The Mint of Immortality

The coin he handed her was completely unfamiliar. It was six-pointed, like a star of David; thin as a needle and of a bright, glittering silver. She flipped it over and saw that on the other side too was a spiral. No symbols of monarchy, no stamps of nation or empire. No date of minting, no hint of history; no indication of worth or belonging. Just a neat little spiral, the kind of idle doodle that Lucy would have done herself, waiting for the kettle to boil, or for her mother to stop ranting over the phone.

She hadn’t realised she’d ventured out so far. Could she be beyond the border even? The change of currency indicated a passing beyond, but she wasn’t sure what actually constituted beyond. For so long, the limits of this city were shifting and nebulous. There were no fences or walls; no great highways, very few roadsigns. You left with intentions to drive south, but ended up stuck on a roundabout, bound eastwards, endlessly, back into town.

“And what can I buy with this coin?” Lucy wondered. The boy behind the counter stared at her as if willing her to leave. All she wanted was a few more moments to linger among the mesmerising aisles of neon energy drinks, of chocolate bars and tacky magazines. She wanted to absorb the hum of the refrigerator, the nervous click of the boy tapping his shoe against the laminated floor.

When finally she closed the door behind her, he breathed a sigh of relief.

The world outside was ablaze with sunset. A strange wound of a sunset, where the sky haemorrhaged pools of red which flowered out like ink among a sea of flaming pink. The red light dripped down the glass buildings and cast its fiery shimmer on the roads.

It seemed self-evident to her then that the coin could buy her infinity. Clueless, she kept walking, following the sunset. It would be lovely, she thought, to step right on into that sunset. It glowered and spasmed before her like a terrible womb, and even as she walked, she knew she was returning to the origin. There was something about the air of dusk then, its sweet, ominous musk.

The coin would buy her infinitude. You just had to be born again. Lucy opened the carton of milk which she had bought from the shop with the flickering sign, and slowly began to drink it, a white rim forming round her lips, like a halo. Her skin began to purify, tautening, smoothing, glowing. The years were being rolled flat as she drank and drank. The sky burned above her, earnest in its wanting. She took the coin from her pocket and placed it on her tongue, as if it were a tab of acid. A shadow passed over the sun and so she swallowed.

Needles tingled all through her veins, growing in pain as if each vein, each capillary, were a stem of thorns being torn right through her flesh, all through her body. She was a rose, starved of monoxide, wilting, withering…so sensitive to the flames of pain. The sun would burn her, eat her dead or alive, and so she would be beautiful.

The next morning, someone found a strange coin on the pavement, stamped with the face of a girl who was beautiful.

— Maria Sledmere

(Flash Fiction February prompt: nowhere)

Advertisements

Charlotte’s Letter

The vague, half-real shapes came down the mountainside, silhouetted against the dull shine of distant moonlight. Charlotte perceived their shadows with the awe she felt owed to her by the mysteries of this silent scene. ‘Twas just like the landscapes she had read about in novels. Looking up to the moon, she jutted her neck out to make her hair billow just so, in the imitation of the sirens whose images she had seen in picture book illustrations. Harry was always taking her to those peculiar bookshops which stocked all sorts of strange hardbacks, often with beautiful velvet covers and stories about dragons and wicked landlords and heroines who swooned under the glaring monstrosity of their captors.

The wind began to shriek as the night wore on, and Charlotte was beginning to lose all sensation in her toes.

“How long must I stand here?” she muttered in complaint. However, there was a way of taking the sting out of her waiting. Charlotte imagined what she would write about all this in a letter. It was important to render exactly the interplay between darkness and light; between the gleam of the snow-capped mountains and the dark spectres of endless cliff-faces, the leafless trees and husks of rock. The way her mind shifted in the expanse of darkness to the shimmering abyss offered by the white horizon, where clouds had settled under the spell of moonlit silver. The dim violet of the sky and its jewellery case of stars. The luxurious feel of the grass beneath her feet, the scent of heather and fresh flush of the cold on her face.

Still, the cold was really getting too much for her and so she decided to move on. She took dainty paces up the mountainside, where she had spotted signs of a little cavern. It would be perfectly fine to rest a night there; Harry was sure to come and pick her up in the morning. In fact, she even spotted a trace of amber light coming from a nook in the rocky ridge; and light bore the promise of hospitality.

