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The Miracle of Defeat

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By Donna Greenwood

A witch cannot lie.  That is her misfortune. A witch cannot hurt another human being. That is also her misfortune. All witches have enormous feet.  That is of little consequence.

She remembered when they used to call her Grandmother but now she is buried beneath the bridge amongst the smells of rotten fruit and dead kittens. Her people, those mangled creepers who peep at her from under tarpaulin and scowl from their newspapered beds, have grown mean and their curses, dripping with the smell of alcohol and sweet weed, coil around her as she walks a stoop past their prone bodies.

The first blood-shed had been a mere trickle. A rock was thrown and it glanced against her forehead.  The perpetrator had been Deaf Samuel and two years previously she had set his broken leg straight.

And then she had been punched in the face.  It had always been the case that Grandmother had enjoyed a flagon of the hard stuff just before she settled into her mould-infested sleeping bag and passed out for the night.  But on this one night, her presence had agitated the other drinkers so much that Billy Baglight had thrown a punch.  She had seen his beautiful clear skin just before the world turned black; skin that she herself had cured of the pox.

Now she drank alone in the furthest corner of the dark underbelly of the bridge, listening to the laughter of those whom she had once called friends.

Her bones began to poke through her ancient skin – a diet of leaves and bin debris had shrivelled her flesh.  Nobody came to her asking for a cure for bad breath or a potion to invigorate a fat and lazy lover.  Gifts of bread and cake and ale were no longer left for her.  She simply starved quietly as this hardier breed of wanderers stared into the cold screens of their Samsungs for warmth. Some mornings she found herself covered in human faeces.  This did not cause her distress.  Muck was her business.  Shit, spit, semen and blood were just by-products of the body that could be used for magic.

Aggie-no-teeth came to see her one night.

“Grandmother, I’ve got this whoresome pain in my heart. I want him so badly but he doesn’t want me. Please can you take away the pain?”

Grandmother was comforted by the sound of her own name on the lips of one of her people but she had nothing left to give.  Her herbs had been eaten and her songs had been sung.

“Draw a picture of his heart on your heart, Aggie, and sleep.  In the morning, he will be yours.”

It was school-girl magic, but it was all that she had.  That night Grandmother ate a candle, she was so hungry.

The next morning Aggie-no-teeth was discovered in a pool of her own blood.  She had carved a heart-shaped hole into her chest and had bled to death in the cold.  All eyes saw Grandmother and knew.

Her trail was quick.

“Did you kill Aggie-No-Teeth?” a long-haired, pock-marked stranger asked.

Beside Grandmother stood two women, Aisha and Ikra, twins she herself had delivered in the nineties.  She stared at the two women, who in turn stared at the long-haired stranger.

A witch cannot lie whispered the wind.

“Yes, I did kill Aggie-no-teeth.  I knew she was suffering from a yearning for the silver needle but I had no passionflower to give her and so I let her sleep in madness.”

The dark underground growled in disapproval.

The stranger said,

“You will be tried as a witch and be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”

She heard many cans of cheap cider being shook in approval.  A woman who had once been her friend yelled, ‘Burn the witch’ and others laughed uproariously. Someone put their phone on speaker and she could hear the distant tinkle of ‘Ring of Fire’.

As she sat awaiting her fate, a drunken man- another stranger- urinated on her. She kept some of his liquid in her hands.  Old women’s habits die hard.  She had once been told of a spell that involved the mixing of the piss of your enemy with ash and candle wax.  With the right words and some conjured fire the potion could paralyse men – some of them permanently, depending upon the nature of their insult.

A witch cannot harm another human being screamed the city foxes in the cold and bleak darkness.

She let the drunken stranger’s urine trickle out of her hands onto the muddy earth beneath her. There would be no paralysing of limbs tonight.

Her hanging was well attended.  She recognised many faces in the crowd and her heart grew sad.  Aisha and Ikra pushed her roughly through the crowd of baying human debris. She looked up at Aisha who steadfastly ignored her glances.  Aisha’s birth had nearly killed her mother but Grandmother had known how to twist her around whilst she was still in the womb and how to draw her gently from her mother, causing no rips and very little blood. She had watched Aisha and Ikra grow from tiny tots to the leggy executioners they’d become today.  They stopped abruptly before a makeshift gallows – a rope slung casually over the bones of abandoned scaffolding.

