at twitter: @constanceefay, or instagram: @constanceefay  

photo by Jeremy Vessey and Annie Spratt (via unsplash)

The Fylde Coast—Kathy Finney

is full of ghosts –
              they roll in 
with white-washed bones 
of cuttlefish cluttering the beach 
              bodies knee-deep 
in surf
throw no shadows
under the moon’s cold lamp
              eyes scan
where oystercatchers shelter 
in sand that shaves dunes 
and dusts fens 
inland
              thud of feet
slap of leather through mud flats
                            slabs of words 
in a tongue thick as calluses
                            scour stone  
slide down slate to 
the brekka-brow
              bjork-birch 
                            goosnargh-gorse  
              they named—
their stone-boats face Valhalla

*Poem inspired by the Viking Rock Tombs at Heysham Head, The Fylde Coast, Lancashire

Born in Blackpool Kathy Finney is actively involved in preserving the folk tales, history and dialect voices of her home county of Lancashire. In 2018 Kathy gained a Master of Arts in Poetry & Creative Writing with the Open University. Her work has recently been shortlisted in a number of national competitions including the ‘Frosted Fire First’ pamphlet competition 2021, run by Cheltenham Poetry Festival. She is also published or forthcoming in many magazines including The Broken Spine, online at Words for the Wild and in anthologies, including the Places of Poetry Anthology and Red Letter Openings, the Open University Poets 40th Anniversary Anthology. Kathy has now become a serial studier by day, poet by night and tweets @GradelyLass.

photo by Wikimedia Commons user Antiquary, edited under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license

New Non-Corporeal Lore—Michael Brookbank

Ghosts become more like 
                             the walls 
                             they pass through. 
Avoiding doors 
like goodbyes. Their disembodied hands hold-
              ing onto weightless 

              hope. Maybe someday 
they’ll go through 
                                          something
to turn their haunt 
back into a home. Today, 
they are a cold spot. A shiver 
                                          down 
my spine. A reminder of what

 little soul is left in this place.

Michael Brookbank is a writer from Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, OH. His work has been published in Sugared Water and Loch Norse Magazine. When not writing, he likes to rock out around the house with his toddler.

photo by Olenka Kotyk and Philipp Berndt (via unsplash)

The Broken Men—Aisling Walsh

content warning: sexual content

People often believe witches should look a certain way. They imagine us as haggard crones with black hairs curling out of warts protruding from the tips of hooked noses. They project us on screen with our gnarled fingers, tipped with black talons, wrapped around the shaft of straw brooms as we speed across the sky. Or they show us cackling as we wave our wands over steaming cauldrons to cast our spells. On Samhain they dress their daughters in our image – pointed hats, black capes, velvet dresses and hobnailed ankle boots – to scare wandering spirits back to the underworld. 

I have lots of freckles but no warts. My black garbs are always paired with something coquettish in moss green or aubergine. My broom is strictly used for sweeping and my magic wand is strictly for pleasure. A woollen knit, rather than a black cone, tops my head as I clip across the cobblestones of the medieval city I call home. People do not stare, nor cross the street to avoid me. Wrapped in a cashmere scarf with the collar of my tweed coat pulled up against the wind and rain, they barely give me a second glance as I weave my way through Saturday shoppers all-consumed by the drive to accumulate. I slip unnoticed into cosy wooden-panelled snugs, cradling hot whiskeys in one hand and a dog-eared Beckett in the other. I sip and reread, “the tears of the world are a constant quantity, for each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops,” waiting for a suitable candidate to appear. 

I was not collecting them at first, the broken men. I simply found my way to them, lured by illusions of artistic mystery and a sizzling chemistry obscuring their deformities until long after I was already hooked. We would clutch each other in the dark, spilling post-coital intimacies onto bed sheets damp with sweat and tears. I held them as they wept their pain into my bosom, basking in the afterglow of attachment sprung from sorrows shared and understood. 

I would offer up my pulsating heart on a silver platter and leave my body at their disposition, a source of solace, as much as pleasure. I chased those early ones to the end of my last shred of dignity. I shudder to think of my younger self, prostrate on the altar of their needs and vices until they had no more use for me. They would step over my broken, misshapen corpse, taking one of my vital organs with them as they walked away. Meanwhile I would cling to some useless artefact they had left behind, treating it with the same reverence the devoted bestow on sacred relics, until the next one came along. Such artefacts would then lose their sanctity and be boxed, discarded, or burned in accordance with the depth of my lingering heartache. Many men passed between these legs before I realised that instead of grasping at their love, I should let go. They, and I, were already beyond repair. 

