Flash Fiction – The Cottage

“Oh, you wonderful children,” I murmur. I race back to the cottage and grab my axe, then I follow the trail of breadcrumbs into the forest.

Flash fiction is a fascinating form of writing. The rules are very simple: keep your story short. The length is usually stipulated by the contest–this contest was limited to 1,000 words (I’ve seen as low as 100 words).

If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be easier to write a shorter story than a longer story?” you’d be wrong. All the elements of a longer story have to be included in a very short time: story arc, character development, conflict, resolution, character arc, suspense, emotion… the list goes on. You find yourself, as a writer, thinking: how can I say this phrase in just one word and have it convey the exact same thing? How can I show what this character is doing or feeling in one sentence instead of four? How can I evoke love, admiration, concern, hate, (insert emotion here) in my reader as my protagonist battles my antagonist in less than 1,000 words!

Here was my attempt to do just that. This was my first and (so far) only attempt at writing flash fiction, but I will definitely be doing more of it! It flexed my writing muscles in ways that no other writing has, and in today’s literature market, where concise is the first and only word in the dictionary, writing flash fiction well is a useful talent to have.

I hope you enjoy.

 

THE COTTAGE – by Josie Hulme

 

“You what?” My voice is very quiet. My wife knows this is a bad sign.

“I didn’t think you’d notice,” she whines. “You’re never here. You never see them, anyway.”

“They are my children! Of course I’m going to notice when they’re missing!”

“It took you three days.” She says it under her breath, she knows she’s poking a bear.

I grind my teeth. “I’ve been in the forest cutting wood for three days.” I didn’t choose my second wife well. “Get out.”

She sees my face getting red. “I didn’t send them away with nothing,” she snivels. “I gave them our last piece of bread to share.”

“Get out!” I scream now, spit flying from my mouth. “Get out of my house! If I see you again, I swear to God I will chop you up and feed you to the wolves.”

She scrambles around the couch, grabbing up a lamp, a clock. “Fine! I’m tired of living in this hovel! I’m tired of your stupid children. And I’m tired of being groped every night by your rough, clumsy hands! You’re the worst lover I’ve ever had!”

She runs out the door, brown dress flapping around her legs, arms full of knickknacks. She’ll drop everything before before she gets out of the woods. I know how lazy she is.

I don’t even watch her go. I run to the tree house I made three years ago. Empty. I check the children’s regular haunts: the hollow tree, the swimming hole, the toadstool ring where they’ve spent many nights watching for fairies. All empty.

I spin in a circle. Thick forest all around. Where would they go?

I notice a line of ants, all carrying tiny specks of white. I follow the trail and find a bit of bread smashed in the dirt. A little farther, I find another piece nearly hidden by a fallen leaf.

“Oh, you wonderful children,” I murmur. I race back to the cottage and grab my axe, then I follow the trail of breadcrumbs into the forest.

The trees are close, and the underbrush thick. Game trails cross each other or join for a time before veering off through the bracken again. The bread crumbs are hard to find, and I have to backtrack several times. At each intersection, I kneel in the dirt to see the paths from the children’s perspective. If I were a child, which one would I take?

The crumbs get smaller and farther apart. The sun has set, and the forest is dark. The woods are no place to be alone at night, even for a man. I don’t allow myself to think about my children alone in the forest. A wolf howls, and an owl hoots its lonely song. I climb a large tree to wait out the dark.

From this vantage point, I see a light shimmering in the distance. I’ve walked these woods a thousand times. There should be no light.

I climb down and run, keeping my axe ready and my ears tuned to every rustle in the underbrush. It doesn’t take me long to reach a clearing where there never was a clearing. The sickle moon shines, its weak light picking out the details of a strange little cottage.

Lemon drop daisies and lollipop trees fill the clearing. Gumdrops line a brick path. Peppermint sticks frame the doors and windows. Candy discs form shingles, and icing drips a lacy curtain from the eaves. The spicy smell of gingerbread fills the air.

“What kind of magic is this?” I whisper. As I pick my way through the sugar-dusted flowers, a scream rends the silence. I know that scream. Echoes of that scream still wake me in the night when my dreams take me back to the day a rabid wolf attacked my daughter. Gretel! I fear something worse has her now.

I rush to the cottage. My axe cleaves the door in two. A large table set for dinner dominates the room. On the far wall is a large brick oven. Waves of heat rise from the glowing bricks. An old woman is pushing my son into the oven. I can see smoke rising from his kicking shoes. My daughter beats against the old woman’s plump backside. In two strides, I’m across the room. I snatch my son from her. She turns on me, saliva dripping from her snarling mouth. Curses fly at me, but her magic is only strong enough to trick children. It is no match for my rage.

She runs from me. My first blow severs her spinal cord. My second cleaves her head from her body. I turn from her corpse and gather my children into my arms, checking fingers and toes and kissing their dear faces again and again.

At last their tears are dry. “Wait outside, little ones,” I say.

I stoke the oven until sweat pours from my skin. I chop up the old woman and put her into the flames. While she turns to ash, I destroy the cottage. We’re due for a good rain. It will wash this place clean.

By the time I scatter the witch’s ashes, the sun is shining.

Holding two little hands in mine, I listen to my children’s chatter as we begin the journey home. Their story wrings my soul. I’ve been fooling myself for years. The woods aren’t safe for innocent children. I can get a job in town—trade the witches and wolves of the forest for the criminals and crooks of the city.

The trail ends. Our little cottage, snug and sturdy, basks in the bright sunshine. On the other hand, I can teach my children to protect themselves. They may be young, but they’re strong and brave. That flat area there, to the left of the house—that will make an excellent sparring ground.

I breathe in the pungent smell of the forest. This is our home. We’ll stay and fight.