Aisha placed the noose around Grandmother’s neck and pulled it with such force that a little yelp erupted from Grandmother’s mouth.  The noise seemed to ignite the crowd who began to shout and boo.  They threw food at her and, despite being acutely aware of her fatal situation, she found herself salivating at the crusts that were strewn around her. When she heard the words hang the witch… hang the witch it wasn’t fear that she felt but irritation – she had helped each and every one of the yawping hounds in the crowd and now they were lobbing bread at her and screaming for her blood.  Grandmother shook her head in disbelief, causing the noose to chafe slightly.

The long-haired stranger read out a list of her witchy crimes and then rolled up his paper and nodded at Aisha who in turn nodded at Ikra.  Like her sister, Ikra was a wall of muscle with arms like trees.  She stepped over to the part of the rope snaking on the platform of the gallows and grabbed it with both of her hands. She waited for Longhair to raise his hand and then she pulled.  The rope gathered and tightened and Grandmother jerked as it yanked her up off the ground.  The rope felt like a punch in the throat and Grandmother’s air was sucked from her lungs.

All witches have enormous feet – a familiar and loving voice whispered in her ear.

Usually this was of little consequence but not today. Oh today!

As her body twitched and kicked, Grandmother’s feet began to unfurl. They grew and grew until they touched the ground and saved her neck. She whipped back her head and ducked from the noose. She jumped from the platform and landed on her huge feet.  She turned around and kicked down the scaffolding; then she kicked Aisha and Ikra into the sky and they landed on the moon and were sorrowful for their actions and saw the error of their ways.  She kicked all the slack-jawed onlookers out of the mud and into the fragrant, fresh air outside.  She kicked the long, greasy hair clean off her accuser’s head and he became a gazelle and ran for the forest, happy for the first time in his life.  She laughed and jumped into the air, both feet flying before her, and she kicked down the ugly bridge and freed all those tethered beneath it.  A hundred lost and lonely human souls flew upwards from the rubble and became a million jewel-eyed butterflies.

And then she ran and she ran; her enormous feet carrying her for miles within moments and soon all the meanness in human hearts melted away and all angry men dissolved into nothing and the hunger ceased and her bones stopped aching and the wind was in her long, grey hair and she smelled the sweetness of the grass and felt the warmth of the sun and she knew with absolute certainty that the world was good and the universe within her soul caught fire and she was consumed by its unutterable beauty.

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We Are All Alone When The Dark Comes

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By D.L. Greenwood

In the dark it clicked. She knew from the sound it wasn’t human.  There was something insect-like about the way it skittered across the floor.  Sometimes it came so close to her that she could smell it.  It smelled like the drains when her mother needed to get a man round to fix them.  Mostly it kept its distance and just scuttled around the blackest corners of the dark which surrounded her.  She couldn’t find her feet or her fingers but she was free to walk around, avoiding the corners, of course.  She wasn’t frightened because most of the time she could hear the people talking and that made her feel safe.

There was a chink of light in her dark world and this also brought her comfort. The thing in the corner hated the light and so the girl huddled within this small bar of brightness, listening to the voices, smiling when she heard laughter, crying when the mood turned sorrowful.

She missed her mother’s face and sometimes tears would fall.  This excited the creature in the shadows and it would move closer to her, hissing and clicking and clattering.  One time, when her tears fell more heavily than usual, it came up close and she felt its hot and rotten breath upon her face.  And then with one spiteful hiss, it sliced her cheek with something sharp – A claw?  A talon?  Her blood had fallen as quickly as her tears.

She was lying within her small patch of light when she heard the voices talking once more.  Her mother was crying.  Yes, she was sure it was her mother.  She was pleading with someone,

“No, no, please, we need more time, we need more time.”

The girl frowned.  She had never been able to discern the words before.  Then a voice, male and authoritative,

“I’m sorry, Mrs Geddes, but we have done all we can.  Mary has been brain dead for some time now.  It is only the machine that is keeping her alive.”

The girl recalled that her name was Mary.  In the darkness, she heard the creature begin to stir.  From a distant world that was no longer her own, the sound of weeping was merging with the sound of a machine bleeping.

“Mary, my Mary!” howled the woman who was her mother.

And then the bleeping and the weeping stopped.

‘Mummy?’ whispered the girl in the silence, a solitary tear falling from her lash.

The light blinked out.

Behind her the thing in the dark grew large; the girl screwed up her eyes tightly and her face grew hard.  She wiped away her tears and turned to face her foe.  The darkness was her territory now, and she would fight for it.

 

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The Bone Queen

As published by ‘Occulum’ magazine and long-listed in the InkTears competition 2017

By D. L. Greenwood

Dust and rot fill her mouth as she eats.  The food is cloying.  It does not sit well.  She is alone but for the sycophantic phantasmata who surround her, constantly back-combing her nerves.

