One For Sorrow, But Sorrow Sleeps—Hadassah Shiradski

The magpie wouldn’t go away, no matter how many times Baudelaire glared at it, or asked nicely. Baudelaire could only assume that it had found its way in by using the oak opposite her – the tree that had been old when Baudelaire had arrived was still living. Its branches arched over the entire forgotten courtyard and annually coated all in a shower: first of acorns, then fallen leaves. The snow would always follow, blanketing the paving stones, Baudelaire and bench in a stifling smother. 

Baudelaire saw them sometimes, the mice and corvids alike, and preferred both over the magpie that had shown up in an ungainly flutter and refused to leave. Instead of being sensible, like a raven or crow, it just hopped closer and closer on the bench, trying to provoke a reaction.

Go on, I dare you. I dare you, little girl.

It wanted the coins in the bowl that it – or was it she – kept at her feet. That much was obvious; magpies were thieves, and her skin had long since tarnished to the point of no longer being attractive to pesky birds. A relief; it had taken ages to remove droppings from her head, shoulders, and arms. The only shiny things were the thirteen coins, glinting in the snow that had collected in her bowl. The coins had been a present from her last visitor; she wanted to treasure them for their full value. That magpie was getting none of them, no matter what it thought. 

There hadn’t been many visitors lately; a shame, but not unexpected. In winter, her garden was too cold, too unwelcoming. Not many people knew of this place, and even fewer found the wherewithal to attempt entry through the twisted iron gate at the far end. She treasured every gift.

Baudelaire knew that one magpie meant incoming sorrow, but she didn’t want it to be hers. 

One for sorrow, two for mirth, three for – 

She didn’t know what three stood for; the inscription had become unreadable, and lowering her head to decipher the rest of it would take effort that she wanted to save, not to mention distract her from the one magpie that was sneaking closer and closer and closer. Clawed talons left twiggy imprints in the snow; in her peripheral vision, she saw the mist of displaced snowflakes drifting down between the bench slats.

You can’t prevent me from taking those coins. The snow’s slowed you, but I’m just fine. You couldn’t catch me if you tried. I dare you.

It was partially right, but she’d never admit that the arrival of winter had been to her detriment. The snow that had settled over her form would have been comforting in its softness, but this blanket sapped her latent strength and replaced it with an insidious lethargy that wound deep in her statuary, forcing her into slow slumber.

That blasted bird hopped yet closer and closer, cocking its head insolently, and jumped, flapping its sleek wings and swirling up a flurry of settled snow until it was perched on her frozen arm.

Not gonna stop me? Oh wait, you can’t. Or rather, you don’t dare.

With that, it slipped down to the book in her lap and strolled across the pages to squat on the far edge, ignoring the scratch of talons on sculpted brass. It waited there for a moment and Baudelaire fought to act now, through the seeping stillness, but –

Too slow! Ha, too slow!

It teetered and fell from the open book just in time, spiralling down like a sycamore leaf. She felt feathers brush against her shins and heard the infuriating scrape of claws against metal, the thump of snow falling onto more snow. It had reached the bowl, then.

A fresh bout of snow began to drift down from the grey skies above; adding another layer of down to her blanket, dusting the exposed rim of a newer coin with frosted, frozen white.

The bowl at her feet was half-hidden by the furthermost edge of her open tome, but she could still see some of what laid there.

The black beak poked and prodded at the gifts, impudently tossing the snow into puffs of frozen cloud. Two oak leaves, brown and long-dead, cracked and split under the talons, the fragments scattered, the mouse skeleton underneath gaining a new comforter of snowflakes. A warning and an offering wrapped up in one tiny, curled frame, ignored in favour of the closest coin. 

An irritated chik-chik, a frustrated ruffle-snap of wings, and the magpie shuffled a bit to try again, yanking fruitlessly on the coin that had adhered to the brass when the ice had come. That beak was sharp enough to chip away the ice, but to Baudelaire’s delight, it instead leaped up her lap to screech in her face and stamp its stupid feet, opting to harangue and berate instead of persist with stealing the coin.

Unfair, girl! A dare’s a dare and you weren’t playing properly. Cheat –

The brass book slammed shut with a screech of metal. Cut off in the middle of a self-righteous, scurrilous stretch, a black-and-white flight feather drifted down from the dust of the magpie’s wing-tip to join the carcass and the coins.

Baudelaire did dare, magpie. She’d been trying to call your bluff the entire time you taunted her – you’d been too slow to spot her sanguinity.

Too slow. She creaked her book open again. The only sign of the magpie was a mound of crushed bone, quickly freezing in the spine of the book, and a third tally mark near where her right-hand thumb rested on the page.

One for sorrow, two for mirth, and the third made… 

Well, the snow was falling thicker now. She had no hope of reading the rest, even if she hadn’t just spent her reserves on that magpie. Maybe another visitor would come along soon, and read the rest of the poem to her.

She was so very tired.

Hadassah Shiradski (she/her) is a bisexual horror writer from Hertfordshire, UK, who graduated in 2020 with a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing and Philosophy. She has a love of gothic fantasy, quiet horror, and folklore, and tends to fixate on horror puzzle games. Her ramblings can be found on her twitter, @DassaWrites.

photo by Natasha Miller (via unsplash)

The Witch’s Daughter—Rachael Llewellyn

I

They called her the Witch’s Daughter, but in truth, she was just a little girl. 

From the tales in town, I’d expected to see a monster. Some terrible misshapen thing, too horrifying to behold, too scary to even begin to describe. From the stories, I expected bulging eyes, sharp white teeth, claws, an inhuman snarling voice, a hunched back and webbed toes. 

So when I came to the place where they kept her, I peeked through the window to the little black room where she was held. There were no bulging eyes and sharp teeth. She was just a normal looking little girl. 

II

They called her the Witch’s Daughter and everyone in town knew that she was a monster. Magistrate Bailey had her confined to the little black room at the top floor of his house. For the people’s safety. To stop her black magic seeping down into the town. To stop wickedness from surfacing once more and spread door-to-door, as it did when her mother, the Witch walked these lands. 

The stories called her a monster. A snarling, vicious thing who communicates only in lies. A forgotten thing of flesh and shadow. An unnatural union of devil and man, like her mother before her. I find that even my children whisper of a creature in the Magistrate’s halls whose feet do not touch the ground. 

I hear the stories well. 

But you see, I remember the Witch. 

I even remember a time before she was called ‘Witch’, before it was forbidden to speak her name. I am not allowed to say it aloud. None are allowed to speak it. Magistrate Bailey goes as far as to say that he will know if any of us so much as think it. 

Still, when the night is cold and the north wind blows, even though it is forbidden, I remember my friend and I pray for her child. 

III

I edveileb eh dluow llik em. 

IV

The Witch’s Daughter has a split tongue like that of a snake! I heard she has no tongue at all, that Magistrate Bailey had it burned out to stop her from calling to the Devil himself. I heard my mother say that the Witch’s Daughter speaks backwards with her words all jumbled together. And she has bumps on her forehead from where her devil’s horns have been worn down for grace of God! She speaks in lies and falsehoods and howls in the night like a beast. I hear she runs around on all fours like a hound. No, no, I heard that her feet do not touch the ground. I hear that her eyes are red. I heard pitch black. I heard she sleeps through the day and rises with the moon at night. 

I went by Magistrate Bailey’s attic once and I heard evil laughter. My father was a guard there for a while and he swore blind that she tried to call him into her cell. Old Robert told me that men who look at her die three moons later in mysterious circumstances. My ma says that the Witch’s Daughter can see how you’re going to die if she looks at you. 

I heard her hair is blood red – no it’s all white like an old woman. I heard she has black hair and reddened skin. I heard her skin is covered with pricks and marks from Father Bryant’s crucifix. I heard that her body won’t endure harm. She won’t bleed or burn. I heard she could survive on no food or water. 

I heard she eats children. No, that she drinks blood. Children’s blood. No – anyone’s will do! She drinks blood once a month. And her teeth can transform to be sharp like a dog. I heard that Magistrate Bailey is the Witch’s Daughter’s father. 

No. No. That’s not true at all. Don’t you dare let me hear you saying so again, Jonathon! 

V

Are you awake now, Iris?

Father Bryant said the pain would subdue you for longer than this. Can you hear me, little one? Don’t cry now. You know how I feel about crying. You know why you must suffer, don’t you, my dear? Yes, Iris, that’s right. Because you are wicked. It is not your fault, but it is the reality of the world, child. It is in your body, your blood, carved into your soul. 

Your mother was a truly wicked woman.  

Like you, she seemed ordinary at a glance. Nothing to fear. But if you looked closer, she wore her evil in plain sight. A fool could have seen it, and yet so many chose to ignore it.  

It is why you live here, Iris, so I can protect the good people from you and your cursed nature. 

I knew your mother for what she was. I have known wickedness all my life and fought against it. Stop crying, girl. I have warned you once already! 

Now listen. I want to make you a good and proper young girl. I know you want that, my dear. Do you know why I do not allow the servants to read to you? It is because your mother could read forbidden texts and spoke to a Dark God who taught her to write her name. She tried to pass on that sickness to other women in the village. Wives and mothers and impressionable young girls. Claiming that the book was only the bible, but that was a lie, Iris. The book she read from had been filled with deception: pages and pages with dark words and spells. She spread her lies to the good people of this town as easily as the rain comes. 

Of course, child, you don’t understand. You have never seen the rain and you won’t. You’ll never leave this room. 

VI

I never paid much thought to who my husband would be. My sister has a particular love of fairy tales, silly, frivolous stories. I do not. I never imagined that I would marry a handsome prince or a noble thief. If I was to be completely honest, I may have fancied that I would marry a man with a townhouse in the capital. My mother believed in the family legacy, of doing the proper thing, the proper way.  She passed when I was but a child and my father lost his mind to the pursuit of righteousness and a holy life. My husband is an important man, a magistrate. He saved this small town on the edge of the woods, from wickedness and witchcraft – should you believe the rumours. I was five and ten when I became his wife. 

We are yet to be blessed with a child of our own. He suspects the little creature he keeps upstairs has placed a curse on me. I am not permitted in that wing of the house to ask her myself if this is the case. 

VII

The old lady said that she would be vicious and bite when I went to bring her food. She showed me a scar on her leg, dents from teeth deep and reddened. She told me that the marks never faded and always felt fresh and wet. Reckon she just said it to frighten me a little. But as I climbed the stairs, I found my hands had started to shake. 

Don’t you dare leave them old plates, she’d said to me. 

I’d need to go in there, into the little black cell, put down her food and get her leftovers. I’d heard the stories me whole childhood. I knew that the Witch’s Daughter was more beast than girl. I heard that her feet did not touch the ground. I heard that her mouth was filled with fangs and her forehead bore stumps where her horns had been removed. I heard she spoke in lies and riddles, that she could prophesise my death like. 

As I reached that cell, I was shaking, trying to imagine if I could fight back a beast like that, someone more animal than child. Would I be able to fight her off? 

But I reached the cell and she was just sat there. Quiet and still at her bed. She didn’t so much as flinch when I opened the door. Didn’t make a sound. But when I reached over her to put her tray down before she, she sort of squealed and put her hands to her head like she was expecting me to strike her.

She reminded me of Mabel then. Me sister. Scrawny and shrill thing, she is. Cries easy. And when I went away, I kept thinking about how much Mabel would cry if she was locked up all alone by herself in that room painted black. 

VIII

It’s never discussed, o’ course. We don’t talk like that round here – certainly not where no-one can hear. But we all know where that kid came from. The Witch’s Daughter, don’t we? Seems awful convenient, doesn’t it? I swear he must reckon we can’t tell the days from the years. I remember a time before he was Magistrate Bailey. Just jumped up young Bailey who wants to be magistrate so bad if old Gordan had died in mysterious circumstances like, we wouldn’t ‘ave needed to look far for his killer. 

And let’s not forget how he had his eye on Lady Margaret. Back then she was comin’ of age. A real lovely young thing. 

But Bailey was married, wasn’t he? To old Gordan’s daughter no less. He thinks we don’t remember, but you’ve got to admire the old dog. It seems an easy enough thing for a man to be rid of his wife n’ child by spewing out words like ‘witch’. 

She didn’t help herself, none. You remember, don’t ya? What kind of girl she was.  

IX

It was a tragic affair, but you have to understand, there were too many things about the young lady for the accusation to go ignored. 

She was wild – her father said that she was just a free spirit. 

She wouldn’t bind her hair behind a bonnet as a lady – we thought that would change after she got married. But she wouldn’t listen. I told her as much myself, do you know what she told me? She said that her hair was God’s gift to her and why should she have to cover it. 

I never found out who taught her to read. Deceitful girl would play act that she couldn’t in church. But I caught her reading the bible to the other girls when she was barely three and ten. She promised that her intentions were pure. For my foolishness, I believed her. I let it slide. That will always be my sin. 

And the way she carried on with the other girls, dancing and singing in the fields. It was very ungodly. She caused disruption wherever she went. Quick to talk back. Of course, we all said that it would stop when she married, but Bailey couldn’t control her. He came to me about it often. I told him to seek out her father for advice. But alas Gordan was… well, he wasn’t that sort of man, the kind who forced an issue, not even to aid his daughter and son-in-law to a more Christian life. I know it is not meant to be said, but Gordan was a dear friend. What happened to him was wrong.

The trial made all of the facts so clear. Things we had all known for years but had let slide. To our own sins. That book Bailey produced when her room was searched. All spells and enchantments, hateful words and poisons. She argued that the book was not in her hand, that she could not write. But had I not seen her drawing words into the soot of her fireplace? And had the book not come from her very chamber? 

She was pregnant while she stood trial. Bailey saw the child wasn’t his. He claimed that they had not been together as husband and wife in many moons. He swore to me and the court on the bible that he hadn’t touched her. Yet throughout the trial she grew large, even after starvation, even after torture. Bailey claimed at first that she had been observed lying with devils in the fields, then that she bewitched men into her bed using dark magic – but when no such men came forward, he claimed it was the devil attempting to shape her into a figure of pity. 

He denied there was a child at all. 

She said the child was Bailey’s. No, her story never changed.

X

When I realised my husband wanted rid of me, I fled to my father’s house. I believed with all my heart, that if I remained in that house, he would poison my food or push me down the stairs. I believed that with that distance between us, I would be safe from him. I believed that by returning to my father’s open arms, I could not be touched. 

XI

Milord is a good man. A man of virtue and righteousness. He trusts me. Appointed me to his personal guard when I was just a lad. He confides in me. Has me look after his lady wife, protect her from prying eyes and unworthy mouths. Milord told me once he was born to sniff out wickedness and burn it to ash. 

Some down in the tavern sneer behind milord’s back when he speaks at church. They sneer and look down their nose and fill their insides with bile and drink. They say I’m a fool to believe him in all he says and does. But what would they have me do? Turn to ale for answers and drip sin from my skin as they do?

He rescued me from wickedness, so if milord says that child is the Witch’s Daughter, then she is. If he has me hold her down as Father Bryant dowses her with holy water, then I will. If he says that her cries and pleas are devil’s tricks, then they are so. If he says to tell him if anyone, anyone at all, is heard communing with the child, so he can purge that person of the wickedness the Witch’s Daughter has passed along. 

I must. Milord is a man of God. 

XII

It was handy having Daisy on the serving staff. Useful to have someone who didn’t weep or cry at the notion of going upstairs. I spoke up as much as I dared when the Master said that the girl would be culled for consorting with demons. I tried to tell him that she was a good worker, just simple in the head, friendly of disposition and soft of heart. 

It did nothing for her in the end, but I’d tried. 

Kind girl she was and a hard worker. She deserved better than what happened. 

XIII

Iris, are you awake? 

I know you’re sad about your little friend from the kitchens, but you have no-one to blame but yourself. Silly, girl, what am I always telling you? You are cursed. Everyone who comes into contact with you dies. You know this to be one of the truths of this world. 

It was cruel of you to befriend the kitchen girl. I know it is your nature to be wicked, but you promised me that you would try. Father Bryant and I have worked so tirelessly to show you the right path. I’m disappointed, Iris. I know this must cause you pain, but this is your fault and one day you will understand. 

XIV

Magistrate Bailey says that we’re safe from the Witch as long as we have her daughter. The Witch wouldn’t dare use her magic against her own child. Mam says that’s how all mothers are, even the bad ones, I suppose. 

It’s hard for Mam because the Witch used to be her friend and a lot of people remember that. Mam says when the Finders get their hooks into a witch, they always find more, and people get silly and start pointing fingers at anyone whose done them a wrong turn. She don’t like people remembering her and the Witch being friendly in case they start to think she’s a wicked one as well. 

You know, I remember her a little, the Witch. Know I’m not supposed to say. But I do all the same. People say witches are ugly, but I remember that she was beautiful with all this long red hair. When I was right little, she used to carry me around on her shoulders. I remember her laugh, it was loud and happy, not like an evil cackle like what witches are supposed to have. And she told these dead good stories. 

I’m not supposed to say though. 

XV

I was ti nehw yeht dellik ym rehtaf. 

XVI

When I miscarried for a third time, he left my bedside to scream and rage and curse the creature he keeps under lock and key. Some men might offer words of comfort, though it is scarcely expected of them, when their wife is in pain. Within minutes, I heard her screaming. 

He has instructed my maids to sing loudly when she screams. We are all supposed to pretend it isn’t happening, even me. 

Mr Grey, who worships my husband like the most devout cleric, stands guard for me often. He counters the presence of the child in our house with long, rambling speeches of my husband’s goodness. It is more tiresome than the maids who sing and raise their voices to the heavens. 

It makes me feel as though the world has gone mad. 

XVII

That’s the thing. Peter’s brother’s got a job as a guard at Magistrate Bailey’s house and he says that the Witch’s Daughter is dead ordinary looking. I didn’t believe him like, we all know the stories. She’s meant to have fangs and red eyes and horns. Mam’s friend used to clean for Magistrate Bailey and she reckoned that the Witch’s Daughter had hooves instead of feet, like a goat. 

But Pete’s brother swears that she’s just ordinary looking. Skinny and pale. And she just sits there all quiet, like someone’s little sister. I told him I didn’t believe a word of it. So Pete’s brother asked Mr Grey if I could go along with him one day. Told him I had designs on being a guard when I’m older, and I got to go see her, the Witch’s Daughter. 

I hoped she’d have claws and webbed hands and feet. I heard that she had long ratty white hair that trailed past her feet. I reckoned Pete’s brother was just trying to trick us into thinking she was just normal, but he wasn’t. 

She really does look like just a regular girl. I looked right at her through the bars and all she did was cower away n’ cry. I had to do a whole day’s work with Pete’s brother after as well. All that, just to go n’ look at a regular little girl. Could’ve done that at home, ya know? 

But, you want to know something else? I noticed when I was there like, she’s got eyes like Magistrate Bailey. All pale and grey. I saw his eyes up close once, I dropped the big silver candle in church last year, n’ he rushed down and took it from me. I was right frightened – he’s got this scary look and his eyes are so pale it’s like looking in a mirror. Only she’s got them too. The Witch’s Daughter. 

Funny, right? Anyway, I told the boys back in the square that Pete’s brother was lying. Said she had fangs and claws and wings like a bat – all twisted and sharp and bound to her with chains to stop her from flying off. 

It’s a much better story, right? 

XVIII

I don’t much care for beggars. Laziness and sin, I always thought. How with some of them, I can’t see how they’d find work any other way. The Harding boy with his twisted spine, when his parents passed, how was he supposed to support himself? Too slow to work the fields. He begged until Magistrate Bailey took pity on him, had him working with Father Bryant. The Harding boy is unsightly, sweeping the floor of the chapel, but it keeps him from the streets. 

It’s the same for Mad Madge. Twisted with scars all over her face. Who could say how old she is? There are times she carries herself like a young thing, and at others she hunches and contorts herself like she’s not long for this world. Scraggly white hair, missing a few fingers. Some days, she’s clear as a bell – please sir, spare me a coin – and at others, she babbles in tongues and twisted verses. 

Magistrate Bailey and Father Bryant offer beds in the church to those on the street, to keep them from the rain and the cruelty of others. 

Magistrate Bailey says it’s our Christian duty to have mercy on the weak, old and diseased. 

Like I say, I don’t much care for it, but I can see his point, I suppose. 

XIX

I was asleep when the men came to our home with pitchforks and fire. I watched them, terrified, from my window in the attic room. My father told me that he would send them away and I believed him. I crept to the foot of the stairs, believing that my father could fix it. But then Wendy, our housekeeper cried out in pain as they forced her to the ground and trampled over her body to get into the house. My father told me to hide, he shouted it, it was the first time I had ever heard him raise his voice. I heard glass smashing. The servants were screaming, my handmaid crawled under my bed and sobbed silently. 

Witch, they called, Witch! 

I knew then that nothing would ever be the same again. 

I saw it when they killed my father. He was trying to talk to them. He still believed that this matter could be resolved peacefully. He was mid-sentence, hands up above his head. So calm and so still. ‘Good people,’ he said, ‘You know us, you know me’. Then Joab York knocked him to the ground. I ran back, I tried to pull them away from him. I was knocked down when I tried to throw myself over his body to stop them from stamping down on him.  

When they killed my father, I screamed for so long it felt like it would never end. The world could crumble away, and I would remain, red and pulsing like a sore. I tore at my hair, beat my fists against the ground and I howled at them when they came close, I swiped and fought. My eyes felt heavy in my head from sobbing and I cursed them, I cursed them all. 

Three men died that night. 

Bailey said that I was the one who did it. He said that when I screamed, blood poured from their ears and they collapsed. I didn’t care if that were true. My father was dead and the world so much colder. 

Witch, they called me. Men and women, I’d known my whole life, blamed me for rotten harvests, for sickness and death in the town. They tortured me, hissed at me, spat, beat me with sticks, starved me, burnt and bled me. Tossed my aching, pregnant body into the filthy river to see if I would drown. 

There were days where my grief and pain chocked all sound out of me. There were others where I would be brave and defiant and repeat the same truth that got my father killed, the same truth that had me on trial for witchcraft. And there were days where, for my shame, I’d ramble and rave and scream and cry. I’d talk in tongues and snarl like an animal to watch the husbands tremble in fear and the wives cover their children’s eyes. 

Bailey told me that he could free me from the devil’s hold on me. He said I should confess. He said that I should write a confession admitting that the child inside me was that of the devil. I know he has designs to marry little Lady Margaret, just fifteen. I know he wants me gone so he can free himself from our union. He said that I should confess, and all of this pain and suffering would end. He said that I should stop claiming that the child inside me was his. He said that I would be burned if I did not comply. 

It was the last time we spoke. 

I told him that there was no place in God’s light for a father who murders his own child. 

She was born with her father’s pale eyes. And taken from my arms before she’d so much as made a sound. 

XX

When I was pregnant for the fourth time, I had decided that I was tired of beds of blood and my husband’s rage. 

So I waited until my sanctimonious husband had business in the city. I found Mr Grey something to do to get him out of my hair. Then I dismissed my ladies for the day and travelled upstairs to the Witch’s Daughter’s room. 

Unsurprisingly, she had no claws or talons of so to speak. There were no hooves or horns. If not for her hair, which has grown scraggly past her waist, she could be just another scrawny peasant girl. She does have his eyes though. Such distinctive pale eyes. 

She was afraid to speak at first. She scrambled under the cover her bed like I was the one the town feared and just cried and cried. I told her that I was the lady of the house and commanded her to answer me when I spoke.

In the tiny voice of one unused to speaking, the wretched creature told me her name was Iris and that Magistrate Bailey gave her that name. I asked her if she was cursing me to miscarry my babies over and over, and she told me no, no, she would never, she could never curse anyone. 

This came as no surprise to me. 

Quite frankly I’ve had rather enough of my husband and his stories. 

XXI

It was a cold and crisp All Hallows Eve night when the Magistrate’s house perished in the fire. The townspeople looked on in horror. The heat of the flames blew out the windows, even the little red one at the very top of the house. Amongst the chaos, someone screamed that Magistrate Bailey was still trapped inside. Men and women tried to douse the flames with pales of water, but the fire roared against it, reaching up high towards the sky like a great red hand. 

Lady Margaret blended in amongst the common women of the village, her finery hidden beneath a dirty, soot covered cloak. She watched her marital home crumble beneath the flames. Her baby howled and wriggled restlessly against her chest. She watched as her husband’s men busied themselves with pales of water, shouting instructions over the blaze as the servant girls wept. She watched Old Cook stare at the ruined house, silent for the first time, her mouth hung open in horror. 

Mad Madge danced in the street as Father Bryant begged her to cease at once, to show some respect. 

While the common people rushed around her, Margaret felt frozen in place. How trivial it seemed, their panic and their rush. She knew plainly that John would never leave the ruins of their home. She thought to open her mouth and tell those attempting so desperately to rescue her husband from the blaze to stop and wait, as she was, for the fire to burn out. A piece of ash touched her cheek and Margaret brushed it aside, rocking her baby gently in her arms. 

“Hush, little one,” she said softly. “All will be well.” 

In the chaos at the town square, nobody noticed a child slip out from under Lady Margaret’s soot-covered cloak. Why would they? She was such an ordinary looking thing after all. Pale, scrawny and slightly sooty. Nobody noticed her slip away from the crowd, past rows of houses and finally out into the woods that surrounded the town. 

In the morning, a rain came that doused the fire that consumed the house of Magistrate Bailey. His blackened remains were buried in the town cemetery and his fearful congregation grieved for him most admirably. Lady Margaret did not attend. She made a new match with a rich merchant in the city. She left the town in a smart black carriage and never looked back. 

The townsfolk would whisper reverently about their fallen leader, who saw witches in every shadow and made one of them his prisoner. They told stories of the witch even as the years passed and those who remembered her came to rest in the earth behind the chapel. The town would whisper about the Witch and her daughter and the fire as the years stretched on. They whispered of the Witch’s Daughter, who perished in the fire that destroyed the house that had been her prison all of her eight years, of the fire that killed the jailor that had likely been her father. 

Some would whisper that the Witch’s Daughter caused the fire that killed Magistrate Bailey. 

Some would claim that the Witch had returned at last for her child and burned the house to cinders to take revenge on Magistrate Bailey for keeping the two of them apart. 

Strangest of all were the rumours of a girl with pale hair and pale eyes who wandered the woods at night. It was said that her feet never touched the ground.

Rachael Llewellyn is a novelist living in Wales. Her previous work includes the Red Creek series (Down Red Creek and Impulse Control, both with Sulis International Press), and her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Heartland Society of Women Writers, Nymphs Magazine and Jazz House Publications. Her first collection of short fiction, Human Beings, is due for publication with Bear Hill Books in 2021. She is currently a PhD candidate at Swansea University, and is completing her thesis on trauma and memory in folklore.

photo by Feix Braas (via unsplash)

The Doll Maker—Pam Knapp

Jenna held the small parcel in her hands tightly. “You say you’ve done this before? More than once before? Has it ever failed?” 

She and Tom stood before the desk of the doll maker. He gestured to the wall behind them covered in thank you notes and snaps of happy customers with their purchases.  

The doll maker smiled with a fixed grin. “All that’s needed is something that was always close to him and a lock of his hair.”

Jenna handed over Henry’s tiny, curled lock of hair from her locket and his blanket, the one she’d sewn in the months spent in blissful anticipation of his arrival. The one he’d been wrapped in for his first hours of life. The one that she tucked around him in his cot each night. Tom shifted uneasily beside his wife. The doll maker solemnly placed the items and closed the casket. They should return after three days had passed. 

For those three days Tom’s tense resistance, pulled at every part of Jenna. He thought it a stupid, sick idea. How had they let it get this far? They should pull out. Seeing how his words stung her, he crossed the kitchen to make the most of the impact. “I agreed because I thought it would make you see there’s no sense in looking back, Jen.” He folded his arms around her trying to find the old warmth he’d felt between them before all of this, before Henry, before the doll maker. Jenna slid away and out of his smothering reach. She didn’t want to hear another reason to stop what they’d agreed. Here was a chance and she wasn’t going to let Tom browbeat her into letting it go.  

“We’ve paid him now.” Jenna’s eyes were fixed to the floor. Her heart had been heavy for so long she’d almost stopped looking anywhere else. “We might as well see what he’s done. It’s a lot of money.” She watched as Tom pressed his lips tight together, exhaling heavily through flared nostrils. Her tone hardened. “I’m going to collect what we’ve paid for. You don’t have to come with me, but I am going.”  

Since she had heard of the doll maker, she’d thought of nothing else. She knew that Tom couldn’t be reached by the idea now. He had sobbed pitifully in the car after their visit to the doll maker’s, parting with Henry’s things was too much to bear. He thought that the whole business was a cruel play on their grief. A con. These things had occurred to Jenna, yes, of course they had. But there was no room left in her mind for doubt to take root because ‘What if?’ grew like wild vines wrapping around every thought. There could be no going back. There would be no going back. 

The doll maker greeted them with the same fixed smile. “Take a look. He’s yours.” Inside the casket a replica of their child, Henry. Still and unmoving like the doll it was, but with an uncanny life-like resemblance, it caught Jenna’s breath, snagging her heart.

Tom’s reaction was immediate and searing. “It’s a doll, an overpriced sick stunt! You feed people’s misery and prey on their heartache! I’ll be damned if I let you do it to us!”

Tom stormed out of the doll maker’s studio. The grey chill of winter frost hung heavily on the gravel drive of the studio as Tom pounded manically at the trunks of its bare branched cherry trees, kicking at its kerbs and spitting oaths at the indifferent world. The reignited suffering had wrenched his heart from its seating and left Tom’s hurt to bleed out. “Bastard! Bastaaaaard!”

In the studio, Jenna remained rooted, looking down into the casket. Her fragile wishes for Henry’s return granted, she dared not move nor speak for fear of the vision disappearing like the fantasy Tom had said it was. 

“Why don’t you hold him?” 

Jenna, tenderly raised the doll. Heavy and solid like a child’s weight, soft and supple like a child’s body. She pulled the familiar blanket aside to reveal one of the doll’s hands and brushed her index finger across the tiny fist. 

Had she seen it unfurl? Just slightly, not fully but just a little, like a half asleep reflex? Jenna’s eyes darted to meet those of the doll maker. His head inclined in a slow conspiring nod that sent Jenna’s pulse racing. She turned her back on him, nestling the doll more closely in her arms and held the hand of the doll in her own. Tiny fingers splayed out and curled around her fingers, she was sure, before they returned to a tight fist. A sob escaped from Jenna’s soul, a release that was raw and terrible.  

Tom appeared at the doorway. “Put that thing down, Jen. A doll won’t replace a baby no matter how much it looks like ours did, and it won’t bring him back either. Let’s go.”

“I’ve paid the money, Tom. I’m taking him.” 

“Taking it, you mean?”

She cradled the doll as if it were their own lost son. “Yes. Taking it.” Jenna’s eyes were fixed onto the face of the doll, as if she were to look away, the spell would break, and he’d be gone again. Tom, gripped by nausea rising in his gut, was struck dumb by her sudden wild possessiveness. 

Repulsed by the doll, Tom, refused all contact with it, convinced that Jenna’s obsession would fade. At first, Jenna hid her routines letting Tom believe that the doll remained in Henry’s cot for her to look at, as she might a photograph. But the bond between Jenna and this new Henry ignited each time Tom left for work. She fed it from breasts that bore no milk. She changed unsoiled nappies and washed the unblemished doll in warm baby baths. Her memory filled the silent rooms with the cries of her baby son, the cooing and babbling she recalled from that time before. She thought she could smell the talcum dusted skin of her child, feel again, the warmth of his skin against hers. She remembered the rise and fall of his breathing body, and the tiny sighs and mews that came from his dream filled sleep. She conjured all of these memories filling the house with them so often that she couldn’t tell which were recollections and which, she was convinced, were new to her. It made her smile; it had been so very long since she had smiled. 

Routine turned days into weeks and life had a little of the old brightness about it, she might even say she was happy again.  She was so busy with this baby. Just listen to that crying! The more attention she gave, the more was needed. More feeding. More comforting. More bathing. More lullabies. More rocking. This new Henry needed her and what mother could deny her baby anything? 

Knowing that the doll was in Henry’s room, Tom found it impossible to enter there, and so frequent changes of the doll’s clothes remained undiscovered, as did the opened packs of nappies and the mounting quantities of baby paraphernalia accumulating on every surface. What was noticeable was Jenna’s increasingly frequent and obsessive need to check on, to fetch, to search for an array of obscurely urgent things. It was on such an errand that Tom found Jenna leaning over Henry’s cot, cooing and comforting the doll. 

His heart sank low into the pit of his stomach, aching with pity, with appalling horror. But Jenna didn’t flinch. Defiant accusations flew from her. It was Tom who was cold and unnatural, whose heart had hardened and whose love had fled from their family! She would not stop. It made her happy.  

“It’s not Henry. It’s a doll, we bought it, for Christ’s sake!” 

Her face reddened with resentment at Tom’s his pleading, his sour looks and sermons. It was all too severe. Who were they hurting? Why didn’t he just let them be? 

Tom watched on bleakly, unable to stop his wife’s wilful embrace of this dark make believe, so utterly bereft of anything wholesome. Pretenses were dropped, and Jenna chattered each evening about ‘the baby’, impervious to Tom’s brooding disgust and silences. 

“Did you see that lovely smile?”, “Oh what a racket that child can make when he’s hungry!”

He’d thought about going, leaving Jenna with the hideous doll. But he wouldn’t. In time, he was sure the illusion would pale and she’d see what she had been doing, what her life had become. Tom wanted to be there when the realisation came. She would need him. She was his wife.

It was a fine Spring Saturday when Tom suggested they go out, “Let’s get some fresh air and a change of scenery, eh?”

“It’s too cold for the baby. What if he caught a chill?”

Tom’s voice was tender, “Let’s leave the doll here. We can spend some time together, y’know, like we used to. It’ll still be here when we get back.”

“Leave him here?! How can you say that? No!” Jenna scuttled off with the doll in her arms, mumbling baby voice reassurances into the blanketed bundle as she placed it back in the cot. She turned to find Tom standing close behind her. 

“Come back to me, Jen.”

“No. Not without him.”

Tom held Jenna’s hands. Their faces close enough to touch. 

“Please Tom, what’s the harm?”

Tom folded into Jenna’s embrace, resting his head on her shoulder as he allowed his tormented sorrow to erupt in great heaving sobs. 

And it was then that he saw. The head of the doll had moved, barely, but unmistakably and a tiny sigh had escaped the sleeping form. Jenna felt the change in Tom’s body and saw the stunned apprehension on his face. 

“You see? You could love him as I do!” Jenna’s voice was urgent and rasping. But she had read Tom’s reaction poorly. 

Tom reached into the cot and wrenched the puppet from Henry’s blanket. Fury and fear mixed and raced within him, hatred for this usurper bubbled over into a red, red mist. Jenna ripped and clawed at Tom’s arms to reach the doll but was flung away by the strength of his rage. Growling and howling like a wounded animal, Tom hurtled the doll into the corner of the room, watching it plumb to the floor and lay there twitching for a moment before stillness and silence filled the room. 

Still not quite summer, the funeral flowers carried the sharpness of early blooms. Jenna’s folks had come to stay for a day or two to help sort her things. They expressed some surprise at the way Henry’s room still looked as if it was used. They scowled at it, linking it to their own child’s demise, silently blaming Tom for the help he didn’t give or seek for their daughter. Surely, he had seen the signs? He must have seen her suffering. Why hadn’t he cleared this room to help her? Perhaps then, it would never have come to this. 

Blossoms fell from the cherry trees like snow, covering the gravel drive and collecting in deep drifts at the edges of kerbs. Tom stood and started at the door of the doll makers studio. A lock of Jenna’s hair in his locket.

Pam Knapp lives in the UK’s rolling countryside of the Sussex Downs, close enough to London to feel the heat, far enough away to avoid being burnt. Optimism is her greatest asset. Her recent writing can be found in Dreich Magazine, Green Ink Poetry, Owl Hollow Press and In Parentheses Literary Magazine.

photo by StockSnap (via pixabay)

Ferrari—Helena Baptiste

I stand at the bedroom window, my fingernails digging into the window sill and worry about Gregg’s prized Ferrari because there’s a bull—big and black and threatening like a bull is supposed to look—outside near the detached garage in the too-bright glare of the security lights. Sometimes the bull gallops back and forth across the lawn, tossing its great head, scaring me with its horns, other times it just chews its cud, waiting. I first noticed the bull last night when I couldn’t sleep. Gregg was snoring as he usually does, his exhalations and inhalations Hoovering up the carpet and the roof and the walls. It felt like I was in an earthquake, everything rumbling and the ground undulating beneath me, making me dizzy and lightheaded and shaking me out of bed. I steadied myself against the dresser I hadn’t wanted, the one Gregg insisted we buy because he says his taste is better than mine. That’s when I first saw the bull.

Gregg keeps his cherry-red Ferrari in the detached garage. He only drives it during the summer, so he has limited insurance on it for the rest of the year. I’m not allowed to go into the garage or near it. Gregg says the garage is the inner sanctum, the “holy of holies.” I park my car (a Ford, which Gregg insists stands for Found On Road Dead) on the street as if I’m only here for a short visit.

I watch the bull out the back kitchen window as I make chamomile tea to wash down a couple of melatonin tablets. I mean, it’s not doing anything, really, just being a bull. But still. I wonder if I should tell Gregg. He’ll probably just say that he doesn’t see anything, or if he does see it, he’ll say that it’s my fault, that I’m the one endangering his Ferrari, that there was no bull in his backyard before I came.

The night before I first saw the bull Gregg had told me that I didn’t dress sexy enough, so I think about where I can go to find sexier clothes as I sip my tea. I don’t want to spend too much: Gregg will have something to say about that as well. When I was younger people used to say I dressed too sexy. They were always commenting on the neckline of my shirt, the length of my skirt or how it clung to the contours of my ass. I thought once I said “I do” I wouldn’t have to deal with that bullshit anymore. Marriage would cloak me in the most respectable of garments: virgin white, dove gray, pale pink; refined, reserved, delicate. Something classic. Something worth cherishing. Now it turns out I’m not sexy enough.

I’m wearing the new dress I bought and we are going out to dinner. I like the dress, form-fitting, black and sleek, sleeveless. It does make me feel sexier. I found it at a consignment shop but I don’t tell Gregg that. We pull up to a ridiculously expensive restaurant, one of those lauded places where they pile your food up in the middle of the plate in some sort of design and you’re not really sure what it is or if you want to eat it, but it looks stylish. Gregg likes these kinds of restaurants. I remember how he took me to a ritzy steakhouse when we first started dating and I ordered my steak well done. He said that he’d be taking me to Western Sizzler from then on. I’d laughed.

Gregg parks the Ferrari himself because he never trusts valets and I walk into the restaurant to wait for him. When he returns, later than what it should have taken, he seems flustered and snaps at me for no reason. I want to order the filet—I love filet mignon—but don’t because now that I’m wearing sexier clothes I really should lose ten pounds. Perhaps this was what this was about all along; Gregg wants me to lose ten pounds but didn’t want to come right out and say it. I eat my thin soup, making sure to sit up straight and lift my spoon correctly. I imagine I’m a movie star filming a scene of a woman dining alone.

As we leave the restaurant, a man looks at me appreciatively and I almost smile, but then Gregg blurts out, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” so I don’t. He stalks off to get the Ferrari and then we’re home and he’s asleep and snoring and I’m awake at the kitchen window again, sipping chamomile tea and looking at the bull.  I don’t like my tea without sugar but I’m drinking it unsweetened because I’ve got to lose those ten pounds and maybe it’s thinking about all the little things I love that I have to give up—like sugar in my tea—that drives me outside into the backyard.

The bull is still near the detached garage, but the Ferrari is locked away and safe. I, however, am in my dorm shirt and slippers with a cup of bitter tea and a bull on the lawn. Greg had promised he’d keep me safe. Long nights we’d spent talking when we were dating until I’d spilled everything: my childhood, the poverty, the abuse, the abandonment, my fears and he’d made me the promise. One night, when we’d been dating for a year, when I was sure he was “The One” he’d said, “You know, I really can’t understand what you’ve been through. I’ve always had a good and happy life,” and I was stunned how intense the hatred was that I felt for him for a moment.

The bull is pacing back and forth across the yard, tense. I watch the powerful muscles bunch and undulate beneath the glossy black hide, the massive penis bobbing and the heavy scrotum swinging low. Looking at it I am fascinated and disgusted at the same time. I think about giving the bull a name. After all, he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere now that he’s taken residence in the backyard. I try out different names in my head, but I can’t settle on one. Some of the names are too dark, terrifying; others so light and inconsequential they might float away into the starry night sky. I lose myself in a waking dream about dancing in a field of wildflowers, weaving a garland of blossoms and draping them around the bull’s horns. The end of the garland in one hand is comprised of beautiful spring flowers, bright and lush; the other end turns black and wilts as I hold it and I wonder how one thing can be two different things at once.

On the grass, here and there, I notice black spots. Then it dawns on me what it is. Cow patties! I stifle a giggle and steal a sideways glance at the neighbors’ houses. All their windows are dark. Whew! Gregg would blow a gasket if he knew. A friend—he was my friend, what happened to him?—used to joke that Gregg spent his spare time lying on his stomach on the lawn with a ruler and a pair of manicure scissors and he wasn’t far wrong (Really, what happened to him? My friend? He used to make me laugh). I run into the house to get a garbage bag, a gardening trowel and some rubber gloves. I clean up as much of it as I can until my back starts to hurt, but I worry that Gregg will see spots where the dung was fresh and stuck to blades of grass, particularly near the detached garage where the Ferrari is stored.

The bull remains by the garage, thoughtfully chewing its cud, watching me frantically pick up its shit in the moonlight. Then it tosses its head from side to side, snorts, and disappears behind the garage. Standing in the backyard in my dorm shirt, my favorite slippers I’ll have to throw away and orange rubber gloves now brown with shit, I can’t help but feel the bull disapproves of me and it makes me disapprove of myself.

The next morning I cook Gregg his favorite breakfast—bacon and eggs—because he has an early golf game. I read somewhere that bacon and eggs used to be considered a king’s breakfast because, at the time, only royalty could afford to have meat for breakfast every day. I imagine Gregg sitting in the sunny breakfast nook, an ermine robe casually tossed over his sloping shoulders, a golden crown cocked precariously on his bald head. I stand propped against the kitchen counter and have only black coffee myself, though I like it pale with cream and lots of sugar. Gregg will take his truck to the golf course; he wouldn’t dream of stuffing a bag of golf clubs in his Ferrari, so I don’t worry about him seeing the shit stains that remain on the grass. Gregg loves golf and talks about it all the time. I don’t understand the game, but that may be because I’ve never played. Whenever I’ve tried to learn about it I always think about the old George Carlin joke that all golf courses should be used for housing the homeless.

When we were dating Gregg had relished telling me about one golf game he attended where someone had hired strippers who passed out beer naked and turned cartwheels for tips. I didn’t let it show but I’d been appalled by the story. I thought that people who could afford to play golf had more class and valued women and I wondered why Greg had even told me about it in the first place. I imagined the girls tumbling forever end-over-end across the greens like blow-up sex dolls caught in a gale and asked Gregg why he had participated. He said that’s what those girls were there for and that they had been doing them a favor, saving them, really, because the girls needed the money.

After Gregg leaves, I clear away the breakfast dishes and go through the motions of washing them: lift, wipe, rinse, dry, put away, repeat. Simple routine for simple dishes. In the dining room we keep our wedding china in a lighted glass display cabinet. Gregg had let me pick out the pattern, but only with his approval. We finally settled on one exquisite pattern, almost too beautiful to eat off, so we didn’t. 

Outside in the backyard there are more cow patties dotting the lawn like the round part of exclamation points. The bull is closer now, standing near the sourwood tree and the cherry tree halfway between the garage and the house; pawing the ground, his eyes bloodshot and wild. Watching. Waiting. I press my whole body against the kitchen window, willing the bull closer, daring it closer; my heart revving, wheels spinning, red blood pumping, pulse racing, feeling myself open, drawing it into me, but the glass keeps me safe.

Helena Baptiste is an aspiring writer whose work has been featured in The Weeklings and Aforementioned Productions. She is currently working on a young adult series.

photo by Mrdidg (via pixabay)

In the Trees—Brandon Applegate

content warning: domestic violence, death

The Texas summer shone yellow with dust and dry grass and sun. Daniel was eight years old and lived on a triangular plot of land. Two sides of the triangle were bordered by oak woods, tangled and gnarled and parched. The bottom third of the triangle, though, was road, hot and dark and flatter than the earth was supposed to be and more dangerous than a rattlesnake. More than anything in the world, Daniel loved the wood and hated the road. 

The wood loved Daniel in return. 

In the spring, the wood was green, with a canopy of leathery, wide leaves that acted as cover for the ground and that shot intense rays of sun through the gaps. In the fall, the leaves turned brown and dry and light and fragile and fell from the trees to create a blanket that you could gather over you and hide. In the winter the blanket acted as shelter for the things on the ground, the rabbits and snakes alike, and rotted on top of them with wet and mold as they bedded down and waited for the earth to come back alive. But in summer, as with all things in Texas, the trees, still green and full from the spring, stood defiant against the baking heat, staring down the sun to see who faltered first. In this behavior, this defiance and patience, Daniel found a kindred spirit, and so, in he, did the wood. 

So, in the summer, when Daniel was free from school and homework and the intrusions of friends, he would walk in the woods and talk to the trees, and they would shelter him as best they could from the intense, withering heat, and they would hold out together, until either the heat broke, or Daniel could take no more and would go back inside with the manufactured cool air and the manufactured entertainment and make plans to try again tomorrow. On these occasions, the trees of the wood expressed their disappointment. 

“You cannot stay a little longer?” They whispered. “You cannot stand a little more?” 

“I can’t,” Daniel said, and would be disappointed in himself, and would feel inadequate, and would hang his head and watch the ground as he walked back to his house, wishing he were a tree so that he could be strong and hard and gnarled and rough and thereby could weather anything and live for a thousand years. 

One summer day, when Daniel had run and played until he couldn’t anymore, he sat down between the roots of a particularly gnarled and tall and old tree at the center of the wood to rest. He and the tree were old friends, and so they talked for hours, Daniel of his family and his interests and his troubles, the tree of its life and changes it had seen and things it heard when it thought nobody was watching.

“I wish I were a tree like you,” Daniel said. 

“It is indeed a great life, long and slow and rich,” said the tree in its raspy whisper like two sticks rubbing together, “but why would you wish to be anything other than what you are?” 

“I am small and weak, and humans don’t live for very long,” said Daniel. 

“But you have dominated so much of the earth,” said the tree. “Surely you are strong, for your kind have felled many of mine.” 

“Tools,” the boy said. “We make tools so we can cut down even the tallest tree.” 

“Ah, but surely you grow large, because you take up so much space,” said the tree. 

“That is only because there are many of us,” said the boy. “Well then, you must be long lived, because when you cut us down, you never give us the chance to grow back,” said the tree. “That is only because we pass our property and our stories from one generation to the next, so they know how to use the tools, and they also take up too much space and even more,” Daniel said. 

The tree was silent for some time, and the more he thought about what the boy said, the more angry he became, until he vowed not to speak any more that day.

When Daniel realized what he had said, what he had done, he said, “I am sorry,” and he left the wood with his head hung low, this time not because he wished he was a tree, but because he feared he had destroyed a friendship, and that he would no longer be able to speak to the trees. 

Every night when Daniel went to bed, his parents screamed at one another. They would wait just long enough so that Daniel would be quiet and comfortable and wrapped and warm, and so they thought he was asleep, and then they would begin to talk. They never spoke to each other while Daniel was awake, but on these occasions they would start in whispers that Daniel could not make out, that sounded like painful secrets. The whispers would escalate into hushed voices, and Daniel, staring at his wall in the blue moonlight that filtered in through the blinds, could just make out a few words, most of which were no help and some of which were things like ‘beer’ and ‘money’ and other words that he was told were strictly for adults. Then, after some time had passed at this volume, and with a number of long pauses and thumps and doors slamming and feet stomping, the screaming would start. 

Sometimes, if he tried hard enough, Daniel could be asleep before this happened. On this night, though, his conversation with the tree kept him awake and worried, and his worries about his friendship smashed together with his worries about his parents fighting so that he could not have slept if he tried. So there, as always, was the whispering. It went on for some time and, if Daniel hadn’t known better, hadn’t been fooled on dozens of nights before, he would have hoped it would end there. After a while, as expected, came the hushed voices filled with words he either didn’t understand or wasn’t allowed to say. After a long pause filled with stomping and slamming, came the screaming. Tonight, though, Daniel thought it might be more than usual, louder, more desperate, and he lay there, trembling slightly, trying to determine if that was true or if it was just in his head. 

Then, there was a sound he hadn’t heard before. It was sharp and brief and meaty. It was followed by a scream and a thud. That scream belonged to his mother. 

If there was anything in the world Daniel loved more than the wood, it was his mother. She was gentle and kind to him. She protected him. She played, laughed, danced with him. When she punished him, scolded him, Daniel always believed it was because she loved him. That scream, short, like a mountain lion howl, had been hurt, angry, cornered, but it started with real pain. Daniel was afraid. His heart was beating so fast he could hear it in his ears and feel it in his fingertips. All the same, he knew what he had to do. She would for him. 

Daniel snuck out of bed. 

One foot and then the next, he tip-toed across his bedroom, down the hall and stopped before he entered the kitchen. The lights were on like they always were until his parents went to bed. He could hear his mother crying quietly. It was a low sobbing that did not sound like sadness to Daniel. It sounded like hate and pain. 

“Shut up,” his father shouted, sounding unhinged, out of control, his voice cracking with the effort, dancing around in too high an octave. 

The sobbing continued and Daniel stuck his head around the corner just in time to see his father, shirtless with starched jeans and leather boots, freckled, huge and hulking, all lean muscle in the arm and huge belly around the front that drug his spine forward in a curve, raising his right hand into the air, golden ring glinting in the fluorescent kitchen light as it arced back downward toward his mother’s pink face, already streaked with blood from her nose. There was that sound again but now it was loud as a gunshot and Daniel flinched. His mother let out a yipping bark of a scream from where she sat against the wall between the trash can and the refrigerator. She continued to sob, her left eye already starting to purple and swell, and she wiped her bleeding nose on her shirt sleeve. 

Daniel felt a jolt of panic. It started in his toes and shot like lightning up into his legs and spine and brain. He pulled in as much air as he could without making any noise and held it in his lungs, felt it burn with the want of release and then let it out. His eyes darted around the room looking for a way to stop this, to set this right. It will never be right, he thought. It will never be the same again. He felt a hot tear crawl down his cheek.

In the corner next to the dining table, against the wall, lay his father’s tool belt. Daniel’s father always discarded it there after coming in the back door after work, usually on his way to the fridge for a beer. Daniel’s eyes locked on to the pouches and scanned before finding what he was looking for.

The hammer. 

Daniel moved. It was three steps to the hammer. He scrambled for it and scooped it up. He pivoted on his right heel and made a bee line for his father. Daniel’s mother moaned, “Oh, god.” 

Daniel screamed, squeaky and cracked and panicked, “Leave her alone!” He swung the hammer out blindly. 

Daniel’s father just had time to turn his head toward the scream. His green eyes were unfocused with drink, his movement sluggish. The hammer made contact with his left kneecap and something cracked and moved in a way it wasn’t supposed to and pain shot up into his head, widening his eyes and toppling him back and to the left. As he hit the floor, injured leg shooting out in front of him, head flopping to the side and sounding a loud thunk against the refrigerator door, Daniel had the wild urge to scream timber. 

Daniel’s father lay against the refrigerator, still conscious but only just. He moaned incoherently and his eyes rolled in their sockets. His left leg jutted out in front of him and was already starting to swell. Daniel stood, stunned, unable for a moment to process what he had just done. He looked at his mother, her wide right eye red with fear and crying, her left swollen shut. Blood was coming out of her nose and her lip was split open. Her chest was spasming with sobs. 

“Oh, baby, no,” she said. 

“Mom,” Daniel said. They locked eyes. 

Just then, his father’s massive hand swiped at his face. He only just ducked out of the way. 

“Go,” Daniel’s mother growled. “Go,” she repeated, louder.

Daniel was already sprinting. He hit the screen door hard and it swung open. He was out on the porch and down the steps before it slammed behind him. Now he was at the edge of the lawn. 

His father stumbled through the screen door onto the front porch.

“Daniel,” he yelled. He might just have been calling him in from playing.

Daniel flew toward the wood. The wood was different at night. It whispered. Normally, upon entering the wood, Daniel would stop to greet a few of the trees, but he did not have time. The trees noticed his hurry, his panic, and they whispered to each other about it. Daniel could not make out the words and he did not stop to try. Daniel ran so fast that his tears didn’t fall all the way down his cheeks, but were swept back across his face and into the hair above his ears. The leaves crunched beneath his feet. He held his arms up to protect his face from the whipping twigs and branches that would dig at him as he ran blindly, but tonight his way was clear, as though it was deliberate. Daniel said a silent thanks. 

“Daniel!” His father’s voice sounded behind him, echoing, distant, crazed.

Daniel doubled his effort. His father would have seen him entering the wood, would have followed him in, but Daniel knew where he was going and his father did not and that might be an advantage. He was also faster and did not drink. But his lungs were aching as they emptied and refilled with damp night air, and each breath didn’t go as far as it did before and Daniel was starting to gasp and sob. 

“Daniel!” Closer now. Could his father hear him tearing through the leaves and grass and twigs on the ground? Daniel was looking over his shoulder, trusting too much in the cleared path ahead, so he slipped. He went down hard on his shoulder, the seam of his t-shirt tearing as a dead branch snagged both cloth and skin. He lay on his back, looking up and smiling. This was exactly where he wanted to be. 

“Tree!” Daniel shouted up at the massive old oak at the center of the wood. 

The tree said nothing, but Daniel swore he heard a grunt. 

“Tree, old friend, please listen,” Daniel said, mindful now of his shouting and lowering his voice. He could hear his father’s crazed shouts from somewhere off in the wood. 

“Say what you must,” whispered the tree. 

Daniel got up onto his knees. “My friend, please, you must protect me.” 

“From what?” The tree whispered. 

“My father is angry with me and is looking for me and I am afraid he will hurt me,” Daniel said, desperation creeping into his voice as he looked back over his shoulder.

The tree did not speak for a long moment, then said, “Surely a boy of your kind would have nothing to fear from his father.” 

“But he is drunk,” said Daniel, “and he has already hurt my mother.” 

“You must have done something to wrong him,” the tree said. It was difficult to make out, but Daniel swore he could hear a petty anger in the tree’s whisper. “Who am I to stand between a boy and some much-needed discipline?” 

“Please,” Daniel said, “Just let me climb up into your branches to hide.” 

“Surely,” the tree said, “you have some tool at your disposal you could use to protect yourself. Your kind have felled so many of mine. One of your own should be no problem. Or is it that you would like to give your father a reason to knock me down as well?” 

“Friend, I am sorry,” said Daniel through sobs that wanted to choke him. “I’m sorry, okay? I know you are angry with me, but I need your help.” 

There was a long pause, and the tree said, “No.” 

Daniel, too tired to run more, too afraid to scream, too small and weak to fight, simply turned his back to the tree and leaned his weight upon the solid trunk. He felt its warmth and rough bark through his shirt and his mind was taken away from here for a moment to days spent running and playing and he smiled in spite of his situation. He said up to the tree, “It’s okay. I know I hurt you and that you are angry, but I am still your friend, and I know you are mine. I will sit with you until this is over.” 

The tree did not answer. 

So Daniel sat and waited. 

Out of the woods in front of Daniel came a monster. His father, stumbling, shirtless, drunk and injured, dragged his nearly dead leg behind him. He was covered in cuts and bruises from the branches he had run through, and Daniel had the satisfaction of thinking that at least not all of his friends had abandoned him. His eyes, usually kind or worried when he was sober, blazed with green fire fueled by hate and violence and drink. 

“Dad,” Daniel said. “I’m sorry.” 

“There you are, Daniel.” His eyes darted around as if looking for anyone watching. 

“Dad, I’m sorry I hurt you. I love you. Please don’t.” 

But Daniel’s father did not answer. He dragged himself, grunting, toward Daniel, one step at a time. And when he got to Daniel, he reached down with both hands and picked Daniel up from under his arms and stood him on his feet and pressed his back against the tree and wrapped his shaking hands around Daniel’s throat and squeezed, and as he squeezed a scream built up in his own throat and as he screamed all the pressure, the anger, the fear, the hurt flowed out of his mouth and his hands and he was unable to stop himself as he saw the light, the life leave his son’s eyes, and when it was done and Daniel wasn’t moving anymore, he dropped Daniel on the ground again where he lay against one of the tree’s giant gnarled roots and began to cool to the temperature of the air around him. 

“Are you the boy’s father?” A voice whispered. 

“What?” 

“How could a father do something like that to his son?”

“Who is talking?” Daniel’s father spun in a circle, stumbling, eyes darting. 

“Is he dead?” More voices were whispering now. 

Suddenly, there were a chorus of voices all around him. They were asking so many questions, questions he didn’t know how to answer, didn’t want to answer. 

“No,” he said. “The boy’s fine, he’ll get up.” Daniel’s father looked at his son, crumpled on the ground by the tree root, small and helpless as the day he was born. “Get up, boy. Dan. Daniel. Get up.” 

“He will not get up,” the large tree at the center of the wood said. “He is dead. I cannot feel his heart beating in my roots, and I always could before.” 

“What? No.” Daniel’s father was swatting at the air around his head now as if trying to clear away a persistent gnat. “Who’s talking? Where are you? Get up, Daniel. We need to go home.” 

“You have killed him,” the tree said, and it was the loudest thing it had ever said. Its voice sounded like a saw through a log. “You have murdered your boy. You have murdered my friend.” 

“Murderer,” the other voices began to say, and it became a chant. “Murderer, murderer, murderer.”

“No,” Daniel’s father said and clapped his hands to his ears. “No!” 

He began to run blindly through the trees, through branches that stuck out into his path and he was sure they were being thrust there, jabbing him, scratching and poking him. The ground itself seemed to become softer, to give way beneath his footfalls and grab at his boots, pull at him, slow him, and all the time the whispered chant of “Murderer” followed him until he came to the edge of the wood where it bordered the road, and he stumbled out onto the pavement weeping and dizzy. The air out here was quiet and he curled up on the hot tarmac and convulsed with weeping until a car he didn’t see, and that didn’t see him, came and took his life. 

Long after the dogs had been called off and the searchers left without ever finding Daniel’s body, a sapling grew near the base of the big, old tree at the center of the wood. The big, old tree would talk to the sapling. “Is it everything you wanted?” Said the tree. 

“Well,” said the sapling, “I am small, and I am weak.” 

“Yes,” said the big old tree. “This is true. It is the secret that nobody ever tells you about being a tree, that first you must be small and weak and frail and if you can survive this, you can survive anything. In that way, I think that being a tree is very much like being a man.”

Brandon Applegate is an American writer focusing on dark, weird, and fantasy fiction. When he isn’t writing he is working at his job at an Austin, Texas-based technology company. He lives in Hutto, Texas with his wife and two girls.

photo by John Reed (via unsplash)

They—Amy Wolstenholme

The night They came was a thunderstorm night, the very sky a black-feathered bird calling: Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion. The stars above us were in flight, one moment visible, the next concealed, startling from the branches. In the day everything has its place and is confined to exist there. In the darkness, we all have the gift of wings. The moonlight unfurled along the razor edge of the leaves and the lightning pecked the Earth with the indifference of a beak: Now. Now you are obliterated. 

We ran through the storm as only children can, the sky fizzing over our skin, sparking against our teeth, certain in the belief we would not be struck down. After all, our feet fractured the ground just the same as lightning, gleefully cracking the spine of twigs and frozen puddles. That night only two of us had braved the storm, slipping out from bedroom windows into the cool embrace of darkness, eager to run wild and return wearing thorns.

My friend was the embodiment of savage childhood, all bowed knees and short, cowlicked hair, shaking raindrops from their skin, wearing them encrusted on their eyelashes. They were as wild as the sky, the very symbol of what it means to be young, alive and utterly uncaring. They swore brilliantly, not knowing or understanding the meaning, merely in love with the sound of fuck and goddamn and you son of a bitch whore you. They spoke the way birds sing, with complete dedication, enough that I would imagine birds turning to one another, singing: These humans, I wonder if there is any meaning to their tune?

That night was all human song, my friend’s chirruping voice and my listening ears and the sky screaming out a dirge, coming untethered like a funeral balloon.

‘Fucking rain,’ they said, but they wore it in every inch of them.

‘Fucking rain,’ I echoed dutifully, traipsing along behind them, my own skin cool and slick and damp with the fucking rain, and the way it squelched unpleasantly in my socks. My long hair was pasted to my head, stuck inelegantly over my mouth, such that it made a wet rattling sound against my lips when I breathed. My skin was so wet that I imagined breathing through it instead, more frog than child. 

Ahead my friend was a racing shadow; one moment visible, the next concealed. They headed for each puddle and mud-slick bank, running up and rolling down, their skin eventually so muddy that their eyes stood out like chips of struck flint, uncomfortably blue and ready to spark fire. They were eagerly contemplating death, playing out soldiers, and a stick was soon found and pointed, a bullet shot cleanly through my chest. I fell with an exaggerated groan, although I immediately regretted it. The ground was much too wet even for pretended death. Above me my friend danced in and out of their soldier skin, smearing mud further down their neck and up their arms, simply to feel. They threw themselves hard down onto the muddy bank, peering over the top.

‘We’ve got a live one oh boy, oh boy,’ they said, their voice warped in poor imitation of the Americans, their hands clenched around their gun-shaped stick. A cowboy now, they pushed their fringe off their head like the brim of a cap. The sky made a strange ripping sound and then fractured like eggshell. 

‘I’ll get the horses,’ I whispered, and went down into the night clicking my tongue softly, seeing the gleam of white mushrooms as the shine of hooves and satin black holly as wild, rolling eyes. I found a stallion and a mare, black as night the both, frothing at the mouth and gleaming with sweat as pure as starlight. I brought them up the bank to where my friend lay, gorgeous as a fucking bruise against the moonlit ground, and murmured: ‘Ready.’

‘You got the ammo?’ 

I handed over bullets, white as struck teeth, and then we slung them in belts across our bodies. I found a stick and pushed a bullet with a quiet snick into the handle, steadying my shaking hand against the butt. We were ready to ride. With a yell we threw ourselves up from the bank, hands clenched around invisible reins, steadying the wildly excited, plunging horses. We fired, screaming obscenities, whilst the sky cracked and whined like bullets, singing out our game of war. Now. Now you are obliterated.

Afterwards we could not have said what it was that made us stop. Everything has its place and is confined to exist there; the horses turned back to silent shadow. Perhaps it was the smell, the air suddenly sweet and coppery as blood, or the sucking sound of the sky. There was the feeling of something vast taking a breath, the world a single, wet alveolus, ready to burst.

‘Would you look at that goddamn tree?’ 

I screwed up my eyes to see. It was difficult to focus on, like trying to track the false image left by a camera flash. It was hard to pinpoint precisely what was wrong with it; perhaps it was that the bark looked like newspaper, paper-thin and tattooed black and white, or that the leaves appeared veinless even under the harsh moonlight. Many years later I realised that the most uncomfortable thing about it had been its symmetry. It looked like the tree children always draw – dead straight and uniform, unintended for three dimensions. 

As we backed away, eyeing the strange branches, the sky gave an electric hiss. We recoiled instinctively, closing our eyes, but the tree had already tattooed itself onto our eyelids. There was the sensation of breathing again, the world hacking up white foam from poisoned lungs but, although I counted, the thunder never came. For several minutes my world was a beautiful, blackberry purple, the image of a tree that looked too much like a tree burnt into my retinas. I felt my way to the ground, finding my friend already curled up and shuddering. When my vision returned I was facing them, their frightened eyes inches from my own, their skin curdled milk under the muck. 

‘We should go home,’ I whispered, but they were whimpering, their eyes darting up to something just over my head, then racing back to the ground again. 

‘What?’ I breathed, the words barely making it past my teeth. I imagined wolves with dripping red jaws and real soldiers, their eyes gun-metal grey and cold. My friend raised a trembling hand and pointed, their fingernail a ragged white moon against the sky. 

Summoning all my courage I rolled over, my eyes shut, flicking them briefly open. The tree still stood against the sky, black and burnt, a jagged snarl struck through the centre of the trunk. And there They were, the two of them, one silhouetted against the bruised sky, the other barely visible against the tree bark. One. Two. The only definite we were ever able to give. I opened my eyes again, ready to scream, ready to call on the God my parents took me to church to visit, but they did not move. 

‘The fuck?’ whispered my friend, sounding marginally less shaken. 

They were the colour of an oil slick, simultaneously black but seething with rainbow. They moved the way origami does, occupying the space they already inhabited over and over and fucking over, folding it rather than existing within it. Something was writhing in their centre, tendrils opening and closing like a fist over something else that might have been a mouth, and there was a strange, high-pitched sound, the soft chink of a moth hitting a bulb. Afterwards, I wondered if it was the sound of screaming. 

‘Aliens.’ 

My friend was standing now, slick with mud and rain and starlight, the child of thunder, and as alien as could be. Silently they walked in an awkward, hunched position and picked up a thick, knobbly stick and then searched for another, passing it to me. We did not need to pretend these were guns. These were vicious enough without imagination.  

They stood in front of us, ripping and sewing space, opening and closing like a fist. They were so out of place, so wrong to look at, that my eyes were only half-focused and I was shaking, sick to my stomach.  

‘We have to defend the planet.’ 

The American drawl was back, born of false bravado and sheer, gut-wrenching terror, and my friend held their stick aloft as if trying to channel the lightning. Children are all too ready to believe in the danger of things that appear suddenly from the dark, so I did not question this. Every fairy-tale has a lighthouse warning buried within: There are so many things waiting to dash you against the rocks. Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion. One of them suddenly released an eerie, grating wail that was felt with a skull-thumping pain more than heard, and that was all it took. Suddenly, we were ready to ride. 

We went for the one on the left, the one that stood most brightly against the sky. Where we struck it, screaming fuck you and go to hell you son of a bitch whore you, it twisted like layers of coloured tissue paper, occasionally releasing that bone-shaking cry. Many years later I dared to wonder how we had looked to it, whether we had been too alien for it to see, all mud and flesh, all screams and savage blows, and whether the sound that made us want to pull out our teeth was a cry for mercy. Thin, wavering tendrils struck out at us, stinging across our hands and faces. Where we hit it the rainbow-black turned to grey as if we really had become lightning and all we touched was turned to ash. 

When it was simply mush against the ground something slipped out from the mulch with a liquid shine. We stared at it for a long moment and, although I could not be certain what it was, bile rose in my mouth. The glimmering disc was just a little too familiar. The eye stared up at the sky, reflecting the drifting moon, as it dissolved into grey flakes. I dragged a hand backwards across my mouth and scrubbed violently at my lips. My throat was clogged with the taste of copper. 

‘Wh-what about the other one?’ I stuttered. 

But when I turned to my friend they were crying, shimmering with the strange night-dark rainbow that had spewed from the creature, leaning heavily on their stick. The other one had fallen to the ground, if fallen was the right word for the way it had jammed space open, and was making the sound of a thousand flies having their wings fried. It was already covered in a veneer of mossy grey and, somehow, we knew it was dying without a single blow. Perhaps they couldn’t breathe our air. Perhaps the lightning had allowed two worlds to collide and they had been ripped, blindly, from wherever they had been before, the strange tree a conduit. Perhaps it was dying of grief. We would never know. 

We crouched cautiously and watched the creature shuddering, turning to ash as the sky cursed at the ground. It clicked more and more quietly, tendrils unfolding and waving around in the air. Eventually one tendril shuddered, or slipped, or fell open, revealing a dark eye which rotated wetly in our direction. There was a reverberation suddenly deep within my head, a noiseless sound, as if it was speaking words we could not hear. The meaning seemed to slip across, or maybe we completely made it up, but I could have sworn it said to me: boy and my friend swore they heard: girl. An odd distinction. A poor, garbled translation of something we probably misunderstood entirely. But perhaps it was trying to say: I recognise that you are children, that you are scared, and I forgive you. Sometimes, I even like to believe it. 

On impulse I ran across to the rain-slick bank and pulled up tufts of wild garlic, the flowers tiny and only faintly white, closed in defiance of the night. I brought it back and held it out in front of the creature without knowing why, perhaps trying to show the tiniest piece of fragility in our violent, thunder-stricken world. That must have been the last thing it saw before it died, as the eye slipped wetly to the ground. The flower of an alien world. 

We spent most of adulthood silently convincing ourselves that They had just been imagination run wild, fuelled by vicious lightning, but in old age we could no longer believe this lie. Children and the elderly accept the reality that adults deny. So that is why I am not surprised when they turn to me, with their uncomfortably blue and beautiful eyes, after seventy years of silence and ask: ‘What do you think They were, exactly?’ as they lean on the rail of our porch, blowing smoke up into a sky that is gathering clouds like lost sheep. 

There is no need to ask what they are referring to. I know exactly what they mean, instantly, as if I have been waiting for the question all my life. What were They? Those strange things that were just enough in phase to be difficult to look at, as blue as they were orange and no colour we could recognise, with all those shimmering appendages, twisting like plant stems searching for the sun. I give the only answer that can be given, the worst answer in the world. 

‘I don’t know.’

‘But where did They come from?’ they insist, ‘what was the point?’

‘Do you know where you come from?’ I counter. ‘In eighty-two years, have you ever come across anything remotely resembling a point?’ 

They snort with laughter. ‘Don’t spend too much time yelling at the sky and asking why God, why bloody why, you mean?’ They run a hand through their short, grey hair the colour of an English sky, mussing it so it stands up in random, electric spikes. 

‘There was something that always bothered me more,’ I say slowly. 

I walk forward and lean against the porch rail next to them, wondering how long it’s going to be before the rain starts striking the ground. I stare down at my hands where they clutch the rail, tracing my eyes over the blue, knotted veins.  

‘Why did we treat them so differently when they were exactly the same?’ I murmur. 

I see my hands clenched around a stick, beating bright and oily rainbows out of the first creature; I see my hands clenched around a bunch of ragged flowers, holding them up to the eye of the second. One moment visible, the next concealed, the image opening and closing like a fist. I suddenly remember the echo of a non-voice: boy, and to my partner: girl. The horizon flashes. I start counting. 

They look at me then, raising an eyebrow, all long limbs and creased skin, and those eyes like a chip of struck flint, those savage, shining eyes that I had fallen in love with so long before. They take a long drag of their cigarette, and blow smoke out across the misty lawn.

‘Sometimes that just happens,’ they say at last, and shrug. 

The growl of thunder finally reaches us. Now. Now you are at the place of oblivion. 

Amy Wolstenholme is a biochemistry PhD student at Cambridge, where she researches some of the amazing intricacies of DNA replication. In her free time she loves to write poetry and short stories, and has been previously published in Visual Verse, Oxford Poetry and on the Young Poets Network. Her other hobbies include hiking, drinking tea and tie-dyeing her lab coat different colours.

image by Florian Olivo (via unsplash)

A Spectral Sigh—Amanda Crum

Lizzie buried her best friend on a chilly October day, the kind that ushers in a cold storm and turns the sky a deep watercolor blue. Pregnant clouds hung low over the fields, threatening those who stood on the hillside—dressed in Sunday best—with their fecundity. Lizzie clutched her bag tightly, grateful to have something to tether her to the world. She could barely feel her hands inside the gloves she wore. 

“And now, from Revelation 14:13, a few words of comfort as we lay Tabitha to rest,” Reverend Townsend intoned. “‘And I heard a voice from Heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’”

He paused here for dramatic effect; it was a tactic he used during sermons when he felt the congregation slipping. The sudden silence jolted them into guilty attention. “We say goodbye to Tabitha knowing how much she did for our community and how beloved she was in all her 40 years. If you would like to leave a flower with her, you may do so now.”

The group separated from around Lizzie and reformed shoulder-to-shoulder at the grave, a murmuration of mourners with single roses in hand. One by one, they dropped the blooms onto Tab’s coffin; Lizzie could hear crumbling dirt pattering on the wood. A sudden gust of wind swooped across the hillside, waking the trees in a rush and flipping their leaves up to expose pale underbellies. To Lizzie, it sounded like a spectral sigh, an expression of exasperation on a different plane. It sounded like Tab.

Back home, the woodstove was nearly empty and the sky bloomed like India ink across linen. The storm was still threatening from its perch, darkening the day so deeply that Lizzie was jolted when she heard the clock strike 4 p.m. Her sorrow was a fist-sized knot in her abdomen, a hard and cancerous thing with teeth, and the day had drawn out like a blade because of it. She sat at the kitchen table, tracing rings and scars with her fingers, and didn’t look up when Steven came in laden with a cord of wood.

“Startin’ to feel more like winter than autumn out there,” he huffed. “Gonna have to cut more wood tomorrow.”

He was whistling past the graveyard, and she ignored it. “Maybe we should leave. Take the train into Tennessee and visit for a while.”

Steven had begun loading the stove; now he paused, kneeling, without looking at her. “Why would we do that?”

“Because I can’t stop thinking about her. The way she looked.”

Lizzie rubbed her hands together. She wasn’t that cold anymore, but the blue light of the day made her wish she had a hot cup of tea.

Steven placed the last piece of wood inside the stove and closed the door softly. “It’s going to be bad for a little while. You got to put that out of your head. Things’re hard enough without all that.”

He stood near and touched her cheek softly. She had always marveled at his hands; not the hands of a farmer at all, but those of a sleek magician who had traveled with the Ringling Brothers show in his younger days. 

“Push it away,” he said. “Tomorrow we’ll take the Hudson into Greenville and have a nice dinner.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Have to. It won’t look right otherwise.”

She pressed her face against his palm and nodded, knowing she wouldn’t be able to keep the tears out of her voice if she said anything else. When he’d closed the backdoor behind him, she stood at the kitchen sink and watched him walk through the gate, past the lavender wavering softly in a gathering wind. She stayed until she saw his porchlight come on, and then she poured three fingers of whiskey into a coffee mug and let it carry her into sleep. 

She dreamed of Tabitha. They’d met in grade school, Tab the tomboy with auburn braids and Lizzie the one who dreamed of being a movie star, her flaxen hair a beacon for attention. They were opposites in every way but quickly grew to love each other as sisters, with Tab fighting her way through the bullies who thought Lizzie was putting on airs. It got especially bad in the 9th grade, when she began to bloom and every boy in the county wanted her attention. Tab didn’t feel jealousy like the other girls. Instead, she shook her head at Lizzie as she recounted another date and scowled magnificently, unable to grasp why her friend would want to waste so much time with boys.

It was this version of Tab she dreamed about, the sullen girl who didn’t understand her own beauty. They sat together beneath their favorite tree, the town spread below them in the bowl of the holler. The two of them wore blue dresses of different shades, their bobbed hair glinting spun gold and bonfire sparks into the dusk. 

“Don’t you want to go to school? Travel? Get out of this damn town?” Tab was asking.

“I’m gonna do all those things, but I need to save some money if I ever want to get to Hollywood,” Lizzie said. “That part can’t wait. My looks won’t last forever, you know. Those directors aren’t going to cast a 40-year old woman as their star.” Ain’t had been carefully rendered to aren’t with much practice.

“It ain’t all about your looks. It ain’t all about what men want you to be. Christ, Lizzie, you’re the smartest girl I know!” She was high-tempered, her cheeks flushing just below those dark eyes that saw everything. She leaned back on her elbows and plucked a strand of tall grass, split it, and put it to her lips, where it made a sorrowful sound like a train whistle when she blew. “All I know is, I won’t ever let some man tell me what I can do.”

Lizzie jerked awake, into the silver gloom of dawn. Into the strong scent of freshly cut roses.

The women in town often made the trek up the hill to see Lizzie when they needed something that was out of their reach: true love, a child, money. Sometimes what they wanted was to be rid of something. She had learned at her mother’s elbow from the time she was very young, watching as she mixed small but complicated batches of desire for the women of Pine Hollow. A homemade wind chime made of colorful glass bottles hung from the eaves of their front porch, calling them forth, and her mother always knew exactly what they needed. 

Lizzie looked over her collection of herbs and tinctures, separated and organized by color. She never labeled anything; she knew from the feel and smell what they were. One small blue bottle was nearly empty. She picked it up and held it to the light, remembering. It seemed to her that blue was the color of memory.

A knock on the door stirred her and she set the worktable to rights, carefully replacing the blue bottle amongst the others. It was Jocelyn Baker, who had once sought Lizzie’s help to conceive a child. Five consecutive miscarriages had driven her nearly out of her mind; her son, a healthy towheaded boy who sometimes helped Steven with field work, was now 12. 

“Lizzie,” she said as she October breeze swept her in. She wore a dress the color of fresh cream, with tiny purple flowers printed all over. “I need to talk to you.”

“What’s the matter? Is Matthew well?”

“Oh yes, he’s doin’ fine, healthy as a horse and eating me and Jacob out of house and home.” She paused, tilting her head to look over Lizzie’s shoulder. “Is someone else here?”

Lizzie looked behind her, so powerful was Jocelyn’s gaze. Like she’d seen something. “No, I’m alone. What’s got you so shook?”

Jocelyn fiddled with the oversized buttons on her coat. “I debated whether or not I should even come. I know you’re grieving.”

Lizzie remembered seeing Jocelyn standing at Tab’s grave, dropping in a rose with the rest of the town. They hadn’t known each other well, but it was expected. Small places run on courtesy and gossip. 

“I just… I thought you should know what people are saying about you,” Jocelyn said finally. 

Lizzie felt her face lose its openness; the eyes narrowed, the jaw clenched. Her mouth was a tightrope no one could walk across. “And what’s that?”

“They say that you’re… takin’ up with a married man. It ain’t none of my business and you know I’ll always be in your debt for Matthew, but I thought you should know. Because of, you know. What you do.” She gestured toward Lizzie’s worktable, the rows of bottles and jars. “If they turn on you, it won’t be long before they start talkin’ about that. Even good people can be cruel.”

She was right, of course. Half the town knew about Lizzie’s gifts, but once the talk started they would recuse themselves from her orbit. It wouldn’t matter that she’d helped them when no one else could; she would become a prize to be held aloft by all those who couldn’t wait to pounce on someone else’s sin. Lizzie leaned against the kitchen sink, looking out the window. From this vantage point, she couldn’t see Steven’s house; the grass had grown too tall. A large crow sat on the plank fence, presiding over all.

“Still growin’,” she said hoarsely. 

“Pardon?” Jocelyn said.

“The grass. It’s the middle of October and the first frost has come and gone but that grass is still growin’. Why do you think that is?”

Jocelyn shook her head, confused. “I couldn’t say, Lizzie.”

Lizzie turned to her, saw the worry on her face, and smiled tightly. “It’s alright. Thank you for tellin’ me. The holler wouldn’t be the same without the rumor mill churning.”

Jocelyn’s mouth turned up cautiously. It was a smile that wondered why Lizzie wasn’t denying anything. “I’m so glad you aren’t upset. I thought for sure you’d run me out of here on a rail!”

“You’re a good friend,” Lizzie said. “The world needs more people like you.”

Later, after Jocelyn was gone, Lizzie walked out back, crossing her arms against the wind. The grass was knee-high and yellow, wavering down the hill toward Steven’s place. She was too far away to see anything through the windows, but she imagined he was in there, or out in the barn working on one of his wood pieces. 

Her boots were sinking into the soil. She looked down at the spongy black dirt and frowned. Swiping a finger across it brought a shudder; it was like touching rot, like feeling decay. She wiped the finger absently across the hem of her dress and examined the grass, which was dead and so dry it rattled in the wind. The sound was bones in a coffin. A warning.

“Lizzie,” the breeze sighed. “Oh, Lizzie.” 

The crow took flight, beating its wings so forcefully that Lizzie felt their wind on her face.

November brought an erasure of snow.

Lizzie normally enjoyed the cold, loved the way the fields were blanketed in white, the color of non-memory. Now it only magnified the sense of loneliness she felt and made her think of endings. 

Steven hadn’t been to visit in four days. She had wondered if perhaps he’d heard the gossip, suspected he had. He said everything was fine, but Lizzie had felt him retreating since the funeral, a slow removal of his presence that left her wondering whether their relationship had mostly lived in her body. In fact, she couldn’t remember ever feeling so out of sorts. 

Things were changing inside her home. She woke most mornings to find that the bottles on her workstation had been rearranged or even knocked over; certain rooms were broiling hot, while she could see her breath in others. She poured milk into her tea one evening to find that it had curdled, even though it was only a day old. And always, the powerful scent of roses followed her. 

When the crow perched on her fence one evening and wouldn’t leave—demanding her attention with his beady gaze—she made a sudden decision. Bundling up, she marched out the back door and shooed the dark omen away. The bird flew ten feet from her and landed in the snow, staring sullenly over its shoulder. Ignoring it, Lizzie kept walking down the hill, not caring about whether anyone saw her. 

Steven was home; she could see his shadow flitting through the lamplight like a moth. 

“Lizzie,” he greeted her. “What are you doing out in the cold?”

“I need to talk to you,” she said, looking over his shoulder. “Are you alone?”

He frowned. “Of course I’m alone.”

She searched his eyes for a moment before sliding past him, into the warmth of his living room. It felt strange, being there after so long. Steven always came to her place; it was easier for both of them. 

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

Lizzie sighed. “It just feels like you’ve forgotten me. Where have you been?”

He shook his head, looked at the floor. “I’ve been busy, that’s all. Takin’ care of things.”

“What things? Not me, not anymore.”

“Lizzie.”

“I thought the whole point of all this was so we could be together. I’m goin’ crazy up there alone in that house, do you know that? I don’t want this.”

“I warned you it would be bad for a little while. Didn’t I tell you that?”

“Yeah, you warned me. But I wasn’t ready for it, for the way she looked. Her eyes saw right through me. It was horrible, and you don’t even care.” She had begun to cry despite her resolve not to.

Steven had been standing in front of the door; now he shifted his weight slightly, revealing two large suitcases. They sat benignly, offering an explanation Lizzie didn’t want.

“Oh,” she said. “You’re leaving?”

Steven held up his hands, as though she had turned a gun on him. “Just for a little while. I wanna get my head right.”

She walked slowly toward him, her anger curling up from a place deep in her body. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. I’ve loved you since I was nineteen. I gave up my dream of becoming an actress for you! I stayed here in this shitty town. For you.”

“I never asked you to stay,” he spat through his teeth, advancing on her. They stood inches apart, a different sort of heat gathering between them. “That was your choice.”

“But you did ask me to kill your wife,” she said softly.

He snapped his arm out and clenched the collar of her coat in one strong hand, pulling her into him. She could smell sourmash on his breath but didn’t turn away. She took courage in her fury, cradling it against her bosom like an infant.

“You wanted her gone as much as I did,” he said. “I never promised you anything, Lizzie. I’ve been stuck here the same as you. Do you think I ever wanted to be a farmer? You stay in one place long enough and it grows into your bones like cancer, it eats at your plans until you can barely remember what they were. I can travel now, the way I used to.”

Lizzie reached up and placed her hands over his, suddenly overcome with grief. The weight of her madness fell upon her and she began to wail, keening like a mother who has lost her child.

And suddenly, a knock at the door.

Lizzie quieted immediately and turned her head towards the sound, the tendons in her neck so tight they creaked. Steven turned as well, eyes wide. When it came again, it sounded less like a hand and more like a series of pecks. 

And when the wind blew the door open on its hinges and they saw what awaited them, Lizzie recalled the words of Reverend Townsend over Tab’s grave. She could almost hear them on the fragrant gusts that rolled in, redolent of roses.

“‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’”

Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work can be found in publications such as The Hellebore, Barren Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, and more. She is a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Indie Horror Book Award nominee; two of her collections of horror poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow and Tall Grass, made the shortlist for Bram Stoker Award nominations. Amanda currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.

photo by Ameen Fahmy (via unsplash)

The Spider—Vera Hadzic

Heartbreak is a spider resting in your chest. I read an unhealthy amount of romance novels, and I know what heartbreak is supposed to feel like – a crack in your ribcage, a sharp, stabbing pain that splits your soul in two. I expect it should feel as though something inside you is broken, but I can’t feel any breakage. I feel around – my hand wanders down my sternum, probing at the place where I can feel the strongest heartbeat. It all seems to be intact. Heartbreak, it turns out, is something else entirely. It’s a spider resting inside of you – its body settled over your heart, and its long legs stretching out to poke at your ribs, your lungs, your solar plexus. The hard, dull pressure of its black body builds up knots in your cardiac tissue, so that you can feel it tugging at every breath you try to take. It’s an ache similar to anxiety, or stress – the little metal ball that makes your pulse speed before you give a speech – only this one reaches out with its eight spindly legs, and tickles you with that blunt, fuzzy feeling.

I am sitting at the kitchen table. My coffee is getting cold in front of me. I should drink it before I have to microwave it or take it cold. The spider in my chest twitches. I want to coil into a spiral like a centipede and pretend the world doesn’t spin around me. I want to drink my coffee, or check my phone. The door is open; I hear forest song from behind the house, crickets and birds and crackling branches, and I want to go outside. I don’t do any of those things. I don’t seem to be able to move.

“Oh,” I say, finally, breaking the shell of silence. My little dog, Odo, perks up his ears. I massage my breastbone, as though it’ll dislodge the spider whose legs sprawl over it.

There is a knock on the door; it’s Leslie, the mailman. Have to get up. It’s probably instinct that takes over my motor controls and propels me to my feet, drags me to the door, hooks a smile onto my face. “Hi, Leslie. Yep, that’s for me. Yes, doing well. How about you? Good to hear. Thanks so much. I’ll definitely think about it. Have a nice day.”

The mail gives me something to focus on, and it reminds my fingers how to move, how to curl and press as I slit open the envelopes. The spider shifts a little bit, gets more comfortable. We can live like this, it promises. Its words thrum their way up my nerves, as though the spider is plucking them like guitar strings. Haven’t you heard of symbiosis? This is manageable.

I have to force myself to keep moving, or else I’ll be trapped in stillness again. I’ll have to shake this off, I tell myself. This should not be a big deal for me, anyway.

Writing is out of the question. The spider’s body quivers when I think of it. It’s going to be another unproductive day, and if my editor, Jack, calls tonight, I won’t have the energy to lie to him. There will be a touch of hardened concrete in his voice when he asks me to remember my deadlines. I can already hear the acidity eating away at his consonants when he wonders why he put so much effort into securing this grant for me – the money which paid for me to live in the woods, by myself, and write. Then, he will finish with a salve, a little bit of gentleness coating his words as he tells me, again, that he believes in me. I’ve never liked when people say that. Why believe in me when I don’t believe in myself? It seems like a waste of belief. Instead of writing, I wash the dishes. I microwave my coffee. I vacuum the living room. Keep moving, I think, and the spider agrees. The phone I left on the kitchen table vibrates; the spider throbs within me when I hear it. The last message I received spawned it, after all – but it’s just my mother, asking after my garden.

It’s all right, soothes the spider when I start feeling lonely. I’ll keep you company.

Odo brushes up to my leg and rubs his ears against my pants. I imagine he can sense the spider; I’m amazed he’s not repelled. I suppose he, at least, trusts me still.

We go for a walk, Odo, the black spider, and I. Outside, a grey-misted sky settles down around us as we follow the vague paths in the forest. For all his unconditional love, Odo is delighted to bound away from me; he plots an adventurous course as he struggles over tree trunks, and nuzzles the dirt with his nose. His tiny body is quickly lost in the bushes, but wherever he goes, he makes rustling noises, and I can follow the waves of green that ripple through the undergrowth. I focus on smelling the moist, earthy odour of an atmosphere heavy with expected rain.

Eventually, Odo returns to me. By now, he has marked the most promising tree trunks as his own, and ordinarily, I would circle back home and get back to business. But I know that there will be no writing today, and the spider in my chest eggs me on, so I carry us further into the forest, where the slant of muted sunlight is less familiar to me, and the mossy bumps on birches and eldritch whorls on stones are not ones I have seen before.

I perch myself on a rock, inspect the mud that has caked the soles of my sneakers, and pet Odo’s little head as he whines at my knee. I believe he feels sorry for me, given that I have a spider in my chest cavity. I coo at Odo to make him feel a little less bad. One of the spider’s legs taps at my rib; the vibration scuttles up my skeleton and makes me shiver.

“Do you want to go home?” I ask Odo.

No, complains the spider. Let’s stay here. It’s old, and there’s no one to bother us.

A flash of fury buzzes through me. You’re a guest in my body, I scold it angrily. You don’t get to decide what I do. You’re not part of who I am.

We head back to the house, and the spider sits in sullen silence.

Jack doesn’t call. I fill my afternoon with odd jobs I have neglected, and I eat dinner in front of the TV, ignoring the twinges that the spider sends from inside of me. I only think of it when I debate whether I should tell my mother about what has happened. I wouldn’t mention the spider, of course – I would just share my bad news.

I dismiss the idea quickly. It arose from a childlike instinct to seek comfort in motherly love, but I know my mother. She would never understand how news like this could induce a spider to move in. In fact, she wouldn’t understand why I was unhappy. Weddings are happy occasions, she would insist. You are too sensitive.

When it’s almost ten o’clock at night, and Jack has still not called, I pronounce myself safe. It’s a smidge of goodness that I savour, melting on my tongue as I shuffle my way to bed. I’ve never slept with a spider in my chest before, and Odo seems skeptical as he adopts his usual croissant-shaped position at my side. Behave yourself, I warn the spider. It still seems unwilling to talk after my harsh words in the woods.

When I wake up the next morning, I discover two problems. The first I detect immediately, as it woke me up: Jack is calling. I pick up my phone.

“Hi, Manon. I hope I didn’t wake you. Listen, your deadline’s coming up.” He launches into his usual monologue, taking me up and down the ridges and dips of his appraisal of my work and my situation. Eventually, I can feel us trudging up to a climax, a peak where he expects me to speak; my words will be the bridge to the next hill, the next idea. As we approach, and I prepare to give a response, I find my second problem.

“Mm,” I try. “Mmmm.”

“Sorry? What’s that? This is you, Manon, right?”

I feel more annoyed than appalled. I seem to be unable to make much of a sound; vibrations travel up from my voice box, but it’s difficult to open my mouth. It’s as though it’s been glued shut. The more I think about it, the more my entire throat feels stuffed – clogged with something that feels like tufts of Kleenex, or cotton candy.

Somehow, I survive the phone call with Jack without being able to donate many sounds apart from muffled tones. He gathers that he just woke me up and promises to call later. Before he hangs up, he hauls me along for another monologue, just as familiar as the last one.

When I am freed, I experiment with my mouth. I feel something snap as I strain to open it as wide as possible – not a brittle snap, but the squishy, squelchy feel of strings of chewing gum being pulled apart. Whatever is blocking my throat is soft and sticky. I have a pretty good guess as to what it is. I shove my finger between my teeth and manage to snag some of it in the crook of my finger. I pull it out for a closer inspection; it’s wet from my saliva, but I rub it across my fingers and peer at it.

As I thought, I conclude. Spiderweb. I direct a reproachful thought to the spider in my chest.

I can’t help it, the spider says defensively. I didn’t think you’d mind.

I make it to the bathroom around eleven o’clock that morning. I should probably have gotten up earlier, but somehow I convinced myself to lie back down, close my eyes, and lose myself in the twisting tunnels of my duvet, surrounded by softness, warmth, and the smell of clean linen sheets. I turn on the lights in the bathroom despite the sunlight streaming in through the window; I stretch my mouth open and angle it toward the mirror, trying to see down into the depths of my throat. The back of my mouth resembles a clump of cloud; the strands of spiderweb crisscross in front of each other so that it all looks like a white fuzz.

I scoop out as much of the webs as I can with my toothbrush, but my gag reflex proves troublesome. I try to flush it out with water, too, but the spider’s web is resilient, and while I feel the tapestry in my throat loosen, there’s no hope of getting it all out. The spider in my chest squirms through my ministrations.

After giving up, I figure I’ll have to go through the day with a cobwebbed throat. A small, golden wind has picked up in the meantime, and I accompany Odo on a walk. I skip breakfast; having spiderwebs in my throat has gnawed away at my appetite. This time, I don’t steer us into the forest. Instead, we follow the dirt track that spears its way through the woodland to the village. For half a second, I consider trekking all the way in and stopping by the clinic. But I don’t feel a doctor will be much help. As soon as I get over the heartbreak, the spider will leave of its own accord.

Go into the trees, the spider sings as I walk. Let’s go into the forest.

I am adamant. I am still irritated about the cobwebs, and am loath to give the spider in my chest anything to be happy about. I focus on the ruts in the road formed by tire-tracks, and I listen to looping threads of cricket-song and bird-chirp. The spider sulks in my chest; I can feel its legs digging deeper into my muscles and my bones. Something flutters in the crevices of my mind, and some part of me longs to step off the road, to feel leaf-carpet underfoot and find all the oldest shadows between the trees. It’s the spider’s doing, and it makes me uneasy. With sweaty palms, I spin around and we return to the house.

There’s not much good waiting for me there. As I pull my phone from my pocket, the screen lights up with a missed call: it’s from Claire. The spider in my chest shivers and I feel its legs twitch. It’s not unexpected that she would check in on me. When she told me yesterday that she was engaged, I said nothing to her; the phone screen faded to black, message read but unanswered. I sat like a slug, squatting on my own silent slime. I let my coffee get cold and then I washed the dishes.

I don’t know how to explain my silence. I count it a blessing that I can’t talk. I will write to her, I decide, and tell her I’m sick, with a headache, a fever, and a sore throat. I will promise to talk to her more later. And I will tack on a congratulations at the end to prove that I read her message.

I tell myself I’ll do it as soon as I wash my hands. Instead, I bustle through my garden, and take special care to water my pathetic tomatoes. When I make it back inside, the phone is ringing. I pick up out of anxiety; it’s Claire. I curse myself. The spider’s legs are trembling, sending tremors up my blood vessels. My head is pounding already and she hasn’t spoken a word.

“Manon? Is it you? I didn’t hear anything from you yesterday. Are you okay?”

I attempt to make a sound, delivering a bout of incoherent mumbling.

“Sorry? I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

I manage to croak out a syllable – “sore” comes out, mangled by the silk nets in my throat.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Are you sick? I’m so sorry.”

“Mmm,” I say, relieved. In a few moments I will hang up and pretend the connection cut out. The spider is entrenched deep over my heart, and the pressure builds the longer I stay on the line. Claire’s voice is cool and temperate as always, and it sends me back to my best memories, the ones that glow the brightest. She is saying something, but I lose track of the words; I let myself catch on the sounds, the way they glide together, the glissando of her speech. Behind it, I can hear a meshwork of other noises: someone else’s laughter, the screech of wind, and the slow crash of waves. This is her life, I think to myself as I close my eyes. This is where she belongs.

“Manon, are you hearing me?”

Where do I belong?

“Mmm.” I’m suddenly sure that the spider in my chest is growing. Its weight is almost unbearable now, crushing my heart beneath its fat body; and its legs lengthen, too, becoming dark, knobbly swords curving around my side. I am afraid that my ribcage will explode; or that a leg will pop one of my lungs, or that my heart will be pulped to a sludgy mess of blood and tissue. Hang up, I tell myself. Hang up.

“I really hope you can come to the wedding,” Claire is telling me. “I know we’re far away, ‘lost on the Scottish moor’ as you once wrote, and that you hate leaving your little town. But I would love for you to meet Oliver. And after all – you’re my best friend. You have to be there to pledge me away!”

“Mmm.”

“Look, Oliver wants to meet you, too – he’s dying to know who you really are, he says. He even offered to pay for your ticket – I told him no way, she’s a published author, she earns enough – ”

“Mmm.”

“I keep forgetting you’re sick. Listen, I’ll go now, please take care of yourself. And write back to me soon about the wedding. Love you, Manon!”

The line goes dead. My throat is thick with spiderwebs and the want to cry.

Let’s go into the forest, whispers the spider in my chest.

No, I hiss back. No, there’s nothing for me in the forest.

Let’s go into the forest, begs the spider in my chest.

And soon I am running. I have no shoes, I have no coat; copper sunlight bathes my bare arms and crowns me in amber. Odo yelps and scurries after me. I tear through my garden, and I see that the trees are reaching out with their bony fingers. The forest invaginates me; it swallows me whole, and folds around me. Odo barks at my heels. The spider in my chest is elated. Its legs tickle my ribs with excitement.

I run until the patches of sky visible through the canopy are pomegranate-red. Somewhere along the way, Odo and I became separated. It hurts me to lose him but I have to hope he will find me again. There’s a rational part of my mind that shushes the storm in my head: it tells me I’m not in my right mind, but I keep going.

I crumple over a snowy-white boulder carpeted in lichen. My eyes drift over the things around me; I see symbols, pictures written into white birch-bark, secrets left behind by moss lettering and fairy-feet. Patterns are etched into the soil beneath me; worn roots curl into spirals, and mushrooms, bearded with mold, make ancient villages in the shadow of the trees. It is darkening and my thoughts are clear of Claire’s voice. I think the spider has stopped growing, for now. It is unmoving, serene with pleasure. I fall asleep with the rock as my pillow.

My dreams are harvested from my memories. They make me antsy and show me things that are no longer real. Claire and I are best friends, they claim; we trust each other more than anything, they say. Swear it, I challenge them, but they make no reply. They show me the faces of my other friends, the girls who I entrusted with gossamer dreams, who drifted away one by one. I feel Claire’s shoulder blades jutting against my hands as I hug her goodbye at the airport. She is going to Scotland to study. She is going to come back, she vows. Everything will be as it always was.

I awake under the eye of the stars. Get moving, counsels the spider. They are coming to find
you.

My throat feels stuffed again. I send a tentative finger into my mouth – while I slept, the spider wove more webs. My breath comes out hot and droopy against my teeth. My esophagus swelters from the weight of the spiderwebs. I am sure they have doubled in number since I fell asleep. When I lurch to my feet, my stomach is unsettled. I wonder if it’s because I didn’t eat anything.

They are coming for you, the spider chants. We have to get moving.

That’s when I hear the barking. It’s Odo; and when I look behind me, I see the white sway of a flashlight. Odo has brought Leslie, the mailman, to search for me. “Manon! Where are you?”

The spider is right. I can’t let them find me. I entertained the thought of going to the doctor earlier today, but now I see that it is unthinkable. I imagine how my X-ray would look. They would see my body, all blue and wispy, and then right over my heart, a hulking bulb with eight legs and countless eyes. Nobody would ever trust me again; I would be the crazy writer who let a spider live in her chest. I have to overcome my heartbreak on my own, and then the spider will leave me.

I lance into the trees. My feet are bloody and cracked from sprinting over fallen twigs, and my socks are soaked. At the moment, though, my greatest discomfort comes from my stomach. It gurgles and wrings itself about; white-hot flares travel up to my brain, and my shoulders tremble with chills.

I check over my shoulder; the flashlight has vanished, for now. I lean against a tree, feel the rough bite of the bark scratch against my neck. I drop my hand to my middle. I feel something – a lump stretching at the walls of my stomach. My fingers probe it gently. It’s spongy, and it’s not smooth, but ribbed with bumps. I can hear it sloshing in my digestive fluids.

It’s an egg sac, I realize. Those are your eggs.

The spider gives me no reply. Its body is filled with an electrical thrill. It is listening to some song in the forest that I cannot hear.

I should be horrified that the spider laid its eggs inside of me. The egg sac protrudes against my hand, and I wonder what it would look like in the X-ray. I also wonder what I will do when they hatch. I sit down and heave my hand against my chest, where the spider pushes against my heart.

When I was first published, all of my friends wrote to me, even the ones that had already gone – moved, gotten married, fallen out of contact. They told me they were proud and that they had always believed in me. Claire was the most ecstatic: she saw the success of my first novel as proof that I could accomplish anything. She almost made me buy into the idea that the world was mine for the taking. She winked at me and told me she looked forward to reading my next book. There was no way for either of us to know, then, that there would not be another book. That I wouldn’t be able to move on. That I couldn’t live beyond the past.

The night wind cuts into me. Run, the spider urges. I think it’s worried for its eggs. The pangs of pain in my stomach are intolerable; I cannot run. But I do haul myself to my feet, and I limp on, my hand brushing against branches. The sharpest twigs lacerate my palm, slicing it open, but it feels good when warm blood pours over the welts.

Run! The spider is shrieking at me. Its legs patter restlessly; I know that it is jittery. But I feel oddly calm. There is the music of the forest at night to wrap around me as I walk, to settle over my shoulders like a mantle, and the crickets hop alongside my steps.

What will you do, the spider screams from inside my chest, if they find you? You will never be normal again. They will cast you out! You will lose all that you are.

If my throat was not plugged with spiderweb, I would use my voice and speak aloud so that the forest could know this, too. All I am is the past.

Claire is never coming back to me. She will get married in Scotland and she will never be mine again. And if she isn’t mine, then I cannot be hers. If I am not hers, if I am not theirs, what is there left for me to be?

The forest closes in around me, embracing me in a blanket of silver and black. I can almost fool myself into thinking I belong here. I can no longer write. I have no one left to trust. What better place for me than floating in this ocean of grass and sky, of tree and mud?

We have to go! The spider writhes inside me and leaves tangles of agony in my chest.

My life has changed, but I haven’t, I tell the spider. I have already lost all that I was.

The forest draws me in closer; I feel its ancient shadows snake over my arms, curve around my ankles like magic bracelets.

Deeper, deeper, pleads the spider. Let’s go faster.

The forest is changing me; and why not, I reflect, let it choose who I should be? The spider is fearful, but it presses me to go on. With each step, Odo and Leslie tumble further behind, and I shed a follicle of my skin, becoming something else, something other than whatever I thought I could be.

I wasn’t ready for metamorphosis when things changed for me, I confess to the spider. I couldn’t evolve the way Claire did. But like this, I don’t need to think about changing. I can just let it happen.

Keep going, the spider whines. Its legs constrict my chest with their girth. Keep going.

I am about to, but something makes me stop. The spider practically deflates in disappointment. It twitters furious sounds of concern, and demands what’s wrong. I see someone in front of me, although that little rational part of my brain is perfectly aware that there is no one really there. My mind has conjured a figure, a human figure with two arms, two legs, and a face.

At first, I think I know who it will be: this is Claire, come back to claim my identity. She comes closer, though, and I waver. It is not Claire. There is a different feel around her, a texture that I know well but struggle to place.

Who is it? The spider swells with anger in my chest.

It’s Manon, I say. It’s me.

A Manon I had never become. A Manon rooted in the past – but beyond it.

She evaporates, dissolving like sand in the wind when I reach out and touch her. That’s all right, I reason; I created her anyhow. She is me but changed. Not changed by the forest, but by my own self. Changed by the river of thought that flows within my very soul, changed as I ride the waves of time into my future. Odo’s howls reach my ear, and I cannot think of a reason to take another step. The forest crunches together; it huddles into itself, recoils from me not in distaste, but in understanding. I am not its creature.

I bend down and lie on my back. Stars wheel overhead like silver carousels. The wind sings to me – will it sing me to sleep?

Before it has a chance, there is a searing, tearing wail. It is the spider in my chest; it has become engorged, and for the first time I can see the mound of its body straining against my breast, a bulge beneath my white tee-shirt. There is no room for fear left in me. The spider is fiery with rage; its legs spasm, drumming erratically against my bones, so that I can feel the vibrations thudding all along my spine. That rational part of me knows what is about to happen, and I know there is nothing I can do to stop it.

The spider bursts out of my chest in a fountain of blood and cartilage. It has ripped itself from my body – flaps of my skin dangle uselessly from the gaping hole, and a spray of blood showers my face. Even the rational part of my brain cannot rationalize the pain – having your chest turned into a volcano, your own blood scalding like lava is unfathomable, so I almost don’t feel it.

The spider’s enormous black body spurts from the hole, its beady eyes glossed over with my blood, clawing its way out with its long, nimble legs. It doesn’t spare a moment to say goodbye; it lunges off of me, and skitters away into the darkness. After all, I have rejected it. I chose my own change.

The next thing I feel is a second eruption, a smaller one, deep in the rugae of my stomach. The egg sac has popped; the eggs have hatched. I can feel them now, a legion of tiny, eight-legged dots, scrambling in my stomach. Some of the spiders are dissolved by my stomach acids and digestive enzymes; I feel sorry for them when I hear their high-pitched, dying squeals.

But others succeed in fighting their way through my cardiac sphincter, and they clamber their way out of the stomach and up my esophagus. They ravage their way up to my throat and I turn onto my front so that they can cascade out of my mouth, a whole army of glistening baby spiders, taking with them all the shreds of their mother’s spidersilk. When the last of them has finally dropped from my lips, I fall onto my back, and feel my blood leak into my shirt.

“Finally,” I say, now that my throat has cleared, “it’s just me again.”

Odo trots up and buries his head in my hair, and there is Leslie, his flashlight falling on the gaping hole in my chest where the spider once nestled. Either Odo or Leslie tells me not to worry, that someone is on their way to help. Privately, both Odo and Leslie doubt I will live, but they’re wrong. I’ll make it. Moonlight pours into my chest, spilling rivers of pearly white over my heart. It’s lucky, I think, that my heart isn’t broken.

Vera Hadzic is a writer from Ottawa, Ontario, studying English literature at the University of Ottawa. In the past, her poetry has been published in online publications and in youth anthologies. Currently, she is expanding her academic and artistic interests, and exploring short fiction, speculative fiction, and poetry.

photo by Peter Oslanec (via unsplash)

Stitches—Samuel Best

It has been one week since the surgery and my stomach still feels taught and tender; the skin around my abdomen yellowed with bruising, a meaty red line bisecting me where my appendix used to be. If I look closely I can make out the white threads of stitching keeping my insides inside. If I think about it enough I can feel that there is something different beyond the scar now.

It had started as a stomach ache. Maybe I had eaten some bad food, I had thought, and I passed it off as the noodles I had eaten the day before. But later that night there was a shift. The squirming pain moved down and round, and I lay in my bed sweating and shaking and Googling symptoms. I went to hospital and they waved me through like they were expecting me. It happens all the time, I was told. I was lucky I came in when I did. Some people were past saving by the time they thought to seek help. In the olden days that stomach ache was a death sentence.

They processed me smoothly and before I knew it I had a drip in my arm and a little cup of pills to stop me feeling the burning inside my body. I feel like I’m digesting myself, I told the nurse. He told me he’d actually had a patient like that once. Her stomach eating itself. Her cheeks sunken with irony. Her skeleton starting to shine through her skin. They talked me though the operation and asked me to sign a form I was too blurry to read properly. Then they wheeled me in and I stared at the ceiling tiles as the world around me whirled into nothingness.

When I woke up I felt like I had been in a car accident. My whole body ached through the painkillers. The doctor came to the foot of my bed and told me that the operation was a success, that he’d never seen an appendix so inflamed, that I should thank my stars I came in when I did. He made a joke about something medical I didn’t quite get and left. I was sent home the next morning.

Since then I’ve started each morning the same way. I unfold myself from my bed like a paper crane, hoping the delicate wound won’t split me in half as I rise, and go through to the bathroom. The light above the mirror shows everything as it is and I turn back and forth, watching my skin try to knit itself back together. Some days the redness seems to blaze with anger, some days the surrounding skin seems like it’s made of wax or clay. Then I shower with a plastic bag taped to my stomach and dress in loose-fitting clothes for another day of pills and box-set TV shows.

They’d given me a few leaflets to take home with me but there’s one in particular I keep coming back to. It talks a lot about post-op care but there’s one little paragraph which keeps catching my eye. It talks about how many people feel a strange sensation inside their bodies after surgery. A numbness, some people reported, or a swelling sensation. Some people felt as if their innards had been entirely rearranged; their hearts beating too far to the right, their lungs inflating too close to their pelvis. I always think about this when I stand in front of the mirror.

There are some mornings where I think I can still feel my appendix, even though I had never felt it before when it was actually in there. There are mornings where I feel a bubbling, squirming sensation; as if an eel were wriggling its way through my body. There are mornings where I swear I can feel the rubber touch of the doctor’s fingers inside my abdomen. There is a number to call on the leaflet but I have never bothered with it yet. Most time I just remind myself that it is a common side-effect of surgery, that lots of people feel this way, and then I go back to the couch to take my next antibiotic.

This morning is no different. The thoughts come to me like usual. The certainty that there is something different at my core. Something moved or moving. Something still shifting inside me. I tell myself it’s nothing. It’s nothing. I look at my scar and the puckering of stitches they said would slowly dissolve as I heal. I look at the ripple of bruising around it. I imagine how much force, how much trauma, my body endured while I was unconscious. I think about how some memories are memories, living inside your head, while some are injuries, scarred into your flesh. And then I see it.

The skin above my scar paling slightly, like I’m rolling it through my fingers, squeezing out the blood. It’s a small area, no bigger than my hand, perhaps. I fix my eyes on it as my mouth turns clammy and tart. Slowly, I push my fingers into the pale area. It feels swollen and puffy and cold. I press my skin harder and the paleness gives way to pinkness again, and the swelling goes down. Except it doesn’t disappear. It moves. Underneath my scar now, by my hip, my skin grows swollen and pallid. A visible lump pushes out like a hernia.

My mind whirrs with thoughts. I remember reading about a patient who sued the hospital after a surgeon stitched her up leaving a glove inside her. Another who’d been found with a surgical tool left behind. I taste vomit and sweat pools on my skin. I press and press and each time the lump moves. It pushes at the scar next and I nearly faint as the raw skin stretches and seeps. There is a moment where I think I can see something behind the stitching, where the skin has split open again. Something pale and pulsing; something coiled and raw.

But when I push my fingers down I can’t see it anymore and the swelling moves to a different part of my skin again. I remind myself that thoughts like this are a common side-effect after surgery, that lots of people think that they see or feel strange things like this. I tell myself that all of this will heal in time. I turn the shower on and tape the water-proof bag around my abdomen, the surging mass in my stomach disappearing under glossy black plastic. The hot water stings my skin and I wash carefully while my hospital leaflet lies by the sink. It curls and coils in the condensation as I tell myself again that all of this will heal in time.

Samuel Best‘s short fiction has been published in magazines in Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. His début novel ‘Shop Front’ has been described as ‘A howl and a sigh from Generation Austerity’ and he founded the literary magazines Octavius and Aloe. You can find him on social media @storiesbysamuel.   

photo by Günter / moritz320 (via pixabay)

Little Man—Charlotte Turnbull

It was his mother who wanted to keep the little man. At eleven-years-old Charlie still trusted her decisions, on the whole, but he didn’t think it would make a good pet. The boy didn’t want it in the house – he didn’t like the way it looked at her.

The thing was unconscious when Alice wrapped it in her waterproof jacket. She stroked its tiny arms to the sides of its body and bound it tight in breathable plastic. She barely felt the inflation of its tissue-thin lungs. One hand braced against the other so as not to crush it accidentally, she rushed up the path to the house – trying to keep its passage steady.

‘Find the bucket,’ she shouted to Charlie.

The little fellow had come around, easing his chin this way, then that, releasing his long beard where it had caught between her fingers. Huge black eyes, in a head the size of her thumb, blinked slowly then fixed upon her.

Theirs was a small cottage in the crook of the moor’s arm, garden brittle with granite and gorse. It had been Charlie’s only home, but there was a shy echo between them once his father had removed his belongings. Alice even found herself worrying that their elderly cat might die, leaving only the two of them.

On the last day of the holidays, Charlie started when his mother opened his bedroom door without knocking. She walked in, drew breath to speak, and paused.

‘What’s that?’ She sniffed.

‘What’s what?’ Charlie squawked unexpectedly, his voice breaking for the first time and amplified by the quiet. Charlie’s hands went straight to his own throat, to throttle the falsetto. Alice flinched, then laughed too lightly, unsettling herself with the silly idea that her son was possessed – that she was cohabiting with a new, unwanted housemate.

She threw up a window and suggested the walk.

Even in heavy rain Charlie and Alice preferred to be outside, their tread softened by thick needle mulch. Among the mossy boles that day the only cry was that of the buzzard. They shuffled home across a slippery welt of black stones over the river, and brushed through ferns to walk by the low granite stone rows that just about constituted a site of antiquity on a map. On walks with both parents, Charlie had always followed his mother, passing the shorter, sharp-ended standing stones, his father on the other side, passing along the taller ones. Now, feeling sullen and resentful, Charlie passed along his father’s old route. The cottage flashed at him through the pillars, like it was trying to keep him in sight, when he felt a pain in his foot and stopped. He braced himself on one of the slabs to upend his boot. A stone fell out and hit the creature, who would otherwise be easily mistaken for leaf mould, on the crown of his head.

‘Mummy!’ Alice ran back, alarmed by the sudden height to Charlie’s voice.

The pisky rubbed its head, looked balefully up at them, then collapsed unconscious.

‘Thank goodness you didn’t hurt him.’ Alice said.

It was naked but for the long beard between its legs. Slumped against the side, the pisky did not even glance at Charlie when he and his mother loomed, as giants, at the rim of the bucket on the kitchen table. It was inert, enthralled by his mother, making no effort to scale its smooth plastic walls.

‘Isn’t he sweet?’ Alice cooed. Its mouth curled up at her tone. The gaunt face; grassy dun-coloured hair, thin on top; stained beard and marble of a belly – Charlie wondered what his mother saw. Its lips peeled back to a mouthful of sharp black seeds. Alice clapped her hands delighted, and Charlie felt sick.

Instead of towelling his hair dry, his mother sent Charlie out into the rain again to collect moss and leaves. She prepared a ramekin of water with bread and cheese. They put it all in the bucket, but the little man continued to leer without moving. Alice mimed eating but still it didn’t move. She placed a morsel of bread on her tongue, and the pisky’s tongue rolled out – Alice pressed a crumb to it. ‘Charlie! He’s feeding from me!’

They had planned to bring their duvets to the sofa, to watch a film on their last afternoon at home. Charlie didn’t mention it as his mother squealed, letting the creature suck water from her fingertips. The little man grinned at her, lowering his face, black eyes narrowed under thick, nettle-leaf brows. Charlie shuddered. He took the cat to his bedroom, for time alone.

Wired for starting secondary school, Charlie heard his mother creep downstairs during the night to check on the thing in the bucket. He heard her whispers and wondered if she would come to the crack of his door too. He waited up late, then woke too early, unrested and shaky for his first day.

Charlie tipped the sandwich his mother had made him out of the lunchbox and was looking for a plastic bag to put it in, when she came down to find the thing had soiled itself.

‘I don’t want to be late.’ Charlie called from the kitchen, hearing his father’s car pull up outside. He stood on tiptoe to unbolt the door. When Alice didn’t appear to say goodbye, he went into the living room. She was singing Froggy Went A-Courting softly and running moist cotton wool gently across a tiny naked rump. The pisky, bent over, smirking back at her.

‘Bye,’ Charlie said. His mother smiled up at him. ‘I can’t wait to hear all about it this afternoon. Keep Little Man our secret. We wouldn’t want anyone taking him away,’ she said. She stood up to run her hand over soft hair gelled stiff, but Charlie ducked, so she blew him a kiss with one hand instead – the hand holding dirty cotton wool.

Charlie spent that weekend with his father. Alice spent Saturday at the kitchen table sewing a tiny pair of green felt trousers, tunic, and pointed hat – the bucket on a chair beside her.

She was wearied by the sleepless nights, but the little face looking back at her whenever she glanced at it made up for that. Every couple of hours she woke to rustling leaves downstairs. She would blearily finger-feed it a little milk and wipe it down. She dug out their old baby bottles but it would not accept the rubber teat, like Charlie hadn’t.

That night she fed it titbits from her salmon and vegetables, even giving it a drop of Sauvignon. She talked to it softly. It hung on her every word. It was lovely company, except when she lost sight of its hands beneath the beard, which was why she was making the clothes.

On Sunday morning she came down and found it still fast asleep. For a second, she worried it was ill. She stroked it and it came to snarling at her finger, then, remembering where it was, grinned at her with hooded eyes.

The cat was at the door trying to get outside, when she noticed the fur matted with white discharge under its tail. She hoped it had brushed up against something and wasn’t ill. In the kitchen she was surprised to find the wine bottle out on the table, uncapped and empty on its side. She hadn’t realised she’d finished it. It wasn’t like her not to put an empty straight into the recycling box, but there was no other explanation.

When Charlie was dropped home, his father stood on the doorstep, awkward as always now.

‘Is Charlie alright?’ he said. ‘He was a bit quiet.’

‘He doesn’t like meeting strangers.’ Alice folded her arms, but felt something like relief.

That night, she brought down their duvets to watch a film with popcorn. But halfway through the pisky tore the seams apart on its new tunic and trousers. It kicked the clothes into a pile then urinated over them. Disappointed, Alice sewed them back together in the kitchen, and fed it a bit of biscuit.

She missed the end of the film and found Charlie staring at the black glow of the credits.

‘You’ve missed the end,’ he said.

‘I don’t mind.’ She put her arms out to him, but he pulled away, dragging his duvet up the stairs to bed. He’d barely touched his popcorn, so she boxed it up to use as snacks for the little man.

Two weeks later it was Charlie’s birthday. The box on the kitchen table was huge. At breakfast Charlie slurped smoothie through a bendy straw, unable to keep a smile from his face.

‘You’ll never guess. Open it.’ Alice laughed.

But Charlie wanted to delay the pleasure – enjoying the attention, despite himself. He tapped it. It was hard, firm, hollow, cold.

‘Is it a book?’ He pressed his temples, grinning.

‘Come on,’ Alice was suddenly short. ‘I want to set it up.’

Charlie ripped open a large glass fish tank.

‘What’s it for – ’ he spoke slowly, not wanting to sound ungrateful.

‘Our Little Man!’ His mother squeaked at him.

Alice arranged the tank as she thought the pisky might like it. She had looked into cages too, but for some reason thought the tank was safer. The leaves and moss were in one corner, the ramekin in another. She had even taken Charlie’s old box of clitter collected from the tors and stacked the rocks up into a tiny folly, of sorts. But when the lid went on, the pisky threw the rocksagainst the glass front until the lid came back off.

‘Lid off?’ Alice spoke loudly, pointing at the lid. ‘Lid. Off?’

‘Why didn’t you get it a house?’ Charlie said, suddenly pitying the wild creature, scarlet, panting, with no privacy.

‘Because it might run away,’ she said.

They ate birthday pizza from their knees in the living room with the tank. The pisky pressed itself against the glass. Its face crushed flat, monstrous in miniature. Alice offered it a nibble of pizza, but the melted cheese caught in its throat. She held it by the feet, and flicked its back. It spat a little, recovered. She balled it tight against her chest.

‘Don’t worry, Charlie,’ she said, calming down. ‘He’s OK, see?’

Charlie watched it smile, sliding filthy toes into the shadow of his mother’s labouring chest. He lost his appetite. The cake didn’t even make it out of the cellophane before it was time for him to go.

Charlie opened the door to his father, who wore a party hat and feather boa, singing Happy Birthday To You at the top of his voice. Charlie wrapped his arms around him and was half carried down the path.

Alice closed the door before they’d passed out of the front gate. She had found patterns for dolls clothes on the internet and bought some expensive woollen tweed.

Charlie tried to finish his homework at the kitchen table. He could hear his mother in the living room. She’d bought a doll’s wardrobe, a miniature bed frame for the leaves and moss, and a dining table with six chairs for visitors it would never receive. She liked to spend time with it in the evenings and tonight it wore its new formal clothes happily – stroking the waistcoat; posing, one hand on a hip, the other running through its long beard. She was working on a second set, in midnight blue silk.

‘Don’t do that.’ She reprimanded it quietly. ‘I’m not laughing.’

Charlie knew what it was doing. He knew where its hands were. It had lived with them for a month now, and Charlie still wanted to put it back where they found it. ‘But it wouldn’t survive now,’ his mother had said firmly. ‘It needs us.’ Yet when she came down in the mornings Alice sometimes found threads of moss on the kitchen table, leaf skeleta on the sofa – it would never settle with the lid on its tank.

‘I’ve had enough,’ Alice snapped. ‘You never listen to me.’

Charlie couldn’t concentrate, his heart beating fast, wanting to know what would happen next. His mother staggered through the kitchen, buckling beneath the heavy glass tank. Charlie stood quickly, reaching to share the weight.

‘Stay out of this, Charlie,’ she said, so he sat back down. He heard the trap door to the old grain cellar whine open in the utility room.

‘Would you like to stay down here, or would you like to behave properly?’ Alice trudged, carefully, step by step. Charlie smelt the drifting peaty darkness. ‘Stop that! You horrible little thing.’

The lid was slammed back on, something heavy thudded on top of it. Alice dashed up the cellar stairs to run her finger under the tap at the kitchen sink. Water rushed into a tiny wound, thinning out bright, shining blood. Charlie, still smarting himself, did not look up.

‘He bit me,’ she said, amazed. She bled for a long time.

The following morning, his mother was tense. She grimaced when she accidentally caught her finger on something – the wound deeper than it had looked.

‘I don’t feel well,’ Charlie pushed away his bowl of cereal. He suffered from pain in his belly most mornings now.

‘You’re a big boy, Charlie.’ Alice sighed. ‘Eat up.’

Charlie thought the milk seemed oiled with pale yellow. It clung where it met the sides of his bowl. He swallowed down a ball of disgust.

They left the house, both avoiding the utility room, where the open trap door still yawned boggy breath.

Charlie got home before Alice and made his own snack, filling a glass with milk, pushing bread into the toaster. It was never as nice as when she delivered it in four neat triangles, he thought, and took the lid carefully off the kettle to fill it for her. A few minutes later Alice burst through the back door, forehead still sliced up with bad mood, and rushed down into the cellar.

‘Oh!’ She emerged slowly, the pisky swooned across the cup of her hands. She winced as it lolled against the finger it had mauled. ‘Charlie, it’s sick.’ The creature’s eyelids flickered, and Charlie knew it wasn’t. ‘Shit.’ His mother had never knowingly sworn in front of him. Charlie cringed to hear the crude word of the older boys upon her lips.

‘It might be thirsty. And give me that toast.’ She fed it from his plate and his cup. The little man began to revive. ‘Bring the tank up? I can’t – ’ She nodded down at the thing cradled in her arms.

In the cellar Charlie grasped the tank with wide arms. Its corners were sharp, the glass slippery. Concentrating hard to place his feet home on each of the narrow cellar steps, he was glad to get it back to the living room. He balled his hands to hide red palms. It had been heavier than he expected.

The rest of that week, Alice spoiled the pisky; feeding it from her good finger; leaving the room when she saw things she didn’t want to see. Charlie barely left his bedroom, but because of her sore finger he was forced to help his mother make nutritionally-sophisticated meals, much more involved than the food they heated up for themselves. She unthinkingly passed him knives he had never been permitted to touch as her finger got worse not better.

‘I’ll be scarred.’ She laughed, rolling her eyes. ‘With the shape of his little mouth.’

Her bandages yellowed with pus, smelling rich and nutty; Charlie had to remind her to change them.

‘Are you OK?’ Charlie asked one morning when he brushed past her and she yelped.

She smiled, stroked his cheek, but said nothing. Charlie stopped mentioning his tummy aches. He worried for her wet eyes and mallow pink cheeks. Her hair had become knotted as she stopped washing it. She kept the finger raised, except when driving, binding her forearm up and across her heart, so it could not get in the way.

That Friday night, Charlie found his mother slumped over the kitchen table with a baby-weaning book.

‘I think I’ve caught something,’ she said, wiping sweat from her forehead, passing him the book. ‘Can you feed Little Man?’

Charlie watched her limp the stairs to bed before shoving the book into the kitchen bin. In the living room, the creature was adjusting its cuffs, smoothing its lapels. It glanced at him and looked away. Charlie turned off the lights and went upstairs.

All evening he heard his mother’s bed creak and moan across the hallway as she struggled to rest. At midnight Charlie took her his own glass of water.

‘My lovely boy,’ she said, gulping it down, her eyes full of stars.

‘What shall I do?’ he asked, weakly.

‘I’m OK, pudding. You go to bed,’ she said.

A crash came from the kitchen, but his mother had fallen back into her hot fever.

Charlie looked at the string dispenser rolling to and fro on the floor in the moonlight. The creature took a length of string and lassoed it around the fridge handle. It turned, string across its shoulder, and heaved with a black-toothed grimace, eyes squeezed shut, to break the seal of the door. It had the incongruous strength of an insect.

It pulled up onto a shelf in the fridge door, using both arms to twist the top off a bottle. Then, balanced on the rim, it dropped its trousers and relieved itself into Charlie’s milk. It tugged up an armful of cold, hard melted cheese from the leftovers of Charlie’s pasta and vaulted onto the kitchen surface. It hurdled a teaspoon and slid across a plate tipped up to dry. The plate lost its purchase and smashed to the floor. The pisky didn’t look back. It was staring at the cat asleep in its basket.

The cat roused when the pisky touched the cheese to its nose. The cat nudged it, then took the morsel from the tiny hands, purring with satisfaction, ignoring the little man rubbing against it.

Charlie was revolted. He snatched the pisky up, trousers still around its ankles, and slammed back the bolt of the door to run out into the night.

Afterwards, Charlie curled up on the empty side of his mother’s bed, wiping a flannel across her face, offering her the paracetamol she kept in a prohibited cupboard in the bathroom. He read the instructions and took note of each time he gave her a dose, keeping an eye on the yellow curd creeping from under the bandage across her tight grey skin.

When it got light, he went downstairs and called the doctor.

‘You were very lucky. Any later and the infection might have spread to the whole hand,’ the surgeon said, on her discharge round.

‘I feel like I’ve lost a limb,’ Alice said, sore and low now the anaesthetic had worn off.

‘It’s only a finger. You’ll get used to it. This young man’ll help.’ She wondered who the doctor was talking about, then noticed Charlie on her other side.

When the doctor left the room, Alice placed her good hand into Charlie’s.

‘What about my little man?’ she asked, slurring.

‘Dunno,’ Charlie shrugged. ‘Think it ran away.’

‘Oh,’ she said, with a small, sad smile. She lifted her good hand to stroke his face, wondering when it had become so gaunt. ‘Could you open the window a crack, pudding?’ she said.

Charlotte Turnbull graduated from Oxford University and spent many years in in production and development for UK film and television. She now writes for television from Dartmoor, where she lives with her family. She had her first short story published this summer in Mslexia magazine and has another forthcoming this autumn in Crow & Cross Keys. She is @CharlieRatpig on Twitter.

photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)