Short Stories #1
|Mari on the Mountain |Snippet |Shouting at Stars
1. Dark and Moving Things
2. Ramasbat and the Beast
3. The Feathered Nest
5. The End of the Path
This story was both difficult and cathartic for me to write. Some of you may recognise elements of this that found their way into The Sandman and Crawl. I deliberately employed them in those stories, reasoning that if they scared me, they might just, perhaps, scare others too.
Here though, I have tried to write the 'story' as I actually experienced it (real or imagined) as a young girl. As I wrote, the old, familiar stirrings of dread found their way into my heart and mind. Wanting to hide from it, I had to focus on it instead, in an effort to convey to the reader just how intensely frightening these 'events' were. The physical descriptions of the house and furniture are as I remember them. They were genuinely real. As for the supernatural nature they took on; well, you might have to decide that for yourself.
I am the first to admit that I have a wildly overactive imagination.My family and certain friends will also readily attest to that. Other things may have played upon my psyche too, as a youngster, contributing to these experiences, but some things are best left in the past. At the time, of course, I did not know any of this. All I knew was it felt real, my fear was very real. What other criteria needs to be fulfilled I wonder, for something to be 'real' to a person?
Susannah told herself it was absurd that an armchair, of all things, should give off such an air of menace. It hulked in the corner, its green, faux-leather skin gleaming cold and clammy; looking in the dim light like some giant, venomous amphibian, emanating malice.
Susannah could barely tear her eyes from it, convinced she had seen the fat, padded backrest rise and fall as if breathing. She watched closely, her eyes wide and dry, hardly daring to blink. Any minute now the stiff wooden legs would take a step towards her, she just knew it.
The armchair stayed where it was. Susannah remained tucked under the oval coffee table, her feet curled up into her nylon nightdress. The remains of a fire glowed weakly in the grate, offering little warmth, even less light. A few remnants of coal shifted and settled in the fire basket, offering some small comfort; it was a sound she knew well.
It was followed almost immediately by another she knew just as well, though it was far less welcome.
Tick-tick-tock; tick-tick-tock; tick-tick-tock… Not the innocent marking of time passing from the large wall-mounted timepiece. This was a hollow sound, coming from deep within the walls. Susannah listened in dread as itgrew slowly nearer. She didn’t want to hear it; she wanted to block her ears, close her eyes and curl her knees up tight to her chest, to bury her face in her lap and arm herself with fervently whispered, desperate prayers for salvation. But the same fear that made her want to hide also meant she did not dare close her eyes or ears in case something nameless and terrible caught her by surprise. So she froze, tense and terrified, listening.
Tick-tick-tock; tick-tick-tock; tick-tick-tock…. The entire room seemed to have fallen still and silent, as if listening as intently now as Susannah was. Tick-tock-tick – it had rounded the far corner, passing behind the armchair without pause, making its inexorable way across the chimney breast towards her. It always came for her, though when it drew level with her useless hiding place beneath the table it stopped, ticking softly for a while; softer, softer until it faded away altogether. It never did any more than this, its real harm lay in its sinister approach, its steady, unrelenting beat, always leaving her feeling that there was little time left to her; that it was waiting, patient and eternal, in the cool, dusty recesses of the very walls that were meant to keep her safe.
She swore she heard a sigh of relief escape the green armchair when it was clear the tick-tocking had ceased, taking its latent and un-nameable power with it. It was for all the world as if the armchair knew whatever force drove the sound was greater even than its own. She and it shared a surreal moment of collecting themselves; readjusting to the subtly changed atmosphere, before the armchair became aware that it was once again the biggest, baddest being in the room, reasserting its hold over the girl.
Susannah would swear it glared at her, two newly made dimple-eyes in its back appearing to shrink and swivel in her direction. She shut her own eyes tight, hopeful that if she could not see it, it might not see her. She could feel those dimples boring into her; burrowing into her thoughts, searching out her weaknesses. Her eyes snapped open in a flash of defiance as she aimed a thought back at it; “No way! Get out of my head!”
As if shocked at such boldness, the coals in the grate flared suddenly, brought back to momentary glowing life by a breeze that whistled hauntingly down the chimney to echo weirdly round the room.
There was a newspaper on the table top above her, Susannah knew. Her father had been reading it earlier, before he went out. Hungry for more of the light that the embers promised, Susannah untangled her feet from the static-ridden nylon and stretched her arm out, feeling cautiously for the paper. Her touch was timid, half expecting a cold, clammy hand to grab hers and drag her out into the open. She encountered the bruisingly cold edge of an abandoned cup and saucer; the handle of a mug which wobbled at her touch but didn’t quite fall over, before her fingers brushed the edges of the folded paper. She snatched at them hurriedly, panicking as the first few attempts resulted in triangular crumbs of torn paper between her thumb and forefinger. She tried again, more determinedly, and was rewarded with the whole thing.
It came to her untidily, unfolding and shedding its pages as it fell to the floor like the disjointed wings of a wounded bird. She didn’t care; her courage was beginning to fail her. She glanced at the fire, dismayed to see the embers were less fierce now. She retreated under the table, scrunching the paper up into loose balls as she went. She took aim, the first ball barely reaching the hearth before falling harmlessly back onto the rug. The next did little better, bouncing off the iron grating onto the tiles. Trying to compose herself, she tried a third time.
The loose ball landed squarely in the fireplace, unfolding itself a little more in the process. For a dark moment Susannah thought the force of its landing had dampened the flames too completely. Then the paper caught and began to writhe and bend as the new flames ate at it hungrily. Encouraged, she threw two more balls onto the fire, then another, then another and then, desperate to enact her feeble plan, she stood and threw the entire newspaper onto the freshly revived flames.
They leapt, as if vying with one another for the best of the feast. Susannah took in a needy eyeful of the bright warmth, then turned, using the image as fuel to her bravery as she ran to the light switch.
