The way to the heart is always through the stomach.

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Photo by Taylor Grote on Unsplash

Day 2:

The dough was spongy beneath her fingers, just the right side of tacky and so she threw it down onto the flour-dusted counter and began to knead. Yet with every punch and twist and roll, her anxiety grew. Would this suffice? What if they didn’t like it? The first time she had displeased them, they gave – what did they call it? – dispensation, the word hissed out like the very taste of it on the tongue was unpalatable in the extreme.  This time she was sure there would be no mercy.

An hour later, hovering by the oven door, peering in whilst her heart hammered in her chest and she whispered the silent prayer of bakers everywhere, willing the muffins to rise, puffy and glorious and light beyond imagining, the alarm went off. It was time. They were good. Not perfect, but good: fluffy and golden and studded with jewels of fruit which glistened, promising succulent sweetness within.  Hands trembling, she placed them on the requisite tray, passed them to the silent and inscrutable servants and the waiting began.

Day 3:

She gasped awake and shook her head to rid herself of the needle-sharp gaze of those button black bitter blank eyes. All pupil-wide and vacuous yet swirling with malice, they seemed to curl into a grin every time she faced them. Why had she taken this job? It’s not like she was desperate. Plenty of places needed a baker – everyone hates the early start.

She’d been seduced by the gothic flying buttresses, the sweeping hallways and oak-panelled walls. The place spoke to her of the books she had read as a girl and the thought that she could live here – enter this hallowed world of privilege and history and step into the picture-book beauty. She was sold on sight. But now…now she had peeled back the exterior and felt the burning furnace within, crackling with spite and cackling with delight at the dark magic of its heart, she was ready to go.

They had it sewn up though, of course. That’s the thing about gothic mansions, they’re bloody hard to escape from: grounds that stretch forever and a day; iron gates which tower into the very heavens above; giant keys clanking on the hip of a sullen and mean-spirited housekeeper. And all of that was without even considering the dogs. She’d wondered about them on day one, but allowed herself to be swept away by her romantic foolishness. No chance of getting past them, even with fully functioning limbs.

Two hours later, aproned and ready in the kitchen, she glanced down at the pastry and swore. Not only was it harder to roll with fingers missing, but the wounds kept splitting open and now she had to start from scratch. Again.

Day 6: 

The heat was getting to her. The air hung thick and heavy, cut only by the blast of scalding heat which belched its way into the kitchen when she opened the oven doors. She was used to the hands by now, deft almost, but the missing toes on her right foot were agony. Blistered and swollen, they forced her to drag her foot behind her, choking back her sobs of desperation as she tried to work out what it was they wanted, what would finally sate their tastebuds and leave her whole, or as whole as she could be now after they’d begun the game of hacking her apart, piece by bloody piece. This was Masterchef one-o-one alright.

Had she not turned at that moment to check the time, and bent to tighten the bandage on her bleeding feet, she might have noticed the scrap of bloodied skin as it fell into the mixture. She might have seen it combined with the other ingredients as the machine continued to beat its rhythm in a perfect figure of eight. Had she seen this, she would have gone to bed less bemused, less shocked by the rapture with which they greeted the delicate biscuits after licking their fingers and hoovering crumbs from the plate before them. As it was, she allowed herself only a moment of thanks for her remaining extremities, and sank into a dreamless sleep.

Day 30: 

A sorry sight stands before us in the kitchen, staring listlessly out at the sculptured gardens as she stirs the stew with bruised stumps, and grimaces her lipless smile as she remembers the life before. She’s not to know, poor girl, that this day marks the end of her probation. This is the day that marks the culmination of the tasting menu, and the girls, onyx eyes glittering with excitement are already gathering in the hall, the best silver set out to mark the occasion. Does she wonder perhaps, when she sees a young lady, blonde-haired and wide-eyed, being escorted around the gardens, shielding her eyes as she looks up at the turrets and towers which stand proud against the blue, blue sky? It’s a beautiful day for a celebration.

When they came for her, she pleaded for what she could. Not the eyes, she begged. Not the heart. They shook their heads, sullen and stern, for that’s not what the girls desire. Her head, especially, would stay intact, as a glorious addition to the outer walls. One of her wishes would come true after all- she could drink in the beauty of her surroundings forever and ever and ever. They would take what they needed from her, slicing from the sternum downwards and retrieving the prize within. After all, the way to the girls’ heart is always through the stomach.