It does not take long before a new one finds his way to me. It is usually the laugh that first catches my attention: a deep chuckle that ends in a wheeze. From behind my thick rimmed glasses and over the edge of my Beckett, I time the lapses between pints, watching as they disappear two, three or four creamy heads of stout. I study how they craft their rollies, their fingers stained yellow from years of measuring out the exact quantity of soft, stringy tobacco onto paper, a filter poised between their lips. I listen for the growls of self-deprecation laced with sarcasm and note the furtive glances at friends to make sure their jokes are received with laughter. I evaluate their carefully curated persona: the long hair tied back, the worn sweater or flannel shirt hanging loose over faded black jeans and black boots scuffed at the toes. They lope back and forth between bar, table and street, their shoulders hunched under their long black coats as they suck nicotine in a pub door. 

I wait until their fourth trip to the bar before I make my move, sliding in beside them and leaving my Beckett face up while I order another hot whiskey. They glance sideways at the book a couple of times before they try out a quote. I act surprised and smile. Yes, he’s my favourite too. Yes, I’ve read his complete works. Yes, I also prefer his poetry to his plays. They make a joke about Ireland’s greatest writers absconding to Europe and I throw my head back laughing. I hit them playfully on the upper arm, hold their gaze for ever longer pauses, and bite my lower lip. I forget to go back to my seat, pretending my friends have already moved on. I let them buy the next round. I let them think it was all their idea.

They suggest shots then lead me around the dancefloor, then to their front door, stumbling up the stairs and into their bedrooms. I perch on the corner of the sagging mattress, looking at my hands, as if I am shy and do not usually do this kind of thing. Sometimes they prolong the moment by reciting verses of poetry or strumming a few cords on the guitar. I feign raptured enchantment, when they tell me they wrote it themselves. Their low gravely tones and scent of sweat, tobacco and aftershave, is a heady mix that still whets my appetite. I inch ever so slightly closer, until our shoulders are touching. They lean in for a kiss, slow and cautious at first, until lust overcomes inhibition and their tongues probe deeper and harder. Our fingers pull at buttons and wrestle with buckles. Shoes fall to the floor. They fumble around a bedside locker for condoms. I tell them I am on the pill. It is all very urgent and heavy handed. They heave, grunt and explode inside me. I sigh and moan at all the right moments to make sure they think I have come. 

It is in the moments after they have emptied themselves into me, collapsing, breathless, into the crook of my neck, when I can really tell whether they are the one I have been waiting for. It is as subtle as a fingertip caressing the curve of my bare hip, or a warm breath on the back of my neck. There is no need for me to say anything. I lie still in the dark letting the slick of my juices and their seed seep onto the poly-blend sheets. Their fraught whispers pour into my willing ear, until, cradled in my arms, they are utterly spent, their wounds glistening through the darkness. I feel a deep tenderness, as I rock them gently to sleep. They rest easy, secure in the certainty of their sexual prowess and lulled by the release of secrets shared between lovers. 

We exchange coy messages for a few days. I tell them how great it was to connect with someone so deeply. They ask me over to their place again, but I make excuses and suggest an afternoon coffee. We meet at a quiet little French place. I sip espresso while coaxing yet more confessions, nodding along as if I know exactly how they feel. Their pain floods the red and white checked vinyl tablecloth. I squeeze their hand as they wipe away just one rebellious tear. They tell me what a relief it is to finally be able to share all this with someone. 

After an hour or so of this emotional bloodletting, with a few choice traumas of my own thrown in to pique their interest. I say I have to dash but ask if they would like to come over to mine at the weekend? I live outside the city, alone, I tell them. The cottage is cute and cosy, and we won’t be disturbed. I offer to pick them up in town. It’s just easier, I say. My place is hard to find. 

I pull into the car park by the Cathedral at 5pm. It is already dark and blowing a gale. They jump into the passenger seat and plant a wet and hurried kiss on my cheek. The tyres screech over the tarmac as I head west. They do not seem to notice I have locked the car doors. We listen to guttural premonitions of doom from Tom Waits while driving across gorse covered hills and around the edges of black lakes. 

They pull a somewhat soggy rollie from behind their ears. “Mind if I?” 

“Be my guest,” I reply.  

The acrid scent of tobacco smoke, laced with something more herbal, fills the car. A gentle pressure creeps over my thigh and comes to a rest an inch from my pubic bone. I leave it there, pretending to focus on keeping the car to the left-hand side of the road. 

