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Posts from — August 2011

Black Door, Part I: Softly Does It

In an effort to push myself beyond one-off pieces, I’ve decided to try writing a short serial, so welcome to part I of ‘Black Door’. It was supposed to be 3 parts in flash fiction, but it’s already escaped. This first part doesn’t even class as flash fiction (it’s 1237 words), and the serial is likely to be 5-7 parts.

As we’ll probably discover together, when it comes to planning fiction, I’m more of a reader than a writer: I love the surprises that come with reading, and detailed plotting tends to kill my fiction dead. Bit of a problem that, when I want to ‘go large’. So what follows is really a plotting experiment, where we all get to find out the details together (I’m laughing, but I’m crying). I have a rough structure, but nothing too restrictive.

So welcome to the writing equivalent of knife juggling…where the knives are paper and the worst dangers are presumably paper cuts, or confused readers. There’s no author, though – I’m reading along with you. St.

***

T

he last shreds of the weaving, unfurled from his body like a long sheet of cellophane pulled straight up into the sky. His right hand and arm were left upraised in rapture, his left sagging, caressing the air like a cello player’s crescendo, holding onto the old magic for one, long, lingering moment.

Colours he’s never seen before, things he’s never felt; and then dark trees rising up as a wall of whispers and cold gloom.

He moans.

Time slows. Needles fall. Sounds drag up to speed. Nature turns.

The sparkle gone: the whole of creation revealed as a finger drawn through a mundane pile of mud, as he steps into a new time and place.

The magic was all he could imagine and more, and his stomach lurches to bile even thinking about the feel of it, and Softly has never lost a meal.

But time is pressing. So he shakes his head till his lips slap, cracks one shoulder then the other, and turns a sharp eye to the trees and their long, tall slots.

He orientates and trots off.  

Nothing sees him coming, nothing sees him go. There is no tip-to-toe of Mr Softly, on account of his looking exactly like thin air.

Down the earthen banks, over dykes; tip-toeing through glades, with tattered leaves flapping.

After a while, a ripe, herbal odour begins to fill the greenhouse beneath the dappled canopy. It’s those little four-leaved helicopters, poking through endless mossy mounds; the sphagnum domed like foreheads of men marching in quicksand.

That smell could be sweet, Casaba melon on the turn.

Splutch, splutch.

Behind him, the mounds pop up beneath his footprints.

Foul water bathes his toes. Despite the lack of crumbling sewer brick, he may just be home.

Then he smells wood smoke; getting a gulp of it on the breeze.

Softly, softly, he begins to circle round, hands splayed.

Until he almost has his elbows off – there is a scuffle and one dismal, throttled bark.

He presses branches aside like vaudevillian drapes.

And now to the grandstanding murder of the day – an old man on a stoop porch. Middle of the brown woods, smells of paraffin. Gun on his knee, stoat heads on strings, wide eyed to the birds flying with hooted calls.

Chitter chatter, giving it away!

The old cuss growls something, holds up the rifle but doesn’t fire.

“That you Parley?” Old dog looking for his old dog. Sounded like “Far-ey”, way he said it: worried and hopeful, shot through with back-woods suspicion. But Softly had gotten the vicious thing with a loop of barbed wire, right next to the drop house: wolf hound, surprisingly strong, with gobbets of yellow teeth and coarse grey hair.

His hands still smell of dog; a kind of sweaty, livery, wet-blanket smell. Even got its fibrous muscle ridged up under his fingernails. Uncomfortable, that. Gloop feels like a warm glove. Licks it.

But he’s sweating all the same: gun’s pointed right at his heart, a foot away, though ‘Old Coop’ can’t see it.  Forget about guns, forget about ammunition.

Click.

And then again…

Old man gotten so addled with shadows, he’s forgotten to play the gun as loaded. You look through that one, narrow, window cut through weathered log ends – grains like graters, the glass swinging with webs and leaf crumb – and you can see his cartridges sitting on a pail of broken shingles.

Old fraud ain’t so much, after all that.

Whip-crack smash. Boots off and blood.

Breeze stirring the leaves.

A tooth tick, tack, tickity, tack, glistening like a ruby.

Got me the gun, oh my. A rifle – heavy, awkward. Bolt action, oiled, smooth stock.

Impressive.

Need anything else?

The old man’s head? Go guddle for it under the porch?

Pfft, spent enough time crawling around in dark spaces – another reason to get on changing up.

Besides, blood on the smooth stock for evidentiating. Clutcher got a nose don’t it? Gods knows Softly can smell the old hunter on there; him and his foul-mouthed doggit.

