Consistency. I have it in loads. I started this blog with the intention of keeping a record of my failures in writing competitions (and in particular the one above) and I can now report that my record remains in tact. Once again I have failed to progress past round 1. I am, of course, dealing with defeat with my customary maturity and style. So …. to anyone out there who made round 2 …….. you can be assured that I despise you with the very core of my being from this moment on and into eternity.
But I wish you luck in round 2, anyway.
If anyone is silly enough to want to read it. ……..
Written for the NYC Midnight Challenge SS 2018
Required Genre: Horror
Featuring a very tall woman and advise
Max 2500 words
There were stories. Of wolves and tigers and leopards and of other nameless flesh-eating behemoths. But they existed, he knew, only to frighten children. To dissuade them from straying out of the sight and into the fears of mothers. And the stories grew more fantastic with every telling.
Within his own lifetime the beasts had become bigger and more ravenous and had cultivated longer teeth. They numbered no longer in hundreds but in thousands. Even the geography had become carnivorous. The deep ravines, it was said, opened without warning and swallowed small children and beasts alike before closing again entombing the victims for eternity. Though eternity had no meaning in the jungle. Time had no direction. The sun would sink, without warning, like a stone into bottomless lakes and plunge the world into a freezing darkness that might last a year. Or may descend to the level of clouds and melt human flesh in an instant. These were stories that only a child or a fool would believe.
More disturbing, he thought, were the unspoken horrors. The whispered tales of black magic and of an alien tribe who grew to ten feet tall yet floated on air. Of strange white humans who spoke in riddles and resided in both the past and the future simultaneously and observed the slaughter of mortals for their sport. Dark rumours that escaped from the drinking houses of the village late at night as allusions carried on a breath of wind and found their way to innocent ears. It was the veil of secrecy that furnished such stories with authority.
It was not as if the jungle was inaccessible or impenetrable. There was a long swinging bridge across the valley leading directly into it. Hunters used it regularly. Young lovers visited for secret liaisons, where they might lay together on a bed of lantana under the light of the moon. It was navigable. But only via a maze of paths. There was no map and no living soul could report having reached the other side.
And there had been disappearances. Cows and goats that found their own way across the river during drought would vanish without trace. But cows and goats were stupid animals with no sense of direction. Hunters too would fail to return from time to time. But hunting was a dangerous occupation. Lovers who had eloped against the wishes of their families were said to have been lost to the jungle. But that was a euphemism. Who could know where love might lead?
It was love that came instantly to his mind when first he saw her in the street. She was standing outside the old dairy as he walked home with a basket of eggs, tomatoes and oranges from the market. For a moment he thought he recognised her. Her lightly coloured hair and unusual height were distinctive. She beckoned him over and so he went to her and as she smiled the sun caught her blue eyes and encircled her in a light that he suspected only he could see. Her long white dress seemed to float over her and beneath it he could clearly discern the shape of her body. She leaned forward such that her lips were almost brushing against his hair.
“Do you love me?” she whispered in his ear.
He did not even know her. She appeared familiar but then, perhaps she did not. She lived, he imagined, on the western side of the village where the gypsies had established an enclave and from where, late at night, music could be heard of the kind that his mother did not approve. Perhaps she had been a friend of his sister’s. Perhaps he had seen her playing by the river as a child. He could not recall. But now, in this instant, he was overcome by her intoxicating beauty.
“Yes,” he replied, “I do.”
“Then take me to the jungle,” she smiled.
“Are you not afraid of the jungle?” he asked as she moved closer and he could feel the light touch of her breast as it brushed against his shoulder.
“Of course,” she murmured gently, “that is why I ask you to take me there.”
And when she asked him of his own fears he lied. “I fear nothing.”
“Boys of your age always say that.”
“Men of my age mean it.”
He was an adolescent. He was filled with doubts and fears. But the greatest fear, of course, was of admitting to it. “What is there to be afraid of?” he asked and tried to laugh. She grinned back at him and he wondered if she might know that love could be stronger than fear.
So he had taken the eggs and the tomatoes and the oranges to his mother and invented the story that he had been invited go with his cousin to the city. The city was a mysterious and terrifying place too, in its own way, but after a brief protest was expressed, a series of warnings were issued, and a strict deadline was set for his return his mother gave her reluctant approval and he hurried out of the house.
When he found her again in the village square the sun was directly overhead and she was standing under the shade of the oak tree smoking a cigarette. “Do you have a coat?” she asked, “I have heard it becomes very cold.”
“No,” he replied, “but I have you.”
“Yes, you do,” she laughed, “and so what fun we shall have!”
She took his hand and they turned and walked towards the edge of the village, towards the unknown. She had a worldliness about her that he found both exciting and unsettling. “What is your age?” he asked and tried to catch in her eyes any signs of dishonesty, but she kept her gaze directly ahead and did not answer him directly.
“What is the time?” she asked back instead.
Nobody he knew possessed even a pocket watch. The sun came up. The sun went down. Time could be relied upon to follow this routine without being constantly monitored. There was no reason to entangle it with numbers. So he shrugged. They were both old enough.
Before long they were on the edge of the village beyond the last of the houses where the vegetation began to thicken. There were few remaining signs of organised life here other than abandoned and decaying farm equipment and a few domestic dogs and chickens squabbling amongst the rubbish. The bridge across the valley swayed in the wind before them and he paused briefly to look back before setting his first foot upon it. A cold mist rose from the raging torrent below and the droplets of water settled on his face and arms.
The crossing of the bridge was terrifying. It swung with their every movement and many of the planks shifted under foot threatening to open a hole large enough to fall through to a watery grave and such was his urgency to reach the other side that he quickened his step over the last twenty feet.
“Slow down,” she called, “don’t tire yourself. Yet.”
There were several paths to choose from but, having chosen one, they were instantly encased in a green labyrinth. It was as though they had been swallowed. The trees were tall and broad and the light changed to a grey green haze as it fought its way through the canopy. It was noticeably cooler but in his excitement he was sweating lightly. A thin fog rose from the decaying vegetation under foot. It was darker too but occasionally a single ray of sunlight would shoot like an arrow through the foliage and blind him temporarily. Brightly coloured yet unrecognisable flowers greeted them around each new corner. There were animal sounds all around, yet he saw no animals other than the birds that peered down curiously at them as they passed.
She seemed to have a plan. She knew where she was going, and he felt a twinge of jealousy in the knowledge that this was not her first time. At each fork in the path she chose to turn left or to turn right without hesitation. She spoke only occasionally and her answers to his questions were short and ambiguous.
“Who do you think may have trodden this path before us?” he asked, attempting nonchalance.
She shrugged. “Perhaps no-one. Perhaps everyone.”
And when he had ventured to enquire, “Do you know where this path may lead?” she had been even more evasive.
“Forwards,” she had told him initially before suggesting, “or backwards. Both are in the same direction.”
She was laughing at him.
It was only then that he began to fear that he may have misinterpreted her message. But she had said it clearly. ‘Take me to the jungle’. Everyone knew what that meant.
Still, something was not as he had imagined it. Where might she be taking him? And why? How would he find his way home? And was he just imagining that the sounds of animals were becoming louder? Becoming closer? Becoming threatening?
And so ideas of escape were already entering his head when they came, suddenly, to a halt. With one graceful finger the girl was pointing directly ahead into the middle distance.
“An obstacle,” she laughed.
His eyes followed the line that her finger had drawn. The thin mist and the flickering light made anything more than twenty yards away difficult to identify. But he saw it too. There was a woman standing on the path ahead and facing them. Her features were vague but he could tell that she had very fair skin, perhaps even white, and that she appeared to be as slender as a rope. His heartbeat quickened.
“Should we run?” he whispered to the girl.
“Do not run,” she responded without lowering her voice, “not yet. That would be cheating.”
She led him further forward towards the apparition and when they were close the boy realised that he had been mistaken. It was not that the woman was remarkably slender that had given her the rope-like appearance but rather that she was alarmingly tall. She stood at least four feet above him and such was the overwhelming impression of her height that he wondered if her feet were touching the ground. Her skin was more than white. She was the colour of death. She looked perhaps one thousand years old. She was, he was certain, a ghost.
The girl beside him gazed up at her and smiled. “You are blocking our way,” she said, “you will kindly move aside.”
The ghost smiled back but addressed the boy only. “Where are you going, little boy?” she asked softly, but he could not move his lips to answer.
“Where are you going, little boy,” she repeated
When still he could not reply the girl spoke on his behalf. “He is going forward.”
“I was talking to the little boy.”
“And I am talking for him.”
But she addressed the boy again, “and which way is forward, little boy?”
He raised his hand and pointed to the path ahead.
“Are you sure, little boy? How fast can you run, little boy?”
He began to weep. He tried not to look at her. “Are you a ghost?” he summoned the courage to ask.
“Touch my skin.”
She offered her hand to him and, shaking with fear, he reached out with his own to touch her. She felt dry and wrinkled and cold but beneath the skin he felt the beating of a heart. She was not a ghost.
“She is an old woman,” explained the girl, “pay her no heed.”
“You would do well to follow my advice, little boy,” said the woman, “turn around now, leave the girl and go back quickly to where from you came.”
The girl began to mock. “He is not a little boy, old woman. He is a man. He is my man. And he will not leave me. And he will not run. Not yet.”
“Listen to me, little boy. She is playing a game with you. Turn around quickly, little boy, and run. Run as fast as you can. There are beasts. Soon it will be dark and for you, little boy, the sun may not rise again.” The white woman smiled at him. It was not a smile that offered comfort. “Believe me, little boy,” she added, “for I have seen tomorrow many times.”
She turned and walked away. Her feet made no sound as she stepped through the undergrowth and within seconds she had faded again, into the mist.
They stood there alone. Even in his fear he noticed that, although the day had been long the sun still appeared to be directly above them. Time was playing tricks on him. It was becoming colder now though and the combination of his fear and the perspiration in his clothing was causing him to shiver uncontrollably. The girl turned to him and, taking both his shoulders, drew him close to her body. “You are afraid,” she said, “As you should be. But do not fear the old woman. She was only playing games with you. We are both playing games with you today.” She kissed him gently on the lips. “Do you love me still?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered again.
The roaring of wild animals now filled the air.
“Do you hear them?” she asked, and as if on cue the sounds grew louder again and he felt the earth begin to shake with the pounding of a thousand hooves. He was forced to shout in reply.
“What are they?”
She did not answer but instead pointed to the west and as he watched the sun began suddenly to plummet as though felled by an arrow. In the last of the fading light the noise became deafening and it seemed that every bird in the jungle took frightened flight simultaneously. “What is it?” he screamed over the cacophony.
“Haven’t you guessed?” she shouted back, “The beasts are coming.”
He could barely see her now but heard her voice once more. “Now it is time,” she yelled at him, “it is time to run.”
She turned and ran. She was gone in an instant. The world was cold and dark.
He had run no more than five or six paces himself before they were upon him.
The sun was shining brightly through the leaves and the sweet perfume of flowers filled the air as they looked down at what remained of his corpse.
“He would not take my advice,” said the old woman.
“No, mother,” replied the girl, “they rarely do. Because they love me. Perhaps if you could make the ravines open and close like jaws they might listen to you instead.” They both laughed. “But still we had fun?”
“Oh, yes, my dear,” replied the old woman, “it has always been such fun.”