July’s story prompt for the ever-wonderful Word Count Podcast was a wonderful picture taken by our podcast-master R.B. Wood himself.
This is a photo I took while hiking in Zion National Park in Utah. This is the beginning of the Narrows hike, previous hikers sometimes leave their walking sticks for future hikers.
I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to contribute a story in July. I spent most of the month in Sweden, visiting family and quite busy traveling around and socializing and doing all the other wonderful things that keep me busy when I’m on holidays over there. Various story ideas did pop into my head, but nothing really seemed to take hold.
It wasn’t until I was almost ready to head home that a story idea finally really took root in my head. All those walking sticks… they just looked so much like the sort of things wizards and witches might use…
I wrote ‘Deathlight’ in a bit of a rush after coming home, and here is the end result.
Grandma’s staff is heavy in Greta’s hand as she walks through the bog, the July night lit only by her lantern and the moonlight glistening in the dark water and shapeless mist above the mire.
The path is solid enough to tread safely, but Greta has lived near the bog all her life, and she knows the dangers, knows she should’ve turned back long ago. She’s seen the bodies of men and beasts found when the peat is harvested – skin tightened over bones, hair plastered over skulls – and so she prods the ground before her at every step.
Her voice is small in the darkness.
It’s been a week – she’s dead, reason whispers in her head.
“Maybe not,” Greta whispers back.
The staff is well-used, wood worn smooth by grandma’s calloused hand. It’s Grandmother’s best staff, the one she always tells Greta to use when she goes into the bog.
“Never leave home without a good staff,” Grandma always says when people stop by to peruse her carved wares.
Leni left home without a staff. Ran off into the bog that night with just a satchel and a ragged smile, saying she would join the witch that’s said to live there. It’s the kind of thing she’d say just to make people gasp and cross themselves.
But Grandma neither gasped nor crossed herself.
“No good will come of that,” she said and kept carving another staff by the fire.
Greta ran behind her sister as she walked towards the bog, pleading with her. But Leni’s never listened to anyone since the plague took mother and father. Not to Greta, not to the teacher, not to the priest, not even to Grandmother.
Greta tries to keep her eyes on the trail. She’s already seen one pale deathlight flitter behind her, hovering in the mist exhaled by the bog beneath the moon.
They’re lost souls, so it’s said, wanting to trap the living into death and drowning.
Maybe the deathlight is Leni, fear whispers in her ear.
“No,” Greta whispers back, voice wavering.
“I know you love your sister. But she’s a reckless scrap of flesh. She’d sell the skin off our bones if she thought it’d fetch a good enough price.”
That’s what Grandmother told Greta this past fall, when she caught Leni trying to sneak off with their earnings from the market.
Maybe it’s true. Greta’s seen Leni steal before. Seen her skinning cats and gutting birds, too, painting runes in blood, ever looking for spells and curses, for the power to go elsewhere, to become elsewise.
But Leni is her sister, even if she’s gone off into the bog alone, searching for the witch that wields untold power. She must find her.
“What if Leni really finds the witch?” Greta asked. Grandmother only chuckled.
“There’s always a witch, and no one ever knows who it is.”
Cold air stirs the mist – there’s a shadow on the path.
She grips the staff harder, as if holding on to Grandmother’s presence in the carved wood.
“Greta.” Greta trembles as the name twines around her limbs, holding her in place. “You found me. I wondered if you would.”
Leni’s voice is cold and thin, mocking, even now.
“Grandma said you were lost, but I said I’d find you. Let’s go home. Grandma will be so glad to see you.”
“No, she won’t. You should’ve listened to her. She was right. I did get lost.” Leni takes a step closer. Her hair is lank and stringy in the moonlight, and there’s a smell of rot about her. “I walked and walked. Followed the witch-signs and marks I thought I found, but they lead me astray. Just like Grandma told me they would. I thought she didn’t know, but she did.” Leni grabs hold of Greta’s hand. Her fingers are wet and cold and strong, and every nail is sharp as a talon. “I never was any good. Grandma knew it. Everyone knew it. The only one who never knew it was you.”
Leni tugs her close, off the path, into the bog, and Greta cries out as she drops the lantern and sees it swallowed up by the water. Her sister’s eyes are white-blue flames, her smile’s a glint of bared teeth, and Greta feels herself sinking, slipping deeper into the mire, into the mist, into the darkness.
“I need you, sister, I need that warmth inside you. I’ve been so hungry and so cold since I slipped beneath.”
Greta struggles in the muck, but Leni will not let her go.
Sinking to her waist, with the staff held across her chest, Greta pushes Leni away, and in the dark it seems that Grandma’s staff is glowing, as if aflame. Leni falls backwards into the murky water, but she is still reaching and grasping for Greta.
“I need you, sister. Give me just a bit of that flesh and blood!”
Using the staff to pull herself up, Greta scrambles back onto the path with Leni’s fingers still tugging at her skirts. Next thing Greta knows, she’s on her knees, pushing the staff into the bog, pushing her sister back down, while the clawed hands that are and are not Leni’s scrabble at the wood.
The staff is heavy in her hands as Leni sinks beneath it, her face a grinning skull disappearing into the darkness.
When Leni is gone, Greta looks around, shivering. She has no lantern, and she’s not sure where she is anymore. The moon’s gone down, and the bog is dark, except for a single deathlight hovering above the path beside her, as if waiting.
Almost, Greta thinks she hears Grandma’s voice:
There’s always a witch, and no one ever knows who it is.
Standing up, leaning on the staff as she starts walking, Greta feels Grandmother’s presence humming through the wood of the staff, through her flesh and bone, comforting – as the deathlight leads her home.
© Maria Haskins 2017.
This story is included in my flash fiction collection “Dark Flash 2”: