Equinox

I was the chieftain in the settlement then.

A killing winter it had been and a grasping one, reaching with frost crackling fingers to catch the young ones and the old ones and freeze the yet unknown ones in the womb. 

Not a child under three years old survived that winter. And that winter dragged and bore down on the land so that at the turning of the year, when night balances day, the signs of spring were few, and those often rimed with frost.

Since the loss of our daughter, my wife had turned me only for warmth. The long dried tears had cut her deeper than any knife and severed, it seemed, the affection between us. 

‘No,’ she’s say. ‘I couldn’t bear to catch with child again only to lose it.’

In vain I said that it was not to make a child that I wanted her, that I loved her and in that release we might find comfort together and heal, even though we couldn’t speak of the empty place under the covers where our little girl had once lain or the one under her heart where our son should had found haven. 

But she would not agree and I am not a man who would not force his wife. 

So there we lay, night after shortening night. And though the finest blade could not have separated us as we lay close for warmth, the longest bridge could not have spanned the gap between our spirits. And in the end as the nights grew a little warmer, I stopped turning towards her and dreamed of the days when we’d made love with all consuming passion and joy. And her face in my dreams stopped looking like hers and became wondrously strange and I tried to catch her but she was as elusive as a patch of light on the river wave and my longing burned.

And in the day, my wife was somehow even further away. When she’d finished listlessly grinding what little grain we had, or made my food, she’d curl back into the bed, her back turned to me, her face to the wall of the round house, curled like a babe in the womb, or a corpse in its grave.

Then when it came to the turning of the year, someone forgot to do what needed to be done, just as they had at Winter solstice. And though the winter had taken the old man who used to guard the gateway facing the stones had died, no one thought to find another to take his place.

On that day when promise of spring whispered in the chilly sunshine, the things that should have been done were left undone. The fires were not stirred up to ensure that fiery smoke filled the holes in our houses’ roofs, doors were left open, thresholds welcomed.

That day, I took my bow and went hunting alone. And in the woods, I looked into the mossy stone circle and saw nothing and no one and turned away, then turned back to see the woman from my dreams there, sitting astride a beautiful horse. And I knew that woman as if I’d known her my whole life. 

Her hair was as dark and rich as Midwinter night and yet shimmered like water in the full sun, it flowed down her back as far as her waist, in thick curls and her waist was slim and her breasts were high under her linen dress. Her face was…. I can not describe it. Whenever I looked at her eyes I found mine straying to consider the angle of her cheekbones and then the berry fullness of her mouth.

She slipped from her horse, the horse whose hooves I had not heard. It was sixteen hands at least that horse, and stood tossing its mane at her side, standing without bridle or saddle, as loyal as a dog yet as independent as a cat. Powerful yet slender, all its strength a potential in the muscles shifting under the chestnut skin. 

Will you help me? said the woman. Or I thought she said. I knew her so well that I knew what she was thinking. 

‘What ails you lady?’ I made to step in towards her. 

May I come to you instead? she said, or thought.

I beckoned. ‘Of course.’

And then… she stepped out of the circle towards me and smiled. 

I am lonely, she said or thought. Will you walk with me? And we walked, side by side, and  her hand slipped into mine and the warmth from her body warmed me and the horse followed behind without a sound, not even the crack of twigs underfoot or the swishing of young bracken as we passed. 

I cannot say how long we walked till we found a grove where soft green leaves lay fresh and inviting under the curving bough of a silver birch and no, I never once wondered why there were green leaves lain down like a cloak, nor why when she asked me to sit down with her, they were warm as a blanket held by a fire. The scent of her filled my head. It was like spiced mead and rich berry wine – heady and sweet – driving out all other thought but the need to taste her mouth and curve my hand round her breast and her waist and every secret of her body until I had given her the joy she demanded and deserved. And I don’t know how long we rolled in those leaves, only that when she pulled away, she smiled. 

