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Authors: Ann Girdharry

Tags: #short story, #speculative fiction, #unexpected consequences, #ghost and forest, #death as a character

Trading with Death

BOOK: Trading with Death
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Trading with
Death
by
Ann Girdharry

Smashwords
Edition

This ebook is
licensed for your personal enjoyment only. No part of this book may
be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means whatsoever
without express written permission from the author.

The moral right
of the author has been asserted. All rights reserved.

copyright 2015
Ann Girdharry

Table of
Contents

Start of Trading with
Death

Connect with Ann
Girdharry

Part One

Behind us, in the silence of the woods, a
dry twig snapped. The skin on my arms prickled into gooseflesh and
I shivered as if caught in a chill wind. Since morning the air had
hung motionless, devoid of the slightest breeze. I grabbed Dalvar’s
wrist and, as I felt her fragile bones, my fingers loosened their
over-tight grip.

“Get a move
on, slow coach,” I said, forcing a smile.

My little
sister gazed up at me with those big, brown eyes of hers. “Why,
Taka? Do you think somebody’s following us?”

I swallowed.
“Of course not, silly.”

It took a
concentrated effort to prevent myself glancing back one more time.
I stared straight ahead down the path, scanning the gloomy edges of
the trail. On either side, tall pine trees stretched to a distant
sky. Their dense trunks and dark branches obscured the light to
leave us a dimly-lit track. Underfoot thick needles created a
springy mat, damping out the sound of our illicit foray; everyone
knew to avoid the forbidden woods and in the school yard we all
joked about it but the track cut the journey time home almost in
half, and with Dalvar’s waning stamina I’d gauged it to be
worthwhile. If she could save a bit of energy, maybe it would help
her to get better.

Dalvar’s
footsteps already dragged slow and heavy. I tugged the woolly
cardigan a bit more firmly around her shoulders. She coughed, at
first once then twice; that horrible, grating cough that keeps us
awake at night. I held my breath hoping it would stop but instead
it turned into a full bout. My stomach tightened as my little
sister pressed a handkerchief to her mouth. It was the one with a
pattern of yellow flowers that mother had made from an old dress.
Afterwards, when Dalvar straightened, she screwed up the
handkerchief quickly, trying to conceal the fresh, red stain.

“Don’t worry,
Taka. I’m all right.”

I pulled her
head into my chest and held her close, so she couldn’t see my eyes.
Why her? Why her and not me? I would beat my arms until they were
blue, chop wood until my palms bled and much more, to trade places
with her. Although I know wanting doesn’t work and neither do
wishes because I tried those things and every time my heartfelt
pleas fail I have to run and hide down by the river and cry in my
secret place, where no one can find me.

Behind us,
another twig cracks and I guess it to be twenty, maybe thirty paces
away, closing in.

“Don’t look so
worried. Let’s carry on,” Dalvar says, sticking out her chin in
that favourite gesture of hers.

Her grit
amazes me. I think it’s only her spirit which keeps her going,
makes her insist on continuing at school, though now she can only
manage once a week, not twice a week like earlier in the year.

“The woods are
safe, Grandma told me,” she said, continuing ahead of me down the
track.

I give no
reply. Grandma died when I was three, so more than a year before
Dalvar was born. I can hardly remember Grandma myself, just the
sound of her voice and her silver-grey hair always tied in a neat
bun. My sister talks as if she’s had conversations with Grandma and
no one corrects her, not even father. I know we say nothing because
we all know that although she’s only six, Dalvar might not be with
us for much longer.

Dalvar’s dark
brown hair falls in a single plait down her back. Tied with her
favourite pink ribbon, the plait swings from side to side as she
walks.

She calls out
in a sing song voice, “I know you all think I’m making it up, but
I’m not. Grandma told me the woods are safe. She told me lots of
things and in fact…” she glances behind, scanning my face, “in
fact, there
is
something that lives in the woods and I know
what it is.”

Despite
myself, I almost stumble, taken by surprise, knees wobbly. I so
hate it when Dalvar starts talking spooky. I began to get a
terrible sick feeling in my stomach as fear tried to take me over.
I pushed it down as hard as I could. Just keep going, I told
myself. Then with a jolt, I recognised the relics of a grand old,
fallen tree which marked the half-way point in the track. We’d come
half way, so no point in turning back.

I heard a
tremor in my own voice, “Listen, let’s talk about that once we’re
out of here, okay?”

“Oh no, Taka,
sorry we need to talk about it now. You see, we’re in the middle
and it’s time, it’s almost upon me.”

Dalvar stopped
and turned towards me. I didn’t know what she was talking about and
I didn’t want to know either so I put my arm around her shoulders
and tried to encourage her to keep walking. She stood rooted to the
spot and folded her arms. That’s one of the problems with a
stubborn sister.

“You know we
shouldn’t come in here, Taka. It’s been watching me and waiting
every time we’ve crossed the woods but it can’t wait any longer,”
she said.

I try to block
out her words, try to ignore too that odd look in her eyes.
“Dalvar, stop it, we’ve got to get going. Come on.”

She stuck her
chin out. “You’re not listening to me. This is important.”

I swear I
heard the sound of whispering, like the wind in the trees, only,
like I said, there was no wind today. If my eyes weren’t playing
tricks, back down the track the branches by the side of the path
began to sway, as if something just brushed past. I grabbed
Dalvar’s arm and planted myself in front of her. From behind, I
heard her say the oddest thing, “Don’t be frightened, Taka.”

I clutched a
tree so hard the bark sank into the soft flesh behind my nails. I’d
promised to look after Dalvar, always and always, and I would. I
felt like I was panting and I heard a scream, not from Dalvar but
from me, high and bright, never ending. A swirling mass emerged
onto the track behind us like an enormous, lethal swarm of black
bees. Only I knew it wasn’t bees. The mass moved like liquid smoke,
grey and shifting, advancing. As hard as I could I pushed Dalvar to
safety into the pines. The mass homed it, suffocating me, sucking
out my breath. I sank to my knees, and though I flung myself face
down and tore at the ground to stop myself from slipping into its
grasp, the dark entity sucked me in. It enveloped me whole and its
voices invaded. What they said, I cannot tell you, but they
whispered in a thousand voices in a thousand different tongues,
filling every space in my being until I could stand it no longer.
My mind splintered into thousands of tiny pieces. With no anchor, I
fell into darkness.

Part Two

When I awoke,
the first thing I saw was a ribbon lying not far from my face. It
lay close enough that I could probably have touched it if I
stretched out my arm. The bright strand trailed across the ground,
pink and familiar on the pine needles, and it seemed to hold within
it a distant memory of something happy and good that felt like
home. From the soft earth, a deep scent of resin filled my nose and
I half-closed my eyes, trying to remember what had happened. My
head felt fuzzy. Why was I lying on the ground? In an instant, I
realised her absence; my sister was missing. I pushed myself onto
my knees and grabbed the ribbon, scanning the trees and the gloom
of the woods stretching out on all sides. Terror tried to drag me
down into its deep waters, but I scrambled to my feet and forced
myself to shout.

“Dalvar!”

The trees
swallowed the sound whole. She’d been with me, hadn’t she? We’d
been coming home from school and something had happened. Yes,
something, but what? Nothing came to mind. I willed myself to be
strong and waited a few moments until I felt more solid, then
called her name again.

“Dalvar!” No
response.

As I called
this second time, I felt a burning sensation in my lungs and my
chest convulsed in a spasm of coughing. I grabbed onto a tree
trunk. I could sense the solidity of the tree and its roots
travelling deep down into the earth and I steadied myself against
its comforting presence. I bent over at the waist to squeeze
against the stabs of pain in my chest. The air felt viscous and I
struggled to get enough of it in to nourish myself, my lungs
burning with each in-breath. A panic began to build inside as if my
life hung in a terrible balance, dependent on my feeble lungs and
their fight for air. I heard a soft voice in my ear.

“Don’t
struggle, just wait until the pain passes.”

The tone of
the voice helped to soothe my anxieties and in my mind’s eye, I saw
the speaker, her silver hair pulled back into a bun, her face
folding in myriad wrinkles; Grandma. She looked straight at me and
I sensed her reassurance. Gradually, the coughing subsided until I
could stand upright again and when I did, a bloody clot rose in my
throat and I spat on the ground and stared down at the red.

I remained
leaning against my friend, the tree, with my Grandma waiting beside
me, and gazed out into the gloom. The living nature of the forest
pressed onto my senses. This was a perception I’d never had before,
as if the woods themselves were capable of communicating, maybe
even of speaking. Slowly, a realisation crystallised in my thoughts
and when it did, I may perhaps have laughed, I don’t know. I do
know that before I raised my arm, I looked up through the branches
to try to see the sky. I could feel my own heart beating, my own
pulse thundering as I stared up at a tiny blue patch, far, far away
beyond the tops of the pines. I reached behind my head and with
trembling fingers, checked the nape of my neck. Instead of my own
short, pony tail tied with a blue band, I discovered a thick plait
that hung half-way down my back. I pulled it over my shoulder. At
the end, the strands of hair had unravelled where the pink ribbon,
Dalvar’s favourite, was missing.

Part
Three

After I retied
the ribbon, I flicked the end of my plait backwards and forwards
across my finger-tips, like a little paint brush. It was one of
Dalvar’s habits when she was puzzling over something and the
movement felt natural to me, as if my hands automatically knew the
gesture. Grandma stayed close, but gazed into the distance, her
skin shining with a silvery radiance.

“Who am I?
Have I really changed places with Dalvar?” I asked.

Grandma smiled
but she did not answer.

I let the
braid fall from my fingers. The trees almost dripped gloom from
their needled branches down to the forest floor and I felt a
palpable sense of timelessness, as if we existed in a dead zone.
The weight of Dalvar’s tiredness dragged me down but I resisted the
urge to rest and instead wriggled my shoulders. A trickle of life
came back into my body. Perhaps I should try a little memory test.
What about the time when Aunt Kasie visited and Dalvar fell from
the windowsill?

I thought
back, remembering the excitement of that morning and how we’d woken
so early the sun hadn’t yet broken the horizon. We’d stayed quiet,
talking to each other with the quilts over our heads and stifling
our giggles so we wouldn’t be told off. I thought of Aunt Kasie
arriving wearing stripy tights and picking her way across the yard
in her heels. Later, Aunt Kasie told us stories of life in the
capital city where she sold ‘ladies apparel’ and where people
worked even during the evenings and the streets were lit by
lanterns atop huge, iron lamp posts. Mother listened quietly,
preparing apples in the kitchen and as mother peeled, I was
watching the long, green peels curling one on top of the other,
when a cry rang out. A quick, high-pitched cry like a hare. The
three of us ran down the hall, my bare feet slapping against the
tiles, mother and Aunt Kasie close behind. I could see my own feet
swinging in the air, swish, swish, free and dangly, the spring air
warm on my knees, until the window sill, so solid against the back
of my legs, slipped greasily away and I fell, down, down into the
garden. I cried out, more from surprise than fear. Next thing I
knew, I looked up and saw Taka peering down at me from the upstairs
window, breathless, her eyes wide. Wait a minute, wasn’t I getting
mixed up? It was me who ran, not me who fell from the window
ledge.

I looked at
Grandma again, for reassurance. It was so nice to have her near me,
even if the others never believed me when I told them about her.
No, wait, that was mixed up too, wasn’t it? I shook my head, as if
I might be able to re-arrange my thoughts and out of the corner of
my eye, I caught the tinniest movement of
something
. It was
a kind of grey shadow, formless, shifting in the air. I didn’t like
the look of it and began backing off down the path. Maybe Taka had
left the woods without me. Maybe I collapsed and she went for help,
yes, that must be it. If I started walking down the path, I’d
probably meet Taka coming back for me with father. As I moved away,
I felt afraid that the shadow might follow, that I might never be
able to escape it. But I was wrong. It stayed where it was.

BOOK: Trading with Death
13.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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