Second Place Winner: For a Long Time After, the Wheel Kept Spinning… by Marie Radanovich
For a long time after, the wheel kept spinning, unwoven threads flying outward like hair. I watched it, numb, as it spun and spun, until it slowed with a final clackety-clack. In the silence, in the darkening day, the shadows grew and grayed the edges of the room.
There had been a gust of wind, a wet rotting stench. That was the only warning before they were upon us. Claws and speckled arms like the bark of old trees. Yellow eyes that glowed brighter than candles.
My mother shouted something, but all I heard was the crash of our table as it hit the spinning wheel, the scrabbling of their bird feet on the floor. And then she was gone.
Embers crackled. The fire was going out. I added kindling, bringing it back to life. The goat-hair coat hung limply from its hook. Our four-legged statue of branches stood next to it, ready to be dressed.
My mother had told me stories. "Stay one step ahead, little girl, or the lumpkins will come for you. They think this is their land. You've got to give them gifts. Pigs. Goats." Her dark eyes gleamed as she picked up a bundle of sticks and wove, until she held the shape of a leg and hoof. "But what sort of gift for a creature with dim little eyes in a dim little head? For a creature that would eat gravel and think it was porridge?" She hummed as she wove. "Why waste a real animal on them?"
Outside, the ground was soft, my steps forming wet craters. I cut the swollen knot with my knife, pulled our goat out of the enclosure. The goat swung its head, tugging back. I gave it a kick.
The goat still bore the brand of the blind old goat herder. I'd shuffled by him in a line of branded goats, wearing a horse-hair blanket. The herder's hand brushed my side as he touched each hide, counting. I waited in the musky pen until he left. Later, I'd found my mother waiting with our new goat. We left the village that night. Staying one step ahead.
My torch stretched the light into a thin bubble, but the shadows gobbled the rest. The goat's eyes bulged as I dragged it. It bleated, an almost-human sound, high-pitched and pleading.
The forest descended into a valley, and the mud grew thicker. Leaves rustled, but there was no wind. I felt them out there. Greedy. Hungry. "I have it," I called. "Your gift."
A croaking chant rose. The mud bubbled, slurping at my ankles. The goat thrashed, sinking with me. Something in the darkness cackled. I grabbed jutting roots, felt the burn as they were ripped away, the coldness as I was dragged under.
It squeezed me, pushed me like a lump through a tube. Mud covered my eyes, my nose, my throat. I held my breath, my chest splintering into white-hot threads. Killed by brainless creatures. I could see my mother's frown, the shake of her head.
The tube belched me out. I gasped, sucking in sticky globs and not caring. The goat pressed close, gave a low bleat. I dug the mud out of my eyes. Moonlight shone over a clearing, pooling shadows around a single bulbous tree. I was deeper in the valley, and felt the slope of the land underneath.
The ground burped again, squeezing out lumpkins. They squatted like frogs, warty knees touching their ears.
"Bow," they whispered. A figure stood in the shadows, long sharp points of a crown jutting into the sky.
I didn't see my mother. I wiped the mud off the handle of my knife, got a good grip. Knelt before the crowned figure. My breath was loud in the night air.
The lumpkins cackled. "A human king," said a fat-bellied one. "He claimed our land, too. Offered us trinkets."
The king stood silent, buried waist-deep. The lumpkin rapped on his chest, and it gave an oaken echo.
I caught my breath, thought of our stick statues in their hairy coats. Mother had assured me that the lumpkins couldn't tell the difference between a twig and a fig. "Where's my mother?"
The fat-bellied lumpkin took the crown and settled it above the knob on his brow. His yellow fangs clacked as he grinned. The lumpkins chanted their croaking chant.
The bulbous tree ripped open, spewing wet rot. Inside was a wooden cage without a gate or lock. But my mother was within, on her knees. Her golden hair was matted like moss, her porcelain skin stained. But I recognized the heat in her dark eyes.
The lumpkin squinted at the goat, prodded its side. It shied away, bleating. The lumpkin's teeth clacked. "This one speaks. And moves. Why didn't the others, I wonder?"
"They did," my mother snarled, gripping the wooden bars. "You likely killed them when you grabbed with your grubby hands."
"Have a care," the lumpkin said, "or I'll take as my supper your pink little tongue." The lumpkins croaked in chorus, and the mud burbled.
I clutched the goat, felt its thudding heartbeat. "I've brought your supper," I said, shoving the animal toward him.
He stared at it with rheumy eyes. "Not a gift, truly. A trade. Humans and their clever trades. A claim to the forest for a bit of jewelry." He plucked the crown from his head, dropping it into the mud. "A piece of our land for a bundle of sticks." Teeth clacked. "A goat for a mother."
I said nothing. Mother claimed lumpkins were ruled by their stomachs. They would take the goat, as they took anything they were given. I hoped she was right.
"Trade, trade," rose the singsong croak. They sank their claws into the earth. The goat screamed as it was dragged under.
The cage stood empty. The ground roiled, mounds rising and falling. My mother broke the surface near the tree, then back down, then next to the wooden king. The goat appeared near me, gasping, and back down again. The lumpkins rushed after both, tongues dripping. A game of catch-the-meal.
I waited, holding my breath.
The ground erupted at my feet, and my mother clawed her way out, gagging. The large-bellied lumpkin sprung at her. I slashed, the knife opening him like a seam. He howled, and we ran.
Behind us, the goat cried out. For a moment, I felt sorry for the creature. But there was nothing to be done. One step ahead, whatever it takes.
"Feast, feast," they chanted. Teeth chattering, they descended. The last thing I heard from the clearing was the goat's full-throated shriek.
The branches whipped my hands and face. I gripped my mother's hand, felt her small bird-like bones press together. Back and forth and round in circles, until I saw the smoke of our chimney, until we were back inside.
"They sleep after they've eaten. Isn't that what you've said?" I gulped air, pressing my hands against the solid door. "We have a few hours. I'll pack the wagon."
My mother collapsed in a huddle by the fireplace, and gazed at me with dark, fearful eyes.
Something thick and muddy rose in my throat. "One step ahead," I whispered. "Say it, Mother. One step ahead."
My mother hung her head, and uttered a low bleat.