© Abi Hennig 2019

Written in response to a prompt from Creative Writing Ink: https://creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-prompts/

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Of Mermaids and Monsters

 

I was a late developer. Slow to walk, dragging one leg after the other in a sporadic crawl, I found other ways to move around. My voice took a while too; in class I was quiet, introspective, studious. So it remained, year after torturous school year: the frog dancing in my throat as I raised my tremulous hand to speak, the ragged crimson flush which crept across my cheeks, my chin, my chest the moment anyone looked in my direction.

At fifteen, I experienced an awakening. I’m not sure which came first, the confidence or the sideways glances, but it was if I had woken up and burst from the chrysalis which hampered me all these years. I perfected my lolloping swagger, honed my sneer to perfection, slashed and dyed my mousey brown locks into a honey tinted bob and dared anyone to mention it with a withering stare. I had arrived.

He noticed of course. Leaning casually against the lockers, his eyes followed me along the corridor, waiting for the right moment to approach. I didn’t make it easy. Inside though, inside the tempestuous siren who stalked the hallways was the same awkward, stuttering introvert. I was haunted by my own inadequacies.

When he struck, I was ready. Intoxicated on more than the possibility of what could happen between us, I allowed him close. All the sober horror stories of losing your virginity rang like echoing peals of laughter in my ears. This was what I wanted. This was who I was now: siren of the senior ball. Closer still, I felt him hard against me, his solidity forcing me to the wall. He kissed me. I swallowed lightning and flashed it at him with a glance. He called me his mermaid and told me he was drowning.

Before long, we reigned supreme, sparking glimmering admiration which shimmered in our wake. This was why I had waited. This was what it had all been for.

My voice betrayed me the first time. I spoke too soon. Uninvited. I learned my lesson, chewing my bloodied lip and swallowing my words back down each time they rose up and threatened to choke me.

My body betrayed me the second time: straying too close to a forbidden fruit. I felt the wall against my back. This time lightning didn’t strike. His hand against my throat, I felt my belly twist and roll and forced the bile to stay contained within. My inner stutter grew legs and battered me from the inside.

My being betrayed me the third time, and the fourth, and the next: too loud, too sure, too right, too there.  I shrank into myself, my legs twisting together in a spasm of despair. My siren call became a strangled cry for help, uttered as a wordless ‘O’ against a background of whispered asides and knowing glances at the girl who allowed herself to fall into the depths

They warn us against becoming mermaids. Leviathan remains unchecked.

© Abi Hennig 2019

Written for the All for Writers 24 Hr Flash competition

https://www.allforwriters.com/p/24-hour-flash-winners.html

Depth of Field

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It was the last picture she took before her eyes began to fail. That’s what he told everybody. And everybody asked, intrigued by the photograph so distinct from the rest. He had a feeling she’d known when she captured it – something about the focus was so deliberate. He didn’t tell them about the drawer of pictures in the office: the half-headshots and blurred landscapes, the unidentified objects fuzzing across a background of the bland. Those images were not for display.

“Sometimes your body fails before your mind, sometimes it’s the other way around. I know in which order I’d like to fall apart.” Her favourite saying. Easier said than lived through, once the chickens come home to roost.

On the way back from the police station, he tried to reason with her.

“Maybe it’s time to call it quits, Nan. You’ve an incredible body of work. Maybe it’s time to change your focus, play to your strengths? This week the nudist beach – next week, what? Unwitting murder witness? You’ve got to watch out, or you’ll be front page news!

She sat beside him, tight-lipped, knuckles white on the fingers laced around her camera bag. The silence hung between them as he drove her home. It hovered on the doorstep as he ushered her in, the air fragile as porcelain.

He wondered, later, if it could have played out differently, if he could have found other, better words.

They used the picture for the order of service. Someone commented it was very appropriate. “It represents her crossing over – the space between the known and the unknown.” Artists love to find the layers beneath the layers. He couldn’t see them any more. Through the film of tears, it was nothing but a blur.

© Abi Hennig 2019

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Written for a prompt from https://creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-prompts/

 

Rumble Strip

william-felker-37752-unsplash-1024x576Your throat is dry. Blinking the dust out of your eyes, you bite the inside of your cheeks in an attempt to stop yourself from swallowing. Pointless, of course, the more you resist, the harder it gets. The elephant in the room’s grown spikes and is pogo-ing down your esophagus. Not for the first time, you rest your cheek against the asphalt, feel the scratchy, blistering warmth against your skin. You close your eyes.  As the sound of the cicadas spirals away on the breeze, you hear the faint echoes of a song. Your stomach clenches, everything inside you knotting up and twisting against the memory. You try to resist, heart thumping double time, eyelids flickering frantically, trying to force yourself back to the present, back to the here and now but it’s too late. It’s too hot. You drift.

“DA, DA LA DADADA DA, DA, DA DA” Your fingers are tapping the wheel as you lean back, elbow resting on the open window, shirt unbuttoned, tie askew, work flung carelessly on the back seat, already forgotten. The sky is blue, the sun beams down, nothing stands between you and the sweet, sweet weekend ahead.

Something niggles somewhere in the back of your head. We see you twitch, flopping like a fish out of water on the tarmac, moaning indiscriminate nonsense through the spittle that covers your mouth. You’re too far gone to notice.

If the music wasn’t so loud, you might have paid more attention, your tyres were rumbling hungrily on the rougher road surface and the shift in birdsong was dramatic – eerie almost- people said.  You are too caught up in the days ahead – already firing up the barbie, cracking open a beer in the garden of your mind. God knows how you missed the signs though – the bloody signs were everywhere.

The twitching’s stopped. I suppose some might take you for dead. They won’t though – too many people have tried that before.

And then you’re IN THE ZONE! In the zone of glorious, golden summertime. IN THE ZONE. In the zone of feet up, hat down,  dozing in the midday heat. IN THE ZONE.

Somewhere deep in your subconscious, your mind is screaming now.

Too late. You see her too late. You try and swerve of course, spitting and swearing and cursing, all the warnings flashing through your head in one great crimson crescendo which is TOO FUCKING LATE. And then the crimson isn’t in your head any more. It’s on the tarmac, and on your car, and on your clothes, and in your hair and stuck to your knees, your chest, your hands.

Some people have said it’s barbaric what we do. You can’t say we didn’t try everything else though. Speed bumps -remember them? And cameras – cameras first, then smart motorways. The signs – the signs made by children with pictures of their mum and dad which were obliterated by men like you, by women like her because they just had to get home on time. Finally, the people – surely if we put people on the road it’ll make a difference they thought. Surely if it looks like an actual person is about to run across the road then everyone will just SLOW DOWN a bit. It worked, didn’t it – do you remember?

Yes- see -not quite such a dead fish now, eh? You’ve started gurgling.

It worked at first – you nearly had a heart attack the first time you saw them. Pretty realistic from a distance (which, of course, is the point- time to react). Just like everything else though, it wore off. Pretty soon you didn’t even blink as you passed them.

This is working, though- do you think? If you get out of this one, you’ll never speed again. Might never even drive again, come to think of it. Those who survive rarely make it back behind the wheel.

You cough, barking furiously, and because you have no saliva to spare, you can’t stop. Your face turns red as you hack desperately, twisting your head this way and that, searching for air. Ironic really – that’s when you hear it approaching. You can tell already it’s going far too fast. You can hear the music, the bass cranked up so high the vibrations reach you before the sound. Your body’s apoplectic now – every sinew taut, every muscle straining against your bonds. The rumbling deepens, the bassline thrumming until it mingles with your heartbeat. You close your eyes before you hear the screeching.

© Abi Hennig 2019

Photo by William Felker on Unsplash

Inspired by a prompt from https://creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-prompts/

 

In through the nose, out through the mouth

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Photo by Mario Azzi on Unsplash

 

Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the…fuck it…shit…something’s moving. Not something. Someone.

Her breaths come thick and fast now, fogging up the glass. She wipes the window impulsively, smearing the pane with sweat from her clammy hand. Muttering wordlessly, she tugs her sleeve down over her wrist and polishes frantically, obsessively until the smear retreats and finally disappears. She peers again through the aperture.

Flakes of snow fall soundlessly, a storm of fuzz turning the window into a black and white tv screen. She blinks, gently, once, then forcefully three times, shaking her head to clear her vision. She peers again. This time she can just about make it out: a hunched shape stumbling through the blizzard.

They said they would come when it was safe. They said they would come when it was over, when it was time to go back to normal, back to the way things were before. This didn’t feel like over. It didn’t feel like safety. The hunched shape staggering to and fro through a curtain of speckled grey ash didn’t look like them.

