The windowpane frosted as Alex stared out beyond the backyard and the subdivision, into a field glossy with snow and moonlight. The star-mottled sky was a deep blue, as if the chilly air itself was breathless, and the pale moon was circumscribed sharply, cleanly, with no mist or moisture to blur its dreaming lobe. Alex moved a brontosaurus off the windowsill, fixing his eyes again on the distant hills. The hills were black in the distance, and all else between lay suffused in waxy, wintry starlight. The elms and the oaks to the left of the field were coated in ice, like white coral, and their crystalline branches did not stir. The air itself did not stir, but was inert and lifeless in the frigidity of a frozen February night.
Alex held his breath, squinting at a horizon undulating with hills. Though a uniform blackness, there was one hill among the rest which he knew did not belong. It was a stranger, and an imposter.
Downstairs, Alex’s father was asleep on the couch, a Nature program still playing, the narrator’s soothing voice muffled by the floor. Alex’s mother had gone to bed an hour before. Alex had been shooed to bed an hour before that, yet had not fallen asleep. Instead, he had slipped quietly out of bed to hold vigil as he had for the past three nights.
The distant hill rumbled, and Alex pressed his face against the cold windowpane, his breath fogging the glass. The hill that did not belong was now moving. But his parents did not rouse from sleep, though the house trembled. At first he had thought the movement was a trick of moonlight and his imagination, but as he watched the bristle-backed hill he came to mark its progress in his memory. The tremors had become stronger, too, and the hill larger as it came closer.
The house trembled again, and dogs barked throughout the subdivision in a cascade of agitation. Alex’s father grumbled, rousing sleepily to curse his neighbors for their pets, and then turned up the volume on the television. The Nature narrator spoke louder, now, about bears and hibernation and the need to eat to survive Winter. Alex’s father succumbed once more to his own hibernation.
Alex stared at the bristle-backed hill huddled among the other hills. It seemed larger tonight, and, so, he knew it was closer. He wondered what it wanted, and what it would do when it finally arrived at the subdivision. He watched it for as long as he could, but toward the Witching Hour snow fell heavy and frequent. It was difficult to discern the hills from the night. Alex laid himself down in his bed again. He did not have to watch the hill. He knew it was moving closer. He did not need to see it to know. He could feel the tremors of its approach in the frame of the house.
The next morning was not bright. The heavy snow fell harder and thicker than before, packing the earth in crunchy, sparkling whiteness. The sun was a gauzy apparition behind thick-folded linen. Alex woke up late, having stayed up late for his vigil, and he came down for breakfast only to find lunch waiting for him. It was a weekday, a schoolday and a workday, and he was confused by the fact that his parents did not bother to wake him and that they were, both of them, in their pajamas.
“Snow day?” Alex asked.
His parents did not answer. Their eyes were stuck steadfastly to the television. Alex stood behind the couch, staring at the News anchorwoman on the screen. There were images of a gigantic hole in the earth, edged with the partial remains of houses, buildings, and a few cars here and there.
“A sink hole?” Alex said in alarm.
“Don’t worry, baby,” his mother said. She did not take her eyes from the screen. “It happened farther down the road. New Hope. No one from here was harmed.”
“No one we know, at least,” her husband said.
Alex immediately thought of the hill and the tremors in the night. “It could happen here,” he said.
His mother turned around in the couch and smiled at him. Her smile could not hide the worry in her face. “No one fracks around here, sweetie,” she said. “It won’t happen here.” She looked at her husband. “Right, honey?”
“Sure,” his father said. “Still, it’s crazy. Who would have thought that a sink hole would open up and swallow all of New Hope? It’s a good thing we decided to settle here. We could be the ones in that big pit right now.”
Alex’s mother frowned at Alex’s father, then turned toward Alex again, trying to smile again.
“It won’t happen here,” she repeated.
She stared at the television again as the anchorwoman read the total number of people missing and/or presumed dead. Over ten-thousand people had disappeared without a trace, all in a baffling, blinking instant. No one seemed to have any answers as to how or why.
It did not like the light. Alex was certain of this. When the snowstorm blew over, and the sun came out, the hill was gone. There was no trace of if anywhere. Only a gap remained between the two hills where the imposter formerly resided. This knowledge did not reassure Alex. He knew about nocturnal animals from school, and knew that they were no better or worse than animals that hunted by day, but the hill’s preference for the dark still struck him keenly with dread. His father had often told him not to be afraid of the dark—that there was nothing that could harm him, even at night. But Alex knew about rattlesnakes, and coyotes, and mountain lions. And Alex knew about the black bears that lived in the woods, near the streams, and who slept in the cave system near the hills. Later that night he saw a bear in the field. The bear should have been hibernating, but it was running away.
For three days after the spider bite Johnny ’s right eye was blurry and pulsated and brimmed with pus. Johnny had been staying in the darkness of his bedroom, but on the fourth morning he went into the bathroom to look in the mirror at his swollen eye. Exposed to the light in the bathroom, the eye crawled farther back into its socket, retreating from the brightness.
Her neck was long, stretching out from her kimono like a pale snake as her body lay sleeping on her tatami. From her room, and down the hall, her head went floating, searching the paper-walled rooms of the palace for the handsome young samurai. Blade drawn, and already wet with blood, the emperor awaited her within her lover ’s room.
Call And Answer
The cornfield trembled beneath the Harvest moon, and so, too, did Maggie, fearfully holding her doll to her chest. Somewhere in the corn rows the scarecrow walked, calling out with his dry, straw-tongued voice. After a time, Maggie ’s doll called out in answer, inviting him over.
Warren had been tracking the Great Horned Owl for months, seeking the pellets left in its wake. Sometimes at night, while alone in the woods, Warren heard voices, and even screams, as if far away, and saw orbs of light in the treetops. After Warren was confined to the asylum he continued to talk of fairies and pellets while clutching tiny skulls in his hands.
The Gallows Judge
Harold Marsh was a hanging judge who claimed no greater satisfaction than a gallows jig. Often Marsh would order a hanged man taken down, just before he could die, and then strung up and hanged again, just so he could watch the dance such men did a second, or even third, time. After retirement Marsh was found dead in his house, hung up in front of a mirror, a grin on his purple face.
Before Josh ’s first wife, Kelly, had killed herself, she vowed, “Josh would remarry over my dead body! ” And so, when Josh married Britney, his second wife, the ceremony was held atop Kelly ’s grave. True to her word, Kelly made no objections
The moon was bloated with moribund light as Phoebe walked along the desolate fields. Jagged stalks gleamed with the first frost of the year, crunching beneath Phoebe’s boots. Her shadow walked beside her, stretching out long and thin, as if mocking her short height with the taller figure she wished she possessed. Phoebe was a vain creature, especially for her thirteen years of life, and while she would have rather worn more ladylike shoes when out and about, even she bowed to the necessity of muck boots when in search of Devil’s Fen.
“Perfectly white teeth,” Phoebe said to herself. “Immaculate teeth. The best teeth in the whole county. And handsome blue eyes.”
The fields curved upward upon the hilly countryside, as if swelling like the seas at the beck of the moon and arching slowly like a groggy cat upon waking. The slow rise and fall of the slopes beneath Phoebe’s boots mirrored her breath. She scarcely trusted her own breath in the unsettling silence of that hour, for it rose phantasmally before her in the Autumn chill. She could see her immediate surroundings well enough beneath the moon, but the distant trees were black fringes from which wolves, or worse, might come bounding swiftly to catch her unawares.
This was a pilgrimage, she told herself; a pilgrimage for the sake of Love. She would not be deterred, come dragon or demon or damnation. The hag had promised Phoebe that she would have her wish fulfilled, and yet Phoebe felt misgivings amounting all around her like a pack of snarling fangs.
“Perfect teeth,” she said to herself. “Like pearls. And always grinning; always so handsome. Handsome beneath his handsome mustache and handsome blue eyes.”
The hilly fields gradually sloped downward, away from the moon. Yet, the moon illuminated the receding earth brightly, as if its glow bled and pooled here in this vast valley that deepened and drained at last toward the peat-heaped lowland known as Devil’s Fen.
“Perfect teeth,” Phoebe said, “and our children will have perfect teeth, too. And beautifully black hair. Handsome chin. And the bluest eyes.”
It was good that Phoebe wore her muck boots. Devil’s Fen was choked with water and mud, the only visible earth carpeted in moss that was so saturated that it held nothing as the cold moonlight glittered off of the scab-pocked mirror of water. Rushes and sedges grew everywhere in wilted clusters, and here and there lonely willow trees hung their heads in sorrow. From all of these did Phoebe set about gathering up the materials she would need. She had brought twine, and she uprooted rushes and reeds, cut them with a bone-knife the hag had given her, and sawed off withy from the mournful branches of the willows, stacking them all together and binding them in twine. The moon seemed to watch Phoebe as she worked among the shallow pools of festering plants. Whether it looked on in pleasure or abhorrence, Phoebe could not say. She was not given to such fanciful thoughts. She cared only for the task at hand and how it would win her the man she most desired.
And it was a man that the thirteen-year old most desired. William Clements was twenty and two and the most handsome of all the men in the county. He was brawny and broad-shouldered, had a full crown of dark black hair and bright blue eyes. Moreover, while all of these things recommended him in the admiration of the women, it was his teeth that truly shined as an endorsement of his qualities. A man with such fine teeth was a man to covet, and all the women coveted him, including Phoebe, despite her young age. Unfortunately for the women in Wischmeier county, William Clements’s blue eyes only ever followed the weaver’s daughter, Marianne Mayswell. Phoebe loathed Marianne. Marianne was fair and milky-figured, made graceful by both a healthy living and the primacy of her seventeen years of age. Though she would have never admitted it—even to herself—Phoebe could not compete with Marianne, either by figure or by feature, and despite being the daughter of the mayor, Phoebe could not induce William Clements’s fondness with either her promise of wealth or of beauty. She had tried, of course. Phoebe had her father buy several dresses and bits of jewelry with which to bedew herself as a rosebud in a golden dawn. And yet, at her rising, William only turned his head ever toward that humming afternoon sunshine that was Marianne Mayswell.
And so Phoebe had gone to the hag, and the hag had sent Phoebe here, to Devil’s Fen.
“Teeth so white and spotless,” she said to herself. “Cleaner than moonlight. Brighter than the sun.”
Her boots splashed up a puddle of mud, sullying her new dress. She did not care. It was just another dress that had failed to garner the admiration and affection she envied in Marianne. The latter could have worn a potato sack and outshone Phoebe’s most regal raiment.
Whereas Marianne sewed all of her own clothes, Phoebe received her clothes from the big cities in the Northeast, her father bringing them back with him as gifts whenever his enterprise occasioned his presence in Baltimore or New York. Her father owned a lumber mill, and was the richest man in all of Wischmeier County. He employed most of the men who did not own their own lands with which to prosper. This was also why he was the mayor, for no one dared to challenge him and his resources, nor to cross him, or question him in things concerning the town. He held power nigh absolute. The only exceptions for the mayor’s power were the matters governing the romantic hearts in Wischmeier County and, of course, the Fall Festival.
The Fall Festival was held every year, during the Harvest Moon or thereabouts. Nearly participated in the Festival. It was the catharsis of a year of hard labor, and a consolation for the bitter Winter to come. There was apple cider, and moonshine, and dancing, and storytelling. There were many contests, too, and each contest rewarded its winner with an assortment of prizes. Naturally, Phoebe had never stooped to compete in any of the contests, deeming them beneath her. Yet, the hag had foretold that Phoebe would only win her husband by fabricating her own scarecrow in the Festival’s contest.
The hag said:
“With the rush and the reed,
with both withy and need,
in the dark Devil’s Fen
will you thereby know then
your fateful groom’s grin—
most unique among men.”
Phoebe might have dismissed this prophecy as the ravings of an old crone with more cats than sense, but the more she thought about it, the more plausible it seemed. Marianne always won the scarecrow contest, year after year, for she was the best weaver and seamstress in town. Phoebe often overheard, with resentment, the men and women who spoke so fondly of Marianne’s talents. But none spoke more fondly of her scarecrows than did William Clements.
And it was this latter fact that had convinced Phoebe to take up the hag’s words in earnest. Even if Phoebe did not win William’s heart, she would at least attempt to win the scarecrow contest. She must conquer Marianne by some measure, at the least.
Phoebe stomped about the glittering waters of Devil’s Fen, gathering the materials she would need. It was a chilly night, yet the work brought a heated flush to her young face. It was as much heat of temper as of labor, for she had never worked so hard in her life, and it miffed her greatly.
Phoebe had gathered enough for the scarecrow’s body, but she was unsure what to do for the head. The hag had told her that Phoebe would know what to use to cap the fellow off when she saw it, but so far Phoebe had seen nothing that snared her attentions. Leaving her pile of materials on a mossy embankment, Phoebe dared to trudge deeper into the Fen. She walked for some time, aimless in the moonlit waters except where some preternatural instinct prevailed, and came to the heart of the fen. The moon’s reflection shivered and dissolved upon the wavelets of the fen as she halted. There, in front of her, crouching upon a peculiar stone in the center of the fen, was a fat bullfrog. It was the fattest bullfrog Phoebe had ever seen, its broad green and yellow mouth like a wry smile. Phoebe felt a keen jolt in her bones. This was the missing material she needed for her scarecrow. There was no doubt, even if there was apprehension. She expected the frog to leap away as she reached for it, but it only squatted there, surrendering to her outstretched hands. Normally, she hated frogs, and toads, and all such things squishy and slimy and given to the muck and mud. But Phoebe was so assured now that she would have her heart’s desire that she did not mind the bloated heft of the bullfrog’s flesh as it bulged between her cradling hands. She carried it back to her stack of rushes and reeds and withy with a confident, determined air.
Her materials gathered, Phoebe set to work by moonlight. How long she worked, she did not know. Hours upon hours seemed to pass, and yet the moon never descended a single hair’s breadth. Had she not been so fixated on her creation, she might have noticed such unnatural spans of unmarked time, but her heart and soul were consumed by the task, and the seductive dream wrought therefrom.
As for the frog—to be plopped atop as the scarecrow’s head—the hag had given Phoebe a pot of foul-smelling muck. Phoebe knew not what the muck was, but it was blackish-brown, like molasses, and smelled like sulphur. Taking the strangely docile frog, Phoebe dropped the bachtrachian unceremoniously into the pot. She waited for a time—again, she knew not how long, for she busied herself with other things—and then she dumped the pot out and cleaned the frog with water from the fen. The frog had lost all of its color, becoming a uniform light brown unlike the complexion of William Clements. Moreover, its slimy skin was now leathery, wrinkled, dried and stretched unnaturally until the frog’s mouth was just like a lipless smile. The head now finished, Phoebe impaled it on the scarecrow’s reedy spine and overtopped it with the withy hat. Phoebe then began the process of thickening the scarecrow’s body. Using mud, peat, and moss, she fattened the scarecrow to the dimensions of a man. Using a cattail, she gave him his manhood.
Phoebe had wanted to have one of her father’s servants to weave the scarecrow together for her, but the hag had said that no other could lay hand to the labor without spoiling the spell. By Phoebe’s work alone would the scarecrow exist, or else her groom would not be procured. Thus, Phoebe set about with a plaintive, but ultimately passionate, effort to form the figure of reeds and rushes, to stuff him full of sedges and moss and peat and mud. Over all of this she gave him a shirt she had woven from potato sacks, and britches made of wool, and instead of a straw hat, she had woven a hat made of withy from the willow.
The scarecrow was finished. It was as big and heavy as a man—a man very familiar to Phoebe, in a yearning manner—and so she left it there, in Devil’s Fen, hidden beneath a willow tree as she eagerly awaited the Fall Festival.
Phoebe began the long hike home. It seemed so much farther to walk now, going uphill out of the Fen and the valley and following, once again, the undulations of the hillocky fields. She glanced back, once, at the willow tree where she had placed her scarecrow. Moonlight glowed on the mournful tresses of the willow with a wan wistfulness. As she turned away a phlegmy cackle echoed from somewhere in the darkness of Devil’s Fen. A mallard, Phoebe thought. Nothing more.
Head heavy with exhaustion, and too much sleepless dreaming, Phoebe trudged home like a sleepwalker in want of a bed.
On the day of the Fall Festival, Phoebe requested her father’s housemaid, Millie, to fetch her husband and son and have them all aid Phoebe in transporting the scarecrow from the outskirts of the Fen to the town square where the festival was to be held. The family aided Phoebe with a wheelbarrow and wary glances. As soon as they saw the scarecrow they crossed themselves.
“You superstitious fools,” Phoebe muttered. She added, more loudly, “Hurry! I don’t want to be late for the contest!”
The father and son pushed the wheelbarrow from the Devil’s Fen up through the valley and along the undulating fields, coming to the town square. The Fall Festival was always held on the town square, in among the dogwood trees and the maples. Festoons hung from branch to branch, and large tents stood steepled on tall posts, one after another, each sheltering a contest or auction or certain games for the children. Normally, Phoebe felt nothing but disdain for the cake contests and the games of horseshoes and the poor families juggling pennies to outbid one another for novelties that would be mocked as rubbish in any affluent quarter of a New England town. But she felt excitement to see the commotion made in the bustling crowd as the wheelbarrow was pushed through to the center of the square, its limp passenger nodding with the motion like a drunkard in his cups, or a corpse drawn up out of the bog.
“Is that real, momma?” a little boy wondered aloud, his eyes wide to the whites.
“I don’t know,” the boy’s mother said, drawing him back behind herself with a protective arm. “I reckon not, but I don’t know for certain.”
Such remarks only pleased Phoebe the more. That her creation should give such misapprehension to the country bumpkins proved to her that she had made a formidable scarecrow. A more grotesque specimen was never known.
Fortune smiled upon Phoebe more that day, for the scarecrow contest was to be held in the central pavilion of the town square. This was a large wooden roof, like that belonging to a barn, only hoisted high upon tall, thick posts. The scarecrows from the other competitors had already been erected on stakes for all to see. Marianne Mayswell had her scarecrow front and center, its cloth body assuming a fine semblance to a man in caricature, from his protruding nose to his button eyes and his fine-fingered hands. The weaver’s daughter had outdone herself this year. The scarecrow’s pants were good enough for a child of equal size to wear to church, and the flannel shirt was checkered with perfect little red and black squares. Marianne’s scarecrow was superior to the other scarecrows in every way. Seeing it made Phoebe’s heart sink. It was perfect. But then she turned and looked at her own scarecrow with its all-too-human proportions and its unique fen-furnished materials. Marianne’s was perfected tradition, Phoebe thought, but Phoebe’s was unique. Strangely unique. Bizarre. Otherworldly. At the very least her simulacrum deserved due consideration by the judges, if not outright praise.
“Be careful!” Phoebe admonished her helpers as the father and son struggled under the weight of her scarecrow. “If you break it my father will have you whipped out of town!”
The father and son steadied the scarecrow—even if they trembled now more than ever—and then, having secured it on a large stake, retreated from their mistress, disappearing into the crowd. The crowd swelled forward more closely around Phoebe’s scarecrow to stare in wonder, and abhorrence, at the grotesquery wrought before them.
Yet, while many faces contorted with fear and disgust at the strange, foul-smelling scarecrow, the only face that mattered at all in the crowd was that of William Clements as he stepped forward to gain a better view of the curio in their midst.
“It sure would scare crows away,” William remarked, smiling nervously. “It would scare me away if I saw it standing in a field on a dark night.”
“Not so,” Phoebe said, nearly giggling with giddy joy as she gladly stepped up to meet him and his pearly white teeth. “I know you too well, William. You are too brave and strong to be scared away by anything.”
William’s shoulders, and eyebrows, shrugged. “I have my limits,” he said. “If I’d caught sight of this thing in the field at night I’d kick up enough dirt running away to bury half the county.”
“Then perhaps you wish me to accompany you home,” Phoebe said, radiant with moon-eyed delight, “to protect you from my scarecrow?”
William did not answer her, for Marianne approached, then, and he had eyes now only for the weaver’s daughter.
“She has talent,” Marianne said. “And I like the curious use of reeds and moss. It lends it a different character than the normal sort of field-uncle that the rest of us made. And the use of leather for the head is a clever touch.”
It was generously said, and yet any generosity afforded to Phoebe by the beauteous Marianne smacked of condescension, regardless of how good the intention.
“I don’t have the lay skills of a tradesman,” Phoebe said, sourly, “or a tradeswoman, and so I make do with what my elevated upbringing has given me.”
The acerbity was unmistakable in Phoebe’s voice, yet she was young, and so negligible, especially as William and Marianne turned their attentions toward each other at the exclusion of anyone else. Phoebe saw how their eyes met, and could feel their tidal force. She felt suddenly reduced in size, small, shrinking beneath the taller, prettier girl and the mutual attraction William shared with her. Were Marianne and William to kiss, Phoebe realized, William would not need to stoop to kiss her, the young woman being as tall, whereas if he were to kiss Phoebe he would need to stoop as if picking up a child. And Phoebe was no child, she insisted to herself. She was as much a woman as Marianne, if not more so. Being the daughter of the mayor, she had real power in Springfield. She wore the mature dresses of France and Italy. Phoebe considered herself worldly in her wardrobe and her wiles.
And yet, her mind was arrayed with the thoughts of their first kiss. It would not be romantic. It would not be passionate. It would be absurd. William was a man, and she was a little, foolish girl. She felt tears burning at the edges of her eyes, unnoticed by the crowd gathered around her scarecrow. Before the tears could bubble free, she hurried away from the pavilion to the solitary shade of a maple tree. No one was near her now. She sat on the ground, unmindful of her pretty green dress from France, and cried bitterly. It was some time before she realized that the shade had deepened and darkened from noonday blue to midnight black. Raising her head, she saw that the hag was standing over her, smiling a toothless smile within her faded gray hood.
“Do not cry, my little lamb,” the hag said. “Whatever could be the matter?”
At the sound of pity, Phoebe’s temper flared. She leapt up, clenching her fists at her side. “You liar! You said he would love me if I made that stupid scarecrow!”
“It is but a step along the way,” the hag said, her feigned pity replaced by a sly smile. “Be careful how you foot it, for there are more dangerous paths than fens to wind one’s way through.”
“You say a lot without saying anything at all,” Phoebe retorted. “I trudged through mud and spent all night making that useless scarecrow, and to what end? To what end, you old, ugly hag?!”
“The end has not yet come,” the hag said simply. “You will have exactly what you wish. A husband with handsome blue eyes and immaculate teeth. You must have faith, child, for it will come to pass. You will have a husband with all the things your heart values. You will have his handsome blue eyes and his immaculate teeth.”
“But Marianne has his heart!” Phoebe moaned, feigning a swoon against the tree. She suddenly sprang upright, her green eyes flapping open suddenly and brightening with the fulgurous thunderclap of a thought. “Unless you mean some misfortune will come to pass for Marianne?!” She clapped her hands together excitedly. “Ohhh, is that it?” Still smiling, she feigned sadness. “Oh, but I must not wish too mortal a fate for her. It would be beneath me. She is, after all, only a weaver’s daughter. Better would it be that William were to reflect on his first choice and realize the folly of it, choosing instead to pursue truer taste in one as highly bred as I am.”
“You will have the man with the beautiful blue eyes and the immaculate teeth,” the hag said. “As you said you desired.”
“But when?” Phoebe moaned.
The hag gestured toward the town square with a wart-clustered finger. Phoebe’s eyes followed the gesture, falling again on the pavilion. There was a commotion within the crowd. Many were glancing toward her—at Phoebe—and Phoebe was taken aback.
“What are they gawking at?” Phoebe demanded, outraged.
The hag was gone. She had vanished into thin air. Someone broke away from the pavilion crowd and approached Phoebe. Much to her delight, and agitation, it was William. He strode toward her with his long, loping stride. Coming from among those commonfolk, he was as a proud stallion stepping forth from amongst a herd of dim-witted mules. Phoebe’s stomach whirled with butterflies and she felt as if she was reeling on a merry-go-round. She felt she would have to steady herself by grasping his mustache.
“Phoebe,” he said, “the judges have decided that your scarecrow is the best.”
“Really?” Phoebe said. The excitement in her voice had nought to do with her scarecrow; rather, it was elicited by the impeccable grin on William’s face. “So I won? Me? What a surprise! I am so happy!”
“You should come get your prize,” William said.
“What is it?” Phoebe asked, excited at the thought that it might be a kiss from the young man standing before her.
“A quilt,” William said. “Woven by Marianne’s father, Michael.”
Phoebe’s smile instantly soured. “I do not want a quilt,” she said.
“But it really is a pretty quilt,” William said. “One of the best her father has ever woven.”
“Then let her keep it,” Phoebe said, irritably. “What good can I have from a quilt? I get all of my blankets and sheets from France. They’re softer and better made in France. Because of their more finely bred fingers.”
William’s countenance darkened with what Phoebe knew to be anger. But instead of offering a cross rebuke, he merely turned away from her in silence, walking toward the pavilion. Phoebe watched him go with a feeling of terrible finality all about her and the cosmos. This finality consumed the spheres and made her feel claustrophobic, like a mouse chased deeper and deeper into a narrowing hole by a mouser. Her greatest fear seemed soon to reach fruition.
“William!” she called out, her voice cracking.
He said nothing, nor did he turn to look at her. He merely halted.
“On second thought, I wish to see this quilt,” she said, hurrying forward. “It is, no doubt, as good as any French blanket, if not Oriental silk. The Maywells are very talented people.”
William turned about now, a wary smile returning to his face. “They are, as a matter of fact,” he said. “Not a weaver for four hundred miles that could do better.”
Phoebe’s luck seemed to take a change for the better a little later when Marianne had to escort her elderly father home. He had a wet cough and she, being his only child, wished to see him rectified with a bowl of hot soup and a warm fire. Reluctantly, William said his goodbyes to Marianne, and prepared to leave, himself, from the emptying town square as the gloaming drew its crepuscular fabrics all around. Phoebe, however, had a mind for fatefulness. So, she took the rare opportunity and asked that he take a walk about the town with her. Seeing no harm in it, William agreed, and not only agreed, but carried the quilt that Phoebe had won with her unique scarecrow.
Phoebe and William took several turns about the square. Phoebe spoke much about her father’s businesses, his prosperity, the various things he bought for her, and all of the material comforts which she thought a goodly lure for the man she wished to betroth. After a time, William interrupted her diatribe about the superiority of China to American pewter plates to remark upon her scarecrow.
“It seems your father had some people carry your scarecrow away,” he said, pointing.
Phoebe blinked in confusion, then followed his finger. Beneath the pavilion, the large stake was vacant of its former resident. This baffled Phoebe, for she had made no request for anyone to take possession of her creation, nor to carry it elsewhere. Her father, in fact, did not even know the scarecrow existed, for he had foregone the Fall Festival in favor of a festival of his own, awash with ale. Whichever way the scarecrow had come to vanish, Phoebe did not care. It had served its purpose, and now she was walking and talking with William Clements— alone, in twilight, with no one else eavesdropping upon them; and, truth be told, if someone did so happen to be eavesdropping, all the merrier for Phoebe. Let it spread around Springfield and to the bordering counties. Perhaps the rumor would gain momentum enough to carry this night into a foreseeable day of matrimonial bliss, or at least obligation.
“William,” she said, suddenly halting and facing him. “What are your plans for the future? What are your dreams?”
William’s brow furrowed with thought. “Well, I suppose I would like to own my own farm. Maybe someday I would even own two farms. Three even!” He laughed, and the laugh was full-chested with booming alacrity.
“You should really think about being mayor,” Phoebe said in earnest. “Someone with your recommendations could easily be a mayor. In fact, with the right wife you could become governor. A president, I should think.”
William squinted painfully, as if he had been struck on the head with a chance acorn. “I don’t think I would take to that sort of life,” he said. “I know cows. I know sheep. But running a town? I would be happy enough running my own barn without it burning down.”
Phoebe shook her head irritably. “No, no, no. It is simple, really, running a town. It is like a barn. You merely need to shepherd the people, as you do with cows and sheep. It is no different, truly. I can help you do it when we are married…”
William’s dark eyebrows lifted in surprise, furrowing his brow like plows. He sighed. “Phoebe, that is not possible,” he said. “I’ve tried to be soft about this, but you are making it hard for me. Marianne and I are getting married. You are too young to…”
Phoebe did not wait for him to finish. The tears gushed, followed by the venom. “Marianne is a stupid cow!” she screamed. “I’m the one with money! Why don’t you want to marry me?!”
William stepped back, one hand raised while the other cradled Phoebe’s unwanted-yet-won quilt, and his eyes darting about in wild terror. Dogs barked in the distance.
“Phoebe, please,” he pleaded. “It is not about money. This is about love. And I love Marianne. She is of marrying age. You…you are too young.”
“Then wait for me,” she said, her lips quivering with chaotic, conflicted emotions. “I’ll be of age in a few years and then you can marry me!”
“Marianne and I have been engaged in secret for two years, Phoebe,” he said. “I cannot break my vow to her.” He held out the quilt for Phoebe to take. “It would hurt her, and it would hurt myself. You have to understand. She and I were meant to be…”
Phoebe jerked the quilt away from him and threw it to the ground. Her scream was an infernal peal of primal rage. She pressed her hands to her ears and then ran away in a wild direction, heedless of where she was going. She ran and ran until the town square, and the town itself, was lost to the evening mists and shadows.
“She lied to me!” Phoebe wept. “The old witch lied to me! Will won’t marry me! He hates me!”
Sobbing and running, she went downhill until she finally fell to her knees, breathless beneath a wanly-glowing willow tree. The moon slowly rose, as if gloating over Phoebe’s sorrows. Her whole body rattled and shook with her weeping. She did not care about anything thereafter—whether wolf stealing through the woods or viper creeping through the weeds—and did not observe the world’s clock as it ticked on and on.
And yet, after a time, she stared down at her new dress. It was a French dress quite fashionable in Parisian salons, and now it was stained with the derisive touch of grass. She did not care. Her whole life had been marred, she thought, because William would not be bound to her. She wished her father would pillory Marianne and have her flogged. Phoebe was so wrathful that, had she seen Marianne’s face then, she would have clawed out Marianne’s pretty blue eyes. Blue eyes! Like William’s! As if matched by Providence! All of their children were fated to have such blue eyes, and they would taunt and haunt Phoebe to the end of her days!
“Weeping again, child?” the hag said. “And on your wedding night?”
“Do not…mock…me…” Phoebe said between sobs. “Leave me be. I just…want to…to…die.”
The hag cackled—a phlegmy, thick cackle like wet, rotten wood split by an ax. “You will not die, child. Not for many a year. You have too long a married life to live. Too many children to bear. Your groom comes. He will be here soon.”
“Go…away!” Phoebe rallied, her rage crashing, like lightning, through her shower of tears. Her hand found a stone, and she raised it with a fury.
The hag was gone. All around Phoebe was now silence and the moon-drawn shadows within Devil’s Fen. Lips still trembling, Phoebe rose to her feet. She breathed reluctantly, as if to breathe meant to endorse the life she now lived with all of its inherent hopelessness. Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she turned toward the slope leading out of the Fen. Up from the valley her eyes wandered, as if looking for a sign. She found one. There, atop of the hillocky expanse, was a figure etched black within the moonlight.
“Wi…Will?” she whispered.
The figure approached her, walking with the same strong, long loping stride that stamped William Clements’s approach.
“Will?” Phoebe said louder, with more hope and joy. “Will, you do love me, don’t you?”
She wished to run to him, but dared not move, for she feared it was a dream from which she would abruptly wake.
The moon slid down lower as the figure descended into the valley toward Devil’s Fen, its full orange glow unobserved. Phoebe waited by the willow tree, the world overcome with a silence pregnant with anticipation. No whippoorwills chanted. No crickets chirped. No wolves howled. The silence pervaded, and Phoebe could hear her own heart pounding hard in her chest like thunder.
“Will, I promise I will be your perfect wife,” Phoebe said, or whispered, or mouthed. “I won’t ever disappoint you. I will love you, and honor you, and cherish you. I will bear you many sons with your same blue eyes and perfect white teeth.”
The figure came to the bottom of the valley’s slope, nearing the willow tree.
“If you want to be a farmer, you can be a farmer,” Phoebe said. “I will be a farmer’s wife. I don’t have to be a governor’s wife, or even a mayor’s wife. So long as I am your wife. Will, I…”
Phoebe’s mouth went slack, loosening into a gawping hole of horror.
The scarecrow loomed over her, its frog-face broad and leathery and stinking beneath its withy hat. Something dark and wet and fresh glistened all over its lips, dribbling down its cheeks and chin.
“No…not you…” Phoebe whimpered, shrinking in terror. “Please…go away…”
The scarecrow did not go away. It leaned forward, its familiar blue eyes inching closer. Its leathery lips curved upward, then parted wetly. Gleaming in the milky moonlight, each one as finely white as any polished pearl, were many an immaculate tooth—teeth more immaculate than any others in all of Wischmeier County.
Nobuteru was grateful that he had just hauled his last bundle of bamboo into his bamboo hut near the forest. As he let it drop next to the firepit the heavens let their rains fall with a thunderous clap and a boom, the thatch roof suddenly resounding with a hushing downpour. His wife, Aoi, squatted by the firepit, cooking fish and rice, her belly swollen beneath her peasants garbs. Nobuteru ’s son, Eiji, came hurrying in a little later, his bamboo fishing pole abandoned to the rain and his garbs soaked through and through.
“Come to the fire, Eiji, ” his mother said. “The rain has a chill. ”
Eiji squatted next to the simple firepit where the bamboo burned and the fish and pot of rice cooked. Nobuteru watched his son, and looked fondly on his wife, and was grateful for the bamboo and all that it provided. Without it, they would not have shelter against the rain, nor warmth against the chill, and so all seemed well in his simple life. They ate their fish and rice, and Nobuteru offered prayers to the gods of the forest, and listened to the rain with a deep sense of gratitude as he fell asleep.
It was later that night when Nobuteru was woken by Eiji ’s sobs. He roused, unlinking himself from Aoi, and peering drowsily into the moonlit hut. He saw Eiji standing near the corner. The rain had not stopped, and it was black as any night might be. Yet, Nobuteru saw what he wished he did not see. There was a long arm extending out of a cracked bamboo shaft. This arm was pale as a fish ’s belly, and lustrous, glowing pallidly in the darkness. It ’s fingers were thin, more jointed than any man ’s finger, and black claws arched out of each tip. Gently, covetously, the hand petted Eiji ’s black hair while the boy stood transfixed, trembling in the caress of the elongated fingers.
Nobuteru leapt up and pulled his son away from the hand. The hand curled its fingers in a gesture of deference, raising its waxen palms up as if beseeching a gift.
And a voice spoke.
“Nobuteru, I have blessed you, ” said the voice like wheezy wind through bamboo. “Now you must repay my kindness with an offering of your own. ”
“What are you? ” Nobuteru whispered, fearful he might wake his wife to this horror. He held his son behind him, protectively.
“I am a generous spirit that has benefitted you, ” the voice said from deep inside every bamboo shoot. “I only ask what is yours to give in turn. ”
“You cannot have my son, ” Nobuteru said.
“Oh, but how many sons and daughters have you taken from me? ” the voice said. The arm caressed the bamboo walls of the hut, and felt among the ashes of the smouldering fire. “So many sacrificed for your comfort and health. ”
Nobuteru did not know what the spirit was, and so knew not how he might appease it. “Ask for something else, ” he said. “I will do what you wish. But you may not take my son. ”
“I will have your daughter, then, ” said the voice, rolling its hideous fingers in waves.
Nobuteru looked at his wife. He stared at the swell of her belly beneath her clothes.
“Very well, ” he said. “If you can take her now, do so, but do not harm my wife. ”
“No, no, no, ” rattled the voice softly. “I must not harvest her until she is of age, as you do when you cut down my children in the forest. ” The arm withdrew into the narrow bamboo. “Five flood seasons from now. No sooner…no later…five flood seasons and I will harvest your daughter by the bladed moon… ”
The voice died away like a withdrawing wind. Nobuteru felt his son shaking beside him, and knew himself to be shaking to his very bones as well. Yet, he knew he must not let Aoi know. He turned to his son, knelt down, and took him by his shoulders.
“This is all a bad dream, ” he said. “Do not tell your mother. She must not know. Promise. ”
The tremulous boy nodded obediently.
Nobuteru wasted no time in cutting down the bamboo forest. Every day he cut down as many shoots as he could, swinging until his calloused fingers bled and his arms ached from wrist to shoulder. He did not bother to set the decimated bamboo aside and let the sap flow free from them. He cut and burned, cut and burned, desolating the forest all around his hut. His wife thought he had lost all sense, but little Eiji helped his father in earnest, for the cold sweat of fear from that harrowing night remained upon him. The pale arm haunted the two of them in their dreams and in waking daylight.
Meanwhile Aoi grew large with child. Upon the day of her pangs, a daughter was born. Rather than pleasing Nobuteru, he paled at the sight of the beautiful child and hurried out to clear away more of the forest. He thought that if he destroyed the forest then the forest spirit —or whatever it happened to be —would lose its place in the human realm and become lost elsewhere; untethered from the mortal spheres. He cut like never before, and was as a wildfire in his destruction.
It was not long before Nobuteru ’s obsession became infamous. Other woodcutters and farmers in the area complained, claiming he had gone mad. A priest was sent from a local shrine and he spoke to Nobuteru, admonishing him.
“Such profligacy displeases the gods, ” the priest warned as he looked on while Nobuteru busied his axe among the remaining forest. “This forest is sacred to spirits, good and evil alike! ”
“Well do I know of such things, ” Nobuteru said. “It is why I work so single-mindedly. ”
He revealed the truth about the visitation of the spirit, of the demand for Nobuteru ’s daughter. Hearing his story, the priest grew pensive. It took many moments after Nobuteru had finished his account before the priest spoke again.
“We must purify your daughter, ” the priest said. “Perhaps the evil spirit will depart. ”
The night of the ceremony, Aoi was told of what was to happen and why. She was fearful, for their daughter was now a healthy toddler, quick on her feet and sharp of mind. Her name was Aiko and she was the delight of her parents ’ hearts. They cherished her, as they did her brother. To lose Aiko when so young, and to such a horrid fate, frightened Aoi. But she trusted in the priest, even if she had grown to distrust her husband, and so when the priest told her that she could not witness the exorcism she took Eiji to fish while the ritual took place.
The ritual lasted all day and night. What was seen, and what was better left unseen, neither the priest nor Nobuteru ever spoke thereof. It was said that the priest had become like a man in famine, so hollow were his eyes and cheeks. The priest died before the Summer ’s end. Nobuteru did not suffer so final a fate so abruptly, but his hair turned white as hoarfrost and there was a dimness in the light of his eyes at times such as when thin clouds pass over the moon. Nonetheless, he reassured his wife and son that his daughter was saved. Aiko seemed unchanged, the vibrant look in her green eyes still lively and undaunted. She had witnessed horrors and emerged as clean from the ordeal as the sun after the morning fog has fallen away.
Years passed. Aiko grew taller, talkative, and inquisitive. She was deft with her hands, weaving strong fibers together ingeniously. Her laughter was such that birds halted their songs to listen in admiration and wonderment. Nobuteru and Aoi were pleased by her, and never disappointed. To see her run and laugh after her brother was to see joy such as bodhisattvas should envy their childish play.
Whereas Aiko blossomed, the bamboo forest did not grow at all. No more shoots sprang up from the smouldering soil, and the soil eroded with the wet season. When the river swelled it carried silt over the land, and yet the land grew nothing. The spirit was gone, it seemed, and with it the forest.
Nobuteru moved his family upstream, away from the remnants of the forest. He became a fisherman to sustain his family. Eiji helped greatly, having grown taller and stronger, now more like his father than ever. He worked hard for the family, especially for his little sister, and tended her every whim with patience. Yet, sometimes Eiji was disquieted, and was overtaken with gloomy moods, thinking back to the night that the pale hand extended out of the bamboo and caressed him. But he did not speak of such things to anyone. He kept his fears to himself to keep such fears from his loved ones.
