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)

Out of Water—Lauren Archer

Scooping out a hunk of fat with cupped fingers, I rub it between my palms. It gives way and melts. The smell is faintly meaty, a welcome warmth in the stiff coastal air. I smooth the blubber into the puckered flesh of my thighs, over my shins and down to my feet. As I rub between my toes, I picture a membrane of skin forming between the cracks, fusing the soft pink digits – the advantage that would give me in the water. 

I stand into my wetsuit, rolling thick neoprene up from my ankles to my waist, reaching around to pull up the zip. My thick hair is wound into a bun, and I pull my swimming cap over, hearing the silicone snap against my skull. The wetsuit and swimming cap hide my spindly limbs, my mess of black hair, the protrusion of my knees, my elbows, my hips. I am sleek and streamlined, ready for the unforgiving water. 

The flooding tide kisses my ankles as I wade in, the cold making itself at home in the hollows of my bones. I plunge my head under. My lungs catch and I rise back up in time to feel the sudden rush of a huge intake of breath. Then comes the second submersion, deeper this time, my lungs tight and full. When my body has adapted to its new surroundings and adrenaline has taken over, I swim out. 

I swim until my muscles ache, until I can no longer feel any of my extremities. I swim until the glimmering lights of the island dissolve into the sea. 

When I return to the shore, I see the orthopaedic walking shoes and compression stockings of the woman who feeds the rock doves. She is sitting on her bench, which looks out over my beach. Her little feet are swinging, not quite touching the ground below. I try to wave at her, to catch her attention, but her face is hidden behind a blurred curtain of frantic, hungry grey. Gnarled pink talons scratch at the air, at stale chunks of wholemeal bread that rain down like rancid confetti. 

When I reach the front garden, there is a rich smell leaking through the gaping seams of the kitchen. Tomato and garlic and chilli, pasta simmering in water bleached white with starch. This house always has a lingering odour about it, of wheat and dairy and other things he knows I don’t enjoy but cooks anyway. I can smell it when I read on the sofa, when I take a bath, when I lie in bed at night. Sometimes I think that I can smell it as far away as the water’s edge and I have to rush in to escape it. 

He sets me a plate silently; doesn’t ask how I filled my day or how my swim was. I look down blankly at the wheat shells swimming in their red sea, complete with extra virgin oil slick. We sit like this for a long while, the only sound the thin rasp of cutlery on crockery. I pick at the food, puncture a single pasta carapace with my fork and watch it weep sauce. 

It has started to rain. From out of the window, I can see water seeping onto the cracked paving stones of the back-garden patio, bubbling up in the crevices of the grouting. He tuts and sighs and speaks for the first time this evening. 

‘This shit highland weather,’ he says, grunting through a full mouth. ‘It’s costing us thousands.’

Personally, I like the rain. I force down another mouthful to avoid having to respond. He eats quickly. I watch a droplet of marinara dribble down his stubbled chin. While he finishes his plate, I picture the shells going down whole, landing in his stomach, releasing a hundred tiny hermit crabs inside. Serrated pincers ripping at him, tearing him apart so that I can build a new man in his place.

The food feels heavy in my stomach, and I leave the rest of my plate untouched. Later, from the next room, I turn the volume up high on the radio to drown out the sound of him angrily scraping the remnants into the bin.

While he is snoring by my side, I go downstairs and open the fridge. It’s one of those big, silver American types, which casts out a bright white glow when opened. I feel like a burglar caught in an automatic porch light, illuminated in an act of desperation. But we are married, and so the fridge is half mine, the contents too. I quietly part jars of jam and chutney, bottles of salad dressing and hot sauce. Toward the back of the fridge, I find a plastic package, layers of orange fish on a bed of golden card. Without hesitation, I pull thin ribbons from the mound and spool them onto my tongue. My mouth fills with saliva, with the sharp, wet ache of a long appetite satiated. I tear at layer after layer, barely chewing, swallowing whole. I wipe my sticky fingers on my pyjama bottoms and return to bed warm and full.

The next morning, I sit across from him and watch as he eats his plain cream cheese bagel in four bites. Crumb, butter and cheese fester like fungus in the corner of his mouth. He does not mention the empty packet languishing in the recycling bin. 

‘Maybe we should have some friends round,’ he says eventually. ‘That might give you something to look forward to.’

I do not know what to say, so I shrug. We have had people over for dinner just once since the wedding. Our friends, he calls them. The men he works with and the women they are married to. I try to picture the faces of these people, to match names with executive positions and children’s special talents and favourite football teams, to remember the events of the last dinner party that led to the cancellation of all others. 

I remember the wives homing in on me with coiffed curls and sharp stares, asking me questions about my childhood. They were fascinated by me, it seemed, because I was not Orcadian. Not even Scottish. 

‘So, where are you from?’ one asked me, looking me up and down like a freshly birthed lamb; adorable and fascinating, but somehow embarrassing, encased in yellow fluid and unable to walk. 

‘Sort of all over,’ I replied, which was true. 

He interrupted then to explain that I moved up to the island when we got married. A whirlwind romance, he grinned, which made me feel strange as that wasn’t how I remembered it. I didn’t really remember it at all. Although perhaps he was right, perhaps it was a whirlwind. Ever since we met, I have felt dizzy, after all, as though dropped by a sudden gust.

‘It might be good for you,’ he says, bringing me back to the breakfast table. 

He doesn’t mean that, not really. He means it would be good for him. Good for him if a few people came around and made us look happy by association. If they ate his pasta and drank his wine and laughed at his rambling anecdotes. If they craned their necks to take in my strange accent and my jet-black hair and my dark eyes. If the men complimented him on my stock, on my lean body and milky skin and the collar bones visible in the space between the straps of my dress. If, after a couple of drams of whiskey and the company of our friends, his friends, he could muster up the courage to place a hand on my thigh under the table and serve us a shared dessert with a single spoon. 

In the water, I practice breathing. I tread steadily with my face resting on the ocean’s surface, focusing on slow, relaxed exhalations. Three strokes in forward crawl, breathe, two strokes, breathe, three strokes again, breathe. If I were built differently, I could breathe underwater through the oxygen supply in my blood. Some animals can slow their heart rates from 100 beats per minute to just 10, gliding through the ocean without the betrayal of a racing heart or gasping lungs. I wish that I was one of them. 

Back on the shore, oystercatchers in crisp white shirts and black jackets gather in groups like tiny mourners at fresh burial sites. I can see the rock doves too, but not the woman, hidden as she is behind the coo and the clamour and the hollow flutter of wing.

Once, we came to the beach together. The woman was there then too and cooed like a rock dove herself when she saw us walking together, my limp hand gripped in his. On the walk back, he bought me a cone of chips. They were drenched in vinegar and glistening with salt. I tried one, not wanting to spoil the day. The hot mass of potato and oil clung to the back of my throat, and it took all my effort to swallow.

When I get back, he has already called them. He says their names slowly, as though I should be taking notes to prepare for the evening ahead. Giles and Rachel, Eddie and Camilla. Introduced in pairs rather than as their component parts. They will be coming over at eight, he will make a lasagne and he would appreciate it if I could help with the salad. I stand in the corridor while he tells me this, droplets of water collecting at the ends of my hair and dripping onto the imitation oak vinyl floor. By the time he asks me to go upstairs and put on something nice, a puddle has formed beneath my feet. 

I shove the muddied towel to the bottom of the laundry basket, remembering that he has warned me not to use the house towels at the beach. They are made with a supreme cotton pile, he often reminds me, and cost a fortune to replace. The last time I got one dirty, he stood staring at it in solemn silence until I felt compelled to apologise. 

He has laid out a dress for me, a black lace thing with spaghetti straps. I am not quite the right sort of woman for this dress, being too sharp and pale with no cleavage to fill it. But despite that, it looks fine. It looks like exactly the sort of dress a nice wife would wear to a nice dinner party that she absolutely wanted to throw. I practice smiling for one second, two seconds, three. Then, I relax my face and trace my sombre expression with lipstick. I look at myself for a moment too long in the mirror and see a strange thing staring back at me, dark eyes gleaming. 

He guides me into the kitchen and offers me up to the strangers.

‘Hello,’ I say to nobody in particular. 

One of the women smiles at me. The other is staring down at the floor. I realise, too late, that I have forgotten to wear shoes and my bare feet look flat and embarrassing against the tiles. 

While they sip champagne and talk about the intricacies of planning permission applications for extensions, I pull pinwheels of anchovy and olive from their toothpick skewers and unravel them, licking the remnants of salt-cured fish from my fingers. The discarded olives sit in a briny bath at the bottom of the bowl. 

He ushers us into the dining room where there is a lasagne waiting in the middle of the table. Eddie or maybe Giles jokes that I must have found the only man on the island who would do all the cooking and let me sit about doing nothing. It isn’t a funny joke, so I don’t laugh, but everybody else does and that makes my silence seem cruel by contrast. He chimes in, the other component part of my pair, leaping to my defence.

‘She made the salad,’ he says, too eagerly, his smile too sudden and wide.

He points at it, the salad, and everybody looks. Of course, I did not make it. I forgot all about it, our conversation that morning dissolving almost as soon as I stepped out into the sea. I wonder why he would want to give me credit for something I didn’t do, why it makes him feel like a better person to pretend to have done less. 

Camilla, or maybe Rachel, asks me what I do for a living. 

‘Last time we were over for dinner, you said you were between jobs,’ she tells me. 

After a long pause I tell her that I don’t do anything for a living. Either Eddie or Giles seems delighted by this and says there’s nothing wrong with old fashioned values, nothing wrong with a woman keeping the house. 

I excuse myself from the table. 

The terracotta floor of the pantry is cold against my bare thighs as I sit cross-legged, scraping out the hexagonal corners of a jar of tuna pâté with the edges of a teaspoon.  The salty paste fizzes on my tongue. I find another jar and then another.  Cured herring fillets in dill marinade. Albacore tuna loins in olive oil. Anchovies with basil and parsley. I squirm in anticipation with the popping sound of each lid. 

When I return to the dinner table, I follow our guests’ stares down to the diaphanous bones caught in my hair, the flakes of oily flesh on the neckline of my dress. 

When I am sure that we are alone once more, I go outside to read. 

In summer, the sun lingers in the sky for more than eighteen hours a day, on account of the high latitude of the island. It rises as early as four and sets well after ten, so it is still bright outside even though the day is long gone. When it does eventually descend, it lingers just below the horizon and bathes the island in a faint blue light which brightens to an amber glow in the northwest. The locals call it simmer dim, the twilight of a summer evening. 

I flick through one of his old copies of Men’s Health, pausing at an interview with a swimmer who represented his country in the men’s 1500m freestyle at the 2016 Olympics. The swimmer says that the greater your velocity, the more effectively you push through the resistive drag of water, the quicker you swim. The stronger you are, he says, the greater force you can apply to your propulsive action. 

I sense his presence before he arrives, fold the corner of the page over and slip the magazine between the seat and the cushion. In anticipation, I pull a blanket over me and reach for my neglected glass of wine. I am a perfect picture of feminine domesticity. He materialises behind me, resting a gentle hand on my head. 

‘Do you have any dumbbells?’ I ask him, staring up at his blank face.

He bristles.

‘Maybe in the garage.’ 

I wait, unsure of where the conversation is going.

‘Don’t go in there yourself,’ he tells me, sternly. ‘I’ll sort it out over the weekend.’

I nod and smile. He strokes my hair longingly, as though trying to peel back my outer layer and find something more palatable underneath.

I dream of the woman who feeds the rock doves. She pulls open a bag of bread and the birds descend in a fury of white and grey and red and pink and purple and brown. The wild, Caledonian ancestors of the urban pigeon. Then more birds appear. Guillemots and curlews and black headed gulls, a wake of buzzards and a murder of crows, all raining down on her. They rip the bread from her trembling hands, then come back for more. She scrambles through her tartan trolley, until its wheels slip. It tumbles down, and so does she. The birds squawk in a joyful chorus and swoop down, descending on their new feast with sharp beaks and toothed bills.

I wake. The room is dark, too dark, black-out blinds designed to block out the lingering solstice sun. Tomato sauce and cheese and pasta curdle in my stomach. I rush to the bathroom and am suddenly, violently sick. A mess of gluten and congealed vegetable, then bile. 

Another lurch. I look down to see a dark mass of scale and blood and bone. A whole fish head lies in the toilet bowl, glassy eyes rolling back in its thin skull. I realise that the knees of my pyjama bottoms are wet and muddy, that the soles of my feet are dark with dirt. 

When morning comes, the blinds are up and I am alone. I smile at the empty hollow on his side of the bed, stretching out to fill it. Then I get up and set to work. 

The garage is dusty and full of incomplete drill sets, stray bits of sandpaper and rusting metal. Layers of stepladder and blender and bike pump.  Dried-up pots of yellow paint, relics from a conversation about converting the spare room into a nursery. A graveyard of abandoned home and self-improvement projects. 

What am I looking for? I try to remember, but my mind is blurred. There is so much stuff here, so much rubbish, all the discarded physical evidence of our grim little partnership. I cut an incision through the belly of the garage and pull out its mangled insides.

As I go, I collect anything that interests me. The dumbbells, yes, alongside some resistance bands, a skipping rope and a pair of ankle weights. Amongst my prizes is a small box with a combination lock through the catch. I hesitate for a moment, but before I can make a reasoned decision, I am twisting the dials until they display the four digits that make up the year of our wedding.  The lock pops open. Within a moment, the contents of the box are spilt out on the concrete floor, seeming to glow beneath the flickering strip light.

The first thing I notice is pebbles. One that I collected on a trip to Copinsay Lighthouse, and another from the Loch of Stenness, where we spent a long day walking to see the standing stones. I brought back a pebble each time we went to a new beach or loch or other body of water and set them out in a neat row on the windowsill of our bathroom. He removed them during a spring clean, told me he’d thrown them in the bin because they were unnecessary clutter. We hadn’t visited anywhere like that in a long time anyway, so the collection had grown static, and I simply let it go.

Beneath the pebbles I find another layer, one of white paper covered in stern, black ink. I rifle through the documents with limited interest. Our marriage certificate, a photocopy of each of our passports, some contracts seemingly related to the house. I barely recall any of it – the marriage, the mortgage. They feel like things that happened to me, events at which I was merely an observer, rather than an active participant.

As I pull the final sheet of paper from the box, my hand touches something soft. I look down at what appears to be a small blanket or piece of upholstery velvet. I wonder if it is an old sample, from when he was designing the interior of our house. It is a strange design, a mottled grey, with darker and lighter patches and a faint spotted pattern, not a style I can ever imagine him choosing. 

I lift it out of the box and unfold it. The centre is darkest, with a deep grey line running down the middle, fading to light grey and then to white at the edges. On the other side, the material is stiff and smooth, covered in tiny pucker marks.

It is not a blanket or a piece of velvet, I realise, but an animal’s pelt. A skin. 

I leave the garage, walk through the garden gate, and arrive at the coastal path. I take turns left and right, propelled by muscle memory alone.

Soon, I am at the sea. 

I do not have my wetsuit or my towel, but I know, somehow, that I do not need those things, that I will never need them again. I unpack my bag and take out the pelt, rubbing it beneath my thumb and forefinger as the water laps at my heels. I drape it over my shoulders and feel the stiff hide yield, a warm sensation spreading through the matted fur and down through my own skin.

When I hit the water, I do not feel my lungs catch. I do not waver. I do not tread clumsily into the rippling tide. 

My heart rate slows, the world quietens, and I dive down into the dark water below. 

Lauren Archer is a secondary school English teacher and writer of short stories based in Liverpool, UK. Her work has been longlisted for the Mslexia Short Story Competition 2021. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenroarcher.

photo by Jeremy Bishop (via unsplash)

Narcissus—Caitlyn Morrison

Life would be more bearable if every so often you could take your body off, Jules thinks, as she attempts to heave her legs off the side of the mattress. If you could just tuck it up in bed and exist as dust or whatever souls are made of. Pollen seized by the breeze.

Knock, knock.

At 76, all her body knows how to do is ache.

Eventually, she gets both feet to the floor. She can feel the chill that has always lived in the bones of the house but it’s distant. This must be how those soldiers with their missing arms and legs feel. Phantoms in places that no longer exist, unwilling to give up on lost things.

Knock, knock, knock.

Jules hasn’t a clue who the visitor could be. The clock tells her it’s 9.34am, on a Sunday at that. Her list of potential callers, beginning and ending with the postman, narrows significantly.

It crosses her mind that maybe it could be Abigail but she quickly dismisses the thought. Abigail is in Palermo with her husband, sipping wine through their teeth and spitting it out before the good bit. 

Jules tugs a heavy winter coat over her night dress, the sleeves stretching tight on her stiff arms. She remembers haggling for the coat at a market by the side of a cattle  road. Richard and Abigail had been mortified. Undeterred, Jules had blagged it for £20 less than asking and worn it proudly ever since.

During those weeks when she first started changing, Jules had worn the coat constantly, covering every inch of herself in thick fabric and fervent denial. However, as time went on she found herself reaching for it less and less.

It’s amazing what a person can get used to.

Knock, knock, knock, knock.

Before leaving the bedroom Jules puts on a pair of woollen gloves; some of the leaves sprouting from her fingertips tear off and fall to the floor. 

She’ll gather them up later. They’ll do for a stew.

As she hobbles into the hall, there is a clattering at the door. Darting eyes peer through the open letterbox. They spot Jules and quickly withdraw in surprise. The letterbox clangs shut. 

Jules opens the door. A small boy around nine stands on the step, a rickety pink bike by his feet. His knees are dirty and thick curly hair explodes out of his head.

“Hi!” the boy shouted, as if he had already determined that because she was old she must have a hearing problem. “I was playing and kicked my football into your garden! Can I get it back?”

“Oh right.” Jules coughs, her voice coming out gruff from disuse. She’s not sure when she last spoke out loud. “One minute, I’ll fetch it.”

Jules heads back into the house. She makes it to the kitchen before she notices the boy following behind, close enough to take the slippers off her feet.

“Why are you walking like that? Do you have arthritis? My grandpa has that. He has this chair that goes up and down the stairs because he can’t walk. He lets me go on it sometimes but it’s super slow.”

“Something like that.” She replies. “Has nobody ever warned you about stranger danger?” 

They step out into the garden where a morning sun is splintering  through the trees. Her garden, buried in the heart of the woods, shrouded by green quiet. Here she was more likely to see a deer than another person. 

The house used to be a small hospital. Why it was converted, Jules doesn’t know. If there’s one thing the world never runs out of, it’s sick people.  

The past  still resided in the walls. When they first moved in Richard had insisted on keeping some of the old features. He’d always been like that, romanticising the past, trying to build a house and live there. 

“I like your garden.”

Jules turns to the boy who is over by the fence admiring some delphiniums. Near death a few days ago, they have rebloomed beautifully. Bloody right. Jules had used what was left of her fingernails to ensure it. Their vibrant purple spires beautifully offset the white jasmine climbers that tumble down the fence like the foam of a waterfall. 

Her garden is almost perfect. 

“Thank you, it takes a lot of hard work.” She replies, “Those purple flowers are delphiniums.”

“Del-fin-e-ums.” The boy rolls the word around in his mouth like a mint.

“Mhm.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do it if it’s hard?”

“Because I enjoy it. And because things are only worth doing if they’re difficult. You remember that. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can do something if it’s easy.”

Jules reaches out to a lily growing by her hip and grips one of its glossy leaves between her fingers.

“Who’s that?” the boy asks but Jules barely hears him. 

Veins of vivid red run through the green of the canna leaf . So alive. Not a hint of rust. 

“I’m hoping to win a competition.” Jules says, mostly to herself.

“What do you get if you win?”

“The winner gets £5,000.”

The boy looks at her, stunned. “That’s loads! You’ll definitely win. Your flowers are so cool.”

The compliment takes Jules by surprise. She watches the boy hop down the path to the pond.

“I don’t have a garden. We used to before me and Mum moved in with Steve, but it didn’t have flowers like this. We had a trampoline but it had a big hole in the net and one time I did three front flips in a row and accidentally fell through it and broke my collarbone so I got to stay off school for a whole entire week—”

The boy rambles on as Jules scours the garden for the missing football. She finally spots it amongst some squashed daffodils. Her body creaks like the incline of a rollercoaster as she picks it up. She carries it over to the pond and hands it to the boy.

“Here you go.”

He takes it, continuing to stare intently at the fish.

“You squashed my daffodils.”

“Sorry.” He replies without looking.

Jules purses her lips at the boy whose own mouth is slightly agape in wonder.

“Aren’t your friends waiting for you?” Jules asks.

The boy shrugs, “I was playing by myself.”

Jules turns to the pond, its veneer still like a painting despite the life teeming just inches below it. “Those fish swimming near the top with the white spots, they’re koi carps. They come all the way from Japan.”

She leans down and points into the water. “And see those fish at the very bottom, the light orange ones?” She sees the boy nod in the water’s reflection. “They’re golden tench but people sometimes call them doctor fish.”

The boy finally looks up. “Why?”

“Apparently they take care of the other fish in the pond and stop them from getting ill. Like doctors.” Jules pauses. “They also keep the water clean by eating the fish poo.”

The boy grins. “Cool.”

Jules straightens up painfully. The boy watches her with wide, dark eyes. She imagines he makes people nervous. There’s something unnerving about children who see too much.

“What’s your name?”

“Kieran. What’s yours?”

“Jules.”

They turn back to the pond as a chagoi koi eagerly skims the surface of the water. It opens its mouth wide at them. Quick to trust, a chagoi will eat right out of your hand.

Soon the rest of the fish join it at the pond edge. The dull, copper chagoi is quickly swallowed amongst the brighter, more colourful fish swarming in a kaleidoscope like a pool of spilled oil.

Feeding time.

After Kieran leaves, Jules rests on the bench underneath the pear tree. Eventually she will have to go back inside and start her day properly but for now she sits, the sun warming her face. If roots were to grow from her feet and she became stuck in this spot forever, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. 

A swallow lands on the feeder beside her but upon finding it empty quickly flies off in further search. Jules keeps forgetting to buy more seed despite the notes she leaves for herself on the fridge. She forgets a lot nowadays. For two days she couldn’t remember what Richard looked like. Instead there had been a mushroom growing in her mind where her husband’s face should be.

Jules lifts her dress and stretches her naked legs out in front of her, etched with journeys like a road map. The bark which started at her toes has now spread up her shins, over her knees, and reached the joint of her hip. 

She thought she had more time.

Her legs are almost beautiful in the sunlight. Crevasses intricately twisting across her thighs. She rubs her hands down to the place where rough bark turns to pallid, veiny skin. 

What would she find underneath? She doesn’t think there would be skin anymore. Would there be bones? Maybe dirt? Could you chop her in half and count 76 rings?

Or maybe she’d be hollow, perhaps that would be worse. If inside of her there was a cavernous space things could crawl into. Where tree borers could make their home and lay larvae, eating their way through the last of her living tissue.

A long time ago they hung a swing on one of the trees in the garden. They hadn’t realised until too late that the branches were infested with clearwing moths.

It was almost dark. Jules had told Abigail to come inside but Abigail pretended not to hear. Moments later she screamed, the sound piercing straight through Jules’ ribcage as if it had come from her own lungs.

She found Abigail strewn across the ground, all jagged angles. The broken branch lay behind her and the swing between, connecting them where the rope was wrapped around Abigail’s limbs like a twisted marionette doll.

She always remembers the accusing  look on Abigail’s face  as Jules had tried to gather her back together again. As if the swing had been a trap to teach her a lesson. Listen to your mother or else.

The bones in Abigail’s arm never did heal properly.

Jules shakes the memory and stands. She walks inside to the kitchen where she takes a sharp knife out of the drawer. She should fix those daffodils now, before she forgets. 

The football snapped several of the stems and crushed most of the flowers. Jules doesn’t have any fingernails left but even if she did they probably wouldn’t be enough to do the job.

Luckily, blood works better than fingernails.

Two months ago,  Jules had slipped while deadheading a tropical canna lily.  The shears she’d been holding sliced through her glove and deep into her palm.

What had surprised Jules was the blood. How much there was. How hastily it ran.

It dripped in thick surges down the slopes of her fingers, cascading off the tips. She remembers watching with reverence as it flowed out of her to the dry soil where it was swallowed up in a desperate thirst. Something told her to let it bleed.

A day later the dying  lily had rebloomed. 

Trial and error has taught Jules that while blood works best, she only has so much to spare. Therefore, for plants that just need a pick-me-up, wrapping strands of hair around the roots does the trick. More serious problems like leaf spots or root rot require fingernails buried beneath the soil like fertiliser.

Plants that should be beyond saving, call for blood.

Jules holds her hand over the daffodils and brings the knife to her palm. She slices carefully, reopening the barely healed scar. A little should do it.

She moves the knife away but no blood comes from the wound. She closes her fist tightly and squeezes. It doesn’t hurt the way she expects it to. After a moment, a viscous amber liquid slowly oozes out. 

Jules watches, too stunned to move, as the amber pours  over the daffodils like syrup.

This isn’t right. She thought she had more time. One more week. That was all she needed. Just one more week.

Jules sits at Richard’s old computer in his office. The air around her is stale and deathly still. She rarely came in here even when Richard was alive. The office had been his and the garden hers. 

In this room he was a stranger. It was only at the end of the day when he would emerge overworked and gentle, and they would meet back in the kitchen that they would recognise each other again. He would unbutton his collar and she would wash the dirt from her hands and they would sit together eating dinner, chairs pulled close. 

Jules has eaten life, right down to the rinds. But if you were to ask her if there is a moment she’d like to go back to, it would be a moment like that. She would go back and hold it with both hands. 

After several attempts Jules manages to turn the computer on. She won’t make it to the shops, she can barely make it to the toilet. No, she’ll have to order daffodil bulbs online if she wants them in time for the competition. She just hopes that when they arrive she’ll have enough hair left on her head to give.

A couple of days later Jules hears a splash in the garden. She looks out the window and sees a football floating in the pond. 

There is a knock at the door. Jules puts on her coat and gloves. 

“Shouldn’t you be at school?”

“Nooo,” Kieran drones, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s the summer holidays!”

He must be telling the truth, the weather seems about right. Jules has lost things like school holidays to the spores of mould flourishing in her brain.

“Let me guess, you’d like your ball back?”

“Yes please.”

They make their way through the house. Kieran drags his feet, peering around curiously at the walls. 

“You had gloves on last time as well.”

“You’re very observant.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You’re good at paying attention.”

“I’m nosey. That’s what Steve says.”

Jules turns to Kieran and wiggles her gloved hand in his face menacingly.

“When you’re old your fingers turn into carrots. So I wear gloves to stop rabbits from nibbling on them.”

“That’s not true! My grandpa doesn’t have carrot fingers, they’re just really wrinkly.” 

In the garden Kieran spots the ball in the pond and rushes over in panic. Jules follows, stepping carefully on the wet stone. 

Kieran looks up at her, eyes brimming with tears. “Where are the fish? Did I hurt them?”

Jules peers into the water. “No, no, I think the ball just gave them a fright. Look there’s some hiding behind the rock. See?”

Kieran nods then rubs his eyes roughly with his sleeve, embarrassed. As he bends to gently lift the ball from the water, his t-shirt dips and covers his skint knees. It’s two sizes too big with a hole in the collar.

“Do you want to give them names?” Jules asks.

“The fish?”

“I’ve just been calling them fish one, fish two, orange fish, fat fish… They deserve proper names.”

Kieran examines the fish, a crease appearing between his eyebrows. Finally, he points at the chagoi that has bravely swam out from under a water lily.

“That one’s Sonic.”

The bulbs arrive three days before the competition. The delivery man gives Jules a strange look for how excited she is but she pays him no mind. Her garden is almost perfect. 

Jules takes the bulbs into the kitchen where she puts ten into a basket and the rest in the cupboard. In the garden, she sits on the grass and rips hair from her scalp  which she wraps tightly around the bulbs. Next, she plants them in a shallow pit and gently draws moist soil over them until they’re out of sight. 

She hopes it’ll be enough.

Satisfied, Jules goes to stand but as she does all the air leaves  her body in one sharp whoosh. The ground flies up towards her and she collapses to her knees.  Clutching at her tightening chest, she tries to take a breath but it only makes it as far as her throat before it is  violently spat back up again.

Her lungs are refusing to fill. 

They’ve forgotten how to. 

Jules presses her cheek against the dirt and tries to remind them. 

In. Out. In. Out. 

She’s running out of time.

Jules can’t remember Abigail’s phone number. She never bothered to write it down because she has always just known it, in the same way she has always known when Abigail would be home from school for the summer, or her own husband’s face, or how to breathe.

She flicks through Richard’s address book, passing names she no longer recognises. The pages seem to multiply every time she turns to the next, like some kind of cruel spell. It was hard to believe they had ever known this many people.

Finally, under ‘F’ she finds it.

FabbyAbby Home no. 

Abigail had hated when he called her that.

Standing beside the phone, Jules tries to plan what she’s going to say. Words that will close the distance that’s been growing between them ever since Abigail flew through the air with nobody there to catch her. 

Abigail my lungs have shrivelled to the size of prunes and my blood has turned to sap I’m pretty sure I’m dying I don’t mind that you left if it means you’ll come back we have always been too much alike it would be nice to see you one last time.

Maybe sometimes there are no right words, just words. Jules calls the number. 

It doesn’t even ring. 

“The number you have called is currently unavailable.”

Knock, knock.

She’s not going to answer, because it’s late and she’s about to start dinner.

Knock, knock, knock.

She’s not going to answer, because tiredness has rendered her blind and lame and the distance from here to the front door is much too great for just one person.

Knock, knock, knock, knock.

She’s not going to answer, because she isn’t his mother and it isn’t her job, not anymore.

Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock.

Kieran doesn’t speak a word as Jules sits him down at the kitchen table. Dirty tear stains mark his round cheeks. His knuckles are burst and bloody. 

The disinfectant she dabs on them makes him hiss in pain. He tries to yank his hand away but Jules holds it firm in her own.

“Sit still. I need to clean them.”

She dabs them again and this time Kieran doesn’t pull back. Instead he lifts his other hand and puts it on top of Jules’s.

“I knew they weren’t carrots,” he whispers.

Jules freezes. With everything that’s happened, she forgot to put gloves on.

Kieran strokes a rubbery leaf between his fingers, then follows to where the stem is growing out of Jules’s skin. It sends a shiver up her spine. 

“Cool…” He says under his breath. 

They sit quietly for a moment.

“Are you hungry?” Jules asks. 

Kieran nods.

Jules makes mince and tatties. It’s what she would make for Abigail whenever she was sick. She chops up carrots, onions, and celery and fries them in the pan. She browns mince, and adds Worcestershire sauce, stirring until a familiar scent fills the room and trickles out into the hall, warm like someone’s home.

The windows fog and there’s nothing else but her kitchen where the food is piping hot and ready, ready to be plated, ready to be eaten, ready to be enjoyed. She hears the office door creak open, so she takes two plates from the cupboard and begins to scoop the potato in big, buttery heaps. Then with the back of the spoon she presses a small crater in the middle to put the mince in, just how he liked it.

It had always been their favourite. Hers and. Hers. And—and—

“Where is everyone?”

“What?”

“Where is everyone?”

Jules shakes her head as if she could physically dispel the confusion currently clouding her brain.

“Everyone who?”

“Everyone else who lives in the house. They’re never here when I come over.”

Her chest feels impossibly tight. She drops Kieran’s plate down in front of him with a thump. “It’s just me who lives here.”

Kieran’s face screws up in confusion, as if he can’t comprehend how anyone could live all by themself. “Alone?”

“Yes. I didn’t—not always. I had a husband. He lived here with me, but then he got sick.”

Kieran nods with understanding, absentmindedly moving a piece of potato around with his fork. 

“Do you have any children?”

“I have a daughter. Abigail.”

Kieran looks around as if Abigail might be hiding in the cupboard or under the stairs. “Where is she?”

 “She doesn’t live here anymore.”

“Where does she live?”

“With her husband.”

“Where—”

Jules shouts before she can stop herself, “Will you just—!” 

Kieran shrinks back as if he’s been struck. 

Jules tries to take a steadying breath but her lungs come up short. “Just stop asking questions and eat your dinner.” 

She turns away before she can see his reaction. She tries to heap some mince onto her plate, but the spoon shakes in her hands and the mince floods messily out of the potato crater.  

Her bones ache.

“I don’t feel well.” Kieran says in a small, quiet voice. 

Jules sighs. She hadn’t meant to scare him off but it seems that’s all she’s capable of.

Behind her, Kieran starts to cough uncontrollably. She turns to see that his face has turned a bright, blazing red. 

Potato sputters out of his mouth and across the table. Jules rushes over to where Kieran’s  writhing painfully in his chair. He looks up at her with wide, questioning eyes. 

Jules doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know how to fix him.

Suddenly, Kieran lurches forward, his tiny body straining violently. Jules tries to hold him together as he’s sick all over the floor.

The ambulance takes the young boy away. The sirens cut through the silence of the trees long after it leaves. 

It hadn’t taken the paramedics long to figure out what was wrong with him. It turns out the forgetful old woman had mistaken daffodil bulbs for onions and cooked them into the dinner. 

They had assured the old woman that the boy would be fine, that he had puked out most of the poison. 

So, when the paramedics leave, the old woman tidies her kitchen. She throws the leftover food in the bin, cleans the plates, scrubs the sick off the floor. Then she goes outside. 

She looks in the pond at someone she doesn’t recognise. She gazes at the host of daffodils, their heads just beginning to peek through the earth, green and new, soon to be golden. 

Then the old woman faces the house. Her house. Their house.

She imagines taking her body off. Shedding it like a heavy winter coat. Shucking it like a husk, along with everything else. The wilted lungs and decaying knees. The grief that has rooted itself inside her. The guilt that has stretched itself across her shoulders. She imagines taking it all off and placing it down on the grass, returning it to whence it came.

She imagines and then she is growing impossibly tall, stretching high into the air, almost amongst the clouds. From up here she can see over the house and everything beyond it. 

From up here she can see her garden in its entirety. It’s complete. Perfect.

A man and a woman drive down a solitary road through the woods. They arrive at a house and park outside. They get out of their car and knock on the front door. When there is no answer, they knock again. The man looks at his watch. The woman checks her clipboard. 

After the third knock goes unanswered they turn to leave.

A young boy cycles quickly down the road that the couple have just come from. When he reaches them he throws down his bike and they exchange a few words. The boy grabs the woman’s arm and pulls her over to a gate by the side of the house. The man follows behind.

The three walk through the gate and into a garden. 

The boy introduces them to a fish called Sonic that swims in the pond. Then he guides them over to some purple flowers which he calls delphiniums. 

The man and woman look at the delphiniums. They look at the jasmine climbers, and the pear tree, and the canna lilies, and the golden daffodils. The woman smiles and writes on her clipboard. The man nods and reaches out to examine a flower.

The boy walks alone down the path to a tall tree. The centrepiece of the garden. Hi, he says when he presses his hand against its trunk.

Not long later, the man and woman join the boy under the shade of the tree.

Caitlyn Morrison is a recently graduated Creative Writing Masters student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, having also studied English and Creative Writing as an undergraduate. She has previously been awarded the Rose Cooper Prize for Dramatic Writing by Strathclyde University, as well as the Major Project Prize for her Masters Dissertation.

photo by song xiaoguang (via unsplash)

Honey Trap—Maddie Bowen-Smyth

content warning: sexual content, light body horror

“You’ll adore the distillery, my darling,” Magnus promises, and Catalina knows better than to trust the pretty words of lovesick, stupid boys.

(Should know better, anyway. Yet here she is.)

She does not, in fact, adore the distillery. It’s a grimy, hulking eyesore on the horizon; closer inspection fails to reveal any grander beauty, but has the delightful accompaniment of a strange, sickly odor in the air. 

The Elwood manse sits at the junction of Middle and Nowhere, its gardens adorned with tumbleweeds, dirt and hay-starved horses. Sepulcro is fifty miles due east, Old Morty and The Dead Sea along with it, and her life before this mess fades into the honeyed sunset with whimpered fanfare.

Magnus brings her to her room. It’s a stately affair; there’s a large bay window, a four-poster bed, a well-worn armchair and a writing desk. He tells her not to stray too far from her room in her delicate condition. He follows this with a gentlemanly offer to escort her to the family dinner at seven sharp.

His eyes sweep over her dust-ridden clothes, lip curling in distaste at whatever he finds there. “I’ll send Minnie over to help you choose an outfit.”  

Once he departs, Catalina abandons her trunk at the foot of the bed. She sits down in a nearby armchair with a decisively fed up: “Fuck.”

The swell of her belly looms under hesitant fingertips. Catalina consults the mirror, turning this way and that. Her baby, somewhere beyond muscle and skin, kicks lightly. Her mouth curves upward, unbidden. “Shush, little one.”

“You can feel the baby?” comes a query from the doorway.

Minerva Elwood swans into the room without waiting for an invitation; Catalina supposes she doesn’t need one. Minerva’s immaculate blonde curls flow in a pinned wave down her back, resting against soft pink fabric that must last all of two seconds out in this desert filth. A pale white hand covers rose-red lips. “Maggy never told me you’re so far along now. Goodness! When was the last time we went shopping together…?”

“A few months ago.” Catalina arches an eyebrow. “Maggy, is it?”

Minerva’s delicate features pull into a brilliant gleam. She shares her brother’s beauty, though she carries it with far less arrogance. “May I, Lina?”

She shrugs. “I warn you, he isn’t very cooperative.”

Minerva, with earnest reverence, presses a hand to Catalina’s stomach. The moment stretches long, the girl’s perfume filling the air between them. Lavender and honeysuckle. She meets Catalina’s eyes. “He?”

“Intuition,” Catalina explains, her voice gentling. “Or so my mother used to tell me.”

“I’m sure my parents will be delighted if it’s a little boy,” Minerva says wryly. “Say, I’m supposed to be finding you an outfit, but Maggy didn’t give me your measurements, and I daresay what I have won’t fit you now. Let’s see what we can rustle up, shall we?”

The pastel frills and lace on offer don’t suit her complexion, designed for Minerva Elwood’s milk-white skin—does the girl ever go outside, aside from sparing trips to Sepulcro’s market?—but Catalina is forced to make do with a virulently green swathe of taffeta and silk. It envelops the warm brown of her skin in disapproving capitulation. 

It’s also several inches too short. 

Minerva is too polite to say it looks awful, but instead offers an appraising: “It’s unique, isn’t it? Papa bought it for me, but he’s never perused a fashion magazine in his life.”

The house is cold, quiet. Murmurs of noise drift from downstairs as servants attend to their duties. Upstairs, on the other hand, is a wasteland.

“The women’s rooms are up here,” Minerva tells her. “The men’s are in the east wing, closer to the distillery. And Mama is often out travelling with Papa or Uncle Ford.”

“So it’s just you?” Catalina asks.

“And now you.” Minerva links an arm through hers. “My future sister-in-law, I suppose! And, in a few months, a squalling infant. I’m quite certain it will liven up the place.”

“I don’t believe that’s the arrangement.” Catalina lets an insincere smirk amble across her face. “Though I’ll sorely miss your company—may I call you Minnie now we’ll be living in close quarters?”

(A few months, and she’ll be back in Sepulcro. And her baby—

She lets the thought hang.)

Minerva’s cheeks color, her brow knitting. “Yes, you may.”

The Elwoods are as glacial as Catalina expects from a well-to-do family in the middle of New Mexico. Earl Elwood is typical patriarch stock, puffing at a cigar over dinner and talking shop with his brother, Ford, who slinks around like a man looking to thieve whatever isn’t nailed down. It’s surprising, since by all accounts, he grew up in the very lap of luxury, but Catalina supposes riches aren’t enough for some. Neither of them bother to introduce themselves. 

Elora Elwood fusses over her and her belly, meanwhile, prescribing herbal remedies she swears by, and assuring her she’ll be well taken care of, and hasn’t she thought about what she’s going to do after this mess is—Elora lowers her voice—dealt with? Shouldn’t a nice girl like her settle down with a young man of her own station?

“Until the baby comes,” Elora says, patting Catalina’s hand and leaving her soup untouched. “Isn’t it better for you to be in the best possible hands? Sepulcro is an awful, lawless town.”

“Lina knows, Mother,” Magnus pipes up. “That’s why she agreed to come with me.”

(Like hell, Catalina thinks, and remembers Old Morty pressing a Derringer into her hands. 

“If you need it,” he’d said. “No one’s hearing gunshots out in the desert, are they?”)

“Yes.” Catalina allows Magnus to take her other hand. “I’m grateful, Mrs Elwood. You’ve shown me great kindness, despite the difficult circumstances.” The words are ash in her mouth. 

Minerva is quiet during all the fuss. She pushes her food around her plate, watching Catalina carefully while sipping at an amber-colored drink that fills everybody’s glasses except Catalina’s. She’s stuck with a horrendous herbal tea meant to be good for a baby’s growth, but it tastes the way a saloon’s outhouse smells.

“I hope you understand,” Elora continues, “there are certain expectations, and you and Magnus are so young. People will talk, my dear, and we absolutely wouldn’t want that to reflect poorly on you. So, we just don’t think—though I’m sure we can work out an arrangement for you to visit—”

“Mother,” Magnus interrupts, placing his cutlery down. “We’ve talked about this.”

Catalina is silent. From across the table, Minerva’s expression morphs from nettled to apoplectic. She stabs her fork viciously into her steak.

Elora is undeterred. “Magnus, sweetheart, you know your father’s thoughts.”

“I’ll marry her once I’m older,” Magnus says petulantly. “Once I’m in charge of the distillery.”

Earl Elwood is far too engaged in discussing the price of barley with his brother to be bothered with his wife and children. Ford glances sidelong at Elora for the briefest of moments, and the two share an expression of such naked heat that Catalina wonders if she isn’t the only one bringing mess and scandal to this family. 

Maybe fucking your husband’s brother is acceptable scandal in these parts.

“Maggy.” Catalina squeezes his hand. “I wouldn’t want to come between you and your family.”

(He hasn’t discussed this with her, of course. The grand proclamations of a swept-off-her-feet romance grow more tiresome by the day.)

“Isn’t she such a sweet girl?” Elora croons. “If you want to be close to the child, dear, perhaps we could even find work for you here.”  

“Her name is Catalina.” Minerva rushes to her feet, her chair scraping the hardwood floor. Her eyes blaze formidably. “If we’re going to be stealing a baby from its mother and employing her as a servant, at least have the decency to refer to her by name, Mama.”

“Minerva.” Elora stares at her, mouth agape. “Have some manners, won’t you?”

“Catalina looks tired,” Minerva announces. “She shouldn’t be staying up late. Come, Lina, I’ll walk you back to your room.”

Magnus’ anger spills between clenched fists and a taut jaw. But he’s nothing if not his parents’ obedient son—Catalina realized that swiftly—and so he acquiesces with moderate grace. “I’ll give you a proper tour of the estate tomorrow, my darling.”

Elora’s own grace is brittle. “Yes. Sleep well, dears.”

Minerva whisks her away from the table and its glacial welcome. They return to the quiet hallways, Minerva’s delicate hand pressed to the small of her back. 

Her breath mists warm against Catalina’s cheek. The wind rattles the window panes. The gas lamps don’t extend all the way down the hallway; the women’s rooms are dark upon their return. Minerva hovers in the doorway, casting anxious glances at Catalina’s belly.

“You can stay,” Catalina offers, to which Minerva offers her a pallid, tentative smile.

She sits primly on the edge of the bed, hands folded in her lap. Her brow pulls together. “I can’t believe you let her speak about you like that.”

Catalina lets her shoes clatter unceremoniously to the floor. “The Elora Elwoods of the world don’t tend to appreciate backtalk.”

“But you’re—” Minerva shakes her head. “You’re so… free. Independent! How can you stand it?”

(She doesn’t. 

Every inch of allowance pinions her throat, but women wind up dead for less.)

“Not free enough to afford making enemies.” Catalina tilts her head. “How do you stand it?”

“Where would I go?” Minerva muses. “I guess I might eventually exchange my father’s rules for my husband’s.”

“Or,” Catalina says, “you could always run.”

Minerva frowns. “Run where, exactly? Sepulcro?”

Catalina laughs. “There’s an entire world beyond Sepulcro, you know.” She shimmies up to the headboard, patting the space next to her. “Here. You look like a jittery foal over there.”

“I certainly do not.” Still, Minerva obliges, settling in beside her. She pulls a flask from the voluminous pockets of her dress. She sips at it idly. “Where would you run to?”

“California,” Catalina replies. “Sand and sunshine. What is that, anyway?”

“This?” Minerva pauses, the flask held to her lips. “Well, it’s Ambruixa, of course.”

Catalina glances at her quizzically. “Do you mean ambrosia?”

“Ambruixa,” Minerva emphasizes. “What did you think the Elwood distillery specializes in?”

“I’ve never cared to think on it,” Catalina says. “I’ve had more pressing concerns.”

(Like lowlifes traipsing into The Dead Sea as if they own the place; gangs angling for a fight; Old Morty giving her messages to courier, scores to settle, enemies to talk down; blood that needs scrubbing from the saloon floor.

Magnus, later. The look in his eyes when he watched her perform.

The morning sickness, after that.)

“It’s sort of…” Minerva takes another sip. “The distillery makes a concentrated syrup to add to sarsaparilla, you know, to make it alcoholic. Papa’s also trialing a version with honey at the moment, like a sort of mead. Uncle Ford picked the name.”

“Let me have a sip.” Catalina holds her hand out. “I was stuck with that vile tea at dinner.”

“Mama said it might be bad for the baby.” Minerva hesitates. “But maybe just a sip…?”

Catalina leans in closer. “Please?”

A blush powdering her cheeks, Minerva offers up the flask as deferentially as one might offer a sacrifice to the gods. Catalina lets the amber liquid spill into her mouth. It brings a rush of heat with it, scalding her tongue. 

Soon after, a pleasant buzz rings through her ears and reaches as far as her toes. Bright spots burst under her eyelids. She passes the flask back. “Sheesh, what’s in that?”

“Like I said.” Minerva’s blush darkens. “Mainly honey. And, er, a touch of alcohol.”

“No wonder people are eager for it,” Catalina marvels. “I’m glad The Dead Sea doesn’t stock it. We’d never get the regulars out.” She pauses. “Speaking of, you never did come to any of my performances. My invitation was supposed to be for you, not your brother.”

Minerva hiccups through her next sip. “I’m not allowed, am I? Sneaking out was no mean feat, you know, and that was just for the market. Maggy spoke highly of them, though. I wished…” She trails off. “I wanted to. But you seemed to enjoy Maggy’s company.” Her gaze falls to Catalina’s stomach.

That stings, just a little, but she laughs anyway. It’s fair, all things considered. “It’s complicated.”

“I’ll say,” Minerva almost huffs. “You’re in high demand.”  

She notices the way Minerva leans into her, like a wilting plant struggling towards sunlight. “I’m here with you now, aren’t I?”

(It’s dangerous; ill-advised.

The stir of—something.

She’d tried to ignore it. And instead—)

“For now,” Minerva says. “Until you—”

Catalina takes Minerva’s chin between thumb and forefinger. “Let’s not worry about the ‘until’, Minnie. Can I call you that?”

“Of course,” Minerva breathes. “Oh, Lina, you really shouldn’t tease me.”

“I’m not teasing,” Catalina replies, and kisses her. 

Minnie’s lips taste like lavender, honeysuckle and Ambruixa. A burning warmth spreads between them, flimsy as spun sugar, and all the more irresistible for its fragility. Minnie strains into the kiss, her hands curving gently around Catalina’s waist. She lets out the most diverting yelp when Catalina presses her back into the pillows.

“Lina—” She manages. “Should we?”

“I’d like to.” Catalina leaves a trail of kisses down Minnie’s neck and arms. “Before I swell up so much that I can’t entice you at all. Haven’t we dithered long enough?”

“That reasoning seems—” Minnie balls her hands in the silk of Catalina’s shift. “Absurd, but it makes a certain kind of sense. So—yes.”

“Then, may I?” Catalina looks up, waiting. 

“You may.” 

Catalina reaches Minnie’s thighs, pressing a kiss between them. Minnie gasps. “Oh.”

The night falls away to entwinement—Minnie’s hair tickling her cheek (and, later, her thighs). Minnie’s hands running over her body. The reverent treatment of Catalina’s stomach as the other girl presses gossamer kisses to it. 

The slow-spun sugar melts to something fragile, inescapable, necessary

They lie together, later. In sleep, Minnie’s expression smooths out.

Catalina sleeps poorly. Strange nightmares plague her, leaving sweat sticky on her skin, and a bone-deep exhaustion. In her dreams, gunshots ring out. Monsters howl and grab at her clothes; they push her down into dirt and dust. A crying baby is wrenched from her arms. Magnus’ face looms above her. He calls her darling and talks about how lovely it will be when they can run the distillery together, and she need never travel outside the estate again. 

Minnie disappears over the horizon in a carriage, begging Catalina to save her. Catalina tries, but her hands are bound and mouth gagged. Elora repeats what a sweet girl she is over and over—

She wakes. The baby kicks.

(You’ll know a love like no other, her mother had said, when you hold your child in your arms.

So far, Catalina thinks, it’s brought her nothing but trouble, misery and kicks to the gut. Yet here she is.)

She abandons the idea of sleep, exchanging the comfort of Minnie’s arms for the chilled gloom of the darkened corridors. If she can’t sleep, she might as well explore.

She finds a servants’ staircase at the other end of the hallway; it leads into a rabbit’s warren of anterooms and corridors. Catalina picks at random, guided by sleeplessness and a strange, prickling foreboding.

The manse sprawls outwards with disregard for its inhabitants. The atmosphere is odd. Here, the wind’s howling spooks even Catalina, who’s slept under the stars more times than she can count. Here, it feels more like she’s stepped from New Mexico straight into Hell, with no coin to present to the ferryman.

She comes to what must be the men’s wing. Ornate double doors bar the way. 

Down another corridor, a sickly-sweet smell assaults her senses, along with an undercurrent of chemicals and heat.

The distillery. A faded sign on the door reads: Authorized Access Only. Do NOT Trespass, By Order of Earl Elwood. Catalina pushes past the door; she’s carrying the man’s grandson, after all, and she’s also his semi-willing prisoner. She’s earned the right to snoop.

The smell is worse inside. If this is Ambruixa before it’s bottled, then God, it smells like shit. The baby kicks, as if in agreement. 

“Come now,” Catalina murmurs. “You should be sleeping, little one.”

The baby doesn’t heed her, continuing to kick while she makes her way further into the distillery. Pale moonlight slanting in through the windows is all that guides her. 

Tree branches scrape the glass. Floorboards creak. Everything rattles. The whole house feels like it’s braced for something. 

As Catalina rounds a corner, she hears a distant, muffled scream.

She stops, waiting. Several seconds later—another scream. Louder, this time.

She half-shuffles, half-runs down the hallway, scrabbling for the gun in the pocket of her shift. A third scream emanates from behind the doors ahead. This scream is the loudest yet; after a moment, it truncates sharply. A heavy padlock hangs loosely on one of the doors. Another sign reads: Do NOT Trespass Under ANY Circumstance. Volatile Chemicals in Use.  

Catalina reaches the doors, pulling them open with one hand while cocking her Derringer in the other.

The doors open into a cavernous room. The smell is overpowering. The room’s only partially lit, shadows stretching along the walls, and strange shapes rise up in the murk. While Catalina’s eyes adjust, she almost thinks she can hear a buzzing sound.

“Please,” a voice cries out. “Please, help me.”

Catalina steps into the room. “Hello? Where are you?”

(As Old Morty likes to say, she’s heedless: last time he’d said it, he’d cast his eyes over the emerging bump.)

The voice tries to answer. Instead, all they manage is a strange, horrific gurgling. Catalina hastens her pace. “Do you need help?”

She notices a figure prone on the ground. They’re dressed head-to-toe in apiarists’ clothes, but the clothes are ripped and torn, leaving patches of skin visible.

Catalina kneels next to them. Bile rises in her throat. Where the clothes are torn, weeping red pustules swell, leaking blood tinged with an amber fluid. The same sickly-sweet smell comes from the wounds, breaking a fresh wave of nausea over her. 

The figure’s face is hidden by a veil. When they try to speak, their throat gurgles uselessly.

“Please—help—me.” Their body takes another shuddering, wet breath, then stills. They don’t move again. 

“I…” Catalina feels her heart close up faster than a bear trap. In Sepulcro, there’s no use clinging to soft feelings. “I’m sorry.”

The buzzing noise grows louder. She looks up, trying to discern its source in the dimness. The mangled, disproportionate shape she’d seen in the doorway hangs above her. The buzzing grows louder and louder.

Something stings at her arm. “Shit.” Catalina bats at the pain.

A large bee falls to the ground, spasming for a few moments until it, too, stills. Its body is strangely elongated, almost distended. It’s completely black, as if it’s been leached of all color; its wings are spiked, its stinger long and sharp. Before her eyes, the skin of her forearm darkens to an angry red; a pustule starts forming.

Catalina staggers back to her feet. Something crunches underfoot. When she looks down, she sees that dozens of the bees litter the ground, their carcasses as dry as desert dust. They crumble to nothing when her slippers crush them. “What the…?”

The room sways; everything tilts perilously. She presses a hand to her arm and finds it clammy and warm. The gun hangs heavy in her other hand. 

The buzz is deafening. Catalina looks up at the mangled shape again. It finally dawns on her.

It’s a fucking hive.

It isn’t like any hive she’s seen, but these sure as hell aren’t like any bees she’s seen, either. She backs up further, trying to ignore the way everything lists to the side, the way the world somersaults around her.

(The baby, she thinks.

She can’t let anything happen to—)

More bees emerge from the hive, and soon, a swarm of them buzz overhead. Catalina swallows, her mouth dry, her hands shaking.

“No,” she whispers. “No.”

She shoots at the hive. Once, twice, thrice. She barely feels herself load the gun, digging bullets from her pockets and loading, firing, reloading, firing again. The bees scatter, the buzzing roars in her ears, and she trips over a carpet of crumbling carcasses in her haste to get the fuck out of this room.

She runs out of bullets too soon. The bees are closer now, too close for comfort—the buzzing rings cacophonously in her ears. It’s too much. Catalina opens her mouth to scream and doesn’t stop screaming until she’s hoarse.

The bees swarm, close enough to brush skin, close enough to sting—

And then, mercifully, rough arms grab her from behind.

She’s pulled from the room. The doors are slammed shut. The world spins in a haze of colors, from red to green to purple to black. Catalina thinks she might be lying on the ground, or else everything’s turned suddenly horizontal.

“Stupid girl,” someone hisses. “Doesn’t she realize what she’s done? You don’t think she damaged it, do you?”

Another voice joins them. “What happened? We’ve told them time and time again not to go in alone for the collection, then they go and leave the bloody door unlocked—”

“Well, we can’t let her go now,” says the first voice. “Just one shouldn’t be fatal, but God knows.”

The second voice mumbles agreement. “She’ll tell somebody in Sepulcro, and then what will the Raiders do? Take her back to her room. We’ll speak with Magnus later.”

“In the meantime, organize for someone to clean up that damn body, will you?” 

Somebody picks Catalina up, cradling her in their arms. They carry her up the staircase. She thinks it might be Ford Elwood. Elora Elwood’s severe expression drifts into view, her mouth pinched and eyes hard, but she soon turns on her heel and hurries off down the corridor. Catalina tries to speak; only gurgles limp their way out of her parched throat.

She hears Minnie cry out. “Lina? Uncle, what happened?”

“She’s ill,” he replies. “Bad fever. She must’ve collapsed. You’ll take care of her, won’t you, Minnie?”

Catalina thinks she’s carried to bed. She feels soft sheets, feels a damp cloth held to her forehead, a bandage placed cautiously around her arm. She hears the click of a lock as Ford Elwood departs. She hears Minnie try the door, sees her shoulders sag when realization sets in. Minnie returns to the bedside.  

When she can finally speak, Catalina slurs: “They trapped us.”

“Oh, Lina.” Minnie’s eyes well with tears. “What did you do?”

“Bees,” Catalina forces out. “Why the—what the fuck are—the bees?”

“Bees?” Minnie shakes her head. “Do you mean the apiary? I’ve never been. It’s not allowed.” She bites her lip. “Did you break something in there? Uncle Ford was so angry. Mama, too.”

“I need—” Catalina tries to sit up. “Paper. Pen.”

“Catalina.” Minnie grasps at her hands. “They said they’re going to keep you in here. I’m sorry.”

(Like hell, she thinks.)

“Paper,” Catalina repeats. “Pen.”

Minnie reluctantly obliges. She searches until she finds some in the writing desk and brings it to her. Catalina’s hands shake too badly to manage anything legible. Eventually, Minnie prises the paper gently from her hands.

“Here,” she says. “Let me help you.”

“It’s to be addressed to Bonnie.” Catalina’s chest heaves from the effort of talking. The baby kicks—less insistent now, almost sluggish. “A friend of mine. Bonnie Steele.”

(As Old Morty likes to assure her, there’s no shame in asking for help.

Well, she can’t go to him. She owes him enough already.) 

Minnie promises to try and sneak the letter out to a servant. At some point, Magnus stops by to check on her, but Elora and Ford intercept him. She hears Magnus’ affront from the other side of the door until he storms off; she’s glad for the reprieve.

Nobody comes to let Minnie back out, almost like they’ve forgotten her entirely. This arrangement seems to suit Minnie just fine. Still, Catalina notices the shadows darkening her eyes. 

The fever persists. The room swims in and out of focus. Catalina chokes on the water every time Minnie offers her some. She still hears buzzing in her ears.

“Who’s Bonnie?” Minnie asks eventually.

“A friend,” Catalina says. She can tell Minnie doesn’t entirely believe her, but it’s the closest to the truth. Her life is a mess. “She has a horse. And a gun. Maybe she can help.”

“Lina.” Minnie frowns at her. “You need medicine, not horses and guns.”

Catalina doesn’t sleep. Nightmares plague her regardless; pustules all over her skin, bursting blood and bile and a sickly-sweet smell. Monsters claw at her neck and stomach. She holds her baby in her arms, its skin blue and body cold.

They bring a doctor, eventually. Catalina doesn’t know what day of the week it is. How many weeks it’s been, even. The doctor doesn’t seem to know shit, either, but he forces a medicine down her throat that makes her gag and splutter and nearly throw up on him. She wishes she had. The door is locked behind him.

At some point, Minnie sneaks the letter out. She changes the cloth, brings Catalina more water, feels for the baby and quietly assures her, “It’s all right, it’s all right, I can still feel him kicking. He’s a rowdy little thing, isn’t he?” She addresses the baby sternly. “You should really be letting your mama sleep.”

Catalina pulls her in for a desperate kiss.

Days pass like this; Catalina as prisoner, Minnie as imprisoned warden. The house is still quiet. 

Ford occasionally comes to check on them. Earl and Elora Elwood are nowhere to be seen. Neither is Magnus. The hallucinations don’t stop. The nightmares worsen.

“It’s going to be just fine,” Minnie tells her. “You’re going to be fine, Lina.”

Catalina knows better than to trust the words of pretty, lovesick girls.

(Should know better, anyway. Yet here she is.)

“You’re lying,” she accuses.

“Well,” Minnie amends. “I want you to be fine.”

She does not, in fact, feel fine. The Elwood estate creaks and groans with age, with shadows, with silence. There’s nothing out the window but tumbleweeds and horses, and nothing nearby except dirt trails and, somewhere closer, a hive of fucked up bees.

What’s the point of wealth if it strands you between Middle and Nowhere like this?

Finally, Catalina asks, “Do you have any more Ambruixa?”

“A little,” Minnie says. “But I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”

“Nothing else has worked,” Catalina grinds out. “Let me try it. Please.”

Minnie lets her have some. It tastes like she remembers; warm, burning, overly sweet. Her muscles relax. Blessedly, the world stops oscillating. Her breathing evens.

“How do you feel?” Minnie asks, nervous.

“Strange,” Catalina replies. “A little better.”

For once, the nightmares leave her in peace. Minnie cuddles up next to her, her cornsilk curls sprayed across Catalina’s dark waves. For once, their evening is almost pleasant. The servants bring them more Ambruixa at Minnie’s request. The buzzing fades into harmless background noise. The house is brighter. The baby’s kick strengthens.

“You’re going to be fine,” Minnie repeats, and Catalina finds herself believing it.

As soon as Catalina’s strong enough not to wait around for Bonnie Steele, she doesn’t. Bonnie would give her shit for playing up the damsel angle, after all, and better to salt the earth than writhe with her nightmares, than submit to the heady peace of the Ambruixa.

(Even if her body craves it now; even if it aches badly in its absence.)

That night, Minnie sleeps softly. Catalina pads to the door, jostling the lock with an errant pin from one of her dresses. It isn’t quiet work, but the women’s wing is deserted, as always. The lock gives way to the shadow-bathed hallway.

She steps out. They might’ve taken her gun; still, Catalina has a few knives hidden in her shoes and underthings. They might think she’s a no-good floozy from a dead-end town—and sure, maybe that’s somewhat true—but they don’t really know her. 

Catalina heads back towards the padlocked doors. She thinks she can hear the buzzing. It jolts in her bones. 

“Darling?” Magnus’ voice strains behind her. “Whatever are you doing, wandering about in the middle of the night?”

“An evening constitutional,” Catalina replies. “The doctor recommended it.”

He doesn’t believe her. Nowadays, she knows better than to trust pretty, lovesick boys. When things fall into place, they use their power to cage.

(Pretty, lovesick girls, though—

Maybe they’re just as caged as she is.) 

“Let’s get you back to your room.” Magnus tries to usher her. “We wouldn’t want you getting hurt, not with our baby on the way.”

“I’m not your prisoner,” Catalina says.

“Of course not!” Magnus laughs dismissively. “But this is better for the baby, for us. I’ve had a very long discussion with Uncle Ford about it. My parents are particular about keeping the operation of the distillery a secret, and they do worry that you’ll run and tell your little gang in Sepulcro everything. So, the longer you stay here, the more time I have to convince them that we must be married. It’s the best way forward for all of us.” 

“My little gang,” Catalina repeats woodenly.

There’s a strange clunking from beyond the padlocked doors; Magnus pays it no mind. Footsteps sound on the stairs. Catalina presses a hand to her belly and grits her teeth.

Elora and Ford Elwood appear in the stairwell. There’s no sign of Earl, as per usual. Elora’s gaze meets Catalina’s. Her brows pinch and shoulders stiffen in disdain. Catalina sees the curve of her mouth, the shape of her dislike, and knows there’s no way in hell that Magnus is going to get the future he dreams of. 

(She’d thought it was better for the baby not to fight.

She should’ve known better.) 

Catalina slips the knife from her shoe. While Magnus turns to face his mother and uncle, she grabs him by the lapel and hauls him back, pressing the knife to his throat. 

“L-Lina,” he stammers. 

Elora gasps. “Unhand him!”

“If you step any closer,” Catalina says, oddly calm. “I’ll open his throat.” 

“Now.” Magnus gulps. “I-I understand you’re upset, but there’s no need to—”

“Girl,” Ford cuts in gruffly. “You’re signing your own death warrant by harming a hair on that boy’s head.” 

“Threaten me as much as you like.” She doesn’t want to kill him, not really, but if they think she’s a no-good brute from a gang-run town, then so be it. “You’re mistaken if you think it makes a damn difference.”

The strange clunking again. Closer, this time. The doors groan open behind Catalina. 

“What are you doing?” Elora snaps, her ire suddenly drawn to something past Catalina’s shoulder. “We’ve told you not to open the doors without proper precautions, just look at what happened the last time—!”

Slow, thudding footsteps come to an abrupt standstill. Catalina backs up, hauling Magnus to get a better view. A lone distillery worker—an apiarist—is there, the doors swung wide, their veil pushed back from their face. They sway with discomfiting unsteadiness, their eyes dim in the gloom of the gas lamps, and simply stare. Catalina feels Magnus’ pulse quicken under her fingertips; she keeps the knife pressed to his jugular, her jaw set. 

Ford makes a move towards the beekeeper. “Close the goddamn doors!” 

The apiarist opens their mouth—a low, uncomfortable moan resonates from the depths of their throat. It makes every hair on Catalina’s arms stand on end. She shudders.

Then, with a terrible burbling, dark shapes emerge from the apiarists’ open mouth. They tumble out in a great swarm; a writhing buzz fills the air. It’s exactly how she remembers.

Fucking bees.

Catalina hears Ford curse, hears Elora scream, distantly feels Magnus stiffen and instinctively try to get the hell away from the greater danger. The knife leaves a thin trail of blood along his neck, but she’s too fixated on the apiarists’ moan; the bees; the streaming blood and gore that follows the bees from their mouth, causing them to choke.

She pushes Magnus into Ford and Elora; the three of them tumble to the ground. She sprints past them. Nobody stops her. 

Elora’s no longer screaming by the time she reaches the women’s wing. Catalina doesn’t think about it. She cares about her baby’s safety more than Elora fucking Elwood’s. 

Minnie, with a silk robe wrapped around a thin negligee, opens the door blearily. “What’s happening, Lina? There’s a lot of ruckus.”  

“We need to leave.” Catalina grabs her arm. “Now.” 

Minnie’s bleariness clears. “W-What? What’s going on?” 

Now,” Catalina repeats. “I’m going. Are you coming or not?” 

Minnie hesitates on the landing. She tracks the blood-smeared knife in Catalina’s hand and the darkened path towards the distillery. She hesitates on whatever she finds in Catalina’s eyes, then nods tremulously. “Yes. I’m coming.” 

They head down through the kitchens; Catalina brusquely informs a surprised cook and several sleepy chambermaids that they should leave, but they don’t seem to heed the warning. Well, she doesn’t have time to be a bleeding heart, so she leaves them to their confusion and drags Minnie out to the stables.

The hay-starved horses are penned up for the night. Minnie tries to make some sort of protest about the dangers of horse-riding while heavily pregnant, but Catalina goes to them regardless. “You’d prefer I walk to Sepulcro?” 

Minnie just sighs. “Of course not. But you really aren’t good at saddling a horse—here, let me do it.” 

Her blood thrums, her body aches with tension, and the baby kicks with unforgiving relent. Catalina presses a hand to her stomach. “Shush, little one. We’re going, we’re going.” 

The Elwood manse is a hulking, grimy eyesore on the horizon as they depart. Catalina throws a cautious glance over her shoulder. A shiver trails her spine. At first, nothing looks amiss—but then, closer, she notices the distillery’s roof is covered in a haze of black. She can’t hear the buzzing from here, surely, but it jolts deep in her bones.

(Old Morty always tells her that fate is fickle; it’s no use concerning herself with anybody else’s. Her mother always told her she never learned.)

Catalina turns away. She pulls closer to Minnie, reaches for her fingers. “Let’s go.”

With dawn comes the sweltering heat. Catalina’s less troubled by that and more troubled by her trembling fingers—by the nausea, the sweats, the image of those fucked-up bees lurking in every shadow, every curve of scrub.

Her mouth is dry; instead of water, she thinks of Ambruixa. She’d kill for another taste of it, for the sickly sweet of it coating her mouth. She hears the buzzing again. It’s under her skin, between her teeth, as if the bees are about to come bursting from her own lips.  

Minnie fares worse than Catalina. She’s probably been weaned on the stuff, by all accounts, and the craving goes deep. Her flask is empty. She’s barely able to stay upright on her horse, holding the reins with white-knuckled fists. She doesn’t ask about the bloody knife, about the urgency of their escape, about her family.

(A few more miles, and they’ll be back in Sepulcro.

But what if—

She lets the thought hang.) 

They’re passing the broken wooden sign reading Sepulcro 2 Myles Yond’r! when Minnie slips from her horse. She tumbles to the ground, sending up a spurt of dust and dirt. 

 Catalina gingerly dismounts, kneeling at her side. “Minnie?”

“Oh, Lina,” Minnie breathes. “I’m having the strangest dreams.” 

“You aren’t dreaming.” Catalina presses a kiss to her fevered brow. “Come on, we’re almost there. Old Morty will put us up at The Dead Sea. We’ll drink plain sarsaparilla and eat weeks-old bread with beans.” 

“Oh dear.” Minnie’s eyes flutter open, her gaze—unfocused, Ambruixa-craved—meeting Catalina’s. “I really don’t know how to rough it, Lina.” 

Catalina smiles despite herself. The buzzing echoes. The baby kicks. Everything’s going to hell, but they’ll rustle up some coins for the ferryman. “Then I’ll teach you.” 

“Excuse me,” drawls a familiar voice. “I thought I was meant to be rescuing you from some ramshackle mansion.” 

Bonnie Steele looks down at them from atop her well-fed, well-watered horse. Her snarl of red hair is so unkempt it’s distracting—she really never brushes it when Catalina’s away—and she makes no move to help them. The only glint of worry is the slant to her mouth in place of a usual smirk. 

“Well.” Bonnie leans forward on her horse. “Good timing. Don’t you two look like total shit?” 

“Angels these days,” Minnie murmurs, “wear such frightful clothing.” 

Catalina laughs despite herself. She draws Minnie close. 

(She should know better than to hope, she knows that, and yet—

Here she is.) 

Maddie Bowen-Smyth is an indefatigable hunter of obscure historical facts and perpetually, endlessly tired. Her writing explores the lasting echoes of trauma and the power of bull-headed hope. In addition to Honey Trap, she has short fiction in The Birdseed, Quill & Crow’s Eros and Thanatos anthology, and Yuzu Press, as well as pieces forthcoming in Wrongdoing Magazine and the BONEMILK anthology from Gutslut Press. Born in Singapore, Maddie worked in Japan for several years and now lives in Australia with her wife. Check out her Twitter @calliopium and website www.journalistic.com.au for all the latest.

photo by JJ Jordan (via unsplash)