She reached it in good time, the flames still at work on the sacrificed paper. Breathless, Susannah flicked the switch. The room became bathed in a flood of powerful electrical light, banishing the shadows to only the furthest corners and rendering the room suddenly ordinary.
Susannah looked around cautiously. The green armchair had lost its wet look, the dimples had creased and reformed, its back now smooth, the whole thing looking more like an innocent bystander than a willing perpetrator. The flames in the hearth had sunk low, the smell of papery ashes tingeing the air slightly. The coffee table seemed a weak defence, sitting low and stick-like, barely able to withstand the cups resting on it much less an attack of supernatural proportion.
Susannah allowed herself to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, though the laugh was somewhat forced. It hadn’t been funny; not really. It never was. But now the light was on and the room appeared as any other might, and so she laughed, because it was all she knew to do next.
Her laughter fell flat in the dead cold air; the room did not appear to share the joke. She realised again that her feet were cold; that she was cold all over. She would give anything for a pair of socks and her dressing gown; but they were Upstairs, and Upstairs meant opening the living room door and braving the hallway, the stairs themselves and the landing.
It was too overwhelming to consider all at once and so Susannah focused only on the door. ‘One thing at a time,’ she told herself, ‘one thing at a time.’ She had been holding her hand crab-like over the light switch as if guarding it. Now she moved it, resting it lightly on the cold door handle, working herself up to opening it and facing the darkness that she knew lay beyond.
Steeling herself, shivering at more than the chill air, she pushed downwards. The door opened near silently, though as her hand slipped from it, greasy with sweat, the handle flipped up with a metallic twang, incongruous in the circumstances. The sound was like an affront, doing nothing to boost her flagging confidence.
The door had fallen slightly inwards, resting on her bare toes and revealing only a slice of darkness from the hallway beyond. Needing to flood that dense blackness with light before she dared to set foot into it, she stepped back and pulled the door wide.
The area immediately around the door was transformed into a pool of light, clearly showing her the bare lino floor, the cupboard under the stairs and above them the banister rails, like whitewashed bars of a flimsy jail. The edges where the light began to weaken were tinged a strange greyish yellow, leading into increasingly darker shades until once more the thick blackness asserted itself on its furthest borders, as if the hallway had been dip-dyed in shades of night.
This was what she had to conquer next; the hallway. In some ways the most fearful of all her challenges, seeming at times to be the place of greatest danger, the place from which all the unnamed, unwanted forces of this eerie house appeared to emanate; the place in which she felt the most exposed and vulnerable of all.
She risked a look behind her at the living room; nothing had changed, though the newspaper was little more than ash in the grate now. The green armchair; had it moved? Changed position, to better watch her discomfort?
She turned her back on it before her thoughts wandered so freely that she lost control of them; if that happened, she was lost. Let the fat frog chair watch; she had other things to worry about now.
She stepped out onto the lino, cool beneath her already chilled feet. She felt the raised pattern of diamonds push gently into her soles as if reading Braille barefoot, but the symbols told her nothing more than that she was at home. She ignored them, useless to her as they were. They were a distraction, nothing more. She could not allow herself to become distracted; not here.
To her right was the kitchen, the door wide open, giving a clear view down its narrow galley length to the back door, shut to the outside world, the key in the lock like an invitation. The darkness outside seemed lighter than in here; the moon was high and bright, indifferent in the sky, oblivious to her plight, seemingly content in its position high above her. She sneered at it and turned to her left.
The small area inside the front door, the square of tiles, the mirror on the right, coat hooks on the left at the foot of the stairs, was what they called ‘the hallway.’ A grand title it did not match up to. She walked hesitatingly towards it, careful to keep her arms at her sides in case of grabbing hands reaching through the banister bars. She passed the door of the front room on her way, always shut, always unwelcoming, a room she rarely stepped into and never alone. That room did not want her in there, she knew that absolutely. No matter to her; it was not a room she wanted to be in. If it left her alone she was more than willing to return the favour.
There was a knock as she passed; a slight tapping sound that came from behind it, gentle, almost imperceptible but enough to make her freeze, statue-like, in dread of more to come. It felt like an age before she could will her legs to move again, her heart as overworked as her imagination as she passed beyond it and drew level with the mirror.
The mirror confused her. In daylight, surrounded by her family, it appeared friendly; a frame to all the good things in her life. Yet at night, alone, it took on another persona, as if something hid just out of sight beneath the age mottled glass; something ugly and spiteful that pretended to smile when the sun shone; a smile that turned to a black-toothed, gaping grimace when night fell, telling her that she was the only one who knew its true character. It seemed to dare her, sure that she would never give voice to her suspicions and give its existence away to any other living soul. It was right; for reasons Susannah could never have explained, she would never breathe a word of it to anyone. This was her terror, her fear, her own private despair; this could never be shared.
She kept her eyes firmly on the ground as she passed the mirror by, determined not to look into it, sensing its disappointment. The stairs lay before her, carpeted in dark brown, little brass arms either side of each stair holding the carpet in place. As a small child those arms had fascinated her. She had spent many content moments flipping the ones on the lower stairs up and then down, up and then down, absorbing the strangely familiar aroma of old carpet, dust, floorboards and a slight tinge of polish as she did so, whilst her mother busied herself in the kitchen which always seemed so full of steam, life and above all, light.
Light. The stairs were dark and looming. There were two light switches set into the wall, one for the hallway light, a bare bulb that hung, defeated, somewhere above and to the left of her head, the other for the light that was poised more assertively over the landing, serving as a light source for the stairs too.