Four years passed and it seemed the fears had passed with them. But while the family lived well, there came creeping a pernicious effect on Aiko. Slowly, the sweetness leeched out of the little girl. She became rigid around her parents, and uncaring. Her green eyes hardened and looked not with daughterly fondness, but an otherworldly detachment. She did not sing, after a time, and did not run and play. She walked stiffly, as if her joints did not work well. Sometimes she simply stood in the wind, upright, stiff-bodied, but bending with the wind as it blew about her. When her parents spoke to her, she rarely spoke in turn, and when she did speak she spoke with a whispering voice like rustling leaves. This troubled Eiji.
“There is something wrong with Aiko, ” Eiji said one day while out on the boat with his father. “She is no longer as she was. ”
“So long as we stay away from the forest, she will be well, ” his father said. “That is what the spirit promised. ”
“You cannot trust an evil spirit, ” Eiji said.
“Nor do I! ” Nobuteru shouted. “That is why I moved our family here. The curse is lifted if we remain far from the forest. The priest saw to it. ”
“But father… ”
“Enough! ” his father snapped. “That is all! Do not speak of it anymore! ”
Eiji did not speak of it, though he thought of it despairingly.
That night the rain fell hard. The thatch roof buckled beneath the weight of it, but the roof did not collapse. Nobuteru stoked the firepit as his family huddled around for warmth against the misty chill. No one spoke, the rain drowning all sound. Eiji watched Aiko with a feeling of foreboding. He did not know why, but he felt something terrible was going to happen. The premonition stroked at his hair like a long-fingered hand he knew years before.
Gradually, they all fell asleep. They could not hear the river beneath the heavy rain. When the water rushed in through the hut, they started and cried out, scrambling to stand as they were swept sideways. Eiji helped his mother, holding her against the flooding torrent, and Nobuteru clutched at Aiko. They trudged through the water as it began to drag the hut in the bullish flow. All seemed hopeful as they left the hut behind. But then Nobuteru tripped, and lost hold of Aiko. Aiko did not struggle, but floated away into the wet darkness like a plank of wood without a will of her own. Her father scrambled to catch hold of her again, crying out to her. He failed. Weeping, the family struggled to higher ground, and found it among the foothills. They did not see Aiko again that night.
The next morning the family followed the swollen river downstream, eyes red with tears as they stared into the currents, half in hope and half in horror. They called for Aiko. They prayed to the gods. Nothing answered them. When they found her body, she lay in a field clustered with the remnants of bamboo. Her face was pale and clammy, and so they knew that she was dead. They dug a grave for her in that alluvial plain, erecting a stone shrine where she lay. When the river receded there grew up a dense bamboo forest around the shrine. It was shunned by animals and people alike. Whispery voices could be heard among the leaves, and the melodic giggles of a girl. It was said that if a woodcutter entered the forest he felt long fingers caressing his head. No one dared to cut the bamboo in that forest again.
“But they are so crude, Mary,” Elizabeth remarked, setting down her cup of tea on the arbor’s table. A slight Summer breeze made the cool, foliated shadows wag like tongues all around them. “What possible enjoyment could be had in a servant’s company?”
“He is well versed in many pastimes,” Mary said. A hot flash of redness flared in her pale forehead and breast. It was so red as to nearly match her auburn hair. It was not a shade of embarrassment, however, nor fury. She fanned herself leisurely, despite the cool breeze and shade. “Many a singularly fine pastime.”
“He is handsome,” Elizabeth said. A smile betook her face, as if she had tasted something quite sour and wished to hide it. “I will grant you that. But there are many handsome gentlemen in London of equal looks, and far superior wealth.”
“I have no need of wealth,” Mary said. “I am an only child, as you know, and subject to no male relative who might contend my claim to my father’s estate. Moreover, Desmond is excellent with his hands in a manner entirely unknown in gentlemanly circles.”
Elizabeth cast a curious glance to Jenny, nettled. The latter was too concerned with a white ribbon in her hair to notice. Elizabeth chided her.
“Jenny, you are of an age that ribbons such as those should be abandoned utterly. And you are married. Married women have no need of girlish ribbons.”
“These ribbons were blessed by Father Willoughby last Sunday,” Jenny said, still attempting to tighten the ribbon. “They are marks of chastity.”
“But you are married,” Elizabeth argued with an irritated shake of her head. Her black curls quivered, tied up atop her head and away from the nape of her neck like some tragic Greek heroine from bygone times. “Chastity is impossible for a proper conclusion to such a ceremony.”
“To the contrary,” Jenny said fussily, pulling at the golden strands of her hair. “William and I have decided to remain chaste for the time being, even while in wedlock. When he is…when we are ready to produce children, the ribbons shall come down.”
“And the petticoats shall go up,” Mary said, giggling. Elizabeth frowned at her, which only provoked greater giggles. Mary sipped her tea to regain her composure. Birds sang in the distance. Evening wore on slowly, the sun descending reluctantly.
“You are a naughty creature!” Jenny exclaimed, encrimsoning as a cherry unclaimed from the stem.
“And why should I not be?” Mary posited, seriously. “I am a woman of independence and means. I need answer to no one.”
“It is a luxury not all can afford,” Elizabeth admitted begrudgingly. “Nor do I think it one I might indulge, for I cannot discern how it could be worth the price.”
“A failure of experience,” Mary said, sympathetically, “leads to a failure of imagination. Were that your husband could be capable of speaking Desmond’s tongue! You would never wish to leave the house, either for society or for a fresh prospect. Nor would Paris or Rome offer, in all their splendours, temptation enough to lure you thither.”
Jenny frowned, then finally released the ribbon in her golden hair. “Surely he could speak such a tongue anywhere in the world and you would find yourself doubly satisfied in being abroad and being in desirous company.”
“Not so,” Mary said. “For it would presume impudence and impropriety. Desmond is apt at his tongue, but not at many others, and so his low-breeding would be immediately apparent, even to a Parisian crumpet.” She tapped a finger upon her chin thoughtfully. “Especially to a Parisian crumpet.”
The conversation now at an end, they nodded and sipped their tea. Mary looked very pleased in all accounts, whereas Jenny and Elizabeth were perplexed, albeit in different regards. Another of Jenny’s ribbons had come undone, and so she was very vexed in setting it right atop her head. Elizabeth frowned, casting furtive eyes of judgment sidelong at her host and friend.
“It is all jolly-folly,” she said meaningfully.
For Mary’s part, she was so warm and glowing with a language only she knew among the three of them that when the wind grew chillier, she did not mind it, even as her friends shivered. The trees themselves seemed to shiver, too, for the shadows stretched long and the sun slowly sank into its shadowy bed.
“My, I should be getting home,” Jenny said, hugging her shawl about her shoulders. “Arthur will be wondering at my absence. Though, I doubt overmuch. He loves spending time with his schoolyard friend, John. They are inseparable, you know. They get along so well together. Much more, I am afraid, than even Arthur and I get along. But we are young, and our marriage fresh. I am sure there is time enough to grow together.”
It was Elizabeth’s and Mary’s turn to exchange shrewd glances.
“Will he keep you warm, Jenny?’ Mary asked, mischievously.
“With a fire, perhaps,” Jenny said, misunderstanding. “Arthur is so thoughtful that he always insists that my bedroom be tended to most, often to the neglect of his own bedroom.”
“Separate bedrooms?’ Mary said, suppressing a smile. “But how does Arthur tend to your fire, then?”
“Alfred, his butler, tends to it when the night comes on with its drafts,” Jenny said simply. Naively. “Alfred uses the poker rather deftly, like a wizard conjuring fire.”
“So, too, does my Desmond,” Mary said, barely suppressing a giggle. “But Elizabeth,” she said, turning to her other friend, “what is the arrangement between yourself and your husband, Matthew?”
Elizabeth cleared her throat, though she could not clear the sharp edge of vexation in her voice.
“Matthew and I sleep in separate chambers,” she said, as a judge delivering a bitter verdict. “ I cannot abide his smoking…or…” She faltered a moment. “…or his attendance to my fire.”
Mary gave Elizabeth a sympathetic smile, patting her gloved hand. There was a goodly deal of condescension in the latter act. “I am sure there is a servant apter at the art. My Desmond is indeed a wizard, conjuring flames with a mere wag of his tongue.” She smiled puckishly. “He speaks whole infernos into being. And they keep me warm throughout the most frigid of nights.”
Again, Elizabeth cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably. She eyed her red-headed friend enviously.
“I do not see how it should take much art to tend a fire,” Jenny opined, obliviously. “Alfred is nearly senile, and yet he accomplishes the task very adequately. At times even I tend to my own fire, exciting it with a clumsy poker. The propensities of fire, and the plenitude of wood, should be sufficient for the need, no matter how novice the pyrolater.”
Mary and Elizabeth exchanged glances—the former, sly and mirthful; the latter, shrewd and irritated.
“Indeed,” Mary said. “Any sufficient measure of wood may feed a fire, but here is something to be praised in that heathenistic affinity in the art of pyromancy. Why, I feel as a wicker woman all aflame with…passion…when Desmond speaks his special tongue to me.” She laughed with a girlish cadence of unconscientious joy. “I am utterly consumed by it, you know. It is always Beltane when he is speaking his special tongue to me.”
Elizabeth scowled. “One can lose one’s soul to such heathenism,” she said, her voice cold with something akin to resentment. “We must be wary of the Devil’s tongue. It can sway angels to lower stations with debased practices and unworthy company.”
“The waves lap wonderfully in my Lake of Fire,” Mary said, too pleased to be affronted, and too emboldened to be restrained. She tucked a curl of red hair behind her ear. “Maybe Lucifer was right. Maybe it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Jenny gasped, a dainty hand to her little lips. “But your soul, Mary! Truly, we must attend church and repent together! Father Willoughby will rectify these mortal failings. There is no salvation except through Christ, and so you must recant such confusion in your compass. Otherwise it will cost you everlastingly.”
Mary regarded her earnest friend with a condescending smirk—tight lipped, with a nodding of her head. She then turned to Elizabeth, the latter stiff-shouldered and scowling openly now.
“There are times when Desmond’s heathen tongue is so persuasive that I could die in the moment and be eternally contented. Whatever lay beyond that moment of…exultation…is nought but dreary, drafty winds through a dusty hallway. The world burns away with the intensity of it, and all else becomes as soot beneath my feet.”
“And what of the tongues wagging behind one’s back?” Elizabeth demanded, setting her teacup down hard for emphasis on the point. “They can raze reputations and family legacies with the tempests they whip up. Have you ever paused to give thought to that?”
“They are impotent cinders,” Mary replied lightly. “As impotent as the cries of herons on the Isle of Skye. All is obliterated in the inferno.”
“The tongues of fire lap at lost souls in the inferno,” Jenny said, so far amiss in the conversation that her input was no more than the whispers of the breeze through the arbor. Her two friends ignored her.
“And what of friendships?” Elizabeth continued, still scowling. “What of the cost such heresies might entail in regard to them?”
For the first time, Mary’s smile and gleeful tone faltered. “I…I should hope that any true friend might weather the infernos for the sake of a friend as devout in her loyalty and its reciprocation.”
Elizabeth stared hard at her friend, her thin lips set in a narrowly compressed line.
“You take more than you give, Mary,” she said. “It is a problem plaguing many relationships, it seems to me.”
Desmond stood at the foot of the bed like any butler awaiting orders. Tall, lean, and with a grimly-set expression of diligence, he was the very figure of decorum and servitude. Except he was out of uniform. Very much out of uniform.
Mary lay on the four-poster bed, watching Desmond with a cat-catches-canary smile upon her face. She, too, was very much out of uniform, and spread her freckled arms, fixing her fine, smooth fingers upon the headboard. Her pale body flickered orange in the clandestine candlelight. There was no one else in the entirety of her estate. She had sent the other servants home to visit relatives or friends or lovers or whoever would preoccupy their evenings. She did not care. The only interest stood before her.
“Come now, Desmond,” she said. “Attend me.”
“I will,” the denuded man said. “But first…”
He hesitated, falling silent. She could see by the flaring candlelight the ambiguity etched upon his handsome features.
“What do you want?” she asked. “Less chores around the estate? A bauble? I could get something for you while I am away in London next week, visiting Vivien. She knows the quaintest shops where nearly anything can be purchased.”
“I mean to accompany you in London,” he said. “But not in a servant’s capacity.”
Mary cackled in delight. “Oh, you have a mercenary heart! But you know such things cannot be.”
“And for what reason so?” he demanded. “You have said many times that you do not care if high society should know of our attachment.”
Her tone was sobered now; incredulous. “It is not an attachment, Desmond. Do not forget yourself.”
Desmond swayed as if stricken, and Mary’s tone softened.
“I would not have you away from my estate,” she said. “You know I cannot trust anyone to see to it but you.”
The fire in the hearth behind Desmond fluttered to one side, as if a cold draft had hurled itself headlong into it.
“Such patronage does me much honor,” he said, his face dark and his tone sour. “To condescend to someone so low as myself esteems you as to a saint.”
“I will not tolerate insolence, Desmond,” Mary snapped. “You are a servant. In this service do you serve me, still. But that is the total of it insomuch as we are bound. To stoop to pretending that you are my equal would be to lose face. Not in society’s estimation, but my own. And I will never shame myself, nor depreciate my self-worth through such short-shrift.”
