Welcome to day two of our Halloween Flash Fiction blog event!! Today, we start with a story from author, musician, composer Linda Robertson. Linda was also inspired by this image…
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The Black Feather by Linda Robertson
I don’t know what awakened me.
It might have been the earthy smell of mud and leaves under my nose or that tickle on my cheek which I thought was an insect on my face. Upon trying to swat that creature, a great pain overcame my consciousness. In the instant I felt it, I realized an ache had been there all along and was most likely what roused me. Making a second and more cautious attempt at moving, I touched my face and found it was not a bug on my cheek, but my own warm blood slowly crawling.
For long moments, I moved in flinches trying to determine if I’d broken any bones. My self-inspection assured me my whole body was a bruise, that a dozen small cuts had opened the skin on my head and hands, and that a trough-full of mud now caked my good suit. I’d lain there long enough for the ground to steal my warmth. That and the chilled, foggy air worked together to compound my aches.
Despite this, I soon managed to sit up. When I stood, I found myself at the edge of the road—if ruts in the ground could be called a road.
A hazy glow snared my attention. Being the single bright spot in that fog I thought at first it was the setting sun. Then that light flickered.
That drew me on with quicker steps. “Hello?” I called.
The sun had set and night was coming fast. Finding shelter was a necessity. The damnable fog had thickened substantially in the last few minutes.
Though my mind recognized the lantern was placed low, I reasoned it must be sitting on the ground. Why it was there was not my concern but as I drew closer my eyes made out a large, dark shape on the other side of that lantern’s illumination. My formerly cast-off concern returned and taunted me.
A carriage laid on its side upon the road. Its shattered wheels stabbed toward me. A horse twisted in its harness laid to my left. The animal was utterly still.
My eyes took in the details: the gold paint on the carriage edge, the broken glass reflecting the lantern’s light, the red tassels on the dead horse’s bridle.
The clues gathered without haste and a creeping terror coiled about me, tightening all at once, striking deep into my chest as that horse’s name crossed my lips.
My heart broke and my knees gave. My wagon…my Poor Charlie.
No. No, not Poor Charlie.
Crawling onward and fighting a sob, I forced my feet under me. I told myself that this show of strength would stave off the tears for a horse that meant everything to me. But that was a lie. The scene before me blurred.
Poor Charlie and this wagon were my livelihood. They were all I had left—
Now…I had nothing.
Rather than wipe my eyes with my muddy hands or sleeve, I squeezed them shut. I stumbled onward wishing desperately that I’d reopen them and awake from this nightmare. Instead, this tragedy in the fog only shrouded me more.
As despair welled up inside me, my feet halted—then another item became clear to my eyes.
A coffin laid along the right side of the road. It, too, had broken. Amid the debris of a shattered board, the pale and lifeless hand of its occupant laid visible.
Miss Emilla Andrews, daughter of a local baker and betrothed to Judge Edgar Fulton. Their wedding would have been tomorrow. The old judge’s first wife had died last year.
She’d had a better coffin.
Lightning flashed. My breath caught. For an instant it seemed Miss Emilla’s finger had twitched…but no. That was a trick of the light.
Thunder rumbled through the forest around me, and it seemed louder than any thunder my ears had ever heard before. Assuring myself that the sound must travel better without all those leaves in the trees to dampen it, I moved toward the coffin.
The smell of rain permeated the air.
Before I arrived next to the splintered wooden coffin, rustling in the branches above halted me again.
A raven leapt from a branch and landed upon my toppled hearse-wagon. It looked at me expectantly, then cawed. Its voice, like the thunder, was too loud.
The distinct, commanding tone of it startled me into action and my quick movement caused the raven to fly away. There was nothing to do for Poor Charlie or the wagon, but as the local undertaker I had a reputation to maintain. A body could not be left in such fashion. Especially not with a cold, soaking rain coming.
We were on the road to the old judge’s summer estate. He’d offered to have Miss Emilla buried there. We were miles from the lakeside estate, and miles from town. The only shelter possible would be inside the confines of the wagon. The glass windows of either side were destroyed. The top had cracked, the inner velvet had torn, but the bottom, or rather the floor, looked undamaged.
I unhooked Poor Charlie and strained already aching muscles to flip the wagon onto its top.
Returning to Miss Emilla, I tried to lift the head of the coffin and drag it toward the wagon without further disturbing the corpse, but the damaged box had lost stability. The coffins of the poor were made of wood deemed not good enough for anything but burying in the ground. While meant to cost as little as possible, they were generally sturdy enough to move the deceased to their grave. They were not, however, meant to survive such abuse as this one had seen.
The bottom broke apart and Miss Emilla spilled onto the road, muddying her black burial dress. Her golden curls, so daintily arranged by her mother, fell loose. The rising wind whipped the tendrils about like snakes rising to hiss.
Cursing the name of the coffin-maker and the thin wood he used, I hurried to collect Miss Emilla before the fabric soaked up too much mud.
When I bent to lift her, I saw a black mark on her skin at the nape of her neck.
I had seen similar marks before, but not in this country. Not anywhere near these civilized lands. This country had rid itself of witches decades ago.
A new fear blossomed in my gut, but a heavy-handed mental denial shut it down. I patted her hair down into place, decided I had not seen anything, and returned to my purpose of treating her corpse with respect.
Before I lifted her, though, my eyes noticed the mud on her cheek. I pulled the handkerchief from my inner jacket pocket and wiped it away.
Staring into her pale, lifeless, beautiful face, I wondered, What happened? What were the circumstances of her death? And what happened that shattered my wheels and killed my Poor Charlie?
Again, the raven’s caw pierced the night. A chill coursed up my spine. Looking up, three birds now perched atop the upended wagon. “You can have Poor Charlie for carrion,” I muttered, “but not Miss Emilla.”
Old Bess at the tavern in town would make a fine stew on Poor Charlie. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to eat it, but Bess wouldn’t mind what a few ravens might steal from the carcass. Better they pecked at Poor Charlie than Miss Emilla.
I dragged the corpse as ceremoniously as possible under the wagon and onto the torn velvet of the roof. Apologizing profusely for the insult of all this I tried to arrange her curls as they were before. Even if my hands hadn’t been shaking, I’d never have known what to do with all that hair.
I ripped the velvet curtains from the sides, unrolled them and covered her with it. Voicing another apology, I crawled from the wagon. At last, I shut the broken rear doors. It was the best I could manage.
Slumped against the corner of the wagon, I curled my knees to my chest. Night was upon me and the wind blew even colder. My heart clung to a consoling thought, telling me the judge would miss us and send someone to check on our progress. My head, however, recognized that as fiction. No one would find us until morning.
I glanced under the wagon. The only shelter from the coming storm was under there. But I could not share the space of dead Miss Emilla. Not with her bearing a black-feather tattoo. Because of that, I needed to be farther away. I scanned about as if I might see through this fog and spot a tree that could offer some shelter.
It was going to be a long, wet night.
Thunder rumbled again and my thoughts strayed back to my earlier questions. I stood and approached Poor Charlie. My heart ached anew. The birds had accepted my offer. His eyes were gone.
A strange grief welled up inside me. Thousands of times I’d watched the faces of mourners. Always, when they crumbled under the weight of their sorrow, I’d wondered what thoughts had been swirling in their minds that brought on the sobbing. Whether it was fond memories or remorse wasn’t for me to know or judge, but I’d always made something up. Though admittedly a fiction, having a logical story helped me. Yet here I was, crumbling to grief over Poor Charlie. There were no heartfelt memories or even one specific thought that brought me to such weeping. What I felt was simply, acutely loss.
What had happened?
Needing more than a made-up story for this, I decided to return to where I’d awakened. I grabbed the lantern, marveled for a moment that it had fallen right side up and that it was undamaged except for a single long crack in one side of the glass, then continued away.
I didn’t have to go far. By the lamplight, the ruts in the road were like deep shadowed plow-troughs. Having seen the debris strewn about, I knew the broken wheels had made these tracks. Poor Charlie had bolted, dragging it until he stumbled, fell, and broke his neck.
But why had the wheels broken?
Cawing ravens drew my gaze up. Between the fog and the storm clouds rolling in, I could make out the shadows of dozens of birds circling above the barren tree limbs. Their voices echoed as if this fog was a cavern.
I hurried back to the wagon and found ravens had alighted all over it, while others hopped about the ground pecking at the bits of glass still in the windowsills.
One spread its wings and cawed. The others joined in. The ones from above swooped down and filled the branches nearest me.
The noise of their calls echoed and overlapped and I heard, “Undertaker! Undertaker! Undertaker!”
The memory struck me like a lightning flash.
I’d been driving my wagon, heading toward Judge Fulton’s estate. I’d lit the lanterns to help see the road in this fog. I remembered the ravens flying alongside, thick branches in their talons. Poor Charlie got spooked and sped up. I tried to low him down but he’d gotten the bit in his teeth. I couldn’t stop him.
The birds dived, casting those branches into the spokes of my wheels. I was thrown from my seat. Poor Charlie charged on down the road.
This memory was madness. More fiction! Birds didn’t wreck carriages!
“Undertaker! Undertaker! Undertaker!”
I covered my ears and stumbled backwards. “What do you want?” I screamed.
My legs weakened and gave. My body jolted as my knees hit the ground. All at once I heard differently, as the order of the bird’s phrasing changed.
“Take her under! Take her under! Take her under!”
My breath caught. I couldn’t move.
The black feather.
Helpless, I watched as the ravens swarmed under the overturned carriage. Their talons tore away the velvet I’d covered her with. They dug into Miss Emilla’s black funeral dress and inch by inch they drew her out of the makeshift enclosure.
I ran toward town, but glanced back every few steps.
The last thing I saw was Miss Emilla, rising into the air. The skirts of her funeral dress was clasped in black talons, as was her sleeves and her golden ringlets. The familiars flew away, carrying their witch into the forest.
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