Throwback Thursday |An ON FIRE Excerpt: “The Clearing” by K.N. Johnson

We gathered on summer nights electric with the spectacle of storms, the promise of charred messages from the gods. The wind lifted our feet from the ground as we raced through the musty woods. Small branches snapped, green leaves sacrificed to pad our muddy path. At the clearing, trees stood back, and all knew to hush, to press lips closed with a solemn air, scatter our wood planks in the sodden grass and climb into the wall of busses. Pushed together, end to end, the exit doors and seats removed, the busses held most of those drawn to the ceremony. A few who could not bear the closed windows, the sweat of bodies sardined in briny cans, tucked into the side room of the empty corn crib, a barn of wood slats, a floor of slate. Together, we waited for the lightning, waited for the gods.

Only moments before, we plunged our planks in water and baking soda, the droplets falling from our foot-long cuts of wood like blood from a slice in the thumb. This method proved quick and efficient for most, but Elka brushed hers with thick, even strokes. One coat, two coats on the side she would present to the gods, the side that would brave the storming sky. She’d rushed her search for planks and maybe, just maybe, this slow attention with the brush now would outweigh her transgression. She hunted cedar while others searched the forest floor for filberts, those small acornish nuts that signaled a hazel wood stood near. This tradition had failed Elka with storm after storm of no messages. This time, she had searched for cedar, the tree of healing. It couldn’t hurt to angle for the message she wanted to receive, a promise of healing for her sister.

Goran had held a corner of his plank, drops plinking into a bucket below. He’d nodded as she marked her planks. A star for her, a heart for her sister.

“Trying to bend the gods to your will?” Goran asked the questions only a friend since childhood could ask without causing offense. He, too, had lingered at her sister’s sickbed, listened to the rattle in her sister’s throat. While Elka’s heart broke, beseeching the gods for hope, Goran’s filled with a sense of duty, accepted her sister’s wounds as a holy directive to bind himself to what remained of her family. But for this ceremony, even he had ignored tradition.

He used a plank of birch, the tree of new beginnings. He had watched her coat the planks of cedar, but his gaze had not been on the brush.

She and Goran huddled on a long bench in the bus structure. Some participants sang. Their soft sounds buzzed, susurrations without harmony or meaning. Goran reached for her hand, but she stood and fumbled with the window. His romantic gestures brought her both joy and grief, as she feared his duty would jag as unpredictably as the bolts from the gods.

A hand pressed on hers, and she flinched to find Iris at her side. Goran’s Iris. At least, she’d been his until the lightning turned his attentions to Elka and her sister.

“Elka, the windows must stay closed.” She blinked her cool blue eyes. “We learned the lightning jumps.”

They peered through the grimy glass at the Tower, the lone, wooden lookout in the clearing, its half-charred ladder.

Iris glanced at Goran, her blue eyes glistening. “I didn’t think you were one for revenge.”

Elka’s cheeks burned. “I was checking the latch.”

Sweat beaded on her forehead, inched down the side of her face. She rejoined Goran on the bench.

“Of course.” Iris hovered, sighed, and shook her skirt as if dust had settled in the folds. “I’m just making sure everything’s as it should be for the ceremony. We wouldn’t want to tamper with the will of the gods.”

She sashayed down the aisle.

###

Last year, lightning had jumped. Flashed in flames on the Tower then snaked its way into the bus through an open window. Not a fully-opened window. All it needed was that gap. Snaked in and bit her sister. Tradition had warned them to close the windows. It called for participants to sit on the benches, hands in laps, but the still, heavy air had them gasping. No one in their generation had witnessed lightning ride the air and reach through an open window. In a millisecond, the strike had torn into her sister’s shoulder, scorched down her left arm, and thrown her against the bus wall. Her head had slumped like a sunflower at season’s end. Though her sister survived, she lay at home listless, her few words jumbled and enigmatic.

Except for one: Goran.

Elka wouldn’t fetch him, but others did. Neighbors who’d stop in with a hot meal, the washer woman with fresh bedding, a passerby who’d overheard her sister’s cries from under their window. Each time, Goran would arrive stooped and weary. Her sister would mumble and he’d listen, lean into the bedside even though there was nothing to listen for. The first few visits, he’d wept. Elka wouldn’t enter the room. He had been the one who opened that window.

 

 

On Fire new kindleK.N. Johnson’s short story “Frigid” won Mythraeum’s Pygmalion contest and is being developed into a short film by L.Merrick, LLC and Parthian Enterprises. Filming begins January 2018. Her work has appeared inProximity Magazine and Incandescent Mind literary journal. Her short stories are included in the anthologies A Journey of Words, A Haunting of Words, and Polterguests and the upcoming anthology Terra Nullius published by Kristell Ink.

She serves as an Acquisitions Editor for Mighty Quill Books, an Advanced Reader for Tin House Books, and an Associate Member of the Horror Writers Association. While she hunts ghosts for fun, she’s not sure if she’s ever seen one… but she’s definitely been terrified, her skin chilled by strange sounds and shadows.  She enjoys responsible legend trips and takes way too many photos during her adventures.

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