LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Verwelktag, by Steve Toase

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Blumen, Blumen selbst pflücken

Kommt mit mir nach Hause

Du bist süβ und sehr, sehr schön

Drinnen oder Draußen

Eine ist weiß, eine ist gelb

Einige begann sich zu röten

Ob im Boden

Auf dem Tisch

Immer für die Toten

Competing honeysuckle and magnolia wafted in from the castle grounds as Angela opened the small apartment’s windows.

“Don’t they smell beautiful?”

“Hmmm?” Joe didn’t look up from his laptop, attention held by cascading columns of figures.

“The flowers in the gardens. Don’t they smell beautiful?”

He put the laptop on the rented sofa. Angela stood aside, resting against the thick, cool walls. Joe leaned out of the casement.

“Do you think they’ll mind? If I pick some to brighten up this place?” Angela asked, putting her hand on his.

“As long as you don’t go overboard. Don’t strip out every last bloom. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

*

She knelt on the grass, leaning into the border with a pair of scissors as a substitute for the secateurs she didn’t own, beside her a pile of already cut hyacinths and marigolds.

“Entschuldigung. Das ist leider nicht ordnung. Diese Blumen dürfen Sie nicht pflücken.”

Angela turned, noticed the grass stains on her skin and tried to see the person speaking to her. The sun was behind them and their face hidden.

“Es tut mir leid. Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut,” she said, unable to hide her English accent in her rehearsed German.

“Sie sprechen Englisch?” the figure said.

Angela stood. It was the gardener she’d seen maintaining the grounds over the past couple of weeks. He rested on his leaf rake as if he had trouble standing.

“Ja, Englisch,” she said. “Angela Bay. We’ve only just moved in. The corner apartment on the second floor of the castle.”

He nodded and looked down at the pile of flowers by her feet.

“Residents are not allowed to cut flowers from these gardens.”

“Sorry.” She held out her hand and he ignored it. “I didn’t think you’d miss a handful.”

“And if everyone did that? Then replenished their vases when the flowers died? How many would be left?”

“I said I was sorry.”

“On the outskirts of the town there are patches of Selbst Pflücken Blumen. ‘Pick them yourself flowers.’ There is a small charge, but you must get them from there, not damage these plants.”

Angela nodded and glanced up toward her apartment. The window was shut, Joe out of sight.

“I will do in future.”

The gardener pointed at the severed plants. Sliced from their soil-bound roots the flowers were already wilting to sepia in the sun.

“Those will have to stay.”

“I understand, and I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t do it again, Frau Bay.”

“I won’t.”

She tucked the scissors into her back pocket and, hands empty, walked toward the vast gates leading to the town beyond.

*

The flower patch wasn’t hard to find. An eruption of colour on the edge of a rattling maize field. By the roadside stood a concrete-filled barrel with a small coinbox. A neon-handled kitchen knife hung from a piece of green nylon string.

The flowers were arranged by type. Dahlias to the left of the field, sunflowers rising in the centre, and gladioli on the right-hand side. Tucking her trouser cuffs into her socks, Angela walked down a plough furrow into the midst of the flowers, stumbling on uncleared stones in the soil.

The scents pulled her in, dragging her from one stalk to the next. Blues and purple petals stained with yellow. Reds more vivid than any forest fire. She ran them through her fingers, feeling their velvet skin and the slight bulge of veins under the surface.

Sunflower heads drooped as if embarrassed to be so tall. Stalks like sharkskin. Then dahlias. Globes of dead planets reborn in nested florets. She cupped one after another in her hands. Let them settle in her palms. Lowered her face and allowed the fragrance to rise into her. Lost to herself she wandered from row to row to row. Deeper into the centre, far from the road, to the middle of the small field, she spotted something in the worn dirt and her breath caught in her throat.

Sunlight reflected off the metal staples holding the limbs in place, fur flayed back to show yellowed bones. The chest cavity was empty of organs, instead stuffed with petals and seedheads.

Angela stepped back, losing her footing on the loose soil. The skull had been separated from the body and placed a few feet away, delicate bottom jaw still in place. She had no way to tell what the animal had been. In between the picked-clean head and the body grew three rows of the most beautiful flowers she had ever seen. Each stalk inclined to the floor with the weight of blooms, barely any open. Hints of colour far more vibrant than those in the plough furrows around her. She only meant to pick two or three. By the time she finished Angela balanced over a dozen stalks in the crook of her arm.

*

“Why do you think the colours are so bright?”

The flowers lay on the table in front of her, spread out on old newspaper. Four vases stood around the edge, the blades of her scissors to one side smeared in green.

“Nutrients from the body? What did you say it was again?” Joe said, picking up one of the severed stems.

“Couldn’t tell. Rabbit maybe?”

“Probably some kind of bio-dynamic farming thing. Burying cow horns full of manure under the third crescent moon and all that nonsense.”

He gathered up the other offcuts and dumped them in the bin.

“What do you know about bio-dynamic farming?”

“I read about it in a magazine once. On a plane. As far as possible from any fields and cow shit,” he said, kissing her neck and carrying one of the vases over to the window.

“They look good. The light catches them just right.” Angela carried the next vase to the other window nook, inhaling the scent. “Brings a bit of colour to the place.”

In the grounds the gardener was de-heading espalier roses. Several flowers in full bloom fell into the soil. Instead of leaning down to pick them up, he ground the petals under his boot, and turned to look back at the house. Angela shuddered. Walking back to the dining table, she folded the severed foliage into the newspaper and dumped it into the bin.

*

“Did you replace these?”

Sunlight shone through the vase’s green water, several drowned flies trapped between the stems. Where the petals had started to curl the night before, they were now plump and fleshy again. Joe looked up from his suitcase, piles of clothes fanned out around him. Shook his head.

“Did you top up the water? Pour in some more plant food?” he asked, compressing two jumpers into the suitcase.

Angela replaced the vase on the windowsill, lining the base up with the circular water stain.

“I didn’t feed them. The colours have changed too. I’m sure I put the reds and the blues together, and the yellows and oranges over in the kitchen. Now they’re all mixed.”

She watched Joe pick up three shirts, try to choose one, then stuff all of them in.

“Maybe they change pigment as they age.”

Kneeling, she folded a suit jacket in half and passed it to him. “Are you sure you’re not playing a little prank on me before you go? Did you sneak out last night and pick some fresh ones?”

“Because that’s the sort of thing I do the night before a conference. Go traipsing around the fields in the dark picking flowers.”

She handed him a stack of vests and waited while he found space for them. “Well, you certainly weren’t packing.”

He grimaced at her. “Funny. Check my shoes. I didn’t go out last night. It’s not like there’s anywhere to go around here.”

“You do like it here though, don’t you? It is beautiful.”

He encased her hands in his. “It is that. And I do get regular work trips away to civilized places, with shops that open on Sundays, and bars with more than one type of beer.”

“How are you getting to the airport? Driving yourself?”

“Taxi.”

“Ernst?”

“Are there any other taxis in town?”

“Ernst it is then.”

*

She watched Ernst’s pale grey Audi make its way down the castle drive, Joe’s suitcase visible on the back seat. Alone, she looked again at the flowers. Several petals had already fallen. She picked one up and held it between two fingers, squeezing the silken flesh until it smeared her fingertips with colour. She brushed the remains into her hand, dumped them into the bin and went to bed alone.

*

Saturday morning, and the small town centre was full. Everyone trying to get their shopping done before midday closing. Angela let the tide of people carry her through the square, past the small shrine to a saint whose name she never remembered. Small bouquets tied with red ribbons were stacked against the statue’s marble feet.

She went into each shop, coming out to find herself beside the statue once more, the flowers still stacked up.

“Are those normally there?” she said to the baker, filling her shopping bag with fresh Brez’n and Semmel.

“The flowers? They’re for tomorrow.”

*

At home Angela unpacked and sat down at the table sipping her coffee, phone in front of her. She pressed her finger against the screen and checked again for an SMS. Still nothing. Turning on Messenger, she brought up the thread she shared with Joe and stared at the last three unanswered messages.

I know you get distracted by the bright lights of the city. A reply once in a while would be nice. X

Throwing the phone out of reach she stared out of the window. In the grounds the gardener was burning a pile of waste branches and leaves. Smoke drifted back toward the building. Half-scorched leaves glittered in the fumes. She closed the windows. The smell of ash still found its way inside, around the old wooden window frames.

*

Church bells rattled her awake. Putting on her dressing gown she watched the other residents parade from the castle’s main entrance down to the gate. Most wore their Sunday best, children holding gloved hands. The gardener waited by a vat of hot liquid atop a worn wooden table. He handed each new person a glass and Angela watched each one take a sip, faces obscured by steam. She closed the curtains and got dressed.

Each door on her floor held a different-coloured rose, broken stem laced into the lock. She turned to look back at her own apartment. The flower was pale yellow, already wilted. She pulled it free and forced it into her pocket.

*

Angela took the cup, golden blooms along its edge glistening with the heated wine inside. She took a mouthful, trying to identify the herbs.

“Frohe Verwelktag, Frau Bay,” the gardener said, wiping his hands on his smock.

“Verwelktag?”

“Wilting Day. A time to remember that all things must rot into the soil so others can grow.”

*

She tried to join in. Sipped the drink until the bitter flavour tainted her tongue. Bought a bouquet from the children stood at the entrance to the marketplace. Took photos of the traditional costumes, all lace and velvet and animal fur. The young girls wore white dresses and carried bunches of daisies tied together with parcel string. Garlands of fuchsias, foxgloves and asters hung between lampposts, low enough to brush pollen on the heads of those passing beneath. Dray horses with bridles decked in blooms the colour of the local Brauerei dragged a barrel-stacked cart in endless circles, mouths foaming with the effort.

Angela held her phone up to take a photo, and attached it to a message for Joe. Show him what he was missing out on. When she saw there was still no reply any enthusiasm left her. She threw her bouquet of already dying flowers into the bin. It landed on half-empty beer bottles, sending up a cloud of drunk wasps, and she set off back to the apartment.

*

In the corridor the mixture of summer fragrances and rotting vegetation was overpowering. She opened the door and the stench intensified.

Angela walked the short distance to the bedroom and threw her coat on the chair-back. The figure was barely visible in the gloom, curled up under the sheets as if in pain.

She looked around for Joe’s suitcase, gripping the collar of her coat.

“Joe? Are you okay? I didn’t think you were due back yet. You should have called ahead. I was in town.”

The bedside lamp pushed shadows against the walls but did not disperse them.

“Are you ill? Do you want me to get you something?”

She pulled the sheet back.

The legs were shaped from twisted lengths of ivy, each leafed strand woven into the next. Where the chest should have been hundreds of flowers had been placed on top of each other. Roses, lilies, pansies and foxgloves, all arranged into the form of a sleeping man. Lupins as knuckles. Daisies as vertebrae. Where the head should be, a crush of the same flowers dying in vases around the apartment.

“Joe? Are you under there?”

The last drop of hope left her as she tore through the dying flower heads to the sheets underneath. The mattress was sodden, stems already rooting themselves amongst the springs. Searching for nutrients. She wrenched a handful free and flung them to the carpet. There was nothing but petals and seeds and stems.

*

She tried to clear the bed, filling bin bag after bin bag with dead plants, stopping every few minutes to catch her breath. Instead she sat on the floor and tried her phone again and again until the battery ran out and she was alone with the stench of death.

*

The singing woke her. Out of habit she reached for her phone to check the time, but the battery had not charged itself while she slept.

Standing, she looked out of the window. The townspeople stood around the perimeter wall. Each wore a mask of wilting blossoms. In their disguises it was hard to recognize anyone, not that she knew her neighbours well enough. Children stood between their parents. Priests from the local church next to uniformed police, and farmers. They did not move. In their hands were lanterns. Those held by adults were cylinders of light, the children’s shaped like ships, trains and horses. They swung them in low arcs leaving trails in the dark. The flowers danced in the flames.

One figure separated himself from the cordon and walked up the path. His flower mask was old and complex. Layer upon layer of roses and gladioli woven in until the weight bent his neck toward the ground. He rested on a leaf rake, a large knife in his other hand.

While he walked the others began to sing. She recognized some of the words from her basic German. Others were too heavy in dialect for her to make out. All the time the gardener made his slow progress toward the castle.

*

There was nowhere to go. Only one door out of the apartment, and then what? Run through the crowd into the countryside? She listened to him climb the stairs, each step marked with the clatter of rake tines on stone, the knife scraping the wall as if he couldn’t quite hold its weight. He stopped outside the door and knocked. Waited. Knocked again.

“Frau Bay. Bitte öffnen Sie die Tür. Please open the door. There is nowhere you can run.”

Looking out of the window, Angela searched for a ledge to get as far from the old man as possible. Where was Joe? Why wasn’t he here? All she could see outside was the ring of flames illuminating the floral masks. In the stillness she recognized more of the song they were singing.

Blumen, Blumen selbst pflücken

Kommt mit mir nach Hause

Du bist süβ und sehr, sehr schön

Drinnen oder Draußen

Eine ist weiß, eine ist gelb

Einige begann sich zu röten

Ob im Boden

Auf dem Tisch

Immer für die Toten

A key slid into her lock and turned. The door opened toward her, letting light into the living-room. The gardener blocked the way. He panted from the effort of climbing the stairs.

“Frau Bay, there really isn’t anywhere to go.”

Angela ran. She was taller than the old man and he fell easily, the rake wedging itself against the wall so he couldn’t turn. In the hallway she hit the light-switch and ran toward the staircase. There was no one else in the castle. Every other apartment was silent.

She took the stairs two at a time, hesitating in the hallway. One door led to the drive, straight into the waiting arms of the singers. Behind her was another, small and wooden, that led into the courtyard and beyond to the service part of the complex.

She opened the latch and ran. The paths were overgrown, strawberry runners creeping over the gravel. Brambles and rosebushes erupted from the beds. Ignoring the scratches, she ran toward the old glasshouses at the far end of the grounds. Her plan wasn’t complicated. Through the nurseries. Over the wall.

The door hung loose on its hinges. She pulled it toward her and dried putty fell onto her arm. Inside the air was heavy with the sweet scent of compost. On either side of her wooden tables held soil and bedding plants. Seedlings not mature enough to endure the cold outside. Spindly tomato plants knotted around thin canes.

She looked back at her footsteps in the dirt, then forward to make sure no one was cutting off her escape.

The scream was out of her mouth before she could quiet herself. Joe’s body lay in one of the vast seedling trays, naked, arms and legs held down with metal brackets. His face was intact, eyes open, torso split from neck to groin, organs emptied out and the space filled with rich, dark topsoil. Skin blackened with rot around the broken tips of his ribs. In the cavity that once held his heart and lungs, seedlings now grew. She pictured the gardener mulching down Joe’s liver for plant-food. Crushing bones as meal to sprinkle in the beds.

Reaching out she touched the tips of his fingers, feeling where roots thin as worms prised apart his skin. Remembering for a moment when his hand last held hers.

Behind her the door opened. The gardener stood with his knife hanging toward one side.

“Please don’t flee, Frau Bay. I’m getting old and get tired these days.”

Joe’s fingers tightened around hers.

“Go, Angela. Just go.”

She shook, wanting to scream out all the air in her lungs. Give it to her husband. Stitch him back together and repair him. Scoop out the dirt with her bare hands and hold him until he faded. Instead she ran.

The back of the glasshouse was mildewed and she soon kicked through the wooden panels, glass shattering into foot-long splinters. Behind the building a forgotten pile of rotting kitchen waste rose against the boundary wall. She climbed up, ignoring insects skittering over her legs.

Straddling the wall she checked the drop and lowered herself into the woodland beyond. She heard the townspeople singing. Too many people. She ran deeper. Amongst the trees. Away from the lights. Away from the singing voices. On the other side of the wall she heard the gardener follow her route.

“Sie flieht. Sie ist zu schnell. Ich kann nicht verfolgen. Durch den Wald.”

Angela allowed herself a moment of relief. Ducked into the undergrowth. Away from her pursuers. Couldn’t remember where she would come out. As long as she kept heading away. From the castle. From her home. She would be okay. Get to the next village. She would be okay. She would be okay.

She spotted them by their lanterns. A line of lights drifting through the dark. Sweeping up the hill. She watched them getting closer. Knew they would be around the wood in moments. The far side was still clear. She took off her coat. Threw it to one side. Ran through the shrubs. Kept low.

The woodland ended at a ditch. She scrambled through. Grass and mud against her skin. Reminded her of Joe’s broken hand. Her fingers grasped. She emptied her stomach into the brambles.

Ran for cover. Knelt down.

The sunflowers loomed over her. Behind them the rows of gladioli and dahlias. She tried to see a way out. The townspeople just stood. All along the edge of the flower patch. Lanterns held still. They were not singing now. Just waiting. Angela did not move. Stayed hidden in the flowers. Sunflower stalks rasped her skin.

As one their voices rose and they moved forward. Angela waited to see if they would stop again, but they did not, instead trampling the flowers into the dirt and stones. She waited until the last moment and ran deeper, not caring about the streaks of pollen on her clothes or scratches across her face. Nothing at all, apart from getting as far away from the lanterns as possible. She pictured Joe, holding onto life through some cruel trick of nature. Waiting to say her name. She drew strength from it.

Just before the middle of the flower patch the ground rose slightly, crowned with four large rhododendron bushes, all the flowers removed. She stood beside them and looked out into the night.

The lanterns were on all sides now, the petal-masked shoulder to shoulder. There was no way to break through. Their voices rose again. Not singing. Raucous with joy. She stumbled down the far side of the hill. Tripped over something embedded in the soil. Cold. Metal. The first of four tethers. Each hammered into the furrows.

She pulled herself up. Scanned the villagers. Tried to spot the children in the crowd. Saw one. Lowered her shoulder. Ran forward. Ready to break through.

There was no impact. The child stepped to one side and something sharp slid across the back of her ankle. Angela fell face down into the dirt. Adult hands turned her over. Held her in place as they wrapped her wrists in garlands and placed a crown of honeysuckle on her head. Slowly, they put their lanterns aside and carried her back to where the tethers waited to hold her to the soil.

*

Issue 17 (Spring 2018)

Story copyright © 2018 by Steve Toase

Artwork copyright © 2018 by Dotti Price

Steve Toase lives in Munich, Germany. His work has appeared in Aurealis, Not One of Us, Cabinet des Feés, and Pantheon Magazine. In 2014, “Call Out” (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year 6. From 2014 he worked with Becky Cherriman and Imove on Haunt, the Saboteur Award-shortlisted project about Harrogate’s haunting presence in the lives of people experiencing homelessness in the town. He likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails.

Dotti Price is an artist and illustrator based out of East Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her art is inspired by local wildlife—black bears, foxes, and deer—and by classic literature and fairy tales. It has been featured in area art shows, galleries, and businesses. Dotti has also taught art and designed set and prop pieces for kids’ theatre camp.

 

 

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2018 by in Stories.
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