PseudoPod 851: Flash on the Borderlands LXIV: Purification
Candlemas: “February 2, 2023 is Candlemas. I’ve always had a thing for microfiction -tiny, jewel-like figures, acting out their passion play to the chiming of a pocket watch. Repetition seems to polish such tales, not wear them down, till they shine like fairy stories, eternally recommencing in some corner of the mind.”
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind:
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.
by Don Mark Baldridge
In silent, black and white; handcranked, 16 frames per second: A large piece of driftwood washes up on this cold and miserable island. The devout recognize something in it. Believe they can trace, in its gnarled whirls, the figure of the Virgin.
These simple people build a small chapel of rough fieldstone and enshrine it there -an upright, kneeling shape.
A hundred years later, the chapel has fallen into ruin. Crossfade to expired Fuji 16mm color stock, pushed slightly, grainy and handheld: The former fishing village all but abandoned, the sun closing in on the sea.
Two girls, foreign backpackers -long legged in bright shorts: orange, yellow- hike across the island. They barely share a language, communicating, instead, by helpful gestures.
A man in a low cap, driving an unmarked lorry, brakes for them, offering a ride. They climb eagerly into the cab.
But he attempts to take them beyond their turning, up into the hills, the coming darkness. He won’t stop to let them out -hardly looks at them- but accelerates up the incline.
At last they throw themselves from the moving vehicle, rolling in the gravel beside the road.
The truck teeters on the soft shoulder but doesn’t even slow. The driver will not return; they’ve lost a backpack.
Swearing after him, spitting blood and dust, they help one another up; they limp on.
They go a long way, dirt embedded in the cuts on their knees, the palms of their hands, before they come upon the deserted village -its only inhabitants furtive and strange, vanishing around corners as the girls call out to them. A mist rises from the sea, enshrouding the old stone buildings, softening the cobbles, the street corners, dimming the few lamps.
They encounter an old woman in the street, beg her for help. “An inn,” they say, “A stable!” they try miming: Food. Rest.
But she warns them away.
“It’s Candlemas,” she tells them, as if that explains something.
A badly repaired film break, ghosts of perforated splicetape, and she, too, vanishes. The sound of her stick recedes, tapping flagstones.
The girls stumble -finally, exhausted- across the little shrine, perched just above the village. The view from its tumbled doorway overlooks dirty tile roofs, floating on fog. A chill settles over the island.
Inside, something like a million candles have burned down over the driftwood figure in a century. They’ve been left to gutter on every flat surface, jammed into every angle and their wax has dripped, flowed over the thing till it looks revolting:
Fat, a dead-white slug, ropy waxen fangs unevenly overhanging the chin.
A single tealight balanced on the thing’s knobby head, burns -the only light in the place.
High contrast, crushed shadows -scratches visible on the film.
Together -desperate, trembling- they pull the idol down, break it up with a camping hatchet. They burn it all, for heat, light. They share the remaining sleeping bag.
Warming at last, they make love beside the flames. The wax-infused shards burn smoky, but bright.
Exhausted, the girls sleep -thigh between thighs.
Meanwhile, the old woman, huddled in her hovel, heats tea in a samovar -its silver blackened by a single tealight.
She looks up, listening. Whatever she hears, something distant, or very small, it troubles her.
She goes to the window. Opens it, throwing back the shutters.
The cold air moves into her room and settles down, like a guest. There, in the sky, gray and tattered clouds part, tearing like cobwebs. She crosses herself, staring up at the blackened silver moon.
The film freezes, melts in the arclight: a blob of liquifying celluloid bubbles blackly, bursts like a boil. A gash opens in the sky and blinding white light pours through.
A Lonely Vigil
by Bitter Karella
We know so little about the origins of consciousness. Have you heard this theory? Scientists say that, deep in our primordial past, when we were still just slimy things with legs crawling on a slimy sea, the mind was not one beautiful uninterrupted monologue but a cacophony of voices, a gaggle of mini-minds each designed to fulfill a specific task. One mind to stand at the helm as the body scavenged for food, another to take control to flee a predator, a third to take over at mating time… Each mind separate and independent but all sharing a single brain and a single body. What would happen when a mind was called to give up the wheel? It would simply blink out of existence, gently falling into oblivion, until the time came that it was called upon to resume control. And then, instantly, it would return.
But our ancestors who had fewer voices vying for attention in their heads were better able to survive and, in time, all those voices merged. And now each of us is but a single unified consciousness.
Almost unified. What if I told you that not all the voices merged? What if I told you that there is still one who remains separate?
The mind that controls sleep. He remains separate and alone, the nightwatchman who mans the controls when you slide into oblivion every night.
Surely you sense him sometimes at the changing of the guard, sliding past as you drift into sleep and he erupts into waking. What a strange, solitary existence he must live! To lie, paralyzed but alert, under the thick blanket of sleep. All he knows is the walls of your bedroom; over the years, he has memorized every inch of your bedroom for he has nothing else to do, nothing else he can do, for the eight plus hours of his nightly patrol. The slightest movement, the merest twitch of a limb, would break the spell – plunging him back to darkness and bringing you to waking. Perhaps today you decide to go on vacation, a weekend jaunt to some sea side hotel. Tonight, he will wake up in a strange bed in an alien room. And what can he make of this? He knows nothing of your daily perambulations; he is separate from you. Perhaps he might piece together a fragmented picture of your life from the occasional stray memory that somehow drifts across the infinite gulf that divides you from him. This would be his only clue, a random fleeting thought from the mind of a stranger. Yet even so, he weaves together these foreign memories, the only thing he can do in the stillness of his head, into… something… and then lobs it back across the gulf toward you.
Through your dreams, he calls out to you. Hello. Are you awake?
The Lighthouse Used to Have Keepers
By Rachel Unger
Welcome to tonight’s meditation, and the final meditation of your island retreat. Let’s begin with a wind-down exercise. Take a moment to settle yourself comfortably in your chair, feet on the ground, facing out toward the water. Take a deep breath, breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Feel the pull of the air down your throat, expanding the soft flesh of your belly. Good.
Notice how the brilliant blues of the summer afternoon have faded into the bruised and sallow tones of sunset. Fog gathers at the horizon, about to roll over the beach for the night like a thick blanket. Far below the open lighthouse window, the water washes between the weathered limbs of the trees, their shadows stretching long over the sand.
Let’s take a moment and breathe, as the setting sun tints the fog with crimson and darkens the trees’ pale, reaching fingers. Be aware of the room around you, filled with the artifacts of previous lighthouse keepers. Sink into a deeper meditative state as you notice the staring eyes of their portraits. The gaze of dead men, drawn here via pen and ink through paper, like a séance. You’ve read the battered logbook of their duties—operating the foghorn, maintaining the light. The old tome sits quiet now on the mantle below the oldest portrait. Beside it is a wooden carving. The whittled lines of the ship echo the grain of the driftwood, turning and twisting. The boat is tilted as though about to capsize, only held up by the picture frame. The portrait’s physical border has been carved from another piece of pale driftwood.
They call these barrier islands a refuge, the wildlife protected from most human presence. This place doesn’t see many people anymore, only the occasional retreat members like yourself and the employees at the education center just off the causeway. The lighthouse used to have keepers, those men portrayed on the walls around you, charged with ensuring the safety of the boats. For over a century, the Sewee Native Americans fished and hunted amongst the juniper and myrtle protected creeks. Smallpox, slavery, and the sea reduced their numbers. The only trace of them here now are the oyster middens. Before them, before the lighthouse, the coastline had other visitors—pirates and smugglers, trade passing north and south. There were more wrecks, then, men pulled from their ships into the waiting water. There are so few visitors to the island these days.
