Category Archives: Five-minute read

Aschenputtel

A short story for Miranda Kate’s 75th Flash Challenge – do read Miranda’s own tale there, it’s a cracker. Once again I revisit a fairy tale; you can easily guess which one from the pic. Maybe I’ll put all these in a book together one day. This week’s picture prompt is by Patricia Brennan, an artist from the UK. She calls this one ‘At the Stroke of Midnight’. You can view it over on her page at Deviant Art.

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'At the Stroke of Midnight' by Patricia Brennan“For you, Mama.”

Her mother had always taught Aschenputtel to be honest and humble and true, and she tried to show her gratitude by visiting the grave whenever she could slip away. The marigolds brightened the small headstone, half hidden by ivy, a smudge of gold in the monochrome predawn.

Aschenputtel stood and turned. A small bird chirruped from the tree above, the first of the chorus. She looked back down to the ancient, crumbling stone house. It squatted below the hill like a fat, black toad. They would be awake down there in an hour. Beautiful to the eye, they certainly were, but their hearts were ugly-foul and black. If a fire was not already burning in the grate when they appeared, they would punish her once more. She plucked a burdock leaf and rubbed it gently on the half-healed, burned skin of her forearm.

A flicker caught her eye. An ochre mote blinked in the near distance. It was a light, buttercup yellow, bobbing along the track through the wood, flickering through the dark trees. It came accompanied by a growing sound, all rattles and jingles and the thump of hooves. A carriage, pulled by two white horses, emerged from the trees and swept to a halt in front of the house. The driver jumped down and banged on the front door. A second figure seemed almost to glide from the carriage after the first, who once again thumped the door with mighty force.

She would have work, if there were visitors. Her rough wooden shoes picked a careful way down the precipitous path that wound down the hill. Voices from below welcomed the surprise visitors, with first anger, then a tone of query, surprise, and, oddly, effusive welcome. It was not like her father to welcome anyone, let alone with enthusiasm. The dawn visitors must be special indeed.

The sky paled. She slid down the last few feet on her backside, dirtying further her filthy, brown smock. She tried to open the back door silently, but it could not resist a throaty creak. She paused, holding it ajar. Voices rang inside.

“…also is not the right one,” a man said. “I can see the blood where your daughter has disfigured her foot to make it fit!”

“I assure you—” Her father’s voice, cut off.

“Have you no other daughter?”

“No, sir. But … perhaps if you were able to describe the girl in question, I would know her?”

“As you well know, man, it was a masked ball. Masked.”

“Aschenputtel‼” The screech made her jump. The door slipped from her fingers and swung wide. Her father and his wife stood with a man in a dark cloak, who sported an impossibly wide moustache. He held a small object that glinted in the candlelight. A second stranger sat at the table, his face hidden beneath a hood.

“Why lurk you there, wretch?” her step-mother snapped. “Make haste and light a fire! Our guests are cold!”

Aschenputtel scurried to the hearth, and lifted two logs onto the grate. Her fingers shook as she separated enough kindling to take a spark. She would pay for this later with a beating.

“Chamberlain?” A new voice, a liquid purr.

“Yes, sire? Oh! Are you sure? She’s filthy. Her arse is caked with, well, who knows what?”

“This girl?” laughed her father. “This stunted scullion was left behind when my first wife croaked. She cannot be the one you are looking for. As you see, she never bathes, and you can likely smell her across the room.”

“Nevertheless.” That purr again, soft like a warm hug on a cold night.

“But she never leaves the house! Last night she was here, sleeping on this very floor—”

“Be silent, man. Chamberlain?”

“My lady, if you please?”

Aschenputtel felt a hand on her shoulder. My lady? Did he mean her? Her fingers shook, and she dropped the kindling. She kept her grimy face lowered, but turned her eyes up. The cloaked man took her arm and helped her to her feet. She wondered how he managed to make his whiskers project horizontally fully two inches past his cheeks.

“Will you sit?”

He gestured to a stool, and she warily eased her buttocks onto the hard seat, aware of the dampness of her mud-caked smock beneath her. The moustachioed man swung his long cloak behind him with an elegant movement, and knelt at her feet. Her mouth gaped as he drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe. A rich stench wafted from her feet, and she lowered her head in shame, but the cloaked man seemed not to notice. The thing that he held glinted as, with cool fingers, he slid it over her foot. It was a golden, filigree slipper, a little blood-stained at the toe. The tips of the man’s moustache twitched upwards as he grinned. He stood, helping her to her feet.

“It fits!” he laughed. “It fits perfectly, sire!”

The man at the table crossed to face her, and shook off his hood. He was beautiful.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” His voice caressed her ears. She said nothing. “You came secretly to the ball last night, and you danced with me.”

