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Smile Back :)

The universe is made of mouths. Not circles or loops or any other illusions of organization, of control. Just many hungry, gaping maws demanding flesh and blood, promising peace in exchange for a paltry sum of pain. A clear message. At least, clear for those who can read in between the stars like my Mama.

They believe it’s empty out there. Mama would say, dark eyes on the darkening sky. We spent most nights together beneath the stars, awaiting their wishes. Just empty space.

Mama kept her gaze aloft but shook her head. I copied the movement, memorizing her proud posture, making her disbelief my own. Mama sometimes called me her tiny mirror, more often her little echo. 

But nothing is empty. Mama would continue, finally looking from the sky to fix her sharp sights on me. She’d slip into a low crouch so our eyes could meet, our fingers find each other and twine together. Nothing, my little echo, is empty. There is only fullness and hunger. The universe and us.

That was when Mama would untwine our hands and slide out the knife she always kept strapped to her side. It gleamed in the starlight, transformed into a tooth, point terribly true. She would press the blade to the palm of her hand till blood kissed the tip and trickled down the edge, crimson ink till shadows swallowed the hue whole. An offering. A message.

Around us, the night seemed to shudder, darkness undulating like a thousand licking tongues, the stars high above burning in their sockets, ecstatic. A sigh escaped the sky. Or, maybe that was Mama. 

We must feed each other. Mama placed the knife in one of my hands, positioned it’s shiny point on the palm of the other. Made me her tiny mirror. The universe and us. You and I.

You and I. I echoed, blade biting into my flesh, blood dripping down it’s face like drool, devoured by the dark. You and I.

Mama lives between the stars now, a message only I can read. A mouth only I can feed. Her knife fills the hollow of my hand, its tip trusty and true. A promise, sharp and clear. 

There is no empty space.

Above me, the night splits into a smile.

I smile back.

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Just a short & sweet story this week ^.^ Hope you enjoyed! This story was inspired by a prompt titled A message from afar. I think this story came off as more whimsical and a bit bittersweet than spooky but I really had a lot of fun turning my gaze towards the stars for this one~

The Night Is Hungry

Tonight, wind batters the brittle panes of my hovel’s weary windows. Had they been skin instead of glass, they’d no doubt be bruised. This high in the mountains, the winds are wicked. They drag drifts of snow with them, freezing the air till it’s very touch is painful. On nights like these, it feels like the dark is trying to rip and tear its way inside. Even the ferociously flickering flame in our lone hearth is not enough to protect against such a relentless, bitter chill. 

The holes in the walls don’t help. 

The gaps may be nothing but pesky slivers between wooden slats during the day, allowing a whisper of wind to wander through, but at night, they became slashes, severing any hopes for a warm home in two. Wind wails though the empty spaces, spits bits of ice in your face.

When I was younger, I remember musing how much the jagged lines in the slats resemble teeth marks. It looked like something was gnawing on our walls, like something had tried to take a bite out of the place. 

Baba laughed when I told her that, her own teeth gleaming in her smile. The rows of teeth she wore on several strings around her neck seemed to gleam in tandem in the fire’s glow. Baba never liked to wander too far from her cooking pot, seated firmly in the fiery mouth of our home. Unless she was going out to find dinner, of course.

A bite? Baba asked, smile still sharp. From what, my child?

The night. I said, then, like it was obvious. The night must be hungry.

Baba’s smile stretched across her face. Too wide, I’d realize too late. Her face, like the walls, should’ve split in two. Wrinkles cut her face into fleshy shards, deep divots marking her dimples. Even the fire’s flickering stretched her shadow into odd points.

Indeed, my child. Baba said at last, raising a veiny hand to finger one of the teeth wound around her throat. Their strings sunk into the loose flesh there, deep into its creases, making the teeth appear almost to grow out of her neck, as if Baba herself were one giant gaping mouth. The night is hungry. 

Baba gripped the long handle of her slightly scorched ladle then, swirling the contents of her cooking pot. They clacked against the cast iron, a hollow sound easily muffled by the wind. A splash of broth overtook the lip and dribbled down the side. At my feet, a tooth fell.

And so are we. Baba swirled the ladle, side to side. So very hungry.

