Marian

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

First published in SEEDS, T. Wood – Wild Wood Books, 2021


It wasn’t the clack of her designer heels drumming the hardwood floor that alerted Marian to her boss’ presence, but the unusual, slightly musky aroma that always heralded her arrival. She could never place exactly what it was; maybe the scent of the hand cream Phyllis was always rubbing into her palms, or perhaps the remnants of an expensive, favourite perfume bought so many years ago that it had degraded and expired. Whatever it was, it made her sinuses ache like a rotten tooth might throb with decay. 

The smell grew stronger as Phyllis entered the tiny office and paused in front of Marian’s desk.

“How are you getting on?” she asked. 

Marian gave a despondent wave at the cardboard files piled around her. “There’s still a heck of a lot to do.”

Phyllis tutted in commiseration. “These last-minute accounts always come flooding in before the new tax year begins. I don’t know why people never learn.” 

Marian grimaced. It wasn’t simply the clients who left things to the last minute; Phyllis did a lot of that herself. Fourteen years in this role and not much had improved from the very first year she had begun. Names and faces and roles had changed, as people had come and gone, but the systemic disorganisation stayed the same. Despite that, the job was decent, and the pay was satisfactory. 

Better the devil you know, Marian thought, than trying to find something new at my age. 

“Are you doing anything fun this weekend?” Phyllis asked.

“I doubt it,” she replied. 

Phyllis cleared her throat and perched gingerly on the only available free space on the desk. Marian knew immediately what was coming. 

“Rupert is back in the country with his family—that’s my eldest son, you know—and Patricia, his eldest, is going to study Anthropology at the university here. Can you imagine? Anyway, I thought we might all go out for dinner…”

“Do you want me to stay later?” 

Phyllis let out a sigh of relief. “Would you, Marian? I’d appreciate that a great deal. If you can get the Avalon account in order, it would help us out a lot.” 

Marian checked her wristwatch and chewed the inside of her lip. There were three invoice-stuffed box files set aside for Avalon. It meant another couple of hours of work, at least. 

She looked up at Phyllis’s hopeful face. Her smell was almost overpowering.

“Sure, I can do that. But you owe me,” she said with a forced, jovial smile, trying to mask her frustration.

“Thank you, Marian,” Phyllis said, rising and straightening her blouse. “You’ll be paid overtime, of course!” 

Like that’ll ever happen, Marian thought, but she kept smiling until her cheeks began to hurt. 

Phyllis said goodbye and swept out of the office, leaving her scent to linger. Marian switched on her desktop fan and ushered the cloying odour out the door. She tapped a message on her phone to George, her husband, telling him she would be home late, then scrolled through her favourite playlist and turned up the volume full blast. The small speaker blared electro-industrial music around the beige, bland office, and she sang along as the lyrics began. What would Phyllis think?she wondered. A respectable accountant in a dress suit and blonde bob, rocking out to the goth bands of her youth. 

It was past nine o’clock when she rubbed the crick out of her neck and stretched the tension from her shoulders. If she locked up now, she could catch the 9:20 bus home. If she missed that, it would be a half-hour walk. 

She’d dealt with the Avalon account as best as she could, but it had raised questions only Phyllis could answer. She powered down her laptop and tidied her desk. The rest was a job for Future Marian to deal with on Monday morning. 

The sky was dark and the air thick with drizzle as she stepped out into the alley. The premises were a far cry from the image used on the firm’s website, one that depicted an impressive redbrick facade. With the bulk of their clients finding them online, a classy website and PO Box was all that was needed. The offices themselves were above a Chinese takeaway, and the delicious smell of fresh noodles and stir-fried meat made her stomach grumble in yearning. 

No time for that if she wanted to catch the bus. She locked the door and slipped the keys into her bag. 

The food smells faded, replaced by something putrid; an acrid mixture like stale urine mixed with rotten tomatoes. She turned to the dumpster at the back of the alley, expecting to see its lid left open, but it was firmly closed. Besides, the stench seemed to emanate from somewhere behind her. Somewhere near her right shoulder…

The leather straps cut into the top of her arm as her handbag was yanked from her grasp. She yelped and tried to stop it, catching a strap in one hand. The smell was so powerful it made her eyes water, and she could barely see her assailant through her tears. It was a man, she could determine that much; early twenties, slightly built, shaved head, and matching chin. Jeans, T-shirt, casual but plain. A regular, normal guy. 

“Give me the fucking bag!” he demanded. “Come on, you stupid bitch. I’ve got a knife!” 

She had no reason to doubt him, but despite her fear, she couldn’t bear to let go. The bag contained many irreplaceable items that she always carried around with her. Photos, notes, little trinkets and favours, even her powder compact had a story. She couldn’t let this foul-smelling thief get his hands all over them. Things he would tip into the filthy gutter as he searched for her cash and phone. Her shock and fear turned to anger. Indignation that he’d thought she was an easy mark. 

“No! Leave me alone!” she yelled back at him and wrenched the bag from his hands. The force made him stumble. She was far stronger than he expected, and he almost slipped on the damp concrete floor. He rallied and came back swinging, burying his fist into her stomach. She groaned and recoiled in agony, but the pain made her even angrier. 

She dropped the bag to the floor and grabbed his throat in her fist, forcing him back against the wall. He squirmed and scrabbled, desperate to get free, as she curled her fingers on either side of his trachea and squeezed as hard as she could. His face flushed purple and his eyeballs bulged as he fought for every breath.

“How dare you,” she hissed at him, her arm locked and outstretched, his toes barely grazing the floor. “How very fucking dare you!” 


The bus had long gone by the time she’d reached the stop. She’d had little choice but to take a sodden walk home. She heard raised voices as she put her key in the lock. Emma and Paul, her two teenaged children, were arguing at the other end of the house. George was fast asleep in front of the TV, mouth agape and snoring, oblivious to the aggravation. She hung her coat and handbag on a hook by the door, kicked off her shoes and called out a greeting. No one bothered to reply. 

There was a pile of used dishes dumped in the kitchen sink, the remnants of a frozen pizza abandoned on the hob. An open bottle of cola was going flat on the worktop, two dirty glasses by its side. She sighed and began loading plates into the dishwasher. George ambled into the kitchen, yawning and wiping drool from his chin. She leaned in towards him and he kissed her on the cheek.

“Hello, love,” he said sleepily. “You’re late back.”

“I texted you to let you know.”

“You did, even so, it’s…” he glanced at the kitchen clock, “almost half-past ten. Have you been working all this time?” 

She opened her mouth to reply, but Paul cut her off before she could answer.

“Mom! Emma has been using my X-Box without asking and she’s deleted all of my saved games!”

“It’s not just yours!” Emma shouted from the hallway. “It’s both of ours! Mum, tell him!” 

“Kids, please,” George intervened. “Your mum’s had a long day. Leave her alone.” 

 “Yes, I’ve had a very long day and you two need to get in here and clean up this mess. I want a shower and I want to go to bed.”

“What about dinner?” George asked and picked up the cold pizza tray. “You want to heat this in the microwave?” 

Marian baulked as her stomach lurched. “No. I’m okay. I’m not hungry.”

“You’ve already eaten?” 

“I… I’m just not hungry. Emma, get your butt in here and help your brother! Any more arguing and the X-Box goes on eBay.” 

She padded down the hall to the bathroom, closed the door and undressed. A livid, purple bruise blossomed beneath her ribcage, and she grimaced both in pain and at the memory. She stripped out of her blouse and saw a dark stain on the cuff, tutted and ran it under the cold tap. 


Sara pressed the button with a pink polished fingernail and the espresso machine gurgled into life. The smell of finely ground and over-priced organic coffee wafted through the impeccable kitchen. 

“So, how are you?” Sara asked, placing a full mug on the breakfast bar. “It feels like weeks since I’ve last seen you.”

Marian took a careful sip before replying. The coffee was strong and very hot. “I think it has been weeks. I’ve been so busy lately. Work, home, the kids, you know? Well, not the kids.” 

Sara was, as she had once put it, ‘deliciously child and husband-free, and absolutely zero regrets.’ Marian wondered if that was why, at fifty-two and almost ten years older than her, her friend still frequently looked ten years younger. Far fewer wrinkles for a start. Not a hint of any grey hairs. 

“Can I ask you a personal question?” 

Sara peered at her over the top of her mug. “Of course you can, darling. Ask away.” 

“How old were you when you started going through the change?”

“The change? You mean menopause?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not a dirty word you know, darling.”

“I know. Sorry. Silly of me.”

Sara put down her mug and knitted her fingers in her lap. “I was forty-six when I first noticed it. My God, I was so tired and slow all the time, I felt like a bloody slug.” She chuckled. “I must have gone through seven or eight cups of coffee a day and I was still utterly exhausted. Then the insomnia hit around the same time and I was lucky if I got four hours of good sleep a night. I think the hot flashes were a comfort, to be honest; I’d convinced myself there must be something terribly wrong with me, that maybe I was dying, but my doctor said it was all perfectly normal. 

“Why do you ask? You’re not there already, are you? You’re only, what? Forty-one?”

“Forty-three,” Marian corrected. “I’m not sure. I definitely feel different.”

“That seems rather early, but then I knew a girl at university who started in her twenties. Mother Nature can be so unkind to some of us. So, what is it? Irregular periods? Boobs hurting more? Oh no, you’re not leaking when you sneeze, are you? ‘Squat, not bend,’ is what I tell all my lady friends. You want to keep your pelvic floor in good shape.”

“No. This is more…” Marian paused, unsure how much to admit. “Well, hair changes, for one.”

“Going grey, you mean?”

“Hair in unusual places, mostly. And a lot of it.”

Sara sipped coffee and nodded sagely. “That’s normal. You should see the length of the ones I pluck out of my chin. It’s like a magician’s handkerchief trick. They just keep on coming!”

“Umm, I can smell things a lot more strongly than I used to. Perfume. Cutlery. People smell different.”

“Also, not unusual. That’s hormones for you.”

“I suppose. But I get so angry sometimes. I mean, irrationally so. Little things set me off and I can’t control myself. And then after, it’s like I can’t even remember what got me so worked up.”

Sara reached out and patted her arm. “Darling, you have to think of this as a second puberty. I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but your body is going through some massive changes and not all of them are fun. But think of the freedom you’ll have afterwards.” She wriggled in her seat and grew suddenly animated. “Do you know the best thing about being a woman over forty, Marian?”

“Umm… Better life stability?”

“No! You have no more fucks left to give!” Marian laughed despite herself. It was hard to imagine Sara ever giving any fucks unless she chose to. 

“You can be yourself, Marian,” Sara continued. “Unapologetically. No more squeezing yourself into boxes that don’t fit that someone else has built for you. No more caring if you’re too fat or too thin or if you’re ‘pretty’ enough. You can stop doing all that pointless, time-consuming grooming that society says you should, just so you can be seen as ‘desirable’. Fuck it, I say! Let it all hang out and who cares what anyone else thinks!” Sara pointed at her excitedly. “Let me tell you, darling, women over forty are terrifying. In a good way! We are fierce and vibrant, and we don’t worry about taking up space. Embrace that! Believe me, it’s refreshing.

“Not to mention, sex is so much better when you don’t have to worry about pregnancy anymore.” She winked and Marian blushed. 

“I just have no frame of reference for this stuff.”

“What about your mother? When did she go through it?”

“I’ve no idea. My parents split up around that time and she took herself solo around the world on ‘a journey of self-discovery,’ as she called it.”

“Good for her,” Sara said, and raised her mug as if making a toast. “And what about Grandma?” 

“Similar sort of story. She left Grandpa on his own and went away to take care of her sick sister. I know it’s strange, but I don’t know what experiences they had.” 

“You’ve never talked about it?”

“No. We’re not that kind of family.”

Sara fiddled with her necklace absentmindedly. “Well, maybe it’s time you are. You never know, Mum might have some useful insights.” 


Marian stared at the words on her mobile, trying to make sense of what they said. She’d thought it best to try sending a text first. Her mother had a habit of manipulating telephone calls and steering the conversation how she wanted it. A text had seemed easier. More to the point. 

“Hi Mum. How are you? Sorry it’s been a while,” she’d typed. “I was wondering, can I talk to you about what you went through with the change? I think I might have started it myself.” 

She hadn’t expected such a speedy reply, and certainly not such an odd one. 

“Oh, dear. I’d hoped it would skip you.”

She’d replied straight away, “What do you mean?” 

Five minutes passed, but no response. With shaking hands, although she wasn’t sure why, she pulled up her mother’s number and pressed dial. The line rang and rang but remained unanswered. 

“Damn it! What are you playing at, Mum?”

“Call me, please,” she messaged back, before tucking the phone into a sports belt at her waist and pushing her headphones into her ears. It was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon. A run would help clear her mind.

She pulled on her sneakers, tied the laces tight and adjusted the hems of her leggings. The local park was only ten minutes away; she could take a brisk walk through suburbia and then run laps on the green. Five K to begin, maybe push it to ten if she still had something left in the tank. Her usual weekend exercise.

Lately, though, even ten K had felt easy. Her body felt stronger and more capable of being pushed to harder limits. She was curious just how long could she keep going. Before it felt even close to a challenge. 

She called out a goodbye to Emma and Paul and pulled the front door closed. All she had seen of George since she’d returned from Sara’s was his feet underneath the family SUV. He had grunted a half-hearted greeting and then sworn as he dropped his spanner. It had seemed best to leave him to it. 

Her walk had warmed her body up nicely by the time she reached the park gates. Surprisingly for such a lovely day, the green was almost empty. An older couple were walking together, and a young woman was doing timed sprints. She chose her favourite playlist on her phone, hit play, and began to run.

She was three laps down when she noticed him. A movement in the corner of her left eye.

He was running, not quite beside her, trying to match her pace. She was faster than he was with an easy rhythm, but him being so close made her wary. She sped up to increase the distance between them. He faltered for a second before doing the same, and she felt a nervous flutter in her stomach. As she ran, she scanned the park for other people. The older couple were over on the other side now, and the woman appeared to have left. She glanced to her side to see his mouth move and realised he was trying to talk to her. She gestured to her headphones and shook her head, not even breaking her stride. Even this didn’t dissuade him. 

He was younger than her, mid-thirties, she supposed. Stocky and broad-shouldered, with long, blonde hair scraped back into a messy topknot. He wore a black singlet and baggy shorts, both of which showed off his impressive physique. 

A gym rat, she guessed, from his bulging muscles. Biceps and quadriceps gained from lifting weights, not from running laps. Nonetheless, he was clearly a capable runner, and eager to make her acquaintance. 

A few meters from the gate, she slowed and stopped, hoping he would carry on without her. Instead, he stopped too and carried on talking, standing far closer than she was comfortable. She yanked the headphones from her ears, felt her body tremble with adrenaline. 

“Step back!” she ordered him.

He continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “—because your form is amazing and—” 

“I said, step back!” she repeated, holding out her arm. This time he reacted. 

“Woah, hold on. I was just…”

“I don’t care what you were doing. I was running and you got in my space. This park is massive, and you had no reason to do that. Now leave me alone and let me run in peace.”

“Jesus, lady. What’s wrong with you? I was complimenting you.”

“Yeah. I don’t need your compliments, thanks.”

She saw the change in his eyes, in his posture.

“Whatever. Fucking bitch.” He leaned forward and spat a glob of white foam. She watched as it arced, almost in slow motion, before coming to rest on her shoe. 

She couldn’t hear what it was he said after that over the shrill ringing that filled her ears. 

A red wave of rage rose and surged, filling her every muscle and sinew. Her heart boomed a heavy, hollow echo, deep inside her chest. She clenched her fists and tensed her jaw. All involuntary, uncontrollable reactions. Her skin felt taut, like a too-small jacket, restricting her every move. She longed to peel it off.

She could smell the stink of him filling the air, a heady mixture of musk and sweat. And something else, something rancid and overpowering. A scent that triggered startling emotions. Urges that she didn’t expect. 

“I really wish you hadn’t done that,” she growled, trying to keep her voice steady. There was no one else in the park now. Only him and her, alone. “I wish you’d just stepped back.” 


George and Paul had gone out to the hardware store by the time Marian returned home. Emma was engrossed in a teen drama on the TV and hardly bothered to acknowledge her presence. She hurried to the kitchen and flung open the fridge, ripping at the first packet she found. The cellophane tore and she bit into the contents; the juices dribbling down her chin. She sank to her knees and sprawled on the floor, chewing loudly, and groaning with pleasure. A noise from the doorway made her jump.

“Mum? Are you okay? Is that…?”

She realised, as if for the first time, what she was holding. Beefsteak. Bloody and completely raw, almost entirely devoured.

“Don’t worry, Emma,” she replied, her mouth crammed with chunks of unswallowed meat. “This happened when I was pregnant too. It’s just the change, you know? It’s just hormones.”


The alley by her office was cordoned off with yellow police tape when she arrived at work on Monday. Phyllis had texted to warn her, to tell her to use the back entrance through the takeaway. She held her breath as she walked; the stench of old oil made her feel sick. Phyllis greeted her at the door to the office. Her boss smelled even stronger than usual. 

“What happened out there?” Marian asked.

“Oh, it’s terrible. They found a body in the dumpster in the alley. The Sergeant said they’d probably been there all weekend. He wants us to make a statement in case we saw anything.” She paused, peering intently at Marian. “Did you see anything? When you left on Friday?”

“No. Nothing,” Marian lied, feeling the guilt rush to her cheeks. “So, what do they think? Drug addict? Homeless person? There’s a lot of both in this area.”

Phyllis’ face fell deadly serious. “They think it’s a murder.”

“A murder?” Marian put her handbag on the edge of her desk. “Gosh. What makes them think that?”

“Whoever it was, had been ripped to shreds. Deep cuts all over their face and neck. Their throat torn out as if by a wild animal. I saw fingers on the floor, bitten off at the knuckles. Black holes where their eyes should have been.” 

Marian squirmed uncomfortably. “How do you know all this?”

“I found the remains of them earlier this morning before I called it in. Anonymously, of course.”

“Oh, Phyllis! That must have been awful. Are you alright?”

“Of course I am. I’ve seen far worse.” 

“You’ve seen…” Marian trailed off as Phyllis took her hand in hers. 

“It’s okay, Marian. Whatever it was he did to you, I’m sure he deserved everything he got.”

“I don’t understand…” Marian began.

“Believe me, it took me by surprise too when it happened, but I can assure you, it gets better.”

“What gets better?” 

“The change, Marian! It happens to us all one way or another. Just for some of us, it’s a little more intense.” Phyllis stared at her. “Didn’t your mother talk to you about all this?”

Marian sighed. “No. She won’t even talk to me about it now.”

“Fourteen years you’ve been here, Marian, and I have loved every single moment of working with you. I suspected, of course, when I first met you. Your distinctive smell for a start.”

“My smell?” Marian parroted, incredulously. 

Phyllis smiled slowly and wafted a hand under her nose. “Breath in,” she said. Marian inhaled. There was that unmistakable musky aroma that she always noticed when Phyllis was around. Only now she recognised what it was. What it meant to her.

“Oh. You’re…” Marian began, and Phyllis nodded. 

“Come with me,” she said. “Let’s sit down together and have a nice cup of tea. It can be so difficult, going through this stage of life. Especially alone. I think it’s time someone told you the truth.” 

“Little Teeth” (short story, body horror)

First published in Twisted Anatomy, Sci-Fi & Scary, 2021 
https://www.amazon.com.au/Twisted-Anatomy-Body-Horror-Anthology-ebook/dp/B08TGCND39

Republished in Reflections, Wild Wood Books, 2022

eBook free to download at:
BookFunnel: BookHip.com/HCZWBQW
Smashwords: bit.ly/TWreflections

Content warnings: depicts body horror, dental trauma and self-harm, profane language


Her tongue finds it first, by accident, as she runs it, absentminded, across her gums. It feels massive, a gigantic protrusion. An unexpected fresh addition in her mouth, nestled behind her front tooth. 

She turns to the mirror, wide and backlit by an array of high-strength bulbs. She opens her mouth and leans back, back. So far, it feels uncomfortable. But even at this angle, she can’t see. She rummages in her handbag for her powder compact, puts the second mirror to her mouth, and tilts it to forty-five degrees. She peers at her reflection; searching, intent. Then she spots it. A tiny, white pustule, no bigger than a pinhead, poking through the pink skin of her palate. She picks at it with a fingernail, curious but perturbed. It’s something new. Something wrong. Something… alien.

“Katy, what the hell are you doing in there?” A shout of frustration is echoed by a thump, an assault on the hardwood of the door. “Damn it, Katy. You’re already late. Come on!” 

Daniel, her long-time assistant and onetime bed-fellow. Much more than a lover, but not quite a true friend. Their relationship is complicated by work. He is diligent and useful but always so anxious. Such a slave to the clock and calendar. She suspects that he’s in love with her, but she doesn’t feel the same. She can’t bring herself to lower her boundaries. To give someone else her trust. 

She grimaces and presses her lips tight together, then closes her eyes and exhales. She will take exactly as long as she needs. She can’t be late, it’s simply impossible. The show cannot start without its star. 

She brushes an imaginary speck off her pantsuit and checks the line of her scarlet lipstick. She runs her fingers through her dyed blonde hair, and flicks her head so it cascades around her shoulders. These are meaningless gestures, of course. She looks totally fine, perfect even. The flawless, gorgeous face of ‘Petals and Pearls’ cosmetics. Well… ex-face. Now, the inimitable Katy du Campos; talk show host, actress, television producer and celebrity. 

“Katy! Get out, now!”

She unlocks the door and opens it and is greeted by a raised fist. Daniel yelps and pulls back mid-knock, thrusts his palms to his sides.

“Darling!” she says, with saccharine sweetness, laced with a deliberate smile. “Whatever are you so wound up about? I’m right here.”

Daniel groans and waves a piece of paper in her face.

“D’Nae is waiting onstage already. Tarah Johnson, the writer, is next, and then you’ve got a heart-to-heart interview with…”

“With Sir Robert Flanagan. Yes, darling. I know my schedule.” She sweeps past him in a wave of warm scent and soft fabric and pauses before she heads to the stage door. “Oh, Daniel, could you be a dear and book me in to see Frederick as soon as possible?” 

Daniel stalls, his expression blank. She sighs. 

“My dentist, Daniel. Thank you.” Then she turns and struts away down the hallway. 

The strange lump is not bothersome, at least, it doesn’t hurt in any way, but she finds herself frequently pressing on it with the flat part of her tongue. It feels so much bigger than she knows it is, an intrusion in her personal space.

Daniel does his job and arranges an appointment, but Frederick Wahls is enjoying fine weather further south on his favourite golf course. There is a wait; five days. She is enraged. 

“God damn it, Daniel! Five days? Five fucking days!”

“He’s in another State, Katy. What do you expect me to do? Demand he cuts his vacation short just for you?” 

“I expected you to express the urgency, Daniel. To do your damn job! Not blithely assume that five days is an acceptable delay. For God’s sake…” 

“I’m sorry…” he begins, but she raises her palm as well as her eyebrows and he falls into a guilty silence. 

“Enough. I suppose I shall simply have to wait, won’t I? No thanks to you.” She waves to the door, dismissing him. Doesn’t even watch him leave. 

She pours herself a glass of neat Scotch, sips it, and runs her tongue around her mouth. The lump has grown, almost pea-sized now, and appears to be echoed by a second. Tiny, yet solid. A faint swelling behind her incisor.  

At least it’s hidden inside, she thinks, as she drains the glass in one deep swallow. No one else can see that it’s there. Nobody knows but me.

Three days until her appointment and she knows she can’t wait any longer. Five lumps of various shapes and sizes crowd together on the roof of her mouth. It’s too much. She cannot bear it. 

Daniel calls the practice again for her. There is another dentist she can see as an emergency patient. To hell with the cost. She accepts the appointment, and in a few hours, she is lying backwards in a black, vinyl chair. 

The dentist, Erin, is young and pretty. Barely a few years older than Katy’s own daughter. Around the same age as her ex-husband’s new wife. Her teeth are so perfect and so blindingly white, they look almost unreal. Katy hears the snap of latex gloves, prepares herself for their touch. She’s always detested the feel of them. Clammy without being wet. When they catch her lips and brush her cheeks, it sets her teeth on edge. It’s a visceral feeling she can’t control. It makes her want to vomit. 

“Okay, Katy, if you can just relax and open up a little wider for me?” The dentist rubs her fingers across the nodules. Katy breathes deeply and tries not to recoil. Resists the urge to bite down. Next comes a succession of lights and mirrors, of tools and more exploratory touch. Finally, satisfied, Erin rights the chair and brings Katy up to her level. She removes the gloves and tosses them in the trash, then flashes her sparkling grin. 

“Well, Katy, the good news is I don’t think this is anything to worry about. It appears you are experiencing some kind of hyperdontia.” She sees Katy’s confusion and explains. “It’s when you grow some extra teeth. But these aren’t real teeth. These are more what we would call microdonts. They share some physical similarities with fully formed teeth, but they don’t have quite the same root structure. We’ll take an X-ray just to be sure, and I suspect the next step will be a simple extraction.”

Katy listens, but the words confuse her. Erin’s voice seems odd and unclear, like she’s speaking from the bottom of the ocean. New teeth. Growing new teeth. She fumbles for the words she needs. 

“How is this even possible?” she asks. “I’m forty-seven, for Heaven’s sake. I’m far too old to be growing teeth!” 

Erin chuckles. “Not at all. There are quite a few reasons why it might occur. Do you have any underlying conditions? Any genetic disorders or the like?”

Now it’s Katy’s turn to laugh as she says, “Good God, no. Absolutely not.” She’s in fine health. There’s nothing underlying in her.

The dentist’s expression turns suddenly strange, like she’s swallowed something distasteful. Katy wonders what she’s said that could have possibly offended her. But it passes swiftly, and the girl smiles again.

“Okay, well, let’s do an X-ray and we can get a better idea of what’s going on.” She holds out a small metal pan and gestures to the diamonds in Katy’s ears. “I’m going to need you to remove your jewellery, please.”

“Oh,” Katy says, and puts her hands to the studs. “I’ve never had to take them out before.”

“That’s probably because you only had bite-wing X-rays previously. I’d like to do a full, extra-oral one to check out your whole jaw. I’m afraid your earrings might affect the results. They could hide things we need to see.”

Katy plucks at the backs with nervous fingers. These adornments aren’t just any old studs, they are valued antiques. Her ex had gifted them to her on their third wedding anniversary. Two carat princess-cut diamonds set in fourteen carat white gold. Twelve thousand dollars’ worth of sophistication and style. He’d wanted them back in the messy divorce, but Judge Henson had overruled him. It was an amusing, joyous win for her, and a slap in the face for him. She is reticent to remove them, and she certainly won’t entrust them to a stranger. Sticky fingers might be tempted to touch what’s not theirs. Lessons learned from leaving items in old dressing rooms. 

“I’d rather keep them in.”

“I’m concerned we might not get a clear picture. You can hold on to them yourself if you prefer?”

“No. They stay in,” she says resolutely, and glares at Erin, daring the girl to counter her decision. It’s the principle of the thing that matters to her. The dentist nods, tight-lipped. 

“Okay. That’s your choice,” she says. “Now, if you’d follow me to the X-ray room?” 

They walk together down the corridor. Erin moves faster, a few paces ahead. The radiography machine is much larger than Katy is expecting. She is required to stand in front of it while its structure surrounds her head. It feels ridiculous and more than a little claustrophobic. 

“You said you were forty-seven?” Erin asks her.

“Yes.”

“So, no chance of pregnancy?” The question stings, although Katy isn’t sure if it’s meant to. You’re old, it says. Washed up and infertile. No room in that womb for new life. More than that, it’s a sharp reminder that she’s never had that experience, and now she never will. Too posh to push, but a mother nonetheless. Mellie was born via a surrogate. She’s often wondered if that’s why they’d struggled to connect. Why the girl always seemed to prefer her father. 

“No,” she replies through gritted teeth. “I’m not pregnant.” Erin nods and moves her gently closer to the machine.

“Stay still,” she says, and Katy hears the low hum of what she assumes is the machine powering up. Then Erin leaves the room and there’s a heavy clunk and more noise, but this time it’s like a haze of sound. She’s disoriented for a moment, feels pressure in her head, then Erin’s cupped hands on her shoulders.

“Katy? Miss du Campos? Are you okay?” 

“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” The dentist’s face seems somewhat pale. Her tone is different. Concerned.

“Come on back to my room, Katy,” she says quietly. “We need to discuss your X-ray.”

Daniel arrives in a private car, not one sent by the studio. She called him, not knowing who else to trust. Hysteria makes her voice sound shrill. He’s never heard her unravel quite like this, and he comes as quickly as he can. He runs red lights and pushes the speed limit. Skids as he takes corners in the rain. 

She is waiting down the street from the dental clinic, sheltered from the weather beneath an awning, and smoking a menthol cigarette. She flicks the end with a nervous thumbnail, and a grey snake of ash falls to the ground. 

“I thought you’d quit?” Daniel comments.

“I thought I had too,” she replies, and puts herself in the passenger side of the car. He is surprised. She usually prefers the back seat. “Come on,” she urges, and he joins her, taking his place behind the wheel. 

They drive in silence but for the swish of the wipers sweeping away the drizzle off the glass. He finds the quiet disconcerting. She’s never normally lost for words. He clears his throat and attempts a conversation.

“So, do you want to talk about it?” he asks.

“About what?” she replies and averts her gaze. 

“Whatever it is, that’s got you so upset.”

“I’m not upset. Why would you say I’m upset?”

“Katy, please. I know you. Just… Know that I’m listening, okay?” 

She chews a hangnail absentmindedly. Yelps when she pulls it too close to the quick. He can see the tension in her shoulders. The muscles in her jaw pulse and twitch. 

“Katy…?”

“I’m fine, Daniel. Really.” 

The rainfall grows heavier, leaving patterns on the windows as the droplets race down the glass. She watches the rivulets run into one another, like the thin tears rolling down her cheeks. 

She remembers the image the dentist had shown her. The shock and surprise in her voice. The X-ray, which Katy could scarcely believe was real, let alone belonging to her. It was like something from a freak show in a carnival. From an Internet hoax, intended to disturb. From the very worst horror movie she’d ever seen. So grotesque, it couldn’t possibly be true. 

The image; her jaw in black and white, teeming with unusual white space. Rows upon rows of tiny tooth buds scattered inside her skull. Clusters layered within her jaw. Circling both nasal cavities. They were there, in her bones, waiting to erupt. Like parasites buried in her head. 

The house is quiet when she enters, made dark and still by the storm. Hestia and Artemis, her two Blue Pointed Siamese, are curled up asleep in their basket, oblivious to her return. She sent Daniel away as soon as she could. Not ready to talk. To remember.

Her smartwatch vibrates on her wrist and she flinches, but it’s just a reminder alarm. Time for her daily vitamins. An attempt to stay healthy and well. 

Mellie always said that they were useless. A waste of money. A con. 

“Eat less crap, and move your body more,” she’d said scornfully. “That’s the key to a good life, Mother. Not these stupid, expensive placebos.” But Mellie was still in her twenties, and for her, looking good was almost effortless. Such careless ease was just a memory to Katy. Good genes could only go so far. It took piles of money and lots of hard work to maintain her flawless appearance. 

 A well-meaning acquaintance at the studio had found her this particular brand. Only the purest organic ingredients. The best supplement money could buy. High in calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. All essential for women her age. But the real beauty, the woman had told her, was their secret, unique formula; an elixir that could regenerate old bone. And the proof certainly seemed to be in the pudding. The woman’s hair was thick, shiny and lustrous, and her skin was so clear and dewy it almost seemed to glow. She was lithe and supple, her movements graceful. She didn’t make any of those strange, strangled noises like Katy often did when she stood up after she’d been sitting for too long. 

Katy had been immediately envious. She knew the woman had eight years on her but could easily pass for ten younger. She’d bought the entire selection, taken double the recommended dose. She’d been far too gullible, too trusting. Impatient to reap the rewards. 

And now? Could they be the cause of her misery? She regards the two pink pills in her palm and tips them back into the bottle. She takes her phone from her handbag and scrolls through her contacts. Finds the one she needs. The line rings and rings but doesn’t connect. An automated voicemail springs to life, and she speaks as requested after the beep.

“Helen? Hi! This is Katy. Katy du Campos. We met at the studio. I’m just…” she trails off. Just what? 

Just calling to see if those pills we’re both taking have turned you into a medical anomaly? A freak of nature? A monster? 

No. 

Just wanted to know if you knew the risks? Or if maybe you lied to me and sold me down the river, you washed-up, jealous, old bitch? 

Definitely not. 

“Never mind. Call me.” She says. She puts the phone down on the breakfast bar and tries to will her heartbeat to slow down. Around and around her gums, her tongue goes, and she feels the irregularities in her skin. Counts them… One… Two… Five… Thirteen… Some tiny, some not so much. 

“Like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Erin had said. Complex odontoma. Teratomas. A monstrous tumour. Then the C word no one ever wants to hear. Finally, talk of an operation. Of removal. Of some further study. And she had practically run from the clinic right then. The hideous image of the X-ray burned in her mind. 

She pours a drink and runs her fingers through her hair. Tries to smooth away some of her tension. Her left eye feels scratchy, as if irritated by an eyelash. She rubs it with a fingertip and freezes. In the corner, near the tear duct, she feels something solid. She screams like her life is in danger.

Daniel tries to call her multiple times through the evening and across the following two days. She doesn’t pick up. She can’t pick up. She spends the hours drowning in alcohol.

The dental clinic calls her too. They leave many messages that she won’t listen to. She deletes each one as they come in. She is terrified of what they might say. They’ll want to break her open, she knows. To cut into her face. 

She is startled in the morning by a buzz at the gate. She sees Daniel outside on the security camera feed, waving at the house.

“Go away,” she tells him over the intercom. “I want to be left alone.” But he refuses.

“If you won’t let me in, I’ll find a way to gain access, whether you like it or not,” he says. She doesn’t doubt it. He can be as stubborn as she is. 

He finds her in the dark with all the house blinds closed. A scarf has been thrown over the oversize mirror mounted in the open hallway. She has draped another over her head. She looks utterly ridiculous, he thinks. He notes the open and empty bottles, the cigarette butts crushed in a crystal bowl. He sees a metal toolbox on the floor by the fireplace. Open and spewing its contents. A hammer. Some pliers. A drill. There’s a pile of towels dumped on the floor too. Brown stains. Is that coffee? Or blood? 

“What the hell’s been going on, Katy? Why aren’t you answering your phone? I’ve had Stuart Valliant from the network breathing down my damn neck all of yesterday, and I had no idea what to tell him. I really hope you’ve got a good explanation!”

She makes her usual hand-raised gesture, demanding his silence and attention. He’s too angry, too confused, too tired to care. He’s had enough of her theatrics.

“And what the fuck is with the scarf on your face?” He goes to grab the material, to pluck it from her head, and she shies away from his touch. Her hip collides with the breakfast bar, and she grunts and stumbles before steadying herself. 

“Don’t,” she says, and her voice sounds strange. Muffled by the fabric, and something else. She sounds like his young nephew does when he sucks on a giant gobstopper. The candy too large for his mouth. 

“Are you sick?” He asks her, a little calmer. “Is that what’s wrong?” She nods and lets out a strangled cry.  

“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” 

She shakes her head and wrings her hands. “It won’t help,” she garbles. “It’s too late.” 

She removes a Marlboro from the carton with shaking fingers and goes to put it to her lips. But she forgets about the scarf that’s in the way. A silken barrier that denies her her craving. She throws the cigarette to the floor, enraged. 

“Katy,” Daniel says slowly. “I’m worried about you. Take the scarf off, please. Let me see?” She replies with a furious shake of her head and backs away from him, arms outstretched. “Come on, Katy! How bad can it be?”

“I wanted to take them out myself,” she mumbles. “I couldn’t bear it, you know? Them being there. All of them under my skin. And the itching and the pressure… Oh!” She grows more agitated as she speaks, paces back and forth. “I tried, Daniel. I really tried. But I can’t… I got one. Just one. But there’s so many more!”

“What is? What are you talking about?”

She picks up a glass and upends it. Tips something into her hand. She passes it to him, something small and hard. A tiny round shape in his palm.  

“Will you help me, Daniel? To get them all out?” And then he realises what she’s given him.

“A tooth? You took out a tooth?” But this is too small for an adult tooth. Perhaps it’s one of Mellie’s baby teeth she’s kept. But why? Is this a prank?

“What is this?” He demands. “What the fuck’s going on?” And she sighs deeply and pulls at the corner of the scarf. The material ripples and flows like water, revealing the horrors beneath. 

From every orifice, and across both of her cheeks, pale pustules erupt and spread. Her eyes are swollen, her lips malformed. Her nostrils are wide and stretched. What skin remains is pinched and torn, freckled by tiny, white dots. 

‘Will you help me?” she asks him a second time. Her jaw is crammed with lumps of enamel. Her tongue encrusted with pearls. 

A wave of uncontrollable nausea hits him. He vomits on the floor. On his shoes. 

“How?” he begins, but he can’t go on.

“The dentist, that new girl, she X-rayed me. I thought she was lying. I wanted her to be lying. Oh God, Daniel! If the press gets hold of that picture… You know I can’t let anyone see me like this. These things, they’re in here,” she says, pointing to her skull. “They’re growing. And I don’t know why!” 

She scurries to the fireplace and picks up the drill, proffers it to him with a misshapen smile. One eye is closed, the eyeball obscured, both lids weighted down and distended. He sees buds of ivory peek through her hair, a broad line of sharp points at her scalp. There’s a ragged hole in the lower part of her cheek, plugged with blood that has dried almost black. It looks like a grotesque beauty mark. A dark chasm from which her sanity has fled.  

“Help me, Daniel,” she pleads. “There’s just so many. I can’t… Please?” And he takes the drill from her hands. 

Love Song for the Dead

(First published The Dead Inside, 2022)


I put your letters in the closet 

with my old school shoes,

eleven years and seven moons ago.

I vowed to keep them hidden, 

pushed as far back as they could go,

boxed up with the memories they held.

But memory finds me waiting, 

poised to act in haste and fear, and 

memory is a poison in my blood.

Like an infection in a wound 

that took too long to fully heal,

a kiss was all it took to make it spread.

A scorpion’s sting of devilry,

you found a chink and took the plunge,

pierced my armoured heart until I wept.

O, deliver me from evil. Scrub this stain,

sins of my past. Where am I now?

A million miles from where you left me. 

Abandoned at the roadside, 

tossed aside, dumped at the curb,

you ran alone and ran away. I couldn’t follow.

While you were hounded from your home

I held my tongue and closed my eyes, although…

the taste of you still lingered on my lips.

And shamed, I confessed all, 

to black ink pools, and shadowed graves.

I howled into the wind and cursed the night.

My pockets full of rocks, a weight that pressed, 

and I, undressed, prepared to walk, 

and send my bones beneath. But stalled.

Now, hush…

These secrets sewn in lips that lied, 

like I laid down beside you, 

I swiped the tears away and washed you clean.

Those faded scars upon my flesh –

a map that led me home again –

I built my dreams on stories that weren’t mine.

And he, with hands of stone and blood, 

became the wall around me, stood as a

protection and a curse; a hidden bruise.

I paid the toll with white lace hems, 

a hundred guests caught in pretence 

I held my breath and caged my wicked truth.

He hammered nails into my chest, 

my bed was made, and so I gave

my all as it was ever asked of me. 

He. Took. My. Very. Soul. From. Me.

Carved up, dug in, spooned out and hollowed,

Pumpkin, sweetie, honey pie…

“Bring me another beer. Bitch.”


And I, lost in my pain, looked up 

to find you come upon my step,

star-swaddled, haloed by a half-draped moon.

You took my hand and whispered,

“Run…” 

God knows I’ve made enough mistakes. But this?

Bar lights, Coors Lights, bright neon signs, 

flashing like a firework and a pulse inside my head, 

with a warmth upon my skin that spreads like oil.

A shark-toothed smile, a tilted head. 

But that’s not who I am now, did you forget?

You left me here to rot. 

And if he knows, if he finds out, 

it won’t be bruises, but hot copper in my mouth.

And fire burst between my legs, 

as he pummels all his hatred and

six drinks down, I know it’s time to 

Stop!

For all the words would ruin me,

and all the sins would burn me,

and God will never, ever take me back. 

Your dimples, crinkles, gold-flecked eyes,

Like hazel drowned in chocolate, I

yearn for that forbidden, shameful taste. 

You always brought such drama, and

I was drawn to the despair

The tragedy you craved a centre stage for.

You dressed everything in fantasy, 

I was just your Page,

but soft, you know full well how this must end.

“We won’t look back?” I ask you, 

and your answer strips me raw,

we leave that place united, star-crossed lovers evermore.

See now, a mouth filled with surprise 

and questions left unanswered. 

A blade is buried in the flesh, 

clear water blessed with blood.

In black ink pools, a shadowed grave, 

a body buried under.

Like letters hidden, tucked away, 

boxed up and bound with tape,

my old school shoes are long gone now

sunk deep beneath the lake.

Sir Julius Vogel Awards—finalist!

I was delighted to receive an email this afternoon to let me know that I am a Sir Julius Vogel Award finalist for the 4th year running!

This year I have been successful in two categories:

Best Collected Work: Reflections

Best Fan Writing: “No Horror Without the Body: How Body Horror Helped Me Embrace Being Nonbinary”

The finalists will be voted on by members of SFFANZ and the winners announced at a ceremony later this year.

This also means that all of my self-published collections are SJV finalists!

Short Story: “Long Drop”

To celebrate SEEDS receiving its (amazing!) third award nomination of the year, this time from the Ladies of Horror Fiction for Best Collection, I have decided to make one of the most talked about and much-loved stories in the collection free-to-read for a limited time.

Edit: this story was also selected at the very end of 2022 as a finalist for the Emeka Walter Dinjos Memorial Award for Disability in Speculative Fiction. https://file770.com/announcing-the-emeka-walter-dinjos-memorial-award-for-disability-in-speculative-fiction/

Described by author and editor Steve Dillon, who first published it in 2020 as “strange but beautiful,” “Long Drop” had been in my head for a while before I wrote it down, probably since I first visited New Zealand and experienced using these terrifying outside toilets myself. While it does indeed include some scary monsters, the story itself is about resilience, family and fresh starts—finding strength in dark times (literally and mentally) and overcoming your greatest fears. 

Content warnings:

  • Traumatic childhood experiences 
  • Divorce and parental guilt 

© Copyright Tabatha Wood, 2021
This story is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. No reproduction may be made, by any means, unless a licence has been obtained from the publisher or its agent.

First published in Outback Horrors Down Under, Things in the Well Press, 2020
Reprinted in SEEDS, Wild Wood Books, 2021


Many hours have passed since we first set out, yet we have a long journey still ahead of us. The sun has shrunk and slipped down past our backs, letting twilight take over as our guide. We have travelled a labyrinth of unknown roads. Blue lines on the map like swollen veins as Aotearoa pulls us closer to its heart. I’ve been driving too long, overdue for a break. I pull over by the edge of the highway.

Away from the car, I breathe deeply, inhaling the scent of the earth. The air sings softly in a rolling sigh, high notes of the summer’s end. Here, Mother Nature swaddles the countryside in a blanket of her own making. Her patchwork pieces are bound and sewn, pulled tight with living threads. Every tree and leaf is a fevered stitch, embroidered on the tapestry of the land.

I am at peace here. I belong. I—

“Mummy! I need a wee!”

I am snatched from my moment of blissful calm and plunged back into reality. My stomach lurches and sinks to my groin. I feel tired, as I have for so long now. A tiredness that resides in the marrow of my bones and cannot be relieved by sleep. A painful, ever constant knot of anxiety grips my stomach with a million claws. It feels like a tiny demon, desperate to be freed.

I look back to the car. I can see her wriggling in frustration, enraged by the restraints of her seat. She grumbles and moans as she plucks at the straps. Her mouth is ringed with melted chocolate, a pink slash in a thick, brown smear. It was a mistake for me to leave her unattended.

She pushes the fingers of one chubby hand through the open gap in the window and starts tugging on the edge of the glass. She is small but determined, and her anger makes her stronger. I take a final drag on my cigarette before stamping it out in the dirt. I give the view one last wistful, loving glance, trying to hold it like a snapshot in my mind, and trudge back to the car.

Be grateful for the little things. Remember these moments. Don’t take anything for granted.

My grandmama’s words. A storyteller, just like I used to be. Always seeking out a fairy tale, hearing whispers on the wind.

I press the button on the key fob to unlock the car doors. I join her on the back seat and start cleaning her face with a wet wipe.

“Hi, sweetie,” I begin, trying to keep my tone soft, as mellow as I can. “You know, we’re out in the middle of nowhere here. You’ll have to go in the bushes, I’m afraid.”

She begins to whine, just as I feared she would. 

“No, Mummy! I can’t! You know I can’t do it outside!”

“I’m sorry, my love, but there’s not much choice. Not unless you can hold on and I can drive a bit further? Maybe we can find a toilet somewhere?”

She glares, swallows a giant gulp of air and holds it defiantly. Her cheeks puff out and her face turns bright red. I hate it when she does this. Her way of protesting when I do something she doesn’t like. Of holding me to ransom until I surrender to her demands. I need to intervene, and quickly. I bring up the maps app on my phone, use my thumb to scroll around the local area.

“Look, honey, there’s a look-out point a little further along this road. Overlooking a waterfall. There might be something you can use there. How does that sound?”

She flares her nostrils and her eyeballs bulge. I know she is only moments from a full meltdown.

Keep calm. Keep calm. Breathe…

“Come on, sweetie,” I plead. “You’re a big girl now. You can hold on a little while longer, can’t you?”

She locks eyes with me and narrows the lids. It is a competition now, to see who can be the most stubborn. She knows that if she digs her heels in, I will have little choice but to acquiesce. Alternatively, if she agrees to my suggestion, she will lose this battle, but will not have to suffer the gross indignity of urinating outside. I am grateful that she seems to have grown out of deliberately wetting herself to punish me. Even for her, that was a step too far.

I watch her. Thinking. Eventually, she exhales and breathes normally again. Her cheeks return to their usual colour.

“Okay, Mummy. Fine,” she huffs. “But you need to drive quick. Really, really quick!”

I nod and smile and strap myself in. I avoid looking at her in the rear-view mirror for fear my fake smile might betray me. That I might show the frustration and despair I feel. I don’t tell her the public convenience is most likely to be a long drop all the way out here. A pit toilet. Nothing more than a deep hole dug in the ground connected to a U-shaped seat. I know she won’t like it any more than doing her business amongst nature. I hope I can distract her. I pray I can keep her calm.

I start to drive. I can hear her humming to herself, the same tune over and over again. Some nonsensical ditty about a baby shark. I recognise it as a song from a TV show, watched on repeat until I felt like screaming. Felt like it, but never did. I would swear she knew, I would see it in her eyes, watching my reactions and the changes in my face. Jonah had always told me to ignore such behaviour. He made me feel like I should be grateful. At least those insipid videos kept her from flying into a rage. Her frequent, violent outbursts. Not that he ever experienced them as I did. No, for him she’d been a Golden Child. A perfect Daddy’s girl. She’d always been so very well behaved when he was around. It makes me sad he isn’t anymore.

I wonder if he’d believed me when I told him about the things she did.

“I fell in love with you for your imagination,” he said, not long before he left. “But you have to embellish everything. You can’t ever just let things be.”

It was easier for him to call me a liar. So much harder to face the truth.

My eyes mist over with emotion. This road is twisty and unfamiliar to me, and I blink and try to focus up ahead. I spy the brown sign as I guide the car around another corner:

Scenic lookout 400m on left.

I slow down and indicate. There’s nothing behind me. Not a single vehicle has passed us in over thirty minutes, but ten years of city driving has ensured the habit is ingrained.

“Not much longer now, baby. Are you okay?”

She ignores me completely and carries on humming, perhaps a little louder. I glance into the rear-view mirror; her eyes are closed, her head tilted back. She appears oblivious to everything around her, unaware even of me.

I take the slip road and head for the rough gravel carpark. It’s empty like the highway. The car skids a little on the loose stones as the tyres lose their grip. I see a wooden shack at the end of the path. A blue sign mounted on the side confirms it as a toilet, and I park as close to it as I can. She is surprisingly heavy for her small size. I won’t be able to carry her far.

I kill the engine, get out, and open the rear side door. She pulls at the seatbelt and jiggles impatiently as I unclip her and lean inside. I slip one arm underneath her legs, the other around her shoulders. I breathe heavily as I struggle to lift her to my chest. She could help me, make this farce a little easier, but she never does. Instead, she lets herself become dead weight, her face so blank it might as well be wooden.

There is nothing physically wrong with her. She could walk quite well if she chose to. She has simply chosen not to.

Every doctor Jonah and I approached declared her fit and healthy. No underlying cause or problems with her legs. She had merely decided one grey, wind-swept morning, at age three and a half, that she would no longer walk. Not just that, she would not crawl, roll, or otherwise move herself anywhere. Instead, she screamed and raged and thrashed around until someone picked her up and carried her to wherever she wanted to be. Someone being me.

That was almost three years ago. I’ve been carrying her ever since.

Jonah bought her a wheelchair, perhaps hoping it might spark some surge of independence, but she refused to use it unless he was there too, and it was not possible for him to be there all the time. 

Things changed. The myriad of life’s pressures ground our relationship to dust. He fell in and then out of love. We are not his only family now.

I grunt with exertion as I slide her across the seat and towards the open door. She is still humming, but at least her eyes are open now. She fixes me with a dead-eyed stare and does nothing to help me at all. Her arms flop, fishlike, against her sides and I have to pull them around my shoulders as if manhandling an oversize rag doll. I feel my muscles scream as my back is jarred and my neck is twisted to one side.

Give me strength, I mutter. Please, God. Give me strength.

At last, I get her out of the car, and she holds on to me, albeit half-heartedly. I dropped her once by accident, and it surprised us both. She was unhurt, although the fury she unleashed might have suggested otherwise. Ever since, she loops both arms around my neck and locks the fingers of both hands together, just like the long-limbed plush monkey she has, with Velcro patches on its paws. She tries to make it seem like she is indifferent, but I know that’s not true. She doesn’t trust me not to let her fall again. I understand. Sometimes I’m not so sure I trust myself.

I step backwards and push the door closed with my hip. The key fob is buried deep in my pocket and I struggle to lock the car. It’s illogical, I know. We are the only ones here. But we have all our luggage stuffed in the boot and spread across the back seats. Our whole life is crammed in this shiny blue Mazda, and I don’t want to take any chances. My therapist tells me I worry too much, but I don’t know how else to be.

Jonah is in Auckland, at the top of the North Island. He’s found us a brand-new house. It’s a mere three minutes away from where his new wife lives with their newborn twins. I don’t blame him for leaving us. We could never have been what he wanted, but I couldn’t let him just walk away. She’s his daughter too.

A new house is only part of the deal. He has promised me help, and regular respite. Something he never gave me before. It is a fresh start and a brand-new life. Of course, there were bound to be obstacles.

She refused to fly. There was absolutely no way I could get her on a plane without resorting to some level of sedation. As tempting as that initially seemed, I could not bring myself to do it. She would know what I’d done, and I feared the repercussions. I doubt I could have handled my guilt. Instead, we compromised; Jonah agreed to hire a car, and I agreed to drive. Six hundred and fifty kilometres. Over eight hours on the road. I could have broken it up, stayed a night in a motel, but that wouldn’t have gone smoothly either.

We set off at eight this morning. We still have a long way to go. It is already getting dark, thanks to the clocks going back. I have no choice, I’ll have to drive through the night.

Like an awkward, unsteady Madonna with child, I stumble slightly as my feet slip on the gravel. Her humming skips a beat. Perhaps she is fearful of another imminent tumble, but I remain upright and head slowly towards the shack. The air feels heavy, just like her. I wheeze with each step as I walk. I shouldn’t smoke so much, I know. Another mess Jonah got me into.

A skittering and rustling is coming from the bushes, an animal of some sort, I assume. A possum perhaps, or a large, native bird, back late to its nesting spot. The leaves part briefly and then snap closed. I can see nothing further in the half-light.

We reach the wooden building and I use my foot to push open the door. It creaks a little, and offers some resistance, as if it were being pushed back on from the inside. I kick it harder and it swings free. There is no light inside. It takes a moment for my eyes to get used to the gloom and confirm what I suspected. A long drop. Not a bad one, however, with a decent seat and a reasonable supply of toilet paper. It could be so much worse.

“Okay, sweetie. Here we are. I’m going to put you down now and we can get you sorted.” I bend slightly and set her feet on the floor in front of the toilet. I feel her weight shift as she lets go. She wobbles slightly but stands upright. Her legs are weak, but they are not useless. They can still bear her weight.

She would often sneak around our old apartment when she thought I was asleep. I would lie in bed and listen to the muted rustle of her slippered tread scuffing the laminate floor. I could have caught her out, but why bother? Far less stressful for me to let her believe she had the upper hand.

I take my phone out of my pocket, switch on its torch and balance it on the toilet paper holder. Immediately, the shack is smothered in shadows. The tiny light is far too weak to fill the space. She stands motionless, watching me for a moment, before twisting her head to look behind her. I try to catch her cheek with my fingers, to stop her before she sees the drop, but I’m too slow. She starts to whine.

“No, Mummy! No!” she begins. I make soft hushing noises and use my open palms to stroke down the length of her bare arms. A soothing technique her therapist showed me. My futile attempt to keep her calm.

“I know, honey. It’s not ideal. But it’ll be okay. There is a seat and paper, and I can hold on to you until you’re done so you won’t fall. Just do what you need to do and we can get back on the road, huh? We can carry on with our journey to Daddy. You do want to see Daddy, don’t you?”

Her whine intensifies in both volume and pitch. I know from experience how loud she can get. How long she can go on for. I sigh. I don’t have time for this today. I squat down in front of her and take her hands in mine.

“Sweetie, it’s okay. Really it is. Look, I’ll go first and I’ll show you, okay?”

I move her to the side so I have access to the toilet seat. The toilet door rattles impatiently. I freeze and my heart thumps a scattered rhythm in my chest.

“It’s occupied,” I call to the darkness. “We won’t be long.” There comes no answer, only the echoes of the wind. I listen closely but hear nothing more. Satisfied that we’re alone, I unbutton my jeans and fumble with the zipper. I pull the denim down across my thighs and hook my thumbs over the sides of my underwear. She doesn’t watch. Her eyes are closed, her body rigid. She wails. A sustained, high-pitched tone that makes me want to cry out too. To moan and howl like a lonely wolf, my fragile heart broken into a thousand shards.

Sometimes I wonder, how does she maintain this noise? How does she manage to breathe and scream, seemingly at the same time? I raise my voice, hoping she can hear me.

“Look, honey. Watch what I do. It’s all fine.”

I squat over the seat. My thighs groan at the movement. I used to run up mountains when I was younger. Now I feel exhausted merely walking upstairs. I relax. The urine leaves me as a dribble at first, then follows in a steaming rush.

I’m not quite finished when I feel the clammy hands reach up and grab a hold of me.

I yell and shriek and lunge myself forwards. I stumble and bang one knee on the floor, both legs entangled in my clothes. I yank my underwear back over my hips, not caring that they are soiled. I pull my jeans up after them. I don’t have time to re-fasten the zipper before I see them; green, skeletal, crêpe-skinned fingers curling like fat spiders’ legs over the edge of the seat.

She stops wailing. She stands transfixed. Her eyes are painted black by shadows, open as wide as they can go.

I hear grunting and shuffling from inside the pit. The fingers move forwards and reveal blue-veined hands. Long, scrawny arms follow, then bony shoulders, until finally, a head appears. I smell something putrid, an assault on my senses, like a mixture of methane and stale sweat. I retch in response to the stench.

I want to run, but I cannot move. Rooted and made solid by fear.

The creature hauls itself out of the hole and stands astride the seat. It is no bigger than a large house cat, but its proportions are all so wrong. Its head is smooth and perfectly round, like that of a bowling ball. Its ears are elfin, thin and pointed, adorned with strands of brown hair. Its eyes are enormous, like dinner plates. They are wet and shiny and amphibious. It has no nose that I can see, merely two nostrils covered by pale flaps of skin that rhythmically open and close. I don’t know if it is breathing or inhaling my scent. It fixes me with those huge, damp eyes and blinks once. Twice. Then tilts its head to the right-hand side. It sees her behind me, and it grins.

Its smile is utterly terrifying and devoid of any humour. A whole third of its face seems to crack open and twist itself into a wide grimace. Its mouth is filled with row upon row of thin and needle-sharp teeth. They are rotten, black and decaying. It flicks its tongue in the air like a whip, snake-like and scored with a deep groove.

I move in front of her. My body is a shield between her and it. She stays silent. She doesn’t even whimper. The creature shifts its weight and moves its head, trying desperately to see past me. It chitters and makes a noise like a tūī bird does before it sings; a sound like it is clearing its throat.

I hear the spattering noise of urine as it dribbles onto the floor. I smell the hot scent behind me. She has wet herself. I am not in the least bit surprised.

The creature chirrups once again, its nose flaps moving faster now. It tilts its head back and inhales. It breathes in the musk of her accident. It stares at me, poised, slightly crouched as it balances on the toilet seat, and it lets out a deep, guttural roar.

The sound is deafening in such a small space. I wince in pain as it hurts my ears, but it finally spurs me to act. Free from my paralysis, I grab her arm and haul her in my wake. I wrench open the wooden door, hear it slam against the side of the hut. I pull and push her almost simultaneously, catapulting her out into the carpark. She stumbles and her legs buckle, and she almost falls to the ground, but she catches herself at the last second. I hear the creature jump from the toilet behind me, and I run towards my exit. Sharp claws catch the back of my jacket, and I feel the fabric stretch and tear.

The beast is much stronger than it looks; it pulls me backwards, back into the hut. I grab the door frame, holding on to the edge as tight as I can. The creature scrabbles up the length of my legs. It clambers onto my shoulders and entwines its fingers in my hair. I slam my back against the wall, hear it shriek as it is pinned. My left ear explodes in a surge of hot pain.

It’s bitten me. The little bastard has bitten me! Two can play that game…

I reach behind me, grab one of its legs, and pull it as hard as I can. It loses its grip just slightly, but enough so that I can turn my head and sink my teeth into a scrawny limb. It screams again. I bite down harder. It tastes bitter and rotten, like sour milk, but I don’t let go. Not even when I pierce its skin and a rancid liquid seeps from the wound and makes me want to vomit. It stings my lips and makes my gums ache. I pray it isn’t toxic.

I feel it relax its grip again and I slam it hard into the sharp edge of the frame. Its fingers flex, in pain or shock, and it tumbles from my back. It lands, legs akimbo, sprawled out on the ground like an upturned slater bug.

I don’t hang around to see it get back up.

I dash out of the hut and slam the door. She is standing shakily, looking back to the car. She sees me but doesn’t say a word. I go to grab her arm again, to pull her along with me, but she flinches and stiffens before whispering, “Stop.” I follow her worried gaze.

The sun has almost disappeared over the edge of the horizon. The carpark is in darkness, a shroud of pale grey. I hear them before I see them. A chittering and chirruping and scraping of sharp claws. There is movement in the trees and bushes around us. The leaves writhe and shiver as the creatures move amongst them. I see quick flashes of light in the black, as the dying sun reflects in their huge eyes.

A story comes to me unexpectedly, one Grandmama used to tell. Her tales were inspired by legends but embellished with her own savage twists. It is ridiculous, I know this, but still…

She spoke of moon-pale goblins with gigantic eyes like pools of molten tar. They lived hidden in a land beneath deep water and returned to the shore at night. Child-stealing gremlins that shunned the touch of the sun, for fear it would scorch their skin. They would creep out under cover of darkness, she said, and snatch babies to take back to their lairs.

“What they did with them after was anyone’s guess,” she’d cackled gleefully, as I’d cowered in my bed. “Some stories said that they ate them whole after they’d peeled them from their skins. Others said they enchanted them, changed the infants into beings like them. Whatever they did, they took revenge against the humans who had driven them away.”

These are stories, nothing more. Tall tales to tell small children to encourage them to behave. There is no such thing as goblins. My grandmama simply knew how to spin a good yarn. Yet, I look at these creatures and I wonder: how many of her stories were pure fantasy, and how much did she know to be true?

The noises grow louder and closer. The distance between us and the car seems to stretch like an eternity. There is no way we can run to it before these creatures catch us. If she will even run with me. If she chooses not to and expects me to carry her, we are surely doomed.

I reach for her hand. She takes it and I pull her close to me. I hear more rustling in the undergrowth from all sides, surrounding us completely. I stroke her hair and murmur softly. “It’s okay, sweetie. It’ll be okay.” 

She nuzzles into me, wraps her arms around me and squeezes me in a tight embrace. I gasp in shocked surprise. She never hugs me of her own volition. Often stiffens if I try to touch her first. She holds me for a moment before releasing her grip and starts rummaging in my jacket pockets. I am confused. I don’t know what she is doing. And then she presses something cold and hard into my palm.

My lighter.

Jonah gave it to me the first Christmas after we got together. We weren’t married then, but we knew we would be one day. He’d had it engraved with a message. I run my thumbnail over the letters. I don’t need to see to read the words. I know well what they say.

Anna, you light up my life. Love always, Jonah.

How ironic then that this flame still burned, but he had left me cold. He had given all his love to another, but I couldn’t quite let go of mine. I can’t hate him, even if I wanted to. I understand why he left. He couldn’t cope. Would not adapt. He was so much weaker than I.

She pulls on my sleeve and looks up at me. It is too dark to make out her expression, but her features are imprinted in my memory. I know every millimetre of her face. Her green eyes framed by long, dark lashes. Her skin so pale it looks almost porcelain, sprinkled with a galaxy of freckles. Rosebud lips and a delicate nose. A twisted mess of ginger curls tumbling down past her cheeks. Hers is a face I’d watched fall asleep every night by my side for six years. A child who screams and shrieks and whines. Who hates to be held and deplores being kissed. An awkward, difficult, cantankerous being. As fickle and as unpredictable as a storm. I will love her fiercely every day of my life, without compromise or any exceptions. With never a second thought.

Old friends now long gone used to ask me, “How can you stand it? How do you cope?” I am her mother. She is my daughter. She is my blood and my kin. Why even ask me such stupid questions? I would never dignify them with a response. 

I lean over to kiss the top of her head. She pulls me close and whispers in my ear. 

“You can burn them, Mummy,” she hisses, her young voice soft yet furious. “You can kill them all.”

I feel the hint of a smile play on my lips. Yes, she is my daughter for sure.

I flick the lid. I press my thumb hard on the spark wheel. I strike the flint. A burst of flame erupts in my hands, and the air reeks with the tang of naphtha.

The creatures growl and snarl in fear. They shrink back from the fire and bare their sharp teeth. I scan the carpark, looking for something, anything I can use. I see a broken branch encrusted with dried leaves a few steps to my left. I sidle towards it and snatch it from the ground. As I touch the flame to the crackling leaves, they spit sparks as the heat engulfs them. They burn quickly, and then go out.

I hear the goblins moving closer, emboldened by the death of the fire. I need to think fast. I take the key fob out of my jacket pocket and press the silver button. There is a beep and a click as the car doors unlock. I thrust it back into my jeans then wriggle out of my torn jacket, wrapping it as tightly as I can around the charred end of the branch. I summon the fire from the lighter again and press it to the sleeve. It is a polyester-cotton mix. Cheap and cheerful from a discount store. It ignites swiftly and with gusto.

Her emerald eyes reflect in the light. Tiny flames flicker in her irises. I nod and smile, inviting her to take the lighter from me. She reaches out and takes it, enthralled by the bright colours and shapes. I pass my power on to her.

A surge of old images flare like the fire, reminders of my mother’s death. A mother who was equal parts absent and cruel. Who nursed bottles of cheap gin as if they were bairns. The glass felt more love than I.

Then Grandmama’s stories swimming in my head. And she, a white knight, come to my rescue. Yet her supposed kindness was often poisoned by spite. A victory in a war I was a pawn in. Apples and trees. Frying pans and fires. My whole life was a rollercoaster of emotions, like waves across a changeable sea.

Much later, lit cigarettes and freak accidents. Apologies and crocodile tears. Decisions made by old men wearing black robes. Fresh starts. New beginnings and a glorious birth. And finally, I remember who I am.

Take the fire, my child. Receive and rejoice. This weapon is yours now to wield.

The forest is filled with the deafening roar of a scourge of furious beasts. They scratch at the trees and the soil at their feet, venting their frustration on the land. The flaming torch is hot and unwieldy, but it keeps the terror at bay. I curl my arm underneath her shoulders and nudge her gently forwards. She wobbles and shakes on unsteady legs and thrusts the lighter straight out in front of her as if wielding a flaming sword. She holds on to me with her other hand, and we move as one to the car.

She walks with me. My God, she actually walks with me! It is as if the weight of everything has lifted. All the fear and doubt and indecision which ground me down and squashed my soul has gone. Spirited away. No longer a husk scraped dry and barren, a pale reflection of myself. I reclaim all that I was and welcome new strength. I am Mother. The Protector. A Warrior.

When we reach the car I close the lighter and push her inside up front in the passenger seat. I can see the creatures’ reflections in the glass of the car windows. Hundreds of them spitting and chittering behind me. I hear a low growl in the distance. The hut door opens and slams into the side wall. The one from the long drop is coming.

I shut her in and dash to the driver’s side. I go to open the door, then pause. What will they do when we try to leave? Will they let us go or try to stop us? Will they lay in wait for someone else? Someone too weak to fight them?

Jonah used to say to me, in our younger and wilder days, when we both hustled pool in backwoods bars: “You don’t have to go looking for trouble, babe. But if it finds you, don’t be frightened to finish it.”

The torch tip flickers like a wagging finger. There is something I know I must do.

~

I can see the flames from the highway as we drive away into the night. Great hands of yellow and orange and red, reaching up to touch the sky. It makes my heart ache, this destruction, but I know I can’t keep looking back. The land will survive, I am sure of it. It will grow back, out of the ashes. Something new. Out of the darkness, a phoenix will rise. I can feel it already rising in me.

She plays with the lighter but doesn’t ignite it, merely opens and closes the lid. Each rhythmic clink as the metal slides tallies with the beat of my heart. I am surprised to feel so calm.

I notice she is humming again, but much quieter this time. I don’t mind. It is strangely comforting.

“I love you, sweetie,” I tell her.

She doesn’t stop humming, but she smiles. 

No Horror Without the Body: How Body Horror Helped Me Embrace Being Nonbinary

An essay about horror and identity written for Pride in Horror, June 2022

The doctor calls my name in the waiting room and I take just a little too long to respond. The name she calls out is not the one I use anymore in my daily life, but is still my official title, the one my parents chose for me. I realise, rise, smile, and apologise, but offer no explanation for my delayed reaction. For that name serves as an uncomfortable reminder that who I am now is not who I was.

My real name, the one I chose for myself, is T, and who I am, amongst an assortment of many things, is a horror writer. I am also queer/pansexual and nonbinary/gender nonconforming. If those words are unfamiliar to you now, don’t worry. I will explain them in a little while. 

Right now, I am surrounded by countless other reminders; this is a “Woman’s Clinic” (the words are emblazoned in 6-inch letters on the wall) and I am here to discuss a “woman’s issue”. That I no longer consider myself to be a woman, is irrelevant to my appointment. In fact, to bring it up now might adversely affect the care I receive. Safety is paramount to those who live outside of gender norms, and such safety can be difficult to assess. So I stay quiet, despite my discomfort. I watch how her mouth moves as she says my old name, notice how strange it feels hearing it used to address me. It is not anger, disgust or even sadness I feel, merely an unusual sense of disconnect. An awareness of the assumptions this stranger has made about me, and how very, very wrong they are. 

* * *

The nonbinary flag

I do not know, and never have known, what being female means to me, only that I have never felt like it applied to me very much, not even as a young child. Equally, I have felt no actual disgust at my physical form other than an occasional musing that, had I been born a cis male, certain things would surely have been a lot easier for me. (This is not any indication of transness, by the way, more, a pervasive effect of a patriarchal society. A lot of cis women I know feel the same.) My physical body serves to assist me in moving my consciousness from A to B. As a creative and expressive individual, I also know I can dress up however I want and present any image I desire. I can effectively manipulate how others see me, and “read” me based on their own gender expectations. My skin is a canvass ripe for decoration, and I can paint it any way I choose. 

The outdated, narrow definition of being transgender implied a movement across the gender binary: from female to male or vice versa. Modern definitions now also include individuals, such as myself, who have stepped completely outside the gender binary or move fluidly from one to another. (Note: I am cautious about identifying as transgender, preferring instead to use nonbinary or gender nonconforming. While the word applies to me, and I can claim it, I feel that those who have fought much harder to use it than I have more right to it than I do.) 

Binary means to have two parts—when we consider the “gender binary”, we mean male and female. Nonbinary or genderqueer is an umbrella term for gender identities that are outside the binary. It took me a while to realise that while I had shrugged off the mantle of “woman” and I definitely wasn’t “man,” I also didn’t feel like I simply fell somewhere in the middle. 

Some people are nonbinary in a no gender or androgynous way. Others, like myself, are nonbinary in a way that embraces many varieties of gender. Some are both or something else entirely. I like to refer to myself as “Fifteen Genders in a Trench Coat,” a.k.a. a Pokémon-type nonbinary in that I, “gotta catch ‘em all.” I believe the most accurate descriptor might be pangender or even omnigender. In all honesty, the label is far less important to me than it seems to be to others. Those of you who have seen Schitt’s Creek may be familiar with David’s assertion, “I like the wine, not the label.” He uses this analogy to describe his sexual orientation (pansexual) but it works equally well for me to describe my gender identity. The label is insignificant. It’s what’s inside the bottle that matters most.

Still of FREAKY FRIDAY (2003)

Perhaps that’s why body horror has always fascinated me, even when I didn’t fully realise it. As a kid, I found the 80s body-swap movies like FREAKY FRIDAY, VICE VERSA and BIG to be uniquely riveting, as I considered how it might feel to find yourself in another body. I didn’t find it frightening or disconcerting, but curious and exciting. I was drawn to lycanthrope (werewolf) mythology for very similar reasons. How empowering it must be to embrace a fierce second self, unbeknown to even your closest friends. At thirteen, when I first read Robert Louis Stevenson’s THE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE, I wished there was a potion I could drink to experience another part of me, and to be someone else; someone new. I joke with my family that on some days I, “cosplay as a girl”. Like Jekyll and Hyde, I can change how I present myself as I see fit.

The first “proper” body horror I remember watching was TETSUO: THE IRON MAN. I was eighteen, and my then boyfriend showed me to it, I suspect intending to gross me out. Such intentions backfired; it utterly fascinated me. Of course, I had already seen movies such as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, CANDYMAN and ALIENS, but I hadn’t really considered how they fit into the body horror genre. The visceral intensity of TETSUO sparked something in me and I sought as many flesh-rending and face-melting movies as I could. Like many other body horror enthusiasts have done before me, I turned to the “Baron of Blood” himself, David Cronenberg.

I exhausted Cronenberg’s back catalogue at the time (to wit: SHIVERS, RABID, SCANNERS, VIDEODROME, THE FLY, DEAD RINGERS and EXISTENZ) before I realised I mostly preferred more a more subtle style over movies that went all out on the gore. I was drawn to an understated, creeping kind of body horror, one that relied on a loss or transition of identity rather than extreme violence and bodily trauma. Films like JACOB’S LADDER and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, NIGHTBREED and ROSEMARY’S BABY. 

For many of us, horror as a genre is as comforting as it is confronting. It awakens our hidden fears and desires and shows us where the boundaries are between feeling safe and being scared. Horror scholar Linda Williams suggests in her essay, Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess that horror, like pornography, is a genre of excess that looks at the limits and the transformative capabilities of the human body. Fictional horror allows us space to recall our own personal, traumatic experiences, enabling us with the tools to explore—or find peace with—our uncomfortable feelings safely. In this way, horror can often be beneficial to our mental health, particularly when we are looking inwards for answers to questions we don’t yet know how to ask.

Joe Koch (author of THE WINGSPAN OF SEVERED HANDS and CONVULSIVE) begins his essay, A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks at Lovecraft with, “If we speculate that all horror is body horror—and we may because the emotional energy experienced interacting with horror arises physiologically in the body,” then I want to continue what Koch begins by asking, what does body horror do that other horror can’t? As horror echoes in our bodies, body horror is obsessed with the flesh. 

Still from TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)

Body horror is: invasion, contagion, mutation and transformation. It’s mutilation, distortion, violence and disease. It is viruses, infections, parasites and deformities. It is growths and tumours, and trauma of the flesh. It normalises horrific things and allows us to make peace with the discomforts we might feel. By doing all this, body horror reinforces humanity and what it means to have a physical body, a vessel that can be disfigured, malformed, destroyed and infected. It highlights how disturbing and disorientating it can feel for your body to be alien to you and yet still retain what makes it human. 

While most horror focuses on the body being destroyed, body horror looks instead at how it can be transformed. It relies on changes or transformations to elicit revulsion and traverses broad spectrums of extremes. It delights in embracing gore and powerful visuals, and can be extreme in concept and presentation. Yet, it can also be subtle, a slow creeping dread, wrapped in layers of subtext and metaphor. It redefines boundaries and expectations by transmuting the familiar into something terrifying. 

Equally, although body horror often focuses on things being done to the subject—usually against their will—some stories explore the wilful acceptance of transformation as empowering and something to be embraced. With this physical change comes an emotional confidence, a “leveling up” of a sort. The adjustments to the physical form may be excruciating to experience, but the power gained can be worth the pain. Likewise, what changes occur on the outside are not necessarily reflected within. What others perceive as monstrous can be euphoric, even beautiful, to the subject. 

Just as all horror holds up a mirror to people, so they can look more closely at themselves, body horror gives us an opportunity to shine that mirror back on ourselves. It allows us space to see beyond the confines of the flesh and understand that what we see in the mirror does not always reflect how we feel inside. In subjects involving gender dysphoria, body horror allows a safe space to explore any uncomfortable feelings and embrace them. It toys with distortions of the human body, and plays with gender in ways that challenge how we think about it by blurring the lines of what is acceptable. In this way, body horror acknowledges the complicated relationships many of us have with our bodies. 

I grew up in a small town where pretty much everyone knows who you are, and everyone knows everybody else. If you feel like you fit in, that sense of safety, community, and local identity wraps around you like a comfortable blanket. But if you don’t fit in, grow tired of the smallness, or want out, that same blanket grows smothering and heavy. There is a sense that others have already predetermined who you are and what you are capable of. Such attitudes may push you to move away, to find an escape from the past and Past You. Like every angst-filled, rebellious, and misunderstood BREAKFAST CLUB teen, you long to scream, “You don’t know me!” as you slam the door behind you.

I can practically hear my mother’s voice in my head as I type this. “You always were very dramatic…” 

Being labelled as a “Woman in Horror” filled me with the same existential unease and confusion I always felt while spending time in my hometown. I wanted so badly to embrace it and endorse it, to be a part of that wonderful crowd, but it felt so dishonest. Seeing my name added to lists alongside other talented, creative women, I knew deep down I was an imposter amongst them. I became obsessed with writing stories about menstruation as biological horror, filled with (what I thought at the time to be) an irrational rage at the injustice of having to endure such a messy and painful imposition every month. I channelled my anger into almost everything I wrote. Hell, I even won an award for an essay exploring menstruation in horror fiction (published, ironically, for Women In Horror Month). And as the years marched on, I embraced every hot flush, change in my cycle and debilitating monthly pain as a delightful reminder that menopause was surely coming and with it, freedom from the horrors of blood. But rather than being cathartic, writing about it was an ugly reminder of how I constantly felt like my “female” body was taunting me every bloody month. (Pun very much intended.)

TWISTED ANATOMY cover

I rarely set out to write a body horror story. In fact, it took a good friend of mine to point out just how many of my published works fall into that category. When I was considering sending something to TWISTED ANATOMY, a body horror charity anthology, I bemoaned that there was no way I could write something suitable. 

“I just don’t write body horror,” I said. 
“What are you talking about?” my friend replied. “You’re always writing body horror!” 

On inspection, well over fifty percent of what I write can be classified as body horror. Looking back on older stories with fresh eyes and a new lens, knowing now what to look for, I can see the desperation and longing in my words. The search for something that made sense, being very clear about what I was not without knowing exactly what I was. Through fiction, I scratched an itch of discovery, exploring themes of identity and transformation in a safe space without ever realising I was writing about myself. Every author knows that peculiar feeling when re-reading old works. The resounding question of, “who was I when I wrote this?” coupled with, “I hardly recognise myself in these words.” 

“Little Teeth” ended up in the anthology as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of vanity and aging. Of pinning your entire identity on the way you look, and of hiding the inevitable truth. 

How very cliché. 

Myles Hughes says in The Body Horror Genre: Our Meat Machines are Terrifying, “The fear [from body horror] comes from the notion that while the specifics of a given plot may be allegorical, the core truths about the ways our bodies can be taken over and manipulated by internal or external forces feels all too real.” 

“Butterfly” was the second story I ever sold. It is an exploration of body horror and disability, of a body remade after trauma and described as “Lovecraftian” as the editor. But it misses the mark. I was writing from a place of confusion and resentment. I was still cookie dough and not fully cooked. In the tale, the father believes he can remake the daughter, just as she is coming to terms with her disfigurement. I hadn’t considered the message I might be sending to others, or, worse, what I was saying about myself. I was unaware of my own unresolved personal struggles with disability and gender and how I thought others saw me. It is a religious allegory (as many of my stories are, but that’s a separate essay!) in which the father believes that death and rebirth can heal his daughter through metamorphosis. 

“Butterfly” is the first true body horror I can attribute to my confusion with gender and I express the horror through the experience of living with disability and the judgement of our peers. It is a story about outside forces meddling with things they have no business with. The daughter did not need to be “cured” and the father is no saviour. As a mirror for how I was feeling then, it works extremely well, showing the confusion I was experiencing, thanks to messages from others—particularly my extended family—about who I “should” be. The trauma I had internalised about what was acceptable and “feminine,” what was appropriate behaviour as a woman.

It was all bullshit.  

I tell my kids, “Don’t make yourself small to make other people comfortable” and, “Never let anyone else tell you who you are.” Somewhere along the line, I forgot to take my own advice. But I didn’t have a grand awakening. I didn’t burst out of the closet in a moment of euphoric realisation, more vaguely saunter in a different direction without fully knowing where I was headed. The name I used when I introduced myself went from seven letters, to five, to one. I experimented with different pronouns to see how they felt until eventually I decided I didn’t much care (she/her/they/them/T are all fine, just FYI.). And then Lana Wachowski went and gut punched me.  

Publicity image for MATRIX: RESURRECTIONS (2021)

More proficient writers than myself have talked about the concept of transness in THE MATRIX (and of course, the more recent addition to the franchise …RESURRECTIONS) but while THE MATRIX is marketed as science-fiction, it often fails to acknowledge the massive amount of body horror it also exhibits, specifically the eradication of identity and the Self. It shows a hairless body kept alive in a pod or an egg (and many transgender individuals know the symbolism of “cracking the egg”) attached with tubes to a nutrition system, fed with the liquified recycled remains of others that you too will also become. As the System regurgitates who they are into who you are, your entire existence becomes dependent on the biological feedback of others, your body nothing more than an energy source, while you are destined to do the very same to each following generation of pod people. 

Heavy thoughts, huh? Put like that, who wouldn’t want to crack that egg? Shatter it into a thousand pieces and grind the shell into dust with your heel.

And the gut punch? It was while watching THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS I felt the sudden realisation that I’d been holding in all these thoughts, all these feelings, all these questions and insecurities for easily thirty years (maybe more!). I’d been writing about gender, reading about gender, figuring out how it all fit together in my head like a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the lid, but never actually going all the way to embrace the reality. There was no egg encasing me anymore, just like for Neo, there was no spoon.  

* * *

Back home, after my appointment, I take off every layer of clothing, remove my jewellery and scrub the makeup from my face. I remove my “girl cosplay” and return to my true self. I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and examine every bump and crevice, every pimple, scar and bruise. I regard the skin as if it were yet another piece of clothing, which some days I wish I could unzip and shake myself out of. Not because I dislike it. No, most of the time I am simply ambivalent about it. It is skin and bone, blood and sinew. It is a vessel for my consciousness and a canvas I can paint, not much more. But if I could change it? If I could peel off certain parts of me and replace them with others, as easily as trying on a new coat? I would. Of course I would. 

As Koch so beautifully explains: 

“The common term for what drives us to change is gender euphoria. When we are addressed using correct names and pronouns, and when we see ourselves represented in the body and external world as we know ourselves in our minds, we experience gender euphoria. Our motivation is not hatred, but joy. We simply want to feel at home in our bodies, which I think is a very reasonable human wish.”

Why am I drawn to, and write, body horror? To push the boundaries of extreme fiction to elicit reaction? To explore my (complex) feelings about gender? To tap into my insecurities, my impermanence and mortality? Even aging is utilised as a form of body horror, particularly that of the feminine body. Hagsploitation exists to portray the aging female form as repulsive and shocking; an Othering based on failing fertility, of desire tied to sexual youth. My journey into menopause serves as a reminder of that. 

Body horror author and aficionado Lor Gislason says in their essay, An Ode To Flesh: My Love of Body Horror “[one of the] strengths of horror: [is] using it to open discussions of deeper issues in a safe and interesting way. … For body horror, it’s often confronting the inevitability of death or the limitations of our physical selves. The human body is both one of the most incredible and complicated systems and extremely fragile.” 

Body horror lets me see past my own skin. I no longer feel like I have to drape it around my shoulders, wearing it like someone else’s castoff—a hand-me-down from my parents, ex-boyfriends, or past friends. Writing about the body through horrific narratives lets me explore my identity in fluid and nuanced ways. Through body horror, I can remake the familiar into something terrifying, something empowering, or both. I can transcend the limitations of the flesh to stimulate euphoria through dread. It was through finally understanding the power of transformation, of putting that into words, that helped me make peace with who I am. 

When I write body horror, that sense of peace is what I appreciate the most. 


NO HORROR WITHOUT THE BODY.  

Addendum: A note from the author

A selfie taken before a Wellington Pride event, 2019, the first time I ever went to Pride.

I originally wrote this essay for Pride in Horror to bring awareness about gender identity and horror. It was accepted for publication by a wonderful website, for which I was deeply grateful. However, almost as soon as I sent off the email, I started to feel a great deal of anxiety. For some inexplicable reason I didn’t feel fully comfortable about someone else publishing the piece, and I wasn’t sure why.

As is often the case for marginalised people who identify outside the gender binary, there are people in my life—friends and family— who are still unaware of my true identity. People like me are often forced into a corner by circumstances beyond our control. Often we stay quiet and we stay small. Sometimes we hope by doing so we will be left alone and will stay safe. Except such safety is never guaranteed. Those who seek to hurt us will also seek us out. Our silence might be seen as complicity or cowardice, when it is most certainly neither; it is for safety. I’ve never been the sort of person to stay quiet about something important just because it might upset someone else. That’s why, over the years, I have been so vocal on my blog and social media about issues such as: mental health, suicide, PTSD, autism and ADHD, family trauma, and body autonomy.

In the past, I have experienced intolerance and hate, sometimes from complete strangers, across multiple social media platforms and in physical spaces, likely linked to my gender-expression. In this essay I make it very clear that I will never let anyone tell me who I am, nor will I make myself small for the comfort of others. Likewise, I will fight for every other person like myself to ensure their right to body autonomy is upheld. It took me a great deal of time thinking about and sitting with my feelings to understand that although I was fully comfortable sending these words/this content out into the world, they were also deeply personal. I was exposing some parts of myself that I had not spoken about in public before. For all of these reasons, I decided it was more appropriate to put this piece on my own author website.

Thank you for reading.


Articles referenced:

Gislson, Lor An Ode To Flesh: My Love of Body Horror (February 2022)

https://www.hearusscream.com/editorials/an-ode-to-flesh-my-love-of-body-horror

Hughes, Myles The Body Horror Genre: Our Meat Machines are Terrifying (December 2019)


https://horrorobsessive.com/2019/12/03/the-body-horror-genre-our-meat-machines-are-terrifying/

Koch, Joe, A Transmasculine Horror Writer Looks At Lovecraft (February 2022)

Williams, Linda  Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess (Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, 1991)

http://faculty.las.illinois.edu/rrushing/470j/ewExternalFiles/Williams—Film%20Bodies.pdf


Some of my favourite body horror movies:

ALIEN | ALIENS | AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON | DISTRICT 9 | EVENT HORIZON | GINGER SNAPS | HORNS | IDLE HANDS | INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS | JACOB’S LADDER | HELLRAISER | NIGHTBREED | REANIMATOR | ROSEMARY’S BABY | SAW | SCANNERS | SLITHER | THE FACULTY | THE THING | TUSK | US | VIDEODROME

Featherston Booktown

I am delighted to announce that was recently asked to write a scary story for the CAMPFIRE TALES segment of Featherston Booktown, an annual book-focused festival taking place this year from 8th to 12th June. My creepy, urban-legend inspired tale, “The Bobbin Man” will be performed on two evenings and included as part of the free zine.

I was also extremely proud to provide the event poster graphics and interior black and white artwork.


From the official website:

11:00 PM – LATE, The Royal Hotel. $20

Come warm your bones by the fire, very late at the Royal Hotel, as we chill you with a selection of original sinister tales written especially for this event by Kiwi horror authors, including Cassie Hart, Denver Grenell, Tabatha Wood and Daniel Eady.

Take home a free zine with stories from the event. Hot chocolate and mulled wine will be available to wet your whistle, adding to the sensory experience.

Performed by Denver Grenell, Erin Banks and Ricky Dey from Beware the Moon Productions and made possible with the support of the Creative Communities Scheme.

Tickets are $20 each. Buy them at Eventfinda here. Includes a free zine, a glass of mulled wine or hot chocolate.

A New Year, Another Author Questionnaire…

I found these great questions for writers on Twitter and I answered them in a couple of threads over there (you can find me at @Tabatha_Writes if you want to follow me) but I thought it would be cool to pop them on my blog too.


Part One

1. I started writing as soon as I could hold a pencil. ? Seriously though, my first published work was in 2006, education nonfiction with Bloomsbury Press (or Continuum as they were then) and fiction in 2019 with my first collection DARK WINDS OVER WELLINGTON.

2. The first story I wrote and submitted was what “Heat Pump” (in DARK WINDS…) became, and was a vampire story, a metaphor for being an outsider and a bit of a feminist revenge tale. It received an honourable mention from the NZ Writers College.

3. My most recent story is a WIP which focuses on two lady detectives in the 1920s investigating a missing persons case in Whitby, North Yorkshire.

4. What is my author dream? I think to see one of my works make it onto big or small screen. But in the meantime I’ll settle for fanart of any of my stories.

5. All my WIPs are in Courier New because it’s a monospaced font and I find it easier to pick up mistakes and typos when I’m editing. I don’t publish in that font though. ?

6. What program do I write in? If I can type in it, I’ll write in it. I’ve written entire stories in Notepad on the bus and others in Word on my laptop. I’ve got some pieces handwritten in multiple notebooks and I wrote my first (unpublished) novel in Scrivener. I’m not fussy. ?

7. I don’t have a favourite book store, but I do prefer to buy from indie bookshops or from authors direct rather than give my cash to the ‘Zon. ?‍♀️

8. The best time of day for me to write is usually after breakfast and coffee number two. I’m probably the most productive between 11 and 4. But with two kids and a day job, I mostly write whenever I get chance to.

9. Authors I know and would love to co-write with include Laurel Hightower and S.H.Cooper, but I think the dream would be J.Michael Straczynski.

10. I don’t think there is a book that I wish I’d written. Mostly because I don’t want to write like anyone else, I want to write like *me*. Whenever I read an amazing book I always ask myself what I can learn from it so my writing can be that good too.

11. I am fuelled by coffee and jelly beans when I’m working. And salt and vinegar chips. I also have a bad habit of chewing lollipop sticks when I’m really deep in the story mines. I suspect it’s some strange psychological urge left over from when I used to smoke while writing.

12. Handwritten or typing? Different stories require different methods of being brought to fruition. It really depends on my mood.

13. A genre I’ve never written but would like to try is a Western. I’ve never written one, despite being quite a fan of them in movies, and I suspect my current novel WIP is going to have some similar themes.

14. A genre I doubt I’ll ever write in is crime thriller as I just don’t think I’m clever enough to do all the twisty plot stuff. The same applies to hard sci-fi.

15. I can honestly say I’ve never had a crush on any of my characters ? but I have written some that were partially based on people/friends I knew IRL so I’ve felt a connection of sorts?

16. When I’m writing characters, personality usually comes first, and I’ll generally have a clear idea of how they look. Sometimes they start off with one name (and gender) and I realise as I’m writing that it just doesn’t fit them.

17. I prefer writing characters that you might *think* are heroes but are a little bit villainous too. I like writing characters who thrive despite their flaws, survivors with complicated pasts.

28. Three writers on Twitter I admire are: Penny Jones: @pennyqotu Kev Harrison: @LisboetaIngles and Lor Gislason: @lorelli_ They all write extremely different things but everything I’ve read of them, I’ve loved.

Part Two

1. My most favourite of my own characters has to be Marian from the story of the same name. A badass menopausal wife and mother with a very hairy secret…

2. It’s really hard to say which book which had the biggest influence on my writing, but definitely Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD, King’s DIFFERENT SEASONS and anything by Sir Terry Pratchett are strong contenders.

3. The character that’s most like me is… hmmm. Well, all of them in a way. I put a lot of myself in my writing, the good parts and bad parts. I wish I was as fearless as the mom in “Long Drop”.

4. The character least like me is Jensen in ALL THE LAIRD’S MEN who is basically a closeted, misogynist, sadistic asshole. And yet, you can’t fully hate him? Weird.

5. My Big Author Dream is simple… to keep doing this writing gig for as long as I can and keep entertaining my readers, and myself, with my crazy imagination.

6. What I like best about writing is when it surprises me. I plot more than I pants, but the real fun is when the characters take over and do things that are unexpected. In that moment, I’m just the conduit for the story, not the conductor.

7. My current WIP is a speculative memoir gothic fantasy: 4 novellas in one focusing on 4 generations of the same family. It explores the immigrant experience, finding our roots, catastrophic climate change and a little bit of supernatural mysticism.

8. The genre of my first (eventually published) WIP was urban horror meets feminist revenge. I’m not sure that’s what I set out for it to be originally, but that’s what it became.

9. Whenever I get stuck with my work, I walk. Nothing clears out the plot sawdust faster than getting up high and deliberately not thinking about the story for a while. The answers always come when you’re not pushing for them so hard.

10. My ideal writing environment would be a small hilltop cabin with an ocean view, an espresso machine and excellent WiFi. And a couple of cats.

11. Which author’s style I most admire I think is a cross between Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Daphne du Maurier, John Wyndham and Ursula K. le Guin. All authors I read at a formative age and loved intensely. (Impossible to just choose one.)

12. I assume this means can I read someone else’s book while I’m writing my own? And yes, of course. Not at the same time, obviously, but reading is a writer’s fuel and helps us go faster, harder, better. ?

13. Do I write every day? Nope. I don’t equate writing with a habit like making my bed, or a chore like washing dishes it’s something I do because I enjoy it and I don’t enjoy pressuring myself into “shoulds”. So I write when I want to and when I feel I need to.

14. My average word count is somewhere between “I had a spare hour to get some words down” and “I’m spending this weekend working on my WIP” ? I haven’t a clue about the numbers and I don’t particularly care. ?‍♀️

15. The time of day I like to write is the time when I have no distractions. As this varies depending on multiple factors, there is no Golden Hour of writing time for me, but ideally late morning/early afternoon.

16. The hardest part of starting a new project is the time between getting the ideas and inspiration and having the time to actually sit down and write the words. I have an abundance of ideas and a limited pool of time. Also, ADHD and executive dysfunction kick my ass. ?

17. My creative well is never dry. Seriously. My most depressing realisation was that I will never have the time I want to finish all the stories I’ve made notes on, or read the books I want to read. This is probably why I want to be Eve from ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. ?

18. Tag three people to do the prompt… nah, I don’t tag. But I do invite my friends to copy and paste this on their social media or blogs if they want, as I’m always interested in reading others’ answers.

Short Story – Rabbit

I will be releasing my first novel in 2022, an as-yet unnamed collection of four intertwined novellas best described as gothic fantasy mixed with speculative memoir. (I do love a good genre-blend.) The world it is set in and the characters it involves are introduced in this short story – “Rabbit.”

The Old World is gone, the land tipped out of balance, but in the village, life must go on. Until the arrival of a stranger skews the scales once again.

In a rebuilt future that was once destroyed by war and climate disaster, a young girl has accepted her role as hunter, provider and protector in the wake of her father’s death. When her deaf younger sister is followed by a stranger, she does what she believes she must to keep her, and their village, safe.

You can download a free epub, mobi or pdf via BookFunnel – https://dl.bookfunnel.com/g4h4ahbu30

You can also read it online here.


Rabbit © Copyright Tabatha Wood, 2021

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

This book is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. No reproduction may be made, whether by photocopying or by any other means, unless a licence has been obtained from the publisher or its agent.

Original cover artwork “Moon Dance” © Tabatha Wood, 2021

Independently published by Wild Wood Books


Rabbit

There, up ahead, I see it. A twitch in the undergrowth that shakes the leaves. A rustle and a shiver and a quick flash of movement. A brown-eyed reflection in the dying light. I hold my breath and listen carefully; hear the rhythmic thump of powerful feet wrapped in a soft fur coat. 

I raise my hand and prepare my bow, recalling all the steps my pappy taught me. I stand straight-backed in an open stance, my left foot favouring my target, and settle the arrow on the shaft. I squeeze the grip like I might coax milk from our goats and grasp the bowstring with two fingers and my thumb. Then I lift my arm to shoulder height and pull the string back… back… as far as I can. Until I can kiss it with my chin.

My body is rooted, solid and still, but my heart races like the wind on the hills.     

Steady. I remind myself. Stay calm. Go slow…

Another flash of movement. The twitch of a black nose. The creature reads the warnings, the signals in the air, savouring the scents on the breeze. It pauses. Pulls back. Have I spooked it?

Damn it, don’t bolt. Stay there. 

It moves quickly, nervously, but I don’t think it has noticed me, hidden as I am amongst the trees. Emboldened, it bounds into the clearing and nibbles on the leaves of a small plant. It’s fat, but its fur is mangy, and one ear is completely gone. It happens sometimes, they’re born like that. They don’t care. I doubt they’re even aware. 

I pause my breath and release my fingers from the bowstring. The string snaps forwards. The arrow flies free, and then the silence is shattered by a crash from behind me and a flurry of chaos ensues. The rabbit darts deep into the forest. A grey-white cloud of bobbin tail is all I see of it as it flees. The arrow thonks into the empty ground, vibrating as it releases its wasted energy. 

The tree branches part like rolling clouds and Evie emerges. She is wide-eyed and grinning, her whole body shaking with excitement. I turn and scowl, throw my free hand in the air. She sees me and stops short. 

“What?” Her loud voice sounds nasal, her vowels flat. It booms through the wooded valley. I motion to the arrow. She shrugs as if she doesn’t understand. I purse my lips and shake my head. I know she’s not that clueless. I use my fingers to mimic rabbits’ ears on the sides of my head, then raise one hand towards my lips to make a pantomime of eating. 

She screws up her face in disgust. “Eugh. Why? Bad meat.” 

I roll my eyes. It’s not like we have a lot of choices. Pappy always said you can’t live on it, that rabbit meat will eventually make you sick, but any warm-blooded creature can be a meal when needed. 

I make sure she’s watching my face when I speak. Evie lost her hearing during her sixth winter. She got sick and then she got better, but whatever the sickness was that ailed her, it left her almost totally deaf. Eleven summers later, she can’t hear my voice unless I shout, but she can read my lips with great accuracy.

“It doesn’t matter, anyway. You scared it off.” 

She gives a sheepish grin and yells, “Sorry, Ayla!” before motioning back to the way she’d come and flaps her hands in the air. “I saw a bird!” 

Her speech may seem strange to some, but it’s not challenging. I’ve always been able to understand her. She’s excitable, certainly, and often clumsy, but she’s also incredibly smart. Hunting can be lonely, and I enjoy having her with me. She is good company when she’s not scaring my quarry away. 

I gather my bow and retrieve the arrow from the grass. “You saw a bird?”

“Yeah. Big fat green one!” She links her thumbs together and makes a bird shape with her hands. Swoops them through the air. 

I’ve seen a lot more of those recently. Green with flashes of dark blue and red. They nest in the higher branches but swoop down low to feed. There’s not much flesh on them under their feathers, useless to put over the fire, but perhaps if I could catch a few, they would make a pleasant addition to a stew. 