“Your house is really isolated,” they say to break the silence I have allowed to grow between us. 

“I like the quiet, it helps me concentrate.”

“What do you do? I just realised I never asked.” 

“This and that,” I say, shrugging as I turn off the main road. 

We bump over dirt and stones, the lights picking up the grassy verge that runs down the middle of the track. Eyes flash in the hedgerows and a startled rabbit darts across the lane, escaping the front wheel by mere inches. We come to a halt at an iron gate standing open. A white-washed cottage peeps out from behind holly trees bursting with red fruit. The soft light of a turf fire flickers in the window. 

I turn off the engine and there is a furtive exchange of saliva. Eager hands find their way around buttons and under jumpers. They offer their leather jackets as we make the dash from the car to the front door under a sudden squall. I allow a bit more fondling before releasing the latch. There is a chill in the air, so I throw freshly cut turf on the smouldering fire. Two glasses, a bottle of red and a little dish of olives sit on the coffee table. I light candles while they shuffle off to the toilet, a tiny closet filled with generic adornments I procured from a Swedish warehouse of blissful interior uniformity. My cat creeps out from under the table and rubs itself around my ankles but disappears as soon as the toilet flushes. 

I stand naked by the fire, one arm resting on the mantelpiece and the other holding out a glass of Malbec. They stumble, stutter and look at the floor to conceal the flush that has spread across their faces. I draw them down onto the cushions in front of the fire, loosen the top button of their shirts and lean in until my lips brush theirs. A sigh escapes and I feel their backs crumple under the stroke of my hand. Now it is my turn to take what I need.

I ease them to the floor, strip them off all clothing and, straddling their hips, envelop them. I thrust hard and fast until I have them howling for mercy and cursing the Holy Mother. I make sure I have come before allowing their mournful release. I take their load, clenching and holding on tight to the deposit. 

Easing myself off them and onto the rug, I sip my wine and watch them pant, waiting for them to recover. I repeat the ritual throughout the night until they have nothing left to give, nothing left to say. As they sink into unconsciousness by the fire I retreat to the bathroom. I squat and deposit all I have managed to collect of their seed into a mason jar, screwing the lid on tight. I return with a second jar and the carving knife I keep behind the vanity mirror. 

I straddle them once more, my knees pressing their arms into the white sheepskin. The steel tip is recently sharpened and cuts through their flesh without the faintest resistance. They moan and turn their heads but do not struggle. Blood oozes from the slit, trickling over their chest hairs. There is a crack as I push my fingers in and snap apart the breastplate. I am quick and precise, cutting neatly through the main arteries. The heart comes away intact. I place it, still beating, in the second mason jar and seal the lid tight. Then I reach for the tin box, hidden under the vacant aesthetic of glossy coffee-table books, take out the wind-up clock, set the alarm to seven and place it inside the bloody hollow at the centre of their chest. I snap the breastplate back, press the flaps of muscle, fat and skin together, secure them with a needle and thread and use a tea towel to wipe away the blood. I lick my fingers of their residue, savouring the tang of iron and platelets. 

I press my ear to their chest and listen for the faint, but perceptible, tick-tock then I rub some calendula salve over the stitches which have already begun to fade. By morning the scar will be little more than a pink shadow. I leave their clothes folded neatly beside them, dress myself and disappear with my specimen jars. 

A gentle vibration wakes them just before dawn. They stretch a heavy arm across the rug but do not find me curled beside them. The embers are cold in the grate, a draft creeps under the front door. They rub their jaws, trying to piece together snatches of memory from the night before. Their chests hurt but they put it down to too much wine and fucking. They call my name, noticing how their voice cracks ever so slightly, but are met with silence. The embers in the grate are almost cold and they shiver as they become aware of their nakedness. Fumbling around in the half-light they pull on their scraps of clothing. With one final look round the empty cottage they spot the green eyes of a black cat sitting in the corner. He hisses. They curse and crash into the front door then stumble out to the overgrown meadow. The car is gone. They check their phones but there is no signal. Staggering down the dirt track they glance back at the cottage only to see a semi ruin with a caving roof. Tentacles of ivy are all that is keeping the gable wall from collapsing. The windows are smashed, and the door hangs loose on its hinges. They feel a sudden wave of nausea and empty a scarlet bile into the bushes.  

By the time they reach the road the sun is creeping over the eastern Turks. They squint against the glare and check their phone again. Still no signal. A tractor heads west loaded down with bales wrapped in black plastic, sheep bleat from the surrounding fields, but otherwise they are alone. They sit on a stone wall, roll a cigarette and wait for a bus or a car going east. It is early and the roads are empty, but they make it home before anyone notices their absence and before they realise what they have left behind. 

