A Man of Science—Molly Skinner

content warning: mentions domestic violence

I started drawing for my husband before he became my husband. 

RESPECTED ARCHAEOLOGIST SEEKS STUDENT SKILLED WITH A PENCIL TO DOCUMENT RECENT FINDS. PLEASE SEEK DR RAMSEY TRAQUAIR AT 17 MILLHOLLOW STREET.

So it began. Ramsey, out there on the beach, trowel in hand, hunting for fossils – myself perched on a bench or a soft patch of grass waiting for him. Listening closely to his talk of Darwin’s theories and the great discoveries he was sure to make. Dreaming of becoming a true artist one day, not merely an illustrator. 

Before either of us knew it – or perhaps before I knew it – short conversations on the surf became meetings in his office at the university, became dinner at my parents’ house (Oh to have a gentleman in our home! A scientist no less!), became a ring on my finger and a ticket from the Irish coast to the streets of Edinburgh with his new professorship.

Just as the earth birthed his fossils, my body brought forth the children. Five babes have sat upon my lap now; two have full laps of their own. There was little time to draw and sew.

Then the letter arrives. 

My sister writes from London where she lives with her own brood. She has received a copy of Walter Pater’s new book and believes there is one story in particular I must hear. She has written it out for me. 

By candlelight, I begin to read the tale of Denys L’Auxerrois.

The rain soaked her clothes straight through. Chased from home by parents who wondered at the origin of the child that grew within her, the girl could hardly see for the rain. The rain. She stumbled on until she felt the knobbled fig tree, and lay against it. 

The heavens themselves shook. 

This is no metaphor. Caged by Hera for his trespasses against her, Zeus, mighty God of the Gods could only watch as the village girl he had fallen for withered against the old tree.

He raged inside his cage as she looked to the sky for her lover. What good is it to love a God when you shall die like a lamb lost in the mire? The tears stopped now, she clutched her stomach, feeling the ripple of the child that writhed in defiance of his fate. 

As the breath left her body Zeus’s scream was heard throughout the world. With a heft of rage he broke the bars with his hands alone. Too late. 

Too late to save his lover, he sent to earth a lightning bolt that split her belly in two. 

When the sun came in the morning, the farmers found no body – just a babe in the shade of a fig tree, pink and laughing. 

It was a retelling of a story we had heard in childhood. I dropped the pages to the floor, reminded all at once of the girl I had been, who dreamt of Gods and Goddesses and whispered secret desires to her sister in the night. Reading those words, I knew I had found my long-forgotten muse. This was the story I would make flesh with my pencil, needle and thread.

I told our housekeeper Catherine first. Her ear is often kinder to my thoughts and wishes than I have found Ramsey’s to be. I did not wish my dream trampled just as it began to sprout. I read to her the story from the letter and she agreed – it was a fine subject for an embroidery. 

First, to the designs. No; first to the sketchbook in which to do the designs. Wrong again, first to the coins to buy the sketchbook to create the designs. 

When I became Ramsey’s wife I found I was no longer to be paid for my illustrations of his work and that each month it was Ramsey who would decide how his money was spent. With my re-discovered passion, this old argument surfaced once more. But he would not be persuaded to patronise his wife playing dress-up as an artist. 

A solution was offered by Catherine. Unbeknownst to Ramsey, might she store the change she brings back from the market in an old biscuit tin in the kitchen? 

So it was agreed, Catherine would save the change and I would purchase what I needed in secret – passing it off as materials I already owned. This was easy to do. Ramsey had never paid much attention. 

I set to work on my very own Denys L’Auxerrois.

One afternoon, as Ramsey walked from his study to our bedroom, he peered into my drawing room for perhaps the first time – and entered.

The designs for the embroidery lay on the table, the fabric neatly draped across my armchair – filled with pins and needles to plot my beginning. 

Before I could stop him, it was set in motion. While my back was turned he reached out, picked up the fabric and found himself pricked by a needle.

Cradling his wound, he moved as if to strike me for harming him. After all our time together I found I do not even flinch. My embroidery lay on the floor.

When I was left alone once more, I quickly rescued my work and inspected it. The design I had settled upon was a life-size drawing of Denys L’Auxerrois himself – and now Ramsey’s blood had marked the figure’s face.

Right there in the middle of the stain, lay a single piece of thread so fine even Rumplestiltskin could not have woven it.  

They refused to name the babe for a week at least. The girl’s parents would not claim him. It was the widow on the edge of the village that took him in. With one grin from this cherub, she could not refuse.

As the child grew it seemed as if the earth grew with him, a touch of his soft palm and the flowers would sprout. Should he choose to sit upon a patch of barren earth only a few days need pass for it to flourish. This did not go unnoticed. Soon, the widow found her summer child was needed. 

Let the boy run through the fields, they’d say! Bring to us the harvest! Adorned in flowers and running through the streets the boy did not fear his growth into a man. We never do, in the spring and summer of our youth.

I continued working on the embroidery, but with each stitch I was drawn back to the mystery of that solitary shimmering thread, resolving to find its origin and stitch my Denys’ eyes with it. 

I began by searching through the skeins I had ordered out on the table but found only the expected colours. Next, I searched the bag of offcast threads – emptying it onto the floor, inspecting each piece slowly. 

At one point or another Catherine came to me and we sat, the two of us, untangling the threads. Ramsey watched us from the doorway – wondering perhaps as to why his wife would waste her time with a housekeeper and why a housekeeper would waste her time with his wife. 

We searched and searched but could not find a match for the thread I found in the bloodstain. 

Catherine insisted that it must have arrived from somewhere. While Ramsey’s fossils may seem incomprehensible, they are simply animals buried in the earth – waiting for us. 

Could the thread have been waiting for me?

I watched Ramsey’s chest rise in the night and the idea knotted itself into my mind. 

Sometimes, I reasoned, you must prove to yourself that a wild thought is not true. 

As Ramsey slept I took my embroidery scissors and nicked a small hole in the back of his neck. He jerked as I did it, but within seconds was back to sleep. The sting only of a bee perhaps.

At first, I could not believe what I had done. I had never returned Ramsey’s violence upon him, now here I was – cutting into him.

When I settled my shaking hands myself, I surveyed the wound. 

At first, I thought a hair must be caught in the quickly congealing blood. I plucked the end with my forefinger and thumb, but when I pulled – there was no end. 

Out from the hole in his neck, I pulled a length of thread that seemed to glint even in the darkness.

I snipped it with my scissors. He did not wake. 

Denys grew slower than the other children, slower than all other children born to the mortal world before him. His heart wrapped in lightning.

Over time the widow died, so her grown niece took in the boy – no older now than ten in appearance. 

The seasons changed and the niece died too. The boy became a young man of sixteen or so and was passed to the niece’s daughter. The village became a town. The niece’s daughter died. 

The boy became a man and the fields in which he used to run were lost in all but memory.

I was unable to eat for a week following my defiling of Ramsey’s body that night. I dared not even show Catherine what I had harvested from within him. I kept my small length of thread spooled inside a thimble carefully placed on my dressing table – unable to reckon with my act and equally unable to forfeit my prize. 

Catherine, believing my malaise to be about the missing thread, reassured me that in a few weeks we would have saved enough in the tin to purchase even gold thread should I want it. 

Before too long Ramsey left for a research trip, promising to bring discoveries on his return that would shape our age. It is the noblest of professions – as I am so often told.

I found the bed far warmer occupied only by my own thoughts. 

I spent the time he was away sewing. Pausing only to eat when Catherine begged it of me. 

I told her how I had first learnt to sew from my grandmother. Showed her how to secure the fabric with wooden hoops and tighten until you could beat the cloth like a drum. Spoke of the seamless blend of embroidery stitch; the sculptural qualities of raised work; and my favourite stitch: couching – where one thread is laid upon the surface of the fabric and another holds it down. 

I taught Catherine to couch thread as we sat, arm grazing arm. She pursed her lips with concentration as she followed my instruction. That serious look upon her face. 

Each year Denys would walk into the square to mark the coming of spring. But the townspeople did not need the crops to grow and as the years passed even the meaning of the ceremony was lost. 

Denys, older than the hills now, son of Zeus and a girl whose name has slipped from time, dresses in flowers with a horned crown. He apes the ceremonies of the past as a crude show for the townspeople who chase him through the streets like generations long deceased.

Denys is no myth nor man, but puppet on a string enacting times gone by – a mockery of his former self.

Ramsey returned on a Sunday morning, slipped through the house briefly to greet us, delivered fossils for illustration and left once more for the society to present his findings. 

When he arrived home properly, it was getting dark outside. If he noticed the fresh bags under my eyes or how my greying hair now seemed even thinner, he did not mention it. He did note however the chill throughout the house. 

On command, Catherine fetched the coal for the fireplace only to find the shed bare. Ramsey made a show of how the cold affected him and complained of his empty pockets. I thought of the coins we had saved for the embroidery and slipped into the kitchen.

The little tin – which usually clinked with promise – made no sound. 

With a turn I found Ramsey standing behind me with Catherine by his side, eyes downcast. 

There was no great mystery. That morning Ramsey had arrived home and discovered our secret simply by opening the wrong container in search of something sweet. 

The money is gone. Denys will go unfinished. 

He is calm as he tells us this, but his grip does not move from Catherine’s arm. When he is finished he marches us both out to the hallway and reaches for the cane that leans by the door.

Was it not Ramsey’s money she had stolen? Should he not punish a servant for theft? 

I can close my eyes but I cannot block her cries from my ears. 

I bite at my own arm to stop myself from howling. 

As Denys runs through the street now, his outstretched hands touch trees and grass but the magic of yesterday is lost too. 

Worse, worse still, his fingers, once soft and loved, have grown calloused. He runs and runs towards the edge of the town to the spot where he took his first breath and reaches for the ancient fig tree that remembers his birth.

One touch is all it takes to catch his finger on the bark. 

Ramsey and I spoke only to arrange the illustration of his specimens. When Catherine came in from the market she was to greet him alone, dropping the coins into his outstretched hand. 

All work ceased on the embroidery; Denys golden hair was left half finished, sewn flowers lay waiting to bloom and a blank space on the fabric stared back at me where his eyes might go.

Ramsey made one final gift of reconciliation: the latest leather-bound journal in which he had been published. 

Sat beside me, He flicked through the academic articles until his own appeared and pointed to the attribution. 

ARTICLE FROM PROFESSOR RAMSEY TRAQUAIR. ILLUSTRATIONS WITH ASSISTANCE FROM MRS. RAMSEY TRAQUAIR.

“I had them include you as an addition.”

His name looked back at me from the page. 

Cut upon a tree which once blossomed at his touch, Denys blood flows forth. Below the earth the Fates wake from their eternal slumber for this child of a God. 

They three watch as the townspeople are driven mad by the smell of Denys’ ancient blood. Into the air and into their lungs it spreads as they are all at once returned to their savage origin.

With outstretched hands they tear his body limb from limb. 

 No pieces left to scatter in the wind. 

Much to Ramsey’s surprise, the gift did not work – our life together destroyed with Catherine’s tender skin. I made plain my unwillingness to live as before. He wrote to our children that I grew unreasonable with age like an old dog who can no longer be trusted.

One morning I found Catherine dusting my dressing table, her hair piled atop her head with wisps falling to frame her gentle face. When I greeted her, she jumped with surprise and knocked over the thimble – revealing the thread I had hidden within. 

‘You found it!’ 

‘I did.’

‘Will you buy more? I have been thinking I could put one or two of the coins under the doormat before I come into the house?’

‘There’s no need Catherine, thank you for thinking of me.’

There really was no need.

I watch Ramsey as he sleeps. I think of the young girl in his office, his hand on her knee – of those lonely years away from her family seemingly pregnant more than she was not, of the work he took from her without payment or thanks, of each time she tensed in his presence, unsure of what might come. 

I think of my embroidery – and plunge my scissors into his neck.

As he wakes I straddle his back with my knees. Sitting atop him now. 

There, once more in the wound, is the end of the thread.

I pull it out through the hole, out from the inside of his body, pulling and winding and wrapping it around my hand as I go. He thrashes now, attempting to push me off, crying out. 

Catherine arrives at the doorway. 

She does not shout or run but holds him down with me. 

I feel the thread catch inside of him, tied somewhere within the cavern of his chest.

I pull with both hands – until I unravel him. 

The children weep when the news arrives. His heart had given out, or so the Doctor says.

Could it be that Ramsey’s end was set from the moment of our meeting? Just as Denys’ death was written in his birth? 

Both man and boy cut down by fate.

One lives at least, immortalised in the embroidery with eyes that glint even in the din.

I am told it is hard to look away from my Denys L’Auxerrois. He greets each visitor now in the hallway of our home – hung on the wall by my Catherine’s strong hands. 

Molly Skinner is a writer, audio producer and art lover based in London. Her work has been published by TSS publishing and performed live by Liars League. In her day job she helps museums around the world tell their stories. She is currently working on a podcast series for the Greater London Authority about diversity in the public realm. 

photo of an embroidery by Phoebe Anna Traquair (via National Galleries Scotland)
Creative Commons CC by NC

We Escape into the Recesses—Spencer Nitkey

content warning: suicidal ideation

  1. The animals scurry. Their hairs twitch against the coming storm. The pressure changes. The air heaves, and it is almost unnoticeable. Lorena’s skin feels it. Lorena does not. Underneath a tree, between the roots, the dirt is pulled out and tunneled. Quivering noses and their trembling bodies bury downward. She knows it is going to rain when her ankle and pinky finger ache. She’s broken both, and now, minutes before a downpour, she feels pain, or, more accurately, the reminder of pain, an echo of their shatter. She looks up at the sky, almost washed out with grey, and starts to run. She sprints over the brambles and fallen branches as the rain pushes down, finally. She is headed towards home, where her mother is waiting with a boiling pot and almost every part of the stew except the roots Lorena is bringing back, tucked against her skin under the sagging and soaked shirt. The rain pours. The brooks she leaps are roaring. In a moment, the sky will open and crack. The ground will reach for air and the white, hot flash of lightning will sear. The creatures know this. The hairs inside their ears stand up and they cower deeper. The insects’ spindled, centipedal legs make zig-zagged lines in the mud. The moles burrow. The squirrels jump from branch to branch, dripping wet. Lightning splits a tree in half only a few feet from her. She should scream. She feels the heat of it against her. She laughs instead, running a little faster, her feet making larger and larger splashes in the puddled ground. The oppressive weight of the rain is an invitation. The forest is hers. The animals are hiding from the rain, beaten back. The wilderness belongs to her. The harder it pours, the faster she runs. The storm and her race like two children. The rain slicks off her dress. She slips and tumbles. She laughs again, her pant legs cloaked in mud. The rain will wash it off. She comes to the edge of the forest. She skids like she’s at the edge of a cliff. The trees drop off and stop. They are sentries, tall guards at the edge of a kingdom. In the distance she can see her home. Her cottage. Where her mother is waiting. Where her brother is wheeling a toy car along the floor, and under the table, and through the legs of the three chairs. She turns back. The forest dances under the rain. Branches and leaves bend and bounce under the heavy downpour. Lorena looks out. The sky is noisy, but the forest is quiet. She could run back. Leave her quiet and too-empty house. She could learn to listen to the goosebumps on her skin. She could find a tree, thick with age, and dig between its proud roots. She could sink beneath the surface. She could pick at beetles and run down deer. She could cover her back in animal hide, and dance between the lightning bugs. It is right there. The emptied forest. Swaying arms open. The roots press against her stomach. She cradles them with one arm. The smoke rises from the chimney. She could go home. She could sniffle throughout the night, and shiver beside the fire. She could cool. The forest could kill her. The rain could kill her. A small spider underfoot could kill her. The lightning strikes again. This time back, farther from the edge. She waits to hear its thunder. Though things in her cottage could kill her too. Her brother could hit puberty and develop muscles and a sex drive, and a temper and kill her. A lot of men could kill her. Her prom date could kill her. Her mother could become old and senile with grief and forget which mushroom she is supposed to pick and they could spend three hours vomiting and then die. The rain could kill her at home. It could bring down a tree on top of them. It could form a sinkhole and swallow them. The loneliness could kill her. Though that would be slow. Life, the more she thinks about it, has no shortage of ways to kill you no matter where you are. Life is not so much the opposite of death as its home. So death and its many bodies will not help her. The thunder rattles the trees. The few birds too frozen to fly before the storm scatter now. Black tears in a grey sky. She does not want to be unhappy, but feels that unhappiness is an inevitability. She wants her father’s warm and large hands to hold her. The forest has a thousand hands. The forest will help her palms and fingers grow strong and calloused. She will strain against stone and bark and her hands will grow thick and twisted like tree stumps. Perhaps then she will be able to carry herself, she thinks. At home her hands will stay soft. They will be strong, sure, and perhaps her fingertips will harden, burnt like her mothers, but they will not be gnarled. They will not look strong. They will look delicate. She sees the lights of her cottage begin to glow against the darkening sky. The rain beats her hair down against her face and down her neck. The clouds swell. There is a howling from the forest. Then, a chorus of noise. Lorena turns to the forest and thinks she sees red eyes back behind the shadow of trees. She steps back twice. The back of her shoe hits a stone, and she tumbles over into a puddle. The roots fall from her shirt as she pushes herself up. She turns to run. Her hands are muddy and dark. But she stops. She looks back at the red eyes and takes a step towards them. Nothing changes. The trees hum and clatter. Lorena walks into the arboreal music, her skin buzzing with energy. The red eyes watch, then blink, then scurry away.

  2. Bass shakes the fogged car. Inside, William presses his body against Charlisse’s. Charlisse pushes her hips up into William. He shudders against the pressure. He fumbles, trying to press the seat back. He puts his hand up against the window and leaves a print on the sweat stained glass. They kiss. They make knots and loops with their tongues. It is fumbled and awkward, and William feels a deep insecurity and his arousal collide, head-first, horned bulls, inside him. Charlisse wraps around the small of William’s back. She slips a hand up the front of his shirt and plays with his chest hair, twirling the new strands around her fingers. William presses his face into hers, like he can slip inside her skin, like she can consume him, like he can become a passenger. After, William’s face burns red under the parking lot lights. After, they turn off the music and sit in the silence. “What do you think happened to your sister?” Charlisse asks, under the melody of crickets and frogs. William doesn’t answer. The closeness he felt is now a chasm. The question wedges in between them, screws into their sides and splits them apart. How long had it been on the tip of her tongue, he wonders. He doesn’t look at her, or see her face, or realize that she wants to be tight to him, that for her the question is a rope, a bind, and that this is what people who love each other do: whisper secrets in the dark. She doesn’t know that he has no answer. That he suspects she killed herself, but that once, when he was younger, he suggested this to his mom, who was still looking for her nightly, uploading pictures to websites and knocking on suspicious men’s doors, and she slapped him across the face and broke into tears. There is no way to really grieve, he knows, and they both ignore this moment. He breaks up with Charlisse the next school day, over a half frozen hamburger meat and tears. “You used me,” Charlisse says. William remains silent. When he goes home, he crawls into his bed. He plays opera on his turntable. He closes his eyes and tries to imagine what his sister would look like now. He imagines her taller. He pictures her with dyed hair and a spider web tattoo on her elbow. He tries to hear her laugh, but it keeps coming out as the soprano’s lilting voice. He smokes, blowing the scent out of the window over his bed, and waits to get high. He imagines her shoeless, ankle-deep in a river. She motions for him to come closer, but he can’t move. He is a statue, or limbless, the cracked torso of a forgotten Greek hero. He can’t see the details of her face. They are covered by mud and dirt. He can see her eyes, wide and blue and shining. She smiles behind the mud. Her yellow teeth don’t distract from the dimples that crack the dried mud. She smiles and makes words he can’t understand. She opens her arms, welcoming him. He wants to come to her but he can’t. He watches a deer kneel down in the river next to her and drink. He watches her muscular body twist and contort. He watches her grab the deer’s antlers and snap its neck. He hears the pop. The deer crumples. His sister kneels down and rips at its throat, then its stomach with her teeth. She tears into it and feasts. She turns and looks up at him, holding its fatty liver out, like an offering. She looks into his eyes, and is arresting. He cries in his bed, motionless behind his silent tears.

