I listen to the fire crackle, spitting bits of spark and stick on the carpet. It’s toasty warm here, with the cat lying languid and the smell of soup wafting from the stove. I am safe, as the walls embrace me with the spirit of home. Yet I still fear the abyss, this endlessness of being alone.


There is a cottage out in the wilderness, where she lives and sleeps in solitude, where sometimes she disappears. Folk from the villages say she does things, has powers in her hands. They wonder where she goes. Sometimes she’s sighted like a shadow slipping through trees. The children sneak with clandestine excitement into the forest, watching her pick mushrooms in the gloam. They wonder how a person’s hair could be that peculiar colour, that strange shade of violet that catches the starlight. As they wander home for tea, they swap stories about her mystery.


If only she knew what lies beneath my floor, what dark wonders wait in store for her. She would love me less, then.


I have known these walls for a lifetime; more than a lifetime, a generation of twisted roots reaching back to gnarled old ancestors. Grandma and the things she smoked, the accidental fire and the rebuild. Father’s callused hands. The knotted sorrows of the worn-out land. No-one left, now.


She lights fires for warmth. She does not know how I absorb her thoughts.


There hasn’t been a sighting for over a week. The children have found other games to play: they chase each other through trees, tripping over roots, letting their laughter mingle with the bird-cries, the buzzing of bees.


A canvas of coruscating light covers the autumned canopy. Something wonderful is alive in the fading beauty, the softly falling leaves. The children are falling in love; a million kisses pressed on wind-flushed cheeks. They have forgotten her, forgotten the way her shadow disturbed the silence, disturbed matter.


I heard a mouse beneath the floorboards; or what I thought was a mouse, or something else…a whirring, insistent sound. Its presence became a blackness that scratched at my mind; I had a sense of an ending, of some kind of doom.


Something happened a millennia ago, when fairies inhabited the woods, when spirits and goddesses fought over the sweetness of the land. A power was released in the mis-direction of a spell, a rupture was cast upon the soil. In the blood of slaughtered sprites, the earth opened, churning and whirling with its angry flesh exposed to the night. And what was beneath had been covered by centuries of charms, of careful woodwork and strong command.


Months passed: winter stole the forest’s colour, froze every dew drop into glass. Everything gleamed white and pure and sad; all nature was untouched as the villagers hibernated in their cottages, far off across the fields. It was April before a soul set foot through the forest glade. A young man, seeking out the loveliest of roses for his sweetheart, dared to venture through the woods. The soil sprang beneath his feet, new and clean and speckled with the buds of spring.


He walked in circles for seven miles before he found his roses. Beside a sleeping cat lay a bunch of white ones, already picked, holy like a new-born child. At his presence, the cat’s tail sprung up, his green eyes glaring at the man. He stepped back, for what he saw struck him with terror: it was not the cat, but what lay behind it. A small whirlpool, sucking gradually fragments of stick and seed and stone from the forest floor, chucking up bits of ice from within. As he looked closer, fear glowing in his breast, he saw that through the whirlpool rippled streams of red. It seemed as if the whirlpool hissed at his presence, and his heart quivered in horror as he saw bloodied flecks spray from the water upon the roses. As if the water was lashing out a warning. The roses’ pale glory was stained before him. He knelt among the undergrowth, before the cat, and wept. He realised, then: the children of the forest had abandoned their mother.

 by Maria Sledmere

prompts: whirlpool, cottage, romance

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