Yes, I'm bringing you news of getting through to the second round of NYC Midnight's Short Story Challenge in a very timely manner, if by timely you mean two months later. I had to wait and see if I got through to the third round, you see, and since there's only one story here, you can guess the answer to that question.
Anyhoo, the challenge is to write stories that are progressively shorter, and in a progressively shorter amount of time. The first round was 2,500 words and had to be delivered in a week. The second was 2,000 and we had three days. The final round is 1,500 and you have 24 hours. They provide you with a genre, setting, and protagonist, and set you free. This story had to be a paranormal and include an entrepreneur and a graveyard. It was a real rush, I have to say, and I honestly am not sure where the story below came from. So enjoy, and don't be stingy with your magic.
The graves were as diverse as the people resting beneath them. Marble, limestone or faded local fieldstone, they shared only the ribbons which echoed those placed to bind the person to the earth, in case the fae came to take them.
It was all superstition anyway, they said. Bodies that rose out of their assigned resting places? Fairies who would come and pull them out of their graves and leave them unsettled, wandering, their bodies found in the trees or flopping over the wall, eyes open again as if surprised? Superstition. Hadn’t happened in decades.
Except Bo knew differently, because Bo was the fae.
She had stayed in the yew tree all day, since the last stragglers of the procession had left, the witchsmeller last, waving his wandbrush made from the tailhairs of a unicorn, they said, to ward off the forbidden magic. It didn’t ward off Bo, because she wasn’t magic. Magic had been given to her.
She was small and dark, her skin the colour of the shadows within the yew, but her eyes were a clear amber. Her hair was black and chopped anyhow to keep it out of her face, a nick on her neck showing her landlady’s inexpertise with the scissors. She wore beggars’ clothing, ragged dirt-coloured britches and coarse linen shirt, because no one looked at the beggars. But if anyone came close enough they would notice that she didn’t smell like a beggar. She smelled of lavender and peace and all the things they had forgotten existed.
Bo came after every funeral. She was not as small as the real fae, but could hide unnoticed in the ancient trees that were kept in the graveyard to shelter the dead. Bo knew the yews were also grown to shelter her and her kind, and always had been, since before the magic had been cast out and the last practitioners had made their desperate pledges to save the dead.
When the church clock struck midnight, Bo jumped down from the tree, steadying herself against its rough bark, a silent thank you in her hand’s touch. The same motion was visible a few feet from her, the wizened yew releasing Cary, her fellow harvester, dark and silent as she. Cary’s blue eyes against her black skin, and her brooding manner, had marked her out, made her unwelcome in the town. So she lived in Bo’s landlady’s stable. Now Bo thought she could see Cary’s eyes in the darkness.
“Bo,” nodded Cary.
Bo nodded back. They crept over the ground, the smell of fresh dirt and dampness drawing them to the site. Standing on one side of the grave, the pile in front of them, they bent over to bury their hands in it, up to the elbows. The energy of the departed life flowed from the memory in the grave to them.
In unison, they pulled their arms toward them and began to dig like dogs, their arms sweeping clods of earth the size of their heads down between their legs and behind them. In a shorter time than it would have taken men twice their size, they were looking at the figure in the ground.
The ribbons were not to keep the bodies in the ground. They were for Bo and Cary to get hold of the body and pull it out of the two-yard-deep hole. The old witches had spread the story of the fae before they were killed, to keep the ribbon-wrapping going, to save the magic. The fae lived but did not deal with the dead. They made the people who had outlawed their world pay, by stealing buttons and hooks and horseshoe nails, and sometimes taking a baby’s magic when it was still alive. Which often killed it, not that the fae cared. When bodies were found out of the ground it was because the magic had pulled them out.
What the people had failed to realise, when they had become scared of the dark, when a sickness brought by too strong a wizard was raging, when the witches’ tongues had spouted languages they couldn’t understand and therefore didn’t want, is that you can’t banish magic. It exists, it breathes, it permeates every living thing. And, if you don’t do something with it, every dead thing as well.
Cary jumped into the grave, handed the end of two thick pieces of ribbon to Bo, and jumped out again, her feet lighter than gravity allowed. Two ribbons were in her hands. Together they heaved out the body and lay it with exaggerated care on the ground.
