Prompt: Smoke and Mirrors
Word Count: 1,900
Smoke in the Mirror
It was an old story told in Neversedge, well worn and familiar like the smooth stones of the city streets. An old wives’ tale handed down to generations of younglings, more often than not by candlelight on a bleak winter’s night. There was little else to do in the depths of the cold season in the most remote part of the empire than gather together to trade tales. The grandmothers of the city revelled in their status as storytellers and wise women and were not adverse to embellishing the facts a little, if indeed they were ever fact at all. As such the stories grew and shifted as each woman added her own flair. Sometimes the stories become so legendary that they condensed down to an anecdote or a phrase. ‘Never look at the smoke in the mirror’. It was a phrase ever child of Neversedge grew familiar with. The story itself was a simple cautionary tale of vanity and pride mixed in with the prerequisite amount of ghoulish hokey. The more sensitive children would refuse to look in mirrors again and sleep with the lamps burning for several days. Most would laugh it off outwardly with childish bravado but think twice before looking too hard at their reflections, or what lay behind them.
Each year more than one child would run crying to their parents claiming to have seen smoke in their bedroom mirror. Mostly they’d be met with sympathy, reassurance and probably a treat to lift their spirits whilst being told how they musn’t let the stories of the wise women scare them. The world was safe and secure after all. There’d be time for them to learn the truth when they got older. The more superstitious parents would strip the house of all reflective objects, hang bunches of fresh herbs above the doorways and chase away the shadows with bright candlelight. Jesson was eight when she saw the smoke out of corner of her eye whilst she braided her hair. She neither cried nor ran to her parents. Instead she continued to steal glances at the twisting, writhing smoke until it faded from sight. Her parents were not the sort to react to her discovery with fear and superstition. Nor was she inclined to be patronised as one of the children who feared the night, the hand at the window and the figure in the dark. Jesson was not prone to bouts of childish paranoia. She had never made her father check for monsters under her bed or bogeymen in her wardrobe. She often kept her curtains open at night and the window cracked for air without worrying about what might steal into her room in the dark. So she kept quiet and went about her daily business of lessons, homework and chores without ever mentioning the smoke in the mirror. At quiet times though, when she was alone, she’d often find herself glancing at the wooden framed mirror above her desk hoping to see something more than her ever-changing adolescent face looking back.
As Jesson grew she made a name for herself as a troublemaker and a nuisance, much to her parents dismay. Neversedge was not a place that took kindly to lawbreakers and whilst as a child she was granted the benefit of the doubt on more than one occasion, as she matured the collective patience of the Elders and the Enforcers began to show signs of wear and tear. She was noticeably different in appearance to her peers; tall, lanky and with untidy dark hair falling over intense green eyes. Nobody in Neversedge had green eyes and it became another thing that marked her as someone to keep a careful eye on. Her attitude grew with her size and her years and she would be prone to fits of dark moods and solitude, spending her time either shut in her room or away from the house walking alone amongst the marshes and woodlands. The city folk, especially those of a superstitious nature began avoiding her as much as they avoided other dark places in Neversedge. It was not considered wise to peer into the shadows this close to the edge of the empire and Jesson’s dark green eyes were felt to be just as dangerous.
It was a cold morning in early winter when Jesson decided to scale the walls of the Judiciary. Only Enforcers and the accused were allowed in and few of the accused made it out to tell about it. Crime and insubordination were dealt with seriously with punishments ranging from exile to death via some macabre corporal sentences carried out by as special team of Enforcers known colloquially as the Whiplashes. For Jesson, the dark stone building decorated liberally with gargoyles and grotesques was fascinating. Her desire to discover what lay inside led to her scaling the craggy building in the hops of finding a way inside. She was halfway up peering into the cold, dead eyes of a particularly ugly grotesque when she felt the torso-rope snap around her waist. Glancing down she could see the grey uniform of a junior Enforcer and sighed. Rumbled. The guard below gave a tug on the rope designed to seek out the midriff of whoever it was thrown at, and beckoned her down. Reluctantly, Jesson began to climb down taking her time. It was either that or wait for the guard to become impatient and reel in the torso-rope tearing her from the building by force. Climbing down of her own volition would go in her favour if he referred her to his superiors. As she hit the frosty grass with a soft crunch she turned to face the Enforcer, her face set into a scowl. The scowl melted slightly as she recognised her captor’s face, before becoming etched deeper onto her features.
“What the hell did you do that for?” she spat
“Come off it Jess, you know that’s a Grade 1 offence. I should have you up in front of the Judiciary for that. You’re bloody lucky it was me on patrol.”
“Yeah, whatever, Leif” Jesson shrugged, “and don’t call me Jess.”
Leif sighed. He and Jesson had been friends of a fashion growing up and he knew how much she resented his decision to join the Enforcers. He retracted the rope releasing her from her bonds and stepped back. “Look Jesson,” he said emphasising the second syllable, “Quit pulling these kind of stunts. I can’t, no, I won’t keep covering for you forever.” He ran his hand through his close-cropped blonde hair. “I don’t want to see the Whiplashes get their grubby little paws on you, ok?”
Jesson snarled in response like some kind of feral dog and stalked off in the direction of her house. Leif shrugged his shoulders and deleted the electronic record of the torso-rope deployment from his log.
Jesson slammed the door to her room and slumped down at her desk in frustration. Bloody interfering do-gooder, she thought as she unwound her climbing wraps from her frozen fingers. To calm her anger she stared deeply into her own reflection in the wooden framed mirror she’d had since she was a child. As her rage began to dissipate she began to relax her vision. Slowly she began to see what she’d wanted to see since a bright summer’s day when she was eight. Softly, wisps of smoke began to form in the looking glass above the reflection of her face. She kept her eyes on those of her reflection, wary to stare to closely at the smoke in case she chased it away. From the corner of her eye she could see the smoke begin to clarify, to almost solidify until she felt she could touch it. Involuntarily she reached for the glass and found that her fingers slid through like there was no hard barrier there at all. She focused her attention on the smoke, allowing the twisting and swirling to consume her, to possess her. Her eyes closed and when they opened again she was in the dark. Purple flames sparked into life around her and as her eyes adjusted to the sudden influx of light, Jesson took in her surroundings. She was in a cave made of what appeared to be serpentinite, judging by the greenish, mottled appearance of the rocks by her feet. The cave was warm but not uncomfortably so and clearly buried deep in the earth. The flames burned in torches attached to the cave walls leading into the darkness. She began to edge forward in the dark when a voice stopped her in her tracks. A voice which appeared to resonate inside her own head rather than in the cave itself.
