Contest #152 shortlist ⭐️

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Fantasy Drama Sad

This story contains sensitive content

(CW:death)


At dawn they swing from the gallows. They sway towards Hell, pitch for Heaven, dance in limbo. Everyone in the square holds their breath at the cracking moment, a yellow fog of expectant inhalations against the tea-stained sky. The bell tolls. The scaffold creaks, splintered and umber and steadfast.


On the outskirts of the town to the west, and in the hills gazing over the valley, a century of distraught mothers - keening, breaking - swear vengeance into the guts of the lords. 


*****

A woman waits on his doorstep. A woman, Solomon notes, who moves from foot to foot, restless energy coursing through her body. It is not until he is almost upon her that her face comes fully into focus. 

          Millica. Her name comes back to him on a breath. He knows her. Knew her. 

          "Solomon?" It's a question, because of course, he is old now. Youthful jawline masked by a beard and skin papery and dry. 

          She too is old.

           I used to admire the thin blue veins in your eyelids, he thinks. He cannot see whether they are still present: the flesh of her eyelids fold like a crumpled blanket. The eyes though. The eyes are bright, a glimmer of - what is that? - expectation glints. 

         "Come in."

        The cabin creaks, the dust, effervescent, small and grey and choking. On the table in the centre stands a lone brass candlestick, and in the cold mouth of the fireplace, twigs and logs await a flame. 

         Millica is still as he digs matches from a drawer. There’s a hiss as he strikes and a gentle crackle when the hungry spark licks at the kindling. 

         He should offer her tea, he thinks, but gets no further in this thought before she's speaking in a rush. 

         "All the boys are dead, Solomon. All of them. They wanted to fight, you see. The old rules, the old ways. Wanted something for themselves. For us, their old mothers, for their children." It is impassioned, her speech, but controlled. "So they tried. But they were caught. Hanged. Every last one." Only now does a hairline crack creep into her voice. "My boy amongst them. Edrow. That was his name." 

          Solomon sits. He knows what's coming, wants to delay the moment where her heart smashes for a second time. Millica remains standing. 

         "We, the mothers, we want you to…" She stares into the fire. "We want you to bring our boys back." 


***


A light always glowed in his mother's window. A light, thought Solomon, that drew the people like moths. The grieving, the dying, the sinners, the saints: they came to their home at all hours of the day and night. 

          They were wealthy then, Solomon and his mother. Solomon pressed his feet into fine animal rugs, nibbled his venison from silver forks, slept beneath fat goose down quilts. People were willing to pay handsomely for the resurrection of their loved ones. 

         "I have a gift, Solomon. Perhaps you have it too." 

          He never grew used to the cadavers, carried in on stretchers and carts, the sweet sticky perfume of decay. He'd study their faces, blank in death, then watch their bewildered smile of thanks, coughing, bowing on shaky legs. 

           After resurrecting a body, his mother, a spent heap beneath the covers, could never get warm. 

           "Come," she'd instruct him and he'd clamber under the thick blankets and press her shivering body to his, engulfing her in his own warmth. If I could harness the sun, I'd bring it here to your bed to warm you. 

           "It takes something from you," she'd say when the quivering subsided, "giving life back to the dead." 

          "When will I be able to do it, Mother?" 

           "When it matters, child." 


***

On the second day, there are five of them. Millica has returned, though she's quieter than before.  

          "This is bigger than just us," says one of them. Polina, he thinks she said. Her cheeks are red as though scrubbed with pumice, liquid amber eyes blaze. "It is not about our sons, but their children, their future. This world is so cruel for them!" She has grown shrill in her appeal. 

          "I'm retired," he repeats quietly. 

          A woman in a tattered russet dress continues. "Think, Solomon. You could be part of the solution. Play your role in creating a fair world." She is thrumming, a ripple pushing through the air, a pebble dropped in the middle of a pond. "Nothing could prepare them for that! The men they killed, returning for vengeance, to finish what they started." She stops just short of clapping her hands with glee. 

          Solomon shakes his head slowly. "You don't understand. You can never understand." 

          They watch him as his boots creak across the bare floorboards, as he stops, pulls open the door.  

          "Please." He gestures for them to leave. 

          The women stare at him silhouetted by the dense green beyond the door, glance at one another, step stiffly away from the table. They shake their heads tightly as they pass, their pink cheeks blazing.

