Supernatural Short Story Competition - Runner Up

Charlotte Bracey

Runner Up
The Tradition
Supernatural Short Story Competition


Charlotte Bracey has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Cumbria and currently lives in North West Cumbria with her fiancé, as well as an excitable springer spaniel and two cats. Charlotte has had other short stories published in The Monkey Collective Anthology as well as the H.G. Wells Short Story Competition Anthology.

The Tradition By Charlotte Bracey

Thick cloud cover hid the stars and moon from view. The only light came from our fire which illuminated the woodland surrounding us, turning silver birch trees into skeletal ghosts that loomed overhead. Beyond this, only glimmers of far-off branches and winding, empty footpaths were caught like temporary photographs in the flickering of flames. The village felt a long way away from the depths of the woodland.
    The villagers had come to wish us well before we ventured into the forest, it was all part of the tradition. Families brought trinkets of good luck, food, warm clothing, anything that might keep their loved one safe. They sang songs to celebrate our bravery as we disappeared into the tree line. I didn’t feel brave. I’ve never known anyone to refuse the call when their fate is announced, it’s not like I had a choice. I couldn’t refuse. Tightly, I held Katie’s toy rabbit in my white-knuckled grasp, silently praying that I’d be returning it to her tomorrow morning.
    Any murmurs of hushed conversation between our group had ebbed away long ago. We were left only with the cracking of logs and the occasional rustling in the undergrowth. Each time we stilled our breathing, waiting for the moment to pass, willing it not to be that time yet, even though we knew it was coming. Whilst I stroked rabbit’s ears and pretended it was Katie I was comforting; I watched the others. Paul remained as motionless as the stone he sat on, face pointed down to the earth, avoiding everybody’s gaze. What little movement immitted from Paul was made up for by Catherine, who fidgeted with anything and everything close to her, whilst her eyes roamed the visible woodland. Between them both, Adam seemed calm, serene even. Of course, he had been a potential sacrifice many times before.
    ‘I can’t stay here any longer.’ Catherine said as she stood up hastily from the log she was perched on.
    ‘We’ve been through this before.’ Adam replied calmly, as he leaned to his right, picked up another stick and threw it into the flames. Paul and I watched on, silently.
    ‘Why do we keep doing this? Mindlessly repeating the tradition. How do we know it effects the harvest? That whatever’s in this forest would harm us otherwise?’
    ‘Nothing is without sacrifice.’ Adam answered, turning to look up at her. I could tell he was getting angry, there was that gravelled edge to his voice which grew coarser when someone disagreed with him at a village meeting. I willed Catherine to sit down and shut up. ‘One villager every decade, in exchange for a full and prosperous harvest, for protection from the evil in the forest and a guarantee that it won’t trespass onto our land, it’s a good bargain.’
    Catherine’s eyes bore into Adam with the same hate that I kept hidden away, yet she said no more. Reluctantly, she eased herself back onto the log she’d been sitting on. After a long, considered stare, Adam returned his gaze to the fire and resumed stoking the embers. No one spoke.
    Time meandered through the branches to its own rhythm as the night dragged on. It was impossible to still my thoughts, they twisted and tangled in my mind like the gnarled branches overhead. I thought of Katie, safely tucked up in bed, my mother watching over her. I hadn’t told Katie that I might not return, maybe I should have, but she’s too young to understand the significance of tonight and I didn’t want to fill her mind with horrors if they had no reason to creep around in there. When no one was watching, I kissed the top of rabbit’s head. I had to get home.
    I found out I’d been chosen when Katie came running home from school with something clasped tightly behind her back, a wide, toothy smile covering her face.
    ‘What do you have there?’ I’d asked, kneeling to greet her so that we were the same height.
    ‘Adam told me to give this to you.’ She’d seemed so proud to have been delegated such an important job, as Adam had called it. Bringing her hands out from behind her back, she showed me the white petalled flower with the crimson centre that only grew in the darkest recesses of the forest. I’d tried not to let my disappointment show. He’d used the innocence of the person I loved most to deliver my possible death warrant, and to deliver it with a willing smile, uncomprehending of its significance. I hate him.
    ‘They come to him in a dream,’ is what Adam always said. ‘Each decade, different faces rise out of the darkness of his unconscious mind, showing him who to gift the flowers too, then the tradition begins anew’. It’s hard to know how much to believe. The truth flows gently like the creek at the border of the village, what was once true bleeds into hazy ambiguity before floating down river to merge with a mass of water, one droplet indistinguishable from the rest. Remnants of the original spring turn into a part of something too vast and changeable to comprehend. It’s better to leave things to those who understand, to those who grasp the concepts we cannot, to Adam.
    Afterall, it was impossible to deny that the tradition worked. Ancient evil forces which used to skulk across our village, were now exiled to prowl within the confines of the forest. If we didn’t leave the village, we were safe and if we offered ourselves to the evil once every decade, only one of us would be taken, leaving the rest of the village untouched and fed with fruitful harvests. Legends say that before the tradition, our land was barren and food scarce, things are better now.
    Tales of the evil that lurks in the forest have trickled down from some unknown tributary for as long as any of us can remember, slowly eroding and changing shape overtime. Some stories personify the evil as a ghost or a shadow which skulks between leaves and branches, its pin-pricked eyes staring through gaps in the foliage, watching the villagers. Others warn of the evil that dwells in the forest itself, of a clogged earth that pulsates with venomous arteries and a wind which gathers malevolence as it stalks the woodland then holds it captive, waiting.
    In the distance, a branch snapped, the wind drew back and blew along the footpaths, rattling the leaves in the trees.
    ‘It is time.’ Adam said, rising solemnly and gesturing for us to follow. We rose. Like a schoolteacher, he walked around us, gently moving our fingers outwards until we were interlocked with one another, forming a tight circle.
    ‘Why aren’t you in the circle?’ Catherine asked Adam as he walked away from us, arms outstretched. I wondered the same thing, but my nerves wouldn’t let me speak. Panic rose inside me. No one had warned us about what happened during the tradition, those who had returned last time never uttered a word. Tightly, I held on to Paul and Catherine as I thought of Katie and prayed that I’d return home.
    Adam stretched his arms wider as the wind howled. Arching his back, he seemed to breathe the world into him, as if it gave him strength. I didn’t see the glint of metal until he turned around. I didn’t see him run towards Catherine until he was upon her, and I didn’t understand what he had planned until the knife shot through her stomach. Honestly, I didn’t.
    Paul and I snatched our fingers away from each other and watched as Catherine slumped to the floor. Blood turned her white shoes red. I stared at her body, trying to piece together what had happened; everything we’d been taught to fear had been a lie.
    ‘The tradition isn’t real.’ Paul said, his tone somewhere between a question and a statement.
    ‘Of course, it’s real.’ Adam snapped. ‘The tradition makes everyone work hard, so that we have plentiful harvests. It stops people from leaving the village, keeps them in their place. The tradition is real, and it works, only the details have been embellished.’
    ‘There is no evil in the forest?’ Paul asked, a clear question this time.
    ‘No. But our tradition lives on.’     
    Paul bowed his head once more, looking down at Catherine’s lifeless body. Was that all he had to say?
    ‘But you can’t know all of that.’ I spoke up, finally finding my voice. ‘Catherine was right, our harvests might prosper anyway, maybe more so, if the villagers have nothing to fear, and they might not leave, not if they like it here, anyway, what does it matter if they do? You can’t…you can’t carry on doing this.’
    Bending down, Adam pulled the knife out from Catherine and wiped it clean on the earth. ‘You know nothing of control, of what it takes to rule. I promise you that fear, and oppression are more useful tools than freedom. Have you considered why Catherine was chosen over you? You both know when to be quiet, when to let an argument lie. Catherine did not. Those who know how to stay silent survive the tradition, those who don’t…’ Adam looked down at Catherine’s crumpled remains as the close of the sentence hung in the air. ‘I never choose the same villagers twice to take part in the tradition, nor do I choose their descendants.’ He said it almost absentmindedly, as if he was speaking to the forest, rather than us, yet Katie’s face burned brightly in my mind, just as he’d known it would. I hate him.  
    ‘We need to bury the body before sunrise.’ Adam said, looking up at the sky.
    With that, he walked onwards, slipping the hunting knife into his trouser pocket.
    I looked at Paul who continued to look down at Catherine. Slowly and without speaking, we bent down to pick up a side each, the dead weight swinging clumsily between us as we shuffled after Adam, following him into the darker recesses of the forest where the white petaled flowers with the crimson centres grow.  


Judges Comments

From its title alone it's evident that Charlotte Beesley's story The Tradition, the runner-up in WM's supernatural short story competition, is firmly in the realms of folk horror. As we read on, all the markers are in place: a rural, woodland setting; superstitious villagers; a ritual of some kind; a sacrifice.

It's well done, steeped in atmosphere, and given an edge by the way Charlotte deploys the tension between folk superstition and social control. In The Tradition, the real horror doesn't come from the supernatural elements, but from human beings and the way superstition and folk belief are manipulated to keep the lesser orders in their place.

The story unfolds through the eyes of a narrator who has been chosen to take part in the Tradition of the title. We see all the events in the story unfolding through her eyes, and the well-handled viewpoint moves between the recent past and the present so that the reader is filled in on what they need to know about the village and its system of beliefs. There are some really evocative descriptions of place, and the dynamics between the characters are well-handled, so that they credibly inhabit the setting and the scenario.

The Tradition succeeds very well as a folk horror short story with a message about power and control. If it had been given a more rigorous edit, the toy rabbit is perhaps on the twee side - and it doesn't ring true that a mother who feared she might not return would deprive her child of its toy. But apart from this, The Tradition stood out for its atmospheric writing, and well deserves its second place in WM's contest.