But now, the awkward carry. Gotta get a gun up a hill, middle of the lonesome forest, and without one intention of touching it with naked, glassy flesh. Bullets bad, but momentary; barrel-iron, a long and insufferable boil with bleach in…

There is a weathered creak.

The door on the old stoop, lolls. Latch settles.

Softly, pushes inside like a bear in a supermarket. Even hums his own muzack.

Smells of socks, and cabin smoke. Gun oil and garlic.

It’s Softly who sets up that tankling of tin cups, enjoying their wide mouthed ping pang as they bounce around on the floor; and then has to restrain an impulse to pounce, but he still grins at the jerking wing-wounded motion.

Wades ankle deep through the rag rug, like an all-coloured anemone.

A subtle push, as if launching a little ship, and a picture frame flips backwards down the back of  a bow-legged dresser, glass splashing and sliding to a stop on the floor. Loved that sound. Picture of man and dog slides out from under, like a Polaroid of remembrance.

Then he finds a fresh shirt by the old man’s washing pot; caught him on the shave, cut-throat razor open like a musical note. Still got a battleship of shaving foam on the water, bristling with a scrape of tiny, tree-like whiskers.

Impulsively, he runs the tip of his tongue along the blade, the metal burning like frying oil, seeking an intimate flavour of the man. Makes a face – lemon and chemicals! Curses. Spits.

Takes the shirt, then out by the door hanging with more locks than god has in creation – little uns, big uns, plain old bank-vault monsters – when all the old man had around them was shack wood.

On the stoop he wraps the gun, and decides – on second thoughts – to take a finger, Clutcher being Clutcher – yank to dislocate, and bite off at the knuckle. That’s how it goes, with a little, savoury pop.

By all accounts, Old Man and Clutcher have been at war for years. Years and years. But the old man was too cunning, and the big ole brute too lumbering and slow. And for a big thing dripping with bad attitude, Clutcher sure doesn’t like dogs and guns. A feardy horror, is what it is. Not that Softly would say that within snapping distance of its complex jaws. But either way, it’s sure going to be glad to meet its best, new friend, if it doesn’t just disembowel him where he stands.

But time, oh my, time is an issue. There’s already a faint frisson of inelasticity – like the world wants to pop back. And by the flayed gods of fiendish horror, that can’t be for hours yet, lest his plans spoil at the seams, though a full night may be wishful thinking.

He drops his watch on the old oak boards and inspects the dull face through its swaddling of Sellotape; tape that’s gone brown and greasy. Digits flicker likes flies alive in amber.

Hu. That’ll be late afternoon, then: oh-six-oh-five. 

The tape creaks as he slips the watch back on his wrist as a bracelet that has entirely vanished.

Adam’s watch, curse him. But don’t curse him too soon, because he has two more weavings to bestow, or not. Better than wishes, better than anything. Softly, softly, that’s the trick. And the other trick, will be getting close enough to the Clutcher without it ripping his head off.

August 27, 2011   17 Comments

Ilia’s Frozen Fingers

I

lia wears his mother’s old skates. The leather is a fly-picked brown, one step away from rotting cowhide, and the blades leave a streak of red rust behind him, as he throws one arm ahead and then the other; face grim, cold air chapping at his hands and face.

Ilia No-smile. Ilia the Monster Hunter. Ilia the Liar. After all, he’s not going to college as he promised his father just ten minutes ago. That tall tale should have struck like a hook in his mouth, hurried as it was through a mouthful of blini, soured cream scooped in. But as any Hunter will tell you, it is as exhilarating to lie as it is to fly like the wind. Behind him, the spotty trail of rust cuts through the perfect complexion of the ice as a long bloodied arc, pointing to his arrival with a simple slice, slice, slice of metal.

The ice is a whetstone, while the blades prepare.

Where the ice gets thinner, and the willows grow through – the flexible branches caught in the frozen falls wearing whorls within whorls – there is a thrusting outcrop of quarried stone, pushing up like the prow of a black ship’s shadow – a hulk socketed with empty windows. The edges of these ruins are hard where the snow is soft.

This is the leavings of the old Krasotka iron mill.

The weirs at its foot are motionless, hung with needle spears, where the winds huff one long, lonely wolf-howl of stone-dry cold. These are the mill-races built to channel old industry, driving wheels and hammers, pounding out blades; where once horses, hands to the shoulder, had pressed stone, turning molten wine into war. Then water drove the wheel. Then nothing. Northern tribes no more. The forges cold. The ruin a place of teenage indiscretion and tall tales.

Ilia’s nose is running. Soon it’ll be as red as the fairytale fruit on the shelves of Lenta. He huffs out a clouded breath into his hands, lest the rest of his flesh ripens too soon. That weir has teeth and the blades of it hang high above him, the frozen foam below like spittle in a mad dog’s maw.

But now, skit-skating the churned ice, Ilia makes it to a blocky, broken section of the weir; sandstone flaking away beneath pillow-white. His blades clatter and his ankles jolt. Then, suddenly, floating on glass…

To his side, the founds and colossi of the mill have collapsed one-into-the-other, interrupting the abandoned industrial process. Water has been diverted. The fallen stones have created a frame around black depth: an obsidian pool, dusted at its edges with pearly white snow, like polystyrene baubles hacked free with a bread knife.

The surface of the pool is as flat as a razor blade.

Ilia wobbles, holds out his hands, and walks the skates in a v – feet planted like a goose – until he can see down into this great glass window; in fact, is standing right in its centre. He suffers a jolt of vertigo. He’s suspended on nothing, looming over an abyss of dark shadow, water frozen where it crept in the lee of the towering falls. Every detail is present and correct, clear as crystal.

Black ice doesn’t grow like this. It’s thin – a child of snap-cold and melt-water annealed in temperatures dropping like steel nails. This darkness has grown from within the icy heart of the water itself, freezing not moonlight, but moondark – perhaps – and something else, a figure that seems to fly beneath his feet. This is something that crept through the darkest of water, at the darkest of night, while the moon shook in her clouded skirts and looked away. Now it’s a fly in amber – an albino, caveless ‘she’ – caught throttling a finger-slipping trout. The fish blood is a smear of red-blown glass, the flesh and bone of its half-snapped remains as glistening and dead as a paperweight. Discarded scales sparkle like thrown silver coins.  One push of pressure bulges the ice.

He quietens now, looks around – nothing but skinny, Siberian pines on the far banks, nothing but clinging snow, and the distant town chimneys, piling out soft trails of white smoke, like muslin unfurling into the sky. Certainly no one around this early morning, near a tumbled down, iron mill.

The sun is still a golden spear, its halleluiah glittering on the icy black beneath him, heaven’s door still thrown wide while angels sing the dawn in.

There is no better time.

This primitive place is in need of excavation.

In his pack, is the simplest and most elegant of man’s tools: the first tool – a stone, fist sized, heart shaped, sharp pointed. He scrabbles it out, stripy woollen mitts finding it hard to grip. No stone here free of the ice that binds it. He brought his own.

Doesn’t put it down, not yet; he’s somewhat awed by that perfect mirror opening down. If it is to be a blow, let it be intended, not dropped as a peck of a fish, or a dull thump of a log-end.

Kneeling now, a hand waved where the white flows have drifted. He can see her face, entombed. For a moment there is a disconcerting symmetry. These are green fingers reaching up to him through the slowing moment, knuckles breaking, nails scything, her head throwing back in the fading snarl of dawning awareness. This is her hair billowing out, grey and web-like, flowing up and around her, enslaved by her twisting motion, and these are her shoulders, blades, and bone, dappled with translucent flesh; bubbles, creeping like silver pearls; tongue slick within thin lips, corpse blue, while a mouth full of carved, yellow pencils, snarls a secret wish.

Deep within the ice, she’s caught above blackness, half in the day, half out; caught in the weir as the temperatures faded, leaving her high and held.

And one thing more: her gut is bulging with Alena, Nataliya, Dobrashin, and Nikolai. Others.

Ilia gave a dismissive sniff, raising both his hands.

Don’t you dare, says that wicked eye, pressed into its cup of ice. Pressing, pressing. Don’t you dare, or I’ll pluck out your still steaming heart. I am the ice-water in your veins!

But the only heart he’ll give is the stone heart, and he brings it down on the ice with a resounding crack. The jolt fractures through the wool of his hands, and in return, the ice shows one white crater the size of a silvery, rouble.

This is the beginning. Let her be exhumed. Let her see what they made here, before, when the wheels ground round and the fiery charcoal leapt. His collection of wicked knives awaits, handles wrapped in blessed linen stolen from the church confessional.

August 20, 2011   15 Comments

My Dream Horse

T

racy wanted a horse. A big one – a gianty-gianty one – not one of those stupid little Thelwell ponies that made your legs stick out to the sides. So when this one turned up in the middle of the night, she kept it.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll look after you.”

In the morning, she tried to feed it crispies.

“More crispies, Mom! More crispies!”

Right next to her, as close as Tracy could arrange it, was a seat scraped clear of dollies, and a huge mixing bowl on the countertop. The bowl had plenty of nose room. Inside was a mound of Rice Crispies – so many, you couldn’t even add one more crispy without other crispies sliding off the sides and lots and lots of sugar (just the way Tracy liked it) but the horse refused to even dip in a nostril.

The sound of snap, crackle and pop was deafening.

Mom, who’d been fixing the washing machine, was brought up short in the doorway, wiping her hands. “Look at all this mess!”

Three family-sized cereal boxes lay like plucked, blue chickens; torn flaps of cardboard hanging from every side.

“Sooooooorry mum!”

Out in the hallway, there was an impatient thump of hooves.

“Can I go? Can I go? Can I go, go, go?” said Tracy, already sliding down her chair.

Mom sighed, and flicked crisped rice from her daughter’s hair. “Hmmm, I guess you’re excused… before you get executed…”

“Yay!”

Wellies on, horse aligned to the outside door.

“Wanna go out?”

Thumph, thumph.

“Okay, boy.”

Tracy had only just gotten a hand to the handle, as the horse sauntered past. She hadn’t even opened the door.

That was rather… impressive.

Outside, she hovered around in the rain waiting for the horse to do its business. It did so right in the middle of the lawn – one for Dad that one (after all, he’s the one out with the hair-scissors for each-and-every weed…).

Tracy eyed the horse. It was having an experimental chew on a garden gnome.

Now that she had a pet, she’d have to look up a book to find out what it ate. Not grass anyway – her fingers flat or curled – though some sharp-looking teeth had clacked once next to her knuckles. That was rather startling, and she had dropped the succulent strands she’d been offering straight down her wellies.

“Silly billy!”

Then they went back inside to watch telly.

The horse seemed unable to use the remote control, so they spent their time posting toast and coins into the old VCR. Or, at least, the horse stood in the sofa and Tracy asked it what they should post next. They even did stamps out of toilet paper and played Post Offices and everything.

“You’re the bestest horse, for ever and ever!”

The horse whickered and pawed a coffee table. Its stomach grumbled – a sound like a black dog growling.

Tracy frowned and felt like a Mom. “Horsy hungry!”

So they played ‘horsy restaurants’ for the next couple of hours – alphabet bricks, plastic fruit, and even a pillow stood in for horsey nom-noms.

“Who’s for lunch at McDonalds?” said Dad.

“Hooray!”

They were a bit late – mostly because Blackie couldn’t fit in the car, and Tracy had the ‘screaming ab-dabs’ (whatever they are) all the way there, but happily discovered the horse waiting.

“Look, look, look, it’s Blackie! It’s Blackie!”

“Let your father park, Sweatpea. Head down,” said Mom.

“What do they do for horses?” said Tracy with a frown, once they were inside. There was a huuuuuuge, long sign of everything McDonalds did, but not one picture of a horse eating a burger.

“Oh, I don’t know, a McHay or a McStable?” Said Dad with a chuckle.

“More likely to serve horse,” grunted the man ahead of them in the queue.

Tracy did not think that was funny and gave him a withering look.

Was there a Happy Horse Meal? A ‘horse box and fries’? Did they do horse toys? Or simply add a useful grooming product?

Explaining McDonald’s to the horse had barely raised an acquiescing snort. They waited and waited and finally got served.

At which point there had been more ‘ab-dabs’. But it didn’t kinda’ work.

“No way I’m paying these prices for a maxed-up super-meal for a horse!” said Dad.

Now they were sitting on plastic chairs at a plastic table – there were empty wrappers and boxes and extra large Sprites and straws and salt everywhere. Tracy sulked and zoomed a plastic egg around on a tiny plastic bike. There were in fact, no horse-friendly products on the menu. Apparently.

What a gloomy day.

“Arse,” said Dad, looking at his watch. Mum raised an eyebrow in Tracy’s general direction. “Uh, I mean, ah… ooops… we need to feed the meter. Don’t want the ‘Yellow Peril’ towing the car.” He pecked Mom on the cheek, and went down the stairs, two at a time, trailing a sleeve of his jacket.

The rest of them sat for awhile watching the rain run down the windows.  Blackie was looking doleful, if that’s possible for a horse.

“Blackie’s awfully hungry!”

Then mum stuck both hands on the table and said, a little too loudly, “Well, I’m off to the loo. Need?”

“No, Mum. I’m staying with Blackie.”

For a moment, Mum, looked like she’d disagree. But the place was crowded and a girl with a red top had just started slopping a mop next to the table. “‘Kay. I’ll be right back. You and… ah, Blackie, be good, Sweetpea. I’ll only be a moment. ‘Kay?”

Blackie and Tracy watched Mom go, Blackie standing half in the table and half out. Shreds of ghost fire licked around the edges of his bony maw, and his eyes were as red as blood.

A little spot of drool plipped and sizzled on the Formica.

Those teeth were as long and sharp as a dog’s, and for the very first time Tracy began to wonder if Nightmares liked to eat little girls…

August 9, 2011   16 Comments