          Millica stops, hand gripping the rough wool of his tunic. "Help me understand." Water pools in her eyes. He sees, for a moment, a life where they could have been friends. More even. If he'd been normal. It could have been our son. 

           Solomon stares at the floor, a spider making its grateful escape from the stuffy cabin. Millica drops her hand.

            "I'm sorry," she whispers. 

            He watches until the women are spots on the expansive horizon. Behind, in the cabin, a door groans. 

           "You'll keep saying no, won't you Solomon?"

           Her voice is low and empty. 

           Solomon nods. 


***


A resurrection is like a kiss, though it would be years before he'd make that connection. To bring life back, the chosen one places their lips on those of the deceased and exhales slowly, passing, not only breath into the lungs of the dead, but essence back into the body. Like a kiss, it requires more than just the mechanics of the motion: there must be an exchange: a deep, sonorous connection that goes beyond simple compassion. 

          A blue jay, crumpled from a crash into a window, was his first attempt. Under the watchful eye of his mother, he focused on the wretched form, sorrow running cold through his veins. He covered the little beak with his mouth, closed his eyes, exhaled. The bird's chest remained still.  

         "Why won't she breathe, Mother?"

         "Because you focused on your own sadness for the bird. Compassion is not enough." She took the lifeless mass of feathers and cupped it in her palm. "Dying is complicated, messy. A lifetime of memories leaking out. Think, Solomon. Think about what this bird would have grasped for in her dying moments." Mother held the bird close to her lips. "Those chicks in the nest, entirely reliant on her for survival." Her lips parted, covering the beak. She released her breath like a sigh. At first, nothing happened, then, a tiny pulse, a flutter beneath the breastbone. Then the gentle rise and fall of her feathered chest. 

          Solomon watched as the bird shook herself from his mother's hand, soared, a tourmaline arc in her wake.

          "The dead," she said, "must have something to come back for."


****

When they come for him, they are an army in themselves. Close to one hundred women, unable to hear another no to their bequest, righteous and punctured and lost. 

          He brokers no argument, puts up no fight, but they shackle him all the same. Rusting cuffs press coldly into his wrists. The metallic tang of the chains burns his throat as he is led from the cabin in the thick of night. 

          Over his shoulder, Solomon can make out the jagged edges of his cabin. I will return, he thinks, willing her to hear. I'm sorry. 

           The dewy grass licks his boots, moisture finding an opening in the sole, stocking sucking the water thirstily. For hours, they walk, the women saying little to him. They talk amongst themselves though. 

           Maybe now, I'll get the grandchildren I've always yearned for. 

           He didn't marry Rima, but I think he will now. 

           Little Amaraq misses his father so. He's going to be overjoyed to see him again.

          It doesn't work like that, he wants to scream. You don't know what you're doing. 

          Air thickening with the stench of the dead tells him they're getting close to the camp. And death weaves a thick web between trees and the land. Solomon fights through, sticky sinewy strands catching his hair, but the women are oblivious to its reaches. 

           It's almost dawn by the time the makeshift city appears through the gloam.  

          Their leader is a stout, pungent woman named Elga Bendt whose nostrils gape like wells. Solomon guesses her to be around sixty, but she could be anywhere between thirty and eighty. As she speaks, flecks of spittle foam at the edges of her mouth, drying to a salty crust. 

          "You can begin after breakfast. I understand that you need your strength for the task ahead."

          "And what if I won't do as you ask?" 

           Elga folds her arms across her chest. "We will kill you."

           "Then you'll be no better off than you are now. Besides," he snorts, "I'm not afraid of death." 

            "Not afraid, but you're not ready, are you?" 

            "I don't know what you mean?"

             She stares at him, hard pewter eyes flinty and cold. "Cabin empty, is it?" 

            He closes his eyes. "If I do this, you need to know that when they come back, they are changed." 


****


"You need to know, Solomon, that when they come back, they are changed." 

             They were watching his rabbit, Anouk, hop around the courtyard. 

          "She doesn't love me anymore."

           "She doesn't know how to love anymore. " 

           Solomon had brought Anouk back himself, gleeful when her soft abdomen inflated after he lifted his head.