“So I am nothing more to you than a servant,” he said, bitterly. “You view me as just another pleasure to be taken for granted. Our intimacy is one strictly of mistress and servant.”
“You are well-compensated,” she said, sitting up and sliding forward. She reached out with both hands and took hold of his wrist, attempting to draw him down onto the bed, toward her spread legs. “Come, Desmond. I will permit you to sleep here tonight, beside me, if you like. Is that the intimacy you require?”
Desmond drew his hand away, and her coaxing smile hardened to an irritated frown.
“Desmond,” she said, “do not ruin this lovely evening with your unwarranted umbrage. We could be both of us quite satisfied if you would simply surrender to the strong instinct inherent in your breeding…”
Desmond yanked his arm free from his mistress at once, turned, and strode to his uniform, gathering it up and donning it in the dimming glow of the hearth.
“Where are you going?” she demanded, her voice pitched with alarm.
“I have attended you in all ways a husband might,” he said. “I have seen to your finances. I have seen to your servants. I have seen to your needs, whatever myriad ways they might manifest. Yet, you have always neglected me in all respects a man should be afforded by the woman he loves and to whom he is devoted. I had hopes for a relationship by daylight such as we share by moonlight. But you value me no more than a beast in the field, wanting me for nothing but to expend your carnal propensities. Nor are you equal in those indulgences, oftentimes affording me no reciprocation pleasure whereas I have selflessly given and given unto a cornucopia of giving!”
“Desmond, please do not leave me now!” She leapt up from her bed, hurrying to him in a bereft state of undress. “Please, do not leave me alone! Come to bed with me. Please.”
He paused at buckling his belt, almost looking at her. But the anguish overtaking his face was dismissed and dignity resumed itself with an austere measure in his demeanour. He donned his shirt and jacket, not bothering with his tie. He headed to the dark portal that was the door.
“Please tend to the fire tonight,” Mary pleaded, following after him. She lay a trembling hand upon his shoulder. “That’s all I wish. You do not have to join me in bed. Just…just tend to the fire and keep me warm.”
“Tend to it yourself,” he retorted. He opened the door and hastened out into the dark hallway, leaving her behind.
Mary felt quite cold, and walked aimlessly about her bedroom like a lost soul. She had come, it seemed, to the Ninth Circle of Hell. Her womanhood was now a frozen lake. Her heart gnawed on Judas in bitter disappointment. She looked into the embers of the darkening hearth and felt the world grow cold to its core.
Elizabeth held her legs apart as Matthew, her husband, thrust against her. It was, as always, over after a handful of minutes. He groaned, convulsed, and then collapsed onto the bed—onto her— and lay there, heaving and breathless against her breasts. Afterward, she looked upon the wrinkled, flabby and pale body of her old husband as he sprawled over her, panting. Pale, loose skin— reminiscent of candle wax long ago melted and now cold—gleamed in the light from the hearth. She was reminded of a warm, wet slug. She shuddered, and not from pleasure.
After a few moments, he rolled off of her and to the side, crumpled like a leaf in Winter.
Elizabeth’s gown was hot, or so it seemed. She flung it from her body, and kicked away the sheets near her feet. She wished for a cold shower.
“You will catch a cold,” her husband said, his breath labored still.
“I am likely for a fever,” she said, laying stiffly now, as if a frozen body in the snow. Her black hair was arrayed about her head, like the halo of some martyr.
They said nothing else. Matthew lay in bed a while longer, then began to crawl toward the edge, slowly, painfully, slipping out and onto his shaky feet. He leaned on his mahogany cane, limping to his nightgown. Shakily, he lifted the nightgown up and over his head, down his cadaverous body. He struck up a cigar before he was to the door, blowing smoke into the dark. The flaring faggot illuminated his vulture features for a flashing moment just before he disappeared through the door and down the hall.
Again, Elizabeth shuddered. She leaned toward the bedside table, taking the bottle of wine in hand. She did not bother with a drinking glass, but kissed the bottle more ardently than she had ever kissed her husband. Drinking herself into a stupor, she set the bottle down—tumbling it to the Turkish carpet below—and sprawled insensate upon the bed, her skin bare to the crisp, cold air. She welcomed the cold, and the oblivion. She welcomed the scorn that was a frigid draft through her bedroom.
She hoped the cold would find her husband in his bedroom and snuff out his smouldering cigar light. There were times when she wished it would find her, and snuff out her own light.
Jenny lay naked beneath the heaving form of Alfred, moaning in pleasure as the butler rutted upon her. It was past midnight and her husband Arthur had gone to bed, joined by John. It was an arrangement both sides found very pleasing.
After Alfred finished, and he had helped Jenny finish, Jenny lay panting to one side of her bed while the butler rose to gather his clothes. He did so swiftly and economically, with no fuss or words. He was much younger than Jenny had said to her two friends while at tea together earlier than day. Virile and somber and handsome and, most importantly, discreet, he was just what Jenny wanted in a servant assigned to such duties. He opened and closed the door with tactful silence, his lean frame disappearing down the dark hallway without the faintest whisper of a footfall.
The butler gone, and the door closed, Jenny sighed in great satisfaction. The warmth of the recent rigors still smoldered within her, hot as the hearth across the room. She spoke aloud to herself.
“Discretion best serves mischief alongside shrewd naivete,” she said. “Strategic naivete. It really does make one impervious to the wagging of tongues, whether they be sheathed in the mouths of society, or one’s own friends. There is no shield like naivete against prattle. They may demean the naivete itself, but what does it accomplish if even a million tongues whip at a mirage in the desert? They may wag themselves dry, but the mirage remains, and so distracts from my little oasis that I keep to myself.”
Having thus spoken at leisure, and in an ease equally earnest, she reached a hand up to the white ribbons in her fair hair. They were tautly tied. She undid them with a pinch of her fingers and twist of her wrist. Her golden hair tumbled down wildly. The white ribbons lay in a heap, like discarded snake skins. They would coil there, in their little nest, until the morning when she would take them up once again and tie the tongues of the world up in incessant gossip entirely amiss of the actual truth.
My governess, Rosamund, was quite vexed with me today. It was all her fault, naturally. It was she who left me unsupervised while I was plunged in my French studies, the lax woman taking the liberty of a walk about the garden with her favourite servant of the house, Clifford. While she was thus engaged I neglected my French in favour of the article concerning the Cottingley Fairies. It is ever a dear subject beloved in my heart—Fairies, I mean to say, not French—and I maintain that it must hold in its strange murk some glittering kernel of truth, as a nugget of gold amidst a vast coal mine of shadows. That is why I keep secret my copy of The Strand, though two years have passed since its publication. I am more inclined to read it than anything else published by Arthur Conan Doyle, particularly his stifling adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, I am astounded that Doyle could have entertained the Cottingley Fairies with any seriousness. When I consider his famously logical detective and his vacuous rationalism, one would never think Doyle of an inclination toward the phantastical. And yet, I hold within my hands evidence to the contrary.
Father attempted to dispossess me of the magazine because he believed that it fueled my fancies. What he had failed to understand, however, was that I am a keen observer of things, and so when he ordered Clifford to throw it out, I knew precisely where the magazine would find itself. That is to say, in Clifford’s bedroom. Rosamund is not the only person to search Clifford’s bare furnishings for an incriminating item.
Father has many times reprimanded Rosamund for being lax with her attentions to my studies. Therefore, when she returned from her walk she administered the French crucible in earnest, testing my poorly cultivated powers of the French tongue. I failed decidedly to follow her conversation and therefore confirmed her fears concerning my capacity for that quarrelsome language. It was an utterly hopeless cause. I would sooner master the magic of flight than master that tongue.
C’est la vie.
Of course, that is not to say I am deficient in mental acuity to master the language. Only, I rather prefer my native tongue, having honed its edge and multiplied its vocabulary with thirteen years of practice and study. I am ever collecting words for it, as fervently as any lepidopterist his beautiful specimens, whereas my French tongue withers and wanes without sufficient nourishment. And quite by design. I confine French to the basement, like a lowly urchin, and let it die slowly of starvation. My aim is to be a celebrated novelist of the phantastical variety. Not Gothic, understand, nor of the Romances, but such as Lord Dunsany and George MacDonald, the poetess Christina Rossetti and poet Alfred Tennyson. This aim is at dire odds with Father’s intentions for me. He claims a man of good breeding and better fortune would never condescend to marry a young woman of frivolous ambition, and that I should abandon my fanciful daydreams lest they interfere with more pragmatic aspirations. But I cannot help my mold and manner, anymore than his humorless austerity. Austen was apt to remind us that no man worthy of his estate wishes to link his life to a silly wife, but that is of no consequence to me. To the contrary, to marry would be the greatest consequence of all.
I persist in my ambitions, adamant that a capable mind may accommodate both pragmatism and phantasia. I intend, in short, to win financial independence as Jane Austen had, whereby I will thereupon claim freedom to be as stoic or as silly as my inclination should dictate.
June 21st, 1922
I saw a Fairy today! A real, honest-to-God Fairy! I am all aquiver at the recollection, scarcely able to write with a steady hand. Oh, but what a day! How shall I recall this otherworldly encounter? I suppose I should begin with banal descriptions of the Fairy himself.
Outwardly, he seemed but an unremarkable boy such as would be drawn from any common stock in England. He was a young boy and was of a young boy’s height. His hair was dark brown and his skin so pale that he seemed a deathly ill person. I was sitting beneath the gazebo when he alighted on the railing. I quickly put aside Voltaire’s Candide and stared in astonishment at his boldness. He crouched upon the railing like a crow and said nothing. He was utterly naked, which should have embarrassed me; only, he was a Fairy and, so, why would I fault him his heathen manner and means? He moved so strangely, his head lolling loosely and his limbs somewhat slack as if he might, at any moment, swoon and tumble to the ground. His eyes stared unblinkingly and his mouth hung open, nor did his blue lips move smoothly. His otherworldliness was confirmed in every bizarre respect.
Yet, I cannot refrain from noting with great disappointment that he did not possess butterfly wings. Rather, there extended from his back the translucent wings of a dragonfly: long and elliptical and diaphanous. It was a pity. Perhaps the females of the species are possessed of butterfly wings. I should hope so or it seems a dreadful waste of feminine conceit.
“Hello,” I said to him. “How do you do?”
The poor creature must have been malnourished, like a hummingbird that has been famished for too long a time, for he swayed as if he might fall. But he did not collapse. His mouth gaped open, and his throat undulated, the vocal cords producing something akin to human speech, and that speech was, surprisingly, a disordered form of English.
“Girl, pretty,” he said. “Fairy, I. Fairy, I. Pretty girl. Wings like Fairy? Wings like I?”
“I haven’t any wings, no,” I said.
The Fairy’s head tossed left and right ungracefully. “No. Wings, want? Like I?”
I understood him, then, to mean that if I should want wings I should have them. But I did not care for his wings or the prospect of having such. Being ever direct and thoughtless in my address, I said, “I would rather have butterfly wings.”
He grew agitated at this, vibrating like a locust in Summer, so I apologized.
“Please forgive me,” I said, “for I have always been very forthright. A novelist must be so when concerning the facts. Your wings are quite becoming for your being a boy. It is only that a young lady should prefer wings more ornate to hold her aloft. Though I am confused how I might procure wings of my own, having not been born a Fairy. Or have I misunderstood you?”
“Wings, pretty girl,” he said, though his lax mouth did not conform to the words, nor did the strangely buzzing voice seem quite his own as it issued from his bulging throat. “Pretty wings. Pretty girl. Pretty, pretty, pretty.”
Nothing of his speech struck me as particularly pretty, but I suppose that is the manner of all boys, whether born of Adam or of Avalon.
“Pretty, pretty, pretty,” he continued to say in his buzzing voice.
“Very so,” I agreed, “or I should like to think. I have been told my mother was a beauty in her time, God rest her soul. My name is Esme. I am French by name, as well as by mother, but British by way of breeding and upbringing. And by way of Father. And who might you be?”
“Who?” he said.
“You, my silly fellow,” I said. “What is your name? What do I call you?”
“Name?” the Fairy said, his countenance lax. “No names. One in many. Not one at all.”
Such a voice! Like the buzzing of insects. Yet I understood him well enough.
“So you have no name,” I said. “Then I should like—with your permission—to name you.”
“Name?” he said again, and I took it to mean his consent.
I considered him for a moment as he crouched upon the railing. Sunlight sparkled upon his diaphanous wings, and he swayed like a drunkard straight from the wine cellar. Perhaps it was my imagination getting the better of me in this wondrous moment, but I fancied I saw something strange upon his back, glimpsed only edgewise and briefly. But I could not discern what it could have been. Likely it was a shadow and his disheveled hair behind his ears and down his neck.
“I believe your name should be…” I paused, letting the thought come of its own accord. Suddenly, it struck me like lightning. “Ariel! Yes, of course. That is who you are, my confused Fairy friend. It is perfect for you. Ariel. How do you do, Ariel?”
He did not seem impressed, or perhaps he was simply indifferent. Fairies do not conform to human pretenses in many ways, it seems, and names are just one of many customs they forego. He watched me with his unblinking eyes and, though I was still enchanted by his presence, I began to feel peculiar. The gaze of his eyes seemed so faraway, and yet keen, and it quite unnerved me in their contrary nature. I could not deduce why. Perhaps it was the faint luminosity in his eyes, such as that of a somnambulist astir in the middle of the night. The shadow at his back again disturbed me, nor could I distinguish it, even as the sunlight draped him over his shoulders with its radiance.