Out of nowhere, the misshapen stumbling bundle loomed large against the window. She dropped down, instinctively, out of sight, although…surely she couldn’t be seen – even at such proximity. Tom had promised, on his return from his last venture out, that it was impossible to see the bunker from outside, even if you were stood right next to it. He joked he found it hard enough himself to find his way back. And then he didn’t. Find his way back.

After a few minutes, curiosity crept into her fingers and she hauled herself back to her spyhole, only to choke on a strangled gasp at the assembly outside. Gently, she placed her trembling fingertips against the glass, caressing the smooth surface as the faces on the other side stuttered into view. No longer shapes, or bundles, but clearly people. Her heart sang, her voice, croaky and wooden with lack of use, threatened to explode up through her throat as she pushed herself back, away from the external wall.

Her outdoor gear hung, as it always had, on the back of the door. By now, the trembling in her fingers had spread from hands to arms to chest to hips to legs to toes, her adrenaline spiking as she anticipated meeting another human being after so, so long. The hairs on her skin prickled in anticipation of touch, her throat was burning with the desire to speak, to speak and be heard.

She rattled the first bolt across with ease, the second was stiff through lack of use; it took the force of her whole body to heave it out of the shaft, she grasped the third in her gloved hand and suddenly froze. For what felt like eternity and a day, she stood there, poised at the crossroads between purgatory and what comes after. This was everything she had been waiting for. Contact. Human contact. The beginning of the new beginning. A chance to put the world right for the survivors of all that had gone before.

Her eyes, which had been locked on the door handle, slowly twitched and led her head, her shoulders, her torso into a laboured, deliberate turn. Her eyes scanned the room: every wall packed from ceiling to floor, shelves groaning with medical supplies, food, water, books, pens, paper, pictures. Hope. A thumping sound from outside broke the spell and she looked, aghast, at the window once more, at the lolloping figures outside, blindly circling her den of solitude. What had once seemed a beacon of joy now filled her insides chock full with the acid tang of fear. How long would the resources last? Not long in the hands of the bandits outside, surely.

She slid, soundlessly, down to the floor, her head resting against the door, and closed her eyes. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth.

She stood, shakily.

Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth.

She slid the first bolt silently back into place.

In through the nose, out through the mouth.

The second one was stiff, still, and she bit her lip clean through as she forced it home.

In through the nose.

She crept towards the window. Out through the mouth.

The fog of her breath clouded the window and she rested her forehead against the glass, letting the condensation sink into her skin.

 

 

© Abi Hennig 2019

Inspired by a prompt from https://creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-prompts/

 

 

Don’t Look Now

dawid-zawila-192545-unsplashIt was an offering. A gift – that’s how he’d put it. The gift of a thousand winters, of a thousand summers, of a million moments of wonder stretching far off into the horizon and beyond. His hands, so drenched in power, remained outstretched.

“I can make you a god,” he said.

Even then, she wasn’t sure.

He was a miracle of contradiction: Eyes grey as silence, skin wrinkled by exposure to the heat of relentless suns, heart beating patiently in his chest. She knew that heartbeat, her hand had felt it, had rested on his chest as she had stared, blindly, trying and failing to match his gaze which pierced every barrier she had ever erected and skinned her alive where she stood.

The globe in his gloved hand shimmered. A bird, swooping low across the frozen lake in search of food, cast a shadow and for a moment, for the tiniest of a fraction of a second, she thought she saw something else within the sphere. Something darker. Something hungrier which scurried within, beneath, above the crystal copse.

“Close your eyes and breathe,” he whispered.

She did.

“Step forward, Angel. Into the future.”

He kept his voice low, measured. She wondered if this was part of the trick; remembered his heartbeat pulsing steadily beneath her fingers; pictured the singing, tinkling hum of the stalactites which trickled from the trees; felt her body sway gently, tipping forward; gasped as she saw once again the shadow, the darkness, but this time in it’s full and malevolent glory: the jaws opening wide, ready to devour her.

Her eyes open, she swiped downwards, swiftly, decisively, finally.

The globe shattered: a million refractions bursting into colour, resplendent against the snow. He was gone.

“I can make you a god,” he had said.

But not all Gods are equal.