All she was really supposed to do was wait, of course. She had trekked all the way through fields of ice and mist and snow and now her task was simply to wait. The love of her saviour would be strong and pure, and so forever in his arms she would be secure.

It wasn’t Harry that found her in the end, but a wandering poet who was savouring the glow of vertigo as he traipsed along the cliff edge, dangling in one hand a pen and the other his paper. Occasionally he burst into spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling, bearing his voice to the singing wind:

O martyr of mist and myriad spirit
how music mingles with the passion in it!
A chance encounter with these holy hills,
enough to ease the mind from all its ills!

He continued the verse with the surge of impassioned timbre, until suddenly he came upon a glint of light in the mountainside. Curious, he pocketed his pen and paper and scrambled up the rocky ledge to see better. He began to hear the hum of sweet sweet music; the hum that filled the thin air as if it were the ambient sounds of the mountains themselves. The poet could not help but fall into song:

Perhaps a maiden fair and bright
might come from dark and dreamy heights;
dressed in her gown of fairest white
will she succeed in fighting night?

He paused at the entrance to the cave to look back at the portion of mountainside that he had just climbed. All dropped wide and deep below him into a chasm of snowy fog and sinuous cloud. He felt a great gape in his stomach and struggled not to curse aloud.

But the horror of this sensation paled in comparison to the horror that faced him over the ledge. The poet clambered to his feet and what he saw poured poison through his delicate veins. A maiden she was, yet dressed in navy, her once-coiled hair now loose and undone. And yet he could barely see what beauty she bore for the calamity around her: great pools of blood and blackened flesh that seeped and festered beneath her dress. Her golden hair was leeched with bloodied spots, and her limbs were twisted in curious knots. Most disturbing were the things that ate her: great hoards of fireflies, descending from the back of the cave with their thunderous buzz.  Their very wings were aflame with wicked glare. Through the blur of the poet’s tears, the whole swarm seemed an inferno sent from hell. The poet blinked and blinked and staggered back, so disturbed he was at this most vivid ravishing of beauty.

But he stumbled too far, and so toppled down the mountain, his final word a distorted roar.

T’was but a year or so later that poor Harry was hiking through the mountains, when he came across this enchanted cavern and found dear Charlotte’s letter. And what a marvel and masterpiece it would have been – the prize of every museum! – if Harry too had not succumbed to those ravenous fireflies. Yet still the letter sits inside this cave, the jewel kept safe by those sacred, flaming insects. Maybe some other Romantic one day will come to take it; or maybe nature will slowly reclaim its place and consume it.

Prompts: chiaroscuro, fireflies, vertigo

by Maria Rose Sledmere

The Death of Spring

Each spring she came as sure as the rain, the cold sunshine and the sweet aromas of cut grass and new flowers blossoming on fruit trees.

There was something otherworldly about the girl – no one in the town knew her name, or, if they did, they called her ‘the Daffodil Girl’ nonetheless. And that was fitting enough, for each year, on the first day of spring, she would come floating through the dirty streets, bringing with her the vernal breeze and all the freshness and irrepressible life of the country, with a splendid mound of bright yellow daffodils bundled in a wicker basket, and balanced on her hip. Her wind-tangled tawny curls were pinned and twined and braided around her head with the same wilderness that she carried in her step, in the keen, roaming gaze of her dark doe eyes. Her dress was out of place in the town – she wore no starched lace or whalebone, no constricting silk squeezed her swaying waist and there were no intricate arrangements of buttons or beads. She was like a milkmaid of a lost age, as though she had wandered from a glorious alpine painting, somehow, into this hard and smoky English town.

The burst of yellow as she wound through the streets, the subtle scent of fine pollen the colour of sunshine, it turned the head of every fine lady, every stiff gentleman and gabbling fishwife, every merchant, beggar and drunk. And one man amongst them all was particularly drawn to her. For him, the entire season had but one purpose, one value: he could watch the Daffodil Girl in her strange, slow progress, her pilgrimage of spring, and let her soft shape and sweet scent, the mild hum of ancient songs, sooth the turmoil in his soul.

This morning, the first of march, he had woken late. He punished himself, positively flagellated himself for the error. He had not slept a full night, he felt, for many a year. Yet it was no excuse.