You have entered into a state of total relaxation. As the light fades, the fog envelops the island below and the machinery of the lantern begins, the programmed cycle like a daily ritual. You are filled with gratitude for your own beating heart, rhythmically sweeping blood through you like the lantern sweeps light across the water.
Your body rises, feet making their careful way down the spiral stairs to the outer door. This does not alarm you, as you have done it so many times before during this retreat. These stairs are as familiar to you as your own body, the slow grind of the machinery like your pulse. The icy handle of the yellow lighthouse door turns under your hand, rust biting into the skin of your palm.
The cold grit of the sand rasps underfoot when you step away from the lighthouse toward the water’s edge. Behind you, the tangle of tidal creeks spidering over the island all rush from the cover of palmetto and myrtle to the ocean, like a throng of onlookers for your stroll. The soft sound of the saltwater grows slightly louder as you approach. The evening air is cool, the humidity from earlier in the day being sucked into the low gray clouds surrounding you.
The stark silhouettes of the trees emerge from the mist. They call beaches like this ‘boneyard beaches’ for the driftwood remains of shoreline forests. The bleached white trees have been etched by water, wind, and the abrasive kiss of time. The distorted pattern of the bark is uneasy and combative, like the contortions of a language struggling to be born.
In the distance, the foghorn moans, causing your bones to vibrate. Feel the motion of them deep in your body, calling out to the water like a summons or an offering. Shells of oyster and whelk reach for the skin of your feet like teeth. You pass beyond the trees, leaving their thrumming tension behind.
The rhythmic splashing of the waves draws you onward. As you walk, the water retreats as though caught in the ebb of an exceptionally low tide. You continue on for minutes and then hours. After a while the foghorn is only a whisper behind you. The light from the lantern room fades until there is only the darkness above and the crunch of the icy sand under your bloodied feet.
There is something more than the fog out in the water. Though you approach, you never get a good look at the shadowy form. Perhaps you are passing near more driftwood, though perhaps not.
Breathe deeply, inhaling the copper-rich tang of the mist underlain by the smell of the ocean. Your tears add more salt to the air, like adding savor to a meal. The coiling form in the fog comes closer, although you still do not understand what you are seeing. Only its voice is familiar—it is the same whispering as the portraits speaking to you in the night, like the wind through the limbs on the boneyard beach.
You will not understand, even at the end, but your knowledge is unnecessary for the ritual to conclude.
Your sacrifice is accepted
Greetings, listener, and welcome to PsuedoPod. I’m Ben McKenzie, your host for this week. This is my first time here on PseudoPod – usually I’m hosting my Terry Pratchett book club podcast called Pratchat. If you’re familiar with Pratchett’s work you might wonder what I’m doing here – he’s known for fantasy and comedy, not horror. But he believed fantasy was a very broad church, encompassing everything from Tolkein to Lovecraft to Agatha Christie – and definitely horror. His second ever published story, Night Dweller, appeared in New Worlds magazine in 1965, when Pratchett was just 17! It’s a very serious horror tale about the terrors experienced by a crew who travel beyond the edge of our solar system. It’s pretty good, though Pratchett presumably didn’t think so – he never allowed it to be collected or republished. But perhaps that’s just because there aren’t any jokes in it. Though even his comedy novels sometimes contain some moments of true terror – especially the ones for children…
Anyway, enough about Pratchett – he didn’t write any of this week’s collection of flash fiction stories, which are all PseudoPod originals. Flash fiction, by the way, refers to very short stories – loosely defined, anything up to about a thousand words. And you can do a lot with less than a thousand words, as you’ll see in the brilliant trio of stories we have this week.
First up is “Candlemas”, written by Don Mark Baldridge, and narrated by Kelley Frank.
Writer Don Mark Baldridge is a Professor of Art and Computer Science, which sort of tells you what you need to know about him. A US citizen, he’s been around the world, spending months and years at a time abroad. Don Mark is a founding member of a Loose Unsyndicate.