Meanwhile I am already deep into the mountains, carrying a black velvet bag. The two mason jars clink in rhythm to my strides across the bog. I allow myself the pleasure of a low cackle as I recall so many years of wasted effort trying to save the broken men from themselves, hoping that in doing so I might also save myself. Now I know there is nothing to save, in either of us, there is only what we can take from each other. 

Aisling Walsh (she/her) is a queer, feminist and neurodiverse writer based between Ireland and Guatemala. Her stories, essays and features have been published or are forthcoming in Púca, The Squawk Back, Litro, Barren, Rejection Letters, Cordella Mag, Pank, Entropy Mag, Refinery29, The Irish Times, and The Establishment. Her personal essay ‘The Center of the Universe’ was selected as runner up in the So To Speak CNF Prize for 2021. She is currently working towards a PhD in sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway, where she is researching decolonial and feminist practices of healing justice in Guatemala.

photo by Issy Bailey (via unsplash)

Elegy with an Act of God—Taylor Hamann Los

On this night of salt and fire, 
this night the praying men 
warned of, the mountains 
deepen to indigo with unshed 
grief. Here there is weeping 
and gnashing of teeth, 
water tumbling into the pit. 
O boy with bedraggled cap,
didn’t you know how the goats
would cry when you stacked
kindling by their pen?
O girl with dirty apron,
help me press the fog 
like gauze to our wounds.
We’ll unspool the next hours 
with blackened fingers, 
rain hissing on hot earth. 
I have tasted this smoke 
before, heard chthonic deities  
writhe against their chains. 
Here there is shucking of souls, 
graves cracking open 
among the walnut trees. 
Tomorrow carrion crows
will come. They will pick 
through the bones and erect 
an altar of stone for bodies 
still warm and twitching.
Then the dead will climb
into ancient boats, find 
a river wide and burning.

Taylor Hamann Los holds an MLIS from UW-Milwaukee and is an MFA student at Lindenwood University. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Moist Poetry JournalSplit Rock ReviewRust + Moth, and perhappened, among others. She lives with her husband and two kittens in Wisconsin. You can find her on Twitter (@taylorhamannlos) or at taylorhamannlos.wordpress.com.

photo by Alfred Kenneally (via unsplash)

The Forest Will Feed—K Gardiner

Tara first saw the forest in a dream, rather, a nightmare. It appeared out of nowhere, the sudden presence of trees and shadow. One moment there was nothingness and the next an all-encompassing, all-consuming darkness. The trees were so tall that they blocked out the sky, their leaves forming a thick canopy that obscured the sun. The scarce light that did reach the forest floor was more of a haze, as if the brilliant beams had been strained through a veil a thousand times over. There were no sounds, not from birds or insects, or animals. Just the silence of the trees and the rolling breath of the shadows.

In the dream, the forest was moving outward, swallowing whatever sat in its path. She watched, unable to shake the cold anxiety of a nightmare. Her dream brought her to church—as many nightmares had—the one made of white stone with the tall red door, the one that her family had attended for as long as she could remember. Her heart lurched as the forest molded itself around the building like a cloak hiding it from her sight, like a mouth yawning wide then snapping shut. Then it was gone, covered by dark foliage and scored trunks. The trees bent backwards, retreating to whatever void they had crawled from and leaving an empty space in their wake. No church to be found. 

The eight-year-old Tara startled awake from fitful sleep with tears in her eyes and on her pillow. It was not her first nightmare, but it was the first that felt so real, so possible, as if she could not trust that it was only a dream. She was inconsolable, mourning what had been lost to the forest. So many Sunday mornings, so many memories. She thought of her grandmother playing the piano; she thought of her grandmother’s funeral. All gone, all eaten up by the trees and the shadows that hid between them.

 Her father tried to put her back to sleep, but it was no use. Tears ran freely down her cheeks, her eyes made red and puffy, even her nose wet with snot. Her father helped her out of bed and into the car, taking Tara to see the church for herself, supposedly to see that it was still there. With love in his heart, her father drove her through the dark backroads, following twists and turns buffeted by trees that seemed flat and lifeless compared to those in her dreams. Nothing malicious about how they stood, no creatures hiding in their shadows waiting to feed.

They got to the space where the church should have been and there was just that: a space. A gaping wound in the world, as if someone had taken a giant eraser and smudged away the building from existence. All that was left was a sign by the road, half there, half gone, as if torn between two worlds. Welcome to the First Baptist—that is where it faded away with a vague green stain, the wood and lettering gradually disappearing like it never had been there. Below read the words: Come Join Us—but the rest of the information was lost, leaving more threat than welcome.

Tara tried to tell her father that the forest had taken the church away, that she had watched it happen, but how could he believe a story like that. He got out of the car, telling his daughter to stay put. He walked to the half-there sign and ran his hand along it, pausing where it ended. The car’s headlights illuminated his furrowed brow. He walked up what used to be a brick pathway, instead, there was overgrown grass, untrampled and wild. He paused when he reached the-should-have-been door, raising his hand as if to knock. Then, just like in the dream, Tara saw the not-door contort and swallow her father whole. 

She screamed. And a hole ripped through her heart where he should have been. 

A decade-and-something later, Tara still dreamt of the forest. It terrified her, taunted her, tempted her. Fear and grief over the loss of her father grew into something deeper—an obsession with the unknown. A notebook and pen open by her bed, the words “HUNGRY FOREST” scrawled on the cover. It was a record of everything her dreams had shown her of the forest, of what it eats and where it takes from. A printed map was tucked inside, little red circles indicating other places the forest had taken. On other pages there were printouts of news articles and conspiracy theories about disappearing buildings, lampposts, sometimes whole towns. But nothing was as familiar as the church. Nowhere she could pinpoint in time to enter. Once she had driven until dawn but was unable to find a way in. She had not found another entryway, not since the one that took her father.

At first it was about finding him and bringing him back. But after months became years, became almost twenty years, that dream faded and was replaced by a reckless passion to know. She had a bag packed by her door, car keys ready, the tank always full, just in case she saw something she recognized. She had to find her way in, she needed to know where her father had gone. 

Then, her nightmare finally brought her something useful.  

That night the forest had consumed a gas station, the vines and moss slowly obscuring the bright lights and colored signs, making the place look grimier than before. It was altogether unremarkable, especially with the greenery already covering most of it and taking away the surrounding scenery, something that could be anywhere, a hallmark of any small town. But this was not in any town, it was right outside of her own. There was a sign, a small thing, but something she recognized. It was a sale-sign that advertised last season’s ice cream flavors. Something that should have been replaced months ago, something she silently mocked every time she saw it, something that told her all she needed.

Tara forced herself awake, not waiting to see the station fully consumed. She didn’t bother writing anything down, or researching the place, she just grabbed her bag, ran to the car, and raced to where the trees were claiming another victim.

She reached the gas-station, or rather where it should have been, at half-past three. She got out and wandered the space, marveling at how quiet it was, like the space was a void. The forest was not just eating up the brick and glass, but any sound that might have been there. She pulled up a map on her phone, her location showing her where the door to the building should have been. She had seen enough to realize that doors were the easiest way into the forest, like it recycled the features that it ate. It was from this idea that she devised her theory, that the forest was superimposed over the real world, overlapping in places when it had to feed. Of course, that was just a theory, untested and risky, though it was her best shot at finding the church and her father’s end.  

Tara peered around the shop, the only light coming from glowing buttons and a neon sign advertising unnatural slushie flavors. This did not look like a gas-station after hours—as if you could flip a switch, add some people in a hurry, and it would come to life again. No. This was darker, more sinister If you turned on the light, you would see things that were better kept to shadow. She had the horrible feeling there were things watching her from every angle, hiding just out of sight, ready to eat her up. 

There were leaves on the floor, dried and nearly ground to dust, pine needles and spores too, more than an average day’s foot traffic would bring in. This was unnatural, unholy in a green-tinted way. Even the shelves were threaded with vines, the glass of the coolers broken and tinged with what looked like moss and mold. Mushrooms sprang from between rows of snacks and random knick-knacks. There were branches poking in too, finding ways through broken windows and even a large crack in the side of the building. Tara almost tripped, catching herself on a vine, catching her skin on the prickers. She looked down for the cause of her fall. At first, she thought it was a log, or maybe something fallen from the shelves. Then her eyes landed on a pair of bright red sneakers, and jeans. 

Lying on the cold and green floor of the gas-station was a body.

Poor kid, she thought. She could tell he was young, maybe in college, maybe in high school. He was not breathing—at least not that she could tell. She did not want to get too close. Like the other things left in the building, he looked as if he had been there for far longer than possible, long enough for there to be an exposed part of his skull where mushrooms poked through the greying skin. The clothes were wearing thin, some patches reinforced by a layer of lichen or moss, some patches of skin peeled back to reveal bone. On his sweatshirt there was a name tag that read WILKS, whether that was his first or last name she would never know.

Her mind flitted reflexively to her father and imagined that it was his body decaying on the floor instead of this kid. The thought made her eyes prick with tears. She had to get out of there, out of the gas-station, and away from the body. She broke through the vine-crusted door and out into the forest.

The parking lot and gas pumps were overrun with greenery, just like the building had been, though the red lights still displayed what members would save per gallon. It was eerie, the green foliage tinged by the red light, only interrupted by the flickering of harsh LEDs. When she looked up, she could not find the moon or stars. Tara shone her phone light up, only to find layers and layers of branches and leaves, as if the forest were insulated from the world beyond. It was darkness like nothing she had ever known. Wanting for light, Tara went back into the building and, with a bit of hunting, she found a couple lighters and a larger flashlight. There was no need to kill her phone battery just for light; besides, she needed it for something else. 

Tara pulled up the map on her phone. Sure enough, it showed her location where the gas station should really have been. She located the field where the church was and set it as her destination. She had a theory that the forest was just a palimpsest, imposed over her own world and intersecting occasionally. If this was true, she should be able to find her way through the forest as if it were the world she knew. 

She had not gone far, not yet half-way, when she realized she was being watched. Although the forest was silent, no sounds of birds or bugs, she could hear what could only be described as breathing. It was a chorus of sounds, soft and almost unnoticeable, but unmistakable. This was easy enough to get used to, if she didn’t think too hard about what made the sounds. But then, apart from the ambiance, there was a muffled scuffling from somewhere behind her. She was not just being watched but followed. She fought the urge to turn around, to stop and see what was behind her. But if she just kept going, if she did not hear anything else, maybe there would be nothing there. 

She kept on walking until she heard it again, closer this time. She tried to tell herself it was just a rabbit, maybe a deer. A perfectly normal woodland animal in perfectly natural woods. But of course, Tara knew there was nothing natural or normal about this place.

 She heard it again: this time accompanied by a gruff sounding breath. Tara spun around, her flashlight held as a weapon, her eyes scanning the trees and the gaping spaces between their trunks. She screamed, her eyes landing on bone, on a skull, on the fully clothed skeleton that had been creeping after her. To her shock, and to her fright, the skeleton screamed back.

It was the gas-station boy, Willis or something like that. Wilks? 

“You’re the boy … the one from the gas station.” She tried to reconcile this version of him with the one on the floor. Although it had not been an hour, the boy’s flesh and muscle had completely decayed. She could see the lines of similarity, but it was still jarring. Here he was, dead—and following her.

“Do you know where I am?” He asked with an urgency tipping to panic.

Tara did her best to explain the all-consuming forest and where she had found him. To his credit, he did not interrupt or refute it. He must have known somehow that it was truth.

“Am I dead?”

“Yes,” Tara replied automatically, then reconsidered. “Sort of.” 

He nodded, then took a moment to examine his hands, or the bones and the lichen that had taken over them.

“God, I’ve never hated the outdoors more.”

Tara snorted before picking up the pace. 

As they walked deeper into the forest, the rumbling sounds only intensified, though they were nothing like the sounds Tara had heard before. The noises became less breathy and more like a low hum. It grew steadily louder, oscillating between two pitches. It was accompanied by a distant thud and scratching sound, like dragging nails over wood. She tried not to think about what kinds of birds or insects might make such sounds. She tried to stay determined, to tell herself she was not afraid. But her racing heart betrayed the truth. She only knew the forest from the outside, not from within. Sure, she knew about the palimpsest, the doors, the gap in reality that it left behind, but she had no idea what resided in these shadows.  

It terrified her.

Wilks walked a few steps behind her, struggling to keep up with the brisk pace. He was getting worse, not that she would say that to his skull. His bones were getting darker, as if stained by the soil he was never buried in. From his right eye-socket, a small vine climbed up his temple. If it bothered him, he did not say, though she was sure he had deeper discomforts, like the ferns that poked past his ribcage and beyond the collar of his shirt. 

At last, they reached the church, or what was left of it. All this time being fed on, the forest had left its mark. The steeple had long since crumbled, the white stone stained green and black by mold and moss, and the door—the one that had taken her father so long ago—hung askew from its hinges, the wood made fragile with rot. Tara tried to gingerly push it out of the way, but the weakened door fell backwards. A crash echoed out from the crumbling building. She flinched away from the sound, it seemed unnatural against the hallowed nature overrunning the place. When the echo had died down, she noted that the humming and thudding had stopped. Silence swallowed the church until Wilks spoke up.

“Something else is here.”

Tara froze and turned back to him, “How do you know?”

He shrugged with a small creak of his bones before saying emphatically, “I can feel it. I’m not the only thing that followed you.”

Then the shadows between the tree trunks began to stretch outwards and move, like something was hidden behind them, something that was about to break out. Tara’s heart pounded, an echo of the rhythmic thuds that had resumed just past the tree line. 

Something—somethings were coming.

She reached out and grabbed for Wilks, her hand latching on to his forearm. To her horror, his arm lurched toward her but his body stayed put. It had detached at the shoulder, leaving him standing and her falling backwards with his arm still in her grip. She cried out, her eyes flung wide, and her mouth stuck open in disgust. Wilks did not make a sound, just looked at her with those hollow sockets, his skull cocked to one side as if appraising her. Then the shadows closed around the skeleton boy and ate him up, leaving only his right arm in her hand.

The other shadows seemed to wriggle in delight, hiding just beyond the reach of her flashlight. Then, out of the darkness came sights far worse than the skeleton boy ever could have been. The creatures varied in size and shape, but all were turned to her, all approaching slowly as if moved by the same force. Tara allowed herself to scream. 

Still holding on to the arm, she turned and ran into the church, some shelter from the horrible creatures that followed her. She picked up the broken door, made lighter by decay, and propped it back in place. She ran further in, through the second set of doors that had been protected from some of the decay. Tara secured them behind her and turned to examine the sanctuary. The large room was dark, just like the rest of the forest. She shined her light around, trying to ignore the sound of things moving closer. The beam illuminated the pews, rotting, but still set in their staunch rows. The windows were stained, not with the colors or images of cathedrals, but with greens and browns. One or two were broken. The ceiling was mostly there, save a few gaps that had vines and leaves hanging down. In a moment of sacrilegious observation, Tara thought the sanctuary looked more beautiful and felt more holy than it ever had before. 

As she walked down the aisle, she wondered about her father and what he saw when he walked through the door, whether he had decayed until he was dust—or whether he was eaten up like Wilks. She wondered if he was scared or confused, whether he thought about his daughter, and her nightmare. Whether he tried to wake up from one of his own. 

At the base of the sanctuary sat a piano. The sight made her heart lurch and her eyes prick with tears. The grand instrument had been brought to a kneel, the front legs broken down after all these years. The ivory keys—blackened and teeming with moss—were now slumped toward the floor. And in front of the desecrated instrument were bones—not clean, polished bones like Wilks had, but fully reclaimed by vines and mushrooms. Death tarnished by shades of green. 

It was not hard to figure out that this was, or had been, her father. Even after the clothes or any other identifier had been consumed, she knew it could only be him. She imagined him sitting at the piano and playing while alone in the darkness. She saw his hands glancing over the keys until his fingers were narrow bone and his eyes had decayed in his skull. She could see him sitting there, perhaps singing, as the forest stole more and more of him. She wondered about the last song he had played. 

Despite the answer to her desperate question, there was no resolution in her heart. Just the gaping hole within her, eaten away by the grief she had accumulated over the past decades. She knew then that the search had been in vain. No amount of knowledge or research could ever heal the pain of loss and the anger she felt at the forest. At her dreams. At herself. 

A tear ran down her face and she reached to staunch the flow before it could get worse. Splotches of pale green caught her eye. Beginning to grow over her skin and between her fingers were clusters of lichen. 

Tara screamed. It was not a sound of fear as one might expect, but a scream of defiance. The sight of her father and the sight of Wilks churned in her mind, both taken by the dark forest, both consumed until they could give no more. This would not be her fate, not if she could help it.

The sounds from outside the church grew louder, screeching and screaming in response to her challenge. She said a quick prayer and readjusted her grip on Wilks’ severed arm, brandishing it like a weapon. She wondered whether her father had said any prayers. 

Then her flashlight flickered out, leaving her in darkness for one quiet moment.

Tara heard the walls burst inwards as she fumbled for one of the stolen lighters, igniting a small flame just in time to see one of the creatures, with the face of a skeletal vulture and antlers like an elk’s, inches away from her face. When the orange light hit it, the creature hissed and fell back, shrinking away from the mild heat. The flame revealed the other nightmarish beings, some tall like trees, colored dark like the shadows and stretching to the ceiling, horns jutting out like crowns, their mouths hung open, hungry and daunting. Some had the faces of owls and sparrows but bodies like hedges of feathers, antlers protruding from them in unnatural ways, as if they had eaten up herds of deer. The most terrifying were the ones that did not walk, but slank along the floor, like piles of sentient moss, sliding over to her, their bodies covered in little yellow eyes, reflecting the small light.