This was the point at which she was most likely to give in to her fear. Although she knew flicking the switch could bring her light, it could also bring with it a battle she was not often equal to. There was a companion switch at the top of the stairs which operated the same light. Many times, Susannah had switched it on at one end, only to have it switched impossibly off at the other, when there was no-one there to flick the switch. It was an action which reduced her to tears, sending her to her knees, sobbing, gasping for breath when alone, or else screaming, screaming, screaming for help to her bewildered family, who had long since ceased to come running and instead came wearily, more often than not scolding her for jumpiness and sending her to bed; could she not see the light was on, silly hysterical girl?
It was a fight no-one else witnessed and therefore no-one else ever believed in. But she knew it was real and she dreaded it.
There was no way she would even contemplate breaching the stairs in the dark, so she had no choice. Her hand shaking violently, she reached up and turned it on.
The response above was bright and immediate. The stairs were swept with light, welcoming and encouraging. It was a clever ploy to tempt her upwards, but Susannah knew better. Keeping her hand on the switch, she mounted the first step; then the second; then the third, the stretch to the switch becoming more difficult, her fingers barely reaching the edge of the square plastic it was embedded in. She knew the next step up would render it totally out of reach, but there was nothing for it; she had to keep going.
Step four swept her unwilling fingers beyond the reach of the light switch as she had known it would, her fingers brushing over the ancient flock wallpaper with a gentle rustling sound. She stood still and tense; nothing happened. The light stayed on, she remained bathed in safety. Warily she took the next stair, knowing there were seven more to the top. Growing in confidence she took the next two stairs more quickly, then the next, then the next.
She was two stairs away from the landing, horribly out of reach of both sets of switches, when the light flicked noisily off. She was plunged into darkness, sudden and unwelcome, heavier and colder than before and full of capable menace. Unable to see much past her own hand, Susannah anyway shut her eyes against the hulking, shapeless forms she knew would begin to shift and form, jerking and leering towards her as she stood trapped upon the stairs.
This was her one small defence; it was all she had and all she knew to do. Screwing her eyes so tightly shut that small stars erupted and burst behind the lids, she felt her way to the top stair, feeling the smooth gloss paint that topped the banister, the harsh plastic grating of the lid of the wash basket and then, terrifyingly, nothing but cold air that represented the gap between her and her bedroom door; salvation, of a kind.
The deceitful light switches were in the wall next to her door frame, but she no longer trusted them. Worse, she dreaded contact with the invisible hand that had switched them off. What if was still there, crouched and waiting to act again? She never even considered attempting to turn them back on. Her only focus now was her bedroom door; she had just enough energy to get her that far, as long as she remained unmolested on her way.
Stifling a whimper that clogged in her throat, Susannah took the leap. Her already heightened imagination burst into unhelpful life, showing her images of skeletal faces, dripping frames, gorged flesh all reaching out to her as if hungry or desperate; craven images that weren’t reaching, but ripping. Not yearning, but grasping, tearing, sharp-edged and eager at her in the blackness.
She reached her door untouched and fell against it, shoving it open with her hip and slamming it behind her, leaning against it to add her flimsy weight to her defence.
A soft laugh floated on the air behind the closed door; evaporating into nothing, leaving her wondering if she had really heard it at all.
She reached expertly up and flicked on her own light with practiced ease, her eyes still firmly closed. It was only when she heard its reassuring click that she finally opened her eyes, blinking back tears and allowing her vision to readjust.
She went to her bedside and switched on her lamp, eager for more brightness to fight back the evil darkness. She opened her curtains wide, praying the moon would finally see her distress and join in with its bright beams, searching out and illuminating the deepest pockets of night.
Then she hid herself beneath her bedclothes, wrapping them tightly around her, forcing her breathing to slow, her mind to stop racing; wishing fervently that her parents would hurry home.
At last, exhausted and wrung out with the exertions of survival, Susannah slept. Her last thought as she gratefully succumbed to oblivion was that she had better get as much rest as she could.
For she knew those horrors, those manifest, subtle hauntings, were not gone. Perhaps they slept too, gathering their strength just as Susannah did; until tomorrow night, when they would once again try to paralyse her with fear and have their way with her, whatever that might be.
In her sleep, Susannah muttered something guttural and strange. She tossed and turned, her features twisted in fear yet somehow defiant; she would not give in.
Downstairs, in the living room, there came a sound like a leathery groan. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but for an instant it looked for all the world like the padded, cushioned back of the old green armchair had two broad eyebrows, pulled into an expression something like a frown…
S P Oldham
I entered an Ekphrastic Fiction Contest on tumblr, the challenge being to write a piece to accompany this wonderful piece of art by Ignosipitus - Ignosipitus on tumblr - and am thrilled to say that I won! Thank you to tcstu - tcstu on tumblr -for running the competition and to Ignosipitus for the inspiring picture!
Both the picture and my accompanying piece are below. I hope you enjoy them x
Ramasbat and the Beast
As he made his slow ascension from the depths of hell, Ramasbat saw that the flames grew smaller, their reach lessened. The stairs that lead the way were visible now; molten squares of smouldering rock, lava glowing crimson beneath a blackened crust. This crust moved, grinding softly at each cloven hoof placed, but Ramasbat never worried it would melt away, that he and his mount would fall. He had fallen once, to land in fiery hands. He could never fall again.
He paused upon one such step, looking up at a different kind of fire; one that glowed roundly in a pale sky. Grinning, his forked tongue flickering, he tasted the ashen-air, the first odours of the world above reaching him. His grin widened; they would never believe their stench was so great that it could reach him here. Arrogance, self-righteousness, superiority; their countless sins amused him.
He spurred his beast on. Eagerly, it obeyed, as keen to climb the stairs and step over the lip as Ramasbat himself. They went on, even as a well of molten lava bubbled and spat beneath them consuming the stairs they had just climbed.
They reached the top to find the last steps missing, offering nowhere for the beast to rest its hooves. They stepped out anyway, Ramasbat and his mount. The lava rose to meet them, buoying them up on a huge red crest that folded in on itself, curling down onto the mountainside almost gracefully, scorching the earth beneath it, rendering the pale sky black as it spat them out.
Ramasbat and the beast should have shrieked and withered, they should have melted and died when they were engulfed by that ruby wave. Yet Ramasbat gave a mighty roar, standing on the rearing beast’s back. He heard the people below cry Volcano! He saw the helpless mortals run, though they knew it to be pointless.
Ramasbat laughed, a sound like thunder. A second wave approached and Ramasbat jumped to it, riding it and every one that followed, laughing and jeering as he raced down the mountainside. A few men, too slow to escape, looked up and saw him approach. He saw the fear, the recognition, the understanding corrupt their flat, mundane features. He saw them burned to nothing as he rode them down. They would never speak of what they had seen.
Nor should they. Ramasbat was not to be announced. He would simply be where he had not been. He would appear where there had been no one. He would exist in hearts and minds yet not in human sight.
He was everywhere and nowhere. He was a myth and a reality, a tale and a truth.
And he was in the world, at last.
Another piece I had forgotten all about, but was unwittingly reminded of when someone on Facebook made a post about a fairy tale by Sheridan Le Fanu.
This one was intended to be a competition entry, the criteria being that it had to be a dark fairy tale more suited to adults than children, and within a certain word count. However, when I sent it off it turned out that the competition had been cancelled but the call for submissions online had not been deleted, which is why I have never done anything with it since!
Anyway, although I have altered the original word count very slightly, it is still more or less as it was first written. Enjoy and as always, thoughts and opinions are very welcome.
The Feathered Nest
Once upon a time there lived a bird. A giant beast, a sight to behold; brilliant of plumage, magnificent of grace. She was known as Silent Wing.
Silent Wing lived in the ancient woods at the foot of Glass Mountain. She would glide high above it, noiseless as a cloud, bright as the sun, the mountain mutely reflecting her as she passed over. The trees of the ancient wood grew tall and straight, their trunks smooth and pale and it was at the top of the tallest of these trees that Silent Wing had her nest.
Men working in the woods, women and children gathering nuts and berries, would sometimes find huge white feathers, as glossy as oil. They would carry them home, believing them to be lucky, to keep them in a place of honour in their houses; above a mantel, before a mirror, to be marvelled at and cherished every day.
In return for the precious gifts Silent Wing bestowed upon the villagers, the people would scatter bread crumbs, entrails of fish and ears of corn on the ground below her tree, leaving her in peace to eat them at her leisure.
Silent Wing was often seen in flight above the mountain, easy to distinguish even from the village below. As accustomed to her presence as they were, the people never tired of the wondrous sight, believing it to be a good omen for the day ahead. And so Silent Wing and the people lived in quiet harmony for many years.
One hot summer day, a salesman wandered into the village. Dusty and dirty, tired and worn, he collapsed in a heap in the town square, bags and satchels piling untidily on top of him.
The good villagers rushed to help, Brewer and Blacksmith heaving him to his feet, sitting him on the stool Milliner had run to fetch from his shop.
When the man had drunk the water Goodwife Sloane gave him, he felt well enough to speak.
“Thank you all,” he rasped, his voice hoarse, “I have been walking for days, my water all gone, my way lost,”
“What makes you wander the world so?” Tanner asked.
“I am a travelling salesman. I go from place to place selling my wares, making life easier and more pleasant for folk such as you,”
“Making yourself a fortune, more like,” Spinster said, but the crowd silenced her.
“I make enough,” Salesman said, “I mean only to help.” He looked around, to see that, kind folk that they were, the people believed him. They gave him a room and food and water aplenty, asking nothing in return.
Except for young Elise. The most beautiful girl in the village, set to marry Councillor’s son, she eyed Salesman’s bags greedily.
“Do you have something pretty for a veil?” Elise enquired.
“A simple ring of flowers is all a beauty such as you would need,” Salesman flattered her.
Elise blushed prettily, “It is not enough. I wish to cut such a vision of loveliness that every man who lays eyes on me will forever have the image etched upon his mind! I wish to look as vivid and as bright as, as…” Elise wracked her brains for a suitable comparison, “as Silent Wing herself!”
Salesman sat up a little straighter, “Silent Wing?”
“Have you not heard of her?” Elise breathed, “She is a magical bird who lives in our woods and glides over the Glass Mountain. Her feathers are a purer, more brilliant shade of white than you ever saw! Sometimes folk find feathers she has shed. My father has one above his bed; come and see!”
She took the unresisting Salesman by his hand and brought him to her house, showing him the feather. Even encased behind a glass frame, Salesman was struck by the depth of its whiteness and its mystic aura.
“Such feathers would make a wonderful headdress,” he mused
Elise’s eyes widened, “They would! But we should never find enough; if we should find one at all.”
Salesman’s eyes narrowed, “What price would you be willing to pay for such a headdress?” He asked.
“Anything? Including your hand in marriage?”
Elise quite forgot her purpose in making a headdress. Enchanted by the idea that she might own not just one but many of Silent Wing’s feathers, her lust for fortune overcame her love and she said simply, “Yes”
Satisfied, Salesman left the house full of plans.
It was impossible to get lost on the way to the wood, lining the base of the mountain as it did. By the time Salesman reached its shade the day was cooling, though the sun still glared off Glass Mountain, into the valley below.
Salesman began to scour the woodland floor, searching in vain for a dropped feather. By the time darkness had begun to fall he was exhausted. He sank to the cool ground, resting his back against a giant tree.
He closed his eyes. Something light brushed against his cheek. He flicked at it, thinking it a moth or a spider web. Whatever it was, it hit the ground beside him and Salesman opened his eyes.
He could not believe it. One of Silent Wing’s feathers! Although he had never seen her, he recognised the plumage at once.