Narrator Kelley M. Frank is a former English professor and currently works as a full time horror artist and writer with her company, Morbid Smile Art. She writes film and book analysis reviews, and has appeared in a number of anthologies including Georgia Gothic: Stories from the Dark Side of the Deep South, Slice Girls, and Flesh and Bone: Rise of the Necromancers. You can find Kelley at indoor and outdoor festivals, conventions, and shows of all kinds in the Atlanta area, or online at morbidsmile.com.
And now we have a story for you, and we promise you, it’s true.
I do love a good found footage story – and while I have seen it done in prose before, usually it presents as “discovered documents”, whereas Don Mark manages to keep us in film mode. And he gives it a real sense of immediacy and wrongness, without ever needing to be obvious. Talking about writing this piece, Don Mark said: “I’ve always had a thing for microfiction -tiny, jewel-like figures, acting out their passion play to the chiming of a pocket watch. Repetition seems to polish such tales, not wear them down, till they shine like fairy stories, eternally recommencing in some corner of the mind.” Even his commentary is good! I might need to listen to this week’s stories a few times, and see if he’s right…
Our next story is “A Lonely Vigil”, written by Bitter Karella, and narrated by Halloween Bloodfrost.
Writer Bitter Karella is the writer and horror aficionado behind the microfiction comedy Twitter account @Midnight_pals, which asks what if all your favourite horror writers gathered around the campfire to tell scary stories. When not writing twitter jokes, she also dabbles in cartooning and text game design. Her horror text games, available on itch.io, include Night House, All Visitors Welcome, Toadstools, and Santa Carcossa Nights.
Narrator Halloween Bloodfrost is proud to represent the Trans and Neurodiverse community and has been a narrator for Escape Artists for nigh on a decade. Zhur began at Escape Artists on PodCastle with mini episode 65, “Blood Willows”, and “Ties of Silver” (episode 187), before finding a happy and dark home here at Pseudopod.
Steel yourself for our second story; you’ll hope it isn’t true…
I love the Midnight Pals – which is a brilliant use of microfiction in itself – but to my shame I hadn’t made the effort to check out Bitter Karella’s other work. Well, this changes all that. In less than 500 words she’s inserted an idea into my head that I’ll carry with me forever. And I bet you will too – isn’t it just a little too plausible? Won’t you be wondering about this when you next go to sleep? I know I will… Do yourself a favour and check out bitterkarella’s itch.io store, not least because at the time this episode is out, she’s got a big fundraising sale on for a friend in need. It’s not just games – you can also get ebooks, including The Old Snatchengrabber’s Big Book of Child-Eating Monsters, and collections of The Midnight Pals, so you don’t need to go near Twitter to read them!
Our final story this week is “The Lighthouse Used to Have Keepers”, written by Rachel Unger, and narrated by Lisa Wood.
Writer Rachel thinks that now is an excellent time for us all to be kind to each other. Yes, really. She spends her days excavating stories from the dirt, staring down a microscope, and daydreaming about her next bike ride. You can find her online at www.fictionbuffet.com.
Narrator Lisa Marie Wood is a multi-award winning dark fiction author, screenwriter, and poet. She won the Golden Stake Award for her novel The Promise Keeper, and has published short fiction in groundbreaking works including Sycorax’s Daughters and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire, and her poetry was featured in the Bookfest Book Award-winning anthology Under Her Skin. Wood is also the founder of the Speculative Fiction Academy; an English and Creative Writing professor; and a horror scholar. You can find out more about her at www.lmariewood.com.
Now, take a deep breath, relax, and let yourself fall into our final story. The truth is within you.
When I’m not making podcasts, I work with kids a lot, and one of my jobs has been to run workshops with teenage boys. That’s probably not the kind of horror you’ve come here for, so I’ll spare you the details, but as part of those workshops I taught ways to deal with stress. I’ve run creative visualisation sessions hundreds of times. So this one really sucked me in; I’ve seen the form parodied for laughs plenty of times, but to turn it into a horror story? Genius. And I love that Rachel kept many of the things that make a guided mediation work: it’s a journey that takes you away to a peaceful location, with multi-sensory descriptions that help your brain distance itself from what’s worrying you. In this case, by giving you something new to worry about…
But that’s it – we’ve come to the end of this Flash on the Borderlands. And what a delighWhat did you think of them? Let us know via social media, or if you’re a Patreon subscriber, jump on to the Discord and let us know there!
While I’m talking about subscribing and support, as you probably know, PseudoPod is funded by people like you, listener. One of the reasons I was so keen to come on as a guest host is that like the folks at Escape Artist, I think creative workers deserve to be paid. And at PseudoPod, they pay everyone – writers, narrators and producers – something they’re rightly very proud of! But just like the podcasts I’ve worked on, PseudoPod relies on your generosity. If you enjoy listening to the show, and if you’re able, please go to pseudopod.org and donate by clicking on “feed the pod”. Or, if you’re like and you love a good nerdy T-shirt, check out the Escape Artists store at Voidmerch. They have hoodies, tank tops, sweatshirts and other stuff – the PsuedoPod text logo ones are pretty metal! The link for that is on the main Escape Artists page. there’s plenty else you can do to support the podcasts and creators you love. For PsuedoPod, please consider leaving reviews of this and any other of your favourite episodes, share them on whichever form of social media seems the least awful this week, or just tell your friends. Believe it or not, word of mouth is still one of the major ways people find new podcasts.
PseudoPod is part of the Escape Artists Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and this episode is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. Download and listen to the episode on any device you like, but don’t change it or sell it. Theme music is by permission of Anders Manga.
We leave you with a closing quote from – well, who else? – Terry Pratchett:
“It is well known that things from undesirable universes are always seeking an entrance into this one, which is the psychic equivalent of handy for the buses and closer to the shops.”
See you soon, folks, take care, stay safe.
About the Authors
Bitter Karella is the writer and horror aficionado behind the microfiction comedy account @Midnight_pals, which asks what if all your favorite horror writers gathered around the campfire to tell scary stories. When not writing twitter jokes, she also dabbles in cartooning and text game design. Her horror text games, available on itchio, include Night House, All Visitors Welcome, Toadstools, and Santa Carcossa Nights.
Don Mark Baldridge
Rachel thinks that now is an excellent time for us all to be kind to each other. Yes, really. She spends her days excavating stories from the dirt, staring down a microscope, and daydreaming about her next bike ride.
About the Narrators
Kelley M. Frank
Kelley M. Frank is a horror artist, author, and reviewer specializing in creepy illustration, painting, and design expressing her emotional states as an asexual witch and outspoken advocate for the strange and unusual. You can find her at MorbidSmile.com.
L. Marie Wood
L. Marie Wood is a dark fiction author, screenwriter, and poet with novels in the psychological horror, mystery, and dark romance genres. She won the Golden Stake Award for her novel The Promise Keeper. She is a recipient of the MICO Award and has won Best Horror, Best Action, Best Afrofuturism/Horror/Sci-Fi, and Best Short Screenplay awards in both national and international film festivals. Wood’s short fiction has been published in groundbreaking works, including the Bram Stoker Award Finalist anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire. She is also part of the 2022 Bookfest Book Award winning poetry anthology, Under Her Skin. Her academic writing has been published by Nightmare Magazine and in the cross-curricular text, Conjuring Worlds: An Afrofuturist Textbook. Wood is the founder of the Speculative Fiction Academy, an English and Creative Writing professor, a horror scholar with a PhD in Creative Writing and an MFA in Speculative Fiction, and a frequent contributor to the conversation around the evolution of genre fiction. Learn more about L. Marie Wood at www.lmariewood.com.