At length, there came two voices from down the garden walkway—two figures engaged in private conversation peppered with giggles and chuckles and cooing sighs. At the sound, Ariel fluttered his wings and took flight, flitting swiftly away into the air. I left the gazebo, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in a higher altitude, but he had vanished before I had emerged from under the rounded roof.
Rosamund and Clifford approached, their voices quieting conspiratorially as they neared me, though their spiteful grins remained.
“Hello, Esme,” Clifford said, quite too familiar for a mere servant in Father’s household. “How go the daydreams?”
“Better than my French,” I confessed, which was much to great folly, for it invited Rosamund’s scrutiny at once.
“Are you studying French?” she asked, as if all that mattered in the world between us was my fluency.
“No,” I said. “I was reading and then the most unbelievable thing happened.”
“Indeed?” Clifford said, exchanging a dubious glance with Rosamund. “And what was that?”
I opened my mouth to disclose the encounter with the Fairy, but faltered before the utterance of a single word, realizing the ridicule that should follow.
“Yes?” Clifford said, patiently.
When I faltered, yet again, Rosamund scoffed. “I should say it was that she applied the proper conjugations to her French verbs. But that is too unbelievable, even for a believer in miracles, such as myself.”
I scowled at the vexing crumpet, but turned away so she did not observe it.
“I saw…I saw a wondrous dragonfly,” I said. “Inordinately large. Strange. Unlike any other I have ever seen.”
Rosamund and Clifford exchanged another look—this look being one of disappointment and disinterest.
“Dear,” Clifford said to Rosamund, “perhaps you ought to allow her to indulge her fancies a little more, or else she will be grow ever duller until she is fascinated by account ledgers, and so ruin her leisure.”
“If only she would!” Rosamund remarked, shaking her ugly brown curls. “She would be so much more manageable, in any case. And to think she might read account ledgers in French! Her father would be impressed greatly. He might even raise my wages!”
Rosamund laughed heartily and went along her way. Clifford dutifully followed, accompanying her. I remained near the gazebo. I would have been greatly injured by their insolence, but I was too delighted with my newfound Fairy friend to begrudge my petty governess and a lowly servant for paltry slights. Their comeuppance would come in due time. The universe is a just place, after all, and the Scales of Justice mete out their punishments eventually, even if only incrementally.
June 22nd, 1922
I am all melancholy! Ariel did not visit me today. I am afraid that I offended him by refusing the wings he had offered me. But, honestly, how might a human girl be granted wings? I am not a Fairy. Perhaps Fairies may, by magic, confer wings upon one such as myself. If so, I should like that very much. Only, I should want butterfly wings, not his meager dragonfly wings. That being said, with any such wings I should aspire to the very sun itself. None could keep me grounded, either by order or obligation. And to think of the look upon Rosamund’s quarrelsome face! Just to think of her potential expression as I fly away from her, and from Father’s estate itself, would be a daydream made manifest. I would be irreproachable, for I would be faraway from anyone disposed to be captious. Such liberty! Perhaps tomorrow Ariel will return and offer me again his gift, but on better terms.
I should so very much prefer butterfly wings!
June 23rd, 1922
The Devil take that bovine busybody! Betty overheard me speaking with Ariel through my window last night. Why she should be in the family wing, and so late at night, I do not know, but I believe it testifies poorly to a scullery maid’s character that she should be skulking about so late and where she is not wanted. She forthwith informed Father that I—his one and only daughter—was talking to myself like a lunatic. What infuriated me more, however, was Father’s credence to the portly spinster in contradiction to my own account of the facts. Of course, my account was false, and I readily admit it here, but the substance of the catastrophe is that Father does not trust me more than a ridiculous woman who has no business passing by my bedchamber so late in the night. Or ever! Were it the morning, I might abide it. I have sometimes caught her passing my door early in the morning, before the rest of the household had roused itself. Presumably to wake Father—though Father always wakes later than even myself, despite Betty’s early presumption to rouse him—but that is amiss of the point! I am too upset to concentrate my powers of reasoning. Enough for today! I will write more at a later time.
June 24th, 1922
Having reread the article concerning the Cottingley Fairies—with a greatly expanded personal knowledge concerning Fairy kin—I can only conclude that the Fairies therein photographed are but flat, fabricated artifice meant to swindle credence from the idiotic public. Indeed, the whole affair is either an absurd fabrication or, less likely, the Fairies photographed are a different breed than that of Ariel, for they are of utterly disparate sizes and dimensions from the friend whom I know so well. Ariel is as veritable as the very hand which writes this, and though I have never seen his back, there is no doubt of the authenticity of his wings. They carry him aloft, clearly before my uninhibited eyes. But what of the Cottingley Fairies? Never do I see a photograph wherein the dainty creatures suspend themselves freely in the air. Rather, they are as stiffly aground as any doll within a dollhouse.
I cannot help but be vexed at the idiocy of the Cottingley phenomenon. It is a ruse, unless, of course, it is not and there do happen to exist Fairies of diminutive size with wings more pleasing to my sensibilities. But I simply cannot abide the idea that there would be Fairies with pretty little butterfly wings, and that they should neglect my acquaintance! Perhaps there are other such Fairies, and perhaps I shall meet them in due time and be invited to dance with them.
Ariel seems disinclined to dance, and disinclined to mirth generally. Were he invited to dance in a roundel to the piping of flutes, he would only crouch—as he ever does—and stare imbecilically at the other dancers enjoying themselves. Is this a common trait of all of his people or is it his own unique predilection? Perhaps other Fairies bear themselves not so clumsily as Ariel and, so, can keep time enough with music to enjoy moonlit revelries. At times I think Ariel is soft in the head, like an imbecile, and doleful. Perhaps he seeks me to enliven his own dolorous life, having been born of a temperament unbecoming of livelier pursuits.
In my experience the stranger personages known have been of the human variety. Father’s household, for example, consists of too many bizarre characters. Jasper, the new gardener, eyed me too familiarly today. This seems a great feat in and of itself when one realizes that Jasper is a gangly lowbred fool with a wayward eye. Even so, he eyed me and continues to eye me when he thinks I am not looking. I abide the impertinence for now— if only for the sake of his widowed mother, for whom he labours to afford a livelihood—but should he persist in this unwelcome presumption, I will have a word with Father and have Jasper spirited away.
This is not to say that I did not have an otherwise splendid evening. I read The Goblin Market once again today while Ariel crouched at my window, listening. There did not appear any transition of emotions across his countenance during the whole reading, but I think he listened quite attentively. He always does. Occasionally he interrupted me to ask if I wanted wings, but I steadfastly stuck to the reading. Even Fairies must be cultivated in the finer Arts that humans have made in their honour. Someday I will read to him the play The Tempest so he may understand his namesake. I do not wish to read to him A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lest the bard’s flippancy be misunderstood and a war be declared between humanity and Fairy folk. There is too much war in the world in the present age as it is.
June 25th, 1922
Once again I caught Betty passing my door early this morning, before the dawn mists had even gathered in their fullness. She appeared in a disarrayed sort of state, and yet her corpulent smile was one of vast satisfaction, as if she had spent the predawn eating a grand feast when she should have been preparing breakfast for the rest of the household.
Father did not rise until much later in the day. Beneath his whiskers was an ever-fixed smile—a slight smile, for Father was never one to indulge overmuch on any conveyance of emotion—and he walked with an energy that bordered on mirth, insomuch as he was concerned. Perhaps the Fairies had enchanted him and Betty. I must ask Ariel upon his next visitation.
June 26th, 1922
Having reread some of my earlier entries, I must sadly confess that I do not write as abundantly as I should. Therefore, I am of the conviction that the only means by which to improve my capacities as an authoress is to write with renewed diligence. Only discipline and perseverance conjoined together may manifest true genius, however strong one’s natural daemon might be. Thus, I am inclined to exercise my daemon in pursuit of that subject which most infatuates me presently: Fairies. Thus, this needful exercise necessitates that I write of my dearest bosom friend, Ariel.
Ariel—as I have stated in a previous entry—is not one to make merry in a roundel, dancing like Puck beset with mirth. Rather, he is more the toadstool around which the other Fairies prance and cavort. Sometimes he is so silent and vacant of expression that I believe mushrooms shall sprout from his ears. Thus, he is more a dead log than a flower in a playful breeze. One would think Oberon banished him, so dour is Ariel’s countenance. Or perhaps Titania hexed him for some unnamed naughtiness in regard to one among her maidens. Men are wont to do as they do, regardless of race. Maybe Ariel is Puck himself, discombobulated through magic until all that remains of his former mischief is the impertinence of his steadfast stare. His eyes are dim lodestars leading to a chilly emptiness. Sometimes I fear where they will lead me.
June 27th, 1922
Father, for all of his earnest endorsements of Reason as a guiding principle, has proven himself guided as much by fancy as ever I was. He has bought a dog. Nor is it any small specimen, but a large hellhound. It is the largest among the breeds I have ever seen —a Great Dane, no less —and I cannot help but think it a terrible indulgence on behalf of someone else ’s whim. Betty ’s, most likely. No doubt she sees in its largess a certain kinship to her own breeding. Large, cumbrous creatures adore other large creatures insomuch as they allay their own self-consciousness. And so I have yet another proof of Betty ’s plot to ruin me. The lumbering behemoth is named Caliban —that is what I have come to call him, anyway —and I loathe him so. Why should I not? He is ever barking roughly and abounding clumsily, smelling most disagreeably. Were I inclined to dogs, I should like a sleek, graceful, and small dog of fine breeding and feature, not some cumbersome, dull-footed oaf scrambling in his overeager excitement to keep atop his ungainly legs. What ’s more, he chases Ariel away, barking and growling whenever I attempt to sit alone with my Fairy friend. Why, just this evening Ariel was at my window and the fatuous canine did not cease his barking until my friend had flown away. The belligerent beast had wakened the whole household, yet Father forgave so readily the misbegotten creature that Father seemed not himself at all, but a changeling. Betty apologized profusely, yet Father treated her tenderly — more tenderly than he should ever have his own daughter were her pet to rouse even half the household with its raucous barking.
I was so upset about that monstrous hellhound that I have been hitherto compelled to write an account of my grievances in my journal ere I fell asleep. If I may fall asleep. My nerves are frayed even now by the continued presence of that brutish beast. May the inferno reclaim him! Preferably without delay!
Father scolded me today. And what was the offense? I had barbed words with that corpulent imbecile, Betty. She had prepared a cake, as per my request, yet had failed to make it as I instructed. I am very fond of chocolate cakes —as are most people of elegant refinement —and, in this respect, the cake was successful, for it was, by and large, chocolate. However, the fatal flaw resided in the feature of the cake ’s only having two layers. This is unacceptable. All cakes must be possessed of three layers to be concluded wholly successful. Perhaps the lowborn can enjoy two layers of cake, but those of us who are cultivated know that the cream and the cake must be afforded proper portions in each bite. It is, I dare say, a scientific law within culinary circles. But Betty —being of such a hysterical disposition —collapsed in tears at my reprimand. When Father overheard the chastisement, (in which I was completely justified), he immediately soothed her and sided with the maudlin woman against me! When I then accused Betty of poorly allotting the amount of sugar, Father took me roughly aside and berated me with such ferocity that I wept a deluge of tears, as opposed to Betty ’s shallow tears. Yet, Father ignored my heartbreak in favour of Betty ’s. A cruelty, to be sure, and an absurdity against the laws of Nature. It is well-established that more finely bred people feel emotions more keenly and deeply than rough-worn labourers. But did Father soothe his daughter in her time of distress? Did he recant his harsh words when I wept alike to Andromeda chained to the rocks? No. He mentioned something irrelevant to the situation —concerning Betty ’s youngest brother and the War that had come and gone and such —and then left me alone to gather my tears. What cruelties Father hoists upon his one and only daughter!
My consolation came only later when Ariel appeared in the garden. I was sitting among the trellis, on a bench with the woodbine all around me. Ariel alighted beneath a statue of the Madonna. He was disposed to listen and so I confided in him, feeling much better while I spoke about, and ate, the cake in question. I offered him a piece, but he seemed unmoved by it, despite my magnanimous approval of Betty ’s failed attempt. Perhaps Fairy food ruins the lowly fare that we mortals consume. Or perhaps Fairies may not partake of our food without trapping themselves forever in our world, much as it is said we will be trapped in theirs should we partake in their feasts. Nonetheless, Ariel could have benefitted from some food. He was much more gaunt now than when we first met. His face was shrunken, his eyes dimmer than ever before, and the blueness of his lips spread along his pallid features. He looked as anemic as any blue-blooded member of the royal family.
And then Caliban chased him away. At times I feel as if the whole of this household conspires to vex me with their every breath!
July 2nd, 1922
My nerves have been too racked of late to write. I have attempted to find solace in the works of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Robert Browning. The former I adore, but the latter is a prattling knave whose works are deliberately enigmatic in the worst conceivable manner. Did he think himself so clever for having written such abstruse dribble? I dare say, his “last duchess ” should have left him at the altar. I do not understand it, nor do I believe it a failing on part of my intelligence. Rather, obscurity reveals paradoxically the inabilities of the poet, and Browning ’s works are resplendent in their unrefined dimensions. Had he written his work less obtusely, he would have benefitted his audience and himself and his poetry with readier comprehension. I regret having ascertained Father ’s copy from his library. When I returned it I happened upon him reading to someone in the recessed window, near the globe. Sneaking surreptitiously within, I found that he was reading to none other than that bovine busybody, Betty! From what I heard, he was reading John Donne, which infuriated me. What infuriated me more, however, was the patience with which he explained to the dull intellect of that lowbred woman the deeper meaning of Donne ’s poetry. As if she could plunge those depths!