There came a rustling from above. Through the foliage of the tree, Salesman could make out the huge form of Silent Wing, settling into her nest.
“Send me some more, beauteous creature,” he implored, but Silent Wing did not respond.
All night long, Salesman crooned to her from the bottom of the tree, begging her to loosen a feather or two more. He tried tempting her with trinkets, hoping she was as seduced by shiny things as are magpies. He cooed to her like a dove, sang to her like a blackbird; to no avail.
As morning broke, Salesman had begun to show his true nature. He hurled stones at the nest; his aim poor, his throw weak. Frustrated, an idea began to take shape in his dark mind.
He filled his rucksack with the biggest stones he could find. Using two sharp knives as grips, he began to claw his way up a neighbouring tree.
Many times he thought he would plummet to his death, or scare Silent Wing away, but neither happened. Finally he reached the top of the tree and rested, panting, on a strong, wide bough.
Silent Wing was still some way above him, but he could see her clearly in her nest now. The bird’s graceful neck formed an S-shaped, her massive wings folded delicately around her. She was staring placidly ahead, her eyes opaque and glossy; sleeping.
Salesman saw his chance. He reached into his rucksack, took out the largest stone he could find, and took aim.
Forever after, the villagers wished that this was where the story ended. That Salesman lost his balance and fell, leaving Silent Wing unharmed. But it is not.
Salesman’s aim was strong and true. It struck Silent Wing hard, sending her plummeting to the ground, heavy and graceless, her magnificent wings never beating; dead before she landed.
Salesman hurried down the tree after her as if he were the one with wings. He was amazed at her size but it did not deter him from setting to work as fast as he could. Soon, his rucksack was empty of stones, feathers taking their place. Satisfied, he went back to the village, ready to receive the applause of the people and of Elise, his new bride to be.
They say the sun did not rise so high that day, nor did Glass Mountain shine as bright. Salesman strode into the village square, calling the people to come and behold a wondrous sight. Excitedly, they came pouring out, eager to see what the stranger had brought. Elise was first to arrive, a smug smile on her face.
The people formed a circle, Salesman at their centre. “Good people!” He declared, “I have been on an errand for the beautiful Elise, to procure for her the most stunning headdress ever to be made, in return for her hand in marriage”
The thrilled gasps of the crowd turned to shocked amazement at what the man had claimed. “Is this true?” demanded Councillor, his son disbelieving behind him.
“It is,” Elise said shamelessly, “but wait ‘til you see what he has brought!”
“What prize could possibly be worth more than our love?” Her erstwhile fiancée asked.
“This” shouted Salesman, shaking out the rucksack triumphantly.
Silence fell; a deep, weighty quietness, until Salesman finally stammered, “What is this? I do not understand…”
Before him, in a straggly, shabby, fraying heap, was a mountain of dull grey feathers. They lay like doused ashes, lifeless and lacking in brilliance.
“Are these Silent Wing’s feathers?” Spinster asked softly, “Did you think that in stealing her beauty you could make it your own?”
The people were horrified; they began searching the sky for Silent Wing. Men set off to the woods in search of her; even though in their hearts they all knew that Spinster was right. Silent Wing was dead.
“I will not keep my promise, since you have failed in yours!” Elise spat spitefully to Salesman.
At this Spinster fell to her knees, shovelling feathers and dust into the rucksack. She thrust the bag into Elise’s hands, pulling Salesman alongside her.
“Off with both of you; you are well matched!” She hissed, shoving them beyond the village gates, “May dry dust and ugly feathers be the only fortune you shall ever know!”
Those who heard her trembled, believing the curse of a spinster to be as effective as that of a witch.
And a so a beautiful young woman who had known only love but who wanted fortune, and a man who knew nothing of love but whose heart was filled only with lust, set off into the world, joined together forever by the terrible thing they had done.
And nobody lived happily ever after.
S P Oldham
A little freebie offering for Friday 13th. Not exactly based on true life events, but inspired by them...
To my shame (and as testament to my dreadful memory) I cannot remember the name of the anthology this short story was included in some years ago now. Nonetheless, I am confident it is okay to reproduce it here after all this time. I hope you enjoy it. As always, comments, opinions and thoughts always welcome, just drop me a line!
S P Oldham
Gina regretted volunteering to overhaul the choir’s music files the instant she laid eyes on the job ahead of her. She had been let in via the tradesman’s entrance at the rear of the building, shown to a flight of stairs past the main hall to the cellars below. The musty smell of the old building and its dimly lit corridors were off putting enough, but on being let into the cellar, Gina’s heart really sank.
A row of eight filing cabinets, all stuffed full of words and music, lined the wall to her left. Spread across the floor more boxes held music, some over-flowing, spilling their contents. Items of old furniture, broken chairs, ancient tables, clothes rails, even an old organ, were variously strewn with sheets of music and all kinds of litter that appeared long forgotten.
“We’ll just be upstairs in rehearsal. It’s much appreciated,” Peter, the elderly chorister who had escorted Gina down to the cellar, shakily handed over the cellar key, nodded his thanks and turned to climb the stairs. The strains of a piano playing and muffled voices became briefly clearer as the door was pushed open and Peter joined the choir.
Gina felt strangely distant down here in the cellar alone, as if the hall and its male voice choir were very far away. She fought back the irrational urge to follow Peter up the stairs and tell him she’d changed her mind, instead turning her attention to the task at hand.
She would itemise the contents of the boxes first, she decided. Laying them out alphabetically across the floor, she could get them in some sort of order before she even opened a filing cabinet. She began pushing some of the furniture out of the way, scraping chair legs noisily across the red tile floor, struggling with a table far heavier than it looked. Upstairs, the choir were singing Deus Salutis.