           "Those memories, those attachments that leak out during death, once they're gone, they're gone. " 

           Anouk stared blankly at a patch of grass. 

           "Then why don't the people get upset? The ones that bring their dead to us?" 

            His mother smiled sadly. "They're so happy to have their loved ones back – so wrapped in their joy - that they don't notice." She stroked his hair. "They project their memories, their attachments, their feelings on these blank canvases." 

             "So, we should just…let them go?" 

              She remained silent awhile, the rush of a breeze filling his ears. "Maybe," she said. "Maybe." 


****


Solomon works from just after sunrise until dusk makes her way into the camp. 

            The men have been laid in rows and, were it not for the bloodless pallor of their skin, could have been mistaken for sleepers. A few he recognises from before, an innocence to their repose that time has snatched. Others are merely boys. Fathers, sons, lovers, brothers all.  

            He is methodical in his work, kneeling by each body in turn, searching for a hint of who they were in life. Each kiss is administered with his eyes closed, reverent, earnest, fingertips resting lightly on the breastbone. As they wake, there's bewilderment, acceptance. They're embraced by the living, gathered tight in the folds of a joyous mother, kissed by a lover. There are tears, shrieks, yelps, but Solomon continues his work with abstraction. 


The last of the men rises as the sun sets. Solomon takes to the bed they have made up for him in a rough canvas tent on the edge of the camp, a soundscape of rejoicing families resonating in the soupy air. 

            He cannot get warm. Wrapping himself in wool blanket after wool blanket, the shivers surge through his limbs. All night, he shakes. 

            By dawn, the tremors have subsided, but his arteries are choked with ice. 

            Millica comes to tell him he may leave. A horse has been found to carry him back to his cabin. She presses a purse bloated with coins into his hand - a whiparound, she tells him. Grateful sisters emptying their threadbare pockets. He leaves it on the ground when he departs. 

            Grey-skinned men nod as he leaves. I'm sorry, he wants to tell them, but instead he keeps his eyes on the soft tips of the forest in the distance, the circumambient mountains, the rhythmic footfalls of the mare. 


****

Her forehead burned, white-cold. At Solomon's orders, the chambermaids rotated filled copper bed warmers, sliding them under the hill of bedding piled on top of her quivering body.  

           The skin on her face, almost blue, almost luminescent, stretched tight across her skull. She is beautiful still, thought Solomon. More so, perhaps, than someone without the gift, for who else could glow with the taste of a thousand deaths on their lips?

            In the night, death circled. 

            Solomon remained by her side through the dark hours, warm hands growing cold in the grip of her frigid fingers. She trembled, and her lips muddled over words and phrases. Incomprehensible for the most part. 

            "Do not…" she wailed. "Do not…no." 

            "Do not what, Mother?"

            "Bring me back." 

            The sun had almost reached its peak when the ice fire roaring through her veins burned out. The tremors stopped, mouth sagged, lids fluttered to a close. Solomon brought his head to her chest. It was incomprehensible to him that it should no longer rise and fall. That he could no more hear the tattoo of her heart caged behind those ribs, nor feel the heat of her blood surging through her veins. 

             The grief tore him in two, a knife pushed deep into his belly, tearing him from top to bottom. He sobbed, cursed, smashed furniture while she lay in stillness. 

             For two days and nights she lay, her son at her side, while he replayed her words. Did she want to return? "The dead must have something to come back for."

            On the third day, he administered the kiss, the easiest one he had ever performed, because she was his own flesh and blood. And on the third day, she returned. 


****

He arrives. The cabin is dark, curtains and shutters drawn against the velvet cloak of evening. Solomon tethers the mare to a post.  

           "Hello?" 

           Inside, he sinks into a chair that sighs with his weight. He wants to sleep and cry and pretend that he has not just resurrected an army of the dead. That he has not unleashed these limping, sodden half-people back into the bosom of their families. And for what? To march again into battle? To be killed again? To break the souls of those that love them for a second time? It is not a gift, but a curse he has been afflicted with. 

          "You said you would not do it Solomon." 

           She is there, in the doorway to her bedroom, face as white and impassive as marble. Her voice is thin and flat, all traces of her lilting cadence muted and pressed.

           "I had little choice, Mother." 

            "We always have a choice." 

            They stare silently into the gaping mouth of the fireplace, embers long-cold. 