I was so upset that I bumped into a small table and knocked a book loudly onto the floor. Father perceived me at once and called to me. I had no recourse but to step forth into the humiliating scene.
“Is that my book of Robert Browning? ” Father asked.
“Yes, ” I answered.
“And did you enjoy it? ” he asked.
I answered that I did not enjoy it; that Mr. Browning was too overripe with himself.
“A peculiar way to put it, ” Father said. “But it is not to everyone ’s tastes. Perhaps when you grow older, and more familiar with the subtler meanings, you will grow your appreciation for it. ”
I could not bear this remark! It allotted me such short thrift, and no less from Father himself! And while in the audience of that cow-eyed imbecile, Betty! I stormed out of the library in a hail of tears and have not spoken a word to Father in three days ’ time! Indeed, the only person to whom I speak at all is Ariel, and only whenever it pleases him to make himself known. I have no means of summoning him and, so, my confessions and consolations are entirely dependent upon his own capricious nature. It is insufferable! I am as a prisoner in my own home! When will I enjoy the freedom that so many others take for granted?
July 2rd, 1922
Today was the anniversary of mother ’s death. Father went walking about the estate, accompanied by Betty. I mislike that. When he returned his eyes were red and Betty advantaged herself during his vulnerable state to take liberty of his arm. The impertinence! The audacity! She should have been stripped and beaten like the presumptuous harlot that she is! She plots grave machinations. She seeks to endear herself to Father, to make herself indispensable, and thus to establish herself in his intimacy, thereby exacting awful control over him, as belike a sorceress unto King Solomon. It is most intolerable! I know not what to do about it, however. Perhaps I shall put a few of Father ’s hair in a jar, alongside nails and wax, and bury it. That is a sure trap for witches, from what I understand.
I have been thinking of Mother today. She was French, so it seems only congruent that she should have died as she did, from what Father has deemed the “French disease ”. I do not know the particulars of this vague disease, but it favours all the more my inclination to despise all things French. Indeed, I am dedicated to being wholly British in bearing and pretense and perspective. Or perhaps a Fairy, if only I could have butterfly wings rather than those of a dragonfly.
There are children missing, or so the gardeners were saying today. Lowborn children from the country, I should say. The commoners bear so many children that I think one or two missing from each family should not be cause for alarm. They breed like sows, after all, and their litters are overfull. They seem to think, in their own superstitious way, that a witch has taken them. Maybe a witch has. Maybe Betty is one such witch. Betty has always been beholden to an excess of appetite. Yet today I noticed that she was ever cramming food into her maw, like some sow soon to farrow. I ’ve also noticed that she has grown more corpulent of late. Today I saw her belly strike the table repeatedly as she rolled out dough for our evening supper. Had I witnessed her nurse a litter of piglets I would not have been astonished in the least. Maybe she is a witch and she has eaten the lowborn children. If so, the Fairies will not let her take me. I will not feed her expanding largess. I would rather shove her down the stairs. How can Father indulge her so? Can he not see how bloated she has become beneath her frock? The mere sight of her is repulsive enough to disturb the hungriest appetite.
I resolve myself to speak to Ariel about betty and see what he would advise to do to remove her from the household.
July 3rd, 1922
Caliban is dead. It seems he contracted some virulent variety of worm while entertaining himself in his usual bestial manner. Clifford and Jasper were given the strenuous duty of carrying the heavy beast out to the field and burying him beneath a rather idyllic oak tree. Why they should wish to ruin the scenic oak with the overbearing beast ’s presence, I do not know. Betty was not to be consoled, though Father attempted with all the heavenly powers at his disposal. I could scarcely understand the need. It was a dog and dogs are earthly beasts resigned to their earthly brevity. It is not as though an actual soul had perished, only a small ball of nerves and instincts bound up in a skull. It is no different than a butterfly tumbling dead in a strong wind. Less tragic, I should say, for I do love the beauty of a butterfly ’s wings whereas there was nothing beautiful about Caliban. And his death was not so proud as that of a butterfly ’s. Jasper and his father were afeared to touch him due to the roiling, writhing creatures in his bowels.
Later today, while everyone was preoccupied with consoling each other over the departed hellbeast, I was visited by Ariel. I recounted for him the passing of Caliban. He was as unmoved as I was, though there seemed to be a certain comprehension in his eyes that I rarely saw there. He is my confidant, of course, and so naturally I am inclined to relay to him the particulars of my daily life, but this was the first time he seemed to understand more than he would say. There was a “knowing light ” in his eyes. I cannot express it in any other fashion. Perhaps he suspected, as I did, that Caliban was the sort of beast that would seek out its own destruction in its own careless, heedless manner. If so, I am glad Ariel and I are so alike in our thinking. It accords a certain harmony of thought that bespeaks much in the means of sympathetic comprehension.
July 7th, 1922
The nerve of Rosamund! She had the audacity to label me a “spoiled princess ” in front of Clifford, Betty, Madeline, and countless others in Father ’s service. I should have slapped her, truly, and brought with the blow a new appreciation for her true standing within the household. Her impertinence and insolence are unbearable! I am all tears now and cannot compose myself! I should like to fly away from here at once! Away from her torturous lessons on French and Clifford ’s insolent smirks and the disapproval in Father ’s eyes! The latter I cannot tolerate, for they did not flinch or baulk at Rosamund ’s impudence! Rather, Father walked away, abandoning me to infernal judgments. It was his most heartless betrayal yet. I cannot bear it. I shall leave here asa condemned soul escaping Dante ’s Inferno.
Yes, I shall fly away. It is simple enough. Or so I should think. Ariel has offered me my grand exeunt, and I shall receive the offer readily. Granted, I am not overly fond of the wings I am promised. Butterfly wings would better serve me, but I suppose his wings are beautiful after all. They have a spectral sheen to them that is very fetching, in its own way, and I think, upon further consideration, that it is not so much the wings that detract from the overall aspect of Ariel, but that imbecilic stare that inhabits his face. Undoubtedly, were I to wear such wings as are possessed by him I would better flatter them, and so transpose with the beauty inherent in my features the composite impression of such wings. Indeed, though Ashputtle wore tatters and was blackened by her menial labours, her natural beauty rendered anew all with her innate loveliness, outshining her sisters when in their more lavish dresses. An old shoe, thus, may be made beautiful if it houses a lovely rose.
Perhaps I shall join the Fairies and write of my times among them, recording their habits and customs and creeds. It would be a grand sensation among Europe. It may even inspire the world to relinquish all future wars, bringing harmony and everlasting peace to humanity. Do I flatter myself overmuch in such ambitions? No. I dare say I do not.
July 8th, 1922
I sat before the pianoforte today, practicing my Moonlight Sonata. The piano belonged to mother. Father expects me to grow proficient in the intricacies of the keys, but I would rather have my fingertips feverishly dancing along a typewriter, hammering out bizarre manifestations like a blacksmith at the beck and call of his daemon. Yet, Father persists in his refusal to purchase the Remington I desire. My mother was said to be a songbird, with an excellent voice and an excellent adroitness for ivory. I will not be a songbird in a cage. I will fly free. This I vow.
At times I feel as if I am an esteemed breed of dog, to be groomed and bred and to have no life of its own. Do I pity myself overmuch? No. If pity is considered in degree of recompense to its merit, then I am woefully lacking compensation. For who has endured such trials and tribulations as have been my breakfast, lunch, and supper? But I choose to fancy myself an oddity insomuch as all pioneers and iconoclasts tend to be. If I am alienated among my own home, then it is because I am such a rare specimen of peculiarity that none may share in my propensities and insights, including those sharing my blood. An anomaly, I will live a life that will not be appreciated except by those generations yet to come, when the collective of humanity progresses beyond the limited vision of their yesteryears. Perhaps I will be an Aristotle, or a Da Vinci. The fault lines of the earth shift beneath my feet, bringing seismic change. I do not doubt that my understanding of Fairy kind will bring mankind out of the shadows of a Dark Age and into a new Age of Reason. My halo of learning burns bright, and those in my home cannot bear the brightness of it.
July 10th, 1922
What a frightful day! Whereas yesterday had been woefully uneventful, today was extraordinarily tumultuous in its seismic cataclysms. Oh, but where to begin? I will start with the greatest calamity of all: Rosamund saw Ariel today! And just when he was renewing his offer of wings! She came upon us in the woods. I had gone walking to clear my mind after a row with Rosamund over my French. She had accused me of forsaking all learning of it, which I will not deny to be true. I had quite given it up, for it no longer concerned me, nor would it concern me however much the inducement or admonishment. I had wholly made up my mind on the matter. I would leave to join the Fairies. Let them conjugate that verb!
While walking I was weeping at my misfortunes. It was a hot summery day, but the shade of the forest afforded me some small comfort while in my time of woe. Ariel alighted above me, crouching low upon a branch with the sunlight and shadows battling about his dappled shoulders.
“Wings? ” he offered.
I wiped my tears and attempted to smile encouragingly. “I would like them very much, ” I said.
“Come, ” he said. He crawled upon all fours down the side of the tree and beckoned that I should follow him.
Before I could follow, Rosamund appeared in the dappled shade, pale and shrieking like some banshee in heathen Ireland. I turned away from Ariel, confronting her absurd expression of horror, but before I could explain the situation, she snatched me by my wrist and yanked me along and out of the forest, senseless in her affrighted state. Indeed, she did not relent until we were in Father ’s house and before Father, in his private library.
The melodrama that followed cannot be recorded, so chaotic was it in all its preposterous dimensions, but the conclusion of the misunderstanding was that I was forbidden from leaving the house. Meanwhile Rosamund —being deemed a lunatic by Father —was exiled from the household itself. Clifford accompanied her in her departure, looking rather more chivalrous than I could have thought him, especially with those overlarge ears of his. Perhaps he had an ancestor whom was a knight in another age. He held his head high and seemed as stalwart in his determination as Don Quixote chasing Maiden Folly.
Rosamund, on the other hand, was overwrought. Even unto the last moment of her presence in Father ’s house, she swore that I was in danger. Through lachrymose pleas she swore to a horror and spoke of the missing children among the commoners. What drivel! To think she had been my governess, sworn to elucidate the world for me! It is too much like the lunatic leading the asylum! And to think she might actually care for me and my well-being! A first, to be sure! But I know better than to believe such poppycock (poppycock —a good word to use as a name for a Fairy who spouts drivel. Perhaps I shall write such a character based upon Rosamund ’s hysterics). She was merely attempting to retain her employment in service to Father. Yet, the one thing Father cannot abide is a woman succumbing to hysterics. And Rosamund was as hysterical as a rabid mare. I always knew her frigid governess veneer was a mask for what was, undoubtedly, a very frayed disposition of agitated nerves. The most outwardly austere of personages are those most likely to unravel when encountering something beyond their habitual, everyday experiences. Let her gather up her ragdoll nerves in a countryside cottage far from here. She could benefit from more sun.
To think that she should have maligned Ariel so! Deeming him a monster! The Good People are invariably good if treated so. The only misnomer to be considered egregious is that of Rosamund ’s title as “governess ”, for she could not govern her own head, let alone mine.
Despite the chaos of the day, I had the wherewithal to disavow all of Rosamund ’s ravings. Thus, whereas Father believes Rosamund unsettled in her wits, I have escaped unscathed in Father ’s estimation. Indeed, I am by virtue of contrast with Rosamund ever elevated in Father ’s estimation. He is likely to attribute my previous fancies to the influence of my former governess, and so I am absolved of all previous infractions of sensibility by having what Father presumes to be a moon-eyed teacher.
The advantages in this current predicament are manifold: Rosamund ’s absence from the household and the fact that Father does not believe in Ariel or his Fairy kin. Thus, my dreams of becoming a Fairy go undiscovered, and, so, unimpeded. Just so, I fear that Ariel may have been too unnerved by today ’s tumult to return and offer me again my wings. Perhaps all is ruined. Perhaps not. We shall see.
July 11th, 1922
There is no concealing it! Indeed, I wonder how I could not have seen what was so plain before me —Betty is with child! What a scandal! I wonder who the father is. How delicious if it was Clifford! Oh succulent spite! To think he might have begat upon her and then fled with Rosamund. I hope Rosamund is with child as well, and that he should flee her. Crumpets deserve as much. But I do mislike Father ’s keen interest in Betty ’s condition. He would be better to turn her out before she should bear her piglet, lest the scandal sully our household. What would high society think, knowing we have a maid soon to birth a fatherless child? They would think it the abode of Bacchus. I cannot debut in society with the swollen, shadowy figure of Betty overhanging me. No matter how dignified and regal, I will be tainted by the association.
But Father —for all his austerities and forbearance —is too soft-hearted toward Betty to lord over his household properly. It does him no good. It does the Wellington estate no good, nor its legacy. If Father wished to do her a good turn he would locate the father of the bastard and rectify him promptly with the mother of his child.