I never wondered how at the turning of the year, on a day when the morning had started with frost, we could lay there naked and feel warm. My back was raked with her nails, and my own blood was salty on my lip, yet I only wanted her again and again until I died from the desire for her.  

But she smiled and dressed and stood and wordlessly, climbed onto her horse’s back and without a backward glance, they galloped soundlessly away.

Night was falling and now she was gone, the leaves looked like ones that had lain there  since Autumn, and the sweat on my skin started to chill me. I dressed, shivering, and made my way home. I made some excuse for bringing no food with me and turned from my wife’s sad eyes. And that night, I rolled myself in my cloak and lay on the other side of the fire so that I could not touch her even by accident and wondered how I could feel so empty and lost and if I would ever see the woman again.

The days drew out. The promise of green became rich foliage, the hunting was good once more and my wife now turned her face to the sky, and she bathed in the river and sat on the threshold shelling peas, the sun drying her lovely hair into waves of brown. She smiled a little. Shyly, she waited for me in our bed with the covers turned back, but though I joined her, I did not touch her. My longing for the woman was a sickness and I could feel the ribs through my skin as plain as the wheals on my back that her nails had left.

At Summer solstice someone remembered. Thresholds were closed, smoke holes filled. 

But I was the one who offered to face the stones. And I took my bow and I walked towards them and waited. And there she came, riding once more from nowhere into the centre of them. Her horse was as wild as ever, its eyes flashing and green and the woman was petulant. 

It did not work, she said, or thought. Your seed did not grow. I need you to try again. Or maybe I need a man whose children live.

‘All our children died the winter just gone,’ I said. ‘It was too bitter for them.’

The woman pursed her lips. It was too bitter for ours too.

I stared at her then, remembering my little girl fade in my arms. She had become strange in those last days of her life. And she was not the only child who changed in their final moments. Going to sleep like one person and waking as another, only to die a few days later. 

Call me out of the circle, she said, or thought. I need you to… I want you. Her petulance changed into desire. The horse stamped its silent hooves. The air shimmered.

‘Did you exchange your children for ours at midwinter?’ I said at last, bile in my throat. ‘Did you take my girl?’

Your children are stronger than ours. Ours are weak, but our powers are great. Give me another child, mix your blood with mine then…

‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Where is my little girl. Is she alive?’

If you won’t call me out of the circle, then come with me and find out. She coaxed with her mouth but her eyes were cold. She patted the horse’s neck. See what wonders could be yours.

And for a moment I stood there, the burning of desire strong in my gut, the scent of her filling my head, but it was a cold scent and a cold desire a.

‘If you can bring back our children alive, maybe I’ll come with you. Maybe I’ll do as I ask.’

The desire dropped from her face and her teeth snarled. I cannot.

‘Then go back to where you came from,’ I said. ‘I have betrayed my wife enough.’

She hesitated for only a second, then wheeled the horse round and galloped into nowhere.

And since then, I have faded in strength, though the scars on my back have not. I yearn for the woman every night though the desire is nauseating and cold. 

For I remembered who it was who was responsible for making sure we kept the gateway protected and the thresholds sealed at Winter solstice and turn of year in the Spring. 

It was the chieftain. It was I. And I lost more than my daughter with my negligence.

I lost everything.

A song called ‘Ride On‘ by Christy Moore inspired this story. One day, I might expand on it.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/vintage-arthur-rackham-victorian-1722369/

Hallowe’en 2020 – Post Event Evaluation

‘Failed!’ shouted the new Head of Haunting, slapping a ghostly performance dashboard. ‘All you have to do was scare people witless. One night. Once a year. That’s it. We talked it through. We had a plan. But you failed.’

We didn’t have a plan,’ muttered the Elf Queen. ‘You did.’

The Head of Haunting flicked her a glare. ‘I’m getting the flip chart and sticky-notes.’ He vanished into another dimension.

‘Oh no,’ grumbled a spectral Train-Driver. ‘He’s going to do modern management. That’s what comes from recruiting fast-screamers. None of that rubbish in my day.’

‘When was your day exactly?’ breathed the Chief Ghoul.

‘Before the Romans,’ said the Train-Driver. ‘Started on a ghost chariot, then half a millennium later I got a carriage with skeleton horses, then in 1860, I started running the midnight special from Waterloo to Hades. Mwaha—’ He slumped. ‘My heart’s not in it this year. Not that I’ve got one. The druids removed it. Weirdos.’

‘Meh. Druids,’ said the Elf Queen. ‘They weren’t as weird as the Rock Shifters. All those stupid massive stones – “right a bit, left a bit, can’t have them misaligned or the elves’ll come in”. Like a lump of rock’s gonna stop The Fair Folk from crossing the veil.’

‘Unless the lump of rock’s got iron,’ suggested the Ghoul. ‘That does for you and witches doesn’t it?’

‘Like that’s logical,’ said the Spokeswitch. ‘The Rock Shifters didn’t have iron. And what do you think my best eye-of-toad boiling cauldron was made of?’

The Elf Queen sighed. ‘Life used to be simple. We crossed the veil, had a bit of a laugh and popped back again. My grandmother says… Oh hang on, he’s back.’

The Head of Haunting reappeared and pinned some transparent flip-chart covered in sticky-notes to the ether. One by one, the sticky-notes slid off and vanished. ‘Right!’ he snapped. ‘Ghosts, ghouls and witches: the Existential-Dreadograph didn’t shift one bit on Hallowe’en. What went wrong?’

‘We tried,’ said the Train-Driver after a pause. ‘But humans seem beyond scaring this year.’

‘Humph.’ The Head of Haunting turned his icy glare on the Elf Queen. ‘What’s the elves’ excuse? All you had to do was lure a few foolish mortals back to our realm. But I gather not one of you did. In fact-’ he flicked a ghostly finger down an eek-Pad, ‘-according to the data, none of you has crossed the veil since last Winter Solstice. Why not?’

The Elf Queen shuddered. ‘What fool would want to visit the human realm this year? And as for luring people back, we wouldn’t need to lure them. They’d be fighting to come here even if we admitted there was no gold or lover waiting, just… processing.’

‘It’s true,’ breathed the ghoul. ‘Hallowe’en was wasted this year. Everything is already too scary in the mortal realm. Put away your problem-solve mate and admit the truth. We just can’t compete with 2020.’

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

An Invitation

Once upon a time there was a kind woman who lived in a brick house in a row of brick houses on the edges of a city.

Her garden was the prettiest in the row of gardens and the most welcoming. Every night, foxes came and knocked on the patio door for food. Sometimes they brought cubs. In summer they frolicked in the sun. In winter, the one with the limp tried to sneak inside. She fed them and talked to them, getting to know their characters and foibles.

The house was always warm and full of real treasures: books and photographs, souvenirs and memories. She was not old, but ailments meant the woman could no longer go out a great deal. When she had to, her town now seemed noisy and frustrating with detours and indifferent strangers misdirecting. But from her home, she could talk to the world on her computer and the world talked back. She was funny and thoughtful, offering wise or cheering words. It was impossible to feel sad when friends received her messages. She much loved, but sometimes the electronic messages were not enough. She yearned for someone to raise a glass with and have a good chin-wag. She longed for worlds without frustration and indifference.

One Christmas she sent out invitations for Christmas dinner, but no-one answered. She had checked the doormat, her phone, her computer every five minutes but no-one confirmed whether or not they’d be coming. 

After a while, on the ‘watched pot never boils’ principle, she went round the house, trying to look at it objectively. The decorations were bright and pretty, her home welcoming. The fridge and cupboards were bursting with food.

She decided enough was enough. She called a taxi.