Bo leaned over the white-wrapped figure. Took a hold of the end of the binding, which was always tucked in below the deceased’s chin, and pulled. Cary rolled the binding as Bo handed it to her, a white cocoon the size of a man’s head. A man the size of the town mayor was revealed.
“You’re sure?” said Cary.
“She said everybody.”
“He was the most mundane man I ever—”
“Every body,” Bo insisted. “Give me your hands.”
Two black children leaning over the half-wrapped man, his chest and face exposed, his mummied legs still white and pristine. Cary behind Bo, her forehead on Bo’s hair. Bo felt her breath near the cut from the scissors. Cary’s hands rested on the front of Bo’s ribs, below her breasts, spread like the bones they covered, ready to catch the breath. Cary breathed in hard, her own chest expanding so that Bo was caught in between her chest and her hands.
“That’s not part of it,” she said, but she smiled and patted Cary’s hand.
Then she placed her hands in the same position on the mayor’s chest, fingers matching ribs, aiming at his heart. Bo breathed out for longer than a grown man could, closing her eyes, sensing the shimmying magic inside the body. The old mother hadn’t lied.
Bo breathed in and Cary breathed in behind her and Bo’s chest expanded beyond the bounds of her body, Cary’s hands guiding the ribs outwards, Bo’s hands pressing on the mayor’s broad chest until his bones would surely crack, but the energy made them all pliable so that as his space contracted, hers expanded, and the nugget of magic that sat in his centre was pulled out of him and into her open mouth.
Bo let up the pressure, Cary eased her hands from Bo’s chest, the mayor’s body seemed to breathe in as the ribs settled back into place, and he rested. The ribbons around him fluttered for a moment, and were still.
Bo staggered back into Cary’s waiting arms, her mouth closed around the magic. Exhausted and dizzy, she needed Cary to pry it from behind her teeth. The magic reflected in Cary’s blue eyes, making them glitter. This was the most dangerous time, the few seconds where the magic was bright and gleaming, exposed in the night, before Cary put it in the pouch the old mother had given her.
When darkness blanketed them once more, Cary gave Bo a few more minutes in her arms to recover. “Don’t rush,” she said when Bo moved.
“It was heavy,” Bo murmured.
When she was satisfied that Bo was recovered, Cary laid her down and began to wrap the mayor in his bindings, first cutting off a piece of his ribbons with the knife she kept for this purpose. Bo sat up and rubbed her own ribs, which always seemed to take a while to return to their assigned shape. Her mouth burned pleasantly from the moment she’d held the magic there.
If anyone caught them, they would call them bodysnatchers, taking the deceased to the healers in the woods whom no one visited until they were desperate. Bo and Cary would be killed for their desecration. And if they explained that they were saving the bodies, not insulting them, they would be killed for witchcraft. And so it was silently and respectfully, but quickly, that they reached for the ribbons and lowered the mayor back into his place.
Bo whispered a short poem over the grave as Cary began to replace the soil, a poem from the old mother, halfway between a prayer and an incantation, and in a language Bo didn’t understand. Then they filled in the grave until no trace of their night’s work remained. The scent of the dirt was in their nostrils and the energy of the mayor’s memories in their limbs when they crept out of the graveyard, past the waiting tree whom Bo again patted in recognition.
The journey to the old mother’s house took an hour over the fields, even with their enhanced speed. Cary kept her speed down in deference to Bo’s activity that night, but Bo felt buzzed and alive. This was one reason she harvested the magic.
Like most old women who never married, the old mother had been suspicious for as long as anyone could remember. Her home boasted an eight-foot-high hedge which hid her and it from view. Stories flew around town about her and the contents of her garden behind the wall. But no one could stay away from her stall on market day, and while the wave of superstition ebbed and flowed every few years, this was one aspect of the forbidden magic that the townspeople chose to ignore.
They came to the cypress hedge, twice as high as they, its greenish black the only thing that distinguished it from the darkness around them. Bo put her hand on it and breathed out slowly. The residual magic was recognized and the hedge opened. They stepped into it, the branches surrounding them, gently scratching their arms and faces, as if taking payment for their entrance.
