A New Mantra is Born

Flash Fiction is not my forte.  I struggle to get my ideas out in less than 500,000 words much less 500.  The following is an account of something marvelous which happened during my run this morning.  Hints of American Election subtext are totally intentional.  As always feedback is appreciated as I will probably try to submit this somewhere soon.  Enjoy.

 

This girl can.  No.  This woman can.  This large and out of breath and middle-aged woman can.  Can.  Can.  Can.

I match the rhythm of my running mantra to the beat of my new, electric orange trainers.  ‘All running shoes should be orange,’ proclaimed the gentleman who sold them to me.  But amidst the woodland trail of my local park, the neon orange reminds me of hunting jackets, prison fatigues and pumpkins.

I am not a pum14963401_10154660846558659_7698905646507313732_npkin.  Not a pumpkin. Pump.  KinPump.  Kin.  Pump.  Kin.

A new mantra is born.

My pumpkin/hunter/prison trainers percuss happily as I dodge patches of damp leaves carpeting the path.  The azure, autumn sky provides a perfect canvas for the gold-capped, russet-coated trees overhead.  A perfect day to run.

Struggling up a steep hill, I pass a man jogging opposite, his pace made easy by the downward slope currently giving me difficulty.  I look forward to this later leg of my run, though he doesn’t appear to be enjoying it.  His feet fall swiftly, rather lazily, assisted by gravity, but his face looks grim, irritable, dissatisfied.

Perhaps he needs orange trainers, I giggle inwardly.

Just below the crest of the hill, silhouetted against the blue/gold/russet skyscape, stands an elderly woman; her white hair escaping beneath the blue hood of the puffy coat she wears to defend against October’s chill.  In each hand, she grips a walking stick—not a pair of orthopaedic crutches, nor the smartly polished accessories I’ve seen older woman in town wield like status symbols.  These are walking sticks of action forged from space-age metal, sporting rubber grips and wicked tips, purchased with Everest in mind.

She calls out to me and I shift aside my right headphone, the better to hear her.

‘Did you see that man running past?’  She nods down in the direction of the dissatisfied jogger.

‘Yes,’ I pant, looking back with her, though neither of us can see the man in question who is long gone.

‘He ran behind me so quietly for an age,’ explains the white-haired, blue-hooded woman of action.  ‘Finally, he passed me so close.  I said to him: “you’re lucky you didn’t get this in the shin”.’

She lifts then waves the right-hand Everest stick in a threatening manner.  The space-age metal tip catches a spark of bright sun.  I step back involuntarily.

‘You’re a dangerous woman,’ I chuckle.

‘I am!’ she agrees, matching my chuckle then raising it to a victorious cackle.

‘Good for you,’ I beam encouragingly.

‘We should all be,’ she proclaims with a mischievous grin.

‘Too right,’ I add perfunctorily, running in place.  I’m enjoying our conversation, but I don’t want to lose my momentum so near the top.

My dangerous companion must be eager to enjoy her downhill lap, however.  Deftly manoeuvring her sticks, she strides down the path with surprising speed and agility.  I turn and run on.

I am a dangerous woman.  Dangerous woman.  Dangerous woman.  I am dangerous.   

A new running mantra is born.

 

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Leonardo Dead Vinci

I am presently hard at work on my latest novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, which has been a far more difficult challenge than my first novel.  The draft I am building now is actually my third attempt to tell this character’s story without becoming sidetracked by secondary characters or peripheral, historical weirdness.  I am also hoping this time it will have some sort of actual plot.  The struggle is real people.  
The following is an extract from the chapter I am working on at this very moment which, for now, I have titled Bone Fires. It is a conversation between Floretta and Sergeant Fury, a cat-stodian of the dead.  It’s a nice teaser and fairly indicative of the book’s style.
The accompanying illustration is by Elizabeth Snider aka The Sewing Artist

 

flora‘Is this what you imagined your afterlife to be?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘Explain.’

‘Well,’ Floretta hesitated to compose a thoughtful and (mostly) truthful answer to the Sergeant’s question.  ‘I suppose I imagined more black.’

‘More black?’  The black cat arched an amused and inquisitive, whiskered eyebrow.

‘I certainly didn’t imagine you,’ she blurted out rudely.

‘Really?’  Fury pitched a tone of mock indignation.  ‘A girl with a death wish and a passion for Egyptology never expected her afterlife to include a cat?’

‘Death wish?’ shrieked Floretta with genuine indignation.  ‘Why, I never—

‘In the cellar of the vicarage with a knife,’ declared the cat, as if presenting evidence for the prosecution.

‘Dagger!’ countered Floretta.

‘A dagger with crumbs on the blade from slicing the morning’s bread.’

‘My resources were limited.’

‘You efforts to catch consumption by drinking nothing but milk for a month were rather entertaining,’ the cat continued.

‘I researched the topic thoroughly, I’ll have you—

‘But not nearly as amusing as your attempt to hang yourself with a dress.’

‘Christening gown!’ argued Floretta.

‘Death wish!’ accused Fury.

If he could have, she was certain the cat would have dramatically pointed a finger at her.  She tossed her head to show him in no certain terms how offended she was by the case he had presented against her.  In truth, she felt more than a little disconcerted as she realised this cat caretaker of the dead had clearly been watching her for some time.

‘Do you deny it?’ he demanded through narrowed feline eyes.

‘Categorically,’ Floretta declared.  ‘I had no wish to die.’

‘No wish to—

‘I simply wished to make certain that, were I to die, my death would be neither messy nor ugly nor accidental.’

‘So, your suicide attempts were rehearsals?’

‘I like to think of them as…’ she paused again, trying to form just the right words to describe her forays into Beaux Arts Macabre.  ‘Preliminary sketches of the sort which The Old Masters used when building their grand, artistic visions.’

‘Leonardo Dead Vinci,’ suggested the cat wryly.

‘Exactly,’ Floretta punctuated, deliberately ignoring his obvious overtone of sarcasm.

 

 

Mother: a excerpt from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes

229038_10150232086718659_724701_nIn honour of Mothering Sunday, here’s a totally appropriate and not at all creep-tastic excerpt from my work in progress YA Horror Novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  And happy Mother’s Day to my own dear Mama. xox

 

From the archives of St Becket’s Church of England School, 1963

Priscilla Reid never heard anyone actually say: “The Old Cloakroom is haunted.”  Neither did anyone enter it, unless they were being dared to.  It was difficult to put a finger on why.  The room just felt wrong.  Dark, cold, vacant and solitary but somehow crowded and exposed.  Perhaps it was the spectre of time which made the room eerie.  All the things that had happened here, all the people who had passed through.  Six hundred years of joy and misery and fear and laughter captured in stone. Yet no other place in the original wing of St Becket’s School had the same feeling of wrongness, though they were all just as ancient.

Priscilla began to feel the effects of the room from halfway down the corridor.  It pulled goose pimples from the flesh on her arms and back and neck.  She’d left her cardigan at her desk back in the library.  The light dimmed.  Priscilla’s pulse quickened.

Don’t be daft.  It’s just an empty room. Nothing here but a frightened girl’s satchel with an overdue book in it.

Swallowing her fear she carried on into the cloakroom.  Whoever took Delia Jackson’s bag did a proper job of it.  The little canvas satchel lay crumpled in the far corner at the very end of a long row of those eerily empty coat pegs.  The thief must have thrown it from around the corner—hard enough to crush a plum Delia must have been saving to eat on her way home from school.  Dark, purple liquid seeped through the light beige fabric of the bag, staining it like blood.

