For the latest assignment, inspired by W.W. Jacobs’s macabre mini masterpiece ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, you were invited to supply a chilling short story featuring an animal’s body part.
There were echoes of Jacobs in the entry: in Alan Millard’s malign machinery, for example, and Jennifer Moore’s be-careful-what-you-wish-for theme.
Toni Hinckley, Roger Rengold and David Higham all stood out. And Brian Allgar’s tale about Donald Trump, a stallion and a DIY organ-transplant operation was an unlucky loser.
The winners below earn £25 each. The extra fiver goes to Frank Upton.
‘Sea View’. Yes, you could glimpse Morecambe Bay from the gate of the high, gruff, stone farmhouse. She would auction it, of course, with the owners disappeared. The key turned and, with a verdigris smudge on the shoulder of her coat, Alex was inside and engulfed by an insidious miasma of fungal spores. Her torch bleached a gigantic nodding polyp of dry rot. Each room had its own presiding eidolon in the form of a bloated fruiting body. Alex dared not risk the stairs but forced herself to enter the ‘feature farmhouse kitchen’. Here the puffy fungi were gathered in a chillingly obscene tableau. The scientist in her bade her inspect one of the smaller growths, the shape of a child’s play table. Two symmetrical cones near one end of this excrescence puzzled her. She touched one of them.
It was a cat’s ear.
There were those who claimed the fossilised frog’s leg had the power to turn back time: three kisses, with your feet in fresh water, and eternal youth shall be yours.
The thief, a practical fellow, would usually have scoffed at such superstitious nonsense. But not at the money his ageing client had offered him. He slipped the ancient limb from its glass casing (so much for museum security!) and made his getaway.
Who knows? Perhaps on a drier, less puddled night, he’d have resisted temptation. Maybe if he hadn’t discovered his first grey hair that morning ...But what if it was true, after all? Why not reap the benefits and the cash? He pressed his lips to the little stone knee — once, twice, three times — and vanished into the darkness.
Museum staff discovered the missing leg next morning. And a stray tadpole, floundering in the drying puddle beside it.
Mrs Santini was dressed for a Mob funeral, her eyebrows were continuous and she gripped her purse like a buzzard on its roost.
‘Mr Marlowe, you need to find my Geraldo,’ she said.
I let the idea circle my brain till it ran out of gas. She looked at me as if measuring me up for the gallows, then laid a portrait of McKinley on the desk. I got the details, banked the $500 and set out, a private eye on a case.
It wasn’t the hardest case. Rabbits leave a trail. I located Geraldo two miles from Mrs Santini’s, with an unemployed barman called Marvin. Geraldo had somehow lost a front paw. Marvin took ten bucks for him.
Case closed. Except a week later I heard Marvin had won the lottery jackpot, then been shot dead waving the mascot that had brought him luck.
Walt Mulley never fully came back from the war. Took himself off into the Outback where the aboriginals watched inscrutably as he divested himself of what humanity remained. Employing hoarse incantations of his own devising, Walt fashioned a dark God from a dingo skull, hanging this bloody remnant about his neck and feeding its power with hymns guttural and obscene: travellers happening across him reckoned they heard Walt’s God answer as theirs never did. I worked shop with my dad back then and remember his stern instruction never to charge Walt for his bits on the rare occasions he happened by town. Those who crossed Walt and his dingo God didn’t live a week before illness or accident got them. Walt’s dead now, of course; we only found the kiddies that found his body by following howls — half human, half dingo — carried on a freakish wind.
‘Perhaps it was a premonition,’ said Jake as he and Meg lay down in the grass, taking a break from hay-making. ‘I dreamt I was camping and, in the dead of night, heard something scratching against the canvas. Next day, searching outside, I spotted a trail of bent grasses splattered with blood. Following the trail I beheld the severed hand of a mole, ghostly pale, clawing its way ahead of me through the undergrowth just out of reach. Down on all fours in a frenzied chase, I scampered after that hideous appendage and, lurching forwards, stretched out to seize it.’ Demonstrating the action he flung out his arm unaware of the nearby labourer’s scythe. Meg screamed but was too late to save him. All she could do was stare in horror at Jake’s severed hand, sliced off at the wrist, bleeding into the ground, just out of his reach.
Thus did Delichon approach Alauda the Tune-weaver, begging the secrets of birdsong and flight; these she imparted. Instantly the syrinx of a lark formed in his throat; plumage festooned limbs. ‘Shall I henceforth soar and trill?’ he demanded. ‘Indeed, and well. Yet never attempt the tritone.’ But Delichon was an arrogant man, impervious to counsel; ignored the urgent words of the prophetess. Daily he crafted arpeggios, triads, scales harmonic and melodic; perfected the modes Dorian, Phrygian, plagal. In the deep countryside he would take wing from pleasant meadows, sweetening the skies with heavenly music. Farm labourers gazed up in wonder, cattle lowed in bovine delight.
‘What must I avoid?’ the man-lark mused. Exultant, he produced resonant tritones; fell silent and plummeted to earth, quite dead. For he had unlocked the augmented fourth, the Devil’s discord, hideous and fatal to mankind.
Your next challenge is to submit a poem about a deadly foodstuff. Please email entries, wherever possible, of up to 16 lines to email@example.com by midday on 15 February.