Andrew Openshaw is a copywriter from Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. An avid reader of fantasy and horror, he is now taking tentative steps into the world of speculative fiction. To date, his work can be found in Palm-Sized Prompts, Schlock! Webzine, The Dirty Pool, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories and The Scarlett Leaf Review. Always keen to connect with other writers, he can be reached via Twitter: @moriskarass and at his website http://www.andrewopenshaw.com. Married to Josephine, he is a proud parent to the world's noisiest cats: Maxwell, Molko & Bodhi.
A KNIFE AND COPPER TALE
They entered a narrow hall that stretched way off into the distance. Figures like the old crone who had marked Angela into the building earlier moved around. Most were just tiny specks in the distance but Angela saw those nearest her carried trays mounted with huge piles of steaming food. Others held flagons of frothy ale, which spilled over on to the ground.
The crones moved slowly toward another door set into the far wall, closed this time. From beyond the door, raucous shouting and cheering rose above the sound of music being played on fiddles accompanied by a steady tambourine rhythm. A party was in full swing.
Flammarel spoke again in his child-like voice, unbefitting of his old and hairy face. “Feeding time for our residents. They all enjoy a good drink too.” He pointed to one of the trays containing cups of overflowing ale. “Understandable really, given the circumstances.” Using one of his hands, he pretended to gulp down a large drink then let his tongue loll out to the side of his mouth.
Angela interpreted this as his impression of someone getting drunk. She remained silent.
Before she slipped into sleep, Angela had begun to make certain assumptions about what was going on in the realm of severance, and now she was keen to get some confirmation from her tiny attendant of the situation she had stepped into. She spoke for the first time to Flammarel. “You said it’s been over two hundred years since you’ve had a visitor, why is that?”
Flammarel stopped in his stride and gazed up at Angela with adoring eyes. “What an angelic voice you have miss. Just delightful!” He started up again on his skip-jump walk across the stones toward the back of the room, which must have been at least a mile away. Angela followed and listened.
Flammarel sighed and began. “We have a simple, though cruel, system in the realm of severance. Once someone is sent here, receiving a knife with genuine intent from a person keen to abruptly end their relationship with that individual, they arrive in the desert. Or the ‘jungle of sharp edges’, as you imagined it earlier today when you transitioned. We liked that!”
“How do you know that’s what I called it, in my head?” Angela asked, somewhat taken aback by this revelation.
“Dear girl, all your thoughts, fears and hopes have been monitored since you arrived. We must be sure your intent remains genuine after all. Some people quickly change their minds when faced with that perilous journey through the blades. Those who mentally give up on their act of retrieval are sent straight back from whence they came.”
A little spark of pride bounced into Angela’s chest when she heard this. She’d never been a quitter and she would never give up on Carla. Not now, or ever again.
Flammarel started over, still skipping along a few paces ahead of Angela. “Anyway, I was saying, regardless of whether you were sent here or came here of your own accord, you arrive around twenty of your earthly miles away from this castle. Those who are sent here, as you will have noticed following your run-in with old Henry out in the blades, are not conscious of what’s going on. Their bodies and their minds are already bound to the knife. It is the blade-mind which directs them across the desert to us here, at the castle.”
One of the hooded crones carrying a tray of food allowed what looked like a potato to fall onto the floor. The figure stopped and awkwardly attempted to bend down to retrieve it, while keeping their tray straight and avoiding further spillages. Flammarel quickly intervened, darting over and scooping up the fallen morsel. “A bite, my dear?” he said, pointing it at Angela. Before she could respond, Flammarel popped into his mouth and swallowed it down whole. “Ha-ha too slow!”
Angela shuddered as she watched him wipe his face with the back of a dirty sleeve. She urged him to continue.
“Yes, yes!” exclaimed Flammarel, who stood motionless in front of Angela, gazing up with eager eyes. “The blade-mind only cares about one thing. Copper. If, however, old Henry had grabbed your coin off you, nothing would have happened; other than a searing pain entering his head, forcing him to quickly drop it again. If the copper isn’t given with intent, the blade-mind will simply reject it. In any case, the desert is so vast, it’s impossible that a retriever would arrive near their friend. Exchanges of copper always take place here within these unyielding walls.”
Angela dreaded asking the next question. Sensing it before she spoke, Flammarel intervened to help her out.
“Ah, yes. The transformation. It begins almost immediately. It can then take up to three hundred years for the process to complete its course. The blade-mind, you see, wants you to become a blade. I mean, what else could it possibly want if it can’t get access to precious copper? Cold steel merges with your organs until the limbs begin to change into daggers. Once all four have turned, steel begins to replace the torso. Transformations are completed out in the desert. Heads fall from shoulders and the arm blades come together over the head to form a nice sharp point. The foot blades converge too and bury themselves into the earth. Over time, they grow, just like ordinary trees, getting as high as twelve feet in some cases. Quite impressive.”