  3. The onion, carrot and celery are sliced thinly. The flat end of a knife slides them from the wood into the boiling broth. They splash and tumble. Lorena’s mother stirs the pot and watches three crows waddle through the uncut grass in her front yard. Yesterday a neighbor had come over and offered to cut it for her. He slipped and admitted that her lawn made the neighborhood look trashy, but he had, at least, tried to be nice. She thanked him, but told him she’d get to it soon and not to worry. The pot steams. She can smell her son’s marijuana from upstairs. Air bubbles race from the bottom of the cast-iron to the top, disappearing right at the surface of the water, losing their shapes and selves completely. They dredged the lake they thought she’d drowned in, where teenagers went and dared each other to jump off the rock faces. She’d gone night swimming by herself and drowned, they thought. Someone had seen her walking that way, twisting and turning through the woods. They didn’t find her body. They found tiny fish bones and bracelets and condoms. She stirs the soup. The broth sloshes up. The white insides of the pot rise and sink. She wants to go upstairs and ask Will for a hit, to make dinner taste more. They hadn’t found any of her clothes but they’d looked. She wants to put on the TV, or the radio, like her parents used to over the dinner table. She’d watch them stop and dance together when a slow song came on. They’d kiss softly as it ended, and smile at each other. She and her husband had never slow danced like that. They’d loved each other in spurts of passion and long slow years of pragmatism. They never slipped into complacency—she would come home to flowers once every few months. But there was a depth, an earth, that she sometimes felt missing even before he died. How far she was from a family. How weak she felt beside the one tie left, crumbling each day. She wants to put on the TV, but then she won’t hear the faint sound of Will’s music. That small, slipping noise, muted and faded, is all she has tying the two of them together right now. Outside the crows fight over a worm one of them found stranded above the dirt. They jump back and forth and spread their wings and caw until one of them gives up and launches in the sky. They weren’t closing the case, just putting it on the back-burner for a while. They were waiting for relevant and/or pertinent information to make itself available. She forgets where she is and leans her hand down onto the edge of the pot. It sears a bright red line across the side of her palm. She moves to the sink and runs it under cool water.  They thought they had found her body but it was someone else’s, a hiker from out of state who had gone missing three days before her daughter. They dragged up the body from under a layer of fallen leaves. It was covered in mud and maggots and was unrecognizable. She worried it would give her nightmares, but it hasn’t. Instead, she dreams and watches Lorena pick the maggots of the dead body’s skin and chew them. She watches her swallow the insect protein. Lorena’s arms are lithe and taut. The muscles beneath them feather and ripple against her skin. Lorena looks strong and terrifying in all of her mother’s dreams. The skin swells up under the red mark on her hand. She has a sudden urge to dig into the skin with her kitchen knife. To cut out the affected area. To carve her way out of the hurt. She doesn’t. She knocks on William’s door and tells him that dinner is ready. Over their bowls of soup and the loaf of garlic bread in the middle of the table, she rubs her fingers over it and ignores his bloodshot eyes, deciding that tomorrow, she is going to steal her son’s weed and get so high she can’t see straight.

  4. William doesn’t even bother sneaking out. He just strolls past his mother, snoring and splayed on the couch, and the half rolled joints and burn marks on the glass table in front of her. He leaves the door open behind him. A cool wind meets the heat of their home.

  5. Mom wakes up to a black night sky and an open front door. She calls out for William. Her mouth is a desert. She is alone. The outside fills every recess of her home. She limps upstairs, her foot numb, pulsing with static. In her room, the bed is too large. She cannot sleep in it. She cradles at the edge, most of the sheets and blankets untouched, and rocks. She faces away from the center, over the side. The room is heavy with fresh and open air. There is no one here.

  6. William walks to the edge of the forest and screams. He tears his throat. He takes stones and throws them into the side of trees and watches the bark shatter off, and wishes he could strike a match and burn.

  7. Mom sees her husband in the open closet. He fills in a hanging suit, the grey he wore in winter. His legs fill the dangling slacks. Just for a moment she sees him.

  8. William walks to the edge and collapses. Overhead the sky churns over itself. Clouds fall and fold. The sky coalesces and brims. It sags with weight. William isn’t screaming anymore. He slides his back down the tree and looks back towards civilization.

  9. Her husband is gone. Her arms fall through the empty fabric. She coughs on the stirred up dust. She sits beneath the husk of him. She hugs his pant leg and cries.

  10. William will find a cliff and jump. He walks through the woods until he finds a precipice he is sure will kill him. There is melodrama and there is the singing, somewhere of his sister’s forgotten voice. He steps forward and closes his eyes. He feels the bloody arms of his sister wrap around his waist and knows he is ready to die. He is thrown back.

  11. Mom turns on the stove tops but doesn’t light them. She closes all the doors and windows and waits for her house to fill with gas. She holds William’s lighter, her hands like a prayer. Her husband’s ghost runs his hands up her spine. He turns through the cupboards. He folds laundry and his deep voice, soft and rasping, sings a soft song, and they finally slow dance in the kitchen, her head on his chest, waiting for each heartbeat. He looms over an empty crib. He laughs at Lorena’s jokes. He cradles William. He kisses her and leans his head against her neck. William is gone somewhere. William is gone, and he left her. She will call the police and they will tell her, in serious voices they will do everything they can to find him. They will mobilize and search. They will find a dead body crawling with rot that isn’t his. People will be sorry, but not that sorry. One missing child is a tragedy. Two is a punishment. She will skip their hollow sorries. She will skip the news interviews. She will skip everything and get right to the dying that comes when everyone in her life is gone. She closes her eyes. The rain falls down, heavy against the roof and the gutter, clamoring in a sudden burst for the ground.

  12. Lightning flashes and Lorena stands in the doorway. Her hair is matted and thick. Her mother looks up and sees her. She is silhouetted against the cracking lightning. Bright flashes light the gaunt edges of her frame. Her outline melts behind the street lights. The suburb is quiet. Houses glow against the storm, and families retreat to their living and bedrooms. They huddle, on instinct, for warmth. Lorena holds her hand out towards her mother. Mom shakily puts the lighters down. She takes small steps towards her daughter, waiting for her to vanish into a broom or a bird. She grabs Lorena’s hand. It is rough and knotted. It is like the side of an ancient tree. It feels like her father’s. Mom holds it lightly as Lorena leads her outside. Mom closes the door behind her. William is waiting on the lawn, petulant and wide-eyed. Lorena places wilderness in their throats, and they cannot speak. They follow her along the side of the house and towards the backyard. They walk towards the woods. They weave between houses and homes until they are at its precipice, and pause. They see rows of blinking red eyes. Lorena steps into the woods and turns back, right before the darkness and uncertainty swallow her. William and his mother hold hands. Far away, down the hill, their house is struck by lightning and erupts. It is enveloped in fire. Just behind the thin curtain of darkness and rain, Lorena waits for them. They cannot hear the music. Instead, they hear scuttling, murmuring—it is discordant, asynchronous, and chaotic. They cannot hear the music but Lorena can. The wilderness in their throats vines and weeds and weaves up into them. The moss moves over its stone, spreads and greens, its verdant limbs thin and many. The sky presses down one last time and stops. The gray hangs low, bowed. William and his mother walk to meet Lorena. The wilderness drags them to their knees. It spills out of their ears. Together, they crawl into the arboreal music.

Spencer Nitkey is a writer living in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in Apex Magazine, Apparition Lit, Fusion Fragment, and others. You can find more about him and his writing on his website spencernitkey.com. You can also find him on twitter @Spencer_Nit.

photo by Tengyart (via unsplash)

Flutes of Iambe—Lisa Voorhees

The veterinarian passed his hand over the goat’s belly as he listened to her chest with his stethoscope. Through the dark slit of her pupil, she quietly seemed to assess him. The other goat in the stall rustled among the hay, wary at the presence of the tall man in his dark green coveralls. 

Dmitri studied the vet’s face for a reaction. 

It was mid-September 1946. If the streak of infertility running through the herd continued, he’d have to sell another few acres. The farm couldn’t sustain the loss of land much longer. 

The vet stood up and hung his stethoscope around his neck. Deep creases lined his forehead and the corners of his mouth. “I don’t have an explanation,” he said. “Tests have ruled out possible infectious causes and they’ve been dewormed regularly. The only thing left to consider is their nutrition.” 

Dmitri glanced outside the stall window, where a carpet of brown grass stretched toward the treeline. On the Ozark Plateau of southeastern Kansas, rain was usually plentiful. A shallow layer of soil overlaid the rock, making the land impossible to farm, but provided adequate grazing for the hardy stock Dmitri’s family had bred for generations: Nubian and Spanish goats. 

In a normal year, lush fescue grasses dominated the fields. This year, the drought had persisted longer than anyone had anticipated. Farms were suffering. With most of the men gone to war, he was hard-pressed to manage the labor involved. Help was scarce, as was the money to pay for it.

He pursed his lips and stared at the small brown goat chewing her cud, a year old and prime breeding age. “I can’t afford to feed them much longer.” 

“You aren’t the only one.” 

The vet sounded sympathetic, but pity wouldn’t feed Dmitri’s goats or round their bellies with kids. Outside the barn, the back door of the farmhouse squeaked open and slammed shut. His grandmother, Zosime, hobbled out onto the porch in a dark dress, feet scuffling against the worn wood.

Her gnarled wooden walking stick hit the boards in a rhythmic thud. With milky-white, unseeing eyes, she gazed blankly at the open door toward the barn, then turned her attention to the far horizon. She raised a hand to the darkening skies, her arthritic fingers curled sideways. 

A gust of wind lifted several gray strands of her hair aloft. “She’s coming!” she screeched, gripping the low-hanging wooden charm at her neck and raising it high. “Save us, O daughter of Pan!” 

Zosime rarely left the safety of the house. If she took another step, she’d stumble off the side of the porch. Dmitri mumbled a quick apology to the vet and dashed toward the house, only briefly stopping to consider how the glaring morning sun had disappeared behind a thick layer of clouds.

His grandma and her ravings.

If she kept up her babble about the gods of their homeland, she’d completely isolate them from whatever standing they had left in the community. Folklore and black magic, that’s all it was. 

He bounded onto the porch and scuttled Zosime indoors. To his dismay, the vet followed behind.

Dmitri’s grandmother struggled in his arms, clobbering him away with her walking stick, spewing Greek curses. “Don’t touch me!” she squawked, spittle flying from her lips. “You never listen. Never. You are more blind than me.” 

She grappled for the wooden charm at her neck, caught it between crooked fingers, and shook it mid-air. Frustration animated the wrinkles beside her dull white eyes. “She’s coming,” she hissed. “Iambe is near. I can feel her.” 

A shingle hit the ground outside the open door, kicking up a cloud of dust. Dmitri paused to glance at it. The shingle wasn’t one of theirs. 

Not a good sign. 

From somewhere above the barn, a blackbird cackled. 

“Talk to her, Dmitri. Tell Iambe you are ready to listen. It’s time you believe.” 

His gaze darted to the doctor, waiting patiently by the door. The doctor clearly felt obligated to help, yet anxious to leave. Dmitri twitched a nervous smile. “She gets like this sometimes,” he said. “I can handle it.”

“Handle what, paidi mou?” his grandmother croaked.

The vet eyed the sky, the gathering clouds. “I should get going, unless you need my help with the goats.” 

“Who is he to tell you what is wrong with the goats?” With her walking stick, Zosime took a swipe at the vet, who dodged out of her way. “Only she can help us now.”

“We’ll be fine,” Dmitri said. “Thank you for coming.”  

The engine of the vet’s truck sputtered to life and the tires crunched down the gravel driveway toward the road. 

“Whatever he told you about the goats isn’t true,” Zosime said. 

“Please. Enough.” 

For the next several minutes, Dmitri stood by the open door and examined the ashen skies, heavy clouds the deep purple of a bruise. Rain. The first heavy drops hit the ground, but something inside him quailed. He should have rejoiced, but his heart hammered inside his ears, erratic, flighty. Like a rabbit’s.

“You see, Grandma. It’s raining,” he said, his voice hollow.

Sheets of water fell from the sky, pummeling the dry pasture and sending the goats wheeling in every direction inside the fence. 

“The rain won’t save us,” she said. “Only Iambe can. Pray, paidi mou. You must pray.” 

He crossed the room to where she stood and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Stop telling me what to do, okay? I’ve done my best, despite the drought. Just because I can’t control the forces of nature doesn’t mean I should pray to whatever gods you think exist to change the way the world works. Listen,” he said, jabbing a finger toward the door even though Zosime couldn’t see it, “it’s raining. Everything balances out, if we’re patient enough to wait.” 

Zosime clucked her tongue and yanked on the wooden charm, rubbing her thumb over the worn, carved surface. “Foolish boy. You’ll be the death of us all.” 

Outside, the goats bleated. 

Dmitri moved to the door and peered out into the torrential rain. The pasture gate, popping its latch, swung on its hinges and, in single file, the goats raced through the gap, kicking up mud with their hooves and splattering it on their coats.

“The goats. They’ve broken out. Stay here, Zosime,” he directed. “I’ll get them back in the barn.” 

A wail rose from deep in his grandmother’s throat. “Do you hear them?” 

Dmitri paused, fearful for the goats but wanting to ensure Zosime wouldn’t take it into her crazy head to follow him or try to help. “It’s the goats. They’re afraid of the storm.”

“No,” she said, hands trembling, her milk-white eyes raised to the ceiling, a smile playing at her lips. “It’s her. Iambe. She is playing her flutes. How close she must be…listen.” 

She shuffled across the kitchen, lips stretched across her gums in a tremulous smile.

“I can’t. I don’t have time for this,” Dmitri said. He slammed the door behind him. If he didn’t hurry, half the herd would be gone before he knew it, lost to the treacherous brambles lining the ravines of the Ozarks. 

Within seconds, he was drenched. He slipped in the mud churned up by the deluge, struggling to recover his balance. 

He lifted his gaze to the horizon, and his neck prickled. The sky was a sickly green and appeared to pulsate. No, pulsate wasn’t right. At the storm’s edge, a thick band of clouds had started to rotate. A pointed funnel emerged from underneath the clouds, gaining speed as it approached the ground below. 

All thought of the goats slipping past him, one after the other – black, brown, and white – evaporated in the crystalline second of that awareness. 

The spinning funnel kissed the soil and the roaring began.

The earth shook beneath Dimtri’s feet; a howl like the bellow of a freight train barreling down a steep track flooded his mind and set his teeth to chattering. 

The goats.

He whipped around to face the house, gritting his teeth, torn between fear for his grandmother inside and the impending disaster about to strike the herd. Less than half remained in the pasture, a long line of the others winding away toward the scrub-covered foothills of the Ozarks to the south. 

What is wrong with them? 

Instinct should have driven them ahead of the storm, to the north, in the direction of the road. Instead, they ran at a right angle to the storm, skimming its leading edge in order to flee to the mountains.

Not one of them bleated or cried out. As calm as if they were being herded into the barn for the night, they trotted past him in an orderly line. 

Zosime’s conviction was a myth. The fanciful beliefs of a woman tied to the animistic roots of her country’s superstitions. No goddess of the wood beckoned the animals to safety; they were running of their own accord, albeit by a strange route.

Dmitri shook his head and dashed back inside. He yelled for his grandmother and discovered her seated at the kitchen table, facing the window. Those blind eyes stared past him unseeing, yet knowing, through the glass rattling in the frame. 

Metal pans clattered against the wall as the roaring grew louder. 

“What are you doing here?” He grabbed her by the hand, pulling her along the hallway to a trap door that led to the cellar. “There’s a tornado coming.”

He yanked open the door and assisted her down the stairs to the damp space below. Wooden shelves lined the walls, weighted down by a season’s worth of canned fruits and pickled vegetables. Dim light filtered through slats from the floor above. “Stay here until I come back for you,” he said, breathless. “Don’t move.” 

Zosime moaned something unintelligible, but Dmitri didn’t stop to listen. He hurried to the corner and grabbed a handful of woolen blankets. 

After arranging a thick blanket around Zosime’s shoulders, he told her his plan. “I forgot to close the gate to the pasture. I’ll take cover in the barn.” 

His grandmother sobbed and tugged at her necklace. “Take this, paidi mou. Please, for the love of an old woman, listen to your grandmama and pray to her. Pray to Iambe. She will listen. She is here, she knows.” 

He covered her shaking hand with his own, forcing her eyes toward his. “I’ll be fine,” he assured her with a courage he didn’t feel. “I have to save what goats I can. Once this is over, I’ll come find you.” 

Dmitri ignored her cries as he clambered up the stairs, closed the trap door, fled the house, and headed out into the lashing rain. Where it traced a sinuous line on the ground across the field, the great funnel kicked up a cloud of debris. He felt its roar echo inside his chest as he gripped the pasture gate and wrenched it closed, his boots nearly submerged in the thick, sucking mud.

He stumbled backward, elated at his success. 

Until the first goat hopped the fence.

It arced over the wooden posts as gracefully as a gazelle. That…couldn’t be. The fence was too high. The goat should never have been able to jump it. Yet they did, every last one of the remaining goats, following their predecessors as they flicked up their tails, banners of white and gold amid the raging storm. 

Dmitri cursed, watching the last goat disappear into the distance. A loose piece of debris whistled past his cheek, grazing his skin. He sprinted for the barn, closing the door behind him. From the stall in the corner, the two doelings stared at him, the whites of their eyes showing. In the panic, he’d nearly forgotten about them.

He lifted the trap door to the cellar, hurried the goats down the stairs, then closed and bolted the door. The low-ceilinged space smelled of dampness. While the storm raged, he clung to the doelings. They trembled against him as the wood groaned and the ground above them shook. Dust fell through cracks in the floorboards, tickling his nostrils.

Dmitri didn’t think to pray. Instead, he squeezed his eyes shut and clutched the goats tighter until the roaring stopped. 

When the last of the wind died down, a preternatural silence followed. The goats wriggled free of his grasp and trotted to the bottom of the stairs, circling each other and bleating. Dmitri brushed off his knees and crept toward the staircase. 

Pale light shone through the cracks of the cellar door. Above them, the wooden barn walls creaked. He swallowed, hard. 

“C’mon, girls,” he said. “Let’s go.” 

They followed him upstairs, pausing as he opened the trap door. One corner of the roof had been torn off, but otherwise the barn had survived, intact. Dmitri returned the two goats to the stall and latched the gate.

He approached the barn door and heaved it open. A ragged sigh escaped his lips. Before him, the farmhouse lay in ruins, the brick chimney the sole survivor amidst the wreckage of clapboard siding and ragged shingles. 

Zosime!

His heart leapt and he charged ahead, his boots slipping on the thick mud. He picked his way through the debris, lightfooted as one of the goats. At a knot of twisted plumbing, he dug, struggling to lift pieces of siding, shoving them sideways. 

He caught a glimpse of the trap door’s rope handle and heaved upward on it, carefully picking his way downstairs, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. “Grandma? I know you’re here. Please, make a sound so I can hear you.”

Shaking, Dmitri crawled on his hands and knees toward the far corner and squinted. 

By the discarded woolen blanket, he noticed a small shadow. He reached for the leather cord and pulled it toward him. The wooden carving, its surface worn smooth by the touch of Zosime’s thumb.

He pressed it to his lips and closed his eyes. “Zosime, please. I cannot lose you. By all you consider holy, give me a sign you’re alive. Tell me where you are.” 

After slipping the cord around his neck, he clutched the pendant. 

From a distance, the sound of the pipes was unfamiliar. Haunting, yet beautiful. The melody prickled his flesh. Dmitri clambered out from amid the wreckage and listened.

Borne on winds from the south, the music came from the Ozarks. He glanced at the pendant, then out into the distance, where the hills bordered the sky. A trail of hoofprints stippled the mud, the path the goats had woven during their escape. 

If Zosime was anywhere, he would find her at the music’s source. Though he’d never staked his hope in her religion or its icons, Dmitri was sure of this. His grandmother was alive. 

He followed the course the goats had taken, winding past the southernmost boundary of the farm and high into the foothills, past the scrublands and deep into the forest. The leaves of the white oak rustled, and underneath his boots, the empty shells of hickory nuts crunched.

An hour later, he reached a clearing in the trees. In the midst of the waving grasses, his grandmother danced, twirling a colorful scarf in her grasp as she swung around on her heels in a lively circle. 

Zosime is dancing? 

A strange woman with sun-darkened skin and long, black hair that hung to her waist held a set of wooden pipes in her hands. She moved them across her lips, producing the most beautiful notes he’d ever heard. She danced alongside Zosime, kicking out and spinning on her goat-like legs, the entire herd surrounding them, swaying in thrall to the music. 

Dmitri crept closer, out from under the protection of the trees. Zosime caught his eye and ran toward him, arms outstretched. 

“Ay, paidi mou!” she said, placing her hands on his cheeks, her fingertips warm. Her step had a youthful vigor to it he had not witnessed in ages, but it was her eyes that fascinated him. 

No longer milky-white, he stared into their blue depths. Their seeing depths. 

Zosime had seen him. She was no longer blind. He lifted his gaze to the woman with the pipes, playing for all the world as if this was the only thing she was meant to do. Her wild, brush-like hair swept around her face as she gyrated and twisted, playing the goats a frolicsome melody. 

“Efharisto,” he said. “Thank you.”

Iambe stopped piping long enough to consider him. Her large, almond eyes blinked once before a slow grin stretched across her face and she pressed the pipes to her lips again. 

Dmitri was entranced. The music transported him to a land where there was no more drought, no more hunger, no more fear for their livelihood, or disease for the goats. He allowed himself to get carried away, dancing and singing alongside Zosime and the herd until he was too tired to take another step. He collapsed under a tree at the forest’s edge and drifted into a dreamless sleep. 

When he woke, sunlight filtered through the muslin curtains at the window. He sat up. A patchwork quilt lay across his legs and his boots rested on the braided rug by the bureau. He stared at the room, gaping at the ceiling overhead. 

Before he could think to question his sanity, his hand brushed the pendant nestled against his chest. He held up the wooden figurine, ran his finger along the delicately carved face, the flutes Iambe played.

The music rippled through him all over again.

Dmitri called for his grandmother, running in search of her throughout the house, then outside, until breathless, he discovered her in the barn. 