Tara knew what she had to do. Using Wilks’ severed arm and her jacket, she fashioned a makeshift torch. The fire roared to life, and the creature sunk back even further, flinching away from the flame. She brought it closer, jabbing it at the shadows. 

Tara brought the flame to the pews, touching it to the wood, praying it would catch and spread and make a blaze brilliant enough to light up the whole forest, maybe even push the trees back and open a way out, another doorway back to her world. The rotting wood started to smolder, giving off a putrid smell. The creatures shrank back further, spilling back out into the forest, away from the spreading fire. Tara’s heart sank as she noticed the flames already fading, refusing to spread to damp kindling. 

This was not enough to bend back the forest. 

The dying fire would not make a dent. 

But there was something far more volatile in the forest than the damp wood.

She readjusted her grip on Wilks’ burning arm and ran out after the monsters, desperate to claw her way back to the gas station. The monsters had gone back into the shadows between the trees, but she could still hear them, breathing and shuffling, waiting for the light to falter, so they could eat her too. She paid them no mind, which was harder to do now that she knew what they were. As she went along, the torch caught on lower branches and thickets, starting small fires behind her, leaving a trail of oranges and reds that illuminated the upper branches. To Tara’s horror there were creatures waiting up there too, perched high and looking down. They were like bats with horrible faces, like small, exposed skulls; they shrieked and peeled away, flying around and ahead of her, desperate to get away from the flame.

She kept running, no longer looking up or back or even down. Finally, she saw the muted red light of the gas station sign. She felt like her bones had worn, they creaked with each movement. She ran to the closest pump, number three, and freed her credit card from her phone case and frantically swiped it.

More monsters were following. 

The fires she left behind disappeared one by one, decaying like everything else in the forest. The pump beeped but she did not bother to remove the card, she only took the nozzle and began to dispense the gasoline onto the forest floor, trying to shoot it as far from her as she could. Then she ran back, as far as she dared. She could see monsters now, she felt the ground shake as the tallest stomped towards the station. She raised the torch and tossed it back towards the pump, the spilt fuel.

The forest exploded in oranges and reds, burning in a ball of flame, consuming the pumps and the monsters that were close enough. The creatures screamed, a sound of being unmade. Tara, herself, screamed as she was thrown back, the heat singeing her hair. The forest was bright with warm yet violent light, but distinguished from the blaze were a few gaps, holes that had torn open like wounds, letting in early morning light and clear blue sky. Tara scrambled to her feet and ran for the nearest tear, pushing herself through, it felt like breaking through a veil. She collapsed out on the other side, into the liminal space that had been the gas station. She lay there, struggling to breathe although her chest was heaving. As she pushed to her feet, her hands caught her eye again. They were spattered with lichen but more startlingly, they were skeletal.

The forest had fed after all. 

K Gardiner is a writer and artist who can be found splitting her time between her undergraduate thesis and drafting her first novel. Her favorite things to read and write are magical forests and anything that steals you from reality. More of her work has been published with ARCH Literary Magazine and The Minison Project. She has forthcoming pieces in HELL IS REAL Anthology and Gutslut Press’s B O N E M I L K

photo by Micha Frank (via unsplash)

Calla Lily Lullaby—Hannah Yerington

The fog curls into my hair 
the day we cast the calla lilies out to sea 

their milky bodies shepherded by mother leopard sharks, 
swamp salt plants set to sleep in the cradle of the waves.

I walk my robes into the ocean, 
divinity and the deep punctuated by pebbles. 

I think of my return to this land as ritual
the seawall graffitied with the words 
this place is sacred space.

My people planted calla lilies between 
the groves of the Eucalyptus trees
their roots growing through the cliffs 
our silent request for sanctuary. 

The calla lilies have turned the white of each wave break, 
my eyes are seafoam, 

I know home is the low tide of my soul, 
where sea urchins forget my sins 
and castaway flowers return to shore.

Hannah Yerington is a poet, a Jewish Arts educator, and the director of the Bolinas Poetry Camp for Girls. Her work has been published in Nixes Mates, Alma, and Olney, among others. She is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University. She writes about many things including talking flowers, post-memory, and the occasional seal. 

photo by Jocelyn Morales and Conor Sexton (via unsplash)