Angela gasped, “You mean the knife I cut myself on out there use to be a person?” She held her wounded hand away from her body and stared at it in horror.
“That’s correct. They were all people once, now they’re magnificent knives, don’t you think?”
Angela was speechless. Flammarel looked up at her contorted face and laughed. “Come on!” and started again across the hall.
They were half way towards the back wall now and Angela saw they headed towards a small door set into the far corner. Flammarel still hadn’t answered Angela’s question about the two-hundred-year absence of people being sent to the realm. He was obviously building up to it, enjoying providing a detailed account of the workings of this strange world. Angela found the enthusiasm of his telling a little over-bearing.
Flammarel again sensed Angela’s frustration and, peeking over his shoulder, made a friendly wink to acknowledge he’d got the message.
“Now, our current residents, of which there are about fifty, are all from your eighteenth century. Some, as you will have noticed, are in the final stages of their transformation and have been here for over two hundred and fifty years. Every day they arrive here after having made the journey across the desert. Many show up wounded, or suffering from hypothermia from being out in the cold. We guardians feed them, tend their injuries, aches and pains, and try to provide as much comfort for them as possible during the few hours they have before the day ends.”
Angela butted in fast this time, determined to ask her question and pre-empt Flammarel from talking over her with his answer. “When I was watching earlier, everyone seemed happy. Like they were having fun. Why is that?”
“Well, this bunch have been together for an awfully long time. They’ve developed good relationships with each other, and with us guardians too I suppose. We’re like one big family really.”
There was a pause as Flammarel stared off into the distance, looking a little melancholic.
His mischievous aura soon returned. “They bet, you know”, he whispered, followed by a little giggle. “The group you were watching were laughing so much because Kathryn, the chamber maid in the green apron, had won the day’s bet for the first time in years. She’d correctly predicted that young Tommen, the farmboy, would be next to die and he did! Stumbled over onto a knife during that awful thunderstorm. Sliced himself in two. You just missed it. It was his guts you stepped over on your way here. Gruesome really, but everyone was thrilled for Kathryn.”
Angela let out an expulsion of breath. She bent over holding her stomach and moaned. Flammarel stopped walking and came over to comfort her, placing a minute hand on her head and patting Angela as she retched onto the stone floor.
“It’s ok,” he soothed her. “These poor souls have accepted their fate now. Death is a blessing really. When another one goes, it’s a cause for celebration.”
“But it’s just awful!” Angela wailed. “This is hell!”
“Ah, you see, dearest, you’ve only seen a small part of what goes on here. We have games and sporting events to mark different times of the year. Residents can also become romantic with one another. Just like they would in your world. There are a few couples amongst this bunch, we even have private rooms…”
Angela interrupted, standing straight again, her bout of sickness passing. “I don’t need to hear about that, thank you very much. Can you get to the point please, why has no one been sent here for so long...?” She paused, composed herself, and added “...until I sent my friend?”
“Your friend!” exclaimed Flammarel, raising his arms above his head. “It’s so good to hear you say that. It makes us so happy when genuine feelings return and severed bonds can be repaired.”
“Just get on with it” replied Angela, through gritted teeth.
“Ok” replied Flammarel, and began walking again at a slower pace so that Angela could keep up.
“Your eighteenth century marked the beginning of an era called the age of enlightenment. Belief in superstitions and myths, like the giving of knives as gifts, and their associated consequences, began to fade. The march of science, reason, and rational thought meant people stopped acknowledging their true powers. It all just became a joke to those from the realm of men. They stopped giving knives with intent and transitions to our realm gradually ground to a halt. These last few years we’ve been coming to terms, with the fact that our castle must close once the current batch of residents are gone. Killed or transformed, whatever their fates may be.”
“Is there no way these people can be retrieved then?” Angela asked.
“Ancestors”, Flammarel interjected and made a loud burp, covering his mouth with his grubby hand. “My apologies, my lady. With no visitors to impress, we’ve all become a little uncouth. Anyway, the ancestors — children, grandchildren and so on — can retrieve the severed. Though, as you can imagine, as the years pass the likelihood of this happening becomes slimmer.”
“What about you and the other guardians?” probed Angela.
“Oh, us?” replied Flammarel, trying, it seemed, to act nonchalant in his response, though clearly troubled by the prospect of his answer. “We’ll just be transferred, you know, to another castle. Each of the other realms you see, of which there are a great many, has its own safehold for the severed. It was felt that the experience of being sent here was traumatic enough without people having to meet creatures or beings unfamiliar to themselves. So, they’re kept separate. Each castle is many miles apart, with no risk of contamination…”
Flammarel’s words trailed off and he looked past Angela into the distance. Angela gazed forlornly at her diminutive guide. An idea suddenly came to her and she blurted it out. “There’s a book! I’m here because I read about it in a book. Surely there are others? More books to be found so people will know that you’re here?”
