‘Lost Chapters: A fairytale’, J.W. Bennett

(For Dee, who found them.)

Artwork by Djibril

This is a true story, even though it never happened.

 [ Flautiste: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] Abandoned to the cramped confines of the fisherman's cottage, Alison found time for her thoughts to finally breathe. The cottage lay slotted in beside its stone brothers halfway down the cobbled street. From the vantagepoint in the converted attic, Alison's eyes could follow the slope down to the Torquay promenade where the waves crashed endlessly, blue against grey. The spray, framed by the crooked buildings, looked like a miniature storm in a box, and when the dying sunlight caught the spray, it transformed into scattered rubies falling from the sky.

The view hardened Alison's resolve. Damn him, but she'd made the right decision! Foregoing the lure of the city, she'd chosen to continue her work as a full-time dressmaker. And to hell with husbands! To hell with promotions, mobile phones, commuter trains and office lunches!

She'd listened to her heart. If Bruce couldn't hear its honest beat, that was his problem. They'd separated, and he returned to the urban sprawl. In truth, Alison suspected the Torquay venture had all been one giant excuse, covering the fact that he didn't want children. The six-month 'country trial' was meant to bring them closer together. Instead, it had ruined them.

The emptiness sleeping beside her in the double bed had almost become a comfort. Ashamed, she didn't even seek an audience for her heartbreak. And so, out of necessity, the story became planted. She wanted to banish the coldness inside her by creating a love story, using the shreds of her broken dream as so much ink. She'd never written before, but Alison didn't even question her skill or where the desire had come from. Confidence in her fairytale, and the hope its narration would heal her, seemed the only concern.

By the end of that bitter summer, the characters were living in her mind, the plot thickened into a single strand.

Sat at the desk in the loft, overlooking the grey ocean, she took up her pen and began:

'They were happy in the village by the sea, whilst magic remained in the Earth. In the way of these tales, she was the daughter of a blacksmith and he the son of a farmer. At seventeen, Lily took up teaching at the local village school. At twenty, Abe made a moderate living as an artist, selling canvases as far as London. Lily liked to dance and play the flute. Abe liked to shoot, and subsidised the rise and fall of his earnings by hunting pheasant, though his skill at this would never equal his painting.

Life passed merrily enough in the village, a small collection of cottages set amongst the Devonshire hills. Even though the hamlet's population was small, the two young ones never spoke to each other beyond a passing courtesy.

This, in the way of these tales, was set to change... '

Alison paused, regarding the sentences she'd written.

A quick glance at the clock showed only ten minutes had passed. Intoxicated by this new form of tailoring, she bent to the paper again.

'One day, Abe went walking with his gun, looking to worry the birds in the woods surrounding the village. The sun shone brightly through the branches as he followed the brook. His steps, being the step of a layman hunter, were not quite as soft as the paintbrush upon his easel at home.

Nevertheless, above the rustling of leaves and snapping of twigs, he heard the music.

Somnolent and silvery, the notes snaked through the trees and bewitched him. He followed the sound, and cresting the rise of a dell, he looked down upon the dark-haired girl with the flute.

She sat in her summer dress, her head bobbing in time with her fingers on the instrument. Even from a distance, he could tell she was beautiful.

Abe paced around the edge of the dell in secrecy, fearing a sudden arrival might startle the girl. From behind a tree trunk, he recognised the blacksmith's daughter, Lily, and his heart swelled. He often found peace in the woods, and laughter in his work, but the sight of the girl with the flute came as a new joy. All thoughts of shooting pheasants flew from his mind like clouds before a gale.'

Alison stopped again, envisioning the boy standing in his breeches behind the tree. She felt a little unnerved at the clarity of the image, even though she'd pictured it many times before.

Before she had time to ponder the starkness of her own creation, the hall telephone rang. She made her way downstairs, wondering if it might be Bruce calling her - with another apology, another reproach. She didn't notice how the pages upstairs slid across the wooden desk, as if caught in an errant draught - even though the window had been shut tight and the storm outside was dying down.

Talking with Bruce was, as ever, a rowdy process. By the time she replaced the receiver, she felt thoroughly exhausted. Ditching the thought of any further writing, she retired to bed. In sleep, at least, she found some peace.

Later that night, in the loft above, voices Alison did not hear:

"Where are we?"

Silence. Then a reply:

"We are home... at least, I thinkso."

"I feel so... dusty."

"That doesn't make sense."

"Neither does this. Look at my hands!"

He looked, and nodded. He'd always hidden his astonishment so well, she thought.

The next morning, Alison arose feeling a little better.

