Fear – a Short Story (and how writing changes)
By Sam Whitehouse
and how writing changes
One year in high school we had an English exam where we had to write about fear. We had an hour to write a short piece of fiction focusing around what scared us, or what scared a character. I couldn’t think of anything I was scared of worth writing about, so I decided to create a character instead. I can’t remember fully what I wrote, but a few years later I wrote the same–or at least what I could remember– piece again without the time constraint. It turned out to be more flash fiction than short story.
Flash fiction is a good way to get back into writing if you’re not in the mood or come up against writer’s block.
The story below is as I wrote it a few years back. It’s interesting to look back on something you wrote years ago, compare it to how you write now. I used to focus more on description, less on story, pace and character. I learned to play around with sentence structure–use less complex, long sentences. This is also the first time I used present tense–even if it wasn’t a conscious decision.
As I stare into the inky heart of darkness, it stares back at me.
My bare feet are numb against the glacial air and I can no longer feel the sting of the lacerations inflicted by the thorns and shards of rock that jut from the frozen ground like pointed, black teeth. A bitter wind snaps at my fingers and so I bury my hands in my pockets, searching for any last morsels of warmth. There are none. Cold dread permeates everything.
The forest’s yawning maw beckons me closer, seeming to draw me forth with an unnatural pull. But with what little self-control I have left to me I do not move.
I stop. I stand. I stare.
Gnarled roots erupt from the earth, tearing it asunder, making it pulse and writhe; they furl forwards, breaking away from their shadowy retreat, edging towards the last of the light… only to recoil: creatures of the dark.
My eyes watch unblinking, fearing that to avert my gaze will render me vulnerable to her. She is risen from her slumber now and is hungry. I hear her send forth her children: Crows with slicing razor beaks; clicking, hissing insects; thorny vines, creeping and winding. All advance hesitantly; they are wary of the burning light.
I can hear her breath, it echoes from the depths of the trees: stinking, foul and retch-inducing. She is tasting me. She knows I am here but she cannot take me yet. Not while the light keeps her and her voracious brood at bay.
I want to run, to turn and flee the way I came but something holds me here… keeps me paralysed and rooted to the darkening hilltop. What warmth I felt on the back of my neck is fighting a losing battle. For soon the sun will submit to the moon, she who waits impatiently in the first traces of twilight to take his brother’s place, and spread night across the land.
My quickened breath is no longer alone in daring to break the steely hush; there comes the snapping, cracking steps of the forest’s children. And though I cannot see them, I sense their approach; feel their footfalls sending tremors through the earth.
Though I cannot turn, I see the moonlight’s probing fingers stretching ever closer; casting pale, skeletal columns through the forest’s fringes and throwing her bone yard into ghostly relief. The remnants of her victims are suddenly revealed: cloaks and jerkins torn and tattered beyond all recognition, hanging from gnarled branches and shifting in the forest’s breath; shattered lanterns oozing waxy beards of tallow, their once revealing lights long since snuffed out; and the mould-encrusted axe of a man who tried to cut the forest down. But she doesn’t stand for that. No, she won’t let harm come to her servants, her children.
I stand. I stare.
Sharp wind cuts at my exposed flesh. It screams to be covered, concealed, but I never planned on remaining here, I never expected to be this long. I only wanted to look, to see…her.
And now the night is upon me, advancing from the horizon like a line of stampeding black stallions. What little sight I have left to me is occluded and those final hopes of returning to the warmth of home and leaving behind this fearful place are snatched away.
Deep down I knew that escape was never an option, but I held the possibility close, warmed my body against its weak flames. Now… now I know what my fate is to be. In this nightmarish place, where what lives delights in despair and decay.
They will be here soon.
Why did I come here? Why did I want so desperately to see her, see the rotting heart of the forest? I’d heard the people talking – those few who paid such things mind and were old enough to remember when the forest first grew – in furtive tones about what lurks here. And I’d taken their tales to be nothing more than a means to frighten children into behaving. I’d put little stock into their – what I’d assumed to be – whisky-induced ramblings. What reason had I to believe them? But now I see my folly, my ignorance… and I understand the cost of it.
A flicker of movement in the shadows: her children are growing nearer, frolicking in the gloom, liberated now by the swallowed light. They come scuttling, flapping and burrowing their way towards me. For like her they can smell me; smell and sense the fear and despair that oozes from my body. To them it is like tendrils of the most delicious aroma imaginable. My teeth rattle together, vibrating a jarring rhythm in my skull. Shudders flit up and down my spine like cold bolts of lightning.
I can hear them, even closer now, their shrieks and cries and yelps, their rattling breaths: the forest’s orchestra. They arrive at the treeline, lingering in the darkness and watching with gleaming black eyes. Alighting on the branches, clacking their sharp scarred beaks and beating their scraggly wings and stirring the last of the dead leaves that spiral listlessly down and land at my feet…
… And the barrier is broken. No longer is there a wall between her and me, between this world and theirs. And they know it, for now they advance- and I can see them! Wicked, twisted, snarling faces. And now they’re around me, circling, closing in and yet paralysis still holds me in its infuriating grasp. Until something dawns in my mind, a distant door is unlocked and I can suddenly move again. I can turn, I can run… But no, now they are at my feet, biting, clawing, scraping. Teeth like hot needles, claws like daggers, grasps like vices. My arms flail in the darkness, beating them off only for them to bound forward again and sink their fangs still deeper, brace ever tighter. They wrestle me to the floor and my face slams into the dank, stinking earth. I feel myself being pulled, dragged inexorably backwards and away from the winking lights in the windows of the village. Dirt fills my mouth, nose, eyes… obscuring my senses. I splutter and cough, the taste is foul. Screams and pleas for help come, gushing from my open mouth in an incoherent torrent, only to be stifled by the choking mulch and the darkness, so thick and impenetrable. No aid will come tonight!
I dig my fingers into the dirt, grappling at sods of grass and sharp rocks and roots, but her children are stronger, riled into a frenzy by their hunger, and I cannot hold on. The soft earth crumbles away beneath my scrabbling, desperate fingers and my grip is lost. I hear her calling them back, beckoning now for her children to return with their prey. And their claws: terrible, scraping, scratching claws.
Writhing in their grasp I scream for help. But the only replies are the echoing remains of my pleas. The leafless boughs and gnarled branches rush by overhead, like the ribcage of some long dead beast and stabbing through is the harsh moonlight. Between the flashes of illumination my rolling eyes catch sight of the gnashing jaws of my captors; their twisted limbs and wild, hungry eyes. And from the bowels of the forest her slurping, sonorous voice resonates, louder, closer. Beneath my clawing fingers the earth becomes waterlogged. The foul stenches of stagnant bogs, rotten vegetation and something metallic thicken in the air.
Suddenly the jostling, clawing creatures that bore me through the darkness scamper away, shrieking. They gather between the slime rimed trees that girdle the clearing. Hot blood pumps down my legs and arms, but I do not feel the sting of the wounds. For now the marshy floor shudders beneath me and I watch as, with a sucking, guttural roar the ground before me swells. Boiling like the contents of a cauldron, the root-tangled earth heaves upwards. From this lurching mass of dirt and moss and root a form takes shape. Limbs strangled with vines and moss emerge, trembling under the weight of her colossal body.
A scream lodges like a stone in my throat as the forest’s mother turns to face me. From a head of snarled roots, clogging moss and pitted boulders stare two bulbous, glistening eyes. I am held fast in her gaze, my limbs rendered leaden. Her face is suddenly cloven by her parting maw, revealing fangs of boulder and bark. From the depths of her cavernous throat gusts her wet, stinking breath and the sound of bones rattling in her stomach. The thick carapace of her body writhes with insects as she lurches slowly forward. Her children gather at her feet: squealing and grunting impatiently.
As I stare into the darkness it stares back at me: it is the last thing I see as she and her children swarm.