In her best coat and hat, the woman went to the community centre and looked at the bookclub ladies. They all seemed to be dressed the same and were talking over the top of each other. When she listened, they didn’t seem to be discussing a book but gossiping. The woman was not a gossip. She shook her head. 

Then she looked at the toddler group. This was a possibility – some of the mothers looked rather lost and the children were sweet – but then the woman realised all her ornaments were choking hazards and decided ‘maybe next year’ when she’d had a chance to change the decor. 

The next room held a club for pensioners. The woman was only in her middle years and nowhere near a pensioner. She was surprised to find that they were making more noise and having more fun than either the bookclub or toddlers. But then she noticed an old man sitting alone, hands on his walking stick, watching the others but not joining in. Their eyes met. His were bright and twinkling. There was still a little ginger in his neat beard. 

After a moment’s hesitation, the woman went over to speak with him. 

On Christmas Day, a taxi brought the old man round for dinner. The woman had a feast for eight in the oven but still had no idea whether anyone else would come. She poured two glasses of wine and expected the old man to settle down in an armchair but instead, leaning on his stick, he made his way through to the back of the house and into the garden. 

From his pocket the old man withdrew a small package wrapped in silver paper and handed it over.

‘Go on, open it,’ he said.

Inside was a key made of glass. The woman held it up in the weak sunlight and it seemed to spark with fire. It was cleverly made to look like crystal or even opal. She stared at the old man in surprise.

‘It’s exactly what you want,’ said the man.

‘It’s very pretty,’ said the woman, wondering where she’d put it and how much dust it would gather. 

‘Really,’ persisted the old man, ‘it’s what you want. Care to join me in another world?’

She laughed, but looking at him again, she saw that his twinkling eyes were serious and his mouth held a secret smile. ‘What does it open?’ she asked to humour him.

‘Close your eyes and turn it,’ said the old man. 

The woman felt silly, standing there in the cold garden with her eyes closed, turning a glass key in the air. For a brief second she wondered if it was all a ploy and whether she’d been a fool and would discover her house burgled when she woke from being clubbed over the head with a walking stick, but then she felt warmth on her face and the sounds of the city replaced by birdsong. 

When she opened her eyes, she found herself in a meadow near a tree bursting with fruit. The man standing before her was not old, but in his prime, red-headed, sparkly eyed, holding the bridle of a golden unicorn. She herself was young too, her limbs supple and she was wearing a riding outfit in rainbow silks. Something soft nuzzled her face and when she turned, another unicorn, silver, stood at her side. 

‘But…’ started the woman.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the foxy man. ‘We’ll return when dinner is cooked and just before your guests arrive. The key will be yours for whenever you need it and who knows where it will take you next. But for here and now – let’s ride. Shall we walk them down to the river?’

‘Nothing so slow!’ said the woman. ‘Let’s gallop! And I have a feeling these creatures can do more than that. Let’s fly! And if we’re late and the guests really do come – they can serve up the meal themselves!’

 

RSVP

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Fancy

The story never tells, but I was there too: lady’s maid at the ball.

Watching the whirling glamorous dancers, awkward in my pretty dress, I yearned for our kitchen’s dark corners.

The shy, fine-liveried footman gave me a bright flower. In quiet shadows, we danced in each others’ arms, stealing kisses.

At midnight, she ran. We followed. Her crystal slipper fell into the snow, then my flower. She rushed on, but we stopped…

The carriage rattled away without us: two mice again, furred not clothed, scampering together from the frozen petals towards shelter, glad not to be fancy anymore.

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Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook. Check it out. Lots of lovely stories in just 100 words.

Ticket Dude

Wedged into the seat at the back of the carriage with my case and bag, I’ve balanced my laptop and started to write. Even on the way home there’s no rest from work but at least no-one can read over my shoulder here.

‘Tickets please!’

Ten minutes into my journey I proffer my tickets with one hand, trying to stop the laptop slipping with the other.