In the night, the clouds had rolled away, leaving a clear autumn sky in their wake. There was work to be done. Today, Margaret Hanson would be visiting to check on the progress of her granddaughter's wedding dress.

Alison grabbed a quick shower and breakfast, and then her customer arrived. The elderly woman shuffled into the sewing room on the ground floor and began her usual tirade of clucking and sighing over the work-in-progress. The wedding dress enveloped half the room like a melted meringue. Assurances were made, along with a pot of tea.

"I've not seen Mr.Trewellen around the village much," Mrs. Hanson remarked, her wrinkled eyes picking over the hem of the dress. "Is he away on business?"

"Yes. Permanently... " Alison regretted the word as soon as it tumbled from her lips.

The last thing Alison wanted was gossip. From the look of the lines around Mrs. Hanson's mouth, the old woman had done her fair share of talking over fences. But Mrs.Hanson's eyes narrowed and Alison realised the truth of the matter must show on her face. Betrayed by her own tongue, she gazed mournfully at the fabric between her hands.

"Never mind," the old woman twittered. "They're all the same. Not one amongst them worth the worry."

"Excuse me?"

"The men, dear. The men. Ships without anchors eh? Catch a sudden breeze and off they fly, over the horizon. Mind you, I don't suppose the cottage has brought you much luck, what with the -"

The old woman clammed up, and silence descended like a rain cloud.

"I'm sorry," Alison asked, "What did you say about the house?"

"Nothing, dear. Just being silly. Men!"

"No, no," Alison insisted, "If there's any history, good or bad, I'd like to hear it."

"Well, you're young enough to ask for bad news," Mrs. Hanson replied, looking uneasy. "But this isn't the time to be rattling on about the desires of ink and paper. Nor the secrets of the hearth. Both need a little longer to gestate... " the old woman trailed off, coughed, and then said; "Don't you listen to a stupid old lady. Our business today is about a wedding. We can leave less pleasant rituals for a few more days."

"I really don't know what you mean."

But Margaret Hanson refused to be moved on the subject, and turned her attention back to the dress.

Later that day, still pondering the words of the old woman, Alison set aside her needle and took up her pen. The previous night's row had upset the flow of the story, and as she entered the loft, she realised she'd been more affected by the quarrel than she thought. She was sure she'd stacked the pages neatly on the desk, but leaves had fallen to the floor and become scattered. A breeze perhaps, though the window next to the desk looked firmly shut.

Confused, she gathered up the pages and re-ordered them on the desk. She took a few moments to gaze out the window at the slate sea, and then picked up the tale where she'd left off.

'It wasn't long, by one sense or another, that Lily knew she wasn't alone in the dell. She lowered the flute and as the music died, she heard him.

Red faced, the sandy-haired youth came from round the tree and stared down at her.

"Forgive me," Abe stuttered. "Drawn by the flute song, I tarried in the light of its player. I meant you no harm."

"And a fine excuse it is," Lily replied sharply. "A farmer's son and a poacher at that, comes a-creeping on a lady unawares. I know the face of you, Abraham Canticle. The sight of your gun does not ease my worry."

Though she said these words, she was not afraid. For despite herself, something thrilled in her heart at the sight of him, and there in the dell they fell in love.

After a shared picnic and a few whispered words, they were sealed on grass and daisy, and Abe claimed Lily for a wife. Over the hills they ran, to announce the news to their parents. In the distance, on the shore of the village, the sea winked brightly. The ships waved their sails, and the sun smiled down on their youthful passion.

Of course, good news travels fast, and their union was met with much joy. Abe and Lily planned to tie the willow-knot at the end of summer, as the first leaves began to fall.

There was one in the village however; who was not so pleased.

At the summer fair, just before the ceremony, the village crone approached the doting couple and poked a long twig into Lily's belly.

"No good'll come of it," she announced, peering down her hooked nose. "Mark my words! For you have tarried in the Briar Dell and been shooting birds what belong to the Fairy Lord, Grymrtrell. He excuses the lady her visits, for the flute song gladdens his tricksy heart - but he won't forgive man-seed spilt on charmly soil, of this I'm sure."

"What say you Madame Ragson?" Lily asked, for long had she heard the rumours of the Fairy Lord, and though dismissing them as tales, her girlish heart responded with fear. "If we have trespassed, then we'll be willing to make amends!"

"Ha!" cackled the hag and snapped the twig over her leg; "Amends will make itself, foolish maiden-that-was. Grymrtrell will claim the child growing within your belly a year from this day! And if you do not give freely without tears, then neither of you will see another autumn. You'll have each other's blood upon your hands!"