Priscilla felt a strange, swooping sensation in her stomach.  As if the floor had just dropped from under her and she was falling from a great height, the wind pulling at her hair and her dress, making the bow of her collar flap against her chin.  Against the dizzying wave of nausea, Priscilla squeezed her eyes shut.  Little lights bloomed behind her eye lids: black then white then red. Bright, glowing, blazing red.  She forced her eyes open and all was still again—only the corridor and the cloakroom beyond.

Run.  Just run and grab it and run back out and hope no one is waiting at the opposite end of the hall to see you looking stupid. Her feet refused to obey.  Right, on the count of three then: one, two, three!

Priscilla pushed off from the stone wall, pelted into the freezing cold air past the empty coat pegs to the far end of the darkened cloakroom.  She gathered Delia’s satchel into her arms.  Spinning on her heel she launched herself back to the safety of the corridor.  Then, in the middle of the very wrong, very old cloakroom, she froze.

The bag moved.

Priscilla held her breath and waited.  Perhaps she had only imagined it.  The bag twitched again.  Then a third time before it began to squirm.

The bag thrashed wildly in her arms as if it didn’t want to be held.  Had Delia brought a cat to school?  Hidden in her bag?  Is that why she was too frightened to collect it?  She looked down at the canvas satchel.  Its light beige fabric blended with the skin on her arms.  The same colour, the same texture, the same—flesh!

The bag cried out.  A high, insistent, piercing wail instantly recognisable to any parent.  Priscilla opened her trembling arms and an infant’s face stared back at her, red mouth opened wide in an angry howl.  Its tiny fists and feet flailed.  Its spine stiffened and curled, stiffened and curled in a writhing motion.  The stain on the fabric of the bag was not from a squashed plum. It was a layer of blood which coated the new-born skin of the crying baby.

A sharp pain took root deep inside her, awakening a memory she had hoped would stay forever dormant.  It rose up from the secret place where Priscilla had hidden that horrible, wonderful, painful moment pulled from her at last by a high, insistent, infant cry.  The cry of her son.

That was all we had, wasn’t it?  One moment of wailing together before they took you from me, my darling boy. 

Maternal instinct moved her to stroke the infant’s fine blonde hair, damp and slightly pink with natal blood.  Tears streamed down Priscilla’s face for several moments, until a though occurred to her and she jerked back to look properly at the baby in her arms.

Blonde?  No.  Not blonde.  Her boy had most certainly not been blonde.  His hair and eyes and skin had been dark.  Like his father’s.

In response to her touch and her thoughts, the baby began to change.  Its flesh darkened, staining baby peach skin to a rich teak.  Fair and fluffy hair thickened, coarsened and blackened around her pale fingers until the babe in her arms became the son she’d known all too briefly.

My boy.  My darling, forbidden Indian boy.   

Unable to stop herself, she leaned down to plant a kiss on the dusky forehead of the squalling, bloody infant. The secret, thrice-cursed son she’d given away because he’d been born to the wrong parents in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But here he was in her arms at last.

‘Have you been here all this time, my son?  Is this where they brought you?  Were you waiting for me?  Were you, lad?’

In between questions she peppered him with kisses.  Gurgling happily, the flailing baby’s hands playfully they knocked aside the librarian’s tortoiseshell, cats-eye glasses.  Then tiny brown fingers grabbed fistfuls of Priscilla’s smooth, blonde locks and pulled with fierce tenacity.  The infant screams grew louder, wilder, sounding less like a baby and more like some enraged predator.  Priscilla tried to pull away but the baby’s grip was strong.  The sensible thing would be to release her hold on it, to let it drop to the floor.  But she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

‘This time I will never let you go.’

She held tightly to the baby and the baby held onto her, then Priscilla looked once more into her infant’s eyes.  The features changed again.  Dark eyes warm and cocoa soft hardened into something black, dilated, pupiless.  The mouth was no toothless, squalling maw either.  As the baby screamed one last time, Priscilla saw rows of razor sharp teeth.  The jaws of the baby opened wider and wider, impossibly wide. It seemed as if it would consume her head-first like a python.

That’s when she finally dropped the baby.  Priscilla staggered, blind with terror, determined to get out of the Old Cloakroom.  Her heart raced and she struggled to breath.  Something constricted her windpipe.  She moved her hand up to her neck and ten tiny fingers wrapped themselves around her.  The baby—or the thing that looked like a baby—clung to Priscilla’s back its arms and fingers clutching tightly about her neck in macabre imitation of a piggy back ride.

Don’t leave me, Mother.’  The baby whispered in Priscilla’s ear.  ‘Not again.’  Phantom tears dripped from its dilated pupils and fell icy hard on the librarian’s shoulders.  ‘Mother.  Please.  Help me.’

The infant’s tiny arms wrapped desperately about Priscilla’s neck in a ferocious embrace.  She stumbled to the stone floor at the edge for the Old Cloakroom.  The world began to spin.  Her heart began to slow.  Still the phantom bag baby held her, its terrified cries deafening as they echoed in the empty cloakroom.  Priscilla Reid clawed feebly at her neck and back hoping to pull the creature off.  Her fingers found a rope wrapped tight as a noose around her throat.  The baby was gone now.  Or she was the baby?  Priscilla wasn’t sure.  She only knew that she was being strangled.

Everything went dark and cold.  For several long moments, a silence fell around The Old Cloakroom, like a soundless shroud smothering the corpse of Priscilla Reid, school librarian.

In a far corner of the cloakroom sparked a red light, like a match being lit.  The flame burst and bloomed like a scarlet rose bud.  The glowing ember rose bloomed and stretched, its petals curling upwards, billowing in a ghostly breeze.  Its leaves puffed up then out ballooning in a fiery expanse of flowery embroidery.  The rose of red curls and billowing floral silk wafted over toward the fallen woman and the squalling, phantom infant.

‘You.’  The glowing rose scowled at the infant phantom cuddled beside the dead librarian.  ‘You swore to me you weren’t going to do that anymore.’  The red light of the rose burned hot.  ‘What shall I do with you, infant?’

From The Undecided Transcredible Jaffers Rescue & Nerd Support Society webpage. Sam Streeter, administrator. 23rd July, 2010.

“Another sighting of Truman Becket’s ghost in the Hallowed Soul’s Churchyard. The iron bars of his sarcophagus were heard rattling even up at Burnt Tree pub Saturday night.  This morning no less than five people saw a man in a black cloak walking across Soul’s Bridge as if on his way to church.  Totally real, people.  Burly-the-Wath is haunted!”

Alistair Jacques says: Are you stupid, Streeter or just high?

Tommy Grace says: Show us a photo or shut up.

Sam Streeter says: I’m not stupid or high and I don’t have a camera.

Dave Bogg says: Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form and once Streeter gets on a topic it will only die when he does.

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Ethan Unwin says: Tell me when you see Agnes Wymark’s ghost.  Bet she’s hot.

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Dave Bogg says: Perv

 Sam Streeter says: Knob.

Tommy Grace says: Doesn’t he do this every year?

Dave Bogg says: St Becket’s Day.

Ethan Unwin says: Ancient history, mate. 

Sam Streeter says: WHICH OF YOU ARSEWIPES JUST FRAPED MY STATUS?

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Graveyard All SaintswebCat Woodhouse didn’t like loose ends.  She stared down the loose ends as if, by sheer force of will, she could make them no longer be loose.  But the ends rattled and, against her common sense understanding of physics, flapped in the chilly wind of the summer daybreak.  That really should not be happening.

‘You shouldn’t be doing that,’ she lectured through tense lips to the loose ends who, in response, flapped defiantly back at her.  She shook a warning finger causing her armful of bracelets to rattle indignantly.

‘Reckon that’s going to work, do you?’  Jenny Rowntree leaned resignedly against one of the yew trees lining the All Soul’s churchyard.  ‘Shouting at iron chains?’