“Stay where you are child,” the voice said. A female voice, old as the cave itself and maybe even older than that. Old and wise enough to make even Jesson take heed. She sat back down on the cave floor. “Do you know where you are?”
“No,” Jesson’s voice echoed harshly in the silence of the cave.
“Think your responses, child, our minds are connected.”
“Who are you?” thought Jesson
“That is of no consequence. Are you prepared for a task? Few are given access to this place by the smoke and fewer still return whole. You, though, are different, one of us, maybe the one we have waited for.”
Jesson waited for more information but when no was forthcoming she thought her response.
“What task? What do you want me to do?”
“Simple. Change things. You are lied to and enslaved. The old ways are gone, the empire is gone. You are alone, trapped and enslaved by the so-called Elders and their puppets. They are poison. Destroy them and the old ways return. I know you feel it. The rage and the darkness, deep in your soul. Fight back, green-eyes.”
“The tools you need are at your feet. If you take them, use them and find us again in the smoke. If you leave them we will never call you again and you may live whatever life you choose. Your choice”
Jesson looked down at her feet. In the flickering light she could see a dagger with a serpentine handle, it’s blade glinting invitingly in the torchlight. Beside that lay a coil of rope like none she’d even seen, a satchel filled will herbs, lock-picks and other unidentifiable implements and a bone flute decorated with raven feathers.
“Their uses will become apparent”, the voice said growing quieter, “You will know what you must do.”
Jesson felt as sudden rush of cold air and closed her eyes tightly against it. When she opened them again she was sat at the desk and the mirror was empty of all but her reflection. She laid out her ‘tools’ on the rough wooden desk in front of her. She fondled the flute and held the dagger up to the light twisting the blade and watching the patterns of shift as the candle flame played across green stone and steel. She inhaled the cent of the herbs and the leather satchel, breathing the myriad of smells deeply into her lungs. Eventually, she sat back and looked once again into the mirror. “I know what I must do.”
brigits_flame Entry June 7th 2009
Word Count: 1,815
The plains stretched out in all directions. A flat, featureless expanse broken here and there by lonely farmsteads and ranch-houses. A ranch like this one. The colours of the plains are muted, the earth a dull grey-brown below a sky perpetually in cloud. When the sun dares to venture out it is weak and sickly, a pale light which only serves to make the overcast sky appear even more forlorn. The only beautiful time of day here is twilight when the sky takes on a deep grey-blue hue. It is a storm-laden sky but it is the only time of any strength or depth of colour. Even the dark of night seems somehow insipid in comparison.
The ranch itself is old and in need of repair. A sadness hanging over the broken down fences and peeling paintwork, a stench of neglect and abandonment that pervades like a tangible miasma, creeping into every nook and cranny. This is where I grew up. I’d like to say it was different then, that the sky stretched out above me, an untainted expanse of brilliant blue, that the sun shone strongly and brightly from dawn ’til dusk but that would be a lie. Lie seems too harsh, that would be a dream. A dream of an idyllic place where colours were vibrant and the air was warm. It is not this place, this tainted place.
The gate hung at an uncomfortable angle, and swung limply in the gentle breeze that neither cooled nor refreshed, creaking arthritically with every gust. A metal sign lay half buried in the grey dirt. I kicked the earth away to expose white lettering, cracked with age. ‘Ghostland Cross Ranch’. Never had the name been more apt. The ghosts of my childhood, of my past, lay inside. I looked up at the sprawling building before me. Years of modifications and improvements by generations of my family had lead to a mish-mash of architectural styles. It was never an ugly building, just one which lacked any true thought or planning. A casualty of pomposity, each descendent trying to outdo the last. It cried out for someone to give it some care, to remove the worst of the accoutrements and to restore it to the ranch-house it could have been. Should have been. It was too late now. If I were ever to inherit the building the kindness thing would be to raze it to the ground. Lay the ghosts of Ghostland Cross to rest for good.
I walked cautiously past the broken gate and up towards the porch. Dead vines and cobwebs adorned the woodwork like fungus. I wondered again why I was here, why the blood call had been so hard to resist. I’d put all memories of this place out of my mind when I left, or at least I thought I had. Deep down I guess I knew that Ghostland Cross wouldn’t let go of one of it’s own that easily. The summons was bound to come sooner or later. Despite my disgust at being here a small part of me was intrigued. Why call me home and why now? I took a deep breath and knocked on the warped wood of the door. The noise rang out loudly and echoed back at me, sounding more confident than I felt. Slowly the heavy door creaked open. The interior of the hallway was dark and dusty. I sniffed the stale air in disgust and hesitated. A voice came from within. “Michaela. Knocking before you enter? I see you’ve grown some manners. We’ll have to beat that out of you. I wonder what other bad habits you’ve picked up little sister.” I should have been preparing myself for hearing my brother’s voice again but foolishly I hadn’t. It was too late now. I inhaled deeply and strode into the house.
A hunched figure sat in semi-darkness on the stairs to the first floor. It uncurled slightly revealing it’s face. A face I new all too well even though it had changed and aged since I’d last seen it. The skin appeared almost yellow and stretched thinly over sharp features making for a man who seemed far older than someone just 7 years my senior. The eyes were still sharp though, black as coal and just as cold as they’d ever been. He grinned, displaying a row of stained teeth. “Stephen, “ I said, “I wish I could say it was a pleasure. I see you haven’t lost your looks. You must be a hit with the ladies.”
He sneered in response. “Oh yeah, I slay ’em.” he snickered at his own joke. Repulsion coursed through my body as I looked at the hunched figure of my brother. “Michaela Lynch,” he spoke again, “Welcome home.”
“It’s not Lynch anymore. I left that name behind a long time ago.”
“Really”, his voice raised in surprise, “Don’t tell me the little dyke got married?” He sneered at me contorting his face into something even more repulsive. He could have been attractive, my brother, if his poisonous temperament didn’t shine through his features.
“Don’t tell me you expected me to keep the family name? After all our family have done?”
“You should be proud of our family’s achievements little sis. I am.”
