St. Elmo's Fire

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
Image of Short Story
Constance did not notice that there was something peculiar about the bread. Nor would she have said anything to her mother if she did. Bone-tired, she was kneading flour in the candlelight. She had already been up for hours, preparing the new day’s batch, to bring to the sick villagers, when she felt a current of air stir beside her. She glanced over her shoulder.
A demon stood beside her. Constance screamed, but it snatched her and flew into a nearby forest. The demon dropped her inside the trees.
A fear froze Constance’s bones. She had to keep going, to escape that hideous creature, but she couldn’t move her feet from the ground where they seem to have been planted. Yet she knew that she could not stay in the same place forever.
She walked into the forest and was no less frightened once inside. The tree leaves glinted in the sunlight like emeralds and the trunks looked as soft and warm as cinnamon sticks. Shadows kept moving in the corner of her eye.
Constance walked to a great oak tree up and looked up; an owl gazed at her and began to speak.
“Hello” said the owl. “Before I tell you how to leave this forest, I must give you a warning. Concerning that bread you make: do not eat it. It will kill you. Throw it out.”
“But I made it myself,” Constance said.
“Precisely. Do not eat it,” repeated the owl.
Constance was puzzled but nodded. “But please, how do I get out?”
“The only way out is in.”
“The only way out is...?” she began.
“In,” the owl finished.
The owl flew away.
The only way out is in.
Constance took up her basket and walked through the forest for hours when she arrived back at the owl’s tree. She was struck by dismay and confusion. She had been walking away from the owl’s tree for hours, and yet she had returned to it! Constance wept angry, bitter tears, and from these, thorns grew.
She wept so savagely that she did not notice the small, white rabbit with red eyes hop up beside her.
“Are you lost, Daughter of Man?”
She looked up. The rabbit’s eyes were shining like rubies.
“I can’t find my way out of this forest.”
“No, silly girl!” said the rabbit. “This bread won’t kill you. It makes you stronger. You will have the eye and swiftness of an animal. You will go farther than you ever could by yourself.”
“Well, if you are certain it won’t harm me,” said the girl.
“Oh no, my sweet,” said the rabbit. “The bread won’t...”
Constance took a deep breath; surely she would become something greater than herself, something more. She ate the bread in three quick bites.
And immediately doubled over in pain.
She felt herself changing, as muscles expanded and bones elongated. A deep gray blossomed all over her body, and claws and teeth emerged for glorious ripping and shredding. She was no longer afraid of the forest; she was part of it. She threw back her now-shaggy head and howled.
She had become a wolf.
Constance took off. As Constance ran, she smelled something acrid in the wind.
She paused. She strained to hear, and on the very edge of the wind she heard a crackling, a snapping, like thousands of tiny bones all breaking at the same time. It sounded like, but it couldn’t be...
Smoke now filled her nostrils as the fire burned through the trees, an infernal abyss before her eyes. She would never go home. She would never see her family again. She lay down in utter despair, ready to surrender to the flames. She howled, a long, mournful cry.
But through the flames, she saw her house. There, standing despite the wall of smoke and fire before her, was her old home.
The only way out is in...the only way out is in...
Constance stood up. She would not yield to the forest without standing one final time. She walked into the fire, the flames burning her fur, yet she kept on. She kept walking, despite her pain, despite her utter weariness and desire to simply give up.
She made it through. Somehow, she had walked through the fire and was now peering into her home, through the window into the kitchen. She turned around; the fire that had been burning so ferociously had disappeared. She saw her mother making bread, just like she always had. Yet something was different about this bread. Black spots mottled the dough, and her wolf nose smelled the deadly fungus that had spread through the rye and caused everyone, herself included, to get violently sick and weak. Some who ate it contracted great muscle spasms or imagined that they were on fire. Some even had powerful visions of things that weren’t really there...
She watched as her mother took a fresh batch of spoiled bread out of the oven and walked over to a closet. To the girl’s horror, her mother put the loaves alongside rack upon rack of rotten bread.
Suddenly, her mother looked up. She stared blankly ahead, murmuring, “Constance, please come home. Please come back.” Her mother could neither see her nor hear her, no matter how much she wailed and cried out. She ran around the house.
But I am home! I’m always been right here! I’ve always been right here. I’ve always been home. I’ve always...
The wolf and girl suddenly knew. The wolf closed her eyes.
The only way out is in...and I’ve been here the whole time.
Constance awoke with a violent spasm. She was sweating and felt like vomiting. She looked down at her hands. Not paws, but hands. She was lying down in a bed, with a pail beside her for vomit and a basin of water.
“Oh thank the heavens. You’re back!” Her mother rose from the chair she had been sitting in.
Constance was back in her house, under her favorite blanket.
“Have I...have I been asleep for very long?” she asked.
“Well, I wouldn’t call it sleep. You’ve been in and out for three days, crying out about demons and fire and an owl...I thought you might never wake up.”
“I...” she stopped. She had something important to do, something vitally important, but she couldn’t think...She didn’t want to hurt her mother, but she thought she may have to.
“Are you hungry?” asked her mother.
It hit her. The bread!
She tried to bolt out of the bed but was too weak to run. She staggered over to the door.
“Constance? Constance!”
“Mother, Where is all the bread?”
“It’s in the pantry, where it always is.”
Constance stumbled over to the pantry and opened the door.
There. Rack upon rack of bread, shot through with that evil, dark mottling.
It had to go.
She started to heave every single loaf into the basket, her basket, and took it down to the river near her house. Constance threw the loaves into the river.
“Constance, what are you doing? Stop! You’re ruining them!”
“No! They are already ruined! They are poisoned, and they are poisoning everyone! I don’t know why, but they are making everyone sick!”
She turned back to face her mother.
Her mother slapped her across the face and pointed her finger at her.
“You ruined all my work! All my hard work. Now who will feed this entire town?”
Constance stood tall. She had been through thorns and fire, fear and betrayal. She wouldn’t back down now.
“It’s not your fault, there was something wrong with the rye, Mother.”
“I cared for you, nursed you all through this sickness, and the first thing that you do is ruin everything that I made?”
“I will not let you unknowingly poison everyone around you! I can’t take it anymore.”
And with that, Constance ran back to the house. It had been her home for so long, but now she could no longer stay. The villagers had been eating spoiled, rotten bread, and it was making everyone sick. Constance no longer felt defenseless; She would stay quiet no longer. She took the bread basket, some apples, and a knife. She knew the woods. She knew what to do. And just inside the edge of the wood, something caught her eye.
It was a red cape.
She tugged at it, caught on a tree branch. It would keep her warm. Somehow, she knew, it would keep her safe.
She set off into the forest.

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