            "It's time," he says eventually. 

            She nods. 


She leans on him as they leave the cabin. Her frail form feels as though it could blow away in the slightest breeze like a dandelion tuft. He is reminded of the blue jay all those years ago, light and hollow and insubstantial, and he feels a crack in his chest.  

          He studies her profile as he lifts her onto the horse, features as fine as always. But the eyes are glassy: two frozen pools against the snowy contours of her face. She didn’t ask for any of this, he reminds himself. It was my grief, my longing that brought her back. Condemned to live as a shell in that body, withered and wearied by giving so much of herself to the dead. 

The stones under the horse's feet jolt through their bodies, tossing them like puppets in the saddle as they begin the long climb ahead. 


****

At dawn they march into the city. At close range, their faces are the hue of ashen snowflakes, eyes empty, cold fingers gripping hand-forged weapons. They are crude and rough, but they cut an imposing silhouette against the tea-stained sky. The bell tolls. The lords stir in their beds, innocent in repose, soft and languid. 


On the outskirts of the town to the west, on the hills gazing over the valley, a mother and son take a fatal, final plunge to the grave. 

June 28, 2022 07:07

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59 comments

Erika Seshadri
16:10 Jul 06, 2022

Hello, there is no denying this is a beautiful story. You pulled me right in with a powerful beginning and it was interesting all the way through. I love stories that read like poetry. I have to admit, though, I was suffering from reader's fatigue by the middle. Sometimes the same descriptive language we love so much can interfere with the actual storytelling. I don't want to sound too critical, because you are an insanely talented writer. BUT if this had been a full-length novel, I might have given up on it. There's a fine line between ly...

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:03 Jul 09, 2022

Thanks for your comments. I'm experimenting with a different style here, well it is my comfort zone, so feedback is very much appreciated. :)

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Erika Seshadri
21:57 Jul 09, 2022

You’re welcome. I only say it as someone who has worked with professional editors quite a bit. There’s a time for poetic flourish and a time for story. The key is knowing when to do which. I’m still working on it because it’s easier said than done, but you’ll get there soon, no doubt. You have loads of natural talent and creativity. Congrats on the short list!! Take care.

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Katy Borobia
22:17 Jul 02, 2022

I am amazed by how much creativity and detail you packed into a short story written in a short time. Well done Jay and thanks for sharing!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
22:39 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks Katy! :)

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Avery Mossop
19:50 Jul 02, 2022

Wow, what a great read!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
22:39 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks Avery! :)

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L. E. Scott
18:08 Jul 02, 2022

This is so good. It made me weep. I really like how the mother begged her son not to bring her back because she understood that it wouldn't really be her. I was so angry at the mothers that threatened him, but if he was going to kill himself anyway maybe he should have just let them be the ones who did it.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
22:43 Jul 02, 2022

Thank you so much. I actually thought that he would resurrect the boys, because even though he knows the perils, he thinks maybe they can be some of the ones that he discussed with his mother - that they don't notice how changed they are because they are riding high on their own happiness. He also has a sense of their pain, so can empathise with them. In my mind, the mother has been asking him to kill her again for many years and it is not until he's been up close with so much desolation that he decides he can both do it and kill himself...

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Aeris Walker
12:12 Jul 02, 2022

Wow! Amazing story. I definitely would read more of this character. Great world building—from the very beginning, I had a clear image of setting and you accomplished that with intentional, concise detail. There were so many lines that made me pause and just think *wow, how did she just do that?* These were a few of my favorites: “Like a kiss, it requires more than just the mechanics of the motion: there must be an exchange: a deep, sonorous connection that goes beyond simple compassion.” “death weaves a thick web between trees and the la...

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Aeris Walker
16:38 Jul 08, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist!!!

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Jay Mc Kenzie
21:01 Jul 09, 2022

Thanks so much! And congrats again on the win 🏆

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Charlotte Morse
08:12 Jul 02, 2022

What an amazing story AND with such beautiful prose! There are so many 'favourite lines' I couldn't list them all here, but just the opening one captured me immediately: 'At dawn they swing from the gallows. They sway towards Hell, pitch for Heaven, dance in limbo.' And they continued throughout the whole story. An excellent piece of writing, well done.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
09:38 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks so much Charlotte!

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