Charlotte looked out her window through the noonday light. The prairie stretched in winds and horizons. Past the earth and grasstops, a patch of darkness swallowed the skies. Sunlight shrank at its edges. Darkness plummeted on the town below. Bird flocks circled the blackness.
She heard her parents’ low words from the next room, wrapped her shawl tighter and tried to see into the distant black roads. Carts of townspeople clamoured across the earth flats. A shiver ran over her. She ached to walk dust paths in the strange dark. She crept past her parents, ran from their wooden house and saddled her horse. The grasslands shook with hooves and winds. As she rode through the hard sun, she heard her mother calling her name. The sky was heavy with bird wings. She heard shouts as she galloped past wagons towards the towering dark. She stared across the prairie vasts to the unseen town. Blackness loomed to the sky tops. She wondered if anyone was there among the corners and doorways she had known. She stared
deeper but couldn’t see. Racing onwards, she heard her heart below the winds. The town loomed nearer. A wall of darkness reached across her view. She stopped, shivering as cool gusts swept over her from the inky land. The air was sharp with crow cries. She tied her horse to a thin tree and walked forward. A sheet of blackness fell to the dust. Her steps stilled as she felt the bright day narrow behind her. She stood in the sunlight and saw star-glint and night clouds. She felt alone with the dark.
At home, she moved through rooms crammed with townspeople. She tried to glimpse the distant gloom from windows as she watched her mother stir a big pot of stew. The kitchen felt large with her mother’s silence.
“Where’ve you been? There’s plenty of folk without places to stay tonight,” her mother said, without looking from the pot. “Go and make some hay beds in the barn. Anywhere there’s space.” Charlotte rushed from the house. She swept dirt and shaped hay, hands trembling as she tried to imagine stepping inside the shrouded town. She lingered in the barn doorway watching sunset seep around the faraway darkness. Then she hurried back into the house and helped her mother hand bowlfuls of stew to the townspeople. As her father lit oil lamps, she sank into a corner and looked round at faces and shadows. Blue dusk filled the windows.
“They say it’s a man that brings the darkness,” an old woman said. Her face looked sore from the wind.
“That’s just talk, Ma,” a broad woman hushed her. “It’ll be gone by sun up.” Charlotte inched near to the old woman.
“What kind of a man?” she whispered. The old woman leaned close.
“He moves about the land and it goes with him.” Charlotte felt the room tighten.
“Have you seen him?” Her words shook. She startled at her mother’s grip on her shoulder.
Charlotte settled children and handed blankets and quilts to townspeople. Her mother closed the window shutters. The house was warm with muffled voices. She lingered in a corner watching shadow shapes in the oil light until her father put out the lamps. Then she crept to bed. Night hours drifted between the wooden walls. She listened to folk sleeping and felt the strange skies past the prairie winds. She opened her shutters and looked out at the night. The grasslands billowed with silver light but the town stayed moonless. Remembering the old woman’s words, she wondered if there was a man who walked darkness across the land. She thought of sunless cities and valleys. She tried to picture his footsteps in the dust. She remembered when she was younger, leading the other children to go wind catching in the trees. In leafy heights, they tried to catch gusts in their hands. She always climbed furthest, past the other children’s reach.
Crow calls startled her awake. Fearing the black skies gone, she rushed to her window. Sunrise stained the prairie horizons, but the gloom remained on the town. She dressed swiftly and crept downstairs. Townspeople huddled in corners and low words. The house was chill with voices she did not know. Hearing her mother’s footsteps in the room above, she hurried outside into the dawn winds. She saddled her horse and galloped beneath flock swirls and sky tops. The day smelled of rock and dew. As she rode, she tried to picture town places now empty of song and chatter. She thought about setting candles in the windows. She rode faster until the blackness stretched across her path. Tying her horse to the thin tree, she walked forward, trying to see town shapes beyond the day’s edge. She reached out to touch the darkness. Then she stepped into the starlit cool. She heard her heart beneath the silence. Her view strained and softened into rooftops and pathways. The old road was hard under her feet. She glanced back at the prairie green and walked on to the town.
The darkness smelled of dust and wind. Emptiness swelled the buildings. She felt small among the dim windows. She remembered childhood evenings when she had sheltered in oil light and shut her eyes before her father put out the lamps. She had huddled beneath her quilt and tried not to breathe in the night. Silence towered over her path. Pausing at the school house, she peered in the windows at faint shapes and tried to picture the colours of past days. Her footsteps felt wider than the hush. She glanced behind her but saw only dingy ways. Then she saw light wafting past the church corners. She followed the glow down a pathway. The light drifted from a vast mansion. She climbed the steps of the porch and stepped to a window. Lamp glow and shadows flowed around a grand mahogany room. She held her breath and listened. The silence felt solid. She gently pushed open the front door. Candles clustered beside high walls. A corridor of flame shadows and rich wood stretched into the mansion. She walked slowly, trying to soften her steps. The house smelled of ash and velvet. Light poured from a bright doorway. Inching closer, she moved through thinning shadows. She stepped into the room. The air burned with lamp glow and firelight. A man’s shadow loomed across the floor. She froze. At the back of the room, he stood facing the fireplace.
“Did you bring the darkness?” she said. He turned and looked at her through the heat of the lamps.
“It never leaves me.” His voice felt like caverns and cliff edges. Charlotte stood hard against his gaze. She wanted to step back into the moonless paths. “What was the town like before?” he said.
“Lots of noise and folk. Like any other town.” She wanted to shut her eyes to the oil light.
“Every place I pass through is like this.” She glanced at the windows and asked him how far he’d travelled. He spoke of dim and silent cities and she saw the world as empty ways. On the walls were paintings he’d gathered of scenes he couldn’t see, ocean dawns and forest noons. He said he’d taken them from abandoned homes in far off towns. She thought of the prairie colours and felt the dark about the mansion.
Back home, she watched the townspeople as they stared across the prairie. The sun hurt her eyes. She heard women whispering about losing their homes. Children’s shouts tangled with grass winds. An old man talked of the days they’d built the church house. She tried not to hear him. Someone murmured about omens and end times. Charlotte’s blood was fast. She snatched up a basket of laundry and ran through noon sun to the creek. She stayed among tree shelter and water rush, while the townsmen stood in a group watching the darkness. She was glad to be outside their words. She remembered, when she was small, believing silence was a language. For weeks, she had stayed hushed and imagined she was speaking to the voiceless things, the stones and hollows.
She hurried her work. Her thoughts mingled with wind ends. She pictured Edward, the man in the dark. She ached to be in the world he had walked. Her hands were sore from soap and rock. She rested in stream glimmer and pictured the plain in moonless shade. She wanted to show Edward the prairie sweeps where she had played as a child. When she walked back through the sun bright grass, she gazed at the black town. Her hands shook when she thought he might go.
Dusk sank on the prairie. She scrubbed pots by her mother’s side and listened to the townspeople’s murmurings. She heard a child crying. The house smelled of stew and sundown.
She sat in a corner of the common room. The walls cramped. She looked at men crowding a window and tried to guess their low words.
“I told you,” said the old woman with the wind sore face. “A man did this.” Someone muttered in her ear. A woman scolded a sobbing child. Charlotte watched her father light the oil lamps, and pictured Edward’s cold journey. She thought she heard a family speak of going back to the town. The house became still with lamp flicker and sleep hush. That night, she tried to stay awake. She feared waking to light skies over the town. When she slept, she dreamed of candlelit roads stretching over an inky land.
At dawn she rode from her home. The morning was soft with cloud pink and wind still. She stood at the dark’s edge and glanced at the sunrise. Turning away, she stepped into the gloom. She walked through star glint and dust. The silence felt like faraway night. The dim houses and stores seemed full of long ago days. She followed the pathways between black windows into the lamp glow seeping from the mansion. Holding her breath, she pushed open the front door and peered into the mahogany room. Candles crammed on shelves. Golden light warmed the walls. He sat by the window.
“How long will you stay here?” she said. He stood and walked to her side.
Each dawn, they talked between oil light and shadows. They wandered paths in the strange dark and listened for day sounds past the town. She told him the colours of her childhood. She said when she was very small her family lived in a forest among wolf howl and tree smells. When they left, she had hidden acorns in the wagon to take the woods with her. On moonless nights, she had imagined the forest had grown over the grasslands and sky. She told him she had named winds and tried to hear words in their rush. Once, she hurt her ankle trying to run alongside a hard wind, and lying in the deep grass, she had listened to her parents’ far calls and wished the wind to carry her away. She used to think wind paths led to the sky. In her school house lessons, she had listened to gusts over the town rooftops and drawn maps of wind roads to sky lands.