Something stirred in the far corner. Panting from exertion, Gina stood up straight and watched for further movement; nothing, merely shadows within shadows. It was much darker there she noted; the lights at that end of the room were not switched on.
Expecting a cat or worse, a rat, she crossed back to the open doorway. Four light switches were set into the wall; only two of them were on. She flicked them, expecting the room to flood with light. A single dim bulb seeped into life. Opposite, in the corner where Gina thought she had seen something move, it remained stubbornly dark.
Gina shivered; that corner was wholly uninviting. Perhaps it was just that it was the darkest spot in the room. Maybe her hair had fallen into her eyes and tricked her into thinking she had seen something. She shrugged it off, feeling faintly foolish and conscious of the need to make a start on the filing.
Cursing the fact that she had forgotten her notepad, she began casting about for scraps of paper to write on. She had found a marker pen sitting on top of a box. Now she needed to write the letters of the alphabet on separate sheets and lay them in order across the floor; a rudimentary filing system to begin with. .
She had made a good start, the floor covered with small, neat piles of music sheets, her hands grubby with the feel of old, untouched papers, when Peter reappeared at the door, “All okay?” he asked, scanning the room warily, “We’ve finished for tonight. See you Wednesday will we?”
“Oh, is that the time already? Yes, see you Wednesday,” Gina said, more brightly than she felt. Her gaze had been dragged back to that dark corner the whole time she was working. She glanced across at it now involuntarily, Peter’s eyes following hers.
“You’ve been busy,” He nodded at the rows of paper, all headed with assorted scraps individually marked A-Z, making three rows in all. Gina was suddenly alarmed.
“Do cleaners come down here?” she asked, afraid her painstaking work would be tidied away.
Peter gave her an odd look, “Nobody comes down here, just me,” he paused, “and now you.”
He held his hand out for the key. Glad to give it back, Gina grabbed her coat and bag and was at the top of the stairs and outside before Peter had a chance to lock the cellar door.
In the warmth and safety of her flat, Gina dismissed the whole incident as her over-active imagination. She had been on edge ever since she moved in a few weeks ago. It being near impossible to find a job hadn’t helped. That was why she had volunteered her services in the first place she reminded herself, when she had seen the choir’s rather old-fashioned advert for a ‘voluntary filing clerk’ in the local paper. It would give her something to focus on while she job hunted.
Yet the memory of that dark corner stayed with her, invading her dreams and turning them into near-nightmares, where everything came in shades of black and grey and all the shapes were nebulous, sinister; formless.
On Wednesday evening she decided to take a torch with her, to investigate the darkness, expose her fears as groundless and forget about it once and for all.
Peter handed her the key once again and wordlessly climbed the stairs. Immediately, Gina felt a tingling at her back. There was no one there; just that dark corner, heavy with threat, brooding and forbidding.
She half expected her work to be scattered wide but it lay just as she had left it. Heartened, she decided to investigate the corner first, put it behind her and get on with the job.
The torch felt hard and comfortingly real in her jacket pocket. She took it out and set it to full beam. It glowed strong and powerful. Encouraged, she picked her way carefully across the floor.
She saw now that when she had been pushing furniture out of the way she had formed a line; tables, chairs, clothes rail and organ standing in a row as if to delineate light and dark, or to hold something at bay. She chided herself for the thought; it was nothing more than a subconscious action, her tidy mind taking over, that’s all.
A navy blue jacket, the choir’s emblem on its left breast, hung from the clothes rail, along with some empty hangers and a tatty old suit cover. They rattled as she used the top bar as a hand hold and stepped through the body of the rail. She took a few steps, trailing the torchlight slowly over the rear wall and into the corner. The pulse in her throat quickened, her chest constricted. A cold sweat covered her back as the shadowy forms became more distinct.
A single picture frame hung lopsidedly from the wall. There was no plaster or paintwork here, just the original bare brick. A scrap of carpet lay under an old wooden chair and an ancient filing cabinet stood at an angle to the wall. Other than that, there was nothing. These items were much like everything else in the room, not at all out of place; there were certainly no disembodied figures or leering spectres lurking there.
Relieved, Gina nevertheless couldn’t wait to get away from there. Unwilling to turn her back, she clumsily found her way back to the clothes rail and the light beyond. She realised she was shaking, her breath coming in short, panicky rasps. She gave a weak laugh, more forced than real, and tried to calm down.
Her hands were cold and trembling as she began sorting the papers on the floor, her work doing nothing to warm or steady them. At last, Peter appeared at the doorway and told her it was time to leave. She couldn’t resist looking over at the corner one last time, but now a different movement caught her eye.
The navy jacket was swinging on the rail; not wildly like it had when she had knocked it in passing earlier, but regularly, uniformly; as if it was being steadily pushed by a hand on the other side. The hangers and the tatty suit cover hung still and unmoving beside it.
Gina’s blood ran cold. She turned to Peter to gauge if he had seen it too, but he wasn’t even looking that way. He was simply staring at her, his hand raised to take back the key.
She made up her mind not to go back on Monday as arranged. She would phone Peter and tell him she had other commitments. He wouldn’t argue; he knew as well as she did that there was something odd in that cellar. She had seen it in his eyes.
The dreams came again, more vivid than before. Now, from the grey-gloom of her nightmares the chair took on a weird life of its own, bulging and bending as if it might burst, tongues lolling from its wooden arms as if to lick her, hands growing from its frame to reach out and grasp her. The filing cabinet drawers seemed to scream as they opened, sending flakes of rust falling to the carpet below to pool, suddenly wet, like blood, at its feet; and all the time that picture frame swung madly from side to side, scraping the brickwork, the glass inside splintering into myriad spiteful pieces…
She had resolved not to go back there a hundred times or more, so Gina was surprised to find herself back that Monday evening as promised. Peter seemed even more so. He said nothing, but the way his eyebrows raised and his mouth formed a small oh at seeing her gave him away.
