Each year since 2004 I've had a story to share for Halloween, because it's a significant date for me. This year is no exceptions, despite the best efforts of non-writing life to get in the way.
This is another Tawnholme story, but a very different mood from last year's - this year is more about sadness and stillness and the potential inherent in the turn of the seasons at this time of year.Mellow Mist by Alex Draven
Karl kicked desultorily at the fallen leaves, lying in damp, sodden drifts. It was cold, and damp, and the mist hadn't lifted even though it was mid-afternoon. The trees the far side of the clearing were soft-focus, and the far side of the valley a ghostly rumour.
"I came out here. I don't know what I thought that was going to achieve, but - here I am."
The trees didn't say anything back.
It wasn't exactly silent - the wind moving the branches, the distant thrum of traffic, the odd thump and crackle as birds launched themselves from branches or ripe crab apples hit the ground - but it was a lot quieter than Karl was used to.
None of the hustle and bustle of town, no phone ringing, no music coming over the headphones that were still looped around his neck. He'd turned everything off at the foot of the path that run up the hill from the river. It didn't seem right to come up here with a digital soundtrack. Not when his memory was full of Ric's laughter, and the crunch of his boots on gravel, and the way he hol-holoured, turning to face the valley from the top of the clearing, and sending his voice echoing down it's length, never matter if they were alone out here or if they'd passed dozens of people on the bike path by the river, or sitting by their fishing rods. Ric never seemed to be bothered by what people might think. Never had. Was never. Had never been ...
Karl shook his head, trying to break that train of thought. Eleven months, almost to the day, and he still fell down that mental pot hole all the time.
"Fuck," he said, but almost under his voice, to himself not the trees or the memories, or what Ric would have called the spirit of the place, and felt hot tears prickling along the line of his eyelashes.
Ric was big into places being significant, having personality, almost, and wasn't that the whole reason he'd hiked all the way out here, in the cold grim mist? He could have sat home in the warm and remembered the times he'd gone hiking with Ric, but instead he'd come out here, because it felt like the right thing to do, the right time to do it, and what was that if not a stunted half-arsed echo of Ric's gleeful instinctive paganism? Standing on a hillside on Halloween, with tears in his eyes and a hip flask full of Ric's favourite meed - Jesus.
"You see what you do to me?" Karl yelled into the trees, and dropped his pack to the ground with more force than it needed. "Seven years, and still you're making me crazy, man."
The hot flash of anger died before the end of the sentence, leaving that all too familiar dull ache in Karl's chest. He scrubbed at his eyes with his gloved hands, and made himself take a long, calming breath. Then he crouched down to open his pack, and pulled out a plastic-backed picnic rug, tartan with the logo of the supermarket that had been giving them way cracked and almost unrecognisable in one corner.
Looking around, Karl found a hummock, kicked clear a couple of fallen twigs, and spread the rug out.
"I'm here, so I might as well get on with it." He told himself, and the trees, and whatever else might be out there in the mist. Squirrels and magpies and ghosts.
Most years, Ric had gone out to the hills on his own for this, but Karl had tagged along a couple of times, and he thought he remembered what to do - he was pretty sure Ric had made up the ritual in the first place, so "doing it right" was a fairly large target to hit, ad he definitely had the supplies right, given the number of times Ric had called him at work to ask him to go emergency shopping for them.
An apple, salt, paper, fountain pen - with ink, fire starter gel, and a tiny bucket barbecue stuffed with wood scraps, because even if it had currently paused, it had been raining, sleeting, or mizzling for well over a week now, and Karl's rudimentary outdoors-man skills did not extend to setting fire to saturated sticks on a mud base.
Karl sat on one corner of the blanket, and pulled his pack up next to him to unpack. The bucket barbeque was a bright, unnatural orange, where it wasn’t dinged and burnt, and it perched on four spindly legs, which took Karl a while to get arranged so it was mostly stable, surrounded by mud and grass and sodden autumn leaves in the space between his outstretched legs.
He re-arranged the wood scraps, depositing a handful on one edge of the rug, and forming the rest into a rough cone before he squeezed a generous amount of firestarter gel over the wood scraps. He tucked the open tube back into is bag, followed by his glove, and then tore a sheet of paper out of his notebook and twisted it up into a taper, before pulling out a cheap Bic lighter from his pocket and setting it alight. Each spot where he touched the taper to the gel caught, and – maybe he’d been too generous with it. He threw in the remains of the taper, and sat back, moving his face away from the flames and the heat. After a minute or two, the fire settled as the alcohol gel burned off, and smoke started to twist up to flavour the mist.
Watching the smoke form, drifting on air currents too slight for Karl to have noticed them otherwise, watching the flames dance, the ebb and flow of the flames, the traceries of white ash edging pieces of the wood, their slow disintegration: Karl breathed slow and deep, and felt his shoulders drop. Watching the fire burn – that was meditation he could get, even just the flame of a candle. Ric had taught him that, and it was still true, and somehow that thought was a peaceful thing, and not sharp-edged like so many of his memories.
Ric’s ritual called for a list of the people that you had forgiven, people who had caused you harm over the year, that you were going to forgive, to go into the dark gestation of the new year with a clean conscience, not weighed down by resentment and feuds.
That was the hard part of the ritual – the leaden lump of difficulty that had been sitting in Karl’s stomach ever since the idea of coming out here had crossed his mind.
Ric had always been big on the importance of letting go, but - forgiving the guy who’d killed him? Even when Karl’s rational mind knew that it had been an accident, that legally no one was to blame, he wasn’t sure that he could live up to Ric’s principles.
He was going to try, though.
He’d talked it through with Kate and Su and Aaron – not that he’d admitted that he was going to come out to the woods to do hippy woo-woo shit, but the whole issue of blame and forgiveness . They’d started the conversation, the four of them sitting around the beat up kitchen table at Aaron’s place, the night after the inquest judgement, and Karl suspected that it wasn’t finished yet. They’d gone over it from every angle, and the balance of anger seemed to shift all the time. It was the drivers’ fault, it was the truck coming the other way without dipping its lights, it was the poor road lay out, the rain, Ric’s own fault for being out there on a bike, or sheer damned bad luck. It was Aaron’s fault for not reminding Karl to wear his helmet, Kate’s fault for getting the bike back on the road, Su’s fault for inviting Karl over, and it was Karl’s fault for not being home to give Ric a lift. Or it wasn’t, not any of them, and no matter what anyone thought, the next time the conversation looped back around they’d be taking different positions, making new combinations of arguments, and none of it stopped it being awful, this gap in the world that Ric had left.
The notebook was one of Karl’s usual scratch pads – a cheap reporter’s notebook, full of to-do lists and reminders and sketches for layouts – but the fountain pen was Ric’s, heavy and unfamiliar in Karl’s hand.
The nib scratched and caught on the cheap paper as Karl started to write, his handwriting unfamiliar and spidery as he tried to adjust to the unfamiliar tool. All of themMe
And then, hardest of all, nib gouging deep into the paper, Ric
He put the pen down and stared at the page for a long moment, swallowing around the lump in his throat and blinking past the prickling of his eyelashes, determined not to cry, and not to look away.
“Leaving the worst of the old year behind,” he muttered to himself. “Time to let it go.”
He took a deep breath, and sat up tall, bracing his heels into the earth. Then he tore the page out of the notebook – tore out three or four pages, where he’d scored his words deep into the pad.
He fed the paper to the flames, holding his breath as the edges curled and blackened before they caught. He groped in his bag for the salt, and threw a pinch over his right shoulder and then his left, then two more, far to either side of him, and then a final one, scattered over the flames that were devouring – had devoured – his list.
“I release you” he said, out loud, to the trees and the magpies and the mist, and it didn’t feel as ridiculous as he’d thought it would.
It was so tempting to sit and watch the flames, but Ric had made it clear the first time they’d done this together that both halves of the ritual mattered, so Karl made himself stick to the script.
Taking out his Leatherman, Karl turned his attention to the apple. The goal here was a single, long, spiral of red-green peel, and the weight of the fruit in his hand, the line of the blade against his thumb, the slide of juice over his fingers all helped anchor him here, in this moment, turning and apple against a blade under the cold. The ribbon wasn’t the smooth, even, elegant thing it would have been under Ric’s knife, but it held – a single strand of sweetness that he could hold from one end, dangling over his fire, the juice of the fruit spitting and hissing against the flames.
“To a sweet new year,” Karl announced to the open air, and he let the peel drop.
The cold peel damped the fire for a moment, leaving a dark patch in the centre of the flames, and the smoke thickened, a hint of apple sweetness to it’s scent.
Karl turned the knife back on the fruit, cutting himself a slice to eat – all part of Ric’s ritual. Let go of the bad, welcome in the sweet - and just like that - as soon as the sweet mealy flesh of the apple hit his tongue, the memory of Ric painting grainy, apple blossom honey on Karl’s lips and smiling, sticky, sweetened, smearing kisses hit him.
Not here on the hill, not even this time of year, but – oh, God. Ric and sweetness. Ric and the way he embraced the warm, golden, good things in life, and was so determined to share them.
This time the tears fell before Karl had time to brace himself, wetness on his cheeks while he was still struck dumb by the force of the memory, the brightness of them against the dark ache that missing Ric filled him with, and then the gulping, wretched sobs, welling up and breaking through him, unstoppable as waves, an abject vomit of grief.
Karl curled into himself, pulling up his knees, away from the fire pit, more by instinct than by thought, and tried to breathe, as his lungs burned, and his eyes stung, and a voice he didn’t recognise at first made wordless sounds of pain.
It felt endless, Every time he managed to stop, to swallow down air and try to calm his hammering heart, another swell of grief would break over him, and the fire burned, and the leaves rustled, and he was still here, in Ric’s place, on his own, and that thought was just so impossible, trying to wrap his head around it would break him again, another clot of tears and overwhelm choking him and forcing their way out of him.
Eventually, though, the waves of it stopped, when his eyes were scalded with tears, and his cheeks felt crusted with them, when his throat was raw and his every muscle ached, but the trees still rustled their branches, although the light was fading and the fire was mostly embers, and there was an unfamiliar sense of space and emptiness in Ric’s chest. A sense of peace.
Moving slowly, stiffly, Karl fumbled for a piece of scrap wood, nudging it into the dying fire in the bucket, coaxing the embers to glow brighter under the ash. When he rooted through his bag for the fire gel, it was like someone waking up; a good squirt, and the flames danced back. More wood, careful slivers fed just so, and the flames faltered and took, flared and dropped, and settled in hungrily on the fresh fuel.
Karl rolled his stiff shoulders, and straightened his legs. The oxidised ball of the peeled apple rolled away into the leaves, and Karl didn’t notice it, all his focus on rekindling his fire, on the play of flames and light and heat .
It wasn’t until he’d fed the last of his scrap wood to the fire that he started to look around, to think about the bottle of water in the side pocket of his pack, and the torch on the other side. The logistics of walking down hill and up river in the dark, getting back in his car, driving back into the city, all the noise and the people and the rest of his life played out in his mind’s eye, distant an unimportant somehow.
He took a long drink of water, and watched the flames for a while longer, until they began to waver and to collapse.
When he stood, it was to roll everything up in his muddy blanket, and stuff the bundle wholesale into his pack.
He stared down at the embers of his fire, white ash and dark charcoal over a heart of glowing gold that sparked and grew when the wind shifted just a little, and he pulled the hip flask of meed out of the pocket of his jacket, turning it over and over in one hand.
He looked around the clearing, the silhouettes of the trees against a deep purple-grey - near fully dark and only four in the afternoon – and he thumbed the flask open. He poured a mixed stream of meed from one hand and water from the other, dousing the fire in spattering spitting seconds, and sending up a wave of sweet-scented steam.
He spoke one more time to the trees and the mist and the spirit of the place, and the memories of his lover.
“Next year, right? New year coming.”
The trees didn't say anything back, but that was alright.
If you're interested in reading the previous stories I've posted as Halloween gifts they are: Dream Come True
($0.99) & two free snippets Soar and Raining Cats
(2009)It’s not the dead that haunt graveyards
(2010)Here Comes The Rain
You'll find these and other seasonally appropriate snippets under 'seasonal : autumn'
in the tags list
(If I was doing this as a promotional thing, I would have picked a less popular date, because there's an awful lot of fabulous fiction being released for Halloween - more of it every year - but I'm doing this because it's a significant date for me, so, thank you, everyone who reads this, and twice thanks to those of you who let me know that you did.)