He said he was born during an eclipse. The darkness stayed with him. His childhood was wrapped in star glow and silence. He learned of day from his mother’s words, saw the sun and moon only in his father’s books. He ran from home to find the dawn, but between hills and clouds he found only the dark. He hid candles in a hollow and pretended the amber shine was sunrise. In his home, he watched clock hands and tried to imagine noons and dusks. One day, his parents left him, and in the empty house, he burned the books with pictures of the sun and moon. He began to search for the edge of the eclipse. He journeyed days stretched by starlight. Woods drifted into towns, and he saw folk hurrying from the faded skies. Across oceans, he stood below sails and chants, watching for bright shores. The waves wound in night shadows and dim sweeps. On mountain heights, he wandered in lamp glow beneath black winds. In forests, he listened for birdsong in silent deeps. He roamed empty cities after people had fled, and resigned to never finding the day, he began to gather pictures from their walls. He said he hated the dark.
Beneath the prairie skies, Charlotte’s hours shrivelled. The grass pathways and wooden home seemed pieces of days gone. She worked among the townspeople, but felt far from them. In the evenings, she sat in cramped rooms, calming children and old folk while men argued over the darkness. They said it was a judgement. They said it destroyed whatever it touched. Charlotte felt them talking, but heard only the prairie night. The air clamoured. Her heart was loud.
When she was with him, she wandered in starlit winds. The strange dark felt full of his words. She gathered fallen feathers from the grasslands and showed him their colours in the oil light. He sat lamps by walls and corners and she saw the world winding in hidden pathways. They lingered in the school house and she showed him the rooms where she had day dreamed of realms beyond. Between rooftops and dust, they listened to the sky hush. He spoke of his journeys through lands of darkness and silence. She told him of prairie sights, of bird glide and sunrise. He lit candles in dim homes and held her close among the shadow shapes. He said he wanted to live forever with her in a land of light. He said could no longer stand the endless eclipse without her. She thought of the townspeople sweating under the hot sun. She imagined them circling the darkness.
She sat in the common room, stitching a quilt. The house smelled of ragged wood and shadows. She felt like a trespasser among the townspeople. She couldn’t look at them. She’d betrayed them. She pulled the thread hard as the sore-faced old woman talked.
“He’s not going anywhere. He has our town. What’s gonna happen to us? Where do we go?” She clenched her hands. They were shaking.
“I can’t go anywhere,” a wiry man said. “My store’s all I’ve got.” Charlotte looked down at patterns on the day-faded cloth. She didn’t want them to see her eyes.
“How are we gonna live? Scrape by in the dirt somewhere?”
“It’s our homes, our livelihoods! We need to take it back.”
“If it’s a man, we can make him leave!”
Charlotte gripped the quilt as more townsfolk shouted. The air was narrow and hot. She saw a small girl put her hands over her ears. The shadows and walls tangled.
“We should stop him for good.”
Charlotte rode out before dawn. Under the moon glow, her heart was fast with the townspeople’s words. She wished the eclipse had walls. Night swayed through the grass tops. The horse hooves stiffened the prairie sounds. When she reached the town, she raced through dust paths. Star seep whirled with empty homes. Her feet ached. She ran into the mansion and hurried through the candle light.
“They’re going to come for you,” she said. “You have to go.”
“I won’t leave,” he said. She couldn’t see his eyes. He pulled her to him. She sank into his arms. The shadows seemed full of far skies and secret ways.
Back in the prairie daylight, she saw townswomen packing wagons. Children’s calls weaved with the grass winds. Townsmen stood in a group watching the darkness. She saw guns. She slid from her horse and ran to her mother.
“Are they leaving?”
“Back to the town,” her mother nodded. Charlotte felt the air twist. She looked over at the townswomen. Someone was calling to her. “You gonna help?” her mother said. Charlotte’s voice was heavy. It stuck in her throat. She couldn’t feel her steps but found herself by the wagons. The sunlight was sharp and the air tasted of dust. Townsfolk were talking. She felt slower than their words. Someone had propped guns against the walls. She helped lift boxes onto the wagon. Rough wood scratched her fingers.