He unlocked the door, slipped the key into her hand and climbed the stairs, never speaking a word. Gina was grateful for that, sure that normal conversation was beyond her. Moments later there came the sound of masculine voices, the piano striking up a tune she did not recognise. Gina turned to look into the cellar.
Part of her had half expected the scraps of paper bearing the alphabet to have formed some message, like a giant Ouija board. She let out a sigh of relief to find that they were once again exactly as she had left them. Across the room, the jacket and its companions hung peaceably on the rail. She grasped the torch in her pocket tightly for reassurance, as if it had become some kind of talisman and stepped down into the room.
Things had been quiet; she had got a lot done. It took Gina a good while to even realise that something was amiss. She had been finding a disproportionate number of sheets for one song; Evermore. Curious as to why there were so many copies of this, she had nonetheless stacked them up and filed them into her rough system under ‘E’ accordingly, this pile now much higher and less stable than all the others. It was only when she stopped to straighten up and rub her aching back that she saw what was wrong.
Evermore was on top of every single pile of paper on the floor. It faced upwards from every stack; A, Evermore, B, Evermore, C, Evermore… not one single letter of the alphabet had been missed out; X, Evermore, Y, Evermore, Z Evermore.
This time her panic was instant; there was no voice of reason arguing in her head, nothing but a primitive urge telling her to get out, now. She turned on her heel and ran for the door, tripping over the handles of her bag in her haste. Cursing, she scrambled up, grabbed the bag and lunged for the door.
It slammed shut in her face.
Gina stopped dead in shocked confusion. What the hell was going on here? Was that Peter? Did he think this was funny?
A surge of anger flooded her veins. She hammered at the door, “Peter! Peter!This is not funny. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Her hands, slick with cold sweat, were sliding uselessly off the handle; it was locked. Gina’s stomach lurched, “Why would you lock it? I’ve got a key, remember?” Her voice was high with fear, “You gave me a key!” She fumbled about in her pockets, weak with relief when her hands brushed the cold metal of the key, “I’ve got a key!” she shouted again, hands shaking so badly she had to use both of them to guide it into the lock.
It wouldn’t turn. No matter how many times she tried it this way and that, it would not open. Frustrated, Gina banged her fists against the door, screaming for help, jolting the key out of the lock, sending it clattering to the floor.
He had given her the wrong key. All this time he must have planned this, slipping her a fake key to give her some false sense of safety. Yet all the time he planned to lock her down here for some hellish reason.
Gina knew she had to calm down. More than ever now she needed to be rational, to think clearly.
A gentle rustling behind her made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. A mere whisper of noise, it somehow filled the room, filling her with a dread far greater than any she had yet known. She huddled closer into the door, wishing she could somehow melt herself through it and out the other side. The rustling went on a moment longer, then stopped; the atmosphere expectant.
Dreading what she might see, she turned around. Her neatly ordered rows were still untouched; the song sheet Evermore still topped each pile, but now the header letters did indeed spell out a word. Across the centre of the middle row, in Gina’s own hand-writing, was the word STAY.
Gina gave a strangled sob, her breath suddenly visible on the air, spiralling upwards as a dank chill descended. The rustling began again and Gina watched, transfixed, as the letters rearranged themselves in front of her into a new word; GINA.
She moaned, low and guttural, heaving her body away from the door to search frantically for the key; if she could find it, just try it one more time in the lock…
The lights went out, the darkness so complete it seemed solid. There was no sound, not even a trace of movement. Gina froze. Then the grating, dry sound of something rasping across stone came to her through the darkness; a sound that made her sick with fear. She had heard that noise before, in her dreams. She couldn’t see it, yet she knew it was the picture frame, swinging to and fro on its hook, scraping the bare bricks of the wall.
She closed her eyes against the darkness, making herself as small as she could, covering her ears. The scraping grew wilder, faster, louder, followed at last by the shattering of glass as the frame flew violently free of the hook and crashed to the floor.
Gina cringed, expecting shards to be thrown in her direction, unseen hands to pull at her, but the room seemed to have fallen still once more. Sobbing, she fumbled for her torch, her fingers clumsy as she hurried to turn it on. Only when she heard the small click of its switch did she reopen her eyes.
Over in the corner, a single bulb flickered into life.
Her legs felt at once leaden and weak. Gina crawled heavily to the wall, used it for support to struggle to her feet and looked over. The bulb shone faintly above the chair and the filing cabinet. She reached back and tested the door handle one last time, knowing it was pointless, suddenly overcome with a feeling of inevitability.
It was that sense of fate that lured her on towards the corner. The bare bulb was swinging erratically, sending shadows to loom monstrously inwards upon the little scene and then veer away. Her feet crunched upon shattered glass and she looked down; the frame was snapped but whatever it had held was still in one piece against the wooden backboard.
She knelt down and shone her torchlight upon the paper. A face she recognised stared up at her from a photograph alongside an article in yellowing print. The title above it read: ‘”Killer Chorister” Dies.’
Gina picked it up; it was a Weekly Herald paper cutting, dated some years ago.‘Killer Chorister’ Peter Hesquith passed away in his prison cell yesterday afternoon after a brief illness. Hesquith, 87, was once a well known and much loved local character, who late in his choir career achieved some success when his hymn, ‘Evermore’ was published. It became something of a signature tune for the now defunct male voice choir to which he belonged. His arrest and eventual imprisonment, along with several fellow choristers, was a huge shock to the community. As a consequence the song lost popularity and is now rarely sung, largely due to the nature of its lyrics when held against the evidence of his crimes. Hesquith and fellow choir members Gregory Lacey, Raymond Chapman and Phillip Greer, were all convicted of charges including theft, fraud, abduction and murder. Hesquith, widely believed to be the ringleader, received a life sentence.
It was proved that the building in which the choir practised played a role in the abductions, if not the murders, of the quartet’s many victims. As a result the choir disbanded, in part as a mark of respect to the victims and their families, but also due to the widely held feeling that the building had become tainted by its misuse. It has since fallen into disrepair and is no longer in use.
Hesquith is the first of the four to pass away, being the oldest by some years. There were rumours at the time of their arrest of a pact between the men to reunite ‘on the other side’ leading some to speculate there may also have been an occult interest to their activities. One thing is certain; if we do ever find out more about the actions and thinking of these men, it will not be Hesquith who tells us now.’
Gina threw the paper aside and fell onto all fours, retching. How could Peter be the man in the photograph? How could the choir be defunct? They were the very reason she was here. She had heard them herself, singing above her head as she worked in the cellar below…
The chair creaked as if a sudden weight rested in it. Disbelieving, Gina wiped her mouth and looked up. Peter sat smartly upright in the chair; his eyes closed, a faint smile on his face, his feet tapping in time to a tune she could not hear.
The sound of the piano came, loud and clear. Feet shuffled on the floorboards above their heads, a throat was cleared in readiness to sing. Gina could hear them; she could hear them! She curled into a ball on the floor, mindless of the shattered glass pricking her skin, sobbing freely, helplessly.
Peter’s eyes flickered open. He did not even cast a glance at Gina, prostrate and defenceless at his feet. In harmony with the unseen choir, he began to sing;
We shall be together
Shall we be apart
We will endeavour
Joined heart to heart…’
The song came to an end. The light went out.
S. P. Oldham
I took this photo last week, liked it and made a vague sort of promise to possibly do something with it. This is the end result. A little ghost story to help get you into the festive spirit. I hope you enjoy.
The End of the Path
The snow lay deep and heavy underfoot. The storm had taken Isaac by surprise. There had been a few flakes and a definite chill as he set out, but the suddenness and ferocity of the subsequent snowfall had been totally unexpected.
He fought back an irrational thrill of fear. His house was a mere two streets away; no need for the rush of panic or the sense of isolation. Funny how the weather affected the senses, he mused, putting his uneasiness down to the sudden stillness of the park, the muted affect the snow had upon the way sound travelled and the apparent emptiness of the place. He was obviously the only one foolhardy enough to venture out.
He tried to recall if it had been in the forecast, but found he couldn’t remember. Obviously other folk had been better prepared or more well-informed, because as he turned onto what he judged to be his usual route, a pathway flanked on either side by trees and bushes of varying height and density, he saw that he was truly alone.
There was none of the usual flurry of birds; none of their busy chatter or shrill cries of warning. No rush of bushy squirrel tails as they flew up the trunks of trees and fled sure-footedly along boughs and branches in a rush to escape his approach. There was not even an assured, expectant little robin bouncing about around him in hopes of food.
Absolute stillness; even the wind had stopped its sighing moans. Isaac shivered, digging his hands deeper into his pockets. Frozen; that was the word that came to mind as he stood and surveyed the path ahead of him. Frozen, in more ways than one.
The snow was doing a great job of obscuring the landscape, eroding borders and kerbs as if deliberately trying to send him wayward. He blinked away some still-falling snowflakes and stopped for a moment, considering. Regardless of how close he was to home, it might not be such a bad idea to turn back.
No sooner had he made the decision to do so than there came a loud crack from behind him. He jumped, startled, turning to find that a large, thick bough had given way under the sudden weight of snow and snapped from its tree. It lay splayed across the path behind him, sharp branches reaching up as if asking him for assistance. The thought of negotiating it to get back onto the path the other side was not one he relished. He pushed aside a second thought that came hard on its heels – that it was only a moment ago he had passed by under that branch, that he could very well be pinned under it now – and released a shaky sigh. That was that then. He had no option but to go on.
As if to confirm he had made the right choice, a second bough, higher up and slightly larger than the first, also came crashing down, on the far side of the already fallen limb. It appeared for a moment that a flurry of snow was falling upwards as flakes bounced on impact, showering Isaac with icy droplets. Shaken, feeling all at once vulnerable beneath the canopy of surrounding trees, he turned and moved on, eager to be away from the place.
The snow began to ease as he trudged onwards, finally coming to a stop when he was still a good few yards from the end of the path. There was a familiar figure there; one he knew well and often discreetly gave a passing nod to, for his own amusement. The metal figure of a boy, one of the many statues that graced the park depicting the history of the place. They were life-size cut outs, in places their frames see through where details and decorations had been sculpted out of the metal.
Now, the child was thigh deep in snow and looking back at him with a shining, glossy stare. The presence of the statue did not offer its usual comfort and familiarity. Isaac stopped in his tracks at its apparent movement. His heart pounding, he knew he must be imagining things, yet for all the world he would have sworn the figure moved a fraction at his approach.
He chided himself. The most likely explanation was probably the real explanation. The fact was, he had probably caught some movement from beyond the statue – perhaps snow falling from a laden branch, or the weak sun that had made an appearance lighting it in an odd way – that had made it look like movement.
“Get a grip, Isaac!” he muttered, spurring himself onward.
Yet he found that as he walked, he could not take his eye off the figure of the boy. He dared not. He tried telling himself that he would laugh at this later, when he was safe at home, with the curtains pulled and the fire blazing. It was false; a hollow promise. He could not deny his instincts entirely, only suppress them.
He had almost reached the statue. He half-expected it to take a step towards him, or reach out a cold metallic hand. Nothing happened, and he laughed in relief and at himself for being so ridiculous.
It was only as he turned from the path, to begin the walk down the breast of the hill it gave onto, that he saw it.
In the deep snow, alongside his large, unmistakable footprints, there was second, much smaller set. A clear trail of footprints, that could only belong to a child…
S P Oldham