In the garden the light was brighter. The space in front of the house was laid out in squares and each square held a different leaf or root, carrots and lettuces and potatoes people in surrounding towns came miles to buy. Herbs hung from the eaves of the old house. Their drying scent covered everything, wafting out over the vegetables to greet Bo and Cary as they picked their way between the beds. When they got to the house Bo lifted her hand as high as she could, to touch the lavender which she saw above her head, but she could not reach it.
“Later,” a voice said from the house, and the door opened.
Bo fought the urge to curtsey, though the old mother emanated such knowledge that Bo felt it would only be her due. In contrast to the dull lack of colour Bo and Cary had been seeing tonight, the old mother’s clothes were gaudy, peacock blue with yellow gores in the floor-length skirt. Her long grey hair was in its usual braid, decorated with flowers, ears of wheat and tattered ribbons that smelled of decay.
Her eyes were a bright blue and now she fixed them both with her encompassing stare. “Well?” she said.
Cary handed over the ribbon, but not the pouch. “I have a question,” she said instead.
Her eyes fought with the old mother’s. “What question?” the old mother said sharply. “You want more money?”
Bo didn’t like this answer. There was always need for more money.
Cary went on. “My question is, why did you choose us? Who came before us? Who will come after us?”
Three questions, Bo thought. And the old mother never explains anything.
Indeed, the old mother stood in silence, blocking the entrance to the house as successfully as she always had, blocking access to her thoughts, her training, her ancestry. They had only ever been given what they needed to do the job.
Bo was about to reach over to Cary’s side to pull the pouch out and give it to the old mother herself. She was not a fae: she needed food, and for food, she needed the old mother’s silver. But then the old mother came to life, walking between them and out to her vegetable beds.
“I’ll show you something,” she said.
They followed her, crouching down by one bed of lettuces. The smell of dirt here was unlike that in the graveyard. Here it smelled green and living.
“See these leaves?” the old mother said. “This is rampion. Look at its flower.” She pointed to the delicate stalk in the middle of the lavender-coloured flower. “See how the stigma curls back on itself. It exposes itself to the stamen that way, takes up the pollen, and the plant fertilizes itself.”
She leaned back on her heels and looked at them. “You are like this plant. Your mothers were like this plant.”
There was a silence as profound as the grave while they took this in.
“My mother told me I didn’t have a father,” Cary said. “I thought she was being metaphorical.”
“You are father and mother and more than both. You are light and dark, life and death, freedom and binding, magic and mundane. One day you will self-pollinate and birth a child like you, whom you will teach to ease the trapped magic from the dead.”
“I’m not a girl?” Bo asked.
“You are whatever you choose to be. Both, neither, either.”
Cary jumped up and punched the air. “Yes!”
“Give me the pouch,” said the old mother. Buoyed by the revelation, Cary handed it over. The old mother took out the magic, which sizzled and glowed brighter as it touched her hand. Their faces were illuminated for a moment, then the old mother buried the nugget of magic in the soil beneath the rampion, patting the soil over it as if it were a child she was putting to bed. Bo felt the energy ripple through the rampion and out into every leaf and bud in the garden.
“Your silver,” said the old mother, reaching into a fold of her skirt.
“You’ve paid me enough,” said Cary. Already he looked different, held himself differently. His blue eyes were the same but the tension Bo had felt in him their whole lives was gone.
The old mother smiled. “Yet you must still eat.” She gave them several coins which Cary put into his pouch.
“Until next time,” the old mother said. “Take care of each other.”
Bo was stunned to such a degree that she almost forgot to ask. “Mother?” she said.
“Yes?” the old mother said. “Oh. Your lavender.”
She snipped a bunch of the herb using a long-handled pair of shears which leaned against the house. Truthfully the lavender was worth more than any coin in Cary’s pouch, as it was not for sale in the market and everyone thought it extinct. But it brought them peace every time Bo, unseen and ignored in her beggar’s clothes, walked among them. Bo tucked it into her shirt, felt the points of the flowers against her skin. Crushed it there with one hand and smiled. She harvested the magic for this.
Kimberley Ash is a British ex-pat who has lived in and loved New Jersey for twenty years. When not writing romance, she can usually be found cleaning up after her two big white furry dogs and slightly less furry children. Her first novel, Breathe, is now available from Crimson Romance. Her trilogy, The Van Allen Brothers, was released by Tule Publishing in 2019.