"What can we do to counter such a poisonous spell?" Lily gasped, eyes bright and terrified.

Madame Ragson sighed, leaning in close to whisper:

"The breaking of the spell is a simple thing. You cannot enter wedlock with the farmer's son. The groom must leave the village before nightfall, sat backward on a white horse, naked, with a thistle between his teeth... and he must never return. You must never lay your cornflower peepers upon him again. In this way, the Fairy Lord is foxed."

"Such a costly punishment!" cried the girl in dismay, but Abe, who was not given to old wives tales (especially after so much wine) kicked turf at the old woman.

"Away, hag!" he scoffed. "Do not stain the day with such chatter. Your salad years are done, and green-eyed you look upon our grace. Your teats are dry of milk and the bloom of your rose is done. Away, I say!"

And the old woman fled, spitting profanities over her shoulder as she went.

But this, in the way of these tales, was not the end of it.

Alison put down the pen and reread the recently written pages.

A sea wind rose outside the small loft window, and muttered against the pane.

Frowning, she read the story again.

Somehow, it didn't feel right.

This was supposed to be a happy story, and already a shadow wavered across it. With all the torment of her split from Bruce, the last thing she wanted was to write about ill-fated love.

Sighing, she tore up the pages, swept the scraps into the bin. Tomorrow, she'd begin a new story, and this one would be trouble free.

Yawning, she switched off the lamp and went to bed.

But not everyone in the cottage slumbered. In the loft, there were whisperings:

"Did you see what she did?" a girl's voice asked the darkness. "That hurt."

At first, there came no reply. Then:

"I saw. But this is our chance. It can be fixed."

"You really think so?"

"Why else would we be here?"

"My hands... "

"Oh do shut up about your bloody hands," he said.

A week passed. Alison became too busy with the wedding dress to even think about the story. It hovered in the back of her mind, but never close enough to quite remember it. Autumn moved into the town of Torquay, and the cobbled streets were newly paved with windblown leaves.

She was sweeping them from her doorstep when Mrs.Hanson turned up, enquiring about the progress of her commission. The old woman announced her desire for a cup of tea, and Alison didn't have the heart to disagree.

"It's a poor thing to be lonely," Margaret Hanson said out of nowhere as she sat at the kitchen table, "... it makes you old too quickly."

"Isn't there a Mr.Hanson?" Alison enquired, trying to keep her reluctance for the conversation from her voice.

"I didn't mean me!" the old woman laughed. "And no, there isn't... thank the gods! Like I said, I'll have no truck with men."

"I'm notlonely. There's plenty here to keep me occupied."

"Of course dear," came the reply. "And I suppose you dohave company now, after all. It's in the walls. I suppose they've only been waiting for someone to open the door."

"Come again?"

"Well, it's the traces, isn't it? But I don't expect you have time for these kinds of things – the souls of stories and such. You're fartoo modern."

Alison – fearing her most persistent customer was, in fact, quite mad – actually snapped.

"If there's something you'd like to tell me, Mrs.Hanson, then please do. I haven't been sleeping well lately and I'm rather busy... "

"No need to be brusque dear," the old woman replied. "It's them who gets trapped that need the sympathy. I'm sure you'll be all right... in the long run. Just... keep your eyes open, will you? I expect they'll be relying on you by now."

"Who?"

"The story, my sweet. I expect they've been waiting a rather long time... ."

Frustrated, but not willing to show it, Alison just nodded, as one does when confronted with gobbledegook, and sipped her tea.

By evening, after her customer had departed, Alison still felt plagued by Mrs.Hanson's words.

Especially the bit about the story. Did the old woman know something? Did she know she'd been writing up in the loft? No, that couldn't be right... not unless...

Horrified, Alison wondered if the old woman had found her way up there and had a good old root around. She knew how nosy these country types could be, and maybe with the best of intentions she'd...

Without a further thought, Alison ran up the dusty staircase to the loft and opened the door.

The room looked perfectly normal. Nothing seemed out of place.

She'd been about to shut the door, cursing herself for being so stupid, when something on the desk caught her eye. There sat the sheaf of paper with her pen next to it. But even from the doorway she could see something was wrong.

The pages weren't empty.

Crossing to the desk she could see it was true - her own handwriting, looping across the crinkled pages, the story she'd begun writing... then torn up and thrown away!

She shuffled through the pages, questioning erratically. The memory of ripping up the sheets seemed so certain, and yet...

Alison realised, with mounting alarm, that there was more story present than there should be. Sinking into her chair with puzzled wonderment, she read:

'Nine months after the wedding of Lily and Abe (which had gone without a hitch, barring the intrusion of Madame Ragson), Lily gave birth to a bouncing baby boy.

They named the boy Dell, after the place of his conception, and everyone in the village remarked that if they'd ever seen a happier couple, they couldn't remember it. But then they always said this at a new mother's bedside.

Of course, there were a few mutterings about the hag's nasty words, but on the whole, the villagers paid it no mind.

Days went by and Dell suckled at his mother's breast. His fireside cradle rocked in the winter breeze under the parlour door as Lily watched him sleep. Abe stood painting a portrait of the child with mother, a Madonna whose face was aglow with the miracle of parenthood.

There came a rapping at the door, and though the hour waxed late, Abe, farmer's son and layman hunter, crossed the room to open it.

Outside in the snow stood Madame Ragson, her shawl clutched tight against the weather.

Her words came as soon as the door opened.

"Quick! There is little time! A prophecy is not a curse, young man, but the undoing of both will only work at the hour of need. Let me by, or your fate is sealed."

But Abe, good, solid Abe (who had no truck with wives tales, especially on cold winter nights) replied with a voice as frozen as the ground.

"Madame, are you drunk? Away with you before I call for the marshal! We have no use for silly fables round here! "

"Foolish man! A story may not be real, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. Don't you see? You cannot laugh in the face of destiny!"

"Who is it?" Lily called from the parlour, but before the crone could make her presence known, Abe slammed the door in Madame Ragson's face and turned to his lady wife.

"Nobody," he declared. "Just the tapping of a wind that whispers ill. Just the moaning of a winter gale. Look again to your dreams and the fire."

Lily, chilled but trusting her husband, did as he instructed, and there came no more disturbances at the door...

At least, not until the stroke of midnight when they were safely in bed in the room upstairs, and the baby Dell lay cooing in the arms of sleep.

Strange lights outside the window, illuminating the room with an eerie green glow, roused Abe from slumber. Rising from the bed, he heard a tapping at the door downstairs, and hurriedly reached for his gun.

He pounded into the parlour and his eyes grew wide as he realised the fire in the grate had been re-lit. The flames flickered with emerald tongues, like wet springtime leaves

Again; there came a soft rapping at the door. Abe cried out for the midnight visitor to identify itself.

A mocking voice, reedy as a willow bank, answered him;

"Nobody," laughed the peculiar voice. "Just the tapping of a wind that whispers ill. Just the moaning of a winter gale. Look again to your dreams and the fire."

"Old harpy Ragson, is that you?" Abe challenged, and yet somehow, knew it was not.

Again came the tapping and the voice.

"It is the knocking of a branch on traitor's wood, the thumping of a Lord on a peasant's dwelling... The calling of one who would claim his prize and return to the dell where a thief first planted it!"

 [ Grymrtrell: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] And immediately Abe knew it to be the voice of Grymrtrell and all of Madame Ragson's appalling words had been true.

He levelled his gun and let forth a shot, which clear split the door in two and allowed the snow outside, lit by the eldritch light, to drift into the small parlour.

Through the hole peered a hairy little face, its hoary eyes bright with malice. Its lips pulled back to reveal a row of tiny teeth, sharp as chestnut needles. The Fairy Lord sniggered.

"Mortal weapons cannot harm the Fay!" Grymrtrell announced, and leapt through the gap in a galloping bound. "A farmer's son should know better than to ignore the warnings of a witch! Give me the child without tears, or neither you or your lady wife will see another autumn, and each other's blood will stain your hands!"

"Never!" cried Abe, and reloaded his gun in full sight of the Fairy Lord, who merely stood within the green glow and smiled cunningly, his teeth dripping moss-stained saliva.

Roused by the blast from her husband's gun, Lily rushed to the parlour in her nightgown, clutching tiny Dell to her bosom. At the sight of her, Grymrtrell let out a whoop and danced upon the snowy air, and Lily, upon sight of the fairy, let forth a mighty scream.

Both sounds were eclipsed by the noise of gunshot, but the Fairy Lord skipped across the parlour and snatched the sleeping baby from its mother's arms. As soon as Grymrtrell touched the child, Dell began to wail. But the echo of the gun and the infant's bawling were snuffed out quickly, as the light became extinguished, and child and fairy vanished in a small implosion of foul smelling smoke.

Lily fell to the hearth and wept. Abe stood frozen to the spot, staring intently at the wide hole in the door as if his eyes had betrayed him.

Through the blur of her weeping, Lily looked up and regarded him savagely. He seemed so implacable standing there, as if nothing in the world could shock him, and she wondered how he managed to hide his astonishment so well... '

Alison also froze.

Her mind buzzed with faint amazement as she picked up the reams, her hands shaking. She could not recall writing this part of the story. In fact, she couldn't recall anything to do with the damn story from the moment she'd torn it up.

The only explanation could be that somehow she hadwritten it. The tale, being so familiar, could only have come from her imagination, onto the pages before her.

Perhaps, left alone in this cottage by the sea, abandoned by her husband, her mind had rebelled. Perhaps, reluctant to face up to the conditions of her desertion, she'd simply lost herself.

Perhaps she was even mad.

The thought spurred tears over her lashes, staining the ink on the pages like an unexpected rainfall, blurring metaphor and dialogue into a blue pool.

Alison let the pages slip to the floor of the loft, and turned to the staircase, knowing in her bedroom she could seek solace in sleep, pulling the cushions close and pretending they were the body of her departed lover.

But upstairs above her, awake now and urgent, the voices murmured:

"I'm all wet!" one exclaimed, indignant. "She's not getting this at all!"

"What's a little saltwater? We won't be smudged forever," said the other.

"You are always so calm. Don't you see how important this is?"

"Well of courseI do."

"She's not getting this. Not one bit," the girl's voice insisted.

"But she must," he said. "She must."

The next morning, feeling downhearted, Alison sat in the kitchen and tried not to think.

She knew Margaret Hanson would be visiting her again today, as pressing as ever about the wedding dress. But not a bone in her body could move towards the task, and when the old woman arrived, all Alison could do was apologise as she made the customary pot of tea.

"Still not sleeping well?" Mrs.Hanson worried as she swilled her cup in a circular motion, watching the leaves settle; "It's a common malady of those afflicted with a broken heart. Or those with a duty they cannot see."

"Who said anything about a broken heart?" Alison replied, a touch more tartly than she'd intended to.

The truth was the old lady remained her only friend... at least, the only one who came to the cottage regularly.

Even this tenuous bond had fast become a comfort, and she didn't wish to sever it by being rude. Not now when she feared for her sanity.

"It's in your face dear. I could see it the minute we met," continued Mrs. Hanson, brazen as ever. "Not everything has to be in words in order to be read. You might have guessed that by now, what with the visitors... "

Alison drained her cup and placed it on the table.

"Mrs. Hanson... Maggie... I don't know why, but I really get the feeling you're trying to tell me something. Something I don't understand. What do you mean by... "—she took a deep breath—"visitors?"

"It's all in the story. The one you've been writing... "

There came a shocked silence. Then Alison bristled:

"How on Earthdo you know about that? Have you been prying upstai—"

"Oh, I'm no snoop, young lady... at least, not in the sense you mean," the woman breezed. "I'm just here to see the job gets done, and that's about the whole of it."

"The job... the wedding dress?"

"Among other things... yes. Well, she'll be wanting to play the bride again, I suspect. It isn't nice being stuck between the lines you know. Especially for so many years... I doubt you'd fancy it much either, though heavens know she wasn't alone. Not that he's ever been much good, despite how the pen wants to colour him."

This was too much for Alison.

"Mrs. Hanson," she said icily, rising from the table so the chair legs screamed across the tiles like murderous kittens, "I'd like you to leave now please. The dress will be finished, as we agreed... but I'd appreciate it if you didn't come to the cottage anymore. I have your phone number; perhaps we can communicate that way from now on? And... and maybe you ought to talk to someone about these delusions of yours... "

"Don't you worry about me, young missy," Margaret Hanson replied, getting to her feet, her hunched back casting a shadow over the table. "I'm used to 'em not listening. It's all part of the business you understand, part of the story. Problem is, you don't even see you're in it, and that's a sorry thing. We'll talk when the time is right. It's not my task to be weaving the thread. Oh no, not now, not never... "

And with this, and a slight huffing, the old woman shuffled out the front door and up the street and out of sight.

Alison watched her go, fighting the tears biting the back of her eyes.

Suddenly, she felt lonelier than when Bruce had left.

Torquay seemed to be a hostile place; the grey cobbles as cracked as her heart and the pounding sea an uncaring expanse. The romance of staying here now felt more than stubborn – it felt remotely obscene.

Closing the door, Alison thought maybe Bruce had been right after all.

Sleep came easy for once.

She avoided the upstairs of the weatherworn house for the remainder of the day, telling herself a doze by the open hearth would prove more of a comfort than a feather bed. To this end, she gathered up her nightgown and a blanket, and made for the sanctuary of the living room.

In truth, she didn't want to go near to the loft, in case curiosity got the better of her. What on Earth had the old woman been implying when she said Alison was in a story?

Wasn't everyone, if you looked at it a certain way?

What right did the wizened hag have anyway, coming round to the cottage with such teasingly obscure phrases? Couldn't Mrs.Hanson tell she was already confused, already hurting? The last thing she needed was more riddles to add to the stack of those haunting her.

Alison, reassured by these denials, changed into her nightgown, drank a cup of cocoa by the fireside, and fell soundly asleep in the rocking chair by seven o'clock, the blanket over her knees.

But it was not a peaceful sleep.

Despite herself, she dreamt of the characters in the tale upstairs:

A lady dressed in white, her eyes searching between starlit trees...

The lady's face, turned to the moon, may once have been beautiful, even through the tear-streaked grime. The lady wailed like a jackal for a child she could never find.

Brambles protruded from the lady's hair, dark against the pale skin. Mud spattered over her gown, which Alison recognised as a tattered wedding dress. Thorns cut the girl's hands as she stumbled through the briar, blood falling to the shadowed ground, staining darkness upon darkness. Then the woman in the wood became obscured by fog.

A bearded man, weeping into a tankard of ale as he hunkered over a wooden table.

His hunting cap sat askew, feathers bent into a comical shape; brim pulled down in a sad droop. In one hand, the tankard, and in the other, a shotgun, the barrels of which had never been empty since one tragic winter's night. No smile would crease this man's face again, so long as his lady wife walked the woods at night, howling to a world forever set aside from his one of drunkenness and sorrow. Tonight, his belly full of ire, and his mind wheeling with drink, he staggered from the tavern and climbed into the woods to find her.

You'll have each other's blood upon your hands! The wind moaned through the trees encircling the dell, as the crescent moon grinned down in frozen spite.

A gunshot split the dream and Lily fell, her blood spattering the grass, her bridal dress blossoming around her like a readymade shroud. Abe stood over her, twin barrels smoking, hiding his astonishment, even from himself.

Lily crawled forth on the thorny earth, and grabbed at Abe's boot heels, pulling him down into the boggy mire, until nothing remained but a tatty piece of blood soaked satin and a hunter's cap, its feather bent out of shape.

Alison rushed down the torrent of her slumber, the pictures melting together in a washed-out mass. She didn't hear the wind pick up, or notice how the flames in the grate became thicker, viscous fingers guttering into the chimney well. The flames bristled scarlet, then paled to a marshy blue, finally merging in a single pillar of spectacular green light.

Outside in the cobbled street, snow began to fall.

Anyone standing out there would have been treated to a strange meteorological phenomenon; the flakes only fell upon the roof of the fisherman's cottage, eddies swirling against the weather-beaten door. A pattern swam within the blizzard, faces maybe, or letters from an unknown alphabet, all picked out in the emerald glow radiating from the fireplace inside.

The tapping finally woke her, an incessant rapping, echoing across the walls of the living room.

Alison's eyes flew open.

For a heartbeat, she thought she must still be asleep, and her dreams had followed her back to the real world. Then reality hit home like a wrecking ball and she sat bolt upright in alarm.

The rocking chair, disturbed by the movement, tipped her onto the tiled floor. She could feel the iciness of the hearth on her face, her features lit up in a spotlight of shock.

"My God!"

She clung to the rocking chair like a drowning woman. All around the room the rapping continued, assaulting her ears with a fearful urgency.

She half crawled; half ran to the stairs, mind instructing body to get as far away from the vision as possible. She stumbled up the staircase, her way lit by the emerald radiance below her.

Where was Bruce when she needed him?

The bedroom door crashed open and she flung herself upon the sheets, pulling the pillows over her head to shut out the noise and the uninvited brightness.

A thin wail slipped between her trembling lips. Above it, and above the wind shaking the cottage, she heard the voices upstairs.

Voices, in herhouse, coming from the loft.

Alison sat up and her eyes turned toward the ceiling.

Yes, there was definitely movement up there; a rustling, like long dead branches against cold glass.

And then the voices again - low but unmistakable.

The loud rapping on the walls made it impossible to determine what those voices said, but even in her dread she could not refute their presence.

Someone was in her house, and something told her the visitors were not just going to go away.

Unsteadily, Alison hauled herself up by the bedpost.

The voices above wavered and the movement (feet on floorboards?) sounded erratic. It sounded like an argument happening through a thunderstorm.

Fear propelled her to the foot of the loft stairs.

Within her, a bravery rose... and a fresh anger. The pain caused by her abandonment hardened into resolve, becoming the engine that carried her to the loft door. She flung it open. The wood crashed heavily against the stone wall behind it.

And within, a hurricane:

Sheets of paper swept around the room in a cyclone, scratching the walls in an ever-increasing circle of speed.

As soon as she entered the loft, the tornado pushed her against the stone and pinned her there. Dust and the blur of her own handwriting whisked in front of her startled face. The blizzard buffeted against the small windowpane, illuminating the chamber as it had done in the room downstairs. The wooden desk fell over with a crash, drawers spilling open and sending missiles of pens and pencils into the chaos. They circled the room like darts, splintering on stone and sending tiny daggers into her skin. Sheets of paper slapped her body like wicked hands. Alison struggled against the blasting air, trying to edge back towards the door.

Every time she made the attempt, a force pushed her back again, her arms scraping painfully on the rough walls, the wind cementing her nightie to her limbs.

The roar in her ears became unbearable. She struggled to breathe, her lungs tightening. She wondered if she might drown within the storm, suffocated by flying dust and blinded by plummeting pencils. Panicked thoughts beat inside her skull, and she wrenched herself in one last effort to reach the door.

The whirlpool swept her into its grasp and flung her around the room, her feet barely scraping the floorboards and her hair writhing. The scream, once torn from her lips, shot into her face, so quickly she spun. Door, wall and window blurred into a carousel of dazzling green light.

Desperately, Alison reached forwards, grasping nothing, eyes shut tight against the wheeling debris. No sooner had she done so, the vacuum at the centre of the tempest pulled her free.

She was deposited unceremoniously into the heart of the storm, skinning her knees on the floorboards. She glanced up, and saw the orbit of paper dancing round her on all sides, forming the walls of a funnel – a funnel that now ensnared her.

The motion made her giddy.

The pages thrashed the back of her nightgown. She might have been sick, if not for the sudden change in the miraculous cyclone.

The circle started to slow, speed gradually reducing until it flowed languidly before her. Gravity appeared to be glue, holding the pages in place as they circled her. The sheets began to transform, ephemeral in the jade iridescence.

Helplessly following the progress of the wheel, Alison saw the pages take on a transparent quality, her own handwriting hanging ghostly upon the air. Words and sentences flowed snakelike, rivers of letters weaving in and out of each other, serpentine passages mingling into fluid shapes.

Full stops and commas dropped from the floating riddle, meandering in all directions until they pooled like ink on blotting paper. The characters merged in the spinning atmosphere, forming shapes on either side of her.

The twin shapes danced and twisted, embryonic forms wreathed in buoyant words. The sight stole Alison's breath away. From these suspended clouds, recognisable contours made themselves known – a hand, an arm, a foot growing into a leg, which attached itself to a nebulous torso and stretched upwards into a neck, a head... and eventually – a face.

With a gasp, Alison confronted the delicate spectres drifting around her.

With a second draw of breath, she identified them as male and female – one sandy-haired, his breeches blurred and the gun over his shoulder little more than a sketch on the air. The female glided past transparently, the tatters of her wedding gown trailing into a loop of muddled language, the dark strands of her hair framing a pallid face.

Before she could put a name to these familiar visitants, the man spoke, his uncertain mouth whispering down to her.

"Please... we are here... at the doorway... "

"The doorway... " echoed the girl.

"No time... no time to waste... a Lord will come a-knocking... "

Alison's mouth felt dry, but she forced a question out despite the pain in her throat.

"Who are you? What do you want?"

But she already knew. Their forms slowly became more solid upon the shuffling air, and she identified them as the characters from her story; young Abe and his tragic bride, Lily - and in this moment of certainty, she accepted that her mind had gone.

The girl addressed her.

"... Lost upon an ill wind tapping at the door... can you free us from the spell... from which our doom takes root? Kind lady of the knowing pen... "

"I don't understand... " Alison said, lips quivering.

"In a cage of story, forever more," the man in breeches interrupted, his urgency apparent in his hissing voice, "until the pen of a stranger releases us. We stand half in and half out of the Lord's design, adrift in enchantment and loss.. ."

"With each other's blood... "

"Upon our hands..." the boy finished sadly, this last fact alone the devil of it all.

As they spoke, their revolving shapes took on a clearer dimension, the web of words comprising their bodies steadier in Alison's dazed eyes.

A light rain was falling within the confines of the loft, spattering the floorboards with red spots. From their spectral hands, the liquid fell, though no wound could be distinguished. As they turned, a scarlet circle became painted on the dusty floor, and this sight struck new dismay into Alison's heart.

The figures of Abe and Lily reached out for her, as if the bloody wisps of their hands might stroke her face, seduce her to their need.

"Come, take up the thread and weave our ending..." Abe beseeched her as he sailed within the current of levitating pages, "Year upon year, a curse finds its fate in the scrawl of your words. Do not be afraid. Release us from this prison, and we will make sure of an exchange..."

"This isn't real!" Alison screamed.

"Pick the briar thorns from our hands," Lily begged, who wept openly now, her broken face blurring with sorrow. "We must be free to save the baby, to thwart the will of Grymrtrell..."

"Release us..."

"Free us..."

"Please..."

Later, Alison could never say what spurred her into action.

Maybe the earnest face of the ruined bride struck a chord of grief within her that was too deep, too fresh, for her to listen to their words.

Maybe it was the bristling impatience behind Abraham's features, threatening anger if his wish went un-granted.

Alison wanted nothing more than to be away from their whispers, their bleeding and their woe.

She wanted to be away from the loft, out of the cottage, somewhere safe and sane where stories couldn't suddenly live and breath and demand freedom from the page.

"No," Alison rose from the floorboards and stood within the green-lit circle.

"No," she said, shaking her head at Lily's wasted face, into Abe's translucent frown.

That frown now crumpled in her hands as she reached into the wall of revolving energy and closed her fingers around his visage. His frame shook as she tore through his substance, nothing more than paper and luminance, coming apart like gossamer in a gale.

Shreds of paper fell through her fingers as she dismantled him, his arms rustling inwards, his torso crinkling as she worked, his face nothing more than a ball of diaphanous pulp in her fist.

Lily shrieked at the slaughter, her own body fraying upon the air. Alison, determined in the task, turned to the ghostly lady and ripped through the filmy material of the tattered gown, finding no flesh, only shadow and air.

A cloud of confetti swirled through the loft as the maelstrom came apart under Alison's hands, scattering like the snow outside the window, melting into nothingness until only darkness remained. The emerald light faded as the funnel evaporated, and a dying sigh shuddered against the brickwork of the loft.

Alison, alone in a circle of shredded paper, leapt towards the open doorway.

Down the stairs she went, breath steaming. Past the bedroom door, and through the living room, where the hearth was simply a pile of greenish ash spilling over the carpet.

Out, out, her mind panted, into the street and the vanishing snow.

Out, where she could feel the cold cobbles under her bare feet, the certainty of a world she knew again. A world that offered abandonment and pain, but ultimately, her world; a place of safety, where dreams could not touch her with spectral fingers.

And where tales couldn't reach out from the pages they'd been written on.

Halfway up the street, Alison looked back.

The cottage stood dark and empty, as if nothing miraculous happened there. As if everything was ordinary, and normal, and sane. Just a cottage. Just a night. Just a hallucination...

She drew a breath, and thought about finding shelter.

No way would she go back to the cottage. No matter if the autumn night was chill and the sea wind dampened her nightgown to her skin.

The hairs on the back of Alison's neck prickled in a frost of nerves, and turning, she regarded the upturned face of Mrs.Hanson, who stood, waiting patiently, a few metres away on the darkened street. The old woman's stooped form, huddled in a woollen overcoat, seemed dwarfed by the surrounding houses.

"We failed them," the old woman said softly. "I warned them not to ignore the demands of ungodly creatures. But they didn't listen then, and you didn't listen now. It's all in the way of things, I suppose. All part of the story."

Alison gasped a question in the icy air.

"What the hell is going on?"

Mrs.Hanson nodded. She knew the question well.

"Come on dear," she replied gently. "Let's get some hot tea in our bones and a fire to talk around. I've got some explaining to do... "

And Alison, no longer sure what world she belonged to, followed the old woman up the night bound street.

The next day, things in Torquay seemed better.

For the first time since she'd decided to stay here, favouring the wild ocean and the open countryside over a faithless husband, Alison didn't think about Bruce. She had something else to focus on now, something to alleviate the pain of the previous summer.

A duty, some might call it.

Alison returned to the cottage by mid morning, walking down the street in the ill-fitting clothes that the old woman had kindly lent her. The brisk chill of autumn no longer echoed in her heart. The sun shining on the leaf blown street gave her a feeling approaching happiness.

Once inside the cottage, she didn't fuss over the mess in the living room, nor go into the parlour to work on the wedding dress.

Today she had other business to attend to. Good work. Secret work.

In the way of these tales, she righted the desk in the loft, and sat behind it, regarding the turbulent sea out the window. She looked up at the cloudless sky and took her inspiration from the blue.

Then, haunted by a fairytale, she lifted pen to paper and began.


ENDS

© 2005, J.W. Bennett

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