Zosime sat on a stool beside one of the goats. She lifted her blue gaze to him, hand pressed to the side of the goat’s belly. “Paidi mou,” she whispered, her mouth quivering. 

“What?” he asked.

“They’re all pregnant,” she said. “Every last one of them.” 

Dmitri approached the goat and felt her belly, the warm, full udder underneath. He laid his head against her back and breathed deeply of her scent. When she bleated in response, it was to the same melody created by the pipes of a goddess.

The flutes of Iambe.

A Jersey girl at heart, when Lisa’s not writing, she’s usually listening to hard rock, bouldering, or sipping amaretto sours. She has recently been published in The Chamber Magazine, Noctivagant Press, Aphelion, The Write Launch, and Liquid Imagination, and has upcoming publications in Carmina Magazine, Bards & Sages, and Overtly Lit. Before she started writing novels, she earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University. Find out more about her at https://lisa.voorhe.es or http://facebook.com/lisavoorheesauthor. Interested in becoming a patron? Find out more about how to support her creative work and receive bonus material at http://www.patreon.com/lisavoorhees

photo by Johannes Havn (via pexels)

Piecemeal—Sebastian Murdoch

content warning: violence, murder

Eudora Crosby would have sworn, on pain of death, that they did what they did to that Guerra girl in the most humane way possible. As far as she was concerned, there was no reason for the girl to be haunting the town the way she was. No reason at all.

“It’s just plain pettiness,” she said to Mrs. Rutledge over tea one day not long after the hauntings started. The two old women had not actually laid hands on the girl, but neither would deny having been present for the whole messy ordeal. Unlike some of the other townspeople, they had not been particularly possessed of any strong opinion about the awful business, except that they thought it best that it take place in the woods outside the town. For the sake of efficiency in the cleaning up and burial. Blood, they thought, would be difficult to clean out of the fountain located in the town square, where everyone else, including Amos Turner, had initially thought to do it. But who listens to a pair of old biddies anymore? And that was probably why the girl was back so soon after all.

“It’s a terrible nuisance, it is,” Mrs. Rutledge said, taking a sip of her tea, but only after staring into the cup for a long time. “Puts you right off your supper.”

“And wasteful too,” said Eudora. “All those leftovers gone straight in the trash.” She’d already lost two batches of green bean casserole that way, and she pictured all of that otherwise fine food piling up in her garbage can, untouched.

No one had been sure, at first, that it was pieces of Abigail Guerra in their food. But then it was Eudora herself who discovered the first lilac-painted fingernail poking up from the center of her casserole, as if it had a question in desperate need of answering. The nail polish had been so distinct to Abigail that there was no question that it belonged—had belonged?—to her, the Portuguese girl who’d moved to town by herself only six months past.

Now, everyone was finding pieces of her everywhere—in their cereal, in their mashed potatoes, even in their bundles of fresh produce. It was enough to put a person off eating entirely, which Eudora supposed was the point.

Eudora took a slow, careful sip of her tea—as far as everyone else knew, it was only the food stuffs that were in danger of turning up dead body parts—and stared out at the quiet stretch of road running past her house. She’d lived in this town all her life and had never once considered moving.

“I wonder,” she said, “if it’s the same way in the next town over.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Rutledge, “I heard Garland Weaver tried getting a plate of eggs in a diner just east of here and had the same problem. Found one of her ears, I think.”

“What did I tell you?” Eudora asked. “Pettiness.”

Garland Weaver hadn’t eaten a full meal in three days by the time he decided to try someplace out of town for his breakfast. His stomach gurgled and chugged inside him, paining him something fierce for his neglect. His stomach didn’t know why he hadn’t been feeding it properly and didn’t care either. 

He’d found the first body part about a week after Abigail Guerra died, a pinky toe mixed into his bowl of gumbo that he almost swallowed before realizing his mistake. He spat it out onto the dinner table, much to his wife’s dismay. The toe was small and would have even been cute under other circumstances, but as it was, the sight of it took away his appetite for any more gumbo that evening. 

The diner he’d chosen for his experiment stood about a mile outside the town limits, property of the town that bordered his and a place that acted as a kind of intermediary between the two. There, people from both towns met and communed over a host of breakfast foods and the occasional sandwich while grease sizzled and popped visibly in the galley style kitchen behind the counter. 

On this day, only one other table was occupied when Garland trudged inside, his stomach growling ever louder at the smell of hot food. Overhead, the fluorescent lights fizzed and popped, one blinking frenetically in the corner of the ceiling. He found himself seated beneath this light, the hostess stalking off before he could protest. With a huff, he hunched over the laminated menu, scanning it despite already knowing what he wanted. He liked the routine of coming someplace like this, being seated, looking at the food being purveyed and the accompanying pictures that showed the meals in all their grease-shined glory. 

Garland looked up at the sound of the diner door opening and spotted a young woman with a baby on her hip entering. She barely spared him a glance, her dark eyes roaming over the vinyl seats as if he were merely part of the diner’s landscape. A hot anger fluttered beneath his rib cage, a bird trapped, beating its useless wings. 

The girl—woman—sat down in a booth on the other side of the diner after situating the baby in a crummy highchair, the plastic legs peeling and flaking black onto the tiled floor. She dropped a kiss on the top of the baby’s head, simple as a thought, and sat down with her menu. 

“Coffee?” The waitress stood with hip cocked to one side, a coffee pot in her hand, staring down at Garland. At some point she must have placed a coffee cup in front of him because there it sat, but he hadn’t noticed. 

He nodded, and she poured the coffee, dark and steaming, in the cup. 

“That girl,” he said, pointing not indelicately at the woman with the baby. “She come here a lot?”

The waitress glanced over her shoulder for barely long enough for her to have registered the other patron’s presence. “I just work here, hon,” she said. She took his order—two eggs, scrambled and a side of pork sausage—and sauntered back behind the long counter. Garland watched her rump judder from side to side as she left, but he felt nothing, not even a twinge.

The problem had started right when he and his wife had decided to try for a baby of their own, having seen plenty of nieces and nephews pass through their house during the holidays and family reunions. They’d wanted more life in their house, to fill it with the sound of laughter and running feet and clapping hands. As it was now, the house sat silent as a broken jaw, empty but for him and her. They’d started trying about a year ago, enthusiastically at first. But then, when his wife didn’t conceive after the third or fourth attempt, their efforts slowed and then stopped altogether. Now, Garland could hardly raise the flag, so to speak, on his own. It was this, almost more than the lack of a child, that caused him such shame that he was like to choke on it if he ever tried to talk about it. Which was why it was so terribly quiet in the house lately. 

Then that Guerra girl had come to town. With her young, lithe body and her dark, almond-shaped eyes, the picture of perfection. Garland still remembered the way she moved through the town, easy and confident as if she’d lived there her whole life, as if she truly belonged. Sure, her confidence and her beauty had aggravated Garland in his impotence, but it wasn’t until he heard the rumor a month or so after her arrival that he was moved to actual anger. 

Out in the woods surrounding the town, there lived an old healer woman who was known to possess cures and methods for healing even the most egregious illnesses. Garland had always pictured her house as being full of little bottles and jars and smelling of herbs and the woods themselves, since the woman was supposed to have lived so closely with nature. She was also said to have a cure for unwanted pregnancies, and it was rumored that Abigail Guerra had gone to her for just such a cure not long after arriving in town. Who she’d been cavorting around with was anyone’s guess, but it didn’t matter so much who had gotten her pregnant as it did that she went so quickly to that witch in the woods. 

Across the diner, the baby slapped his hands on the highchair’s tray, laughing a high-pitched, baby laugh that set Garland’s teeth on edge. He glared at the young mother. It was bad enough that his stomach was hurting. 

He hadn’t thought things would go as far as they did with the Guerra girl. When Amos had approached him privately about her and what “needed to be done” about the way she was affecting the town, Garland had thought they’d give her a scare was all, maybe tell her to pick up her things and move somewhere else. He would tell anyone who’d listen that he hadn’t thought they were going to kill her.

That night, after they’d done it, Garland was one of the men who helped carry her body out into the woods and bury it. He’d held her feet and stared down at her belly, which he’d once imagined growing swollen with a child but was now as flat as a Bible. In the moment, his anger had felt justified, righteous even. What kind of a God would deprive him and his wife of a child when they wanted one so badly and then give one to someone who would throw it away without a thought? Surely, God had placed him in the Guerra girl’s path as some sort of holy retribution. At least, that was what he told himself when the hauntings started, and whenever his stomach growled its distress. 

The waitress returned to his booth, holding his plate of food aloft as she maneuvered her way from behind the counter. She set it down without even glancing at him or the plate and headed toward the mother and her child, presumably to take their orders. 

For a long minute, Garland Weaver did not look at his plate. He stared at the young mother and the baby and the waitress and the car passing the diner outside. And he prayed. He prayed that when he looked down, he would not find another piece of Abigail Guerra staring up at him, taunting him with the evidence of what they had done to her that night in the woods, that added cruelty that had been heaped on top of her already dead body. That hadn’t been his idea. Why should he be the one being punished?

But when he looked down, he let out a low, pained moan. There, where his side of sausage should have been, was a pair of Abigail Guerra’s fingers (not, in fact, one of her ears, as Mrs. Rutledge had been led to believe). The nail polish on the tips of those gray, mottled digits danced under the fretful fluorescent light from above. They were each severed at the first knuckle, where they ought to have met the rest of the hand, and the cuts were ragged and uneven, threads of skin lying limp and stringy against the plate. He thought he saw the wink of a finger bone amidst the red of the shredded muscle. 

Garland shoved the plate across the table and bolted from his seat, breaking for the door without stopping when the waitress called to him. He blew past the mother and her child, almost running into the highchair. But he skidded around it and was out the door without incident. He got in his car and kept driving away from his town, thinking that perhaps, if he just went far enough, he’d be safe.

Odessa Long found the tooth on her second bite. It seemed to be growing from the ear of corn itself, the end meant for chewing and grinding food facing her, so she knew it didn’t belong to her. She almost wished it had come from her, that she had broken off a tooth mid-bite and would now wander the streets with a gapped smile until she could afford a replacement. But no, it most certainly belonged to Abigail Guerra, as had the other assorted body parts Odessa had been finding in her food for the past few days. 

She flung the ear into the open trash bin, a cry of frustration and horror caught in her throat along with the first mouthful of corn. How was she to live if she could not go one meal without wanting to empty herself entirely of whatever she had eaten? Of course, she imagined this was the point of the curse, and she had half a mind to storm out into those woods and tell that witch to take it back this instant. It wasn’t fair that the whole town ought to suffer for what was, in truth, the fault of only a few and, really, was the fault of one in particular. 

Amos Turner had been in rare form that night. When he knocked on Odessa’s door and demanded that she and Tom join the ranks of men and women gathered behind him, she’d had no choice but to go, pulling her husband along behind her. Together, they melted into the crowd of angry townspeople, some holding shovels and others carrying lengths of rope looped around their shoulders. 

“What are you planning to do, Amos?” she’d asked, fear and excitement comingling in her belly the same as it had the night she gave her virginity to Tom. “She’s just a girl.”

“And the Devil was just a snake,” Amos said, not looking at her. His eyes were fixed straight ahead and did not waver as they made their way to Abigail Guerra’s home. 

She answered the door in nothing but her nightgown. Odessa remembered noticing her bare feet on the threshold and thinking that she ought to at least be wearing some socks with the weather getting cold as it was. Abigail Guerra stood in the doorway, looking for all the world like a child just woken from sleep, even going so far as to let out a yawn. 

Before she could say a word, Amos and another man grabbed her by her arms and dragged her out of the house. She started shouting, but someone hit her hard over the head and she went quiet, letting herself be ferried to the center of town, where stood a fountain flowing with water clear as gin. 

Amos stood back then, a pastor before his pulpit, and directed the men in the crowd. They backed Abigail Guerra up to the edge of the fountain and then bent her backward until her head disappeared beneath the water. Odessa remembered the way she kicked, her bare feet flying in the air until someone grabbed them and held them. She remembered the shuddering, gasping breaths she took whenever she managed to rise from the water. Which, in the end, was not enough. 

Odessa wouldn’t say that she had harbored any particularly ill will toward the Guerra girl, only that she disapproved of the way she spoke with so many young men so freely, her eyes alight and dancing with possibility. They all saw it, not just Odessa. But it needled her to see the girl go so gamely from one man to the next, when all her life, Odessa had been committed body and soul to Tom, whom she loved in that placid sort of way that anyone who has watched their youth slip away under the gaze of another can love that same person. She had sat by his side for many years now, since they were sixteen and their parents first intimated that the two should be destined to wed, and she had watched as other men, men she silently lusted after, paid her barely a passing glance.

Then, for this girl, about whom no one knew a thing apart from her name and that she came from the south, to glide onto the scene and steal the attention of so many of the available young men. Hate grew like a tumor in Odessa’s belly, turning hard and cancerous while she watched Abigail Guerra flaunt her looks and her exotic charms. And rumor had it that she’d even attracted the attention of Amos Turner, the preacher’s grown son, and he never paid the women of the town any mind. 

Odessa thought that the rumors must have been true too, the way he looked that night. He’d looked possessed, as if some unholy light had come up from the ground and sunk into him like wine into a tablecloth. His eyes had stayed fixed on the Guerra girl the entire time they had her in the fountain, and after it was done, he became even more frantic, hollering that they had to take her to the woods to bury her before the Devil brought her back to life. Odessa remembered thinking that it was odd, the way he was acting, desperate even, as if there was something in the girl’s dead body that he feared getting out if he didn’t act quick enough. 

Odessa stood over the kitchen sink, staring into the basin of soapy water and wondering what it had been like for the Guerra girl with her head stuck under the waves. Her stomach growled. She placed a hand over her belly and frowned. There would be no corn with tonight’s dinner then. If that made any difference at all, in the grand scheme of things.

Efren Peterson stood over the kitchen counter, filling the sausage casings. He hoped that, by making the food himself, he might somehow subvert Abigail Guerra’s curse, which had kept him from eating properly for days now. Efren Peterson was not one to forgo a meal either, or any indulgence as it were. He relished in sweet meats and salty breads and in long naps during the middle of the day. Comfort and contentedness were feelings with which he was closely familiar, but the inverse of those feelings left him twitchy and irritable. 

The Guerra girl had made him feel similarly when she was still alive too. Her laugh was too loud, too ever-present when it broke from her cherry-red lips. And she was always laughing at something it seemed, regardless of the day. Her laughter filled every corner of the town. Every crack in the sidewalk and hole in the wall seemed to burst with the peals of her laughter until there was nowhere Efren could go where he would not hear that high, warbling sound. 

The night they carried her body out into the woods, he remembered how quiet everything was. After she was surely dead, everyone went silent in the way a room goes silent in anticipation of a speech. But there would be no speech from Abigail Guerra. There would be no sound from her ever again. 

They carried her deep into the woods, until Amos Turner told them to stop, that here would be far enough from the town that her spirit could not easily return. Eudora Crosby and Phyllis Rutledge had said that it wouldn’t matter so much where they buried her if they killed her in town. That her spirit would linger where it first departed. Efren now figured they probably should have listened to the old women after all. But they hadn’t. Instead, they laid her body down in the dirt and started digging a hole deep enough for her. 

Only after they had dug about three feet deep, Amos stopped them.

“We have to cut it up,” he’d said as plain as anything. “That way there’s no chance of her coming back.”

At the time, the men exchanged glances that spoke to their doubts. Killing a girl was one thing but to chop up her body and scatter it like dirt on a fire? It seemed wrong in some way far worse than the actual killing had, and Efren hesitated to follow Turner’s orders. What if, by defiling the body in this way, they somehow brought God’s retribution down on them? But Amos was quick to say that it was God’s will that they should dismember the body so that the devil could not use it for his own vile purposes. They had to do this, or else they risked some demon coming to inhabit her body and wreak vengeance on the whole town. 

Efren thought of his little girl, Darcy, back at home, asleep in her bed. He hoisted the axe he’d brought from home onto his shoulder and went to work. 

Efren twisted off another link of sausage, letting it plop onto the counter with the rest of them, and stared out through the kitchen window. Darcy was out in the yard, playing with her dolls in the grass. Thankfully, she seemed to have been spared by the curse, as she never gave evidence of having seen the things that Efren and her mother had seen in their meals. He sent silent prayers of thanks up to God for that and entreated Him that He might see fit to pardon Efren as well, as long as he handled the food himself for the rest of his natural life. He could make do with those circumstances, if that was what it took to fill his belly again. 

He turned the handle on the meat grinder and watched the meat come out the other end. 

By the time they finished with the girl’s body, the men were sweating in the cold air, and their sleeves and pant legs were dark with blood. It shocked Efren how much blood could come out of such a little thing as the Guerra girl. The blood kept pouring from her as from a busted water pump, and it soaked the ground around her until it appeared as if it had rained suddenly and ferociously in just that spot. Still, no one dared complain while Amos was in earshot. They simply set to digging more holes, all of them strewn about the woods every few feet. 

When they had finally buried all the pieces of Abigail Guerra, Efren was exhausted and nearly falling over where he stood. But Amos seemed satisfied, so Efren kept his doubts and his fears to himself. The work was done, and there was no point in belaboring it. 

“Now if she comes back,” Amos said, “she’ll have to do it one piece at a time.”

Efren heaved out a sigh as he fed the last of the meat through the grinder and into the sausage casing in his hand. He twisted off the end and turned to the sink, sticking his hands under the hot water until the smell of the meat left his skin. The heat nearly scalded him, but he kept his hands under the water for a few seconds longer, letting the burn spread up to his wrists. When he at last removed his hands, they were bright red and stinging, but he barely blinked, feeling that anxiety he’d become so used to rise in his throat again. 

He turned back around slowly, keeping his eyes open in case it did anything to keep things as they ought to be. But curses do not abide by silly superstition and wishes. They simply work or do not work. In the case of Abigail Guerra’s curse, it worked. Where the coil of sausage links once was, sat instead a loop of mottled, gray intestines. They lay in a heap on the counter, their outsides dull but still recognizable as the chain of tissue and meat that winds through everyone. Efren didn’t smell anything coming off of them, but it was the sight of them that made his stomach turn over on itself. 

He whirled around and emptied himself into the sink, clutching the edge of the counter until the shaking subsided. When he looked back, the intestines still sat there, but beyond them, through the window, he could see Darcy still at play, oblivious and content. 

Amos Turner could not have known that this would happen. Though had he known, he might have still gone through with the murder of Abigail Guerra. Not that he had laid an ill-intentioned hand on her all night, but he had certainly directed the act as a preacher directs his flock to the pews. His father had taught him well in the art of guiding others along the righteous path, and Amos was certain that his father would have been proud of him, if only he could have seen the way he handled his slavering, witless congregation.

His father had died years ago, but Amos was still known around town as the preacher’s son, even though a new preacher had been installed not long after Amos’s father had passed from this life to the next. This new preacher had no wife and no children, and thus Amos maintained his customary role as the son of one who had once been the most well-respected man in the entire town. This role came with a certain amount of clout and power to which Amos had become accustomed, and Amos enjoyed these benefits as often as he was able. Men were like to do him favors, and women flattered him wherever he turned, and all this was his birthright and seemed unlikely ever to stop. 

Until Abigail Guerra.

Amos sat at his kitchen table, the house dark but for a few candles on the table. In the kitchen, one of the young boys of the town was fixing his supper: a meatloaf run through with rivers of ketchup and pocked with breadcrumbs and mashed potatoes smothered in a gravy. It was his hope that, since the children of the town seemed to be the only ones spared from the curse, perhaps having the boy prepare the meal would in some way circumvent the town’s affliction. If he was wrong, then it would be another day before he was able to work up the courage to try and eat something, and he had already gone three days without a full meal. Now, he trembled and shook with hunger, though he did everything in his power to hide these symptoms from the rest of the town, should they see and think him weak. 

“Sloth is a sin, boy,” Amos said. He touched his fork where it lay beside his plate, adjusting it so that it sat straight and flush with the knife beside it. 

“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said, a quaver in his voice. “It’ll be ready in a few minutes, I think.”

He had wanted the Guerra girl from the moment he first saw her on the street, walking home from the only bookshop in town, her arms loaded with hardback books thick as bricks. Her straight, black hair swung against the middle of her back as she walked, and he felt the urge to reach out and pull it, to yank her head back and expose the long, brown curve of her neck. But he restrained himself, hurrying home where he punished himself into the night for his treacherous thoughts, the ones that fed his painful tumescence, which he maintained even as he flogged himself. It was only when he finished that he came to his realization: his lust was not his fault but that of the Guerra girl, for her vanity and cocksureness was obviously the greater sin.

The next day, he followed her into her backyard, which was smaller than his but already full of flowers she had planted upon her arrival in town, whereas he knew his own to be sparse and barren, as that was how his father had kept it while he was alive. The yard was fragrant with the scent of the flowers, and their perfume clouded his mind, until he could hardly think straight. 

When she turned and saw him standing at her open gate, she did not cry out in alarm or run into the house as he had half-expected she would. Instead, she merely looked at him with her dark eyes and her lips turned up in a smile that mocked him flat-out. That smile burned inside him, and he felt hatred and fear mix together in his belly, for he did not know what she meant by that smile, and the uncertainty aroused him. 

He approached her, saying something he could not now recall about how she ought to be more vigilant when going about her daily errands, or someone who meant her harm might catch her out. The whole time he spoke, she only watched him, her expression never wavering from that impassable mien that did as much to cloud his judgment as did the flowers in her garden. Only when he raised a hand to touch her hair did she move, backing away from him a few paces. She dropped her eyes and told him she was sorry, but he must have gotten the wrong impression. She did not desire him in the same manner. 

In the moment, he was so stunned that he could not think of anything to say, only fled like a struck schoolboy back to his home, where he sat up all night, thinking of the Guerra girl’s face and that smile that he could not discern the meaning of. 

It was only when he later heard the rumor that she had gone to the witch in the woods for a cure for pregnancy that his rage caught up with him. The thought that she had rejected him but favored another man with her attention boiled inside him until he could do nothing but sit and think on the unfairness of it. It was during one of those long, sleepless nights that he was overcome with the notion that she ought to be soundly punished for her misdeeds. The question of how was never truly a question for him—only how to convince the rest of the town to follow his lead, which, as it turned out, was also hardly a question. It seemed that just about everyone had a grievance with the Guerra girl’s presence. 

But when Efren Peterson took his axe to the girl’s shoulder, preparing to do the job Amos had set out for him and a handful of the other men, Efren paused. He dropped the axe in the dirt and stood brusquely to his feet. When Amos asked him what was wrong, Efren turned to him with his face all pale and his mouth trembling like a girl’s and said, “She’s still alive.”

Sure enough, he was correct. The Guerra girl lay only mostly dead on the ground and had whimpered and moaned when Efren’s axe first cut into her flesh. Blood trickled down her arm and dripped onto the earth beneath it, and Amos stood by staring down at her. He watched as her eyelids fluttered and then lifted slowly, curtains rising away from a pair of windows. 

She mumbled something that sounded like a plea for help, but Amos couldn’t be certain. And he was sure no one else could be certain either, riled as they were from the mere fact of the girl’s presence there on the ground.

“Go to it then,” he said. He knew he wore an expression that brooked no defiance and waited patiently while the men gathered their courage and knelt around the girl’s body again. This time, even when she began to scream, they did not pause in their work.

When they had finished, he stood apart from the rest of them, looking out at the small plots of disturbed earth where they’d buried the pieces of Abigail Guerra. It was only as he swept his eyes across it all that he noticed a light in the distance. A cold wind blew through him, slicing through to the marrow of his bones. Though he had never been there himself, he knew the light could belong to only one house, the only house in these woods. The witch had been roused by the screaming no doubt, and she had probably watched the entire thing. He left quickly then, the rest of his impromptu congregation following close behind, and tried not to think of what this might mean. 

The boy pulled the meatloaf from the oven, heaping mounds of mashed potatoes alongside it, and ferried it over to Amos at the table. The smell of cooked meat was strong in the house, filling Amos’s nostrils and causing his stomach to growl in anticipation. It seemed, in that moment, that he had been right in his hypothesis. 

Only after the boy had set down the dish and shut the front door behind him, did Amos dare to look down at the meal. When he did, bile rose hot and acidic in his throat, and it took all of his strength not to fling himself away from the table. Instead, he gripped the edge of the table and forced himself to look down at the vision that lay before him.

There, nestled in the middle of the meatloaf, was what he assumed to be Abigail Guerra’s sex, gray and decomposed as it was. Though he had never seen this part of her, he could only assume it was hers, as every other part he’d discovered had been. This portion, however, seemed more alive than any other piece of her he’d yet seen. For there, crawling between her folds, were maggots, which wriggled and squirmed in and out of that dark passage that was only ever meant to sire a procession of slick-headed children. Dark hairs curled up from the skin, kinked and tight as they were. 

Amos Turner pushed his plate away and rose from his seat. Weak with hunger, he partially collapsed against the edge of the table, barely able to hold himself upright. The candles on the table burned on, even as he wandered the house, his moans hidden only by the sound of the wind blowing outside. 

Eudora Crosby and Mrs. Rutledge sat staring at the plate of devilled eggs laid between them. Neither had the appetite for them anymore, not after they uncovered them and saw that, sat between two of the egg halves, was an eyeball with the dark iris of none other than Abigail Guerra. Instead, they could only look at the plate, their bellies cramping at the smell of the mustardy egg yolks. 

“Perhaps if we ate around it,” Mrs. Rutledge said, though she made no move to touch any of the eggs. 

“Be my guest, if you want to risk it,” said Eudora. The thought was that, even if they tried to eat one of the actual eggs, the curse might transform it mid-bite, and neither of the old women wanted to chance biting into any piece of that girl, regardless of how hungry they were. 

“We can’t go on like this forever,” Mrs. Rutledge said, a low moan in her voice. 

“I don’t think we’re meant to,” said Eudora. She looked out at the street. Her eyes trailed down the path until they came to a stop on the house that had once belonged to Abigail Guerra. Even from here, she could see a sliver of the backyard, and there, bursting with life even after so many days without rain, were the flowers Abigail Guerra had planted. 

Sebastian Murdoch is a writer who was born in Montgomery, Alabama and now lives in Jackson, Mississippi. They received their MFA from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts and have been published multiple times in the Johannesburg Review of Books. They are represented by Sharon Pelletier at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in New York, New York. 

Twitter: @SEMurdoch
Instagram: @smurdoch94

photo by khloe arledge and Franco Antonio Giovanella (via unsplash)

Corvus conjurax—M. A. Blanchard

On good days I get the kettle boiled before the sun comes up. I like to sit on the balcony and watch while dawn transforms into day. Sunrise swelling over the railings fills my cup with an amber glow. Some people take their tea with lemon, or sugar, or even – ugh – milk. I prefer mine flavoured with light. 

The tea I like comes in a red cardboard box. The red makes me happy, as does the fact that the box holds eighty sachets. Most days I let myself drink two cups. I never take more than three; that way I only have to go shopping once a month. It’s been a long time since going out was a pleasure. These days it’s best to stay home. 

I’ve been making friends with the crows. They like to gather in the tree across the parking lot. Between my first and second cup, some crow or another usually flaps over to see what I’m eating for breakfast. This morning there are four. They perch on the railing, looking down at my toast. I take one more bite, then tear the rest of the slice into bits, which I leave on the plate when I go inside to make that second cup of tea. When I come back out, the toast bits have vanished. In their place lies a shaggy grey twig. 

Crows are good with tools. They know how to select a seemingly-random object – say, a twig – and make its power their own. Twigs are an important part of crow life, so I know this gift they’ve left me must be significant. My hands shake as I pick it up; too much caffeine on a near-empty stomach. “Gaw,” says one of the crows who are watching from high up in their tree. I nod in agreement. 

In spring, the crow tree’s boughs are grey and bare. The crows, returning from winter vacation, line the smooth limbs until the tree’s nakedness is hidden away from the world. Last season’s wardrobe may be crumbling over the exposed roots, but the tree is resplendent in a dressing gown of stylish obsidian feathers. 

My own dressing gown is black watered silk, swirling with featherlike patterns. I wear it out to the balcony sometimes, to feel the wind lifting its hem. Covering my bark with facsimile wings helps me conjure caffeinated lightheadedness into a sensation approaching flight. 

The way crows fly looks so laborious. A study in flapping, methodical wings beating the air down in order to stay above it all. I used to dream of gliding, soaring, like ravens or birds of prey; these days I’d settle for a crow’s flight, nearly as plodding as my own steps when I have to go out. It’s hard to walk when I’m weighed down by heavy bags – and worse, by the eyes of the neighbouring strangers observing my sluggish progress. People like to look down. I could flap right over their heads and never be noticed. Crows flying sound like my dressing gown, flapping to get away when a thieving breeze snatches at its hem. A crow is too wary to let the air sneak up over top and push it down to the ground. And I won’t let the wind take my wings away without me. 

I used to play with the farm crows when I was a child. I think the first time was in winter. It had snowed all night, and the field behind our house scintillated reflected sunlight like an ocean of tiny gems. I don’t remember where I was going, but I sank to my knees in the drifts with every step. Two of the crows who sometimes lived by the barn followed me across the field, hopping from one footprint to the next. When I stopped, they stopped. I turned, slowly, and looked down into my tracks. Nestled in my boot wells, their bodies looked like spilled ink seeping into the opalescent snow. I started walking again. The crows hopped. I stopped, and they stopped. I looked at them and they looked at me and then at each other, muttering “Carh, arh, agh.” 

I didn’t understand, but I nodded. 

They nodded back. They remained about ten paces behind me all the way to the edge of the woods. I don’t remember where we went next, but I have wondered for decades what they were talking about. 

I drank the last teabag this morning. This means I have to go out. I’m low on food as well, down to the dregs of dried prunes and granola. Last night I shared the last tin of sprats with the crows. It’s been a week since there were crackers or eggs. I don’t always remember to get hungry, but there’s only so long even I can go without eating. 

I can still carry enough in my old hiking pack to ration out for a solid four weeks, though it’s been getting harder to hold up under the burden of my own appetite. When I was younger – when the doors were all open and the trails stretched on forever, when I did not yet know what a thing it was to go out – I thought nothing of walking for hundreds of miles with my whole life strapped to my back. I don’t miss the trails as much as I miss having a home I could carry around. The two kilometres to the grocery store are a long way to walk when you know everyone is looking. 

There’s a bag of green apples on the discounted produce rack. I like green apples. There was a Granny Smith tree in that field behind my childhood home. There were other trees in the orchard, but the crows preferred to gather in that one. I reach for the bag at the same time as the woman on the other side of the rack. Our fingers touch. 

Gaw!” The sound is involuntary, but I can’t regret its outcome. She recoils, wide-eyed. “Sorry,” I croak, clutching at a plastic-clad apple. “Startled me.” 

She backs her cart away. The Granny Smiths are mine. 

I take a bag of Golden Delicious as well. I don’t like them as much, but there is only one bag of Smiths. I wonder which crows prefer, tart or sweet? On the other side of the produce section I can see the woman speaking to a store employee. She points. They look, then laugh and shake their head at her. I shop here because the staff don’t seem to mind. 

When the shopping baskets drag toward the floor, I know it’s time to head home. 

“How’s it going?” 

I put on my human face for the nice cashier. I always shop on a day when I know she’ll be working. Her eyelids gleam gold, and glittering dangles swing from her brown seashell ears. She uses the same voice with me as with everyone else. “Good,” I lie. “Are you doing well in school?” I cannot remember what she is studying. 

She beams. “97 percent on the organic chem midterm! But I’m gonna get a 98 on the final.” 

“You are very smart,” I tell her. “Someday you will be great.” 

She blinks. Awkward. But then she smiles again. “Thank you,” she says. “You’re so nice.” 

My face goes hot. I stuff the groceries into my pack as quickly as I can. 

“Have a wonderful day!” she calls after me. I’m careful to not look back.

The crows keep bringing me gifts. Today a scrap of aluminum foil, gleaming and strange in its uncreased perfection. I have a growing collection of twigs, stones, and bones. A silver ring scaled like a fish’s cool skin. More and more visit each time, coming ever closer to me. They’re starting to trust my sincerity. 

I think they’re planning something involving me. It’s common knowledge that crows are as good with plans as they are with tools. I read that in a book, but you can see it in the way they combine their twigs and found objects to transform useless junk into new and necessary things. It takes foresight and imagination to relate and remake disparate jetsam until it becomes something useful. Before I go to bed each night I look and look at my growing collection, wondering if there’s something I’m supposed to be making. 

There’s something else I have to figure out. I don’t know what it could be, but something is hidden in my apartment. I should remember. I think and think, but only in the muddled margins between sleep and waking do I feel I’ve come close to glimpsing its nebulous shape. I wish I knew what it was for. That piece of foil bothers me. It should be crumpled, punctured, in some way marked from being picked up and carried in claws or beaks. Its smoothness taunts me, flaunting the presence of secrets I forgot to keep safe. It’s hard to imagine who would hide something in my home. 

This morning I have six breakfast guests, and barely enough toast to share around. One hops down from the railing onto the furthest edge of my table. I offer an apple slice. The crow only stares, glassy eyes warping my reflection into something unrecognizable. Feathers and silk rustle in an occidental breeze. One of the railing crows lets the air lift it away to the tree. The crow on the table keeps still, and so do I. 

Another thing crows know how to do well is hide things. They hoard their tools and treats, caching them in safe places to retrieve for later use. I wonder if I am a safe place, or only a tool.

Explosion. Outside, a great excitement of feathers and shrieking alarm. I see something broken on the hard grey ground, terrible and wrong. Before I can think what I’m doing, I race down the back stairs and out. It’s not one of my days to leave the nest – it won’t be grocery day again for weeks – but I can’t think about that now. These boys who don’t live here shouldn’t be in our lot. One of them holds an air rifle. The other laughs. I race at them, flapping, a broom in my hand, brandished like a straw-spiked halberd. “Go! Go away! Get!” 

Ugly laughter, pitched with nervous malice. “Go away yourself, old bag.” 

“What a loony.” 

Swat and stab with my polearm, sweeping them back toward the street. My rage is wordless, boundless, and vast. Language is too difficult to throw away on such trash. The boys break and run, swearing and spitting. “Aghk!” I shout after their cowardly backs. The vengeful chorus perturbing the air agrees. 

I kneel by the bundle of bloody, ruined feathers, cradling it up in my grieving hands. The others follow my funeral march to their tree, where I lay the fallen to rest in a root-sheltered hollow. A few bold scouts land. Duty performed, I can’t keep the awareness of being outside on a wrong day from crashing in anymore. Panic in waves, breaking. I don’t breathe again until I am safe, doors locked, keeping everything out. 

It’s a third cup of tea kind of day. 

Once my chest stops hurting, I creep to the balcony, the one piece of outside when I still belong. I hope the crows can tell from this distance that I’m keeping their vigil too.

My crows really know how to hold a grudge. I see those boys again only once. Their faces are known now, their ugly thick voices, the insolent strut in their steps. They cannot strut on our street anymore. The last time they come here, they run away scratched and bleeding. I am terrified someone will punish the crows for enacting their justice. I watch and watch, but no one comes. Perhaps the boys were ashamed to admit their defeat at the claws of their victim’s family. 

I still haven’t found the hidden thing. More of the crows have picked up the habit of perching on my table. It’s gotten so I can’t set my lunch down without displacing them. I eat standing up. They still bring me trinkets, trading for sardines. I’ve been wearing the fish-scale ring. They watch my hands while I eat my sandwich, waiting. Another appears, flapping over the crowd to drop a spool of red thread in the midst of the throng. A chorus arises: “Carh, arh, arh, aghk!” 

The new crow perches on the arm of the chair, clacking its beak. There’s a chip in its gnathotheca. I lay down the rest of my sandwich and let them feast. 

A collective of ravens make up a conspiracy. Crows, in crowds, are said to confabulate murder. I think that is unfair. No one who paid attention could doubt that crows delight in conspiring. 

Their feasting done, they stay put for once, so expectant it makes me feel nervous. Whatever has been building all summer, all fall, I think its time has come. I hope I won’t disappoint them. I fetch the tray of sticks and stones and foil and take my seat. They come closer. I sort and arrange. I cannot envision our objective. Impatient, the chipped-beak crow hops up from the chair to the table. The foil warps its reflection into mythical unfamiliarity. It points with its beak, guiding my hands, until the objects are in order. Another crow knocks over the spool of thread.

I tie the objects together, one by one. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, resolving the disconnection of pieces that don’t seem to fit together. I move a stone from one part of the pattern to a spot where it easily fits. The chipped-beak crow snaps at my hand. I put the stone back. I don’t recognize the shape we’re constructing, but my audience is raucous with excitement. I wrap the foil around a bone and knot the last wrap of thread around itself. It’s done. Whatever this it might be. Wait. I slide the silver ring from my finger and try to puzzle out where it must go. Another crow plucks it up from the table and pushes it back at my hand. A payment, then, for services rendered, for giving the crows my powers. 

The largest crow takes my work in its gleaming claws. I wish I had knowledge of their plans. They lift almost as one, the air beneath them a ladder for climbing the height of the blank grey sky. They don’t look back. Twisting my ring around and around my dull and clawlesss finger, I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to understand that the hidden thing has always been me. 

No one knows why only some crows travel in winter. Partial migration is one of the world’s great mysteries. Crows, I suppose, are as individual in habit as anyone else. I could wish for crows who would stay, but I wouldn’t trade my friends for anything. 

It’s spring again. I waited all winter, but my flock still hasn’t come back. The tree has nothing to cover its bark and long, smooth limbs. I can’t keep my eyes from staring, fascinated and ashamed. I have to go out. I won’t go far. It’s just that there’s no one else here to do the crows’ work, and the tree looks so helpless before it remembers how to make leaves.

The shaggy trunk is cool against my cheek. I wrap my arms around it, embracing the juxtaposition of its coarse skin against my smooth bark and silken wings. I climb. It feels almost as if the branches are helping me up. I perch at a juncture. My dressing gown drapes down my dangling legs, trailing over the limbs reaching up beneath me. The buds are just barely out now, sticky and red. If I close my eyes, I can nearly hear the whisper of feathers around me. Restful caws echo off asphalt and bricks as the crows in my mind shift and settle. If I look, nothing will be as I imagine. I keep my eyes shut and wait for the season to change. 

previously published in prairiefire, Volume 42 (Spring 2021)

M. A. Blanchard resides by a haunted forest on an almost-island. A linguist by training and a surrealist by inclination, she grows forbidden flora on a farm in the middle of very nearly nowhere. When not planting seeds, hexing weeds, or making up stories, she curates #sfstoryoftheday on Twitter @inquisitrix and reviews speculative short fiction for Fusion Fragment. Her fiction has appeared in PseudoPodDark Matter Magazine, and more.

photo by Ospan Ali (via unsplash)

Hatchlings—Rose Biggin

Gretchen lived with her godmother in a cottage at the edge of the forest, but we mustn’t get carried away: this might just as easily have happened if she lived further down the hill, or far off in the middle of the village. This could happen to anyone. But it so happened that the cottage where Gretchen lived with her godmother was out at the very edge of the forest, and from the garden it was possible to look over the splintered fence (on tiptoes at first; after the growth-spurt, no problem) and see the trunks of the trees striping the darkness, and follow the bristling movement of the shadows, and watch the pinpoints of light staring back before flickering out.

‘Don’t go in the forest,’ was one of the first things she learned, and after that her godmother taught Gretchen all about herbs, history, generosity, inquisitiveness, common sense: the usual things. By the time we meet her, Gretchen is a young woman, and she can spin, maintain a garden, recite a poem, drive a bargain, milk a goat, climb a tree, follow a map. 

Gretchen, then, on her knees in the garden, pulling at some plant or other — let’s say it’s beetroot, a reliable crop beetroot, solid choice — when the calmness of the day is torn in two. A scream, ripping the sky. 

Gretchen, looking up, muddy stalks in hand, sees a dark shape spiralling in and out of the trees. It looks like a huge bird is battling a giant fox, a fight of outrageous ferocity, and in mid-air: both creatures are in a killing grip, a bundle of fury and spiked wings. The pair dive out of sight back into the forest and here’s Gretchen, rising, running to follow. Chasing the smoke and the unholy shrieks, pushing the brambles and thorns aside, going after the sound. You would, wouldn’t you?

She finds them in a clearing edged with ferns, the desperate fight still going on.  A tree stump nearby is splattered with blood, there’s gore all over the moss. It’s a battle with death in the balance, no question, and now she is closer to the creatures she sees their talons are sharp and many inches long, and the bird-creature’s wings have a jagged sharpness, more like a fan of blades than of feathers, and the fox-thing has more teeth than it surely should. 

The bird-creature is moving oddly. It keeps going, with juddery steps, towards a particular fern, clearly not wanting to move far from the spot: the bird-thing is on the defensive, and the fox-thing is on the attack, and the prize is hidden among those ferns. Gretchen, crouching, hiding in the thicket, understands this has been going on for some time. The fox-thing’s tail is bloody and thin, partially ripped away. Teeth are bared, talons are out, blood has spread over torn feathers and matted fur. 

As if sensing the last grains of sand slip through the hourglass the bird-creature bellows and performs one almighty leap, spreads its wingspan out fully to the size of an ironing-board and raises its talons for a final claw straight to the heart — just as an equally desperate death-lunge from the fox-creature mirrors its leap, and the fox-creature rips one last chance across the bird’s exposed body. Darker blood suddenly, terminal, and the creatures lock together once more and dark smoke rises to envelop them, and death-throes echo up to the forest canopy, and by the time the sounds fade and the smoke clears there is little in the clearing but lumps of matted fur and a pile of dark smoking feathers. 

The forest takes a moment of silence for these fallen things.

Gretchen, taking a few shuddering breaths, getting the courage to approach the bodies — or whatever’s left. When she does go to them, the sight is a puzzle as much as a shock: both creatures seem long decayed, hardly there at all. Their shredded flesh has darkened with a sticky clotted resin and their heads are sinking into themselves, the eye sockets shadowed and empty. The stench of old rot sits heavily over everything. It looks as if this battle was fought weeks ago, months: not seconds. Gretchen, standing over the scraps she’d swear were fighting to the death not a moment before. Gretchen, wondering what to do about this.

Perhaps she hears a sound. Or perhaps her body simply senses, the way bodies can, that she is in the presence of life, or at least something like it. Her attention swings to the ferns at the edge of the clearing. 

The bird-thing was protecting something. Gretchen has seen creatures go on the defensive before, and there’s really only one thing that inspires such ferocity.

She peers through the fronds, then pushes them aside. 

Among the dark bracken is a nest made from pieces of flaked slate. Possibly taken from roofs down in the village, she idly thinks, since tiles have been going missing lately. Most have been blaming the wind.

Within the nest sits a cluster of eggs, half a dozen, the size of goose eggs. A sickly pale grey: not the healthiest sight. 

Gretchen reaches out a tentative hand and picks up one of the eggs. Beneath, lining the nest, is a bed of white moss, dry as bone.

The egg is hot in her hands. She holds it a moment, looking at it. 

Almost imperceptibly, the egg is becoming cooler. Ah.

So.

Gretchen, running through the trees, the half-dozen eggs wrapped in the skirt of her apron, twigs snapping beneath her feet, a side-leaning branch for one heart-stopping moment nearly tripping her over. She reaches the edge of the forest, runs over the grasses, through the garden, shoulder barges into the cottage, heads straight to the fireplace and dumps the eggs into the coals. In a rush she arranges them at the back and uses the poker to cover them over, adds a sprinkle of ash and makes a few sparky pushes with the bellows. Not at any point fully understanding why she’s doing any of this; knowing only that her instinct is to do it. 

Gretchen, standing before the fireplace, the new lumpy arrangement safe for now in the glowing heat. Feeling calmer, sensing that she’s helped somehow.

Her godmother, suddenly, is standing beside her. Her voice is low and urgent: ‘Get rid of them.’

A sprinkle of panic goes through Gretchen, as if she’s been caught. 

‘What, why? What do you mean?’ She resists the urge to put her hands on her hips, but the temptation to be defiant is there. This feels, already, like her business. 

Her godmother shakes her head slowly. ‘They aren’t going to hatch into anything helpful. You should have left them where you found them.’ 

Gretchen describes the battle she witnessed, the creatures who died fighting over the eggs. It only makes her godmother reiterate: there are things that should not hatch. Gretchen sees her godmother’s point, nods in agreement. She should really get rid of the eggs. She knows this, she does know this.

Gretchen, as the days pass, keeping a corner of the fireplace covered over with ash, and occasionally touching the shells with the back of her fingers to check they’re still warm. Watching their greyness darken, and the hairline cracks appear.

And then, one afternoon — it’s spring, a lovely temperate spring day in the village, a festival day in fact, with bunting everywhere and music coming up from below — and Gretchen’s godmother is out, she’s been out all day, helping with the cake stall then masterminding the sack race — and Gretchen, kneeling by the fire, practically bending all the way over the ashes, hardly daring to blink never mind breathe. She sensed something, or perhaps she picked up a sound without knowing she’d heard it: she simply knew to be with the eggs. Gretchen, pushing the coals aside with the poker to get a proper look. 

The eggs are so much darker now, some are nearly the same colour as the coals. They’re ready. And the cracks across them are thicker, and glowing red. Like veins of lava through the dark shells. Gretchen, entranced, leaning closer in. 

The biggest egg has a web of fine cracks spreading out from a central point, and from within — lean in, listen, hear it — comes a slight but persistent tap, tap tap. The web of cracks grows more unstable and pieces of the shell fall away, a few at first and then, with a sudden sound, a clean sound like snapping bone, the shell cracks into two and a dark wet thing totters out.

Steam rises from within the broken remains of the egg: it was hot in there. 

It takes a few steps, stops and cocks its head. Shakes itself slightly. Its long beak has an edge like a razor. 

It already has purpose. Its dark grey body shines like rain on slate, and tiny eyes blaze within its bone-sharp head. For a moment it and Gretchen share a moment of silence, there in the fireplace. Then it takes a few more teetering steps towards her, and pushes its head against her leg. The feeling is sharp, damp, not exactly cold.

The other eggshells fall away too, and so half a dozen more are clustering silently around her. Gretchen, surrounded by these tiny things. 

The steam has mostly drifted away and their bodies are drying out to reveal more of their shape. They are flintier than geese, with the folded skeletons of their wings like sharp elbows. They have quickly become confident on their thin legs that bend very oddly. Their beaks and talons are white, pure bone. As for their eyes: ancient eyes, red and yellow and jagged like lightning, a furious concentration that’s epochs old.

Gretchen, looking at the hatchlings, suddenly breaks from the spell. She bolts up and backs away: from there it’s an impasse, and Gretchen’s godmother comes home to find her like this, surrounded by these creatures that make no sound, Gretchen pressed against the far wall, kneeling absurdly on a stool, the hatchlings snuffling and pecking at the legs.

‘Get them away from me!’ she cries, looking up through a panicked, tear-sheeted face at the sight of her godmother in the doorway.

Her godmother’s face is surprised for a moment, then suddenly very weary. She drops the basket she’s been carrying (full of trinkets and flowers from the day’s festivities, forgotten now, unimportant trifles now, including a jar of actual trifle, it’s all such a terrible shame) — Gretchen’s godmother runs a hand across her face and says in a scratchy, tired voice: ‘I told you to get rid of them.’

Gretchen’s face is a rictus. ‘I — I didn’t think—’

‘I’ll say you didn’t. You had your merciful moment when you rescued them, but I told you. You kept them?’

Gretchen gestures desperately at the creatures, who are trying to hop up onto the chair. ‘What do I do?’

‘Come here first, quickly all in one go. Run and I’ll stop them.’

Gretchen dashes off the chair and runs the width of the cottage — the hatchlings follow her, their heads lowered for speed, their bodies rocking side to side as they run, a small stampede of stomping skeletal feet. 

Gretchen’s godmother has picked up the broom. She wields it at the creatures. The hatchlings slow down and cluster together, eyeing it warily. 

‘Knew it,’ says Gretchen’s godmother, with some satisfaction in her voice. ‘The broom always works. Look at that, they can’t stand it.’

‘They’re scared of brooms? Like a — normal goose?’ Gretchen had assumed rules like that wouldn’t apply.  

‘A rake would work, the hoe, anything with a long handle.’

She holds the broom out further — the hatchlings move backwards as a group, ruffling their stony wings. 

Her godmother’s expression is grimly etched. ‘Were you the first thing they saw?’

‘Yes.’

‘That explains it.’ Her eyes narrowing as she looks into Gretchen. ‘They’re not chasing you. They won’t attack you. I’m afraid they’re following you.’

Gretchen’s mouth moves a little as she admits to herself that she understands, has known the whole time. ‘They think I’m their mother.’ 

‘Its worse than that,’ says her godmother. ‘They’re right.’

Compromise must be struck: Gretchen cannot now lead them into the forest and set them loose, because they’ll simply follow her back. 

‘Quickly — into the cellar.’

Her godmother opens the door and Gretchen runs in, and the hatchlings silently follow, their bone-feet tapping down the steps. Gretchen lets the creatures overtake her as they jump down, anticipating her own steps to the bottom, then she comes out. The door squeaks as she closes it behind her, and she locks it and strikes the bolt.

Gretchen, rubbing her face in something like relief, pictures again the bold stare of those red-yellow eyes. ‘What are we going to do?’

Her godmother picks up the forgotten basket of flowers, which has become helplessly crumpled. ‘Kill them.’

Gretchen, shaking her head. ‘I can’t do that.’

‘You’ve had your merciful moment,’ says her godmother. ‘But I’m not having those things living underneath this cottage.’

‘What do you want me to do, twist their necks?’

‘Ideally yes, exactly.’

‘I’m not doing that.’ Gretchen, sick at the very idea. Not that this is only squeamishness: she’s a country girl, she’s twisted necks before. But, ‘I just can’t.’

‘Then you’ll have to leave them down there: with no nourishment they’ll lose their energy, fade away, turn to dust. Then you can go in and sweep them out.’

Gretchen, mouth open, horrified. ‘That’s crueller than killing them now, isn’t it?’

‘Well, those are the options.’ Her godmother, hand on the door handle. ‘I’m going to pull up some carrots for dinner. Make the choice, and make your peace with it.’

When her godmother returns, Gretchen has chosen the war of attrition. The thought is too much, in that moment, of facing once again those skittering bodies with their blazing eyes. Her godmother nods, and they eat, and sleep to rise again and begin another day; and many days pass, the cellar an unspoken darkness below them.

Gretchen, taking tentative steps down into the cellar. 

Her godmother is out, and the curiosity has become too great. Has it been long enough? Might they be ash already? Gretchen tells herself she wonders these things, not admitting to herself she knows it hasn’t been long enough, nowhere near. 

The cellar is all darkness and cold air, and a sense of pure emptiness.

She waits.

There is a tapping from a far corner, and a shape detaches from the shadows and lopes towards her. She can recognise the first to hatch since it is bigger than the others, and seems to be the leader. It runs to Gretchen, its talons audible on the flagstone floor, and the others follow quickly behind.

She kneels to look at them. The creature cocks its head and watches her, its eye getting brighter as her own vision adjusts. They don’t seem to be starving to death, although, Gretchen thinks, how would she tell? The creature taps its beak on the floor several times, and the tap echoes. It looks at her again and opens its beak: inside are rows of jagged teeth. Gretchen knows she should feel frightened, but she has never felt calmer.

‘What do you need?’

She looks for another moment into that red-hot eye, and suddenly knows the answer.

Gretchen, back upstairs, heart pounding, kneeling at the edge of the fireplace, shuffling some coals and ash into a tin tray, then carrying it down into the cellar. 

She puts the tray beside her and watches the creatures. She half expects them to leap into the ash-bath and fritter around in there, taking comfort in the hot dryness of it. But they cluster together and back away, their feet dragging over the flagstones as if they would dig them up. Between clawing the ground and keeping together it’s clear that they’re nervous. Perhaps they don’t know what to do.

The biggest hatchling takes a few steps forwards, staring at Gretchen. She returns its look, forgetting the coldness of the stone floor on her knees, and waits until she sees something there, understands.

The knowledge of what it is she is about to do drops unbidden into her mind, which until this moment was fully taken up with the hatchling’s infinite eye.

Keeping its even stare, Gretchen reaches down and puts her hand onto one of the coals. She hears the faint hiss as it touches her bare skin but the pain is distant. She curls her fingers around it, picks it fully up. She reaches out, holding it before her. 

Holding it out with a flat palm, of course; there’s no need to be reckless.

It comes closer with a click of bone on the cellar floor. The steps echo suddenly, as if this dark space stretched out for miles. She keeps her focus on the red-hot glare of its eye, and reaches out with her arm just the smallest amount further. A calm has descended within her. Everything is only this. 

The hatchling takes another step closer and Gretchen’s sense of self curdles beneath the focus, and underneath its steady gaze she finds herself thinking, straight out and plainly, all the thoughts she usually hides, the thoughts she has to get through to get out into the day, the thoughts that put words to parts of herself she never admits to anyone. She doesn’t look away from the hatchling’s stare because the only other place to look is into her worst possible self, and to know the pain and the truth of who she is. She sees it anyway, knows herself fully. Such clarity. 

The hatchling reaches down, vertebrae of its neck clicking beneath the sharp spines of its feathers, and takes the piece of coal from her hand. It speeds back to the group, where they drop it and peck it up together. 

Gretchen stands on shaky legs, and exits the cellar to the sound of their bone-beaks pecking at the rocks.

Back upstairs, by the fire, making dinner by rote, and haunted — not by the eye of the hatchling, but by the things of her own the eye had revealed. No longer being in the darkness of the cellar helps, the real world with its soft ginger light and smell of garlic and rosemary and the feel of the worn rug goes towards putting some sense of distance between then and now. But Gretchen is not able to forget how it felt, who she had become, for that dreadful long moment down there in the dark. 

She goes to the hatchlings again, not long afterwards. Couldn’t really say why. Perhaps it’s as simple as, once you’ve done it once… 

Just one more time, she tells herself. To see. 

(She doesn’t ask herself: to see what?)

They’re cleaning themselves, running their sharp beaks through their wings — always an impossible thing to witness, the human equivalent of snuffling about in your own shoulder blades. They pull out spiked feathers and toss them aside, to land with a few spots of gristle and blood. She holds out coals and they gather around her, pecking away. And she feels, again, her worst self coming up to meet her.

She goes again, it gets easier to go. At first she says to herself: ‘I think I’ll go to them.’ 

It could be an argument down in the village — an altercation over who owes what for spilling a vat of goat’s butter or something like that, the details are unimportant, and that’s what’s so unnerving at first — anything that causes emotion, anything at all, makes the thought descend into her mind and the decision is, in itself, calming: and soon she’s saying to herself: I know I’ll go to them. I’m going to go home, to go to them.’ And the certainty is enough to lift her mood: never mind that the wording has changed, doesn’t imply choice as much as it used to, that as summer scorches the village and presses heavy air down onto everyone, her general state is one of waiting for the next time she’ll go to them. High emotion is, at first, the cause of a visit to the hatchlings — but soon she needn’t be upset or angry at all, sometimes she is calm, sometimes even happy, and in any case the thought descends: ‘I’m going to them.’ And Gretchen, opening the door to the darkness of the cellar and going straight down, taking the gaze of the hatchlings into her own, enveloped by the stillness as she feeds them, her worst thoughts gathering around her.

They’re getting bigger. The flinty down they wore as chicks has given way to their adult growth: long thin feathers like blades of slate. When they rub their bodies against her it is like being stroked with a wire brush. The first time the biggest hatchling lowers onto its haunches and lets her pick it up, her mind is taken over with such a calmness it is like getting into a bath of iced water. No, not a bath, too small: a clear lake, bigger than that, the sea. The hatchling snuggles its skull among its bony feathers as it sleeps and she knows her worst self as certainly as she’s ever known it, and the certainty is liberating, even as it’s terrible. When she leaves the cellar and the sound of their bone-talons scraping the flagstones, the sepia tones and herbal warmth of the cottage feels distant, the symptoms of a fake existence. The cellar is the truth.

On some level she knows the current situation is not, cannot be sustainable: they’re too big, they’re almost the size of swans now, the cellar surely can’t hold them. 

But the hatchlings need her, Gretchen thinks. They need her to survive.  

Autumn comes to the village, bringing chill and miserable drizzle. None of those golden autumnal days this year, no such luck, straight to winter. Chill in the air that soaks you instantly, and a bleak sky of unbudgeable clouds. The sun must be up there somewhere, pounding on them from above, but there’s no getting through clouds that heavy. It is dark until lunch and begins growing dark again just after lunch. Here, high at the edge of the forest, snow covers the garden, and long icicles hang from the roof.

And they’re suffering.

‘What is it?’

Gretchen, kneeling, as she does, by the cellar steps, and the hatchlings — although, no question they’re fully grown now, with feathers of delicate bone, the occasional red glow from within when they take on the heat of the coals — the hatchlings are keeping back from her, turning around each other, clawing at the ground. Groove-marks have been scratched deep into the flagstones. 

They’re shivering uncontrollably.

Gretchen, kneeling, whispers: ‘What do you need?’

The smallest one suddenly sneezes. Its head shakes with a clatter of bone and the red pulse shudders within its body, and along its legs the skin begins to bubble. The others peck at the dark blood seeping through its tattered feathers. Gretchen, scrabbling up the stairs and pacing across the kitchen, knowing full well that something is wrong, that something is — finally — breaking, but unable to let herself see an answer.

From outside there is a loud explosive sound, as if glass has suddenly shattered. 

She goes to the window just as, along the roof, another icicle explodes into bits that splash onto the snow, boiling it. Steam rises.

Gretchen, out in the garden, staring dumbfounded at this. Barefoot, having forgotten her shoes in the rush to get outside. Barely noticing the cold. Steam is still rising delicately from where the shards of ice landed. 

Another explosion: a thick icicle popping into a shower of boiling water. Then, a hissing noise from the fence: the pitchfork that had been leaning against it has melted and reset itself, and now it ends in a puddle with sharp spikes like talons. 

Gretchen, feeling the world shake and shudder around her —

A voice calls out: 

‘They’re migratory.’

Gretchen, mouth open, spins back to follow the sound. ‘What did you say?’

The cottage door is open. Gretchen’s godmother is leaning against the lintel. Then — pop! — another icicle bursts and shatters, and they both duck. 

Rising again, her godmother says: ‘Come inside and I’ll explain.’

Inside, with an onion-stewing scent from the cauldron, dried thyme giving its sweetness hanging from the ceiling beams, things almost seem normal. The only sign that something is wrong is the way the horseshoe over the door has begun dripping. Gretchen’s godmother gestures for her to sit at the table. 

‘They shouldn’t be here,’ she says, placing a bowl of stew down before her. ‘This place is wrong for them.’

‘We’ve always known that, haven’t we? I’m not hungry.’ Gretchen pushes the bowl away.

‘I know you’re not, but your body is.’

‘I can’t. It smells of soil.’

‘Nothing wrong with soil. Perfectly nutritious for worms.’

‘Do I look like a worm to you?’

Gretchen’s godmother looks at her carefully. ‘I don’t know any worms in the state you’re in, no.’ 

Gretchen puts her head in her hands. ‘I don’t want it.’ 

Since she’s been regularly going down to the cellar, she doesn’t really taste anything, and when she does eat there’s no joy in it. It’s just not as important as it used to be.

‘Come with me.’ Her godmother rises, goes to the window, pulls the curtain aside. For a moment they look out together at the herb garden. Suddenly the sage bush begins to go brown and curl at the edges.

‘They’re incapable of staying here,’ says Gretchen’s godmother, keeping her eye on the sage bush, which is now emitting curls of grey smoke. ‘They’re creatures of heat. They’re not going to last the winter.’

‘So what do I do?’

Her godmother sighs. ‘You shouldn’t have to do this. I don’t even know if you can. But I don’t know how else they might….’ her voice fades off. 

The sage bush has turned into a small pile of blackened twigs. 

Her godmother closes her eyes and speaks quickly, as if getting it all out at once.

‘They’re only meant to be here half the time,’ she says. ‘When they hatch they don’t know that. The first time they make the journey it’s their mother who shows them the way. Afterwards they know the route, and come and go by themselves.’

Gretchen pictures the hatchlings huddled together in the cold cellar, waiting for their mother to lead the way for them. She feels herself knowing the answer, asks anyway. ‘Where do they go?’ 

‘South, of course.’ Her godmother points to the ground. ‘Straight down.’

Gretchen, deciding, knowing ‘deciding’ isn’t accurate: it has to happen, even though it can’t. Even though the thought of the hatchlings going away leaves her empty, restless, itchy. They’re making her world unliveable, but who is she without them? However, needs must: in the cottage, the rug is curling inwards at the edges. The bricks of the fireplace are starting to warp, and the cauldron is merging molten metal with the food inside. The whole cottage is going to burn in on itself, warped by the hatchlings’ shaking inability to cope, an increasingly hostile environment causing their very existence to flail and shudder. One more night with those creatures alive down there is too many. Gretchen knows this. So. Gretchen, back in the forest. The hatchlings clustering around her legs. 

So quickly? Well, yes: the journey from the cottage had been surprisingly easy. She’d opened the cellar door, stood in the doorway, looked down into the darkness, waited. Made a series of low cooing sounds she didn’t realise she knew. The creatures had hopped up the stairs, and at the first sight of them — their plump grey bodies bristling with feathers of bone and shadow — she had turned and passed through the disfigured kitchen, out into the garden. She had been expecting a moment of tentativeness, the creatures standing in the door unsure of the change in atmosphere. But they had followed her directly — the biggest first as always, the rest close behind. Gretchen kept her head low and walked into the forest, followed the path until there was no path, until she reached the point where she now stands, in the clearing with the cracked stump, the place she found the nest. Where her godmother had told her to begin. 

A dreary autumnal dusk, the shadows heavy, the ferns brown and crisped. Around her feet putter the hatchlings, leaving scorch marks on the papery leaves.

Gretchen closes her eyes and remembers what her godmother told her. 

She opens her eyes again. 

The forest looks the same. The air is totally still, and all is silence.

‘Right. Come along,’ whispers Gretchen. ‘And I will… show you the way.’

She takes a step, and the hatchlings follow. 

The forest passes in silence. The light goes quickly, and soon the whole world is gloom, too dark even for shadows. There is only, now and again, the reddish glow of the hatchlings’ eyes.

Her steps make no noise. She can see nothing, feel nothing — 

Actually, no, there is something here. What she can feel is —

Clarity. It’s the same as when she fed the hatchlings down in the cellar, but bigger, so expansive it’s enveloping everything, no longer a secret, but out in the air of the world. She is joined on the journey by her worst self, that terrible shadow version of Gretchen no-one else knows. 

The air around her is growing hotter. 

The steps of the hatchlings make no sound. Gretchen keeps walking.

The humidity becomes difficult to move through. Sweat makes Gretchen itch, bothers her skin, slows her pace and makes her breathing harder. Her ribs ache with the weight of the air. Her worst thoughts press in more, and urgently. Her worst self is closing in on her mind, making a claim to the space. A very convincing claim — 

— and she knows, she knows, that if she could hear them, the worst thoughts of others are here too, that she is travelling through a dense mess of the despair and rage and hopelessness and fear and loneliness and spite and sheer unbearable things that hide in uncountable others — that this is a space to collapse into, to fall into and keep falling through, a space that will always be willing to reach up to meet her —

Suddenly, behind her, the hatchlings take flight.

Gretchen stops, too surprised to keep moving as they beat their wings and soar over her, flying through this impossible air. (Although that had been her godmother’s biggest stipulation: you must keep moving.) She hasn’t seen this before. She didn’t teach them this.

The hatchlings fly in a raggedy formation, their wings making no sound. All the hidden thoughts create the updraft, the channels and currents for them to manoeuvre — the hatchlings overtake Gretchen and land neatly onto the pitch-black lake in front of her she hadn’t even known was there.

The surface makes perfect ripples like oil, that spread and fade to nothing just before they reach her feet. 

The hatchlings ruffle their heads through their feathers and take a few trial kicks in the dark water. They cluster together and swim about. One drags a hole with its foot in the surface of the water, which reveals a dull red glow beneath like lava or an open wound. Then the surface closes itself over again, an eye going back to sleep. 

Her godmother had told her: when you get them there, come back immediately. 

Gretchen takes a step backwards and the branch comes from nowhere — a branch or perhaps a bone or who knows what it is, but it comes from nowhere and smacks her in the back of the leg — and she stumbles, turning as she falls, and her weight lands oddly on one side and pain shoots through her ankle. She closes her eyes and it’s no darker than with them open, and she’s lost her balance, and she’d almost done it, she’d come so close, and now she’s falling through this darkness — 

— Gretchen, landing heavily on the dirt-packed floor of the forest she knows. Taking a few exhausted breaths before realising the air is no longer heavy. That, in fact, breathing is coming easier than it has for a very long time.

She looks up to see, ahead of her, the light of a peaceful dawn, the sky pink and promising through the trees. 

It is only a matter of a few steps, limping on her sore ankle, to be out of the forest. From here she can see down to the village, and there is a temporary break in the clouds, and smoke rises peacefully from the chimneys, and the trees stand politely around the lake, and the morning sun shines on the flatness of the water.

Rose Biggin is a writer and theatre artist based in London. Her short fiction has been published by Jurassic London, Abaddon Books, Betwixt Magazine, The Cafe Irreal, Mango, NewCon Press, Brigids Gate Press and Egaeus Press, won the Jon Meyers Prize for Gothic Fiction (Dark Sire Literary Journal), and made the recommended reading list for Best of British Fantasy. She is the author of Immersive Theatre & Audience Experience (Palgrave) and Shakespearean novel Wild Time (Surface Press).

photo by Yana Gorbunova (via unsplash)

When Death Came to the Village—Tina Jackson

Death came to the village on the edge of the forest.

They came just before the spring, tiptoeing through the mulch on the forest floor, creeping softly along the paths that led to the houses. They came silently, a breath of frost-tinged air wafting in the spaces between conversations, but they were no less deadly because their approach was gentle. One by one the villagers found themselves short of breath, then gasping for air, then drowning, and as the churchyard began to overflow with coffins, the branches in the forest pointed their bare twigs towards the sky, accusing Death. 

‘Why did you come for our village?’ whispered the trees to the sad air. ‘Why could you not leave us in peace?’

The trees did not expect an answer. They were crying out to the air because they were in mourning. But it so happened that Death was resting from their labours, and overheard the forest’s laments. 

‘It is not our fault,’ whispered Death in their many voices. Death is legion, and comes in many forms, and each has its own tongue. ‘We do not ask why when we are sent. We just go, and we do our job.’

‘But it is a terrible job,’ said the trees, thinking of the villagers who no longer went courting in the forest, or sat under the trees for shelter, or rest.  ‘Look at the grief you have left behind you. Why do you not find another?’

‘It is our job,’ replied Death. ‘We have no other. We are here now, and we must do what we are sent to do.’

And because the trees were old, and wise, and stood quietly and noticed things, they listened to what Death said. 

‘Why do you carry out this terrible work?’ They asked. Their long years had taught them well that it only takes a tiny chink in the foliage to let the light fall in.

‘We do not know,’ said Death, sadly. ‘We only know that we should come here and take our toll. But we cannot stand here talking. We are weary, and hungry from our terrible labours, and still there is work to be done.’

And then Death sighed a deep sigh. 

‘That is not to say we like it,’ said Death, sorrowfully. ‘We are rarely welcomed and each house we leave to the sounds of tears and heartbreak. You cannot know what it is like never to hear songs that are not funeral dirges, and never to eat dishes that are not funeral foods.’ 

With that, Death picked up their scythe, and made their way with heavy footsteps back to the village.

But the forest had listened. In the tops of the trees the twigs began, very faintly, to rustle, even though there was no wind. Birds began to stir, and in the undergrowth, there were sounds of small, brown creatures on the move.

The forest was gathering its forces. 

The forest had a plan.

Tincuta was a bright, light spirit with the face of a flower and a singing voice like a blackbird. Her voice was cracked and clear and told of the joys and sorrows of everyday life. 

She lived in a pretty red hut in a clearing full of flowers, where everything was clean and neat, and even the toothbrushes were arranged to look beautiful, as well as useful.

The forest sent a small brown nightingale to Tincuta. It sat on her windowsill and waited for her to come back from her vegetable patch.  The nightingale heard Tincuta before she saw her, and despite all the sorrow in the village, the little bird’s heart lifted, because Tincuta was singing.

The nightingale raised her beautiful voice in song, and Tincuta matched it. The woman and the bird sang together and when the verses were over, the nightingale settled on Tincuta’s shoulder.

‘Have you come with a message for me, little bird?’ the woman asked.

The nightingale nodded.

‘I have been sent by the forest. Your help is needed to send Death on their way.’

‘How can I do that?’ asked Tincuta. ‘I am as scared of Death as any of the villagers. That is why I stay in my clearing and keep my own company. What can I offer that will make Death leave us in peace?’

‘Death is sad,’ replied the nightingale. ‘Death never hears joyful song.’

Tincuta stroked the nightingale’s head before she spoke.

‘If it will help send Death on their way, I will sing my heart out,’ she said. ‘Will that do?’

The nightingale chirped, and fluttered her tail.

  ‘I’ll go and tell the forest,’ said the nightingale. And then she flew away.

Tincuta’s mother, Tinka, had a bush in her garden where cooking pots grew. The branches were filled with pots and pans for all kinds of dishes, their bright, flowered enamel gleaming with cleanliness and making passersby’s mouths water at the thought of a meal that would feed their heart as well as their stomach. If a visitor asked nicely, and perhaps pressed some coins into her hands, the pan would cook a delicious dish that sustained and comforted. But if anyone passed by with the intention of purloining a pan without offering something in return, the stolen pan would boil over no matter what the cooking temperature, and the base would blacken and the enamel would burn and the food inside would be nothing but inedible crusts of blackened cinder.

Tinka’s hut was smaller than her daughter Tincuta’s, and partly hidden in the trees. Its walls were lower and its windows were smaller and Tinka fought a constant battle to stop the forest coming into the house and taking root in her small, pokey room. There was only the one, so she cooked on a fire outside and did her business amongst the trees some distance away. When she sang songs, it was to herself or to the ducks she kept, and passersby sometimes wondered aloud that Tinka’s ducks quacked at times when most other ducks were asleep with their heads under their wings.

When she came home from gathering roots and herbs in the forest, the ducks were nowhere to be seen and there was a small brown vixen sitting on her doorstep next to a brightly flowered cooking pot.

‘Why is my best pot on the doorstep?’ said Tinka in a cross voice.

‘Because you’re the best cook,’ said the vixen. ‘Everybody knows that.’

‘I hope you haven’t come for my ducks,’ said Tinka. She scowled at her visitor but the vixen held her ground.

‘I promise I’m not going to touch your ducks. I’ve come from the forest,’ she told Tinka. ‘To ask your help in sending Death on their way. Death is sad, and only eats food that is cooked on the ashes of sorrow.’

Tinka rolled up her sleeves. 

‘You’ve come to the right place,’ she said. 

So the vixen told Tinka what she needed to do. 

‘And serve it in that pot,’ said the vixen. ‘It’s for a most special occasion.’ 

Brush in the air, the vixen went back to let the forest know that Tinka was ready to cook Death a meal that would warm their heart as well as fill their stomach. The vixen was cross about the ducks, which had looked fat and tasty, but she’d given her word.

Tea, Tinka’s mother and Tincuta’s grandmother, lived wherever the wind took her. She blew in with the leaves on a blustery night when the driving rain tossed witches on their broomsticks over the mountains in high winds, and when she came to ground it was in the land beyond the forest. She didn’t sing, but she could caw like a crow, and there were some that said she looked like one too, because her clothes were dark rags that hung from her shoulders like raggedy feathers.  She only had one cooking pot, which she brought with her on her broomstick, and all she ever cooked in it were spells, that people asked her for – or at least, the ones that dared approach her. 

Sometimes she collected the bits and pieces of a life that made people unhappy, and wrote them on scraps of paper, and burned them in her pot. And other times, she collected things that were not nice at all – cat poo, and dog poo, and the bits of dead animals that birds of prey spit out – and used them to effect… changes.

She wasn’t all bad. But she had to be asked nicely.

For all their differences the three generations of the family, Tea, Tinka and Tincuta, rubbed along nicely together. They understood each other. Accepted each others’ ways, laughed together when times were good and looked out for each other when times were bad. They were family, and all each other had, and that’s what families do. And other people knew that if they wanted a song that would brighten their day they were to ask for Tincuta. If what they wanted was food for their souls and their stomachs, Tinka was the one to go to. But if what they required was something they didn’t want to put into words for others to hear and remark upon, they needed to look for Tea, and approach her quietly, when no-one else was looking. 

The forest sent jackdaw to search for Tea, and beg her to do what she could to send Death on their way.

‘Take your most precious treasure,’ said the forest. ‘It’s worth more than gold for her to come and send Death from the village.’

So the jackdaw searched in his stash of jewels, and selected a magnificent diamond necklace. It pained him to part with something so lovely, but it was the biggest sacrifice he could make in order to conquer Death.

The jackdaw took flight with the necklace in his beak, and he flew and flew. Whenever he settled, he sat in the highest branches and scanned the ground, and peered. He knew what he was looking for. And even though he was hungry, and thirsty, he kept the diamond necklace clasped in his beak, so he could neither eat nor drink.

Eventually, spotting a movement in the undergrowth, the jackdaw swooped on silent wings and landed at a polite distance from where a bent little woman in rags was digging through roots, with her hands, like a mole. 

Eventually the woman stopped digging and stood up, with her back to the jackdaw. 

‘I know you’re there.’

All the same, she turned around. As she did so, the jackdaw laid the diamond necklace on the ground.

‘I know what you want, too.’

The jackdaw ignored being spoken to in such an ungracious way, and bowed deeply.

‘What do I want with diamonds?’ said Tea. ‘All the diamonds in the world are of less value than the tears of a person who has lost someone they love. So take them back. I don’t have any quarrel with Death. They’re just going about their business. Go on, flap off.’ With that Tea made a rude gesture and turned her back on the poor jackdaw. He stood guard over the diamonds for some time, but the old woman went on ignoring him.

Eventually the jackdaw picked up the unwanted necklace, and he flew, and flew, and returned to the forest. He was bone tired, and his stomach was empty, and his throat was parched. He laid the diamonds on the forest floor and wished they would turn to water that he could drink, and he admitted his failure. 

‘It’s not your fault,’ said the forest. ‘You tried your hardest. We have learned that Tea will not be persuaded with gifts. Perhaps we need to send someone who will command her. Boar, will you try?’ 

So the boar set out, and marched and marched, with all the ferocity of a general in command of an army that was facing a mighty enemy. He marched through the darkness until the glint of a tiny fire alerted him to Tea’s presence in a clearing ahead. Because he was a noble commander, and knew the value of ceremony, he trumpeted his arrival so that Tea would understand he saw her as a force to be reckoned with.

‘We are at war,’ the boar roared. ‘I have come in person to command you to join in the battle! It will be a fight to the death. Can we count on your support?’

Tea looked right into boar’s tiny red eyes. He was a fearsome beast, bristly and spiny, with tusks jutting like armour from his mouth, and he filled the clearing with his warlike body and his red-hot anger. 

‘You’re very impressive,’ said Tea appraisingly. ‘A ferocious opponent. But then so am I.’

Before the boar’s astonished eyes, Tea rose up and up, higher and higher and higher over the trees, her ragged clothes becoming bark and branches, her clawlike fingers extending into spiky twigs, until she towered above the entire forest. She grew so high she blocked out the moon, and the stars twinkled through the spaces between her outstretched fingers.

‘Even with all our forces, we cannot conquer Death,’ she shrieked. At the sound of her voice, flocks of birds fled from their perches. The air throbbed with the vibrations of their bodies and rumbled with the thunderous sound of their wings.

Even this terrible spectacle did not make the brave boar flinch. 

‘I am not afraid of you,’ he bellowed. ‘And I am more afraid of dishonor than I am of Death. Join me, and together we will conquer them.’

‘You have courage but if you think that you are a fool,’ cackled Tea. ‘Death will slaughter you in a second and fell me without a second thought. But I have no quarrel with Death. We are old acquaintances, and we know each other’s powers. Leave me in peace, valiant commander. I will not answer your call.’

So the boar marched back to the forest. It was the first time he had been defeated, and he was ashamed.

‘Lay down your arms, and rest,’ said the forest. ‘It is not your fault. We have learned that Tea will not meet her foe in combat. But what are we to do? We’ve offered treasures and the chance of an honourable battle. And if Tea does not help us then Death will take the whole village, and there’ll be no-one left.’

The forest fell silent, lost in thought, and wondered what it should do next. 

And then there was the sound of hooves, moving with gracious purpose, and stag stepped into a clearing. All eyes were on him as he lifted his great head to the moonlight. It bathed him in light, turning the antlers on his head into a silver crown.

‘I will go,’ said stag. He filled the clearing with a presence so regal that the forest fell silent in admiration of his majesty.

Stag progressed through the forest at a stately pace, neither fast nor slow, until he came face to face with the wizened old woman. 

‘So you have come,’ she said. ‘The King of the Forest. Do you intend to command me, my lord?’

‘No,’ said stag. ‘I have come to beg for your help. Your daughter is ready, and your grand-daughter too. But without you we can do nothing. We have no power without you. You are the only one who can take Death away from the village.’

The majestic stag lowered himself onto his knees in front of the old witch, humbling himself in front of her, and bent his magnificent head until his crown of antlers touched the ground by Tea’s feet.

‘What have you to offer me, my lord?’ she asked. ‘If you want me to do as you request?’

Stag raised himself to his feet, and lowered his head to his chest.

‘My living heart,’ he said. ‘I will pierce my flesh with my crown of antlers and give you my bleeding heart. I will lay down my life if you turn Death away from the village.’

Tea looked at the stag for a long time, and the air between them trembled.

‘I don’t need your heart, and the village does not need your sacrifice,’ she said at last. ‘There’s enough death. I don’t need treasure, and I have no desire for battle. But your nobility has made me see what the jackdaw and the boar could not. Invite Death to a feast. Tell my daughter and my grand-daughter I will see them there.’

On the appointed night, the forest made ready. A ceremonial table was laid in the clearing, decorated with bouquets of the spring bluebells that turned the spaces between the trees into bright pools of green and violet. Tincuta stood waiting by the head of the table, dressed in her finest, and Tinka stirred the brightly flowered enamel pot that hung over a carefully set fire. The food smelled mouthwateringly of sweet herbs and tangy roots. Fireflies hung over the table and round the edges of the clearing, filling the space with twinkling light.

Death was the first guest to arrive at the feast. Handsome and elegant in a velvet frock coat, they sat with quiet dignity at the head of the table.

The forest gathered itself, waiting. When it was time, and the moon had risen in the sky, Tincuta began to sing, her voice soaring in a lilting, lovely song of welcome as Tea’s procession arrived.

First came nightingale, then jackdaw, then vixen. Then the other creatures of the forest, rabbit and hare, mole and badger, dormouse and hedgehog and rat. The birds flew in their masses: robin, crow, thrush, blackbird, raven, owl. And then boar made his entrance, then stag, and finally, a small, veiled figure.

Death waited as Tea’s procession made its way to the head of the table.

Stag and boar, king and commander of the forest, each stood aside. Tea, shrouded in her veils, moved to stand next to Death. As a well-mannered person should, Death rose to their feet. 

‘You have invited us to this feast,’ they said. ‘Will you not show us your face?’

So Tea raised her hands to her veil, and lifted it from her face.

Tincuta launched into a new song, more joyful than the first, as Death looked into the face before them. This was not the face of the wizened old crone, but that of a young woman in a pure white dress, more beautiful than any person they had ever seen. Death felt a stirring in body and soul as they looked at Tea, and in great excitement they rose to greet her.

‘I come to you as your bride,’ said Tea, lowering her eyes. ‘Will you not kiss me?’

So Death placed their mouth on Tea’s, and their hands clasped, and breath passed between their lips.

‘My grand-daughter has sung our wedding song, and my daughter has prepared our wedding feast,’ said Tea. ‘Will you not eat with your bride?’

So Tinka served Death and Tea with great bowls of her sweet-smelling stew, and Death raised their spoon to their mouth again and again, until the dish was empty. 

‘And now will you come away with me, as is only fitting on our wedding night?’ said Tea. Then Death rose, eagerly, and stretched out their hand to her, and she took it, willingly. Because as Tea knew, Death cannot be overcome by precious gifts, or defeated by an army. Only love can conquer Death.

The forest creatures watched as Death let their bride lead them away from the forest. Hand in hand, they walked through the village, and went on their way. And though long years passed, and the villagers went courting in the forest again, and Tincuta sang songs to serenade every wedding in the village, and the birth of every child, and Tinka cooked the feasts to celebrate, Tea and her bridegroom were never to be seen again.

Tina Jackson is a writer, journalist and variety performer whose creative work encompasses secret lives, suppressed history, liminal spaces, everyday magic, and the borderlands between reality and imagination where extraordinary transformations take place. Her debut novel The Beloved Children was published by Fahrenheit Press in 2020 and she is the author of Stories from The Chicken Foot House (Markosia, 2018), a collection of grungy transformation tales illustrated by Andrew Walker, and Struggle and Suffrage in Leeds: Womens’ Lives and the Fight for Equality (Pen & Sword, 2019). She has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University and her short stories and poems have been widely published in journals and anthologies.

Website: https://tinajacksonwriter.wordpress.com/
Twitter @TJacksonwriter

photo by Jay Mantri (via unsplash)

The Gull Heart—Constance Fay

On the edge of a bay, so close to the water that the high tide sometimes brushes against its foundations, stands a house made of sea glass. At night, it is a soap bubble, frothed and frozen as the waves roll in and the moon shines his light dispassionately on. In the day, it is every color of blue, green, and gray—at once cloudy and clear.  

The fisherman who lives within the sea glass house is, of course, the victim of a curse.

He has married four times and been widowed just as many. The first went to plague, the second to a fall, the third drowned. The fourth disappeared. Some say she left him, others can’t argue with the curse—she must be dead if she is gone. The fisherman keeps a simple home in the sea glass house. No one knows how he came to own it and no one asks, either. 

There is something about him that catches questions in the throat.  

His eyes are thundercloud gray over cheeks as weathered as a sealskin and a beard as coarse as a sponge. Tattoos line his arms and drip down to his fingertips. Four straight black ink lines stretch down from his left eye, one for each wife had and lost. When he speaks, his voice is rough as dry sand and falls flat against the slick walls. The sea glass house feels hollow when the tide brings him home and he wonders if the lives of four wives have glutted the curse to satiation.  

 A whale-bone hook arcs over the hearth, large enough to catch a kraken if the right bait were used. Some days, the fisherman takes the hook from the wall and runs his fingers over its smooth curve. Everything in the sea glass house is smooth. There is nothing for a memory to catch on even if one were created.  

One day, the fisherman is out on the water and he gets to talking to himself. He tells himself he’s thirsty. He tells himself he’s not finding any good fish. Finally, as the moon begins to rise, he tells himself that he’s lonely. He says he’d do just about anything to not be so lonely anymore.  

And the moon, well, he listens.  

“What is a wife worth to you?” The moon asks the fisherman as the boat bobs beneath his broad white face.  

“Anything.” The fisherman swears, wondering if he’s fallen asleep and is dreaming of the moon. He doesn’t know the result would be no different if he was. Promises made to the moon, asleep or awake, are binding.  

So, the moon tells him what to do. The fisherman is to take the whale bone hook from above his fireplace and carve it into the shape of a woman. He should put two embers in the place of its eyes, so that she can always see the truth. Two shells will serve as her ears, so that she hears things that others may not. He must bind the wrists and ankles with rosemary so that she will never leave him. Finally, he must cut off his tongue and give it to her for a heart.  

“My tongue?” The fisherman stares up at the moon with wide eyes. He doesn’t use his tongue often, but it is a large sacrifice.

“Did you think you were making a doll?” The moon bathes the fisherman with cold light.  

