There are ghosts in the snow, slipping silently between the darkening columns of the trees as night draws in. The hiss and whisper of the pines masks the sound of their coming; the icy wind blurs their edges. When the old woman ventures out on grey winter days to collect wood for the fire, she stays within sight of the cottage. And as the half-light fades stealthily, quietly, ushering the twilight in around her, she hurries back, looking only ahead, and kicking out with her heels to disguise the traces she leaves behind. Heavy curtains hide most of the light from her windows, but still the house draws them in like moths to a flame. Travellers don’t come this way through the woods – not those you’d open a door to – so the old woman keeps her curtains closed tight, no matter what she hears. There are ghosts out there in the snow, ghosts that slip silently between the trees, and it doesn’t do to invite them in.
It’s Banned Books Week this week (21st – 27th September), and that can only mean one thing: it’s time to pick up and devour some powerful literature!
Buzzfeed have helpfully shared a list of 33 banned books, including some of my favourites such as the amazing Beloved, by Toni Morrison, the profoundly disturbing The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood and the terrifying Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
So yes, whatever you do this week, do NOT click on this list of banned books, and make sure you don’t read any of the books that may or may not be on it ;)
Oh, and if you’d like a list of even more banned books that you definitely shouldn’t even peep at, there’s one right here. No clicking, please!
From My Body, Flowers Shall Grow, one of the winners of 1000 Words‘s latest flash fiction competition, is now live. Hope you enjoy!
From My Body, Flowers Shall Grow
It is 4.23pm on a Sunday and she lies beneath three elm trees, waiting to be found. A beetle with an iridescent shell scales a stalk of grass next to her ear. By now, police departments across the county have her name and her last-known location. But for her, this is the end, not the beginning of the story.
At 5.47pm, a blue Volvo will pass within 20 feet of her at an illegal but efficient 56 miles per hour. The driver, a rangy middle-aged man by the name of Eric, will switch radio stations as the familiar jingle announces the afternoon’s news. He will barely recall driving down this road by the time she is found.
At 8.32pm, the sun will set. It will be 12 hours and 14 minutes until police find her here, naked and bruised in the long grass. Her long hair and white skin keep her in the media, her parents’ tears playing over and over on the news. It will take another 17 days until the man who left her here is caught.
For her, there is only peace. For those left behind, this is the beginning, not the end, of the story.
Very pleased to say that I’ve been chosen as one of the five winners of 1000 Words’ recent flash fiction competition :) The challenge was to write a story of 200 words or less, inspired by the photo above. I managed to resist until half an hour before the competition closed, but got sucked in at the last moment ;)
Sharing the pleasure with some truly excellent writers, both on the winner list and the runner-up list – Shirley Golden, David Hartley and other writers I’m looking forward to discovering. Make sure you head over to read their work!
My story, From My Body, Flowers Shall Grow, is set to be published on Friday, so I’ll share it on here then :)
Meanwhile, thanks to 1000 Words eds Natalie and Heather for reading and enjoying my piece.
I took my inspiration for this piece from a photo writing prompt on 1000 Words’ Pinterest board.
We build statues out of snow, and weep to see them melt.
Can I tell you how it was? The earth like a saucer under that wide, grey-gold sky, the sun never rising more than a stretched hand above the horizon. Something swept over the ice that summer – over us – leaving behind it a mark that would never wash away.
I don’t know what brought us up here. I was too young to remember anything from before, and it was understood that you didn’t ask. There were only three of us: Mother with her careful grey eyes, me and Johannes. Our little house, with its tin roof and slanted walls, stood in the middle of the icy flats that, even now, seem to stretch on forever. Once a month, there was Wilhelm, who came with groceries and admiring eyes, and took some of the money mother kept in a tin box behind the hearth.
In winter, Mother warned us to stay close, and so we did – tethered by some invisible cord that we knew not to stretch. Summer days brought more freedom: Johannes and I would creak out on to the porch that ran around the house, spreading our fingers in front of our faces, peering through their shadows to see how much time was left before dark. Johannes couldn’t keep his fingers the same distance apart, and generally left them tucked in his mittens, but I got to be quite good at it. More than three fingers of sun meant several hours free of the warm, wood-smoke dark.