Photo Credit: Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

© Abi Hennig 2019

Writing prompt by: https://creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-prompts/

Magpie

The birdcage swung gently in the wind, its filigree swirls glinting in the light making it seem as though they were dancing, each snaking strand of brass twirling in the auburn rays of the setting sun. When she bought it (rescued it, she should really say) from amongst the clutter of stalls of nondescript tat at the end of her street which masqueraded as an antiques market every Saturday afternoon, it had seemed rusty and caked with dirt. Her grand plans involving wire brushes and layers of varnish had come to nothing once she had attached it to a branch in the garden and been distracted by something else which shone in the corner of her eye. Yet another unfinished project doomed to haunt her overgrown garden, besmirching the neighbourhood and lowering the house prices of the local area by another cool thousand or two.

Magda did not care. Bricks and mortar were of no concern to her. Nor was cash-money, filthy notes caked with germs festering in wallets and back pockets, exchanged thoughtlessly from hand to grasping hand. Magda was concerned only with the trinkets which brought her fleeting glimpses of joy. Flashes of silver and glimpses of gold, warming her heart with their shimmering shine. With these trinkets, she feathered her nest and decorated her crumbling Victorian terraced house from top to twinkling toe.

She had no friends to speak of, and the local community had long dismissed her as an oddball, so she was left in relative peace to shuffle around the town gathering an ever-growing array of dubious delights. The birdcage was the latest of these: another rickety old relic which would no doubt crumble and decay as quickly as the seasons changed. Except this ornamental novelty was different. Unbeknownst to Magda, to her neighbours, even to the stallholders who had handed it over after a furious bout of haggling, this birdcage was special.

Anyone who had seen it that Sunday evening, just before dusk could have told you the same. The rusted frame had become somehow transformed, the intricate design taking on a life of its own which breathed and throbbed and sighed into the wind. With each tentative breath, a cloud of twinkling specks of dust whirled up, up into the air and pirouetted gently before wriggling their way into the house through the hairline cracks in the walls.

By sundown, the house was hazy with mystical particles. Magda, never one for dusting, muttered, swatting at the thickening air and cursing to herself, completely unaware that here, at last, was the magic she had been waiting for. Coughing slightly on the muggy atmosphere, she stirred her mug of cooling tea and hobbled, one foot, two feet, one foot two feet, up the stairs to bed. Flinging open the bedroom window, she squinted into the darkness, seeing for the first time the swirling fog which whipped itself around her house, moving relentlessly, urgently. A hacking bout of coughs broke the spell, and she settled herself amidst her woven blankets, curling up to find some warmth to protect her from the cooling night-time winds.

She slept a fitful sleep, full of dreams of flight and visions she could not comprehend and when she woke, her coughs brought up fistfuls of feathers, black as ink and brittle as glass. For the first time, perhaps in her whole life, Magda felt afraid. The birdcage continued its gentle swaying in the garden far below.

So it went on. Each day saw a thickening of the air, each night brought erratic and restless sleep, filled with dreams of new and wondrous visions which Magda could not begin to describe, much less explain. On the seventh morning of this cycle, her room now knee-deep in feathers and tiny brittle bones, Magda shakily stepped out of her bed and hopped towards the window. She perched precariously, a hunched figure, shrunken from lack of rest and food, on the windowsill and peered into the garden below. The birdcage continued to sway. Magda teetered. The birdcage whistled as the swinging increased in urgency. It was calling to her, “Now, now.” Magda jumped.

Had anyone been watching, they would have gasped and jumped into action to see a frail old woman wrapped in blankets plummet so suddenly from her bedroom window. Emergency services would have been called and a general ruckus would have ensued. But no-one was watching. No-one saw Magda fall. No-one saw Magda stretch out her arms, the blankets morphing into feathers, her face shrinking and twisting into a beaked visage, her legs contorting, shedding flesh, bones condensing into sticks which tapered to sharpened talons. Magda clutched the birdcage, following its metronomic rhythm and considered her gifts. Her glittering black eyes surveyed the kingdom above, below and around her, an endless array of dazzling treats to be plucked and plundered and tucked away in her cavernous home. Had anyone been watching closely, they would have whispered, “Witch.” But no-one had witnessed a thing.

The birdcage creaked as it swayed gently in the wind. As it rocked to and fro, Magda joined in its melancholic music with sporadic caws of delight.

© Abi Hennig 2019