“If I do all this, I will have a wife?” 

“If you do all this, and leave the doll for the tide to wash on the first night of the crescent moon, she will be birthed from the sea for you. She will love you and, so long as you do not neglect her, she will not leave you.”

The fisherman starts to speak but the moon cuts him off.

“There is one limit to this magic. After that night, she may never again see my face in the night sky. Not even once.”  

The boat jerks suddenly and the fisherman realizes that he has run aground on the shoals where his sea glass house sits. He returns to his house, thinking about what the moon said. About what the moon wants in return. It’s not such a high price to pay for love and the end of a curse. A woman composed of bone and fire, animated by moonlight, will be unkillable.  

He carves that whale bone into a shape as delicate as a sprite and ties her thin wrists with rosemary twigs from his garden. For her ears, he uses shells of the palest pink, glossy and smooth. Two hot coals rest where her eyes would be.  

But, he can’t bring himself to cut his tongue. He has the knife there, in his mouth, when he thinks, maybe the moon was fooling him. A tongue for a heart doesn’t make sense at all and he doesn’t want a wife to have a heart that would be made of something as venomous as the tongue of a man. Her heart should be a soft thing. He switches a seagull heart for his own tongue, pinned to the bone chest, and is proud of doing so.  

On the first night of the crescent moon, the doll goes in the waves, tied under with a rope of seaweed bound to a stone. When she wakes, the bride struggles, spitting at the sea as it washes over her head, bathing her mouth in salt. The fisherman sees her floundering and cuts her free, carrying her bone-pale body from the water and setting her feet upon the sand. He rushes her within the sea glass house and only then realizes that a bride who must never see the moon and a house made of glass are in opposition.  

The next day, while she is learning how feet work and grunting her first newly birthed noises, the fisherman coats the inside of his sea glass house with white paint, throwing the interior into shadow and blocking the sky. When he comes inside, he takes his bride’s cheeks in his hands and names her Itzel. Newly born, she pops her lips at him happily.  

After a few months, Itzel learns how to be a woman rather than bone, fire, and flesh. She was created to obey him, so he doesn’t bother to tell her why she is not allowed outside at night. A command is enough to ensure compliance. She has a clever mind, a devotion to her husband, and a peculiar fascination with the sky. During the day, Itzel sits on the warm brown sand as the wind tangles her hair and watches the gulls circle overhead.  

“I almost feel like I could fly.” She spreads her arms wide as her husband brings in the daily catch. Her flesh is pale and smooth like the wings of a gull and he begins to grow uneasy.  

He gently pushes her into the dark house in front of him and they light candles. The sea glass is muted now, dull gray as the sun burns away the paint’s gloss. His home, where once he could count the stars above, is now shadowed and hot. In the night, when the candles have burned down, it feels as though he is in the darkest depths of the sea, the water pressing in on all sides. But then his wife, with her cool moonlight skin and voice like waves lapping at the shore runs a finger down the side of his neck, and he forgets about the stifling dark.  

They share time, between the day and the dark for five years. The four lines below the fisherman’s eye fade with age until they are barely noticeable in the weathered tan of his skin. His previous wives are ghosts compared to his lovely and gentle bone bride.  

They have an easy communion. So easy, he has to do nothing at all to satisfy her. If it wasn’t for her fascination with the sky, she would be perfect.  

One day, when the fisherman returns from his work, he sees her atop the nearby cliffs, arms spread and wind catching in the rippling fabric of her white dress. Her bare toes curl over the rough black rock and her feather-pale hair streams behind her in the breeze. His heart catches in his chest and his tongue suddenly feels too large for his mouth. She looks so delicate up there on the stone that he momentarily regrets carving such fragile flesh. 

“Itzel!” He shouts her name. It’s barely audible over the din of waves crashing against rock.  

She looks down on him and, for a moment, her eyes are so remote it’s like she doesn’t recognize him at all. Smoldering like the embers they once were until all he can see is the otherworldly glow of her attention. It is scalding. As though the bone and rosemary and that little bit of bird-flesh are not enough to contain the fire.  

She leaves the edge of the cliff, as if a rope binds her to his intentions. Her lip curls against it and her eyes, as always, drift to the sky. 

The next time he leaves, and every day thereafter, he locks her within the sea glass house. He says he can’t trust her not to throw herself off the cliff. He doesn’t understand the wild heart that beats within her chest—the heart that he gave her. 

She bounces off the walls of the tiny glass house all day and the next, trapped. After five days alone in the dark, she begins to scrape away at the paint that coats the inside of the house, fingers clawed and stiff. She’s desperate to see just a sliver of the sky. The paint gives at the same time as her nails break and day shines through at last. It’s enough. For now. She pants on the floor as a flake of sunlight paints her face. 

When the fisherman comes home, he doesn’t notice the damage. His path through the house, from door to bed, is well-worn. So frequently trod that he barely opens his eyes. He doesn’t notice anything except the angry line of his wife’s back as she turns from him in their bed. He’s irritated. A man makes a woman, he expects her to be a bit more amenable. 

Long after he’s asleep, her ember eyes remain open and she sees something new. A cool light shines through the wall of the sea glass house. She presses her face to the wall, gazing through the small scratched hole in the paint and, for the first time, beholds the moon. 

For the second time, the moon beholds her. 

He warned the fisherman of this moment. The fisherman isn’t very good at listening—confident in his own cleverness. To assume one can outsmart the moon is a foolish thing. 

The moon doesn’t speak yet. He waits and he watches. He has all the time in the world. Something about looking at the night sky makes people want to wish for things and Itzel, well, she’s human enough to succumb to the impulse.

“I wish I could be free.” she breathes as moonglow fills her eyes.

“Is that what you really want?” The moon asks her. Since she’s never seen the moon before, it doesn’t strike her as strange that he speaks. 

She thinks about that. About the desire that fills her heart more than any other. “No. I wish I could fly.”

“What is flying worth to you?”

“I don’t have anything.” She answers honestly. Everything in the sea glass house is owned by the fisherman, even her. 

That doesn’t bother the moon. He isn’t about taking. He’s about the wanting. Hers shines almost brighter than the moon’s own glow. Itzel now, while not exactly a person, is enough of one to want, and wanting is the defining trait of people. 

So, the moon tells her how to fly. She’s got the heart of a bird but not the wings. To make wings she needs five gull feathers, a frame of driftwood bound with yarrow for hope and nettle for perseverance. It seems simple until he comes to the part that powers it all. A spent curse. 

Curses are hard to come by. Spent ones even harder. If curses were easy to sever, they wouldn’t be so effective. Before long, Itzel has everything else she needs, collected in the afternoons when she is released from her coop and allowed to breathe the sea-salt air. The curse, however, remains elusive.

As does her husband. Sometimes he doesn’t come home at all and she’s trapped within the sea glass house for days on end. She has become another smooth fixture of the house, trying desperately to snag the edge of her husband’s attention—but it has drifted away, somehow. The stifling dark smothers her until the love bound to her with rosemary and carved into her flesh wears away like sand smoothing stone. She’s left raw and prickly, empty of anything except that driving desire for the sky. When he finally does return to the sea glass house, she looks upon him in a different way. 

What is her husband, if not the bearer of a curse? 

As she withdraws from him, and he from her, the dark tattoos below his eyes grow stark again. Four lines for four wives. Nothing for the fifth. The only way to get beneath the skin of the man is through death. The living hold no purchase, sloughing away from him like the shed scales of a snake. And what after that? After she has been shed?

She will be free to dance in the wind. No longer locked in a painted glass house. No longer bound to a man who considers her his property. She swells with the feeling of potential. His curse is key to her freedom. But how to spend it? How to capture it once spent?

Every curse is built with a hook. His is to love and lose. Cast upon him long before she knew him. It is formed around emotion and damage. The hook is always hidden within the meat of a thing. 

In the end, it’s laughably easy. 

It’s not the man who is cursed, no. It is his heart. While it may have felt something for the four previous wives, it never has for her. She is a wife but she has never been a love. Love is not entrapment. Even a made creature understands that much. What she needs to power the moon’s spell is not the man. It is the part of him that she has never yet held. The part that loved and lost until it grew dry and hollow. 

It is not hard to kill him. He doesn’t consider her at all except in reflection of himself. Didn’t he secure bone wrists with rosemary once? He was so confident in their bindings that he forgot the caveat. 

So long as you do not neglect her, the moon had said. 

The fisherman gave her the heart of a bird and then blocked her from the sky. It is enough to loosen the binding of the herbs. Enough to make her will her own. 

She’s waiting in the dark of the sea glass house when he comes back from a long day fishing, harpoon in her hand and ash in her eyes. He blinks. She is out of place. An ottoman moved unexpectedly. A cup out of the cabinet. 

The harpoon goes in smooth as a wing cuts through air. When he opens his mouth, blood stains his teeth. Still, he is not angry or fearful. He is confused. A misplaced teacup cannot kill. 

He created her to please him. 

The moon created her for another purpose entirely. 

It occurs to her to apologize. She should. She’s killed a man she was bound to love. A fifth dark line drips from his eye. A bloody tear. Finally, she has marked him. 

She does not apologize. 

When his eyes dim as flat as the painted sea glass house, she lays him on the sand under the light of the moon and retrieves his heart. The curse lies inert within its weight. 

It is smaller than she expected. 

When she ties it within the frame of driftwood, yarrow, and nettle, it rests—soft and warm—between her shoulder blades. The pain that wracks her body is sweet and bright as wings spring from her back and smooth white feathers pierce her flesh. She twists and writhes and finally bursts forth anew.

Beneath the gaze of the moon, she flaps her wings and takes to the air. The night is clear and cold and—when she caws a ragged cry of liberty—the calls of other gulls greet her. 

 On the edge of a bay, so close to the water that the high tide sometimes brushes against its foundations, stands a house made of sea glass. Once, long ago, it was painted and dull. It has been scraped clean since then and—on a clear night—it reflects the light of the moon. 

A woman lives in the house. One with skin as pale as bone and eyes that glow like embers when roused. In the day, she stands atop the cliffs overlooking the water and the wind ruffles her hair as it rushes from sea to sky. At night, she takes flight from those same cliffs, buoyed by the air and watched by the moon. 

She talks to him, on occasion. Not to ask for a favor, no. The moon grants those rarely and they nearly all come with a hook. She seeks nothing but to share the joy of the sky.

The moon talks back. She is his first child. He loves nothing better than to watch her fly.

Constance Fay lives in Colorado, USA. She works in medical devices by day and writes by night, accompanied in both by a very opinionated cat. Her fiction has previously appeared in the horror anthology 99 Tiny Terrors, as well as in Crow & Cross Keys (“The Fox Bride and the Hawthorn Queen,” March 2022)Her website is www.constancefay.com and she can be found at @constanceefay on both Twitter and Instagram.

photo by Ingo Ellerbusch and Marty McGuire (via unsplash)

Windsinger—Angie Spoto

A young man lived in a stone house beside the shore with his father, mother and three brothers. Though he came from a long line of fisherfolk and sailors, though his mother had been a herring girl who could gut a fish in two strokes of a knife and his father a sailor who had slain pirates, and though his three brothers were seal killers who made his family rich with their pelts, the young man had no fire for death. He couldn’t bring himself to harm a living thing. 

In the early hours of the morning, he would sneak from the house and pick up the snails that had crawled onto the bricks of the promenade. He would deliver them onto the rocks beside the shore, saving them from the crushing footfalls of the townspeople and their horses. He would not kill a spider, even if it crawled into his bed.

All of this would have been tolerable had he been able to fish. But even the thought of watching a fish suffocate in the air, body thrashing, eyes wide, made his heart hurt. His family thought him useless. He had no trade. Instead, he spent his days gathering driftwood on the shore. At night, he’d sit on the seawall and carve by moonlight. The driftwood would transform between his fingers into little wooden flutes, each with a different tune. Windsingers, he called them, and that’s what his brothers called him.

“Windsinger,” they’d shout on their way to the shore, knives flashing in their fingers. “Playing your songs for the fish tonight?”

The young man wasn’t sure if his brothers knew the truth. 

That he did exactly that. 

When the moon was full and the tide was so high the sea sprayed against his legs as he dangled them over the wall, he would take out his newest windsinger and he would play. He imagined the fish enjoyed the sound, and he would play a song to make them dance. Sometimes, he thought he caught a flash of silver scales darting among the crests.

One night, when the moon hung full and the song from his windsinger filled the air, a curve of white broke the water. It glittered and then was gone. He continued to play, but he felt now as if someone were beside him. He glanced over his shoulder. He was alone, but when he looked again at the sea, he saw the fish.

It was not like the fish his mother would gut and slice and fry. It was not grey or speckled. It was silver-white and so large it would have bent him double had he taken it into his arms.

He played for the fish, and it danced through the water. He played until the wind swept clouds across the moon, until the beach was awash with darkness, until the fish was only a stroke of white in a black sea. As if to say its thanks, the fish lifted its face from the water, revealing its jet-black eyes.

In the time between the full moons, the young man learned what it meant to yearn. He thought only of the fish. He composed melodies in his mind. He searched for the perfect wood to carve the perfect windsinger for his new friend. He didn’t care how his father chided him or his mother sighed or his brothers laughed. He watched the moon grow thin and then fat until finally the night arrived.

When the moon was full, the young man settled himself on the seawall. He took out his flute and he began to play. He poured into the song all his yearning, wishing and imagining and dreaming. At first, it seemed as if the fish would not come, but suddenly, it appeared. A stroke of white. A silver dance. He played and played until the night grew long and the sea began to pull away with the tide. As if to say thank you, the fish darted between his feet, and its scales brushed his skin. That night, the young man settled into his bed with a full heart. He did not care what his family thought of him. He was happy.

For many moons, the young man played for the fish. Sometimes, his song became singing and sometimes his singing became talk, and he found himself confiding in the fish, telling it his worries and fears. That his family did not love him. That he would never make anything of himself. That he’d been born broken, something within him missing. The fish never spoke, of course, but it listened. 

Then one day, a day before the full moon, the young man’s father died. It was sudden, an accident, and the whole family was submerged in grief. His mother sat and gutted fish after fish, slicing her heartache into their soft skin. His brothers went out and killed more seals than they had ever before. They came back with bloody hands. The young man went out to collect driftwood, but his grief made him restless. His hands shook, and his bones were heavy. The wood felt light, useless, insubstantial in the face of his emotion. He returned home empty handed. 

“You need to kill something,” his brothers said, and for once they didn’t mock him. He looked at his family with their red hands and fierce eyes, and for the first time in his life a desire rose within him. To snuff out a life. To cut it short. To control at least one thing in this world that controlled him. 

His mind made up, that night he returned to the seawall with not just a windsinger but also the little silver knife he used to carve them. He played and soon the fish came. He played while the fish danced, until the wind swept clouds across the moon and the sea was black, and then when the fish rose from the water to say its thanks, he reached his hand into the sea. The fish brushed its scales against his fingers. With his other hand, he took his knife and he thrust it deep into the fish’s side. 

The moment the blade pierced the fish’s skin, he understood what it meant to kill, why it came so easily to his family. It meant power and control, hurting something that trusted you. He had never felt this way in his life. In the moment that the blade pierced the fish’s skin, he felt something like a fire-burst of happiness, but it was gone as quickly as it came. It was nothing like the happiness he had felt when he played his windsinger beneath the moon.

The fish, strong and big as it was, twisted and thrashed. The blade’s handle slipped from his fingers, as the fish tore away from him and darted into the waves. He watched it go, the blade still stuck deep into its flesh. He felt heavy then, as if the sky weighed on his shoulders. He was empty and tired. He threw his windsinger into the sea, and then, too exhausted to return home, he settled onto the edge of the seawall and slept.

Was it a dream when a figure rose from the water? She was dressed in all green, save for a white jewel that hung from her neck. 

“Are you the Windsinger?” the woman asked.

The young man sat up. “I am.”

“You must come with me.” She extended her hand, and he took it because what did it matter now? His father was dead and his fish, too. He’d killed a living creature and he was no better for it. 

The woman led the young man into the sea. They walked until the water reached their necks, and then they kept walking, right into the waves, until they were no longer walking but falling, down and down to the bottom of the seafloor. A large rock loomed above them, and in its side was a door. The woman walked through and the young man followed. They entered into a hall filled with strange, weeping people, but they did not linger. The woman led him through the hall into a room, where on a bed lay a man— a prince, judging by the coronet on his head.

His eyes were shut tight. Around his head splayed white-silver hair. In his side flashed a silver carving knife. 

“This is our prince, and he is dying,” the woman said. “Is that your knife?”

The young man nodded. He could not speak for the knot in his throat.

“Then you are the only one who can save him. Remove the knife and kiss the wound.”

The young man did as she asked. As soon as his lips met the prince’s skin, the wound closed, and the prince was healed. The prince awoke and looked into the young man’s eyes, but before they could speak, the woman took the young man’s elbow and led him away. She ushered him through the hall, which was now filled with strange, dancing people.

Before she let him go out into the sea, she said, “Promise me one thing. Never kill a creature of the sea. Protect them like family.”

“I promise, I will never kill again,” the young man said.

She nodded and handed him something wrapped in cloth. “Do not open this until you return home.” And with that she released him, and the water’s currents swept him away, up and up until he broke the surface and he felt the sand beneath his feet again. He walked onto the shore and settled himself on the seawall.

He unwrapped the object she had given him. It was his own windsinger, the same one he had thrown into the sea.

The young man returned home. He woke at dawn to pluck the snails from the promenade. He ushered spiders through open windows. Each morning, he warned the seals of where his brothers intended to hunt, and they soon lost their trade. His mother’s fingers became clumsy, and she could no longer gut fish. But it did not matter because despite all this, somehow they always had enough. 

And whenever the full moon rose bright and proud in the sky, the Windsinger went to the shore to play for his prince. They danced until the wind swept clouds across the moon and the sea was black, until they were nothing more than shadows on the sand, and the singing of the flute became the song of the sea.

Windsinger is inspired by ‘The Seal Killer’ a Scottish folktale retold by Bob Peg in The Anthology of Scottish Folk Tales.

Angie Spoto is an American fiction writer and poet living in Edinburgh. She is editor of the collection Disclosures: Rewriting the Narrative About HIV published by Edinburgh-based press Stewed Rhubarb. Her poetry, essays and surrealist and horror stories have appeared in numerous publications around the world.

www.angiespoto.com
Instagram: @angiespotoauthor
Twitter: @Angie_Spoto

photo by Kyaw Tun and Casey Horner (via unsplash)

The Cellar—Hana Carolina

I brought this upon myself when, more out of politeness than conviction, I agreed to babysit for the summer. My mum’s friend needed someone to, as she put it, ‘keep her daughter in check’. When she squeezed my hand until the pressure made my knuckles crack, I wanted to back out. 

I didn’t.

Each week I would leave Ania playing in the living room and knock on the door to her mum’s bedroom. She’d open after a pause and give me a prolonged look. To an outsider she’d probably appear confused as to why I was there in the first place. My voice was hesitant every time I asked to get paid and she’d nod thoughtfully as if the idea was news to her. Sometimes she seemed to struggle to find her bag, although it was sitting on top of a shelf opposite her bed, always. She’d dig through it, the cracks in the fake leather gaping open, hand buried all the way in, as if she was performing delicate surgery on some exotic animal. I ran my fingers along a dent in the doorframe, long and deep, thick white paint chipping at the edges.

It was barely any money. But I persisted regardless. And every week the pauses were a little longer, the bag harder to find.

I welcomed the payment with a smile, of course. Stayed overtime. Arrived promptly, spoke little, hummed with agreement at everything she said. Sometimes, not often, mind you, I thought about how in some places this constituted an actual job, the type of work that could sustain a person. But Poland was a play country where people didn’t get paid real money, just symbolic amounts. Ania understood this well. She would set up a shop with her friends at the square, often, and give them twigs in exchange for stones. So I played with her. And I played with her mum. 

If it wasn’t for Ania, I would have left after the first day. But that’s how they get you, isn’t it?  Well, they got me. By the end of the summer I was at their tenement house from morning till night. And what a place it was. Not particularly original, that’s true—there were buildings like this all over Lodz, plaster and brick crumbling, all windows facing the grey, closed square in the middle—but somehow exceptional in its commitment to barrenness and desolation. No trees, no flowers, not even a clump of overgrown grass. At least it had an outdoor carpet hanger. Children would hang off of it more often than rugs. 

Ania would go to the square and heroically attempt to have a good time with the other children scattered about, sounds echoing off the walls. Old ladies who spent their days spying on people stained the windows with their heavy respiration, watching the children. The eyes flickered from above, the silent audience in a grotesque parody of a colosseum. I took that position myself sometimes, towering over the square in the living room window, making sure the girl was safe.

Once, using her most matter-of-fact tone, Ania told me about a disturbing game she played—a walk into the void of the old cellar, a dark presence visible from all sides of the square. The door no longer closed since the hinge had rusted and broken off. It made a sinister, creaky noise on windy days and looked mildly threatening at any other time. The only living things seen going in and out were mangy, stray cats. The children would swear the cat invasion had transformed the cellar into a nightmare feline kingdom. It was filled to the brim with a swarm of them, the walls were soaked in cat piss, and the floor was covered with faeces, dead pigeons, mice, and other as yet undiscovered treasures. 

I could have destroyed their romantic vision with a description of the mundane reality—likely five moulted animals on a smelly blanket. Instead, I kept nodding and listening to the tales of their brave attempts to reach the belly of the beast, overcoming the nausea and breathing in the stench as they took turns walking into the expanse of the cellar. 

Apparently whole generations of children attempted that walk and turned back after a couple of steps. I wasn’t sure if it was the smell, the fear of the darkness, or the visions of hell they conjured, but, as the legends proclaimed, nobody managed to get further than the end of the corridor. Whatever waited behind the bend remained a mystery. The person who reached the furthest into the depth was Gabriela, Ania’s best friend. Even now I could walk to the yard and see the faded writing in chalk that proudly stated: ‘Gabriela–12 steps’. She was about eleven at the time, the same age as Ania now. 

The first time I heard of her, I wasn’t interested. Back then, I listened to Ania’s mum as if she was an oracle and tried my darndest not to fuck up the basics, knowing she was keenly observing my every move as I settled in. Perhaps that was the reason why Gabriela got lost in the long list of instructions. But she was there, itemised amongst the don’ts rather than the dos. I remember thinking the name sounded a bit too grand for a neighbourhood overflowing with Kasias, Asias, and Marysias, but it was what it was. 

A few days later, Ania stormed into the living room, and delivered the news. ‘I saw Gabriela,’ she announced with such reverence, the papal audience would not compare. ‘She’s still fucked up.’ Her tone was so casual one would be forgiven for assuming she was describing Gabriela’s hair colour or listing her favourite foods.

‘What?’ I paused. Actually, I should have explained why it wasn’t kind to say things like that, but that battle was lost a long time ago.

She blinked at me as if my surprise was unjustified. ‘You know, still drawing fucked up nightmares.’    

Ah. That was when Ania introduced me to what Gabriela was most famous for—her artwork. 

‘Mum says they’re not that good,’ she said, handing me some crumpled papers. ‘She says they make Gabriela feel important and in—’ Bless her, the word was not really working for her. ‘In—insufferable as a result.’

Right. I stared at the images for a moment, flipping through the pages. ‘I think they are that good,’ I said. 

Messy, actually, but extremely expressive and surprisingly confident. Gabriela somehow made all the imperfections work to her advantage. Perfect composition, a sure hand, a nice balance between precision in the details and the blurry generalities. 

She was cruel in her interpretation. And yes, there were some nightmares in the mix, but what got my attention was a drawing of Ania. It was borderline mean, all the awkward proportions overemphasised, her slightly asymmetrical nose suddenly obvious, eyes a little empty. It made Ania look like her mother, the same round face and crooked smile, not something I noticed before. There were stains on her shirt as if Gabriela was questioning my ability to keep that in check. I looked up from the page and spotted some oil on Ania’s collar. I smiled. Despite all the unpleasantness, what actually radiated from the image was affection for the girl. Yeah, Gabi, me and you both

‘They are that good,’ I repeated while looking at Ania with embarrassing persistence, almost as if I believed my opinion could influence her more than her mother’s. 

Soon it became clear that the matter of Gabriela was so crucial to the household, even I, its temporary and least important member, had to be well informed.

‘This girl is a nuisance,’ said Ania’s mother, suppressed anger simmering in her voice. ‘Don’t let other people’s pointless blethering fool you for one second.’ She stopped to consider how much she actually needed me to know. ‘She imagines herself to be some grand intellectual, God bless her poor soul. Barely a sprout, yet thinks she knows better. Ania gravitates to that! And not just her. Even some teachers fall for it, yes. But not all, thank heavens. She did have problems before,’ she punctuated the sentence with a few assertive nods. ‘Her parents justify it, because otherwise they’d have to admit—’ She cleared her throat. ‘And I have to deal with that. Ania keeps coming back with a head full of nonsense.’ 

She sat there in silence for a moment. I suspected this dramatic pause served to emphasise the seriousness of the situation. 

‘It’s not normal,’ she started again, voice sharp. ‘She hates her life. Hates this whole country. As if she’s been anywhere else!’ It seemed like she made her point but felt compelled to continue. ‘One day, to my face, she said the only thing she can learn from teachers is what a shit profession does to fragile idealists who failed to get out on time. When I asked her why she says such things, she said that since she’s legally obligated to attend this ehm—’ She swallowed the swear word. ‘This institution… the teachers might have her by the throat, but can’t force her to respect them. You can imagine what all this did to my daughter.’

I smirked. Luckily Ania’s mother was too engrossed in the topic to care. 

‘It just keeps getting worse,’ she added after another pause. ‘Once I saw her on my way home, just there, at the square. I called her name. No reaction. I thought that maybe something was wrong. I approached her and… You know what she was doing?’ I was glad she never waited for my answers. ‘Sitting next to a dead pigeon and drawing it! I’ve never seen her more focused. Disgusting. I tried to drag her away, but she gave me such a horrible look. And her drawings! Dreadful, horrifying things. I could see every detail of that filthy, dead animal. And I kept explaining to Barbara’—she meant Gabriela’s mother—‘that something’s wrong and always has been. She wouldn’t listen. God knows if me and Barbara weren’t that close I don’t think I’d ever… If she wasn’t my friend Ania wouldn’t be allowed to spend a second around Gabriela.’ Her fingers tapped on the table, drawing my eyes. ‘But you know how things are… people have their opinions,’ she added with clear condemnation. 

For a moment I thought the story was over. But this was merely an introduction. 

‘Once she went down to the cellar, came back with stories about some ridiculous creatures living there. All the children believed it. They still do! My daughter was so young at the time she shouldn’t have cared, but was scared, alright. It was like an epidemic of sudden unease. I told Ania this was stupid, all made up. Huge cats in long cloaks, for fuck’s sake, imagine that.’ She shook her head. ‘All wasted effort. My own daughter believes Gabriela over me.’ There was another pause, but this one lacked any theatrical flair. ‘The cats come out at night, eat dead pigeons. That’s where it started, anyway. After a while Gabriela changed her tune. When hungry enough, they yearn for human flesh, apparently. And what was I supposed to do with that? Who would scare the children like this? And why?’ She looked at me as if she expected an answer, then proceeded anyway. ‘I’d say she’s just winding them up. Then it turned out she did the same to herself. Barbara told me that Gabriela often draws these creatures dragging her down to the cellar and ripping her to pieces.’ She shook her head. ‘Her art teacher says she has a vivid imagination. Well… Forgive me if I’m not impressed. And Ania admires her, God forbid. It’s not easy.’ 

I nodded. It was easy to picture Ania waking up in the middle of the night, terrified. 

As a final piece of evidence, Ania’s mum brought me another drawing. I could imagine her finding it amongst her daughter’s things and getting a fright. The precision of detail was as impressive as before, no different from the portrait of Ania—dreamed up or real, it made no difference. There was a pair of huge cat eyes staring at me from a piece of thick paper. Animalistic, yet filled with distinctly human desperation. A giant fucking cat in a worn down cloak. It should have been easy to mock. It wasn’t. I swallowed hard, my eyes drawn to the small tears in the fabric, the missing clumps of fur, the thin skin stretched over the bones. It must have smelled of the legendary cellar, the stench suddenly filling my nostrils. 

‘So what do you think?’ 

‘She’s not too happy, is she?’ I said, feeling like an absolute idiot. It was neither what I wanted to say nor what she wanted to hear. 

‘How old are you anyway?’ A seemingly unrelated question.

‘Seventeen.’

‘Huh, same age as Gabriela, and yet… so much more mature.’ For some reason, the tone of her voice made my stomach turn. ‘I’ve heard you’re taking extended English?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You want to be a teacher?’

I flinched. ‘No I—’ I failed to come up with an appropriate lie. ‘I want to leave.’

‘Jesus, you too?’ She huffed. ‘It’s naïve, you know. Thinking the grass is greener elsewhere.’ Her pause was longer this time. I didn’t say a thing. ‘Gabriela had grand plans of her own…’ Her hand glided over the drawing on the table, and she smirked at me. ‘But don’t worry, life will grind you down.’ 

 The school year started and somehow I was still there. But that’s beside the point. I got lucky that day. Gabi’s mum paid a visit, and I happened to be in the living room, cleaning up the toys. Me listening to their conversation was just a happy by-product of the complex task at hand. I arranged all the construction set pieces by size and colour, then rearranged them again. A pointless charade, really, because it was obvious they were letting me stay, even without any acknowledgement or a single glance in my direction. 

‘I know I shouldn’t be saying this,’ Barbara said in hushed tones. ‘But when she actually does what I ask, she doesn’t quite seem like herself. I th—think, well… I think she’s just pretending for my benefit, not to worry me, like—like she’s the adult.’ She let out a nervous laugh. ‘In the last few months she just goes to school, does her homework, comes back on time… It’s all perfect. I—’ She hesitated. ‘I hate it a little.’

Ania’s mum was exceptionally quiet, probably busy dying inside.

‘And I ask her if everything’s ok. She just says “yes”, and smiles,’ Barbara continued with actual uneasiness in her voice. ‘Why is that worse?’

‘I’m glad Gabriela is doing better.’ 

‘I suppose.’ Barbra was subdued for a moment, but was not giving up, some of Gabi’s blood surging in her veins, for sure. ‘Sometimes she actually seems fine, don’t get me wrong, but… Something’s missing.’

‘Could it be all the trouble?’ she snapped.

Barbra shook her head. ‘She used to be so receptive, opinionated, and yes, a lot of it was hard to listen to, sure. But if you could hear her at her best, condemning all this…’

‘All this what?’

‘You know.’

‘No, I don’t.’ Ania’s mum was beginning to sound combative. ‘She’s finally on track. If you keep questioning it, she’ll get back to her old ways, that’s all.’

‘Well, yes but… So much of what she used to say actually seemed reasonable.’

‘What?’

‘Don’t you feel like, ehm—something’s not quite right. A number of times I found myself arguing against her, and thinking…’ She trailed off seeing no understanding on the other woman’s face. ‘Um… At least she’s still drawing. Only, somehow, the new ones are even more intense. I mean—’ She chuckled, and stared at Ania’s mum with an uncomfortable smile. ‘Not that she’d ever win any competitions with any of what she draws. But some of them, s—some are really—’

‘Disturbing?’

‘Well, yeah. And…’

‘And what?’

Barbara blinked a few times and stared ahead blankly for a moment. ‘Nothing.’ She complimented the word with the fakest of smiles.

I felt a shiver run down my spine, and a thought hit me. It was true, twelve steps into the cellar, little Gabriela did see something beyond dirty walls, old bikes, or even giant cats. She saw her future. 

Perhaps that’s why she was prone to screaming her lungs out on occasion, drawing during classes and, most importantly, saying exactly what she thought. Here she was, a character created out of unruly scraps of my imagination, made real. In my mind Gabriela spoke her lines with conviction, repeating after Barbara who reported her words with a strange kind of detachment. ‘Do you know how tedious it is, to talk to them, to waste my fucking time listening to the rubbish they spew? I’m in the wrong because I don’t respect them. I’m wrong because I want to do something I care about. But they are right to follow along like fucking drones. They make me sick. And, of course, they look at me with a mix of disgust and pity. But that’s fine. Their hatefulness towards me is fine, I’m sure. Because they’re right and I’m wrong. I wish I knew why it must be this way. I wish I understood.’ And she went on, her voice only growing in strength, until it went quiet, that is. 

Mentions of Gabriela grew scarce in the next few weeks. She wasn’t doing anything remarkable after all. Ania engaged in a little victory dance once she realised her mother no longer disapproved of the friendship. After that quiet period, Barbara started to visit quite frequently, said Gabi’s marks were improving, teacher reports grew warmer, and her friendships were stable for once. However, the more positive her stories, the more unsettled her mother seemed. 

Then there was a phone call in the middle of the night, Ania’s mother.

‘I’m sorry for calling so late.’ At least she got that useless statement out of the way up front. ‘I didn’t want to worry you earlier… But we can’t find Ania anywhere.’

I looked at the clock. It was a couple of minutes after midnight. 

‘Because you see…’  She hesitated as if not telling me was really an option. ‘Gabriela disappeared yesterday night.’ 

‘Disappeared?’

‘Nobody knows where she is.’

I gave it a second to sink in. She kept talking.

‘We decided not to tell Ania, but Gabriela’s parents informed the teachers. Gossip spreads fast. Ania walked out of school. We called everyone we could think of. We’ve been looking. I have no idea…’

Her ambition to be a great mother ended up being more important than her daughter, as usual. I guess that’s why she waited hours upon hours before calling me. 

‘I’ll be there in half an hour,’ I said, and hung up in the middle of her sentence.

It was a bit funny actually. The first time I heard the story about Gabriela’s grand heroics, the unachievable accomplishment—walking the furthest into the void of the cellar—I had a strong feeling one day I might be forced to break her record. Once I passed the door I gained a new appreciation for those who backed out at step one. The air was thick with the acidic odour of piss, suffocating. 

The first light switch only let out a cracking sound. The corridor was long, darkness impenetrable, the floor uneven concrete, the wall crumbling, an occasional blotch of paint under my fingers. There was something almost like wind pushing against me, a freezing breath with none of the freshness one would expect. 

I called for Ania. Nothing.

And then I heard a meow from behind the bend, another, some sounds of shuffling, and my blood ran cold. Ridiculous, I told myself while calming my breath. 

The second light switch actually worked, a naked lightbulb on a thick cable hanging above my head. The space turned white, then the details began to emerge. The corridor was as unremarkable as they come. Everything was normal to a shocking extent.

And there she was, a dozen steps behind the bend. Ania, still idealistic enough to aspire to be a real friend to Gabriela, ready to step into the black abyss if that’s what was required. She was sitting on the floor, huddling her legs, face swollen from crying, a torch in her hand, still on, faint light pointing away. It was only once I saw her that I realised how worried I was, relief squeezing at my throat. She must have heard me but decided not to respond, and she was ignoring me still, even once I left barely one step between us.  

Everything around us—those wooden bars, unused skates, and mundane, old furniture—must have dealt the last strike to Ania’s belief in Gabriela’s vision of the world. If she found hell, wild and raging, at the end of this corridor, she’d probably be pleased. 

‘There’s nothing here,’ she said, unable to resist stating the obvious. 

I sat down next to her, trying not to overthink the state of the floor. A part of me was overjoyed that I was the one who found her, not her mother, but perhaps that was the wrong thing to focus on. At first I felt obligated to say something responsible, something that would make her want to go home. But then I couldn’t help but consider whether staying in the cellar was not somehow preferable to going back to where we were. 

When she began to sniff more aggressively, I hugged her, and my fingers tangled up in her hair, its brightness already fading. She’ll be a brunette like her mother, not long from now. And she’s going to forget Gabriela in a couple of years. She’ll forget me too. The time when I could pretend I could stop this was running out. I desperately wanted to believe that maybe if I tried hard enough I could squeeze her mother out of her, perform an exorcism of some kind. It was childish of me, but I wanted it so much, the thought almost made me cry.

‘Promise me something,’ I said. ‘Once the shit hits the fan, don’t believe what your mother says about Gabriela. You know her better than that.’ 

Ania looked at me as if she didn’t understand what I was talking about, and after a moment I realised that she really had no clue. There was nothing I could do.

‘Why are they not here?’ she asked instead. 

I leaned back on the wall and tried to come up with something. No success. I knew what the simple solution was. But it was hateful.

‘Um…’ I hesitated. ‘Those creatures from her drawings, they don’t exist.’ As I said it, as obvious as the words were, they didn’t sound right to me. 

As expected, she looked at me with indignation. Here I was, siding with her mother. 

‘But Gabriela saw them,’ she said, her confidence waning, despite the conviction in her voice. ‘She told me.’

‘Maybe she was making stuff up to keep you on your toes.’

‘She wouldn’t do that.’ She shook her head, tears flowing again. ‘Where is she?’

I considered backing out, but hey, in for a penny… ‘I’m… I’m sure she’s fine, probably staying with some friends.’

‘I’m her friend,’ she insisted in a swollen voice.  

‘She’ll be back. It’s constant drama with her. This is not new.’

‘If she saw those cats and they’re not real…’ She paused, breath shaky. ‘Then how can I tell if something is?’

‘Ania, come on. She lets her imagination run wild, what can I say?’ I sounded more annoyed than I intended. ‘Your mum warned you about her. We should go home.’ 

Ania looked at me with hollow eyes and I felt a little bit like I betrayed everything I believed in. But it worked. 

‘You’re safe,’ I added using the comforting tones of a good, aspiring mother. ‘There is no danger. No stupid, giant cats dragging you or Gabriela anywhere. Those were just ideas, her ideas. She’s had plenty of those.’ 

As small as she was, Ania appeared to have shrunk even more, huddled by the wall. She didn’t ask any more questions. She also didn’t object when I led her out of the cellar, squeezing her fragile hand in mine just a little too hard.

Her mother was screaming, her anger echoing deep in my skull, her hands flying high in the air. Her father was a shadow at the back of the living room, a blink behind the doors, as always. Ania was crying so hard, she was starting to gag. I stood there in silence holding on to the knowledge that, as delicate as she was, she was stronger than either of them. Maybe some spark would survive, as hard as they worked to extinguish it, the walls closing in around them, sounds growing louder and louder in my ears.  

I was dirty and stained, like all the concrete, crumbling brick, dead pigeons, moulting cats, and dirty walls had leached into me. The stench of the cellar was in my hair, radiating from me as if I was doused in piss. All the emotions they threw around so thoughtlessly stuck to me, a thick molasses of disgust stifling my lungs. I wasn’t ready, forgot to set up my defensive walls, the reality around me vivid, complete, not something I could resist, escape or explain away, plain as day, for once. 

It had been a long time since I had disconnected from the world. I barely remembered the last seashore I imagined walking along, the last forest I visualised until I almost believed it was there, the last make-believe human who would actually care. When was it? The last time I pictured a life I wanted, the opposite of the life I had, in a place which looked nothing like this, felt nothing like this, inhabited by someone, anyone but them. Too long ago, that’s for sure.

Where was Gabriela? Nobody asked. But I could think of nothing else, my mind conjuring visions of what might have happened, flipping through her drawings, replaying every detail, every snippet of disconnected conversations, the collage of images running through my head as I stared at the family crumbling before my very eyes. 

Then Ania’s mother decided it was my turn, and I got hit by a blaring string of words. The volume decreased with time, until it became low, conversational. ‘We don’t need your help anymore,’ she said.

I froze. ‘W—what?’

‘You heard me.’

I looked at Ania standing in the doorframe, and something in my mind flipped. ‘And who’s going to help her cope if Gabriela’s dead?’

‘What the fuck did you say?’

I took a deep breath, calm. As calm as I could possibly be. Calm when Ania’s mother gave me the few belongings I had left in their house. Calm when she dragged Ania away from me without the chance to say goodbye. Telling myself she would have, if she could. And that made it fine, didn’t it?

I walked off, a slow stroll through the square, so quiet, empty, only two working streetlights, a few windows shining in the night, a gust of chilly air, almost fresh. It made me shiver, my face wet from tears. 

There was a person standing by the gate, nothing unusual. And yet, I couldn’t look away. My eyes struggled, just a silhouette, difficult to discern, a distant lamp shining from the other side of the road. The figure was so unnaturally still, as if poised and ready to pounce, not even a breath expanding its chest, waiting as I approached. 

Finally there was movement, fluid, effortless and swift. Even before the creature was close enough for me to distinguish its features, I knew what it was. 

For some reason, I wasn’t even surprised when I saw a pair of huge cat eyes shining underneath the hood. The creature looked exactly as Gabriela drew it, every detail matched. And I understood why. Once you see it, you never forget. 

The cat was curious, sniffing around, eyes wandering, never quite focused on me. I didn’t feel scared, just numb. And yet, my heart was racing, shoulders shaking, and I could hear myself panting, so loud. 

It occurred to me that when I looked at the drawing, I thought I could imagine the smell. I was wrong. The reality was much, much worse. And I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the last thing Gabriela ever experienced, the penetrating stench of rot, the sight of chipped teeth bared in a grimace, nose twitching, the sound of its wheezing breath. All I could think of was her last sketch—features slashed to oblivion, belly cut open, body contorted like the dead pigeon on the ground. I tried to picture her struggle to escape and then realised I’ve never actually seen Gabriela. I didn’t know what she looked like, so the only face I could visualise was my own. 

For a moment, my heartbeat was all I could hear, then my ears popped, the muffled sounds soon replaced by a loud screech. There was one thing this was: impossible. I shut my eyes and hoped against hope that if I stopped believing in the creature, it would disappear. Instead, I felt its wet fur on my forehead, its twitching nose sniffing at my hair. It was focused, looking for something. 

Not now, I thought. Not yet. 

We were both motionless, my eyes squeezed shut, still, waiting, waiting… until I felt a change in the air. It didn’t find what it was looking for. 

All I heard was the rustle of fabric as it moved away. Then I was alone in the dark.  

Hana Carolina is a pseudonym of a creative and academic writer based in Edinburgh. She is passionate about classic cinema, gothic literature, and all things Scottish. 

Twitter: @HanaCarolinaSCO

photo by Jan Kopřiva (via unsplash)