Wednesday, 30 October 2013

999 word story for Halloween

This was read at the recent Tunbridge Wells Writers Group 'Fright Night'. Since the brief was to write a story for Halloween in 1000 words or less, I used exactly 999.

Nine Hundred and Ninety-nine words.

The velvet tent had been dark and damp in the misty rain. On a sign with peeling paint had been the name ‘Cassandra’ and a promise that she would ‘reveal the future’.

Well, that had been a waste of five pounds.

The rest of the fairground seemed to be closing; it seemed unlikely that many customers would arrive now, and it was only as he was cutting back across the damp field towards the car park that he had noticed the tent, a dim glow peeping from the gold braided entrance flaps.

Inside was musty and still dark despite a battered oil lamp suspended from a hook.  There was a heavy lace curtain towards the back of the tent and a table with two chairs. A carved wooden box placed in the centre of the table.

It took a few moments for him to notice another chair – a low armchair to his right – and a figure, immobile and hunched sitting there. Cassandra, he supposed.

Uncertainty fluttered in his stomach but was immediately interrupted by a coarse whisper from the dark figure as she stirred.

“Don’t go. Sit.”

He pulled the nearest chair towards him and sat, observing the figure unfold into a short and thin old woman with several shawls wound around her shoulders and head.  

He found himself squinting towards her, trying to look under the shadow of the outermost shawl drawn around her face and neck.

She sat in the other chair across the table and gloved hands emerged from her layers of clothing to rest gently on the carved box.

“What would you like to see?” she whispered, and for a moment he saw bright black eyes glance at him. Like a mouse, he thought.

“See?” he answered, his own voice sounding unnaturally loud. “I don’t know. Er. The future?”   There was a pause. The hands remained on the box, motionless.  Perhaps it was the wrong way to ask.

“Oh, here.” He pulled out a five pound note from his pocket and held it out. One hand left the box and gently patted the velvet tablecloth.  He put the note down.

“You are…an artist” It seemed as if she had been considering this throughout the silence. “No!” She interrupted any answer he might have offered. “You think …you are a writer.”

Now the black eyes were levelled at him, staring steadily.

 “Huh” He let out a small breath, partly surprise “Well, yes, I suppose I do...Well done!” He offered as an afterthought.

Then, slowly, the hands spread over the carved box and began to open the hinged lid. 

As it opened he began to make out the pattern sculpted into the dark wood. Trees framed the design and swirling leaves and clouds coiled around three naked figures.   The yellow light from the oil lamp played across the surface of the lid emphasising the depths of the shadows. 

As the lid tilted, the leaves swayed and the clouds curled. The figures – perhaps women, though they seemed strong and sculpted like Greek statuary – turned as if in the midst of a dance captured in slow motion.

More tendrils tumbled from the trees and fused with the leaves. The arms of the dancers curved through the air and held a momentary pose, almost floating, in front of his eyes.

Then he realised that the light was wheeling around in the other direction; the lid was slowly closing.  The figures turned and the leaves settled. The clouds drifted towards the trees. The scene flattened and dissolved into the carved box once more.

He blinked and glanced up at the woman, her gloved hands once again resting on the box.

“Well?” He was indignant. “Aren’t you going to tell my fortune?”

She sighed.  “You think you are a writer.” Again the black eyes held his gaze. “And now, you have something to write.”

“What?  You think I should write about that? That box?” He glanced back down at the table, noticing that the money had gone.  Well, that had been a waste of five pounds.  “I thought you could see the future?”

“No.” There was a thin dry chuckle that unsettled him. “I can’t see your future. I reveal it…to you.”

Her gloved hands moved forwards and her thin fingers scooped into the palms of his hands and lifted, to place them gently on top of the box. She placed her own hands on top pressing into the back of his hands with the lace gloves.

“Now” She said. “Think what you have seen.”

“There were trees and leaves.” He frowned as he pictured the lid of the box moving under the lamplight.  The air in the damp tent seemed colder now.

“There were three…people…naked…dancing. They turned.”

She was pressing his hands hard now onto the box and he could feel the curls and twists of the deep carving rippling under his touch.

“And …you have a number?” She asked.

“A number?” Yes, yes he had. As the dancers had momentarily stopped, as the leaves had fallen and the clouds paused, there had been a number. He laughed.

“Yes… I saw three nines. Nine hundred and ninety-nine?”

He saw her nod.  “That is your life measured out for you.”

He drew his hands away. “Nine hundred and ninety-nine days? But that’s…that’s not even three years!”

“No.” She shook her head and for the first time he saw her mouth. A thin slash like a cut which parted to reveal yellow teeth. She smiled but it was a pitying smile and the cold of the tent seemed more malevolent now.

 “No” She said again. “You will live as long as you need. To write. And then you will die.”

He was standing now. He didn’t have to listen, did he?  He didn’t have to believe her.

“But, nine hundred and ninety-nine?” He was backing away.  

“Nine hundred and ninety-nine what?” He asked “Novels? Stories? Poems?”

Again the smile, and the dry chuckle. 

“No…” she whispered “…words.”

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