“Well, unlike you I’m not a sadistic bastard.” His eyes lit up and I knew I’d said too much.
“Really? I know it was you Michaela. I know you did the old man in and I know it wasn’t pretty. You enjoyed it. Deep down you enjoyed it. We share the same blood little sis. I know the thrill the kill brings.”
My head spun and I fought not to show how much his words it home. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d rattled me if I could help it. My father was my last kill. The last kill I swore to myself I’d ever carry out. As much as I hated to admit it Stephen was right. I had enjoyed it, but then he’d had it coming. He’d raised us to live for the kill, to get our kicks from spilling innocent blood. It was no excuse. By taking his life I was no better than him but it marked my last act as part of the Lynch clan. I’d left Ghostland Cross Ranch before they’d even found the body, what was left of it.
“That was a long time ago, Stephen. I’m not that person anymore. Why did you call me here? What do you want?”
“I want you to take over the clanship,” he said. For the first time he looked vulnerable. I couldn’t help a snort of laughter from escaping my throat.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Why are you giving up your position as head of the clan? And why in heaven’s name would you want me? What about the others?”
“What others? You mean our esteemed siblings? They’re dead. Some got caught, some got too cocky and some just plain pissed me off. We’re the only ones left, you, me and Mother.” He gestured to a wizened old woman lurking in the doorway. She sneered at me and I gave an involuntary shudder and turned away.
“So what about you Stephen? No heir of your own huh? I guess you should have spent less time killing and more time thinking about the future. I bet the old man would be so proud to see his clan in such capable hands. No wonder he always hated you.” It was a cheap shot. Stephen had never been Dad’s favourite. In fact I’d been more favoured than my big brother. Dad had had high hopes for to bring glory to the ranch but the killing had started to repulse me. The only way I could survive was to get away. My father had fought to keep me, his golden daughter but I had broken free. I hadn’t meant to kill him but he’d made it clear that if I left only one of us would survive. A lifetime of looking over my shoulder, waiting for the strike didn’t appeal. My brothers and sisters were too stupid or too afraid to venture too far from the ranch, preferring to stick to familiar hunting grounds and the protection of the clan.
Stephen’s face contorted in anger. “At least I tried to do the family proud instead of running scared,” he spluttered.
“Look at this place Stephen. You’ve spent your life playing at having your own little empire without planning or taking proper care of anything. The ranch is falling down round your ears, the rest of clan are dead and gone thanks to your impetuousness and stupidity. The only reason our mother is here is because she’s too lazy to leave. You really think you’ve done the family proud?” Stephen tried to lift himself up from the stairs to meet my onslaught with obvious difficulty. “You can hardly stand up straight Stephen. How exactly to you think any of this has been an success?” His shoulders sank and his head dropped. When he eventually raised his eyes to mine there was the glisten of tears.
“Truth, little sis? I don’t have long. I never expected you to come back to the ranch but I thought if I could entice you here I could maybe convince you to come back. If that failed I figured you’d be so incensed that you’d put me out of my misery. I know you can do it. I’ve seen you kill cleanly and fast. Please.”
“No Stephen. When I left here that was the last time I ever wanted to spill another person’s blood. You’ve brought all this on yourself with your greed and stupidity. I’m not going to help you die. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the thought of you living any more than you seem to, but I won’t raise a finger to help you.” I turned and left letting the porch door creak shut behind me.
I stopped on the porch and leant against the rotting wooden post trying to process the sight of my brother vulnerable and asking for my help. As I took a breath and began to leave, to walk away once again from my past, a shot rang out followed by a scream. I turned and slammed open the porch door. Stephen lay a the foot of the stairs, a .35mm pistol in his hand in a growing pool of his own blood. My mother was hysterical, alternating between sobbing over my brother’s body and screaming and cursing at me. I took one last look at my family, what was left of it and turned once more to go. My mother’s cries followed me down the driveway and across the plains as I left Ghostland Cross Ranch and my former life, finally, forever.
brigits_flame Entry April 26th 2009
Word Count: 2633
The Grim Reaper’s Blog
October 31st – First day nerves
My first day in my new job. As with most first days I didn’t have to do much actual work. It’s quite a good thing really as I have to admit I’m a little nervous. The previous incumbent has left some pretty big shoes to fill. Quite literally actually – he had size16 feet. His boots were still lying around the office and made my size 8 trainers look like kid’s shoes. They’ve had to order a pair of standard issue black leather boots in especially for me. It made me little embarrassed to tell the truth. Embarrassment and fear – two emotions I really shouldn’t be feeling given my new status as the Grim Reaper. It doesn’t make a good impression on the clients if you turn up blushing and stumbling over your words. I didn’t get a chance to meet my predecessor which was a shame. I was hoping for some useful tips. The training here seems to be mostly on the job stuff which hasn’t helped my nerves any. I mean, what do I do if the clients don’t want to come with me or get upset? Surely I should get some counselling training at the very least? I suppose most of the counselling these days is geared to the ones left behind, the grieving relatives. Maybe the newly dead are better at adjusting. Anyway, I had a tour of the office and met my assistant. The office is a little drab and dusty. The previous occupant liked to keep up appearances so most of the surfaces are covered with cobwebs and dust. I’ll have to get Nigel to do some cleaning. Cobwebs and spiders creep me out and the dust will start to play havoc with my allergies. Nigel is my new assistant. He looks like he hasn’t seen daylight in several decades but seems pleasant enough. He’s got some good ideas about modernising the filing system which to be frank looks archaic. Apparently the Reaper before me was a bit of a technophobe and wouldn’t hear of anything more advanced than a quill and parchment adorning the desk. Nigel tried to get him to use a typewriter once but it ended badly. I didn’t enquire as to how badly. It seemed a little too personal for a first meeting.
November 2nd – Appearances matter
I got my first uniform today. It’s a little big and I’m not sure black is my colour but I’m sure it’ll grow on me. Nigel said I looked good which was nice of him. He seems a good sort if a little shy. He brought some computer catalogues in today. Apparently some of the other Reapers are online and have a little chat room and message board set up. It’d be nice to have contact with some of the other Reapers. I’m still worried about seeing my first client. Luckily I’ve got a few days to acquaint myself with the paperwork side of things before I’m let out of the office. Clearly, paperwork wasn’t my predecessor’s strong point. The files are in a bit of a mess and his handwriting was appalling. Nigel looked terribly excited at the prospect of setting up databases and spreadsheets, bless him. I picked out a couple of nice laptops and sent him off to buy them. I wanted the bright red one but Nigel looked a little shocked so I capitulated and went for basic black. I suppose one should keep up appearances really. I’d love to suggest painting the office yellow but I think Nigel would actually have a heart attack. It might be fun joke though. Maybe when we know each other a little better.
November 3rd – Equipment training
I got my first go with a scythe today! It’s a little unwieldy at first but I’m starting to get the hang of it. I only took one chunk out of the wall and the candlestick I sliced in half was pretty ugly anyway so no great loss. I’ve given myself a few minor cuts but nothing that required stitches. It’s very sharp – it has to be, apparently, to be able to remove the soul from the body. Nigel hid behind his computer whilst I practised pretending to be working on the filing system. I suspect he may have been playing Bejewelled instead – I could hear the bling of exploding gems even though he’d turned the sound down. Anyway, his ears blush pink when he’s not doing any work. I knew I shouldn’t have let him get the internet just yet. I’ll keep an eye or it but I may have to have words. I need Nigel to be on the ball while I’m learning this job and not pissing about playing online games. It’s complicated work this reaping malarkey. It’s not all just swinging a scythe around and hoping for the best and I’m going to need Nigel’s help. I’m already worried I’m going to make a fool of myself. I mean, what if I miss? Or reap the wrong soul? Can I put it back again? I just don’t know.
November 4th – Technology gone mad
Nigel has bought a new answering system for the office. I really shouldn’t have let him loose with the company credit card. I mean, why do we need an answering system for heaven’s sake? It’s not like the Grim Reaper gets flooded with calls. We hardly get a lot of customer feedback. I can see it now ‘if you were not completely satisfied with your death please call our complaints department who will be happy to help’. What made matters worse is that he chose the polyphonic version of ‘The Death March’ as the ringing tone. I tried to point out how crass it was but he was too excited to care. I think I may have inadvertently created a monster when I let Nigel scratch his technology itch.
November 5th – First day of reaping proper
Bonfire night is always a busy night for the Reapers. All those kids getting a little too close to their rockets, not to mention the out of control bonfires You even get the people using the festivities to bump off their relatives – who is going to notice an extra fire on a night like Bonfire night? I was pretty nervous about tonight, it being my first night out on the job but it seemed to go well. My first client was a teenage boy who’d clearly not paid attention to the firework talks at school. He’d gone back to his ‘Midnight Blast’ after it had failed to go off only to have it explode in his face. He was quite excited to see me at first until he realised that I wasn’t a bloke in fancy dress. I calmed him down though and sent him on his way without too much fuss. It’s quite satisfying really. I mean, I don’t actually kill anyone. I just help them shuffle off this mortal coil and on to the next one. If I can offer some comfort or wisdom during the transition then all the better but just being there to guide their souls in the right direction is enough for most people. Like my second client, an old lady called Joan. She’d been ill and in pain for some time so I think she was secretly quite relieved when a short, sharp coronary carried her off. She’d already made her peace with life and tied up her loose ends and just wanted my helping hand to guide her on to her next destination. No fuss, no pleading. Just ‘oh it’s you, shall we on?’. It’s nice when it goes like that.
November 7th – The trouble with black
Argh. The damn cat fell asleep on my uniform last night so now my robes are covered with tabby and white fur. I knew I should have got a black one. Then it could shed all it wants. It didn’t help that the ratbag was looking at me all smugly the whole time I was trying to repair the damage. I managed to lint roller the worst of it but I’m still paranoid I’m covered in fur. I hate feeling all self conscious at work. I kind of feel like I should be the one in who’s strong and in control – for the clients if nothing else. It’s really embarrassing when the clients feel the need to reassure you. I sometimes think I’m not cut out for this job. I worry too much. I worry that I’m not doing it right, that I look stupid in black robes carrying a bloody great scythe around, that I’m not compassionate enough with difficult clients. I get really uncomfortable when people cry. It’s not like I can take it back even if I want to. By the time I’m involved they’re already dead. All I can do is separate soul from body and guide it on its way with as much dignity as I can. I can’t turn back time. I can’t pass on messages from the beyond. I certainly can’t negotiate with the powers that be. I know sometimes it’s unfair but everyone has their time, even if they don’t agree with it.
November 10th – Bitten by the technology bug
I think Nigel’s technology kick is starting to rub off on me. Seriously, I know there are ‘expectations’ but really, black robe and scythe? It’s so last century. I’ve been looking into updating the tools of my trade. Not only is the scythe a little too ‘medieval farm boy’ for my liking but it’s also unwieldy, difficult to carry and a lot of effort to keep sharp. With that in mind I’ve been road-testing some alternatives. I started out with a samurai sword. It’s classy, sharp and easier to carry than that scythe. It does have a tendency to get caught up in my robes though and I felt a little too much like a Japanese ninja. It’s just as tiresome to sharpen as the scythe but at least its lost some of that rustic feel. Next I tried some secateurs. Amazingly portable, I don’t feel quite such an idiot walking round with them. The cutting action is less satisfying that a good swing of a blade though and I got a fair few comments about the size of my weapon which frankly seemed a little too personal. Bearing that in mind I tried a strimmer next. Less portable and swingable but altogether more meaty than the secateurs. Small problem with power supply though. I’m not always near a plug socket, the chargeable battery life is abysmal and having to enquire as to the nearest power point is fairly embarrassing. The chainsaw was my next idea. More swingable than the strimmer and more meaty than the secateurs but again power supply was a problem. It was rather embarrassing when the battery ran out mid-job. Luckily I had some scissors on me as a back up but it was pretty awkward. Not terribly professional. I’ve gone back to the scythe for the time being as it stops the sarcastic comments. The newly dead can be really mean at times. I’m thinking of working on the outfit next.
November 17th – Does my bum look big in this?
