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Sandstone Short Fiction Competition – Helen and the Green Man

On Saturday evening we announced the winners of the first ever Sandstone Press Short Fiction competition - today we are delighted to share our third place winner, by Rebecca McKinney. Thanks again to everyone who entered, and congratulations to Rebecca!

In our first runner-up story, fringes and fronds run wild and a most unexpected return to nature is on the cards. I love the way Helen’s restlessness and transformation are subtly signposted throughout the story, along with the failure of those around her to join her in responding to the promptings of the natural world. In this comic yet haunting piece, the virus has a purgative, cathartic power, stripping life back to its essentials, and exposing deep instincts that may at last find unlikely consummation… -Dan Brotzel

Helen turned away from her screen. Outside, sunlight sparkled with rare purity, and her thighs twitched, craving movement. It was mid-afternoon, really too early to call it a day, but nobody would notice. No-one ever did.

Upstairs, she put on running clothes and glanced at her reflection. Grey roots reasserted themselves like dandelions in an unmown lawn. She hadn’t worn makeup in a month, and thought she might never bother again. She could use all that grease and powder to light a bonfire, and chuck on her high heels and underwired bras for good measure. She could strip off every false layer and dance naked around the flames.

‘I’m going for a run,’ she said, peering into Connor’s room. He and Brodie were shoulder to shoulder on the bed, thumbs pecking on Xbox controllers. Guilt flared in Helen’s belly, but the homework piling up on Google Classroom felt as pointless as her own job. Out of obligation, she asked, ‘Would either of you like to come?’

Four grey eyes flicked toward her and away again. ‘Nuh,’ said Connor.

Relieved, she left them to their game and ran up the street. Turning downhill, she descended into the valley below her house. At the bottom, she crossed the river and turned along the path that led into the woods. Wild garlic and honeyed gorse filled her nose. She ran deeper into the woods, until then dropped to a walk as the path narrowed and rose steeply above the river.

She had gone to the woods every afternoon since the start of the lockdown, and they had become as familiar as her own house. Bluebells were opening now, and baby leaves glistened like stained glass. Cutting away from the path, she moved through the understory. The trees sang to her. ‘You knew this would happen,’ they said.

‘I’ve always known,’ Helen replied. And she had. Not this virus, specifically, but something like it: the flood which strip everything back to bare bones and truth. She relished it, but you couldn’t say that out loud.

Every afternoon, she forayed further into the woods. Now she slid down a muddy escarpment toward a deep pool ringed by rock walls: layers of red and tawny sandstone cut by coal black seams. An oak extended gnarled arms over the water. A face peered out from its trunk: round eyes, thin unsmiling lips, hollowed cheeks.

‘Hello,’ she said to the little man, fingertips tracing his features. ‘Who are you?’

‘Come closer,’ he said. She slid her arms around the oak and pressed her cheek against the fissured bark. Branches softened and folded around her, until she couldn’t escape its embrace even if she wanted to. The green man whispered his name in her ear.

That night her husband and boys shouted her name into the dark woods. Helen turned momentarily away from her new lover’s embrace, but didn’t call back. Torchlight flickered along the path above her, then vanished.

Dan Brotzel

Dan Brotzel

R L McKinney

R L McKinney