A Hidden Spirit

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The children were always making wild claims for the magic of the garden.

“Look, we found fairies!” they gasp, brandishing handfuls of glitter that bounce of the sparks in their eyes. Feigning amusement at such games is one aspect of parenthood I don’t think I’ll ever perfect.

“I wish you wouldn’t come in with muddy boots on,” I hear myself echoing my mother, her voice querulous and knackered, coming from long ago; a dusk-lit kitchen, the smell of shepherd’s pie.

“But Daddy, fairies!”

Samantha is tugging on Tim’s arm so hard it’s difficult to tell if he’s enthusiastic or just wincing. I concede to the whole performance and find myself led up the path to the back of the garden, noting the places where serious weeding needs to be done. When was the last time I ventured in this far? Ever since Emma left there seemed no point to mowing the lawn; the children love the grass when it’s long. Sometimes, washing the dishes at the window I’ll watch them, pushing each other and laughing. Tim’ll come in like clockwork, ten minutes later, eyes streaming with hay-fever.

“Right kids what is it I’m supposed to be seeing?”

“Fairies, you big oaf.”

“Fairies, huh? What do fairies look like then?” Wearily, I crouch to their level, the old knees stiff from last night’s squash match (Michael swamped me with that backhand of his).

This time, Tim pipes up. “Lights. They’re lights.” It’s dusk and the garden is full of shadows. When they were tiny, I used to take them up here, hand in hand with the torch. We’d have a fire and tell ghost stories till Emma called us inside, pronouncing it too chilly to just sit. She wouldn’t even try the fire.

“What kind of lights?” It’s cold enough now. Summer almost over, the promise of autumn frost, school uniforms to iron…

“You have to take a picture.”

“Come on, Daddy’s getting tired now.” I straighten up.

“No really. You take a picture and then the photo shows them up. They’re ever so tiny.” Samantha with her matter-of-fact tone, a hallmark of Emma’s.

Tim scrambles up the ash tree and whips a polaroid camera out of the birdhouse. I marvel at the way he leaps down and lands like a cat on both feet.

“Where’d you get that?” They exchange a glance which I take as suspicious, significant.

“You have to be very still,” Samantha warns me. Obediently I stand there in the dusk, straining my eyes to see. Beyond the garden fence, beyond the slope and the rooftops and chimneys, Emma and I are up at the top of Kildoon Hill, a blanket stretched before us, her face bathed in violet starlight. Or maybe it was the town that was bathed, the way the bluish dusk mixed with all the flickers of those amber streetlamps. We’re eating sugared strawberries, because it’s summer and everything’s ahead of us.

“Daddy! You’re not paying attention!” Samantha snaps.

“OK OK I am now. I’m watching.” After a nod from his sister, Tim creeps forward. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at. There’s a swarm of midges clustering around the nettles, whose ominous stalks are taller than Tim himself. Tim lunges forward at once and takes a snap. The flash floats briefly in the air, like a white glowstick spilt underwater, slowly melting away into nothing. The darkness rearranges. Jackdaws rustle in the leaves above us.

Excitedly, Tim shuffles over to me and holds out the polaroid while the picture develops.

“We saw something about this in a book,” Samantha explains, “how cameras can capture a hidden spirit. Who knew we had fairies right here, in our garden? It’s a remarkable discovery.”

The picture pulls out fully. Tim hands it to me and watches, nose dripping eagerly, while I examine it. There’s the sinuous shapes of the shrubbery, the black slant of the shed. Most of the image, however, is taken up by a cloud of tiny lights, pulsing in my shaky vision like silver orbs, millioning gleefully. I’m not sure if it disappoints me that the children are enraptured by a throng of glowing midges, caught momentarily as fairies in their camera flash. I think about what Emma would say, anxious about the questionable origins of the camera itself, about Samantha’s magpie-eye for shiny things out of reach in shops. Isn’t there a film about this, two girls faking photos of fairies in their garden? What are they trying to prove?

“Well?” The kids are impatient. I’m impatient too, waiting for my own reaction. Samantha rolls her eyes.

“Look, if you’re worried about the camera, it’s just a present from Mum.”

“Oh.” The force of this blow is surprising. I glance over at the midges, still humming away beside us, indifferent to the available flesh of our faces. Tim’s expression was devastating.

“You don’t care,” he whimpered. I tuck the polaroid photo in the breast-pocket of my shirt.

“Aw kids, of course I do.” I draw him towards me, folding him tight the way I’ve seen him hugging the neighbour’s dog, craving that sense of what I’d forgotten. His hair smells of grass and it needs a wash. Samantha looks bemused at our clumsy embrace. She’s pretending to play with the camera now, but I catch her eye without meaning to. There’s a spark there, a flash of something I know is mine. We both smile and I think she half believes me.

Maybe that’s the magic of the garden.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: exposure, <photo>)

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The Merchant

The merchant was a catlike figure, clothed in a motley of colourful silks.

His market stall was always surrounded by swarms of clamouring customers, reaching over each other with sweaty fistfuls of coins, bartering and bludgeoning, trying to be the first one there, to get the pick of the stock.

The merchant made a pretty penny wherever he ventured, but he never stayed too long. Never long enough to be driven out, or locked up. He came always as a hooded stranger, ingratiating himself. He travelled wider and wider and yet never seemed out of place, making friends among the fishwives and tanners, becoming ubiquitous. He blended in to the market scene, men would swear that he had always been a trader there…as long as they could recall anyway. He quietly peddled his wares – harmless little souvenirs from faraway lands, little woven purses for the ladies, leather belts and engraved silver buckles for the men, wooden toys and woollen animals for the children.

But then, as the weeks went on, the crowds would become more and more frenzied, they would queue for hours at his stall, they would search for him in the streets, try to find out where his house was, thought they always failed. He was almost an apparition, he was there at the break of dawn, before the other traders had even risen from their beds, and yet while the other stalls were still being packed away, he seemed to have vanished, not even leaving the treads of his wheels or a pointed footprint in his wake.

The lawmakers could never understand the crowds, why people seemed so desperate to buy these silly trinkets. They had searched his stall for secret supplies, smuggled goods, strange drugs, signs of black magic or foul play, but never found a thing – just little knickknacks. Harmless, useless things. A wooden windmill that turned and played a tune, a nacre jewellery box, a handsome felt hat with a merry decoration, some glass marbles in assorted colours, a drinking horn with a leather strap. The lawmakers would scratch their heads. They would send patrols to watch the man, to see where he went to after the market closed, but some strange happenstance would always get in their way: they would fall asleep, or a fire would break out, or a child would be lost, or they would each swear they had seen him run in the opposite direction, and lose sight of both him and each other in the chase.

Only one person knew the truth about the merchant. She had followed him from town to town. She was no fool, and she was not under his spell. She protected herself with charms and totems, she never approached him, or looked into his eyes. For she knew him not as a harmless merchant, but a powerful magician, with such skill at spellweaving he could imbue any item he chose with a curse. He used his powers now out of simple greed, but once he had been an even crueller soul. Now, he left only the hordes of poor and destitute in his wake. Once, he had left death, plague and misery.

The poor women he had lured to his bed. The poor children he had lured to their deaths.

 

By RN
(Prompts: daze, sold)

Of Agony and Ambience

The carnival was alive with all the coruscations of otherworldly sounds and playful particles of light. A dreamer from another world might be at home here in the terrible pleasures of fiddle litanies, fortune tellers and candy floss spun like the silk of some fantastic spider. Dancers whirled and threw about their lovely muscles upon the stage while children laughed and sang and played. All was a picturesque festival and the village and its people seemed at their happiest.

But happy to those immune to the allure of the magic booth. The sign outside was written in Old English lettering, embossed with gold leaf, and it said that the enchanter inside could read people’s auras. The children were forbidden from entering the booth: to know one’s aura was considered bad luck, and indeed a responsibility too great to be shouldered by the young. Typically, the only people who sought the knowledge of the aura-reader were those faced by some personal crisis: illness, a death in the family, a forbidden or forlorn love, a secret and implacable desire, or perhaps problems with coaxing the harvest to ripe.

They had expected the aura-reader to be some gnarled old woman, possibly wearing a witch’s hat, but certainly with a cat draped on one shoulder and a shimmering shawl of sorts on the other. They had certainly not expected the fresh-faced young man who sat up crossed-legged looking at a dream-catcher on the ceiling, a string of pearls around his neck.

“Welcome,” he murmured as a way of greeting. The villages were to come in two at a time, and leave their donations in a small pot by the tent’s entrance. The soft clink of silver in the pot chimed with the twinkle of metal slivers clicking together on the ends of the dream-catcher. Carefully, a couple took their place upon the rug in front of the aura-reader. They were not married, but in fact brother and sister.

“What is it you seek?” The boy’s voice had the uncanny bristle of a man much older. Yet as he spoke, no wrinkles betrayed his age, nor were there frown-lines to ripple his forehead. His face was as smooth as the skin of a ripe apple.

“Well, we came here because you can read auras,” the man said nervously.

“That I can do.”

“Y-yes.” The smell of incense wafted up from a corner of the boot, filling their heads with the dreamy airiness of distant promises.

“But why do you wish me to read your aura?”

“It sounds exciting,” the woman piped in, pulling back a strand of her ashen hair.

“Perhaps it is.” The boy closed his eyes and hummed gently, the sound seeming to illuminate his translucent skin. The man fidgeted and the woman stared at the boy’s long butterfly lashes and wished she’d been blessed with such an asset.

They waited a good hour or so for the boy to speak again. Time was a wispy thing; a silk-sliver dangling upon the streams his dream-catcher. The boy seemed caught in a trance and it would be a sin to wake him. When he opened his eyes, he stared first at the man and then the woman. He sighed deeply. He closed his eyes, then opened them to look one by one at the couple again, his gaze meeting theirs’ in ephemeral recognition.

“One of you will die a most horrific death,” he said after a pause. They waited with bated breath for him to continue.

“I see it in the after-image. Black: little snivelling swirls of it. It catches at your eyes and ears and makes a fool of your lovely soul. Soon you’ll be deep in the ground, cold.” His slow, emphatic tone savoured every word he spoke.

“But which one of us are you referring to?” the man asked with some desperation. Ignoring this inquest, the boy spoke again. It was just then that the couple noticed the shining bead of light emanating from the centre of his forehead. They tried to ignore it, looking up at the dream catcher as his words filled the tight space.

“The other has a most wonderful aura…such a rich, potent red… you are alive with carnal desires, so urgent and so lusty that I would love myself to reach out and touch you…but it would break the spell. You will live long and powerful and have many children, it is certain. Your body gives spark to the vivacity of your spiritual flesh.” He beamed, but his gaze was directed at the space between the man and the woman: the dark velvet of the curtain behind them.

“So one of us will live pleasantly whilst the other shall die?”

“It is perhaps so, as the colours tell me.”

They looked at each other and sorrow filled their souls as they thought of how the sibling bond between them was bound to inevitably burst. The thought of this sadness kindled a flame of rage and frustration, and it was all they could do to prevent themselves ripping at the boy’s throat; for how dare he cast such wicked slander upon their family? How could it be fair that one should live while the other perish in a most unpleasant death? It seemed a knowledge beyond all reason.

And so mania sizzled through their veins as they crawled from the tent, and once again faced the bright darkness, the fairy lights and lively music, the people and their bodies bumping and dancing and spinning.

“We must lose ourselves,” the man said. “It is the only way.” The sister swore to him that she agreed and so they took themselves off into the woods, stopping by at a seedy-looking stall to pick up the necessary paraphernalia. The needle would be sharp and sweet, as such things are destined always to be.

When they were found, dead, the next day, their bodies were swollen with staggering amounts of morphine. Black pocks marked their skin and already hoards of ants and maggots had begun feasting upon the cloth of their bodies. When the boy was called upon to witness them, he buried his head in his hands in a strained display of emotion.

“What a gorgeous aura – such passion and anguish! – and did they not know that an aura is but transience?”

So under the cherry glacé of a summer’s dawn the boy wept until all the sins crawled out of his soul like impatient worms; until he was a crumple upon the undergrowth, his aura black as a midnight sky or the ore of darkest coal. The ooze and cloud came out of every pore until his body joined his soul – so shrivelled and sad and old.

(Prompts: manic, paraphernalia, booth)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Disappear

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

Ceinwen, the Magic Dragon

In my childhood I had no imaginary friends but when I was twenty five, a dragon moved into my garage. Her name was Ceinwen and she became my best ever friend, strangely no one else could see her.
Over the next five years we had many exciting adventures together but the authorities began to take an interest and demanded that I take an anti-dragon potion. Naturally I refused as I was convinced that they were trying to poison me. Eventually they came and took me away to Hartwood hospital. They wouldn’t let me out until I took the potion called Rohypnol. Now Ceinwen has gone, I miss her very much but the have warned me that if I stop taking the Rohypnol, they will take me back to Hartwood.

by Jane Helen Jones
What were your prompts?: Childhood, potion,dragon.