Still forlorn, Flammarel’s reply lacked the enthusiasm Angela had hoped to hear. “Ah, Professor Badgerclay I assume? He and his academic friend Trinkell caused a lot of problems for us back in your fourteenth century. They discovered ways in which to retain knowledge of our realm once they’d returned, and then wrote about it. We knew something was afoot when our visitor numbers increased dramatically. Of course, this goes against the natural order of things. The two were soon punished by the ‘celestial powers that be’. A horrible death became them, their books all destroyed. Or not, as it seems. Intriguing that one has turned up after all this time.”
Angela and Flammarel walked in silence for several minutes until they finally reached the small door in the far corner of the hall. Again, the man-knife-copper shield hung above it. Flammarel reached up and turned the knob and the door swung open. He motioned for Angela to enter.
“Your friend is in there.” He pointed to a curtain which hung over a tiny hole set into a wall. Angela’s heart hung in her mouth. She started toward the hole but Flammarel stopped her with his hand. He whispered, “She’s been very depressed since arriving here. The other residents are from a different time. Cliquey too. They haven’t made her feel welcome. We can’t seem to make her eat or drink. She comes here each day when she arrives and just sits and cries. Like I said earlier, we’re relieved that you’re here.”
Flammarel removed his hand and stepped back. “Go through when you’re ready. I’ll just be out here if you need anything. If you don’t need me, may I just say what a pleasure it has been to meet, you dear lady. I truly hope I never see you again.”
Angela took a deep breath; her chest tight, her legs wobbly. So many words had run through her head these past few weeks. What she would say to Carla if she saw her again. Now they all flowed around her head, muddled and confused. She stepped towards the curtain, pattered her pocket again to make sure the coin was still there, then pulled back the velvet drape and entered.
The room resembled the interior of a gypsy caravan Angela had visited two summers ago with the girls. They all had their futures told; the lady said Angela would become a famous model. It was low lit by various quirky lamps dotted around the place. Thick, plush rugs with elaborate patterns covered the cold stones underneath. Cushions and throws of different sizes and colours lay in heaps against the walls and corners. Some larger cushions rested in the middle of the space, acting as tables and chairs.
It dawned on Angela that this must be one of the rooms Flammarel spoke about where couples enjoyed some valuable alone time together before their night ended, and their arduous and deadly day began all over again. Angela grimaced at the idea of those dirty, old and deformed people she’d seen earlier getting up to who knew what in this little cave of degradation.
She couldn’t see Carla anywhere, but her attention soon turned to a faint sniffle coming from the back of the room. One of the blankets moved. Someone was under it. Angela’s heart jumped into her mouth; she let out another huge sob, as tears trickled down her face.
The lump that was Carla stopped bobbing around. A croaky voice emerged, “Leave me alone. The little man said I could have this room.”
Unable to control herself any longer, Angela dashed over to the heap of blankets. “Oh Carla, you’re ok, I’m so sorry!” she moaned and wrapped her arms around the human form obscured by the woollen sheets. She sobbed into the fabric.
A squeak emerged, “Angela. Is that you?”
A moment of fumbling took place as both girls fought against the blankets, trying to rescue Carla from the uncounted folds. Finally, Carla’s head popped out.
Angela gasped. Sunken eyes set within a grey skull-like face stared back at her. Once chubby and blotchy, Carla was now drained of colour and looked painfully thin. Her mouth hung open slightly and Angela noticed Carla’s braces still clung to her front teeth, but the teeth were discoloured. Rotten. She was dirty too, a coating of mud and dried blood smeared over her exposed skin.
Carla’s expression changed from one of startled delight to anger. She instinctively pushed Angela hard in the chest, causing her to fall back onto a pile of cushions. “You did this!” she screamed, pointing at her ruined face.
Angela picked herself up and reached over to take Carla’s hands, preventing her from causing any more violence. “I know, I know Carla” she gasped, getting her breath back after her winded fall. “I would never have given you the knife if I knew this would happen. I thought you’d just stop hanging around with me, not disappear completely. No one remembered you apart from me, it was awful!”
“Awful!” echoed Carla, still seething. “I have nearly been killed three times during the twenty-seven occasions I’ve walked across that hideous desert.” Her anger caused her to tense her muscles, Carla flopped forward and winced as steel tumours dug into her flesh and pushed against her bones. She burst into tears.
