My story for the latest episode of R.B. Wood’s Word Count Podcast is called “In the Grove”, and it was inspired by the photo story prompt:
My imagination took off in a different direction this time, and I ended up with a story that is rather more horror than fantasy.
And a big thank you to R.B. Wood for keeping this podcast going. This month, I almost didn’t get a story done. I was so busy and I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed with life and work and everything else. But writing for this podcast is really a kind of “write club” for me. I don’t have another write club, but since I started writing for The Word Count Podcast in 2016, I’ve learned so much about writing flash and writing in general, and I’ve gotten to know some fabulous writers as well. Thinking about all that got me off my butt, and I finally put together a story and recorded it.
HUGE thanks to podcaster and author R.B. Wood who has kept this podcast going even when he’s gone through some challenging times. I owe you so much.
In the Grove
by Maria Haskins
He finds the girl at dusk.
She is standing in the tall, dry grass at the top of the hill, where the winding dirt road bends unexpectedly around an old split oak. In her suntan and sandals and simple white dress, soft like a nightgown, she is just the kind of girl he was looking for. Just the kind of girl he always looks for. The kind of girl who looks seventeen. The kind of girl who looks like they need help.
Beyond and below the hill, the sea whispers over sand and rock, shadows gathering beneath the waves.
“You need a ride?” he asks, still astride the rental moped he picked up from the village this morning, the smell of summer vacation wafting off him – tequila, sunscreen, tobacco, sweat.
She isn’t sure what she replies. Maybe, “come with me”. Maybe, “can you help me?”. Maybe she says nothing at all. It doesn’t really matter what she says, because it doesn’t take much to make him leave his bike, to follow her into the grass.
A local boy might have wavered, might even have left her standing there, might have revved his engine and left her in the dust, but he’s a tourist and he follows.
She leads the way into the grass, walking beneath the trees that are no longer there, and as they walk, she reaches out to touch the ghosts of gnarled trunks, bends her head to avoid the memory of crooked branches, listens for the rustle of leaves, long gone.
He takes her hand and she feels the shape of her own hand in his grip, a girl’s warm palm and slender fingers, soft skin and blunt nails. It’s a weak hand but pleasing to the touch.
“Where are we going?” he asks.
She doesn’t answer, only shapes her mouth into a smile and lets him put his arm around her waist. They’re almost there. Only a little longer. Only a little farther.
The sky darkens as they walk, cerulean to cobalt, cobalt to indigo, indigo to obsidian.
So much is gone, but the stone remains. It’s low and wide, long as a man, its top flat and smooth, its bulk sunk deep into the dry dirt. When she puts her hand on it, the world shivers. He thinks it’s her, trembling.
“Don’t be scared,” he says.
He touches her, gently at first, eager fingers sliding over this web of skin stretched thin and smooth over bones and guts and sinews. She opens his mouth with her tongue, and he tastes of cigarettes and cheap booze, tart and bitter.
He tugs at her dress and skin, pushes her down on the stone, and looking up, through him, through the haze of his quickening breaths, the memory of the ancient grove grows around her, the old oaks looming like they once did, trunks bent in prayer, limbs reaching out in supplication.
He can’t see the grove, but then, it’s not for him. None of this is for him.
He whispers in her ear (the words are sometimes different, but their meaning is always the same), and she answers in a language she’s forgotten how to speak in the daylight, each syllable thorny and sweet on her tongue. In the slick moonlight, her shape is so fluid and pliant beneath him that she wonders if he might notice her lack of solid form.
He doesn’t. They never do.
“What’s your name?” he breathes, but she doesn’t answer. The leaves used to whisper her name to her, the people used to gather and sing it beneath the oaks, but it’s been so long, too long.
“It doesn’t matter,” she answers, not sure what language or what voice she is using anymore.
She could leave. She could leave him, untouched and alone. She could allow herself to fade away. But why should she?
She has always been here. This place has always been hers: this grove, this stone, this hill, this split oak, these twisting roots beneath the ground. And this hunger, it has always been hers too.
He tries to kiss her again, his blunt fingers tracing the shivering gleam between the surface and what lies beneath, and she holds on to her body for the final, fleeting pleasure of that touch, but the magic is already slipping off her bones like a discarded snake skin.
When she lets go, he gasps, hands grasping at her shaggy hide; her shifting, ancient flesh spilling through his fingers, as she takes him inside herself one more time, tasting the last tart and bitter drops of him on her long, raspy tongue.
What’s your name?
After all this time, she can’t remember. All she knows, all that matters, is this shifting skin and flesh, and the hunger, beneath.
© Maria Haskins 2019
Cover art for this story created by me, using Canva.