I had a row with Nigel today. I asked him his opinion of my new outfit and he was less than kind. I know not everyone can pull off the leather look but it was a little harsh of him to say I looked like a bank manager at an S&M party. I’m still not sure I can pull off the cloak look so I was trying some more fitted outfits. The lycra, I will admit, was a mistake. I looked like Superman’s evil cousin and that was even without the cape. Not my finest moment. Denim and velvet just seemed to be a magnet for the cat hair and I’m already going through lint rollers like there’s no tomorrow. PVC proved a little too unbearable – I could practically harvest souls by giving them a whiff of my armpits. I thought I’d cracked it with the leather. Less sweaty that the PVC and not as silly as the lycra. It’s even easier to clean the cat hair from than most things. I’m all self conscious now after what Nigel said though. It’s not like he’s a bastion of fashion know-how but he does fall into the category of Joe Public and if Nigel laughs at me I guess that means everyone else will too. Back to the drawing board. Maybe a nice mixed-fibre fabric would do the trick…
November 21st – Developing my persona
Well, my improvements to the outfit and equipment haven’t exactly been a roaring success so far. I have as least got the office into some semblance of order. Gone are the ‘atmospheric’ cobwebs and dusty bookshelves and instead the desks and floors are polished to within an inch of their lives. Nigel has worked wonders on the filing system so the paperwork side of things practically runs itself and I’m getting to grips with the computers finally. I managed to convince Nigel that a normal ringtone sounded more professional but he still pouts every time the phone rings. I’m trying to work on my overall attitude and persona. I think I’ve got the voice right now. Authoritative but kindly and with less of an accent than before. No one really wants to hear a Grim Reaper with a Yorkshire accent. It just sounds all wrong.
November 26th – Bad day at the office
I had my first motorway pile up today. It was hard work. Not only were there 7 fatalities but it was also a fairly gruesome crash. I’ve never been particularly good with gore and even though it’s something I know I have to get used to it can still be hard to deal with, especially up close. It becomes a case of gritting your teeth and trying to stay in control, for the client’s sake as much as anything. The clients involved were traumatised, as they often are in violent situations, but coped well and I managed to deal with them all as quickly as I could. It’s not good for trauma victims to linger too long at the scene. It makes the transition all the more difficult for them. Whilst I know I did my job well today, I’m left feeling quite sad and emotional. An evening in with the cat should do the trick.
November 30th – One month down
Well, I’ve been a Grim Reaper for a month now and I think it’s going to work out okay. The office is running smoothly thanks to Nigel and, even though his incessant humming while he figures out a problem is annoying, he’s a good guy and we get on well. My attempts to modernise things haven’t always worked but I’ve managed to upgrade the heavy wooden handled scythe for a lighter aluminium one which gives a better swing and doesn’t hurt my shoulders as much. I’m still wearing black but I’ve traded in the full robe in favour of black trousers and a black hooded shirt. It gives a similar effect and it’s infinitely nicer to wear. The old loose-fit robes were really drafty in the cold weather which made things generally uncomfortable. I’m definitely improving my people skills though its been a steep learning curve at times and not all of my clients have been particularly easy to deal with. Still, at least it keeps things interesting. I get to meet lots of people, albeit briefly and there’s plenty of variation. I have to say that, unsociable hours apart, it’s not a bad old job.
brigits_flame Entry 19th April 2009
Word Count: 2,590
I planted a rose the day we met. I didn’t realise then that I would be planting my rose on the day we met. It was simply another day. A day that began with a low, cool mist which soon burned off as the sun rose higher. A day with clear blue skies dappled with soft wisps of cloud. A day that ended with a fiery sunset, the sky aflame with red and orange as the heat finally began to dissipate. A perfect early summer day. That was the day I planted my rose, a yellow rose, the colour of warm custard.
My rose looked good the day I planted it. It was early morning. Typically I couldn’t sleep. I never could back then. Rather than laying awake, tossing and turning in sweat dampened sheets trying to catch onto some wisp of slumber, I got up. I padded around the house quietly even though there was no one there to disturb. I did most things quietly; I spoke quietly and never argued. I saw my rose sitting in the kitchen sink, waiting for me to plant it. It looked incongruous there, amongst the one plate, one cup and one bowl which was all I needed to use on a daily basis. I stroked its soft green leaves and caressed the new buds. I pulled on some shoes and silently went out into the garden. In the morning mist I planted my rose. It glowed amongst the dull, dark greenery of my garden. I had few flowers. I’d never seen the point of wasting my time with bold flashes of colour. Far better to stick with uniform green. It felt safer and more stable. I wasn’t sure what had possessed me to buy the rose in the first place but now it was here, in my garden, I felt a rush of excitement. Just looking at its golden colour in the morning sun sent a thrill through my body. I watched it for what felt like hours, watched it settle in to its new home. Its new home with me.
I met you later that day through a friend of a friend. I hadn’t expected to like you, I thought you’d be just another ‘almost right’. Like the woman with the unfortunate body odour or the one who hated all forms of animal life and was fairly iffy about plants as well. People with whom I would nod and smile, but never actually want to see again. You were different. You were dark and mysterious, an enigma and I was intrigued, despite myself. We left together that night, something out of character for my usually cautious temperament. Usually cautious to the extreme. In my living room we talked and drank and talked some more. We talked of nothing in particular, of folktales and dreams and of poets and legends. Later, we explored each other’s bodies in the dark, silently. When I woke, again far too early, I quietly crept out of the bed and moved like a ghost through the house, afraid to disturb you. I made fresh coffee and went out into the garden. My rose had wilted overnight, its golden head bowed and its leaves drooping in a half-hearted shrug. I stroked the dull leaves, already losing their shine and lustre. I tried to coax the buds towards the sun and away from the ground. My rose looked awkward and unsure of itself with its buds and flowers curled up and looking down at its roots. I fetched some water in the hope that some moisture would revive my ailing plant. It had little effect. I watched it sadly for a while before heading back inside. Back to you.