“Won’t take our men long to be done with him,” a woman said. She heard men speak of surrounding the town. The sky felt low on their voices. Her head hurt. The heat was thick. She saw her mother talking but didn’t know her words. Winds filled her sight. She wanted to run. She saw wagons being closed up. Her mother called to her from the doorway. “Stew’s ready.” She felt her mother’s hand on her arm. “You’d best get serving it.” Charlotte stared as townsfolk crammed into the house. She saw her mother turn away. She inched past the crowd. She thought they weren’t watching. She ran.
She galloped hard into the moonless dark. Her heart filled with horse hooves and black gleam. The town was fast shapes. Her hands tore on the reins. Blackness spun around her. She thought she could hear wheels in the dust. Her face was sore. The winds seemed full of the townspeople’s steps. When she reached the mansion, she raced. Through the dinge that smelled of cold lamps, feeling with her hands along the walls. She pushed into his room. He sat by a single lamp.
“They’re coming. They’ll kill you.” Her voice hurt. She was kneeling and his arms were tight round her. She couldn’t breathe. She heard him telling her goodbye. His words sounded far away. Her face was hot with tears. She felt him shaking.
“I’m going with you,” she said.
“You can’t. There’s no life in the darkness.”
“I’m not leaving you on your own.”
“If you go with me, you’ll never be able to come back.”
“I don’t want to come back,” she said. He clung to her under the lamp flicker. She thought of the townspeople. They’d be riding now. Coming with their guns. “We must hurry.” They stumbled to their feet. She picked up the lamp. They rushed from the room, through the corridor. The stolen paintings blurred colours. They ran down the stairs. Shouts froze the air. “It’s them,” she gasped. Through a doorway, she glimpsed windows. Lanterns flashed. The road shrank into shadowy crowds. Guns glinted. She stared at the moving shapes. The dark felt brittle. He pulled her near.
“Can you live in the darkness?” he whispered. She looked at him and saw the years he had journeyed through black lands. Walls trembled with shouting. The words were strange sounds. She heard heavy steps on the porch. Her grip was white on the lamp.
She threw the lamp down the hall. Glass shattered. Oil shimmered and lit. Fire poured up the walls. He held her close in light and heat as the mansion began to blaze. He said something. She heard only flame crackle. He grabbed her hand and pulled her into another corridor. They ran. He hurried her through dim rooms toward the back of the mansion. His grip hurt her hand. She heard beams crashing. Her feet stumbled. Smoke stung her eyes. He inched a door open. They looked into the street. They saw men running to the mansion front. Fire roar smothered their shouts. “They’ll see us if we run,” Edward said. He led Charlotte along the wall side. It was warm. They crept into an alleyway. She looked back. The mansion was flaming spires and billowing smoke. Tawny light burned across the sky. Embers bristled in the winds. She thought of the paintings turning to ash. Fire fell onto near rooftops. Horses screamed and stamped. Windows were jagged gleams. The men seemed small. She watched their shadows quake. Someone was pointing at her. She didn’t know his face. More heads turned. They lifted their guns. Edward and Charlotte ran to the horses. She scrambled up and seized the reins. She heard gunshots.
“This way,” she yelled. She saw men running. Edward was on his horse. They galloped. Streets rushed by as dust and shadows. The shouting grew distant. The sky was fire glow and ash. The town thinned into prairie spaces. She looked across the starlit grasslands towards her family’s wooden house. They slowed as she pictured the colours of gone days. Then they went onwards with the eclipse about them.
They rode on into the endless dark. Sometimes they were followed. The inky vasts clamoured with hoofbeats. Lawmen waited them at every town, and they fled west. In the black prairie night, they huddled and tried to feel warmth in the long grass. They tried to outrun the eclipse. Darkness smothered their sight. To see each other they set fires on the plains. Flames towered. They rode beneath a sky of smoke. Firelight soared over their path.
Their horses took flight and fled to the day. They went on foot. When they passed through silent forests, they lit the trees. She listened to ember crackle and tried to remember birdsong. When the trees had burned away, they held each other among the cinders. She dreamed of daylight. Their black sky shrouded deserts and rivers. In windless valleys, they heard only their own footsteps and words. When winter came, they carried fire into the mountains. They walked on together.
Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and can be summoned by a cake signal in the sky. Her best friend is a dog who can count. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, and was a finalist in the first Wyvern Lit flash fiction contest. Her stories can also be read at Pigeonholes Magazine, Maudlin House, Luna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere.