On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Your Heart's Desire
The girl had known about the woods since she was very young. Everyone did. Especially since all the parents warned their children away.
She was old enough now to have researched the area on her phone’s web browser. There was curiously little information in official records, and certainly nothing on Wikipedia — the little town was too small for that, and had never produced any notable figures — but there were some less scholarly sites that did mention the place.
Centuries ago, women had been murdered there. Sometimes drowned, sometimes hanged, sometimes stoned, and sometimes burned alive. All in the name of religion.
The girl was old enough, though barely so, to understand what her mother told her about it: that men had always sought to control women, and religion had been the favourite tool of that control. The accusations they made, whether of insanity, witchcraft, demonic possession or otherwise, were really just a means to an end. The girl understood.
But it was a new millennium now, and things had moved forward. Not by enough yet, but there was at least no risk of being stoned or burned just for demanding the right to vote.
But still the parents warned their children away from the woods.
The girl checked the maps app on her phone. She was not quite old enough yet to understand that it worked via a built-in GPS unit communicating with satellites far overhead, but she was entirely old enough to know that it did work, and could be trusted. She even knew that it worked in areas where her phone wasn’t connected to the internet, like this one. She peered into the gathering darkness, knowing within herself that it was foolish to be walking into the woods at all, and especially so at dusk. But she went anyway.
She reached into the hip pocket of her jeans and felt for the object, and found yet again that it was still there. Reassuring and solid, warmed a little by its proximity to her skin, but still cold overall. A bird of some kind cawed nearby, and her step faltered for a moment, but she pressed on. There was an important matter to attend to.
The girl glanced back for another look at the town, refusing to let herself wonder if it would be her last. The moon hung heavy and yellow above the roof line, full tonight, and for one irrational moment she felt it was a spotlight, picking her out perfectly, and that soon she would hear hurrying feet as her parents came to fetch her and scold her. But the moment passed, and there was no sound beyond the usual stealthy night noises of the outdoors, so she continued on, moving deeper into the woods.
She saw the clearing much sooner than she expected, and the girl felt her arms break out in gooseflesh as she caught sight of the figure there. A figure she had been certain, deep within herself, would be here in this place on this particular night, under the eye of the moon, and waiting to strike a bargain.
The old woman was dressed simply, and in the manner of centuries earlier. Her clothes were faded and tattered but still functional. Her back was to the girl, and she had no cauldron or broomstick or any such affectation. When she turned, somehow already knowing that the girl was near, the sickly light caught the black band of bruised flesh around her throat.
The girl wanted to turn and run to safety, but she also wanted to keep going, and so she kept going. The old woman watched her wordlessly, as if viewing a scene so intimately familiar and often repeated that it has become a sort of performance. Her eyes were preternaturally visible and distinct even in the gloom, and the girl felt her pulse quicken as she saw that the old woman’s irises flitted restlessly from blue to green to brown and back again.
At last, the girl approached where the old woman stood, and now all the night sounds of birds and animals abruptly ceased. It was appropriate, thought the girl, who was not quite old enough to fasten upon the idea that an ancient court was now in session, and that men and beasts alike had fallen silent in respect and solemnity.
The old woman raised her hand, her fingers bony and stretched with impossible years, and opened her palm. The girl understood completely, and reached into the pocket of her jeans.
The locket was solid silver — not plated, her mother had told her, and the girl had nodded as if impressed even though she didn’t know what it meant to be plated — and it had been a gift from the girl’s dear departed grandmother. It had once held a photo of the grandmother’s husband, but before she passed away she had replaced that image with one of herself with the girl. The engraving in tiny script upon the inside of the hinged front had been left intact.
May You Find Your Heart’s Desire
The girl hesitated for a moment, but only a moment. Her grandmother had always wanted her to be happy; the locket itself was evidence of that. And the locket was the girl’s most precious possession, which meant that it had power. Every child natively understood how things can come to have power in that way. Only adults have forgotten.
The girl placed the locket in the old woman’s heavily creased palm, and as she released it, she half-imagined she heard a sound from much deeper in the woods. Perhaps it had been a bird, but hadn’t it sounded like a scream? Hadn’t it sounded like her own grandmother?
But there was no going back now.
The old woman, who was certainly a witch, and who had certainly been hanged here centuries ago, smiled in a dark way that made her seem like a hollow, rotted tree, and the girl was suddenly eager to conclude their transaction. On cue, the witch raised her eyebrow in a silent question that was far too knowing.
The girl took a deep breath, then she closed her eyes and made her request, speaking only silently within her own mind.
Ten million Instagram followers she thought. And they all think I’m beautiful.
The blast of cold wind in her face startled her, and when she opened her eyes she saw that the witch was gone. The trees were all rustling now in the wind, and for the first time the little girl felt truly afraid. She turned and ran, and she knew it was a miracle that she didn’t trip on a root or a fallen branch and break her leg.
By the time she left the woods and started back towards the little town, though, she felt calmer and even excited. There was no signal once you were in the woods, but her phone should reconnect very soon.
It was only a minute later that she felt the device vibrate in her pocket, and then again, and again. She grabbed for it, eyes widening in wonder and greed as she saw the stream of notifications, scrolling faster than she could read. It had worked. It had actually worked.
She quickened her pace, and when a small part of her mind whispered a question about whether the cost had been too high, the girl thought of her grandmother.
It was strange, but for the first time ever, she could no longer entirely remember her face.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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