Disheveled and out of sorts, he left the room without his stick, half tumbling down the decaying staircase of the boarding house and limping up the street as fast as his tortured frame would carry him. Passersby muttered their judgements, scowling at the frightful sight of the crippled lunatic lurching along the cobbles, asking themselves and each other why such a creature could ever have need to hurry. Who could be waiting for a wretch like him?

He persevered, even as his whole left side began to ache, to scream for rest. And then, as he crested the top of the hill, he saw her – a spot of sunshine in his bleak world of winter. The sight gave him a second wind. He clutched his thigh, defying the pain, and ran. He had not run for seven years, not since the days he has laughed at death as bullets tore the air and mud and pitch flew up around his nimble feet like showers of confetti…

The yellow bloom grew closer and closer, until he could see the white flash of her stockings above the sturdy boots, the mud and dust on the fringe of her skirts, the infant daffodil she had wound into her hair…

“Miss!” He cried, but his voice was a thin rasp, a shriek of rusted metal on stone. “Miss!”

She turned, and he saw fear on her freckled face. The shock, the disgust was heartbreaking in the eyes of this angel. Surely that face could show nothing but heavenly benevolence, infinite, divine calm…

“Miss, please!” He gasped, reaching out to her, stumbling like a drunkard, clutching blindly. His hand closed around the handle of her basket.

“Leave off me!” She cried, her cheeks flushed with anger and fear. “Help! Won’t someone help me?”

“No, miss, no, wait!”

She tore away from him, running, skipping like a dryad in flight. He half thought she would vanish, explode into a shower of golden petals and float away on the rising wind. The thought struck him with an all-consuming fear, and he made a last attempt to seize the girl, to hold her close and tell her that she, she was his saviour!

She turned, her eyes wide, and fell, flying backwards, away from him forever. It seemed she would fall into the ground and into hell itself. There was a deafening roar, hooves and voices. A huge black horse thundered toward them…the black horse and black chariot that haunted his dreams! Doom! Doom!

Silence, screams. The crowd of the street parted; women sobbed, men shouted their useless outrage, taking off hats and shuffling feet. Someone with sense called for a doctor.

There she lay: white, broken. Her hair was splayed around her like a glorious pagan crown, her hand lay gently on her waist. And all around were yellow daffodils, scattered like funeral flowers, like tiny mourners falling at her feet, heads bent with heavy grief.

The crowd cried tragedy, but it was more than a tragedy for him. It was the death of spring, the sun turned to cold stone. It was his apocalypse.

by Rachel Norris

prompts: daffodil, desire, apocalypse

Redolence

I hold the bottle, close to my nose. Its smooth glass fits perfect in my hand. Lift the stopper, relish the pop. Silky notes of mandarin and bergamot; and as I breathe in deep I can almost taste the jasmine, the middle notes.
“It’s perfect,” I say to the woman who drifts behind the counter, drumming her fingers on its surface.
“Quite a rare one, not the most popular,” she replies tartly, “but yes, unique, perfect for a young girl like you…with nothing to lose.” I have no idea if she is being complimentary, or cold. She takes a fresh bottle from a draw and wraps it in tissue paper, slips it in a box and ties it with a little bow. I slide her a hundred pound note. She almost snorts.
“Well, I haven’t seen one of these in a few years.”
“I’ve been keeping it.” I’m worried then that she might not accept it. “Saving up. Waiting.”
“Oh, it can go through our tills, rest assured,” she says dismissively, sensing my concern. She gives me a handful of shiny coins in change, and I thank her from the depths of my heart. I’m imagining that swirling explosion of orange blossom, musk and vanilla; the mingling of fruit and flower, as I spray it on, later. As I leave the store, the eye contact we exchange is filled with the gratitude of religious rapture; she – this shop-woman – is my wonderful priestess, handing me the key to happiness.

Five years later.
The police are still continuing their investigation, although the general consensus is that hope is pointless, that she’s lost forever. They found her car, with an empty bottle of whisky and packet of pills by the cliffs, where the sea roars an eternity at the land. A popular spot, they said. But then there was other evidence: credit card usage in foreign countries, a strange letter left in her mother’s kitchen, dated a few days after her disappearance. A scarf they found at a service station, still smelling of her perfume.

Sometimes I sit on the edge of our bed, because I can’t bear to sleep in it (can’t bear to sleep at all) and our room has become a kind of tomb; or at least, a lost space, a limbo – a place neither here nor there. I pick up bits of her possessions (old possessions, I suppose) and think about their existence. Why are they still here, when she’s gone?

Then I find her perfume. It feels profane to spray it, to release that aroma that conjures sickening waves of nostalgia. It’s a scent that clings to all her clothes, that I remember emanating from her hair, her neck when she spoke, when we moved close.

But I can’t help but spray it. It’s like there she is, inside the bottle, all her words simmering in its potent matter. I squeeze the atomiser and it hits my senses, fills the room and waters my eyes. Mandarin, bergamot, vanilla, jasmine. The luxury of love; some Eastern garden.

In every droplet of scent there’s the late nights of Amaretto coffees, flickering tv shows playing out the white noise to our kisses; words dissolving in the pale dawns. I suddenly know, suddenly live in her fury; there’s that tearing, where the world is scorched by our sense of an ending, by the abyss inevitably impending. I put the bottle down, stand over by the window. I see the silhouette of the old willow tree, the sweeping shadows of birds, of things alive. There’s another sunrise, again, another faithful dawn.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: new perfume, memory, worry

Thoughts on a Snowflake

It was snowing hard, the flakes slapping their cheeks and making a mockery of their boots.  They started to run over the chilling blanket that was already covering the ground, their hoods pulled low, eager to get home.  It wasn’t until they were in the warm kitchen and had closed the door on the icy flurries, that Lauren noticed Gabby was crying.  She looked away.  Gabby was Steph’s friend, and Lauren didn’t know her well enough to ask what was wrong.

Gabby felt the tears on her face, so scalding when she had been outside, cool as the temperature lifted.  She sniffed, trying not to make a sound.  She was pretty sure Lauren had seen the traitor tears, but she hadn’t asked what was wrong.  Oh God, please don’t let her ask.  What would she say? What would she do? Cover them all with her darkness? Make them drown in the fathomless pit of her memory? she bit down on her lip, but her mind wasn’t listening, pushing the thoughts to the front of her eyes, and out of them in salty drops.

She was back in the graveyard, the snow hard under her feet.  It had not been coming down in great flurries as it was now, outside the window of Lauren’s house.  Only a few tiny flakes were still falling, desperate to make their mark before it was too late, to kiss the ground and then be swallowed up by its greed.  She saw the white marble headstone, the snow a perfect mask on its face.  She strained, but could not see the top where the writing was.  She probably wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway.

“Shall I lift you up?”

That was her grandad.  She nodded, and felt his strong arms go around her tiny body.  He hoisted her with ease on to his shoulders, and reached forward to push aside the film of snow.  The writing shone through, curly and gold, a light in the darkness. The soft, cold, white darkness.

“What does it say?”

He was silent for too long.

“What does it say?” she repeated with a child’s persistency.

Grandad hesitated, swallowed.  His voice was all croaky as he read, or perhaps quoted from memory: “Here lies Lisa Ranford, aged sixteen.” He paused, voice wobbling like the jelly her gran made for pudding, and cold as the ice-cream that went on top.  “Heaven is the only place for an angel.”

“What does that last part mean?”

He set her down gently, her feet crunching and sinking into the snow.  She shivered.

“Where’s mummy?”

Grandad coughed to give himself time to answer.

“Well, mummy’s the angel darling.  She’s gone up to Heaven.”

“But why?”

Grandad swallowed again, and his eyes were all wet.  When he answered, he was looking at the snow.

“You see these flakes all falling down to the ground?”

“Yes.  They’re pretty.”

“Yes they are.  They’re pure, and exciting, and beautiful, and there’s nothing like them in the world.  But in the morning, the sun will come out, all warm and bright, and he’ll melt them and they’ll disappear.” She nodded.  “You see, sweetheart, the snow and the sun are both marvellous things.  But they can’t exist together.  You see, some things are just too perfect to stay on this Earth.”

“Gabby, what’s wrong?”

Steph’s voice was distant, as if she were speaking from far away, calling across a snowy landscape, the sound smothered by the softest blanket of all.

Gabby opened the door and ran, across the garden, out of the gate, down the sloping lane.  Her feet pounded over the new-born flakes, turning them into her footprints.  They slapped her cheeks in protest, and she felt them stinging her skin, as her tears, scorching once more, fell to mingle with them, turning them into pain-wracked thoughts, just as they themselves froze to become snowflakes.

by Sarah McLean

Flash fiction prompt: snow