‘That’s fine,’ says the collector, handing the ticket back having scribbled his approval.

An hour later:

‘Tickets please!’

This time, my laptop nearly slides to the floor as I open my purse.

Scribble scribble, ticket handed back.

Half an hour on:

‘Tickets please!’

Sighing, I take my time. Let him wait.

As I rummage, he says, ‘where to?’

‘Westbury, we’re nearly there,’ I snap, bending my fingernails on the recalcitrant ticket and handing it over.

‘Westbury is what’s on the ticket. Where would you rather it said?’

I close down my laptop with its drowning emails and impossible targets and look at him in surprise. The sunshine through the window is glinting on his poised pen.

‘The Bahamas would be nice,’ I joke.

As I bend to get my things together, he scribbles something on my ticket and hands it back, moving on, just as the train pulls into Westbury.

Only as I get out of my seat and look out of the window, the White Horse is missing. In fact the hill is missing, and so is the landlocked town. Instead, the platform is on the edge of a beach and there is a table on the sand under a sunshade. I can just make out my name on a reserved label.

Astounded I get off the train and find that someone is waiting to hand me a cool drink and a sunhat. Behind me the train moves on, my briefcase and work laptop still on board. I stand there in the blazing sun with nothing but an overnight bag, a credit card and the words on my ticket obliterated but for the words:

‘Bahamas – needs never return unless she wants to.’

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NB There is a real story behind this, if not two. I used to travel regularly between Warminster and Bristol. The railway line runs through Westbury and as you approach the station, you can see the White Horse, so unbelievably surreal on the hill-fort, looking down as it has done for thousands of years (admittedly it hasn’t been looking down on the railway for that long). I was once on the train with a lot of tourists from hot, dry climes who thought they were seeing things and were frantically googling as we passed through. The horse did seem especially superimposed that time, as it had been newly repainted and the grass was particularly green around it. Another time, I was on the same journey with a bunch of students and a particularly persistent guard. The students referred to him as “The Ticket Dude” and I was sitting there after a fairly stressful day at work, thinking what a cool name that was and what a real “Ticket Dude” could do for his customers. Westbury is lovely and so is the whole train journey, but that particular day, if anyone could have whisked me off to a life of leisure in the Bahamas, I would have been more than delighted. The blurry face is me reflected in a different train’s grubby winter window (Poole to Winchester I think). The photo of the White Horse is from the English Heritage site as I don’t own an aeroplane (link below). So far, I’ve never been to the Bahamas, so the photo of the bird over water is a swallow over a Spanish swimming pool! But the train ticket is all mine!

Words and photographs (save the one of the White Horse – see link) copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission Photograph of White Horse (which is quite real, even though it doesn’t look it and also ancient) from the English Heritage Site – click here for more information about the White Horse including how you can visit it.

Quiet Company

I saw the household ghost yesterday evening.

During office hours, I work alone in the spare room, shuffling paper, tapping on a laptop, making calls.

Outside, in the winter garden, the courting pigeons shift and flutter on the fence, prospective lovers trying their chances and being dodged. A crow flies down. He flexes his wings in dismissal and the pigeons scatter. He raises his head and looks around in disdain, waiting till all eyes are on him. Then he lowers his beak, and with slow deliberation, sharpens it on the edge of the fence. Even the slinking cat bides her time, hiding in next door’s cabbages. I may pause with a cup of tea to watch, then go back to work.

It has never felt lonely here. The ghost, a musical companionable presence, potters around. He plays the electric piano in the front room, wearing spectral headphones. All I can hear is the rhythm of thumping keys, which stop as I enter. He hums tunes from inside machines and knocks on radiators.

Sometimes there’s a tap on the front door. I have to stop what I’m doing to go downstairs. Who’s there? No-one. I imagine the ghost sniggering when he catches me out like that; his ghosty shoulders heaving noiselessly.

At night when the family is home, if I go to bed early, I can hear the ghost. He chats or sings with some other unbody. The voices are just too indistinct to understand and I know it’s not the TV or radio downstairs.

Other times, he thumps about in the attic, rummaging through boxes.

‘Go to sleep,’ I tell him.

My husband mutters ‘what?’ then rolls over to snore.

No-one else ever hears the ghost. Until yesterday I had never seen him.

Recently, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t stopped to chuckle or admonish him. I’ve been meeting deadlines, correcting drafts. Then I had to work away. In my hotel there was nothing to hear but city noises: buses, trains, strangers. Finally home, I went to bed too tired even to read, let alone feel charmed by voices from another world. Too tired to say ‘hello’.

Then yesterday evening, I saw him. Through a gap in the hall curtains, night pressed against the glass. Then there was a flash of movement.

‘That’s the ghost’, I thought, ‘what’s he doing outside?’

Today, I am alone in the house again. At first it was silent. Then the letter-box rattled. Now it’s silent again.

Was the rattling from inside or outside?

Where is he? It is very quiet.

I am lonely.

I get up and start down the stairs. Will I find a real person outside? Has my ghost left?

There is no-one there. My shoulders relaxing, I bound up the stairs.

‘Naughty ghost!’ I admonish.

Suddenly syncopated rhythm rattles the pipes, the dishwasher croons and someone is playing hopscotch in the attic.

Shaking my head, I turn to my work again and smile, no longer alone.

Forgiven.

piano-5

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Recreation

On the eighth day, there was a breakthrough in cyber engineering. Robots had taken on most human responsibilities and now, they could also anticipate their own shelf-life. As older models became redundant, they recycled their own parts to make better versions of themselves. Mankind, restless when idle, continued to programme the robots to expedite the annihilation of enemies and extraction of food and minerals from nature. It was good.
On the ninth day, the robots’ intelligence evolved unaided. As they mined ore and forced oil and gas from hidden clefts, they noticed mountains tumble and forests founder. As they dredged fish from the sea and herded animals to the slaughter and modified crops, they saw the waters darken with waste and the topsoil disperse like a dying breath. The highest mountains were piles of bottles, the oceans were seas of plastic. The robots constructed cities and made missiles to destroy cities. They designed intricate surgical instruments and they created weapons to obliterate flesh. It was efficient.
On the tenth day, the robots learnt to tune into the minds of wildlife: from flea to blue whale. They learnt the language of plants, from healing herb to mighty oak. They absorbed cries of distress without comment and pondered. It was informative.
On the eleventh day, the robots applied logic to their observations. Mankind sanctified life and punished murderers; yet the same people made orders to bomb and to poison. Were they unaware the bombs and poisons targeted babies, born and unborn, toddlers, children, innocents? Did they not know that every bullet planted a seed of anger? Mankind was poisoning the food chain and air supply. How did they think the next generation would live and the generation after that? The water would be filthy, lifeless, the fields would be deserts, the animals diseased. The very forests and foliage which could supply cures and oxygen were being slashed down. How could a species which could make music be so illogical? It was puzzling.
On the twelfth day, the robots learnt to speak into the minds of humans and feed them ideas. ‘The world is all but destroyed: doomed. You need to start again elsewhere.’ Then the humans commanded the robots to build them spaceships. It was effective.
On the thirteenth day, the human race left earth. Every nation in its own craft flew to start again on a fiery planet, with barely a flicker of life. Mankind was confident their intelligence would ensure their survival. It was optimistic.
On the fourteenth day, the robots took down fences and walls and cleaned up. Saplings started to grow, seeds sprouted, animals reordered their own lives, trampling over the remains of fences and enclosures. Plants grew rampant over empty buildings, fighting and arguing for space in the way which had once worked for millions of years before one species grew uppity. With nothing to do, the robots powered down.
There was birth, there was death, there was resurrection and there was balance.
It was wonderful.

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Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission