Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

A Thorny Betrayal

by Ioanna Papadopoulou



Warning: Adult content and situations...

He loved the dirt stuck under his fingernails. It was for that excitement that he avoided gloves. They took a lot away from the experience. He dug a hole and planted the first of the five seeds. He buried it carefully, placed his hands on the soft soil and closed his eyes, asking the little crawlies underneath to not bother it.

He watered the soil and traced on the mud a symbol of fertility. His skin had brown-grey stains but he was only getting started. He still had four more seeds to plant.

As he walked to the next spot in his garden, he felt the familiar soft touch of a little beastie landing on his face. He put his palm close to his nose and felt the six little feet as they travelled up his cheek and then over his nostril until, finally, with one jump, they were on his finger. He moved his finger to his ear. The six little feet travelled up his earlobe until they nested at the small recess of his outer ear.

“I have learnt of the enemy, Gabriel,” his familiar whispered. “I have information.”

“Tell me,” Gabriel said and continued his way to work on planting the next seed. He went on his knees and began digging with his hands.

“I will, but first, I need to tell you Phaidra is dead,” the ladybug said. “I thought you might want to know that first.” Gabriel wasn’t surprised his old teacher had died, neither was he saddened by the news. She had been a bony old woman, with long nails that hurt as she dug them into him. Despite that, her death left a gap in the world, one that naturally would need to be replaced.

“Tell me of the enemy,” he asked, ignoring the news of Phaidra’s death for the time being.

“She is running, but the curse is still active, and she cannot escape our village. She is hiding close to the cliff, always moving as she tries to break the spell,” the ladybug said. “Most of her familiars are dead as she has been unable to feed them.”

He wasn’t surprised that his sweetling enemy had failed to keep her power. He had to find her though, before she learnt of Phaidra’s death. If she had her own land, she would be able to raise an army of familiars, and then, there would be war because Gabriel was like the earth and mud he loved so much. He didn’t forget, didn’t forgive, and all the scars of his life never vanished.

“Keep an eye on her. We will ambush her tonight.”

The ladybug didn’t respond. He heard the buzzing of her wings as she prepared to fly, and the sound was lost to him as quickly as it started. He watched the red insect until it vanished from his eyesight and returned to his gardening.

There were three left, but they wouldn’t be planted in his garden.

Later that day, after he announced Phaidra’s death to the village, he withstood his neighbour’s consolations about his “aunt” and his throat clenched each time he heard it. She was no aunt, just the bony, old, miserable witch, in need of an assistant and Gabriel had the misfortune of being that assistant. But, the villagers liked to see them as related, to ease their guilt for having ignored his bruises all those years. That way it was a family matter.

He eventually escaped their fake kindness and went to visit to the local church.

“Gabriel,” the priest greeted him in his office. Callum opened his arms and hugged him. “I am sorry for your loss.”

Gabriel had had enough of consolations. “I came for the funeral.” His eyes trailed over the walls with the familiar pictures, full of beautified truths and lies.  “I assume you have space for her in the graveyard.”

Callum leaned back, resting his hands over his belly. “Of course. Phaidra chose it herself. But my main concern is you. She was your only relative and if you need support in dealing with your grief, I am here for you.”

Gabriel bit his tongue at the man’s words. No matter how many times he had told Callum that he only felt anger and resentment for Phaidra, the priest kept believing there was love between them. “And will you make a eulogy?”

He didn’t want to, but the silence crept upon him, forcing him to speak. “If I have to.”

“She raised you, like her child,” Callum said. Gabriel tightened his lips at the term. He had never been her child. “It is expected.”

“I will do it then,” he answered quickly. He imagined narrating how Phaidra dug her nails in his skin and whispered curses inside his ear, treating him like a slave. Their neighbour’s shocked faced and murmurs would be sweet. But that revenge would also be more trouble than it was worth. “Is there anything else for me to do?”

Callum shook his head. “I will take care of everything.” Gabriel stood up from his chair, ready to leave. He put his hands in his pockets, feeling the seeds inside. “Will you send for Theone, or should I?”

He froze.  It had been weeks since he had heard her name. Even Phaidra, weak and fragile as she was during the last year, immediately obeyed and stopped mentioning her. “I will send for her,” he said. “She lives far though, so she might not be able to come in time.”

“Of course, of course. But she will want to say goodbye to Phaidra as well.”

If things had turned out differently, Theone and he would be celebrating Phaidra’s death. But Callum, like the rest of the village, refused to acknowledge the truth.  “Would you like to see her perhaps, before you go?”

A performance of grief was expected. He couldn’t avoid it. “Not right now,” he answered and, too tired to play along with the priest, turned his back to him. “I need to go now.”

He was down the hall, near the church’s main body, when he heard Callum following him. He winced in annoyance, controlling all his urges to snap at the priest. “I am here for you, Gabriel,” Callum promised him. “All our community will hold you in your grief.”

Oh, how he wanted to answer back. Accuse Callum of being the naivest man he had ever met. He wanted to scream that Phaidra was a cruel bitch, who tortured both him and Theone. That she was a slut, and the village was made up of sycophantic morons that had let two children suffer at Phaidra’s hands, only to avoid having to deal with them. He wanted to see Callum’s sad face. It would make him warm inside, blossoming in Callum’s discomfort.

But he didn’t dare cut ties with the only person he had a sort of normal relationship with and didn’t let his bad side take over. “Thank you,” he said and quickened his pace to escape Callum’s understanding and friendship, which stifled him as much as he feared losing them.

Outside, he unbuttoned his jacket, letting the air hit him and continued his quick pace. He headed through the small streets of the village, avoiding any person he saw until he reached Phaidra’s cottage, hidden between trees and her bloody red roses. He spat as he crossed the gate, feeling the old bitch’s lingering presence, even beyond the grave.

He watched the roses though his tears and caressed their withering petals. He plucked one and felt a sudden terror that Phaidra would appear. But she was dead. He was finally free of her. He wished he could have told himself as a boy, when the bony witch laughed at him and ridiculed his magic, that he would outlast her. That at the end of her life she would be under his power.

Afraid of him, the rage and anger she planted inside him throughout all his childhood.

She was dead.

Tears gathered in his eyes and his heart banged against his chest bones, the explosion of emotion. She was dead. Dead. Dead.

He plucked another and laughed, hysterically, mixed with crying. He tore their branches, ignoring the pain from their thorns, and pulled them off the ground. They screamed, begged for their lives and beauty, but he had no mercy. They had been Phaidra’s proudest plant, the root of her power, but they had never risen in defence of him. This was his revenge, one that no villager or priest could deny him.

His hands were bloody and covered in scratches but all he felt was relief. She was dead. She was truly dead now that her roses were destroyed. He gathered the dying plants in a heap and went inside the house, returning with matches.

He lit one and threw it on the remains. “Die, you bitch.” He lit another match and threw it to the pile. He used the entire match box and watched the flames lick the plants. The power and soul of the plants, the lifetime of abuse that Phaidra had inflicted boiled away from the heat and he smelt its vile odour.

His eyes trailed to the rest of the garden and he knew he would have to uproot every single plant. He would even have to replace the grass to clean the garden of her presence. It would be hard work, but he wasn’t afraid of it. Once he had finished with his ambush and buried the bony bitch, he would begin the cleansing.

He was drunk in the smell of the dying roses, but he didn’t have much longer to gloat and enjoy his revenge. He went on his knees and started digging the ground where the roses once were. He cleaned it of their root remnants and asked the root mealybugs to feast to their hearts’ content for any he might have missed.

His hands itched as he started digging and the soil entered his wounds. He placed the third seed into the soft soil, covered it carefully, patting the ground and let his tears fall on it, watering it with his relief. He felt it take dominance in its new home and knew it was the first of many of his plants in his new garden kingdom.

The fire had nearly died when he was strong enough to wipe his tears. He patted the soil. “Grow strong,” he wished and drew the sign of fertility. He filled a bucket of water and poured it over the burnt roses.

“Tomorrow,” he promised himself. Tomorrow he would begin fixing the garden.

He wiped his tears and exited the cottage, spitting again at the gate. “Two more to go,” he told himself. He watched the setting sun. One more hour until the village was sucked into darkness and his ambush could begin. He walked away from the village, towards the vale.

Once the sun set, his ladybug landed on his shoulder. He offered his hand, palm facing, and felt its six legs walk all over him. He lifted it to his ear and his familiar entered and began whispering directions to the enemy.

More of his army joined him. Despite the growing cold, he was surrounded by wasps, bees, beetles and many other of his insects, sacrificing their lives for his favour and promise to help their colonies in the new garden kingdom he inherited from Phaidra. They flew and jumped as he walked slowly amid the tall grass. Not long after, he reached the shallow river, leading to the waterfall.

He paused looking at the water. “It has to be done,” he muttered and continued by the river. The moonlight was bare, but the water glistered under it and Gabriel followed it until he reached the waterfall entrance to the caves.

His brave fireflies flew ahead, slightly illuminating the cave. When he was a boy, he had heard classmates went to play in the cave tunnels and was jealous he had never been invited to join their games. “She is just around the corner, Gabriel,” his ladybug said.

A line of ants formed. They would be his rope to find his way out the labyrinth after the ambush. He put his hand in his pocket, feeling his remaining two seeds. One of them had to be planted soon. There was no time to lose. He had waited too long to cower when he was so close to his revenge. The fireflies’ lights faded, leaving him in pitch-black darkness. His ladybug guided him the rest of the way.

He was close. He smelled her wavering power and wolf fur, sickly and dying, from one of her few remaining familiars. He had prepared for the wolf though, making alliances with spiders and scorpions. In their island, there weren’t any strong poisonous arachnids, but he only needed the wolf to be weak and slow, not dead, for him to kill Theone.

She stank of fear and despair. Her breath was ragged and woozy. Gabriel wasn’t as happy as he imagined he would be that he brought her to that state. It was his triumph but didn’t offer him any satisfaction. It was pitiful how weak she had become, how easy killing her would be.

Each time he envisioned their confrontation, Theone was impressive during their fight and her defeat. She was beautiful, attractive, and, even as she was bleeding and dying, remained graceful and aesthetically pleasing. The reality of the situation didn’t promise the image he wanted.

It was going to be ugly. It would stink and Gabriel wouldn’t enjoy it.

Yet, it was going to happen. He had worked too hard to reach the moment he would be free of all those who hurt him. Phaidra was dead, her flowers tarnished. Only Theone and her remaining familiar were left.

He made another step and the wolf started growling. “What’s wrong, my love?” Theone asked. “Is someone coming?” Her voice was rasp, like she had aged years in a few months.

The wolf growled and walked slow. His ants scattered to avoid being crushed by its paws. Gabriel stood still and waited for the animal to get closer. He heard the ladybug hold the arachnids still until the wolf was too close. He was certain it would smell him despite the scent diffusers he had used.

“Now,” his ladybug commanded from inside his ear, and both scorpions and spiders jumped onto the wolf, biting, and stinging the animal at once with all their poison.

The wolf cried in pain, letting out a loud shriek of anguish. “Half of you, start eating the wolf,” Gabriel commanded his carnivorous insects.

“Gabriel?” Theone gasped his name and he heard her walk and fall from where she was standing.

“Light, please.” The fireflies shone. Then his glow-worm spies lit up as well, illuminated her face.

Still beautiful but ravaged by hardness and hardship. Her eyes travelled to her familiar, which was covered by his little crawling soldiers. Her eyes were red and puffy, desperate. She covered her mouth to muffle a cry as she realized the agonising fate her animal faced.

Her leaf-green eyes met his. “You don’t have to do this, Gabriel,” she begged. “We grew up together. You don’t have to do this.”

“But I do,” he replied. “You broke your promise, should that go unpunished? Didn’t Phaidra teach us that nothing goes unpunished in this village?”

Theone shook her head. “The bitch just liked to torture us. She is weak, will not live long and then you will be the master. Let me go and you will never see me again,” she said. “Once she dies, the curse will break, and I will be able to leave. You will never see me again.”

He focused his eyes on her rasped lips and remembered their past softness. He remembered their feeling against his, slightly wet from his saliva and opening eagerly. These were the same lips that parted for that other man, sealing both of their fates. “Because she was a bitch, it doesn’t mean she was wrong about everything.” He looked at her dying familiar. “If you don’t make it difficult, I will kill your beast quickly, spare it some pain.” He wished for her to fight instead of taking his offer. He wanted to see her eyes flare up one last time, to be reminded of the admiration he felt for her, not only the pain she had caused him.

Theone remained quiet. She was at her limits but he knew he could coax her fighting spirit out. He wanted her to scratch his face, bite his skin and perhaps kiss him. Their fight would be their last lovemaking, leading to death instead of an orgasm. It would be the perfect ending for their relationship. They, who had been raised under a bony old witch as her apprentice slaves and escaped her together, couldn’t have any other ending but complete unity or complete destruction.

He approached her, eager to feel her skin again after months of painful solitude. Her back was against the wall. His fingers touched her neck and wandered down to her collarbone. He wanted to touch her breasts, her entire body, but he wasn’t the kind of man that would force his way. It would steal all his justice if he treaded that line.

Fearing his own self at the touch of her skin, he pulled away.

His thoughts returned to the manner of her death. He could have his arachnids poison her, other insects enter her body and kill her from the inside. Or he could stab her belly with his trowel. He lifted his hand again, unable to resist anymore contact. She closed her eyes, tears flowing down her face, and just as his hands was inches away from her skin, she let out a whimper. “You win,” she cried. “I will return. I will stay with you, it will be like it was before.”

His hand was frozen mid-air at the unexpected prospect. The choice to be with her again, to return to their perfect home, was tempting. His throat clenched and his heart skipped a beat. He wanted to give in. He was ready to accept, when he felt the six legs of his ladybug move around in his ear, destroying the spell.

He shook his head. “But it can never be like before,” he lamented.

“She will betray you again, Gabriel,” the ladybug whispered.

“It can be better,” Theone pleaded. Her eyes travelled to his ear. “Is it that devil in your ear telling you not to trust me?”

“My familiar never lies to me, always tells me the truth.”

“That bug told you of the affair, right?” Theone asked. Her eyes hardened, making his stomach clench in anticipation. It was what he wanted. To see one more time the fight and the fire.

He didn’t answer her. He took the trowel out of his pocket and with one sharp and hard movement, stabbed her belly. It was harder than he thought it would be. Her skin didn’t pierce as easy as he thought it would. Her eyes betrayed her surprise at the direct physical attack. He saw her anger and rage inside her green irises. He pulled it out and stabbed her again.

He didn’t do it a third time. He stepped away and watched as she fell on her knees and pressed her wound with her hands. The blood was spurting out, like a small fountain, no matter how hard she tried to stop it. He sat across from her. “Go to her,” he instructed all his glow worms and fireflies, “I want to see it all.”

They all moved to her, resting either on her body or just around her. It made her look like a martyr from the stories of the church. As she was dying, divine light showed her true, pure nature. Only that it was not God’s light, but Gabriel’s power and command. He elevated her. All thanks to him.

She was breathing with pain. “You can still save me, Gabriel,” she begged him. “We can still have everything we wanted.”

He didn’t say anything. Her wolf’s whimpering had ceased but they could still see the slight movement of his breathing. “I suppose you didn’t really make it hard for me,” Gabriel said and stood up. He approached the wolf and went on his knees by its side.

When they had been living together, he used to like the beast, enjoyed caressing its dark fur. He expected to see betrayal in its eyes but all he saw was its plea for mercy and an end to its pain. He agreed it had suffered enough. He held its head and, with one movement of all his strength, he twisted its head, killing it instantly. He was crushed by a wave of sadness. If it had not been Theone’s familiar, but just an animal, he might have managed to spare its life. He lowered his body, taking the animal in his hug and tears flowed from his eyes again. He kissed the fur and promised he would bury it.

“You are such a maniac,” Theone said and laughed. He lifted his face and watched her spasm in pain and laughter. “You kill and then you mourn the loss of the life you took.”

“I would have spared its life if I could,” he said. “But you took the beast down with you. You sealed its death when you broke our life.”

“Our life was a cruel joke, Gabriel. We were just two orphans, abused by the same woman and we thought that our common pain equalled love. A cruel joke. I wish you could understand.”

Instead of answering, he sat again across from her and watched her, smiling at Theone and enjoyed the time they had left together.

She bled to death a few hours later. He carried her in his arms, with the ants and the rest of his army guiding him outside. He had to go deep into the forest, to ensure that she wouldn’t be accidentally found. His army was weak and many of his soldiers had wasted all their energy, stopping their march to die. He whispered his goodbyes to them as they parted ways.

Once he reached a place that he thought was remote enough, he started digging. He used his trowel, her murder weapon, to dig her grave. He climbed down with her body. He hugged her, kissed her cheeks, and smiled at her, still, beautiful face. “I will not break my promise. My only love,” he said and kissed her hands. “The only one that rules my heart.” He then took out of his pocket the fourth seed and put it under her hands. He climbed out of her grave and started covering it with soil.

He was exhausted, out of breath, and his arms were worn out when he finished. He lay over her grave, unable to move anymore. He heard, deep inside, the seed finding its place in the world. It would flower each spring for her, as he would never visit her grave.

“Don’t forget the wolf,” his ladybug said.

 

It was morning when he returned to Phaidra’s cottage. He spat at the gate as he entered and hurried inside to change into some of his old clothes left there. He made sure to transfer his last seed into the pocket of his new pants and made his way to the church.

“I will do this alone,” he told his ladybug. “Come and find me after everyone has left.”

He heard the buzzing of the ladybug’s fluttering as it flew away. He reached the church and sat at the front row. He was knackered and his back throbbed in pain. The priest approached him and whispered insistently comforting words, but Gabriel didn’t fight him away. He cried openly for Theone and their lost future. Callum didn’t need to know she was who he mourned and not the old woman he prepared to bury.

The entire village came, even though Gabriel knew Phaidra wasn’t loved by anyone nor liked by most. She was tolerated because of fear. He knew he replaced her role in the village. But he vowed to never be cruel to his future apprentices. He would make sure he had a boy and a girl and that they live happily ever after as he and Theone ought to.

Following his instructions, the ladybug landed on his face when all the funeral attendants departed. Callum was into his church and Gabriel was alone before Phaidra’s grave. He took out of his pocket the last of the five seeds. He made a small hole over the fresh soil and planted his last seed.

“I will never bring you flowers, you bitch. And this plant will be full of thorns and pain, reminding you that, in the end, I was stronger.” He drew with his finger a twisted and inverted sign of fertility, inflicting his curse on her soul.


THE END


2022 Ioanna Papadopoulou

Bio: Ioanna Papadopoulou is a Greek by descent author and Scottish by residence. Along with writing, she a passionate art historian and museologist. She has been published at Hexagon Magazine, Idle Ink, Piker Press and The Future Fire. Her debut novel, Winter Harvest, will be coming out in November 2023 by Ghost Orchid Press. Twitter @IoannaP_Author


Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.