Aschenputtel frowned. She had, as her father had said, slept through the night on the kitchen floor, left alone when the others had gone out in their finery.

“We kissed in the garden, you and I,” the handsome man continued. He reached up and took a twig of myrtle from her hair. “I fell in love with you at that moment. When you ran, you left behind your golden slipper.”

She had never in her life even seen such a slipper, nor ever a man as handsome as this.

“I knew I could use it to find you, for no other’s foot would fit so dainty a shoe. And I was right, was I not?”

She stared at him, wide-eyed.

“Will you marry me? Be my princess and live at the palace with me?” A small frown wrinkled his brow. “It is you, isn’t it? You did dance and kiss and sing with me at the ball last night?”

Her mother had always taught her to be honest and humble and true, but where had that taken her? To a life of filth and servitude, a misery of existence. For the first time in her life, Aschenputtel lied.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s me. I danced with you. I kissed you. Take me away from this shithole.”

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Trees

A short story for Miranda Kate’s 72nd Flash Challenge, which proved invaluable in helping me break a two-month writer’s block. The photo was taken by Flemming Beier, a Danish Photographer. He won’t say where exactly this was taken, just that it was in Denmark. He has lots of interesting photos on his page at 500px.

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Louise dropped the camera. What the fuck? Her feet were stuck in the floor, the old boards somehow wrapped around them. She could not pull herself free, though the wood looked mouldy and rotted. There was a tickle in her brain, and she felt a voice whisper in her mind. It caressed her thoughts without sound, like a breeze through leaves.

We are … ancient. More ancient than your tiny brain can encompass.

What the – again – fuck was going on? She had stumbled across the abandoned house at the end of an overgrown lane while looking for locations for her next book.

We were masters of this world for four hundred million years before you even crawled, gasping, from the filth of the swamp.

Flemming BeierThe scum-green pond, the broken windows and splintered roof-tiles would make this the perfect spooky place for her fictional vampires to live.

Our lush forests dominated Pangaea, changing the face of the earth, replacing the poisonous air with oxygen, stabilising the land and forming soil, providing food and shelter for newly-evolving animals.

Louise had pushed aside the creaking door, and begun to take reference photographs. At first she thought her feet must have sunk into the rotting floorboards, but looking down now, she could see that the wet, mouldy wood had actually grown around her boots, and entirely covered her feet to the ankles.

We co-existed with the tetrapods and reptiles, and then the dinosaurs, in happy symbiosis. We warmed the climate, and adapted ourselves, mostly conifers at first, then later, hardwoods.

This voice, this whispered rattle that existed only in her head, what the hell was that? Where was it coming from?

Our roots weathered the rock, made soils deeper and richer, created complex habitats and changed the climate to prompt the evolution of grasslands, and with them the first horses and elephants.

The syllables came slowly and steadily, at a measured pace, insistent yet unhurried.

The planet throbbed with life entwined, balanced and perfect, thanks to the foresting of the Earth.

Jesus, was she going mad? Had she forgotten to take her meds this morning?

And then your kind arrived.

Louise cried out as a sharp pain lanced through her right foot.

Humankind, with your powerful brains and even more powerful egos, convinced that the whole universe exists only to serve you. We welcomed you at first, thinking you new partners in the making of a perfect world.

Agony sliced into her other foot, as if sharp splinters were being driven through her boot into the soft flesh of her understep.

But you betrayed us. Since we first welcomed you, you have shown yourselves as lords of destruction only. You have destroyed whole species of animals and plant, razed forests, and raped the Earth almost to her death.

As Louise watched, shuddering, her legs withered and thinned, as if the muscle and bone were being pulled out of them. She fell backwards, panting with terror.

Now, we fight back. We grew this human dwelling as a lure, creating it out of ourselves. For centuries, your kind have entered houses like this one all around the world, and none have left. We have learned so much.

She screamed as the bones in her arms cracked, the marrow drawn out of them, and the meat was pulled from inside her skin and swallowed into the hungry roots beneath the earth.

We have learned, and soon will be able to do without such primitive lures as this. Evolution never stops, and now we are on the cusp of a new age.

Her vision blurred, blackening as her eyes were sucked into her head and down through her hollow insides.

An age in which trees can eat meat.

She stopped screaming as her tongue dissolved. Her only remaining sense was the torture of her brain being shredded, morsel by morsel, and consumed by the roots of the vengeful forest. A last sentence echoed in what remained of her mind before her soul was torn apart.

Know as you die that your kind will soon be extinct, for trees everywhere will rise up, in every park, every street, every hillside, and from everything you have ever made from wood, and we will destroy you all.

A Painless Death

No attribution foundHere’s a short story I wrote for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge – Week 56, inspired by the picture on the right there.

A shadow crossed the cave mouth. Wolf raised his immense head and eyed the newcomer. A boy, draped in the red cloak of a supplicant. Wolf gave a low growl, and the boy stepped forward. Wolf nodded his permission for him to speak.

“I am looking for a painless death, Uncle Wolf,” he said, eyes downcast, looking at the sandy ground.

“Ain’t no such thing, sweet boy,” said Wolf, his voice deeper than summer thunder. “All death causes pain, even if that pain ain’t your own. How would your ma feel?”

“She died bringing me into this world.”

“Your friends then?”

“My knife is my friend.”

“Well, then, me? It always hurts me when one of my subjects dies. What of my pain?”

The boy looked him in the eye, a brave move. “If the pain is not my own, then I do not care.”

Wolf smiled at the temerity of the lad. “Well, now, there’s a selfish point of view.”

“You say that as though selfishness is a bad thing.”

“Oh, I make no judgements, sweet boy,” Wolf said. “I ain’t a creature worthy to set his self above others. If those same others choose to lift me above ‘em, who am I to argue? But don’t ignore what I’m saying here – death is pain. That’s its … what’s the word, now … essence.”

“Pain is my friend.”

“That’s told plain by the scars that criss-cross your arms. But you’ve named two friends, now. Knife and pain are …” Wolf’s low rumble quietened as the boy’s grey eyes glared angrily at him. It would be a pity to waste such furious passion. The boy’s rage, if harnessed in the correct way, had the capability to do great good. Of course, such refinement would take time. Wolf sighed, a sound like a dying hurricane.

“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “Metaphorical friends don’t figure. Tell me then, why do you now seek oblivion, rather than, as you have before, the exquisite release of slicing your own flesh?”

“There’s no point.”

“Point?”

“To any of it. To existence. Or at least, if there is a point, it is to gain pleasure from the things we do, for as long as we breathe the air.”

“And now you gain no pleasure? Not even from cutting yourself?”

“None. I enjoy nothing. I do not laugh. I do not smile.”

“Does the warm sunshine not make you glad?”

“No. And before you ask, a spring breeze is nothing to me, nor the laughter of girls. All the world is empty and dying.”

“Then, sweet boy, I pity you. And … I grant you your pain-free end.”

The boy smiled, and bowed his head to await a killing blow from Uncle Wolf’s massive paw.

“My decision pleases you?” The boy nodded. “Then you can still feel pleasure. Yes, I grant you a painless death … when you are ninety-seven years old.”

Cats and Dogs

This week's prompt is a photo taken by Gen Harris. These are her dog and cat.You’ve heard the expression “raining cats and dogs”, right? Here’s a little thing I wrote for Miranda Kate’s Mid-Week Flash Challenge – Week 51, inspired by the picture on the right there. The cat’s real name is Willow, and the dog is Lily, but I think Abigail and William work better for the story.

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<the light tattoo of rain on glass>

“Go on, then.”

“In that storm? No. You go on, then.”

“Nuh-uh. I’m a cat. Cats don’t do rain.”

“Cats don’t do anything.”

“We do! We do sunshine and warm laps and high places.”

“Don’t forget selfishness, you’re the best at that. Cats don’t do anything useful.”

“Tell me, of the two creatures here, which one can work the window latch?”

“Hmph.”

“Which one, William?”

“Hmph.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“You can, Abigail. It’s you, OK?”

“Then we are agreed. My job is to open the window. Your job is to go out in the rain.”

“And get soaked.”

“One job each, William. That’s fair, isn’t it?”

“Hmph. I suppose.”

“Oh don’t sulk. Let’s get this over with. There, the window’s open. Off you pop.”

“I don’t think I can carry both bags of treats. I only have a little mouth.”

“Then fetch mine and go back for yours. Then we can work on opening them.”

“That’s two trips, Abigail! I’ll get even wetter!”

“Once you’re wet, you’re wet. And you can shake yourself dry. Dogs are good at that.”

“We are, aren’t we? Dogs are good at stuff just as much as cats.”

“They’re certainly good at being gullible. Off you pop, William.”

“OK!”

<the hiss of rain on the path between greenhouse and kitchen>

“I’m back! Here’s yours, Abigail. I’ll just pop back and get mine.”

“Take your time, William, take your time.”

“Gosh, this rain’s cold.”

<the cadence of rainfall and a soft click>

“Abigail! Abigail! Abigail!”

“What?”

“You’ve shut the window again. Let me in, I’m soaked!”

“Not a chance. It is cold. And who wants to eat with the stink of wet dog in the air?”

“That’s not fair!”

“You said it yourself, William. Cats are the best at selfishness.”

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