In her palace of filthy black, her bony fingers strain the muck, searching for someone who will not cower when she smiles.  Her hands bring back nothing but detritus and her heart remains parched and un-whole.

“It has to be a prince,” she tells the fades as they clown and cartwheel around her.

And so they go in search of a prince who will break the spell.  Their mistress is all bone and cannot weep for lack of wet.  Her need is their greed so they hunt with teeth and lungs that scream down the night.

They find a lowly man sitting in an ordinary place, weeping over some poem.  He cannot understand the noise that the wind makes as it blows through his mouth and his mind but he knows that he must search for her.

He reaches her palace, dreaming of madness and art, and he begins to weep again, for the ground is hard and the air spikes his throat.

As she smells his tears, her shrunken heart rejoices.  Her skeletal hands lift her robes and she clicks and clacks through the murk, searching for his light.  Her body quickens, for a thousand years of dust have made her desire unfathomable.

He sees her through the gloom; her eyes are the sea and he sails and he sails.  He takes her bones and he holds them and he sings her flesh back and he sings her heart full.

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The Innocent

People spoke of the witch in hurried whispers as though their words were spies all too willing to betray them.  Snatches of their gossip were woven into the wind and carelessly dropped by her ears. Of course, she paid them no heed because, but for want of a friend, the witch was happy.   The years had yawned a hole in her memory and she was no longer sure who she was but she knew that her cat’s name was Hecate and she remembered to water and feed her tomatoes most days.  Best of all, she still had one good eye with which to watch the rising of the sun each day.  She felt blessed and so the hard words of her neighbours did not take root in the softness of her heart.

One day, as often happens in these tales, a brave child walked past this garden that grew wild with tomatoes.  They looked so juicy and so ripe that the child could not help himself; he hopped over the fence and plucked one from its vine.

The witch was sat on her porch when she spied the small child with her one working eye.  As quick as a snip-snap, she ran across her garden and yelled – for her ears were not what they used to be – Don’t eat the ones by the roadside, come and take one of the juicier ones further in.

Now this child had heard the tales carried by the wind and one look at this crooked crone with her sawn-up eye sent him running, all mouth and tears, to a neighbour’s house.  And the adults knew by his screams that there were far worse enemies of innocence than witches.

That night they came for her.  No mercy was shown.

 

Donna Louise Greenwood

Her Penance

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There is a slow crackling sound as flesh becomes stone

She hears their laughter first.  It is not kind. It is insidious sniggering that snots and spits out of the nose and mouth, the sort of laughter that spews acid onto the soul.  She sits by the window with the curtains drawn and follows their sound from behind her closed eyes.  They have found a way into her house and now they are rummaging in her kitchen.  There’s a warning hiss of a beer can being opened.  She waits.  They will find her soon enough.  They always do.

Her door opens. Behind the creak she hears the pad of footsteps on her ancient rug.  She reckons there are three or four of them.  She sighs and tries to choke back the nausea that is crawling up from her stomach. Her Bastard God certainly knows how to punish women. The boys are moving closer; she can smell their grease and damp.   It makes the hairs in her nose burn.

“Show us,” says one of the boys, and then a little more confidently, “Show us, you old hag.”

She raises her head and shakes her long grey hair.  In the guttering flicker of the candles strewn around her room, her matted locks look like snakes; they undulate.

The boys’ laughter is now diminished and uncertain.  In the shuddering light they see tears falling from the closed eyes of their quarry; it softens their resolve.  The dare seems silly now; this woman is just old and her sadness makes them remember their mothers.  One turns to the other and something unspoken passes between them.  A shrug and a nod towards the door and it would seem that the joke is over.

And yet.

One final nudge of curiosity makes the boys halt their exit to see whether the rumours are true.  They maintain their stand and wait. The smallest boy is biting his lip.  He doesn’t notice that some blood has fallen onto his chin.

Slowly she opens her eyes.

The boys’ mouths lengthen in horror and eyes widen. There is a slow crackling sound as flesh becomes stone and then silence.

She catches her scream by covering her face with both hands. Her muted witnesses stand before her; forever still, forever silent, forever accusing her with their wide-open, stone-black eyes.

Hideous Treasure

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There’s something unholy in the pond

“There’s something unholy in the pond,” he said, and then he grabbed me with his ancient claw, rolled his bone white eyes around his shrunken head and died.

He hadn’t been popular so few came to the funeral and even fewer stayed behind for the wake.  I drank cheap rum with his last three friends.