“You want to hunt them?” she asks eagerly. 

I look out beyond the valley towards the mountains. No, it’s too late now. The sun is fading, poised like a dancer balanced delicately on the horizon, ready to drift behind the hills. Everything will start to hide away for the evening and hunting in the dark is not optimal. We need to get back home safely ourselves. I shake my head and motion for Evie to follow me, and we pick our way through the woodland to the village. 

Aunt Kira has a fire going. I can hear the crackle of the flames before I see them. She looks up expectantly when we arrive, but her face falls when she sees I’m empty-handed. 

“Poor hunt?” She asks, a bitter edge to her voice. 

“Blame Evie,” I say, and stash the bow with the rest of our tools. Dav and Bodhi, my younger brothers, sit cross-legged on the ground, stripping long, pointed flax leaves. They have piles of it already built up by their sides. The fibres are strong and good for many uses. They will make these into nets. Kira grunts in frustration and stirs a blackened, bubbling pot that’s suspended over the fire. No doubt filled with vegetables, maybe some old pig bones for flavour. 

It’s been a while since I’ve caught fresh pig. They are angry and vicious creatures, difficult to kill with a bow. Pappy could take them down with his knife, slash their throats before they even knew what he’d done. I do my best with a sharpened spear, but the beasts seem wise to my intentions and keep well out of my way. Pappy always said I was too fragrant; they could smell me coming on the wind. Such scent is always strongest on my blood days when the moon is new, and my body feels like it is no longer under my control. Those days seek to remind me of what I could be, not who I really am. 

I see more and more of them lately though. Pigs, goats, wild cats sometimes. Roaming the valley around the outskirts of the camp. Especially now the sky is turning blue. 

Gramma Loula used to tell us stories, learned from her Mama Sara before her. Sara had seen and lived through the Great Change, but we lost those times in a violent past when the world was more cluttered and raw. People back then powered metal machines with black magic that rose from the sea. Our homeland, once kind, grew hot and barren, and soon the Wild Lands burned. As the air turned red, painted scarlet by the flames, the thick smoke choked the sun. 

Gramma Loula said men built skyboats that rose high above the clouds. Their crew, the Builders, took a one-way trip to a new, untainted earth. They paved the way for the others to follow. Great cities beyond their wildest dreams. The Exodus, she said, was meant to save them. Instead, it condemned them all. 

And yet, skyboats floating in the sky; whoever could imagine such a thing? Gramma Loula was born in the darkness, her history destroyed by the sea. I wondered sometimes if the ocean’s rage had reached in and ravaged her mind.

Kira spoons steaming lumps of something into a wooden bowl. Passes it to me. 

“Bitta?” I ask. 

She grimaces. “Yes. It’s all there is.”  

Bitta. Pappy’s word for such a meal. A bit o’ this, and a bit o’ that. Mix it all up in a sauce. There’s no meat in it but tastes basically good and it’ll stave off the gnawing hunger.

The hunger and the Purging that came after the Great Change was brutal. Gramma Loula hates to speak of it at all. It took Mama Sara with poisoned ash; ash that still taints the land. My pappy didn’t realize his body was infected, that the ghosts were eating him from the inside. The sores on his skin were proof of his illness; deep, oozing wounds, which, no matter what we did, never fully healed. Gramma Loula said after his passing it wasn’t ghosts that had swallowed him but, “Fucking cancer!” A scourge far worse than the Purge itself. 

Kira hands a bowl to Evie. She perches on the bench by the edge of the fire, takes an eager slurp, and moans when she burns her lips. I pat her on the elbow, so she looks at me and says, “At least it’s hot, huh?” I blow across the top of my own meagre meal. The fire throws flickering shadows on her face as she smiles and copies me.  

Evie is my sister, but not of my blood. Her mama was old when she fell pregnant and was not in the best of health. Her pappy, I knew nothing about, only that he wasn’t there. I remember the screams from the hut that night. The sobs that followed a little later. Mama Dani took Evie in without a second thought. 

Evie was small, and a sickly babe. The village ensured she was protected. My brothers were strong and independent, but Evie was much weaker. She needed me, and I loved her fiercely. I accepted my role as her big sister with pleasure, and she had bloomed and grown with every turn of the seasons. Now in the early stages of womanhood, although slight, she is just as strong as I.

I slurp a spoonful of food and the inside of my nose itches. I rub it and dislodge the thick layer of grey mud that’s smeared across my face. Flakes of it fall off into my food. It disintegrates before I can fish it out. I scowl in frustration and Evie laughs. Grey fragments crumble from her cheeks into her bowl. She doesn’t notice, or maybe she doesn’t care. 

Mama Dani takes the mud from the lakeside, scooping handfuls of it into large pots. She mixes it with other things: herbs and animal fat that she’s melted to oil. She makes us wear it whenever we leave the camp or whenever we might not find shade. Without it, our skin is too sensitive. It blisters quickly in the unforgiving sun and burns an angry red. I am thankful that our village is in the forest, that the majestic trees enshroud our lives. We can breathe cleanly, inhale the fresh air. Unlike the nightwalkers, the Iksyop. Those who choose to live in the caves. 

Our village has stood for many seasons — Gramma Loula was here when the first trees were felled. She helped to build the first huts. Now, there are more than I can count; more than all my fingers and toes twice over.

Pappy was born here, as were my brothers and I. Gramma Loula is our healer, as her mama was before her. She tended to Pappy when he got sick, made her hut into a healing house. She always encouraged me to continue her work, said I had a skill for it. But healing never interested me. I am too keen on the thrill of the hunt, providing food for my family, not medicine. 

It was hard for me to see Pappy pass. To watch a big man fade away to nothing. The dread and despair, the feelings of failure, knowing I could not save him. Healing seems too hard for me, but hunting and killing come easy. 

Evie passes her empty bowl back to Aunt Kira and says loudly, “Thank you.” Kira smiles and nods a reply. Evie comes and sits beside me. I put one arm around her and hold her close. She taps her chest three times with her fist, opens her hand and holds her palm over her heart. I return the gesture and kiss the top of her head, inhaling the scent of wood-smoke in her hair. We have done this ever since she was small, when her sickness had draped a thick blanket of silence over her world, and she was too frightened to talk. Three taps, three words. Our connection. 

These moments won’t last, I can feel it. A day will come when she’s not here. She’ll say goodbye and leave me. I don’t know how or even when, but I know it as sure as the seasons turn and the sun and the stars rule the skies. I don’t like it, I’ll do anything I can to avoid it, but I also know how powerless I am against the choices of an unforgiving world. 

Kira takes the pot from the fire. She will clean it in the lake behind the trees. That is her job, just as I have mine. As everyone in the village has theirs. Tomorrow, when the light returns, I will go out to hunt again. 

My dreams are full of stars and fire. I climb to the tallest tree in the forest and leap from its furthermost branches. As the wind hits my skin, I sprout feathers from my arms, and I drift across land and water. Evie flies higher, a little further ahead. I hear her laughing as she spins in the air. I try to catch her, to take a hold of her hand, but she slips even further away. 

A flash from the clouds makes me shriek in fear, a bold splash of lightning sears my eyes. I feel myself wheeling, descending at speed. My eyes are burning, and my thoughts are confused. I see only shadows and shapes all around me as I struggle to right myself. Another flash and I’m plunged into blackness, while Evie floats away on a silver cloud. 

I wake up shouting with a hand on my shoulder, the sun not yet risen above the hills. A pale lilac glow sweeps through the room. It lights up Gramma Loula’s wrinkled face. 

“Bad dreams?” she asks.

“Yes. Maybe. Strange ones,” I say. 

“I see it coming, you know?” She whispers, lowering herself onto the end of my bed. She grimaces as if some part of her body pains her. “The change in the skies. In us.”

“In us?” I wriggle upright, push the blanket down off my chest.

“In us,” she repeats, then falls quiet. I watch as she fiddles with her long, grey braid, teasing the hair through her fingers. 

“What do you mean?” 

“My mama saw the earth die. The destruction and chaos that came from the air. She survived it despite all her losses.” She waves a hand. “You know all this; I’ve told you before.” I nod my acknowledgment, but I’m curious. “My mama and I—your pappy too—we all lived through the worst of it. By the time you and your brothers arrived, we’d had plenty of chances to learn from our mistakes. To live, not merely survive. 

“My mama’s world pined for what they’d lost. Mine learned to live with what was left. Between the rising seas and the blazing skies, we had to learn quickly. We did as we must when we had to. Such were the ways of the Old World. Razed by war and left to rot.” 

“What is it you see coming?” I ask her, but her expression grows distant. Her thoughts are far away. She ponders for a long time before replying.

“Do you ever think about the future, Ayla?” She sucks her teeth and stares at me, sharp-eyed and intense. 

“The future? What do you mean?”

“The future of the village. Of our people? Do you think about what might be out there, past the breakers? Beyond the waves?”

I know where this is going, this line of thought. A dark place that she slips into whenever she remembers her father. The wars of the Old World stole so many things, but what came after, what was worse, was the loneliness. Blink-fast communication with other villages — not those in caves or merely past the mountains, but with places further than the eye could see — shut down in an instant and destroyed. Wheelpods left to turn orange and brown, their surfaces flaked and decaying. It was a way of living, so taken for granted, few knew what to do. They stopped living when the lights went out. Great Grandpappy Maurice, long gone before I was born, took a sailboat with six others. None of them ever returned.  

These are the stories, the words I’ve been told, and while I struggle to understand, I see the pain behind Gramma Loula’s eyes and I wonder what it must have been like.   

“I don’t think about what’s ahead of me,” I tell her. “I know it’ll come soon enough.” 

She laughs, a deep and throaty cackle, and shakes her head as if she were shaking drops of rain from her hair. “Oh yes, it’ll come soon enough,” she says. “It always does. Even so, you should be ready.” 

“What for? What do you think will happen?” 

“What always happens, Ayla. The end of the cycle. The last sleep.” 

“Everything ends, Gramma Loula. Even us.” I say. 

She watches me with her deep, dark eyes. “You miss your Pappy, don’t you?”

I feel a lump start to rise in my throat. “You know I do.”   

“He was so fiercely proud of you, you know? Even if he didn’t say it very much.”

In my youth, I believed I was a massive disappointment to him. Not what he’d wanted or expected, ever since the moment of my first bleed. I’d done my best to be what he needed, to prove to him what I was worth. How I felt unfinished, in a hand-me-down skin. Betrayed by the body I wore. Much later, I understood, I was wrong to assume. He knew exactly who I was before I did. He just didn’t have the words to explain. 

I take a deep breath before answering, making sure I hid the shudder in my voice. “I know. I really do. But sometimes… Sometimes, I wish he’d said it more.”  

I hear a noise at the door. Evie stands in the entrance, rubbing her dreams from her eyes. Her thick hair hangs loose around her shoulders. The sun elbows its way into the room and its rays tint the ends orange. I forget sometimes how beautiful she is. How strong, although her frame is half the size of mine.

“Gramma Loula? Ayla? Is it time to eat now?” 

Gramma Loula stands and throws her arms wide, beckons Evie to come to her. She giggles and scurries into the embrace. Gramma Loula holds her tight. I crawl out of bed and pad barefoot to the food store. Mama Dani has baked sweet potato bread, sprinkled with green and black seeds. I tear off a chunk and chew it. Thoughtful. Gramma Loula’s words rolling round in my head. 

I leave Evie in the village when I go hunting. I want some time on my own. She stays with Kira weaving the flax, making baskets or maybe mats. The fresh mud on my face feels scratchy already, dried out in the heat. I wrinkle my nose to soothe the itch, wiggling it from side to side. 

Just like a rabbit testing the air. I think with a wry smile. But I’m not a rabbit, I’m a predator. I am a hunter, stalking prey. Rabbits run without looking and make stupid mistakes. They are weak where I am strong.   

I walk away from the village towards the mountains, take a drink from the lake as I pass by. The air is still and unusually quiet and the ripples on the water sound loud. I cup my palms together and sip from my hands. I stay low, hidden by the reeds. 

A violent flapping of wings makes me jump, and a brown shape tinted with streaks of blue swoops across the water’s surface. It opens its beak and the quacking noise it makes is unmistakable as it echoes around the lake’s edge.  

How long has it been since I’ve seen one of these? Maybe, like the green birds, such creatures are returning. Pappy could do great things with them, not a single piece wasted. Meat and feathers, and bones and fat. Everything had a use. 

I stay hidden amongst the plants and grip my bow, an arrow already poised to find its target. And then I see her, a little way off in the distance, across the other side of the lake. At first, I think she’s come to find me, but then I realize she’s not alone. 

I can’t see their face from this distance, but I know the gait of every member of our village, and whoever this gangly, lolloping figure is, they are unknown to me. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They walk a little way behind her. She appears calm, completely unaware. And the panic slams into my chest like a rock. 

She won’t hear them. They’re creeping up behind her and she won’t hear them!

It’s instinctive now. The bow feels like a part of me, an extension of my reach. I grip the bowstring and slide it back; take aim and hold my breath. As the arrow leaves the string, I feel myself exhale, watch as it glides through the air. It punctures the ground an arm’s length from the stranger, and they jolt backward and yell in surprise. It’s a warning shot; I meant to miss. I want to scare them, so Evie has time to run.

Except, it is the stranger who runs and straight towards her, not away. They grab her roughly around the waist, lifting her off the ground. My fingers nock a second arrow without thinking. I stand and take aim and pull on the bowstring. This time I won’t miss.

The arrow finds its target in her attacker’s shoulder, and their screams are shrill and desperate. They lose their grip on Evie and bend over in pain. She stumbles as she is half-thrown to the ground, but to my surprise, she does not run away. Instead, she embraces the stranger and comforts them as they cry. She turns and shouts in my direction.

“Ayla? Don’t shoot! He’s a friend!” 

A friend? She knows this person? 

I dash across the clearing; my bow smacks my hip as I run. I try not to think too hard about what I’ve done.

You shot somebody, Ayla. You might have killed them. A stranger, yes, not someone you know, but still… Not an animal and not by accident. You hurt another person. By choice. 

The wound is not bad, or at least, it’s not fatal. The stranger slumps on the grass and wails. A teenage boy, maybe a little older than Evie, with a sallow complexion and wispy hair. I note the absence of mud on his skin. See the angry red patches on his arms and neck where the sun has stung his flesh. 

He goes to pull at the arrow shaft, but Evie stops him, taking his hand in hers. 

“No. Leave it in. Or you’ll bleed out.” She glares at me, tears of rage in her eyes. “Why’d you shoot him?” she demands.

“I thought he was going to hurt you! Do you know him? Who is he?”

“This is Aaron. My boyfriend.”

“Boyfriend?!” I can scarcely conceal my surprise. “Since when?”

“No time for that now. We need to get back to the village. Gramma Loula will know what to do.”

“We can’t take a stranger back to the village. You know that. It’s against the rules! Where’s he from?” She points to the mountains with one hand and strokes Aaron’s cheek with her other.

“The mountains? The caves? He’s Iksyop!” 

Of course he is. His pallor is that of a nightwalker, one who avoids the sun by choice. But he is in the sun’s reach now, and burning quickly as well as being wounded. 

There are rules that must not be broken. Rules that keep us safe, that keep us whole. Pappy told us we must always remember: our village, our family, our strength. But I can’t let him die. Not like this. Not when it’s my fault that he’s injured.

Damn it. I don’t have a choice. 

“Aunt Kira is going to spit,” I say, and thrust my hands under the boy’s armpits, hauling him to his feet. We each take a side, supporting him as we walk. With each step, he howls like an injured dog. There will be no chance for our arrival to be discrete.

“He’s very loud.” 

“Yeah.” Evie grins. 

“Is he deaf too?”

“No. Just loud. I like that.” 

They’re waiting for us at the end of the trail; Mama Dani, Aunt Kira, and a few others. Their faces full of concern and alarm. I open my mouth to explain, to apologize, but Kira tells me to hush and follow her. 

“Leave the boy, come now,” she says, “while you still have time.” 

I’m confused, but Mama Dani plucks at my arm, slides the bow and my quiver from my back. Pappy’s friend, Old Jonah, takes the injured boy and leads him away. Evie tries to follow, but Kira blocks her way.

“No. She’s been asking for you both.”

