Short Story: The Brightest Shade of Gray

My mother was the evil witch who hid in the woods. With her sweet voice, she lured children away from their homes and families. She took them into her home, and locked them in cages. She would fatten them up with sugary foods before consuming their flesh. And while she did this, she felt no regret.

Once again, I come offering some short fiction! “The Brightest Shade of Gray” is a short story inspired by fairy tales, some famous (Hansel and Gretel) while others less well known (Snow White and Rose Red). On top of being a story about good and evil, it’s also about family, and sisterhood. If that sounds the least bit interesting to you, please give it a try! Let me know how you feel when you’ve finished. It’s around 4400 words.

Note: This story was recently rejected for the Sword & Laser anthology. I noticed a few people were posting their rejections, and decided to share mine too!


The Brightest Shade of Gray
A Short Story by Nancy O’Toole

My mother was the evil witch who hid in the woods. With her sweet voice, she lured children away from their homes and families. She took them into her home, and locked them in cages. She would fatten them up with sugary foods before consuming their flesh. And while she did this, she felt no regret.

Then, she had two daughters. First came my sister Arbella, and six years later, me. Her ways changed. Whenever I asked her why, she would simply smile and say that the forest didn’t need that kind of witch anymore.

She spoke of what the forest needed quite often.

My mother could control almost everything, even our ages. She kept me at five for the longest stretch of time, so that is where most of my early memories lay. We lived in a small cottage covered with moss. The trees of the forest grew so close that I could brush my fingers against the bark just by reaching out my bedroom window.

One day, Arbella and I were sitting at the kitchen table, our feet tucked beneath the heavy wooden chairs. My sister leaned over her needle work, her soft curly hair falling in front of her face like a shadow. Her wide gray eyes focused on the needle poking in and out of the fabric as if it was the only thing in the room. My mother stood by the window, the sun streaming over her tall form. Her eyes were shut, her face relaxed, as if she were listening to the words of the woods.

She opened her eyes as the door to out little house swung open. The three of us looked over to see a tall bearded man with broad shoulders walk into the room. In his hand, he held three roses.

“My lady,” he said, nodding towards my mother. He picked up her hand, and raised it for a kiss.

My mother smiled with her lips, but not her eyes, which remained calm and soft.

“So good for you to visit us again,” she said, “and what is this I see? Your greenhouse is finally producing roses?”

“Yes. And as a thank you, I thought I would bring roses, for my beautiful roses.”

In my mother’s hands he placed a small, dusty purple bloom. Then he turned to us. The sight of the deep red rose was enough to draw Arbella away from her needle work. She cradled the large blossom in her hands, and began examining each and every one of the petals.

“Be careful of the thorns now Raeya,” he said, placing a pure white rose into my hands.

“Thank you,” I said to the gardener.

I immediately sunk my nose into its petals. The gentle fragrance intensified so much that I could almost taste it on the air. How could my mother and sister resist the indulgence?

The gardener grinned at my reaction to his present.

“Do you like it Raeya?”

“It is lovely,” I replied, running my fingers over its soft petals. As I did, the contrast of the pure white of the rose brought out the grayness of my skin. I froze, looking up to my sister’s face, which had a slight tan to it, then to my mother’s, which was fairer. Beneath the beard, the gardener’s face was turning the pink of an early sunburn. I lifted up a hand in front of my face and examined the tone. The tint was faint, only really noticeable around the lines and ridges that made up my knuckles, along with the skin trapped beneath my fingernails.

“Is there something wrong, Raeya?” He asked.

“I… I look different than you,” I said. “Is there something wrong with my skin?”

“You are gray, Raeya,” my mother said, not turning from the window. “Your skin, your eyes, and your hair. Have you not noticed this before?”

I shook my head. Of course I had noticed the color, but until today it had never seemed out of place. I felt a tightness build up in my chest, as I stared at my hands and fingernails.

The gardener reached out and placed his tough weathered hand over mine.

“You have lovely skin,” he said, “lovely eyes, and hair. There is nothing wrong with you.”

As he spoke, he reached out and pushed a strand of my straight silvery gray hair behind my ear.