“He said there was something in the pond the last time I saw him,” said one.  They turned and looked at me.  I was the only remaining occupant of the house.  Had I seen anything in the pond?  I smiled and reassured them that the pond was cleaned every month and, as yet, there had been no discovery of any hidden treasures.

After they left, I unhooked my coat from behind the door and trudged down the garden path; curiosity had gotten the better of me.  Had he seen something?  He had been particularly agitated in his final weeks and he had been out there when he’d had his heart attack.

The pond was the size of a small pool and quite deep.  I bent over the side and gave the water a quick stir, shifting the water lilies to get a better view of the depths.  Beneath the green scum, on a ledge below the surface, just out of reach, I could see it.  It was a child’s hand.  The tattered skin around the bony fingers fluttered like white lace in the murky dark.  I looked around the sides of the pond and found a rock about the size of a baby’s head.  I dropped the rock into the pond. It quietly splashed through the dark water and fell as if through treacle upon the ledge.  I watched the tiny fingers delicately thrum a final tattoo before being pulled down to the bottomless-black of the pond by the gently settling stone.

The Last Laugh

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Published by Hypnopomp magazine 2017

By D.L.Greenwood

The Devil is a fat man with no sense of humour.  It is this observation that makes me dislike him intensely; I think a sense of fun is essential when dabbling with the satanic.  We have an understanding, the Devil and I, if I walk on the left side of every street and avoid the cracks; if I wash my hands 35 times each morning and evening; if I check the locks on my doors fifteen times each day, then he will not drag my soul to hell.

It’s a tricky alliance but it’s worked well so far.  He makes no secret of the fact that he follows me.  When I see him greasily loitering in alleyways or smoking putrid cigars outside coffee shops, he nods and smiles.  But I am very wise. There will be no stepping on cracks or unwashed hands and I will not follow the Devil into hell.

A pigeon is squatting in the road as I carefully tread a left-slanted path: a sinister path. The Devil is behind me.  Today he wears a trench coat and sunglasses; I wonder if this is a joke but then remember his lack of wit.  I continue on my way; I have washed profusely and my way is clear, I have nothing to fear.

The sound is a wet pop and suddenly I am splattered.  A black Toyota stops and the driver gets out of his car to view what he has driven over.  It’s only a pigeon and it is now flat and dead.  The driver shrugs and speeds off.

I am wet with red and something that feels like snot trails down my cheek – pigeon entrails.

Panic drills into my heart. The bloody filth takes on a life of its own; it seeps into my pores and burns up my nerves.  I open my mouth to scream but something soft and wet plops onto my tongue.  I bend over and puke onto the street.

I start running and I am clawing away the muck from my skin, ripping off my T-shirt and throwing it into the street. And then I slam right into the Devil who feels more muscular than his fat gut suggests.

The Devil takes off his shades and stares at me with eyes filled with greed and triumph.  He nods in the direction of the path behind me.  I see what he sees and I understand.  The pavement is filled with cracks and I have stepped on each and every one of them.

He takes my arm and his fingers burn into my flesh.  For the first time I hear him laugh.  It is loud and infectious.  It would seem that the Devil does indeed have a sense of humour.  The joke is a good one and I find myself laughing along with the Devil.  I laugh and I laugh and I laugh until I have no breath left in my lungs and the world turns black.

Sybil

By D.L. Greenwood

********

She stands before him, mere dust caught in the tumult of the storm.   She wants to drown in his shadow and feel the cold warmth of his empty, black night.

He says – I love you. I love you more than beetles love filth; more than cats love sickness, more than leeches love the crimson.

She answers – I love you but I am promised to another.

His ebony rage splits the sky and he screams – I must have you!

The moon gobbles up the sun; tides swallow themselves; babes froth in bloodied wombs.

He whispers – for his fury has torn her ears- I will give you anything you desire.

She takes a handful of sand and feels it fall through her fingers – an immeasurable cascade. With eyes narrowing, she smiles and names her price  – One year for each grain of sand.

Her coquetry does not please the sun god; his lust turns to black dust and he grants her wish.

The years fall by her like leaves and she is left alone to count the ribs that protrude through her paper skin and wipe the gum that leaks from eyes as white as bone. Immortality is meaningless without  youth.  Finally, eternity takes her flesh, leaving behind nothing but an infinity of breaths.

On cold, dark nights when the devil seems real, listen to the wind shrieking and howling at your window. Still your heartbeat and listen more closely.  Listen.  Listen to the words birthing in the squall;  listen to the prayer of a woman who understands the true of horror of all that will come to be.  Hear it

beneath the roar…Let…

beneath the bluster… Me…

beneath the clamour…  Die.