The two women gazed down at the crumbling arrangement of ancient stone.  Dark moss and silvery lichen crawled across the surface, marring the most important grave in the Burly cemetery with a weathered rash.   Iron bars surrounded the grave marker like rusted sentinels.  Heavy linked chains connected the seven posts, their guardian arms forming a formidable barrier about the occupant’s final resting place.

Or, at least, they were meant to form a formidable barrier.  Two of the chains now hung limply, arms broken, barrier compromised.  Phantom fingers of dawn mist drifted in and out of the gap in the chains as if to further prove the point: anything could freely pass through.  Mrs Woodhouse swiped and batted ineffectually at the mist with her unbraceleted arm then sighed.

The mist sighed back.

No, not a sigh.  An exhalation of relief, as if the something or someone was able to breathe freely for the first time in ages.  Mrs Woodhouse backed away, joining Miss Rowntree by the twisted yew trunk twined with tendrils of long-dead ivy.

It might have been the wind.  It might have been her imagination.  If so, Cat was not alone in imagining it.  Jenny Rowntree’s sturdy, weathered fingers trembled as they scrabbled backward to grip the even sturdier, more weathered and wrinkled yew.  The iron chains flapped more vigorously, almost cheerfully.  Like ribbons in a girl’s hair or party streamers or banners—symbolic standards warning of an approaching storm or army.

Or both, thought Cat Woodhouse.

‘Never really believed, you know.’  Jenny Rowntree’s forced whisper so close to her ear made Eliza jump in surprise.  ‘I were only doing it for me Mam.  Carrying on’t family tradition.  Thought it were all codswollop.’  Her Northern accent thickened with fear.

‘My mother would have agreed with you,’ Cat whispered back, clinging like a lifeline to her own refined, carefully learned, vowels.  ‘But I believed.  Eliza did too.’

‘Codswollop,’ repeated Jenny, voice rising.  ‘If you really believed our silly trio made a difference you’d have gone to the girl night before last to tell her what’s what.’

‘You really believe I could have done that so soon after—

Another, deeper sigh punctuated by a wide beam of morning sunlight.  It encircled the violated grave like a halo.  Inside these hard shards of pale light, dissipating dawn mist congealed and swirled, almost tangible, rustling like swathes of fabric before rising up the shaft of light toward the sun.  The sight terrified the two women, whose nerves were already stretched to breaking.

‘I thought we would have more time,’ confessed Mrs Woodhouse.  ‘And I didn’t know how to tell her.’

‘Aye,’ agreed Miss Rowntree.  ‘Be an awkward chat.’  She looked nervous, uncertain—two expressions seldom seen on the caretaker’s careworn face.  She surveyed the grave with suspicious disbelief.  It took less time than Cat thought.  Jenny hadn’t thought it would happen at all.  Yet here they were.

‘This complicates things, Miss Rowntree.

‘Aye, Mrs Woodhouse, I reckon it does.’

‘Eliza never did tell her about us.’

‘Not a sausage.’

‘Unfortunate.’

‘Didn’t have time, did she?’

‘She had nineteen years.  Long enough if you ask me.  But it’s up to us now.’  Cat Woodhouse emitted a sigh heavy with burden.

‘Aye,’ puffed Jenny Rowntree.

‘We best be quick about it.  The situation seems…’  Volatile.  Complicated.  Potentially catastrophic.  ‘…vulnerable.  Yes, that too.  ‘Sooner is better.’

‘Aye,’ agreed Miss Rowntree.

‘She’s not going to like what this means for her.’

‘No.  I reckon she won’t.’  Miss Rowntree exploded with laughter and Mrs Woodhouse glared.  ‘Nowt we can do about it though.  There’s rules.’ 

‘And we have no time to be diplomatic,’ Mrs Woodhouse concluded.  She pushed back the bracelets lining her left arm in a gesture reminiscent of a woman rolling up her sleeves.  It was all about to get serious.


Extract from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, a work in progress by Katharine Elmer