I realize with a jolt what Kira means, and I run to our hut at full pelt. In her bed by the corner, settled in a nest of rolled-up blankets, lies Gramma Loula. Her mouth is open, but her eyes are closed. Her lids flicker as I enter and whisper her name, my cheeks already damp with tears. 

“Ayla?” Her voice is barely a croak. I hear Evie enter behind me and gasp as she takes it all in.  

“I’m here, Gramma Loula.” I take her hand. It feels cold and fragile, like a tiny bird’s wing.

“It’s here, Ayla, the end of the cycle. Time for my last sleep.”

“No, Gramma Loula, I don’t understand. You’re not sick, are you?” 

“My dear one, old age is a harsh mistress. What she changes in you, you can’t cure. But I’m grateful that I’ve had all this time. It’s so much more than I ever expected.”

Evie sits beside me on the bed and takes her other hand. “Are you tired, Gramma Loula?” Evie booms.

Gramma Loula chuckles. “Oh, I am. Very, very tired.”

“Ayla always says if you’re tired you should rest.” She looks at me, but I can’t meet her gaze.

“I plan to, Evie. I do.” Gramma Loula coughs and her body shakes. Her eyes are wet and dark. “You need to look after yourselves now. The world is big, and this village is so small. A change is coming, I can feel it. Be a part of it, both of you. Embrace the blue.”

“I will, Gramma Loula. I promise,” Evie says, and kisses her cheek. “You go to sleep now. We’ll see you soon.” Gramma Loula smiles at us both. I feel her squeeze my palm, faintly, oh so faintly. Three times before she shuts her eyes. 

And I cry until I don’t think I can cry anymore. 

Pappy nods his approval as I lower my bow with shaking hands. I see the arrow in the distance, sticking upright from the ground. But its tip is not stuck in dirt or grass, it is buried in the side of an animal. A creature that, until a few moments ago, had been breathing and eating and… alive. Pappy puts his hand on my shoulder. 

“Well done, Ayla, your first kill. I knew you could do it.” He picks up the dead rabbit and hands it to me. It’s still soft and warm, and I sob uncontrollably, overcome with guilt. I am horrified that I am capable of doing such a thing. I wish I could turn back the clock.

“I know it’s hard,” he tells me, gently. “But it’s necessary. The inevitable way of the new world. Don’t you worry, it gets much easier.”

Aunt Kira stands beside me. There are stories to be told and explanations to be made. “I will finish here,” she says. “Do as need to be done. Loula was wise and taught you well, I’m sure. Now though, you must tend to the boy.” She bustles Evie and me from the hut. Mama Dani enters as we leave.

“He’s with Jonah,” she tells me. “Follow the screams.” I listen, and sure enough, I can hear him yelling. At the hut, Dav and Bodhi come to embrace me. They feel the loss just as keenly as I do. We share a moment of bitter, helpless grief before Aaron moans and interrupts our poor comfort. 

“He won’t let me near him,” Jonah says. “He keeps squealing like a damned stuck pig.” 

“It’s okay. I can do it. Can you get me clean water and bandages? Bodhi, fetch me some heartleaf, grind the leaves into a paste. Dav, I need some flax thread and a bone needle.” I stand in front of Aaron. Evie holds his hands in hers. The boy is so consumed by his pain, I’m not sure he knows she is there. 

Damn you, Gramma Loula. Is this what you meant? Was this the change you saw coming for me? 

 I’m a hunter first, not a healer, but despite my many protestations, I have skills in both. Gramma Loula made me help her enough times and I know what to do. The arrowhead is embedded in his flesh, but I can’t be certain if it has impacted the bone. 

“This is really going to hurt,” I tell him, and I take a firm hold of the shaft and twist. He screams so loud it makes my ears ring, but the arrow moves freely in my fist. “Good, that’s good. It makes things easier.” I inspect the wound more closely, see the edges of the arrowhead just visible beneath the skin. With luck, it will come out as easily as it went in. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to cut it out of him. 

I twist it again and pull as hard as I can. It’s stubborn, but I am determined. The wound weeps as the arrowhead emerges and Jonah hands me a cloth to stem the flow. “Almost over now, Aaron,” I tell him. I glance at his face, wondering how the boy could possibly look even paler than he did when I first laid eyes on him, and then he slides backward and passes out. 

“About time,” Jonah says with a wry laugh. “The boy sure could bellow some.” 

With the arrow free, I pack the wound with heartleaf, stitch the broken skin and wind a bandage around his chest. Only time will tell if that is good enough. If I am good enough. 

There are questions, of course, which I can’t answer, and Evie refuses to leave his side. When he comes around, Mama Dani gives him some peppery bark to chew and ease his pain, and Jonah helps me move him to the healing hut.

He is Iksyop, his village is carved deep within the mountains, a broad labyrinth of caves inside the rock. He dislikes the caves and craves the sunlight, although it hurts him and makes his skin sore.  

The older members of his village think him mad, but there are a few others like him who want more. Those who don’t want to spend their whole lives in the caves. Who know they don’t need to hide. His pappy is long gone like ours is, and his mama lives with another man. He likes him and is happy his mama’s not alone, but he wants to have a place of his own. 

It was the birds that led him to Evie. He would sit for hours in the forest watching them, until their paths crossed, purely by chance. 

“I’d never seen someone so beautiful,” he says. “So unusual and interesting. When she laughed, she sometimes scared away the birds, but that didn’t matter to me.”  

“How long have you two been together?” I ask.

“Six moons,” Evie says. “Gramma Loula knew.” 

“Gramma Loula knew you had a boyfriend?” 

“Yeah. She liked him. Said he looked brave.” 

I can’t help but laugh. “He looked brave? Wait, she met him?”

She nods. “Yes. Lots of times. His Great Grandpappy Armie went out on a boat with Grandpappy Maurice. They hunted together and explored the other islands, places out there beyond the sea. They went together on Maurice’s last journey. Gramma Loula told us all the stories she knew. She said maybe it was fate we met.” She turns and smiles at Aaron. There is no doubt their love is undeniable. “We have plans, Ayla,” she says quietly, unusually so for her. “Aaron and his friends have built a boat. They want to go out and see things for themselves. See what’s out there.” She sighs deeply before continuing. “I want to go too.”

For a second it feels like my heart stops, and I can’t seem to draw a breath. “You want to leave me?” 

“No, I don’t want to leave you. I want to go see things. Don’t be sad, Ayla. Gramma Loula said the world is big. You know there’s more out there than just our village. That we should embrace the blue. That’s what I want. And it’s time.”

“If you go, I can’t protect you. I can’t keep you safe anymore!” I hear an edge of hysteria in my voice, but my anxiety is lost on her. Her face crinkles as she smiles. 

“I know. But you don’t have to. Aaron showed me I have wings. I need to learn how to use them. I need to know I can fly. You understand?”  

I do. It pains me so much to realize it, but I do. 

“When will you leave?”

“Soon. I was bringing Aaron to the village when you shot him.” I grimace and feel my cheeks turn red. “We were coming to tell everyone. The boat is ready. There’s no reason to stay.”

“None at all?” I snap, more cruel than I intended.

“Ayla. Please, stop. This is not about you. You know, when you catch a rabbit in a net, it panics and struggles. It does everything it can to get out. Eventually, when it gets too tired, it gives up and accepts its fate. I don’t want to end up like that.”

“You’re not trapped here, Evie! The village gives you everything you need!”

“Exactly! It gives me everything except the freedom I need. I… I am not as weak as you think I am. I don’t need rescuing, or protecting, or to be wrapped up in soft blankets in case I hurt myself. I’m tired of being the only one who doesn’t have a role. Who needs someone with them just to leave the village!” She turns away from me and takes Aaron’s hand. 

“You of all people know how it feels to want more from life, Ayla. To be seen for who you are. You take the roles others’ hand down to you—hunter, healer, daughter, sister—but you never seem sure what you want.” 

I scoff and furrow my brow. “Am I the rabbit then, Evie?” I shout back. “Is that it? If I stay here and do what everyone else wants, I may as well be trapped and skinned? Put in a pot and stewed!” 

Aaron shakes his head but will not meet my gaze. “Please don’t be angry with her.” 

“We haven’t even buried Gramma Loula yet, and already she’s running away! How can I not be angry? Everyone I love leaves me, Evie! What am I supposed to feel?”

She turns, and even though there is no way she could have heard me or seen the words I’ve spat angrily at her back, she looks me straight in the eyes and replies; three taps on her chest with a fist before holding her hand over her heart.

My dreams are heavy and unfamiliar. I see things I’ve never seen before. Gramma Loula’s words, her strange prophecy. They spin around in my head like dead leaves in the dirt caught in a mischievous wind. Skyboats float on waves of cloud, drifting through the sky with moonlit sails. I look and see Evie waving from the prow, her eyes gleaming like bright stars. I return her gesture, see the feathers on my arms. Blue and green and red. 

“Jump, Ayla!” she shouts, and I want to, I really do. But I look down and my feet have grown long and swollen; they are stone-heavy and swathed in grey fur. 

“I can’t,” I reply. “My place is here in the village. I’m sorry. I’ll be here if you need me. Always.”

When the boat leaves, two villages are there to see it off. Aunt Kira helps the Iksyop cover their delicate skin with lake mud, gives them jar after jar to keep safe in the hold. Dav and Bodhi offer woven mats for shade, Mama hands them giant bunches of dried herbs.

Evie looks different somehow, taller and more confident. She fills the space around her as if she has an energy. A quiet strength I’d never noticed in her before. 

“I wish Pappy and Gramma Loula could see you now,” I tell her. 

“Who says they can’t?” she replies. “And you too.” The clouds break to reveal a purple-pink sky, smeared with splashes of blue. She fixes me with a curious expression, then reaches out to place her palm over my heart. “Hunter, healer, daughter, sister. You’re all of those, Ayla, and so much more. The village is so lucky to have you.” 

We cry and we laugh, and we hug each other, sharing breath as our bodies entwine. I inhale deeply, trying to memorize her scent. I remember the wood-smoke in her hair. 

“Embrace the blue,” I whisper, although I know she can’t hear. The words are to soothe me more than her. Then behind her, there, I see it. A twitch in the undergrowth that shakes the leaves. A rustle and a shiver and a quick flash of movement—a brown-eyed reflection in the shining light. A quivering nose tests the morning air. Exploring the fresh changes on the breeze. It moves out into the clearing, bold and unafraid, and flicks its one good ear with a paw. 

Sneak Peek: SEEDS

My second collection SEEDS will be released into the wild on 16th October * and I am extremely excited. Here’s what some early reviewers have had to say about it already…

“Tabatha Wood knows what scares you. SEEDS is an incredible collection that digs deep into your emotions, showing snippets of yourself and truths of your innermost thoughts in the actions of characters on the brink.” ~ Laurel Hightower, author of CROSSROADS and WHISPERS IN THE DARK

“SEEDS is wonderful from start to finish. This was a damn near flawless collection.” ~ Aiden Merchant, author of HORRIFIC HOLIDAYS and SQUIRMING DISEASE  

“Truly, there is something for everyone in this collection – supernatural creatures, creepy legends, the evil nature of humans, sweet retribution, senseless violence, personal transformation, and everything in between.” ~ Tiffany Michelle Brown, author of EASY AS PIE

“SEEDS covers a variety of sub-genres, styles, and tones. It shows Wood knows how to work within these and isn’t confining or stifling herself either.” ~ Lor Gislason, reviewer at Horror Obsessive 

You can read more reviews at Goodreads here.

Preorders can be made via Amazon or Smashwords and reviewers can request a .mobi or .epub ARC by sending me a message here.

* Release date is for the ebook version with paperbacks to follow.


The first story in the collection is a flash-fiction piece entitled “Bloom.” It follows an elderly couple on a road trip as they celebrate their anniversary and encounter a field of mystical sunflowers. As a special sneak peek, I am delighted to share it with you now.

It begins with a seed…

Bloom

On the weekend of our anniversary, we hired a camper van and hit the road. It was a stick-a-pin-in-the-map, spontaneous adventure that we had put off for far too long. We took the highway north, away from the city. Drove for hours until we reached dusty back roads. She sat in the passenger seat, navigating our journey. Told me to turn left down to the farm. In hindsight, I should have realised. She had planned this all along.

I see the sea of yellow as we crest the hill; a golden haze spread across the horizon, in stark contrast with the piercing blue sky. Her smile lights up her face as bright as the flowers ahead of us. She claps her hands in glee.

“Look, my love! Isn’t it beautiful?”

I scoff and sigh. “You knew this was here, didn’t you?” I ask. 

She turns to me, wide-eyed, her face a picture of faux-innocence, and then laughs. The crow’s feet crinkle around her eyes, but her pupils sparkle like a child’s.

“I did.”

“You could have just told me this was where you wanted to come.”

“But then it wouldn’t have been a surprise.”

I stop the van at the edge of the field but leave the engine idling. I was surprised alright. But I shouldn’t have been. I should have guessed. Sunflowers had always been her favourite. They were our wedding flowers too.

“Are you coming, Millie?” she asks. “We’ve travelled a long way.”

I don’t want to look at her.

“Come on,” she insists. “At least take a photo of me by the flowers?” She tosses her smartphone in my lap and opens the passenger door. I wait until she exits, pondering my options, before I kill the ignition and follow her. Her long, white hair seems to glow in the sunlight. She moves slowly but determinedly, with a dancer’s grace. I call out to her and my voice carries on the breeze.

“Clara, you do know what they say about this place?”

She turns and giggles. “Of course! Thus, the basis of its appeal.”

“You believe it then?”

She stops and turns, fixing me with a steely gaze. “Does it matter what I believe?”

I shrug. I really don’t know.

She continues walking until she reaches the nearest bloom, and her fingertips graze the thick stem. A single petal flutters from its flower head and lands on the top of hers. She doesn’t notice, but my stomach lurches. I feel the sudden urge to pluck it from her hair. I don’t want it touching her.

She moves further down the row, trailing her hands through the yellow storm. More petals shudder free and follow her like bright, dangerous confetti.

“They say that they have power, don’t they?” she says quietly; so quietly I’m not even certain she’s talking to me. “That they harness magic from the sun. Their seeds contain pure radiance. One taste, and you can blossom too. Be beautiful like they are.”

Panic fills my throat, and a cold blush paints my face.

“You’re beautiful already, Clara,” I say loudly, hearing the tremble in my words. “Come away.” But she doesn’t want to listen.

“Yes,” she muses. “Perhaps to you I am. But for how long, Millie? How long?”

“Always,” I say. “Whatever happens.” Now it’s her turn to scoff.

“You and I know that’s not true. The disease will win. It always does. It’s only a matter of time.” She caresses the flowers. Fondles their leaves. “Will you still love me when I am bald? When my skin is covered in lesions and sores? Will you still want me when my eyes turn dull and all I can do is sleep?”

I try to answer, but she’s not done.

“Will you still find me desirable when you’re wiping my arse, and cleaning strings of drool from my chin?”

She spins, a ballet dancer’s pirouette. The sunflowers’ dark faces follow her. My blood freezes. Now I’m certain they’ve seen her.

She shakes her head. “No. I don’t want that any more than you do.”

She reaches for the nearest flower and removes a single, black-striped pod. I break into an awkward run.

“Stop! Clara! Please, don’t do this!”

She moves inside the wall of stems and takes her place beside them.

“You picked me once, one summer. You crossed that crowded dance floor when we were both so very young. Your first words to me were, God, but you’re pretty. I’d never been told that before.

“We danced that night, and all nights after. We’ve seen so many seasons since. You call me your ‘little flower’. Tell me, Millie, after everything we’ve seen and done, would you still pick me all over again?”

She lifts her fingers to her lips, shuts her eyes, and swallows the seed.

Her body stiffens and her back pulls poker-straight. She tucks her elbows to her sides and outstretches both her hands. Her head falls back, tipping her face to the sun, her lips stretch into a tight line. Clumps of her hair begin to fall; pale, gossamer strands at her feet. I scream as the petals pucker and sprout. Yellow arrowheads burst from her cheeks. She shrinks and twists as her flesh is consumed. Her eyes turn solid black. My vision swims with the weight of my tears. I can’t bear to watch any more.

As the sky grows grey and the sun falls away, I sit with my back to the fields. There’s a seed in my palm, as heavy as stone. As heavy as the choice I must make. I know she is waiting for me, dancing in the breeze. 

I’ll wait until dawn to decide.