The 1031 Story Challenge.

Simon P. Clark has launched a short story challenge on his blog over here: http://www.simonpclark.com/p/the-1031-story-challenge.html

It’s a very simple idea. 1031 words or less in length, or 1031 as a theme, to be completed by 31st of October.

I can be found over on Twitter @BoyceWP.

Here’s my contribution:

The Feast of the Dead.

The ancient Celts celebrated Samhain on the 1st of November. It marked the Feast of the Dead. Sounds sinister I know, but, historians and academics alike assure us that it was an archaic tradition stemming from ignorance and superstition. Food and wine would be left out for the wandering spirits the night before, which, when appropriated by Christianity, became known as All Hallows Eve. Halloween to you and me.

All sorts of customs are attributed to Halloween. Wearing of masks so as to blend in with the spirits. Guising, where kids dressed up and performed for treats. Wine included. And `souling’. This was a term, they tell us, that was given to the act of receiving soul cakes, tasty breaded treats, for favour. The needy would come knocking and asking for these cakes and in return would have to pray for whatever their generous donor asked for in return. No such thing as a free lunch. It’s this last custom that was most corrupted in academia. Souling wasn’t some free-market way of buying praying power to your ends. There was more to it.

***

My body was failing me. In my mid-eighties, living alone. Joints ached, hearing faltered, and my eyes just weren’t what they were. I’d come from a long line of men who’d outlived their wives. I buried my Martha some twenty years before. I always found it hardest when the days were short and nights long. The dark troubled me. There was nothing worth watching on the tube so I’d find myself sitting in my armchair thinking. Reliving times past. The rhythmical ticking of the clock in the hall. I was faintly aware of my life passing with each stroke.

October was always a special month. Kids stayed out as the sun dipped below the tree-line a little longer than they should, playing into the creeping dark. It took a while to adjust to the change in day light hours after the abundance the summer had offered. Kids were never really ready to give up their play time but come November their resistance ebbed and streets were quiet again by six o’clock.

Seemed Halloween couldn’t come quick enough. Once October rolled in it was never long before firecrackers, and fireworks were detonated around the neighbourhood into the night. When I had a dog it would cower beneath my bed. Poor little bastard must have thought the world was ending. Or some unspeakable predator was stalking him. As my hearing grew weaker the pops and cracks became less of a concern to me. Especially after the dog passed. Nowadays the clock drowned out most things outside my four walls.

I saw myself as a member of the community. I did my bit. Got in an assortment of candies, and fruits for the fussier parents. I’d wait for the kids to come knocking. I’d heave myself shakily from my chair and open the door. I can’t say any of the costumes were of particular merit. Most were cheap mass-produced tat bought from the local joke shop. Folks didn’t seem to bother making their own anymore. Or maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to.

By the time midnight would come around the knocking would stop. I expected no different that year. I sat in my chair, in the dark to save on bills, and listened to what faint popping I could make-out. It was safe to say I was tired. I’d been wearing this skin too long. I was stagnating. It was time for a change.

I went into the kitchen and packed up the cake and treats I had set aside. I pulled on my knee length overcoat and stepped out into the crisp air. I’d been making this run for years. My neighbour’s were a sweet family. Young and full of life. They had moved in about eight years ago and I had made a habit of delivering my surplus treats every Halloween. I always made sure I had surplus. They saw me as a lonely old man seeking human contact. They’d bring me over homemade pie from time-to-time. Doing their bit for the community. To say I coveted their life might be an understatement. I rapped on their door and stood waiting, patiently. A few more seconds was nothing compared to the years of laying the foundation. The man of the house answered. Perfect.

`Like clockwork old timer’ he said.

`Like clockwork’ I agreed.

I handed him the treats in a bag then gave him the cake on a plate.

`You been doin’ some baking?’

`Ye’sir I have. Martha’s old recipe. Taste it. Want to make sure they’re to your liking before I put another batch in the oven for the whole family.’

He looked at me with pity. I’d grown used to his condescension. Being as old as I was I knew when to bite my tongue.

`Sure.’ he said and took a bite. `Tastes great.’

I nodded and told him to give my wishes to his family. He thanked me. I didn’t bake anymore cakes. I left my home as neat as my body would allow and I sat in my chair listening to the clock hurtle towards midnight. On the turn of the hour I left the skin I had lived in for so long.

***

The thing about souling, and The Feast of the Dead, they weren’t born of superstition. They were born out of necessity. People like me, we relied on the desperate. We didn’t desire praying power. We knew better than that. No, what we wanted was an exchange. They might have thought they were entering a simple contract but there is no such thing. There is always fine print. They took offerings of food for their families and in return, we took their skin.

***

The morning was dark when I woke in a strange bed to the coarse chirp of an electric alarm. I lay there listening to the inexplicable creaks of a silent home. I felt good. Strong. Reborn. My wife rolled over and laid a kiss on my cheek.

`Time to get the kids ready for school’ she whispered.

I returned her kiss, and smiled.

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