It’s the cold mud that wakes me, and the taste of duckweed in my throat. In my mouth, my nose, my ears. It fills my lungs, creeps behind my eyes. I burst through the slime with a half-formed scream.
I retch until I feel empty, hollow, withered. Stagger to my feet, knee-high in the sticking black mire. The mud keeps oozing from my eyes. Fetid bog slime on my arms, my breasts, my mother’s finest dress. Torn bodice, rent seams in starlight. Embroidered with weed, black mud in a putrid train behind me. But where is he?
My darling, he said he’d meet me, come for me by the hunter’s moon. I stumble through the viscous fluid, water thick and oily from the bodies of fallen trees, dead frogs, all rotting. Rotting in the mud with me.
Branches clutch my arms but I don’t care. Let them tear my dress, my darling will not care. He will greet me with joy when I come to his arms. Said he’d meet me here, before I awoke in the mud.
No moon. Groping at moss-slick trunks in the dark, trees coated with old-man’s-beard like rotting bridal veils. Glistening shelves of fungus. Mother used to say the wee folk met on those shelves for tea and biscuits, to gossip on the lives of mortals. I can hear them laughing now. Foolish little rich girl runs off in the night, wakes up screaming in the mud. Buried in the mud.
I can hear them. Shivering hiccups of sound echoing over the marsh. Laughing, mocking.
No. Singing! Yes, it is singing, a man singing, and he can’t hide the tremor in his voice. Oh, my darling, I am here! You’ve not lost me!
I try to call out, but the mud burbles up again from the hollow pit of my stomach, oozing out my open throat. Choking. A necklace of filth and blood like black diamonds to match my mother’s dress.
I stumble, my bare foot catches on something, and I plunge into the slime. The singing stops.
I clutch at dead sticks, swamp cabbage, pulling myself up. No moon. My darling said he’d come for me by the hunter’s moon, the blood moon. Did he come? Did he wait, not knowing I slept under the mud?
My hand hits something, submerged in the water. I grab for it, sinking my fingers into the filth. Mother would be aghast if she saw me treat my nails so. If she knew I was here. Never told her. Stole her dress and crept out the back gate.
The lamp is thick with slime when I pull it up, caked with layers of residue, rusted hinges, but I still recognize it. The oil lamp. I run my nails over the glass. My darling always liked them long, my long nails, long claws scraping glass. I must have dropped it. It won’t burn now, won’t light my way home.
He’s whistling now, and my head snaps about. I see him. Oh, my darling, look my way! Come to me!
But he doesn’t see me. I wave my arms. Cry out and burble frog slime out my throat. The old lamp clanks in my hand. Dead. If only — no wait, there it goes.
A hollow flame like verdigris burns in the watery depths of the glass. A dim, submarine radiance cast about the marsh. He sees my light.
Come, my darling. Come to me.
I raise the lamp, shine its murky light on my face, pallid breasts above the rent neckline, so he’ll know me. He watches the light, his beautiful eyes enchanted with its eldritch fire.
I cannot speak, throat parted like two pliant lips, so I bob the light to beckon him on. Come. Come, let me show you where I lay. Come, let me show you why you could not find me.
He stumbles, sinks into the water. It swarms up to his chest, gurgles about his arms. The water swirls about my slender calves as I lead him on.
He is lovely in the mossy light, his mouth slack and hair dishevelled — but darling, your hair was never curly before.
The lantern sways as I beckon him on. My darling, how I’ve missed you. I’ve been under the ground so long, asleep in the dark.
The mud catches him, the mud that burbles from my throat, and he grasps for me, all flailing limbs and wild eyes. The dead space in my chest beats again with longing, peat throbbing in the hollow beneath my breast.
I bend to him, and the lantern dances in his face. But — Oh!
This face is not my darling’s face. These hands that claw my ankles are not his hands. He thrashes, his mouth twists up as the mud sucks him down. Such a beautiful smile! Just like my darling’s smile. It must be his.
I catch him, sink my claws into his arms so the mud will not take him. I embrace him, kiss him, the mouth I’ve longed for in the dark.
I take my darling’s smile. Eat it. Swallow it. It runs warm and soft into my stomach, filling the hollow pit with blood-hot kisses. The rest I let go, give to the mud, so kind to me, sheltering me until my darling’s smile found me.
When the rest of my darling comes to me, I will collect the pieces, hold them warm inside me until I have them all.
My lantern dims, but I know its eldritch fire will dazzle my darling’s eyes again. I will wake when he comes near, and I will lead him to me. And piece by piece, I will make him whole again.
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