Now, I stand before Baba’s cooking pot, ladle in hand. The wood has gone from slightly scorched to nearly charred, parts of it chipping off in places, splinters biting into flesh. 

But, it still does the job it needs to do.

Around my neck, several strings of teeth hang, a particularly gleaming set hanging on the lowest tier rests just above my heart. When I look down, they smile up at me.

A brutal gust slams into the shack then, rattling the windows and the rickety walls and shrieking unsorry through the empty spaces. Snow catches and clings to the rough edges, dripping like drool from a jagged mouth. Like blood, when it catches the fire’s heated glare. 

It is a mean night on the mountain.

It reminds me of the night Baba found me. Wading through waist-deep snow drifts and wailing against the wind’s screams for anyone at all to help. To help me and my baby sister, swaddled in my arms as I tried to keep both our heads aloft the piling snow, our faces tucked away from the air’s frigid assault. It was a fruitless effort. We were going to die. Like mother and father did when our cabin’s walls caved in, burying them beneath a life that seemed so meager and empty until it fell on top of them.

Baba slithered out of the darkness just as the snow was starting to swallow us whole. I was trying to raise my baby sister above my head, to keep the snow from encasing her like it had me from the chest down. It was that movement, which finally disturbed her rest and it was her cries, somehow, that summoned Baba. It wouldn’t be until much later that I would wonder at how Baba could’ve possibly heard my sister’s whining over the wind. At the time, I didn’t know to be wary of the things attracted to the cries of wounded creatures.

What do you need? Baba asked as she neared, her body except for her wrinkly old woman face hidden beneath a thick cloak. The night swallowed most of her finer features save for a slight smile that might’ve bothered me more had I not been freezing to death.

Help. I begged, teeth starting to chatter. We n-need h-hel-lp.

But, Baba shook her head. Stretched her smile.

No. She leaned in, the lines carving across her face becoming more pronounced, the gleam of her smile more glaring. What do you need?

I started shaking my own head, not sure what she meant and so very, very cold. In my gums, I swear I could feel my teeth shivering, each tooth clacking against its neighbor in my jaw. In my head, I could hear the echo, a soft pounding sound. Or, maybe that was my heart, slowly freezing in my chest. While the wind seemed to quiet and the weather settle at Baba’s appearance, I was still buried almost to my neck in snow. From all sides, I could feel the press. It was a soft bite but the pressure would grow. I thought of mother and father, buried—no, eaten by the mountain. Swallowed by the night. 

We should’ve left sooner. We should’ve let go.

A cruel chill crept over me.

I looked toward my sister then, raised like an offering above my head, and I felt the full weight of her for the first time. Felt the weight our meager home tried to hold. And, I felt the press of something not against me but from within. Something sharp. I heard a crack—possibly a tooth, perhaps another cabin collapsing in the distance, or maybe my frozen heart finally splitting—and then I felt nothing much at all. I should let go.

I looked at Baba, who was all teeth.

I need to let go.

My mouth wouldn’t open, wouldn’t speak the words, but Baba seemed to know what I had decided without me having to spit it out. She reached for the bundle in my arms, took it from me almost reverently as if she, too, could feel its true weight, its burden. She cradled the bundle with one arm and with the other, she pulled me from the snow in one steady, practiced motion. As if I were not the first child she pried from the mountain’s maw. 

Baba tsked at my bony wrist in her grip.

My child, Baba said, digging her nails into my icy skin, their points almost biting through. We need some meat on these bones. 

Some meat, Baba said, the bundle I gave her tucked out of sight. 

I never saw my sister again. 

Not whole, at least.

Since then, mean nights on the mountain have always made me hungry. I hear my own screams in the wind, feel each snowflake on my skin like a tooth sinking in, a dug-in nail demanding blood. I no longer sit in the shadow of a shut mouth waiting to be swallowed. I am a mouth. I must fill myself.

Outside, a cry joins the wind. Small, familiar. Wounded and needy.

I run my hand along one of the rows of tiny teeth strung around my neck, finger the smooth edges. Boiled water in a cast iron pot will polish anything if you let it soak long enough. Baba taught me that well.

Baba made sure I could do what I needed to.

The water begins to boil as the cries tear out of the dark and bleed through the walls. Another gust carries a whimper, offering anything to be spared and I smile with all my teeth.

The night is hungry.

****

Hey~ So… I started up grad school again for the fall and it has been a LOT to manage hence the delayed posting schedule. Honestly, I’ve hade barely any time to think let alone write a spooky story. That said, this story is inspired by the Russian folklore figure, Baba Yaga. I’ve always found her to be a more plausible monster than most. Especially when I think of the cycles of starvation that occurred in Eastern Europe during different points of history, I find a Baba Yaga-esque figure to be all the more plausible and, because of that, more chilling. I wanted to explore the becoming of such a being in this work.

Hope you enjoyed~

Far Too Many Teeth

They come. They always do. The sea brings them to me. Swallows them up and swishes them from cheek to cheek before spitting them just shy of my shore. The only haven in sight for miles. Mama used to say with a smile. Any port in a storm, my little minnow.

I didn’t understand, at the time, why she smiled so widely nor why it prickled me so. There was an…edge, to her grin. Something cutting in its curl. Sharp. It wouldn’t occur to me why until many years later and many more ships spat ashore. Too much teeth.

I have always called this lonely speck of misbegotten rock in the middle of this surly grey sea home. The only watchful gaze I knew better than Mama’s was that of the storm’s. Mama hated when those stormy eyes found us. Hated that moment of calm that would fall when an eye settled on us. It’s the only time she ever spit back at the sea. 

Any port only works if there’s a storm, after all. 

Even many years after her death, Mama’s teeth still gleam in my mind. Too much. Too many. Like those odd fish that sometimes washed up with the ships and sailors, dragged up from the darkest depths, jaws jagged with needle-point teeth. Yes, just like those fish. They were almost always dead by the time their broken bodies caught on our craggy shore, not made to thrive in the unforgiving world above. 

Mama died on a stormy night like this one. Wind howling across the isle, rain biting skin, battering this sliver of world we call home. A ship skid on the horizon, sails slanted, desperately trying to prevail and failing. 

Sailors are so foolish. Mama chuckled, her smile starting it’s upward slice. They always underestimate the storm. Her power. They think they can make her theirs, my dear minnow. They think they can own her.

On the sea, a strong gale tears through the ship’s sails and its bow sinks low, probably taking on water, same as every other ship lured from its course into our waters. Overheard, thunder beats the sky from blue to black. The faintest of screams begins to join the clamor. Those sailors will be screaming on my shore before the candle in my cabin has the chance to burn halfway. They will die before the light does.

In my memory, Mama’s eyes burn. More like lightning than any candle, so striking and yet so fleeting. They only burned like that when she reeled in the night’s catch. When she gutted bellies, pulled out innards, dyed the sands of our little shore and the long hems of our pilfered muslin dresses a deep, dark red. Anything we couldn’t use, she’d toss back into the sea. Like those odd fish. An offering, she called it.

I guess she believed us blessed.

Foolish, she said that night, licking her teeth clean. To think they can own her. Control her. Storms belong to no one, my little minnow. Remember.

She was right.

The wave that swallowed her flopped over the rocky lip of our shore like a large, languid tongue. It slammed her almost casually into the rocks, jagged edges tearing through fabric and flesh, red bleeding in between the points. She screamed, I remember. A piercing sound. My little minnow! But, I wasn’t so little anymore. Neither were my teeth. Or, my appetite. 

Saliva flooded my mouth and blood thundered in my ears and I remember wondering at the storm brewing inside me.

My little minnow!

I caught the eye of the storm. It was nearly overhead. Mama never liked her gaze. Mama spat in her face and threw her our leftovers. Foolish.

I let the sea have her, the last leftover.

Now, I watch as the ship sinks even lower, draws ever nearer my shore. Once faint screams now overtake the winds’ howling. Thunder and blood thump in my ears. A smile with far too many teeth cuts across my face. 

Storms belong to no one.

©Kelli Hayes

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Inspiration Work ~ En La Lejania by Adriana Madrid

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I joined the Writers Circle at my library! This week, the group write stories based upon this picture prompt! I thought is was a very inspiring work and I wrote a story that I am quite happy with! I hope you enjoyed this little taste of horror! Definitely look forward to more!