Angela seized her chance and carefully wrapped her arms around the devastated lump. “I did a bad thing Carla”, but I’m here to put it right. We can travel back now, forget this place ever existed. Start our friendship anew.”
“You won’t” croaked Carla, sobbing into Angela’s shoulder. “You’ll just go back to those other horrible girls. To think I saw some good in you, that you were different to them. You’re mean, shallow and false. I don’t want anything more to do with you.”
Angela lifted away from Carla, forcing her to look at her again. “I am good, Carla. I’m the person you wanted me to be, I see that now. I couldn’t live with myself when you vanished; I tried going back to my normal life but it was unbearable. Instead, I discovered lots of things about you that made me realise what a big mistake I’d made. You’re a wonderful person, Carla. Helping that poor stressed teacher with the disabled children. Reaching out to the Muslim girls the way you did was inspirational; that alone should make you the most obvious choice for head girl! And wasting your evenings, hanging out with those weird boys at their games club. You’re amazing; I want to be more like you.”
Carla had stopped crying now, and her wry smile suggested she was pleasantly surprised by Angela’s confession. “So, you don’t want to be head girl then, or get your ghastly little gang back?”
“Nope. I don’t want either of those things; I can’t have them either. To come and get you back, I had to think of something I was prepared to give up. Something which I didn’t need anymore, if I was to be a better person. I could only pass over to this awful place if my intent was true. I’m here; so, I guess I really mean it.”
Anger faded from Carla’s face. What Angela used to think of as a gormless expression returned. “I want to go home Ange,” she whispered. “It’s horrible here; I’m not welcome, I’m a freak, even more so than I am at home!”
The two girls burst out laughing at this and remained in a fit of giggles for several seconds before taking a moment to dry each other’s faces with the blankets.
Carla spoke first, “Ok, so what do we do?”
Angela reached into her pocket and rubbed the precious coin, making sure it was there. “It’s really simple” she said. “I need to give you this.” She brought out the penny and held it in the centre of her palm.
In the same way that old Henry responded to Angela’s copper out in the desert, Carla’s eyes began to glow. Instead of a fierce white, they turned into beautiful blue opalescent discs. There was no expression of hunger or desperations on Carla’s face either, just a big smile.
Her gaze drifted from the coin to Angela and the light from her eyes increased in brightness, bathing both girls in an aura of incandescence. Carla took the coin from Angela and lifted it to her face. Admiring its shiny surface; turning it around in her hands and taking in the smooth edges, the coarseness of its engraved centre.
Angela closed her eyes and waited to receive the coin again. Just like she had in her bathroom, concentrating all her energy on Carla, desperate for the transition to work, she began to feel a drifting sensation. Her body lost its tangibility in the realm of severance, fading away into nothingness.
Carla placed the copper coin into Angela’s still outstretched hand and folded her fingers around it, sealing it in. This action caused the glow from her eyes to diminish. She cupped Angela’s hand with both of hers, so they were joined in an embrace, the coin safely delivered back to the giver, thus completing the revocation of severance.
Carla closed her eyes too.
“Here’s your tea, girls,” said the waitress. She balanced her tray in one hand and placed a tea pot followed by two cups on to Carla and Angela’s table. “Would you like any food at all?”
“Not for me, thanks,” replied Carla. Her warm smile showed off her super-white teeth and braces.
Angela shook her head, and continued fidgeting with a napkin, something she’d been doing since arriving at the café two minutes earlier.
“What’s wrong, Ange?” asked Carla. “Did you want to talk about something?”
Carla reached across and moved Angela’s cup to the side so she could hold her hand. “What is it Ange? You can talk to me about anything, you know.”
“It’s my Grandma” croaked Angela. “She died last week and I’ve just been ignoring it, but I’m really upset!” Angela’s tears started in earnest now and she let all her emotions spill out.
Carla sat with Angela until it turned dark, soothing and comforting her; making her laugh and smile until it was time for the café to shut and for the girls to walk their separate ways home.
A grateful Angela thanked her friend as they left. She started to walk away but stopped. Something pulled at the back of her mind. A familiarity — a feeling of déjà vu perhaps — of the last few hours. It was like she’d been here before, leaving the café as she was now, but where the circumstances had been different, bad even. She couldn’t quite place what it was and her mind soon drifted back to Grandma.
She’d have to take a good look through Nan’s old things in the spare room at some point. Hopefully she’d find a keepsake amongst the various trinkets, books and pictures that were brought to the house. Something to remind her of all the times they’d spent together, and the weird and wonderful stories she would tell. Maybe there’d be something she could give to Carla too, to thank her for listening and for consoling her in her grief.
Angela stood for a while watching as Carla headed along the street before turning, crossing the road and setting off towards home.