It was then that I first realized that the strange man that visited my mother so often could be our father.

Across the table, Arbella had plucked each individual petal off of her rose and had laid them along the table in a perfectly straight line. Before I realized what she was doing, she took my rose from my hands, and began plucking out its petals as well.

“Arbella, no!” I said, reaching across the table to snatch it away.

My older sister froze, her fingers already resting on another petal. Her gaze darted back and forth between the gardener and me. Her hands began to tremble.

“It’s okay,” the gardener said. “It’s okay Arbella. Raeya, I’ll get you a new rose.”

“I don’t want a new one,” I said, pushing back from the table. As I did so, the table shook, breaking the perfect line of red rose petals.

Tears began to form in Arbella’s eyes.

“I’ll fix it,” she said, biting her lip. With that, she grabbed a fistful of blood red flower petals from the table and ran from the house, taking my white rose with her. I felt my mouth hang open.

“Why is she so stupid! I don’t understand. She’s so much older than me!”

“Raeya.”

The sound of my mother’s soft voice made me pause.

“You’re sister… she may be older in years but there are many things that she has difficulty understanding. I… kept her at a young age for too long. It was my mistake. The ways of the forest are not always easy to comprehend.”

She crossed the room and sat in front of me, the fabric of her pale purple gown rustling.

“You, Raeya are bright, far more than you should be at this age. I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I’ve determined that it’s right to educate you on some of my craft. You will have to be older in order to learn some of which I wish to impart, so we are going to let both you and Arbella grow for a little while. Do you understand?”

For all of my supposed brightness, I understood little. All I knew is that my mother was going to spend time with me, and teach me something important. Something that Arbella would not get to learn.

That night I lay alone in the bed I shared with my sister. Arbella had stayed away from the house since stealing my present, and I couldn’t quell the anger inside of me. Without her warm back to mine, I shivered despite the presence of a soft quilt. When she finally came home, I hid my face beneath my hair, and pretended to be asleep. Before climbing onto our straw filled mattress, she paused next to me and placed something on the bedside table. It wasn’t until I heard her slow sleeping breaths that I had the courage to open my eyes. I reached out for the object on the table.

It was her rose no… our roses. Where her’s had been red, and mine had been white, this possessed both petals, displayed in an artful randomness that made it look natural. Squinting, I took a closer look at where petal met stem. Tiny black stitches marked the bottom of each petal. My sister, in fixing the rose, had created something unique, a patchwork of the red and white. Only now the tips of the petals were starting to turn yellow and brown, marring its perfection. I wondered if my sister realized the damage she had done in creating this lovely thing.

Over the next several years my mother brought me to every corner of the forest. At certain places, we would stop.

“How does this feel,” she would say, guiding my hand to something green and growing.

One day I ran my hands down a tall, thick tree. The gray bark felt smooth and solid against my fingers. Beneath the surface I could feel something dark and cool.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A tree draws in water from the ground, which it uses to live,” my mother explained. “That is what you’re feeling. Can you reach down and find its roots?”

I nodded. My mother explained to me that because I was her daughter, I too had a connection to the forest. This confused me. My mother appeared to receive very distinct messages from the forest, not just a connection with its plants and trees.

“It’s not quite like that,” she said, with a smile, “but you, my dear, are half human. There are many things which will be beyond your reach. Be happy with the power that you do possess, and seek no further.”

She brought me to cool streams with their rushing waters, and the small lake that reflected the blue sky that the trees’ leaves usually blocked from my view. She coaxed animals to me, first moles, and chipmunks, and later deer, foxes, and coyotes, and showed me how to find my connection with each creature, feel what made them move and run. It didn’t take long before this connection became my normal state of being. I could feel the cardinal sitting outside my window without looking, and could sense when the gardener was coming down the path to our house. When he caught slick, silver fish from the river, I felt their pain as life escaped them. We ate meat less and less.

The one place my mother never took me to was the gardener’s greenhouse, although we walked past the small house of metal and glass quite often.

While home, my mother gave me books that showed me how to use the natural flow of the world to my advantage, how to coax a flower into blooming, or summon an animal to my side. My sister, despite being confused by much, was not a fool, and soon found out about these secret meetings. She demanded to learn as well. My mother allowed her to read the books she was teaching me, and to my surprise, Arbella threw herself into the craft with enthusiasm.

One day, I was sitting at the table, reading one of my mother’s books. It spoke of how the plants we found outside could be used, in specific combinations to do anything from cure a cough to resurrect the bodies of the dead. I shivered at some of its passages, but was too curious to close it shut.

“Raeya? Can you come over here?” My sister asked from my bedroom.

“Later,” I replied, “almost done.”

There was a pause from the other room. The house was silent, save for the glass wind chimes the gardener had made, and the rustle of paper as I turned the page.

“Raeya?” My sister said, softer.

I placed the book down, not even bothering to mark my page, stood up from the table, and crossed the room with quick steps. I entered the bedroom and sat down on our bed. Here Arbella sat, her knees tucked up under her chin. She smiled at the sight of me.

It was the smile that made me realize that I had had no intention of entering this room at this time. I was reading a book, was mid-sentence even, and then suddenly… I wanted to be in here. Arbella had inserted a thought into my mind so seamlessly that I hadn’t even realized it wasn’t mine. Like my mother had coxed the foxes and the chipmunks out from the trees, she had called me into her room without me realizing it.

Normally, I would have snapped at her, but it was not anger that filled me at that moment, but an uncomfortable sickness that settled in my stomach. I looked into her wide, unblinking eyes, and felt fear.

Years past, we changed in other ways as well. Our bodies lengthened and then developed soft curves. I saw it with my sister first. Her dark hair grew into glossy brown ringlets like my mother’s. Her figure became curvaceous and womanly. Her red lips, which had always been large, now had a sensual edge to them. She became so like my mother that they began to look more like sisters than mother and daughter. With the exception of my gray eyes, there was little about me that looked like either of them.

My sister began spending more and more time away from the cottage covered with moss and surrounded by trees, sometimes leaving for days. I spent most of my time at home. One day, I was stirring a potion in a cauldron so tiny that it sat comfortably on the table. Next to it was a wooden bird cage that housed a chickadee. Her wing lay at her side in a crooked angle, and despite my insistence that the potion I was brewing would heal her, she chirped irritably at the indignity of the cage.

When I was done, I poured the potion in a little dish made from glass, diluted it with water, and placed it in the cage. My connection with the creature was so strong that I didn’t even have to reach to find her mind. I made a mental suggestion of thirst, and watched as she hopped over to the dish to drink.

It took a minute, but the wing soon moved back in place, and mended itself. The bird began to flutter around the cage, and I felt a smile spread across my face. After weeks of practice, I had finally learned how to fix something more complex than a scratch.

I picked up the chickadee and walked outside. I opened the cage door and watched the bird bolt through the opening and fly off into the trees. The bright sun peaking through the spring leaves caused me to loose sight of her quickly.

As I closed the door to the cage, there was something that made me pause. The hairs on my arms prickled, as if harassed by a chilly wind. A scent filled the air that reminded me of waste, causing me to gag. After a few seconds, the nausea left me, but the wariness stayed.

“Raeya.”

I turned to see my mother standing next to me. Her face remained composed in its familiar mask of tranquility, save for a tiny wrinkle between her eyebrows.

“Yes mother?” I asked.

“Do you think you can bring your sister home?”

I nodded, placing the cage on the bench by the door. I began to walk down the path that led from the house.

“Raeya,” my mother said again.

I turned back to her to find that she wasn’t looking at me. She still stared off into the woods. For a second, she said nothing, as if she had forgotten I was there.

“Promise me that you’ll always look after her, no matter what she does.” She finally said.

“What… I… of course.”

“Thank you,” she said with a nod. “Now please go.”

It was not hard to find my sister. Even without my connection to the living, I always knew where she was. Her heart beat in time with mine, creating a link between the two of us. I walked down the path for a ways before leaving it to enter a part of the forest where the thick trees blocked most of the sun. I raised my gray gown to keep the hem from catching on the twigs and dirt on the ground. My bare feet were tough enough to handle the growth.

On my way, I caught sight of something so strange that I had to stop.

It was a chipmunk lying on its back. Its belly had been split from throat to groin and its skin pulled back and pinned down by sharp twigs. Only it was… empty. The cavity was scraped clean of any blood, organs, or bones.

Those lay next to it in a neat little line.

The forest was not always a peaceful place, and the death of animals, especially small ones, occurred every day. That’s why, when I started feeling these strange deaths a few months ago, I didn’t ponder for more than a few seconds over the unnatural violence of them. It was the way of the wild for animals to die, and they did not always die cleanly. But now seeing the source of the pain… I knew that nothing about this was natural.

I gathered my skirts and began running through the trees. I stumbled once, my dress becoming tangled with a prickle bush. As I pulled it free, I could hear the tear echo around the forest, but I did not stop, did not look behind me. I ran as fast as I could, focused on the sound of my sister’s steady heart beat.

I came upon a clearing bigger than the one where the cottage covered in moss was located. The sunlight streamed unfiltered by the branches of trees, blinding me with its intensity, bleaching the world white. I stopped and blinked, letting my eyes adjust to the strength of the sun.

I saw my sister, dressed in a red gown the color of roses, standing with her back towards me. She turned around as I approached. I could see a streak of red across her cheek. The still wet blood trickled down to her chin. At the sight of me, her face spread into an excited grin.

“Raeya! Quick. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve found. Come see! Raeya?”

I could not respond. What stood behind her made me forget how to use my mouth or limbs.

It was a man, a very still man pinned up against a thick tree. His chin rested on his chest as if he were sleeping, and the skin of his torso had been torn open and pinned back just as methodically as the tiny chipmunk’s had been.

She was still in the process or removing his insides.

Blood ran down the trunk of the tree, saturating the grass of the clearing, and covered the front of my sister’s gown. For a moment, the sight of the man’s bearded face caused me to panic. By the forest, had she killed the gardener? The man that was most likely our father?

But then I saw the slighter build and darker skin and realized that it was a different man, a younger man whose arms had been tied back with rope. Where had my sister found the rope? Where had my sister found the man?

“Raeya, come look. Do you see? Everything inside is so much bigger than a squirrel’s or a frog’s. And did you know human’s had so much blood? I think-“

“Arbella!” I cried, finding my voice, “what have you done?”

My sister recoiled as if I had slapped her.

“I just… wanted to see the pieces. Wanted to know…”

“My… no. Killing a human is…. Killing is… Why did you do this?”

She blinked.

“Why is this creature any different than a squirrel? Or the fish we used to eat for dinner. What about him… makes him special?”

“Arbella… we are part human. We are different.”

She stiffened.

“We are witches,” she replied.

“On our mother’s side yes, but… what about the gardener? He is human, would you think about doing this to him?”

Arbella paused, and looked to the man. At her hesitance I felt my body go cold, then hot with rage.

“This is wrong!” I cried. “Why can’t you understand that? Why can’t you see how… You can’t kill people Arbella. How could you be so foolish?”

Arbella’s face paled white in fear. She dropped the knife she was holding.

“I can fix it,” she said, “just wait. I can…”

She walked up to the body, placed her hands on the dead man’s face, and stared at him. Under her breath, I heard her murmur the singsong words of a spell. A spell that normally required the assistance of herbs, and ritual, tools that she did not appear to need.

It was the spell to raise the dead.

The young man opened his eyes, and began to scream. His voice echoed across the clearing, across the forest, and made the hair on my arms prickle.

“He can’t live like that,” I said. “You’re hurting him.”

Arbella’s faced crumbled in distress, glancing to her unfinished line of organs and bones. She leaned over and looked at them, eyes darting in panic from piece to piece, trying to find the one that would stop the noise, would make him whole again.

“I can’t… I can’t,” she mumbled.

The scream cut off. The man’s head fell down to its chest as he died once more. The magic could only keep him alive so long.

Arbella collapsed to her knees. She was quiet for a moment, and then screamed in frustration, beating her hands against the grass.

As if realizing how to move again, I turned around and began to walk from the clearing, my body shaking in fear, stomach churning as if I was about to vomit.

“Wait…” I could hear Arbella say behind me. “Wait. I still don’t understand. Please help me. Please… sister.”

I could not turn around. Could not look at what had once been a man, at my sister covered in red. I stepped out of the clearing and back into the shadows of the wood.

When I returned to the cottage covered in moss, I found my mother lying next to it, her beautiful form still, her face relaxed in a calm smile. Next to her crouched the gardener. He brushed back a strand of dark hair from her fair face. At my approach, he turned around. His eyes were wet, his face covered in tears.

“She said…”

He stopped to take a breath. I, and the whole world stood in silence, waiting for his words.

“She said the forest didn’t need her any more.”

Over the next few days, roots and vines grew up from the earth and enclosed my mother’s body. A rose bush appeared from nowhere, and covered the mound with its thorny protection. Purple roses, delicate things that would never be able to survive the winter, grew over her still form. Leaves and plants covered her until there was nothing I could see of the powerful witch that had been my mother.

The gardener came to visit one more time. He carried a thick black book filled with dangerously thin pages, and tiny print. He read a few words about returning to the earth, apparently a human custom that I found to be strangely comforting. I did not understand the parts where he talked about “God,” so I asked him about it. The gardener shook his head.

“This place… the forest feels so separate from my world. I don’t even know if he’s here.”

As he spoke, he played with a band of gold around one of the fingers on his left hand. This struck me as significant. Neither I, my sister, nor my mother had anything like it. I wanted to ask him what it meant, if it was something human as well. I wanted to ask if he would take me to his greenhouse, or maybe even further away, but he turned and left before I could speak. He walked away form me, head down, hands stuffed into his pockets.

I never saw him again.

My sister returned a day later. I could feel her approach, and watched from the kitchen window as she walked up to the mound of earth and thorns that covered our mother. She reached out and placed a hand over where the witch’s heart had once beat, and closed her eyes.

The glass wind chimes sang in the wind.

Arbella glanced up, her wide gray eyes meeting mine. I saw that, unlike mine, hers were dry.

She stood up, not looking away, and then nodded. She turned and began to walk away, retreating deep into the forest, almost beyond my mental reach.

Time passed as it always had, but Arbella and I were once more frozen still, never aging, never changing. I felt the violent deaths of animals, and, occasionally, the powerful death of a human that had been foolish enough to wander into our woods. One day, I felt the felling of hundreds of trees as humans trespassed en masse. They took a dirt path and widened it so they could bring their mechanized vehicles through the edges of our territory. They covered the road in a dark material much like stone that grew hot in the sun. More and more humans passed through, a few being tempted into the trees by the sight of a dark haired woman of unimaginable beauty.

My sister is now the evil witch who hides in the woods. She lures in adults and children with magic strong enough to fool a witch. She collects pieces of them and treasures their remains. And while she does this, she feels no regret. Truly, she cannot.

For years I have hid in the cottage covered in moss, surrounded by tall trees, the wind chimes, and the body of my mother. But now I know it is time for me to step out. The forest has not told me this, it never has spoken to me, but I know nevertheless.

My sister may have started out on the other end of the forest, but over time she has moved closer, and closer to me and the road where the humans pass. With every step, I feel her more. I feel the pain of her victims more. I know I have tolerated this for too long. It is time for me to look after my sister again, to fight back. I know I am not fully human. I will never be as pure as the white rose, but I will be the brightest shade of gray, the one thing that can protect the humans, and the forest, from the evil witch that hides among the trees, my sister.

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8 thoughts on “Short Story: The Brightest Shade of Gray

  1. Hello Nancy,
    thank you so much for reading and commenting on my story! Your writing is excellent (color me green), but I see that we’ve both omitted the typical short story surprise ending – one of those things to keep in mind for next time I guess.
    All the best,
    Kai

  2. Lovely story and very nicely written. Good pacing and use of just a handful of characters. I like how you managed to play with the passage of time. Enjoyed it despite the lack of a twist ending (which I don’t feel is necessary at all). It does leave one thirsting for the inevitable confrontation.

    • The passage of time was actually something I was concerned about, as I worried that it make the story feel a little choppy. It makes me really happy to know it worked for you.

      Thanks for reading my story, and leaving such nice comments 🙂

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