Those precious days, I’d stride away from the house toward the horizon, the safe, resented gravity of home tugging at my back. When we were younger, I let Johannes tag along with me but, as I grew, I shook him off. Wounded but uncomplaining, he stayed by the porch, watched by empty windows as he scraped snow into cluster of short, fleeting friends – a stalk of grass for a mouth, sticks for the arms and holes gouged by pointed fingers for their eyes. Mother unleashed cold fury on him once for pilfering some beans from the pot, so he stuck to what he could find on the ground after that.
That summer was a fractious one, and tempers flared like sun on ice. Mother spent more time than ever folded into the dusty corners of the house while I, fevered with my teenage years, loved and hated everything with all passion and no reason. Johannes padded quietly between the pair of us, bewildered by the looks and long silences, wide-eyed and needy in his worry. His fingers, when not tucked in their woollen mittens, found their way frequently to his mouth.
I ask myself now whether we really had three fingers of sun left that day. Memory is a fickle thing: sometimes I see my fingers spread wide, fat wedges of pale gold light between them. But sometimes, when I wake in the dark quiet, I see only slashes of vivid red between fingers that were barely apart.
I walked away from him that day, away from the house, as I’d done so many times before. I left him there in the sparse, sharp grass, and I walked out toward the darkening horizon, wishing with everything in me that I could run to meet it, and half convinced I was going to try. I turned only once, and the last view I had of the house was of the windows reflecting the flat, endless plains like a mirror, and of Johannnes, stout in his blue coat, scraping together another friend.
* * *
There is nowhere Johannes could have gone. I don’t tell you that in exasperation, or to prove some kind of point; it’s simply the truth. The land out here is as flat as gets – there are no cracks or crevices he could fall into, no hidden rivers under the ice. No visitors came and went, and there were no tyre marks or foot prints, as though anyone could approach without us knowing, anyway.
In those endless days of afterwards, nobody came about Johannes. There was no one to come, and it was for the best. What could we have told them?
Mother retreated further into herself, knowing as well as I did that there was nowhere he could have gone. In the winter that followed, I caught her watching me sometimes, pale eyes glinting in the lamp light. She never said it, and neither did I. When the cancer took her two years later, she went quietly and I sat downstairs by the fire as her breathing rattled then failed. Wilhelm took her away when he came two weeks later, and that was that.
* * *
Now, when I stand on that rickety porch, I move outside myself somehow. I see Johannes and me, dark brush strokes on a canvas that would’ve been better without such bold marks made on it. We stretch down and away, shadows against the lilac snow, staring out to where we’ll never go, where the frozen Earth touches sky. I’m in front of him, longer, thinner than he is; his bundled shape pauses in the short grass, wondering whether to follow or let me go.
And when I lie in bed at night, feeling the weight of the heavens pressing down on the roof, I know that this life, this world, is just too big to hide anything forever. I wait for the crunch of footsteps on the icy snow – for another dark stroke to be made on this pale canvas. Maybe the snow isn’t as white as it looks. Who knows? I’m just telling you how it was. How it is.
If you’re not already familiar with 1000 Words, there’s no time like the present: the site is home to some absolutely gorgeous flash fiction, all under 1,000 words in length.
Stories submitted to the site are based on photo prompts from 1000 Words’s Pinterest boards, which adds an interesting twist.
I thought I’d share three of the latest pieces on the site, simply because they’re so beautiful. So, without further ado:
Between the trees there creeps a rain-slicked path, mossy and tarred with the mulch of leaves that have fallen and been trodden underfoot, not by men but by whatever else may pass this way. The tang of decay rises with each step, vibrant and coarse in the frigid air.
To the east, a small stone cottage hunkers low beyond the roll and dip of the forest floor. Almost hidden by the misting rain, its dark windows stare blindly out, while what sits behind them is not blind at all. A breath of smoke rises silently from the chimney, hanging in the still air. Stiff-jawed and cold-eyed, you take care to not to turn your face toward the trees, the space between their dark, traitorous columns singing out your presence.
The lonely whistle of a pigeon’s wings echoes in the canopy, and you flick your eyes back to the path ahead, praying that you will soon be out of sight. When your fingers unfreeze and the mud and dead leaves are gone from your boots, all this will just be a story to tell.