We became inseparable, you and I. For weeks my life revolved around making you happy. I devoted myself to you. My friends and commitments began to ebb from my mind to be replaced by the flow of you, your thoughts and desires, your needs. You were tender to start with, gentle and understanding. I rarely let other people into my life, into my heart and you seemed sympathetic to my struggle. You coaxed my heart out of the dark place it had hidden for so long, tempting it with crumbs of promises. Promises of devotion and passion, love and security. My naïve fragile heart believed you, believed in you. The only part of my former life that mattered to me now was my rose. If I could keep my rose alive, help it to grow and flourish then maybe I could do the same with you. Maybe I could be everything you wanted me to be. Even when I began to spend my days and nights at your place I still returned home daily to check on my rose. My rose looked sad and dejected despite my attention. It exuded an air of apathy, refusing to keep its flowers turned upwards towards the sun. Dust began to settle on its now dull and dog-eared leaves. The local insects were making a meal of my poor rose, stripping the life from its leaves. The night I told you I loved you I returned home to visit my rose. It was the early hours of the morning and I had crept out whilst you were asleep. In the moonlight I checked my rose’s leaves. Not only were they holed and uneven from the local caterpillars but now ugly black spots adorned the rest like a pox. I raced inside to try and find some cure in my many books only to discover that my rose had a fungal infection that would weaken my rose until it succumbed completely. I grabbed a pair of scissors and started to remove the affected leaves wincing each time the blades sliced through another stem. Once my grim task was done I sat with my rose like a concerned relative would sit at a hospital bed. My rose was looking bare, shorn of the vast proportion of its leaves. It could barely muster up the strength to look accusingly at me for being so barbaric. Instead it drooped its remaining leaves and bowed its flowers and looked sad.
Each time I visited my rose I felt a stab of pain in my heart. I never told you about my rose, wisely predicting that you wouldn’t understand. You didn’t do sentiment, not even with me. The more I devoted myself to you, the more abrasive you became. You were possessive and disliked my former friends. When they called me I could only bear to talk with them for a few minutes for fear of upsetting you. You listened to my brief, stilted conversations bristling with displeasure and refused to talk to me for hours after I hung up the phone. I never returned my friends calls and eventually their contact with me dwindled away to nothing. I rarely went out alone. You preferred to accompany me, to know where I was and what I was doing at all times. Even when you went out alone, to wherever it was you went, I remained at home. Surely you would know if I snuck out by myself. I couldn’t bear to lie to you and my truthfulness would give me away. I did go out alone occasionally, when you were too busy and needed an errand to be run. I would do whatever you wanted me to.
The night you hit me I had run one of those errands for you. I was usually out for only the minimum amount of time possible, knowing how you liked me to be prompt to return home to you. This time however, I ran into an old friend, formerly a close friend. Against all better judgement I agreed to a coffee. After all, what harm could an innocent cup of coffee do? I enjoyed the reunion and began to relax for the first time in months. I could even ignore the concerned look that passed across my friend’s face whenever she looked at me. She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand how much our relationship meant to me. When we parted the panic began to set it. I’d been away for what felt lie hours. You would notice it. You couldn’t help but notice. You didn’t like my friends; you didn’t trust them and told me time and again that they were bad for me. People who would bring me down and prevent me from flourishing. You were waiting when I guiltily pushed open the door. You seemed calm for a moment, asked me where I’d been. I told you and the calm surface broke. Your face became ugly and contorted and you screamed at me. Didn’t I realise that these people were bad for me? Didn’t I know that you were the only one who cared for me? Didn’t I appreciate you protecting me from people who would ultimately hurt me? Didn’t I love you at all? You slapped me hard across the face with each new accusation until your anger was spent and you sank to floor in tears. I comforted you then, rocking you gently as you sobbed.
Later, while you slept, I snuck out to visit my rose. Tiny green aphids coated its stems and buds like a fungus. A moving, rippling fungus. I feverishly tried to knock them off, tears silently rolling down my cheek, but there were too many. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the dark glass of my neglected windows. My hair hung limply around my shoulders, my skin was pale and dry aside from my bruised cheek and my eyes seemed large and haunted. I looked in just as bad a condition as my poor rose. I half expected to see insects crawling over my skin like they swarmed around the stems of my rose. I sat with my rose until just before dawn when I crept back home to you.
The autumn dragged on, an Indian summer that year, with temperatures remaining warm and the days staying sunny. The sunlight set the turning leaves on fire, a mass of glowing reds, oranges and yellows. You became more erratic than usual, chastising me for every little mistake and error, finding any excuse to punish me verbally or physically. I grew more tired and transparent, a shadow of my former self whilst you burned with energy. I developed nervous tics, a habit of jumping at loud noises and digging my fingernails into my palm whenever I felt unnerved. I pined for my rose which grew weaker every day until I could barely stand to visit it. I still went every day though it hurt to see it failing and fading. I sat in the warm night air talking to it, telling it my troubles. I confided in my rose the way I used to confide in my friends, when I still had any beyond you. I told my rose about every argument we had. I say we, I tended to agree with everything you shouted at me. If I hadn’t been so unkind or thoughtless you wouldn’t have any cause to shout and scream and hit. If I hadn’t defied you, you wouldn’t need to punish me. Each time I spoke to my rose about you it seemed to wilt some more. It grew too painful to sit outside watching my rose die and so I ventured into my neglected house. I wasn’t ready to come home to you yet, I didn’t want to go too far from my rose. The house was cold and dark. Dust settled on every surface and a mountain of post lay unstably behind the front door. I sifted through the bill reminders and junk mail not expecting to find anything more reading. A handwritten envelope caught my eye. I vaguely recognised the handwriting and, with my curiosity piqued, I settled down in a musty chair to read the letter inside.
It was from a former friend, the same friend that set up our meeting, that first meeting a lifetime ago. It was written in a shaky hand and began by apologising to me for everything she had done to me. I was intrigued. What could she have possibly have done to me? I was fine. I absent-mindedly dug my fingernails into my palm, scratching at my dry skin whilst I read on. The letter detailed everything my friend had uncovered about you. The former lover you had hospitalised when she burned your dinner, though she had never pressed charges. The friends you alienated with you tempers and tantrums. The lovers which friends had collected from your house, sobbing and broken and convinced you still loved them. As I read my blood ran cold. This couldn’t be you. You had never treated me any way that I hadn’t deserved, had you? I gently touched the finger mark bruises on my upper arm where you had dragged me off the sofa. I fingered the swelling on my cheek from where I’d bought the wrong kind of milk. Wasn’t that my fault though? Hadn’t I known you always had full-fat? I glanced around my flat at the mess and neglect. This wasn’t how I usually lived. I’d never been able to write my name in the dust on the windowsill. I’d never before cultivated mould in stale teacups. I stood up and stretched and surveyed the mess. I went to the kitchen, threw open the back door and the windows and began to clean. I cleaned the whole flat that night. I polished until every surface sparkled, I took rugs and cushions outside and beat the dust out of their fibres, and I scrubbed the layers of scum and dirt that had built up on my dishes and sinks. I finished moments before the sky began to lighten. I went out into the garden, sweaty from my efforts but more relaxed than I had felt in a long time. I had a half smile on my face as I sat before my rose. The wilting buds and leaves seemed to have lifted slightly and an air of hope surrounded it. I returned to you just before the sun rose with a spring in my step.
I think you noticed a change in me after that. I caught you several times glancing nervously in my direction. I grew stronger every day as I made my plans. When you left on one of your mysterious outings I packed my bags and left you a note. I told you how much I loved you but that I had to leave. I told you that I hoped one day someone would teach you how to love without destroying someone in the process, but that I couldn’t be the person to do that, not now. I left your house without a backwards glance and returned to my flat, my garden and my rose.
I went straight out into the garden to check on my rose. It glowed in the sun like it did the morning I planted it. The buds, so long closed up had opened and the bright yellow flowers basked in the sun. I smiled for the first time in what felt like years as I caressed the soft fragrant petals of my rose. I was home and my rose was blooming for the first time since we met.
The day I left you my rose began to flourish.
brigits_flame Entry 12th April 2009
Word Count: 1,360
I screamed in pain as another contraction hit. My muscles protested, aching more than I’d ever thought possible. I silently begged for it to be over as the midwife frantically tried to keep me going with shouts of encouragement. I’d never wanted to have children, the trauma of giving birth just one of the many aspects of motherhood that I’d had no intention of experiencing. So how did I end up here, in a sterile, overly bright delivery ward, legs splayed, sweat pouring from my skin, praying for someone to put me out of my misery. I closed my eyes against the glare of the strip lights, only vaguely aware of the midwife’s attempts to keep me conscious, and allowed my mind to drift.
I’d found myself down by a river. It was a warm evening for the time of year¸ at the junction between spring and summer, with a slight breeze to cool the steadily rising temperatures. I couldn’t remember how I’d got there or, for that matter, why I was there. The last thing I had been able to recall, albeit hazily, was settling down on the sofa with a cup of tea and a book. It had still been light then whereas by the river the sun had well and truly set and twilight was in full swing. The river bank and the woods surrounding it had appeared to be deserted; not even the rustling of animals in the undergrowth had disturbed the peace. I was wearing very little, just a nightshirt of flimsy cotton but I was warm enough. I wandered by the riverbank, the bare skin of my feet tickled by the soft, springy grass, until I reached the water’s edge. Surprisingly, the water was warm, deliciously warm and fragrant like a freshly drawn bath. Given the fact that there appeared to be no living soul around I shrugged off my nightshirt and waded in. The water was almost magically relaxing and I felt the tension rapidly melting out of my perpetually aching muscles. I floated on my back, the natural buoyancy of my body supporting my weight and gazed at the stars. The constellations had appeared brighter that night, almost close enough to touch and as I watched they appeared to take on new shapes and arrangements before my eyes. I began to think I must be dreaming, after all I had no recollection of how I’d got to this strangely deserted riverbank or of how to get back home again. If this was a dream I resolved to enjoy every minute of it. It had been a long time since I’d felt this relaxed, comforted and safe and it was a feeling I wasn’t relishing letting go of.
As I floated, a current began to take hold of me. Instead of dragging me downstream or pulling my prone form under the surface, the current appeared to be caressing my body, stroking its curves, applying pressure like thousands of tiny, but strong hands. It was sensual and strangely erotic, being massaged by warm, comforting water. After glancing around to make sure that I was really as alone as I’d thought I’d been, I allowed myself to relax into it, to sink lower into the water, to twist my body so the invisible hands found their way to the places I liked best. It had been so long since I’d been touched by anyone that, I confess, I gave in completely. My skin had almost forgotten what it was like to feel desired, wanted and alive. I closed my eyes, not thinking about what was happening or why but merely enjoying the sensations, the trembling of my muscles and the quickening of my breath. The water continued to manipulate my body as I floated downstream. When I opened my eyes again I began to notice that the trees seemed to be moving. At first I had thought that the branches and trunks were merely swaying gently in the breeze but as I watched them it became clear that they were moving with the rhythm of the current, the rhythm of my body. The banks had become more cluttered with trees as if they were making their way down from the woods, a little band of perverts to watch or join in as I was fondled and caressed by the water. The river curved into a small sandy bay before heading off further the south and on to what sounded like the rushing of a waterfall. It was here that the current deposited me, gently but almost rudely onto a clearing in the bank and at the roots of an ash tree. The tree looked almost silver in the moonlight, brighter than the other trees which had gathered at the riverbank. I pulled myself upright using its branches as support, drawn to its strength. The rough bark against my skin sent shivers of pleasure through my body after the gentle attention of the water. I rubbed my body against the trunk, barely aware of what I was doing, the bark chafing my skin, pulling at the tender skin of my already hardened nipples. I began to climb the tree’s lower branches, wanting to go higher, to be completely surrounded by the strong branches and tender leaves. As I scrambled up the trunk I felt the branches embrace me, lifting me higher, supporting my weight. I climbed until I was at the centre of the tree, encompassed by branches roughly stroking my body, caressing my hair and bringing me closer and closer to the edge.
I woke up with a start, breathing heavily. As my eyes began to focus I realised that I was back in my living room on my sofa, a book discarded carelessly on the floor and a cold cup of tea sitting forlornly on the table. I sighed with relief convincing myself that I had merely been dreaming until I glanced down at my body. I was naked and damp, my wet hair already leaving a dark stain on the cushion. My thighs, stomach and hands were sticky with what appeared to be sap and underneath my fingernails were small fragments of bark. My feet were filthy with grass stains and dirt and I had broken twigs and leaves tangled in my long hair. It was several weeks until I discovered I was pregnant and by that time I’d all but convinced myself that it had all been a dream, a trip or some kind of hallucination. I’d still not really believed that I was actually going to bear a child of some description until the labour began and my waters broke.
Something cold and damp against my skin brought me back to my senses. I opened my eyes to see the concerned face of the midwife, the cold flannel she held to my brow causing droplets of water to trickle down the side of my face like tears. I was gripped by sudden panic. ‘The baby?’ I asked nervously, ‘Is it ok?’ The midwife looked away. ‘As far as we can tell you have a healthy daughter. She’s, um, a little, ah, unusual.’ She refused to meet my eyes and I could tell she was trying to be as diplomatic as possible. I took a deep breath. ‘Show me.’ The midwife left my field of vision and returned with a bundled shape. I closed my eyes as she placed the parcel carefully in my arms. I breathed in deeply, steeling myself for what I may find. I opened my eyes. There she was, wrapped neatly in soft white blankets, my daughter. Her eyes were open and as dark as night. She looked at me almost quizzically as I took in the rest of her. Instead of the raw, pinkness of a newborn baby, her skin was mottled, rough, and textured like the bark of a tree. A layer of soft downy lichen covered her bare scalp and her fingers, when they reached for mine, felt like tiny branches. I felt moisture trickle down my cheeks again but this time it was real tears that fell. ‘She’s perfect,’ I said, ‘Absolutely perfect’.
brigits_flame entry 5th April 2009
Word Count: 1,184
I started digging with a new spade, bought for the task. Long handled, the metal glinted brightly like silver; the sharp edges sparkled like diamonds. The plastic handle moulded uncomfortably to my hands as I dug, chafing my skin with the promise of blisters and calluses to come. I stopped and lent on the handle. It was no good. My tool slowed me down and kept me detached and distant from the ground I worked. It was too new. I could have perhaps have tolerated an aging, rust-laden implement but the stark newness of the metal and the unscuffed gloss of the plastic disturbed me. It felt wrong. I cast aside the spade and sank to my knees. The ground was slightly wet from the recent rain, not sodden but enough to mean that when I rose I would have ugly damp stains on my knees. The moisture in the earth was enough to mean that I could use my bare hands to dig in the ground. The soil crumbled through my fingers, staining my skin like blood as I dug. I massaged the dirt into my hands enjoying the feel of mud between my fingers, watching the particles collect under my nails and pick out lines on my palms.
There is something seductive about the earth, something sensual in the process of digging with bare hands. I was glad I’d ditched my built for purpose tool. This was fitting, me on my hands and knees, digging and clawing at the ground almost feverishly, far more so than the image I’d had of calmly digging this hole. My fingers were no match for the sharp edge of a bright, shiny spade and yet the hole grew. I worked until I felt my shoulder muscles start to burn with the effort. I was hunched over, my forehead practically scraping the ground, scraping away at the earth like an animal. I leant back, straightening my spine and stretching my cramping muscles. The hole was a hand width wide and as deep as my forearm, good enough for my task. I glanced at the sky, momentarily blinding myself with the sunlight. Green and purple shadows of the sun swam before my eyes as I reached into my bag for the package. It crunched under my dirt-stained fingers as I grasped it. A parcel crudely wrapped in tin foil, about the size of my hand. I placed it carefully by the side of the hole as if it were some ancient relic easily damaged by careless hands.
I sat for what felt like an age, willing myself to reach out and unwrap my treasure. My skin crackled with electricity as I fondled the rough edges of the foil. I inhaled deeply and held my breath as I carefully revealed the contents. Your belongings glinted back at me in the bright sunshine. Your gold St. Christopher on its delicate chain sparkled in the sun. I held it up to the light and spun the pendant losing myself in the patterns created by the spinning disc of gold. I stopped it with my lips, the metal cool despite the heat of the day, before placing it reverently in the hole. Next I reached for your earring, a single hoop of pale silver wide enough to fit on the tip of my tongue. I polished the metal with my fingers before laying it next to your necklace in the dirt. I looked back at my tin foil package. Three items remained. The pen your father gave you when you graduated, a feeble consolation for years of indifference; the battered notebook you used to write in when you still felt you had something to say and finally, glinting in the light the spare keys to your first motorbike, lovingly restored but barely ridden. I laid each item in the hole with care before leaning back and admiring my work. The final touch was to lay a cotton handkerchief over your possessions.
I sighed as I threw the first handful of dirt on to your things, realising for the first time that I had barely been breathing. Slowly the shroud of the handkerchief became harder to see as the dark soil buried your possessions. When my hole was filled I spent a few moments painstakingly concealing the scar of freshly turned earth with roots and grasses. There was no need to mark the spot like some modern day pirate, no need for a map to be drawn. I will remember this spot, be drawn to it by your belongings, whenever I need to be. I rose from the ground, muscles complaining bitterly, first at the exertion and then at the period of inactivity whilst I buried my loot. I brushed the worst of the dirt from my clothes and hands and retrieved my ineffective spade. With a lingering glance back at the grave of your possessions I headed for home.
The kitchen was deserted when I got home but warm and welcoming. The brightness of the day was beginning to fade from the sky as I silently crept into the house. I stowed my spade at the back of the coat cupboard and stripped down to my underwear, bundling my dirty, mud-stained clothing into the washer. The kitchen was warm enough that I could comfortably wash my stained hands without dashing for clean clothing. I scrubbed at my skin and nails watching the colour change from earthy brown to scoured pink. I was drying my tender hands when you walked in, whistling contentedly. You stopped when you saw my state of undress. “Darling”, you said with a half smile, “Is there a reason you’re half naked in the kitchen?” You wrapped your arms round me, strong and warm. I shrugged. “I got dirty.” You released me from your embrace, careful not to ask too many questions. I am grateful that you let me be.
Later, over dinner, you seemed uncomfortable. I was relaxed, a weight lifted, a need satisfied. You looked vulnerable, smaller. You brushed your dark hair out of your eyes, a fruitless task as it always just falls back again making you seem even more fragile and unsure. “Sarah?” I looked up from my food. “Do you, ah, I mean, have you, um, seen my St. Christopher?” You stumbled over your words, unsure whether you wanted to know the answer. I looked straight into your eyes, able to keep my gaze steady but unable to stop the treacherous blushes begin to taint my ears and cheek. “No, I haven’t, sorry,” I lied, my voice even and steady. Your eyes narrowed, scanning my face for deceit and coming to your own silent conclusions. “Ok,” you said calmly, keeping your own voice level, “I must have misplaced it then.” I returned to my meal aware of your eyes, dark eyes, half hidden behind darker hair, on me while I ate. You are on to me, starting to see me for who and what I am. One day I’ll explain and maybe you’ll understand, but not now. For now we rest in uneasy peace.