The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
by Alex Grey
Our elders say that we once wrote on paper made from the beaten pulp of trees. The precious trees. Imagine these three-dimensional beings reduced to two-dimensional sheets; of less value than the words written on them.
That was then, before the symbionts evolved and forbade such desecration. They are fierce enforcers, combining as they do the patient strength of trees and the inventive cruelty of mankind. For now, the symbionts allow us, the humans, to inhabit our old homes in city suburbs even as the forest takes back the land around us.
I am old enough to remember my mother reading to my younger brother, Piers, and me. The words were like flames, roaring through my imagination, igniting my feelings, burning away my ignorance. I yearned for more, but even then, books were a rare and dangerous commodity. I have only a few volumes left now, the ones Piers and I escaped with when we fled from the purge. My mother’s dying screams echo through my dreams still.
The symbionts do not need books. The forest is one with them – sharing their thoughts without words; their history is written in the tree rings. They believe us to be deaf, dumb, inferior. We scratch a living, existing only on that which the symbionts grudgingly give us. We cannot sow or reap – our days of taking are over.
I would give in and die of despair and starvation, as many did when the symbionts came to power. But I, and a few others, still have words to inspire us, though we dare not speak or write openly. We meet when we can, gathering in barren places to read a priceless book. We take just one book at a time – it is all we can afford to lose if we are exposed.
A knock disturbs my reverie. When I open the door, there is no-one there, but a tiny vial of indigo ink sits on the doorstep. We lack the symbionts’ innate telepathy, but we are cunning and have found another way to communicate without words.
Piers nods and goes out to the back yard, taking a shovel with him. Our books are buried deep, but it is our turn to take one to tonight’s gathering. We have chosen a volume by a man named Oscar Wilde. We know nothing of his history, but I remember how my soul rocked to the cadence of his words as my mother read to me.
I take the vial, marvelling again at the complexity of its formulation. Our scientists have discovered a way to control the patterns that form when the ink is dripped into water. Their dedication is remarkable. Each batch is unique and coded to deliver a single message. I do not know who they are or where they are based – the unknown cannot be betrayed. What I do know is how to read the patterns.
I let ten drops fall into the glass, the ink swirls, the message clear – midnight at the South Beach. It is a good place, the wind-scoured sand is bare of spying trees and the rhythmic beat of the waves will drown our whispered reading. The message dissipates as the ink mixes with the water. Of necessity, the message is short-lived, the consequences of discovery are terrible and fill my bones with fear.
Suddenly, the front door crashes open. Three symbionts stride into the room, their eyes filled with horror as they look at blue-stained water. Attuned as they are to the plants that surround us, they know that we have snatched and murdered many berries to make this ink.
I grab the glass and run out of the back door, but it is too late. Piers is already staked out on the ground. He screams and screams as a symbiont carefully cuts a slit in his belly and plants a cherry sapling, gently spreading the roots under the skin. As the tree grows, Piers will be consumed, slowly. He will die within a few weeks; if he is lucky.
“Drink!” Piers shouts as he sees the glass in my hand.
I take a mouthful and swallow quickly before running to him, throwing as much of the liquid into his pleading mouth as I can. He licks his lips greedily, desperate to catch the liquid streaming over his face. His limbs convulse against their bonds as the poison takes hold – the fragile cherry tree topples, ripping his skin as it falls, but Piers is past caring.
The purple-black Belladonna berries that we use to make our ink are deadly. Too many of us were caught; too many suffered before we learnt the necessity of a swift death.
The symbionts are gathered around the stricken cherry sapling, distracted.
I run into the forest, wondering whether I can escape, but my legs suddenly fold beneath me. I lie on a dense carpet of fallen leaves. Delirious, the branches far above me become scribbled words – To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.
I feel my life ebbing away. This is a beautiful death — the words were worth it.
Note: Quote taken from Oscar Wilde’s short story The Canterville Ghost
Fiction © Copyright Alex Grey
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
More about Alex Grey:
After a lifetime of writing technical non-fiction, Alex Grey is fulfilling her dream of writing poems and stories that engage the reader’s emotions. Her ingredients for contentment are narrowboating, greyhounds, singing and chocolate – it’s a sweet life. Her poems and short stories have been published by a number of ezines including The Siren’s Call, Raconteur and Toasted Cheese. One of her comic poems is also available via a worldwide network of public fiction dispensers managed by French publisher, Short Edition. Alex’s original view of the world, which shines through her writing, has led to her best friend to say “For someone so lovely, you’re very twisted!”
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