July 12th, 1922
It was a strange stretch of hours that passed today, and a stranger evening. Everyone glances at me sidelong within Father ’s house, almost surreptitiously, as if they hold a secret behind their lips and they fear they may let it slip simply by breathing. No doubt, it is scorn. They presume to take great cares with me, but that is a farce of pretense for what is otherwise derisive attitude and malfeasance. Even Father seemed to be unforthcoming today, condescending only to ask me how I might appreciate an expanded family. Were Father to remarry, I should not care. It is beyond my capacity to care. He should pursue whichever folly chances his fancy and I will pursue mine. The deathly circumspectness of everyone taxes on me so. I would rather they reverted to their outright insolence. I tire of their taciturn tension. It is like being in a house of snakes, all coiled tautly and ready to strike.
But poor Ariel! He suffered a dreadful episode today, the nature of which still eludes me. We were at the edge of the woods, at that time which the French call l ’heure bleue. Advantaged by the distraction of Betty ’s condition, I stole out undetected by Father and by the servants. Ariel was, as usual, crouching upon the branch of an oak tree. I was reading to him one among my favourite poems, “The Stolen Child ”, by Yeats. All seemed well enough —even if Ariel seemed not the least interested in what I was reading —when suddenly he succumbed to a violent paroxysm. At first glance I mistook his fit of trembles to be a Fairy prank. But when he spoke his voice was so altered from his customarily buzzing voice that I then thought him attempting a more perfected emulation of human speech. Would that I had more influence over such an affectation, for I would have steered him toward a better-bred tongue!
In this lowborn dialect he exclaimed loudly.
“God help me, Miss! Please! Fetch…fetch…the priest…Save me! ”
He nearly fell from the tree, finishing his imitation with a cry of despair. Shortly, however, he choked back his affected country accent and spoke, once again, in his vibrating Fairy voice.
“No mind, no mind, ” he said. “None for you. ”
I took this to mean that he meant I should not fret over his failed outburst of human speech and should mind my poetry again. I did so, finishing my reading. Truth be told, I do not believe that the poem held him in any interest. Perhaps he did not care much for Yeats. Perhaps Ariel is prejudiced against the Irish. I cannot fault him that.
I believe that Ariel must have been aspiring to repeat what he must have heard some inane, lowbred child exclaim upon seeing the Fairy. The commoners are a superstitious lot and would fear the Good People when they should instead rejoice in their appearances. Oh, but you cannot elucidate the idiotic masses. They misunderstand the simplest of things. Like Jasper with his wayward eye, they cannot keep their vision of what is true and what is not aligned. Their perspective drifts wildly awry.
Yet, I must write down that I saw something strange upon my friend as he contorted and writhed in his sudden paroxysm. There was something along his back, though I could not discern it while facing him. It was more than his wings —almost a protrusion of some sort —but it was ambiguous in its form so utterly that I could not conclude its nature definitively. It seemed almost an incandescently metallic blue or green, shimmering as a spectral shell or carapace. But it was glimpsed only at slight angles, necessitating a better view from behind. Perhaps it was simply a fancy of mine. Perhaps not. He flew away before I could further discern its peculiarities.
July 14th, 1922
Betty incessantly complains about the pains she feels in her condition. She crudely complains, also, as if the scandal was not ribald enough. Speaking of things gnawing at her from within, too concerned with the repercussions of her Babylonian sins to appreciate how gnawed our household is with the shame of her continued presence. Father is going to great expenses —both financial and social — to accommodate Betty and her despicable condition, whereas were I mistress of this household I would turn Betty out of my home forthwith, alongside most, if not all, of the other insolent parasites to which Father ’s house has been claimed as host. Were I Father I would put her down like any crippled mare. Her condition has made it exceedingly difficult to attend to my journal, or any writing I might venture to do. She is too loud —a donkey in a storm of biting insects would have more self-possession —and it is a trial to merely jot down these words, so disjointed are my thoughts as the house echoes with her cries. An opera house suffers less melodrama.
July 17th, 1922
O joyous day! And ever more joyous night! Ariel led me through the woods, toward the peat bog, and thereupon introduced me to the other Fairies of his acquaintance. There were four in all: two young boys, roughly the same age and appearance as Ariel, and a tall girl of lovely aspect. Like my dear friend, these specimens were bereft of clothes, unmindful of their own nakedness, and while I admired the liberty with which they lived, I vowed that even while exulting in my own Fairy freedom I should dress myself up in all manner of pretty gowns so all those who looked upon me would do so with great reverence and envy, being that I would become the most idealized spirit of beauty and liberation.
And because I would be no hedonistic Fairy.
The tall Fairy girl spoke, addressing me with a voice similar to any girl ’s my age, except for the buzzing edges of her words. Her throat vibrated as if to burst.
“Welcome, ” she said. “Wings? ”
She had dragonfly wings like the others, but she had a crown of reeds along her forehead, above her empty eyes. She must have been the Fairy Queen, Titania. Who else could she be, being so tall and regal?
“Wings? ” she repeated.
“If you would, please, ” I said.
The two young boys were crouching among the bog. There was, I realized, a cluster of small pinkish bubbles floating buoyantly atop the sprawl of green duckweed and algae. One of the boys plucked a single pinkish bubble and brought it forward, holding it up with one hand while wading through the thick, putrid sludge of the bog.
“Turn, ” the Fairy Queen said.
I did as I was instructed, eager and excited, but also slightly afraid. The Fairy boy put the pinkish bubble on the nape of my neck, beneath my curls. It stung. There was a sharp, brief pain, like the little sting of a wasp, and then it subsided. Somewhat. Truthfully, it has not stopped stinging since he put the bubble upon me. I cried out and wiped my eyes. The Fairies assured me it was necessary.
“Wings grow, ” Ariel said. “Soon, fly. ”
They said no more. I wished to speak with them more, but I was not feeling well. I left for home, a little staggered and dizzy. Ariel did not accompany me. The Fairies watched me leave, staring at me with unblinking, vacant eyes. I felt cold, and my neck hurt, but I was delighted. Soon I would grow wings and leave this terrible house behind. My liberation was at hand.
July 20th, 1922
I have had a fever for the last few days, and have been confined to bed while everyone tends to Betty. Madeline visits me briefly every other hour, bringing me water and asking if I should like anything. She offers me soup, but I am in no mood for food. I ask only for water, my diary and a pen. Very soon, when I am of clearer concentration, I will write my farewell letter to Father. I hope he will not be too heartbroken at my departure.
July 22nd, 1922
My health has improved, but not enough to leave my bed. Father visited me, briefly, to see how I was faring. He would not speak of Betty, nor did I wish him to, though I could discern that his concern for her well-being seemed markedly more than my own. I cannot lay on my back, but must lay on my side, for my nape hurts. The pain has begun to spread down my spine. I have not had the strength to rise and peer in a mirror to see how my nascent wings grow, nor do I tell anyone about my wings for fear they will attempt to confine me when my wings have grown a span enough to lift me. I keep the blanket and sheets up to my chin at all times and tell everyone that I merely feel ill because of my monthly menstruation. I insist that I do not need to see a doctor. At times it feels as if I am in a chrysalis of heat and sweat and that my flesh, itself, will split open so my new self may emerge. At other times I feel as if something speaks to me with a buzzing voice, though no one except myself dwells in my room. I do not understand it.
Ariel has not visited me at all. I have not seen him since I followed him to the swamp to meet the Fairy Queen. I hope he is well. I wish to thank him once my wings fully blossom.
July 24th, 1922
I overheard the servants whispering in the hall, speaking of monstrous things. They said that Betty ’s child was stillborn. The reason for its hopeless birth? It had been infested with parasites! From milk, no doubt, for Betty has always been an unmannered cow who enjoys milk straight from the teat. Doctor Froud attended the delivery ,but he was unfamiliar with the parasite, having never encountered them before. What I have gleaned from overhearing the servants is that they are not unlike larvae. Never having been inclined to milk, I feel that my natural predilection is thus validated. That bovine busybody has reaped her just rewards for an intemperate appetite and intemperate passions.
With Betty ’s bastard child expired, I had hoped the household would be quieter. Alas, this wish has not come true, for Betty weeps greatly while Father consoles her. I loathe this absurd development. He is too attentive with her, and Betty is too familiar with Father. But it is no matter. I will be absconding soon, never to return. My wings grow! This I know, for I feel how sensitive they are while abed. I can walk now, though weakly, and I must be careful not to draw too much attention to my metamorphosis. Most of the household think I am having a protracted temper tantrum, cloistering myself in my room because of some petty jealousy for Father ’s attentions. Let them think such! It facilitates my efforts to keep my secret from them, for they shun me presently. Beneath my silken shift my diaphanous wings grow, undetected. Occasionally I swoon, and have even fainted, but it is no matter. I can anticipate when such episodes are to come, the vibrations growing stronger in my neck and at the base of my head, and so I hasten to my bed, covering up before the weak spell topples me.
My only difficulty, truly, is ascertaining sufficient food. I have arranged that Madeline bring me biscuits every other hour, alongside tea and several cubes of sugar. I eat the sugar more often than I drink the tea, but it is a good pretense for so many cubes a day. Madeline is a recent addition at the household, so she does not know what is and what is not a routine serving. Meanwhile, her ignorance serves me as well as any other servant I might need. Were that all of the servants were so unquestioning toward my commands! This household would be a tolerable place to abide, at least for a time.
July 25th, 1922
Betty has perished. It is, admittedly, a shame whenever anyone passes away, but why should Father be so lugubrious? I have never in my life heard him cry so miserably —or express any emotion in his strictly stoic features —and yet he is a ruin of tears as he walks through the garden. It is not the first instance of a servant dying while in service to the house. Why should Betty ’s death invoke so many lachrymation? It is no different than when any dog should die in the kennel, but Father seems to have taken it too keenly to heart. He oftentimes stands in the scullery, gazing about as if looking for something, then alternately sighing and sobbing in turns. It is most unmanly for the master of a household to be seen thus by his servants. They will sense the weakness and exploit it by performing their duties most lackadaisically. Indeed, I looked out of my bedroom window and caught sight of the gardeners lounging in the shade of an oak tree. Such ungrateful parasites! Perhaps when I grow my wings out I shall lift Jasper and drop him from a goodly height. It may knock his wayward eye straight again.
July 26th, 1922
Ariel visited me last night! Happy news, indeed! I had thought that he had forsaken me. Happier news, yet, is that I have grown to understand him now. I had never noticed it before, but the vibrations in his words form a language in and of itself. Like the undercurrents on a lake, they flow with meaning beyond the superficial level. He is more articulate than I ever credited him to be.
But my pain has increased alongside this comprehension. This pain should be expected, I suppose. Growing wings must be painful for all Fairies. Yet, I console myself in the thought that this pain is but a chrysalis from which I shall emerge more beautiful and independent than ever. I await that day eagerly.
July 27th, 1922
I have been fainting of late. When the pain becomes too much. When the vibrations overwhelm me. I wake in strange places, baffled as to how I came to be there. This morning I found myself in the woods, up a tree. It took me a long time to climb down, for I was in great pain and fatigued. My fingers hurt, the nails broken and jammed with bark. I scraped my body climbing down. Only Jasper saw me coming from the woods. I scowled at him and he looked away. Yet, his wayward eye remained upon me. I should like to take a stick and poke his eye out.
There was great bustle in the house as I rested in my bedroom. Voices and hurried scurrying. They talked of country children being found. They said other things, but in hushed voices. Father was among those in the large company that left the house. A rider was dispatched to fetch Dr Froud. I do not understand what the fussy haste was all about. I am too tired to.
July 28th, 1922
I awoke in the peat bog today. Shoeless and clueless as to how I arrived there. Queen Titania was not there, nor were the other Fairies, including Ariel. I walked home. My shift was ruined. Stealing into my bedroom, I changed clothes and had Madeline bring hot water for my tub so I might wash myself and my shift. I was feverish yet, but also felt clammy, too. Fatigue drained my strength and I committed the shift to the garden, flinging it out my window. It plummeted to the earth, caked heavily with mud and peat. I fell asleep in the tub and did not wake till my fingers were pruned. Sluggishly I crawled out of the tub and into my bed. The bed was soaked through, but I did not care. I slept until evening whereupon I woke and began to write this entry. I feel groggy once again. The pain surges. Must sleep.
July 29th, 1922
The pain is unbearable. The nape of my neck throbs. I cannot think very clearly. Writing these words is difficult. Pain. The voices outside my window throughout the day. So many buzzing voices. I hear them constantly. It is another language. Like French. But I understand so much now.
It hurts so much. Cannot tell Father. I will get my wings soon and be free. It hurts! Pain. Voices.
Cannot write much. Cannot think well. In English. Hurt. Pain. Voices. Head pulses. Throbbing. Words. No. Madeline, close window. Voices in garden. Too many. Buzzing.
Examination of Patient #6, Conducted by Dr. Brian Froud on August 3rd, 1922
After an extended surgery, the specimen has been removed and placed in formaldehyde to preserve its anatomy until further dissection can be conducted. Like the others, it is an insect belonging to some new species, or perhaps a very old species that has hitherto remained dormant until recently disturbed. Whichever case it may be, it is a marvel of evolution. Measuring half a meter long, it resembles mostly insects within the Odonata order. It is parasitic by nature, however, and attaches itself to a host ’s spine using its legs, thorax, segmented abdomen, and its terminal abdominal appendages. Its jaws penetrate the base of the victim ’s skull to manipulate the host ’s cerebellum to appropriate motor function. By vibrating its thorax the insect manipulates the host ’s vocal cords to imitate speech. The life cycle of these insects —as accurately as I might approximate it —consists of a hive of larvae infesting a host, feeding from the host ’s body until the host ’s death, then the larvae emerge, enveloped in globules that are, in fact, chrysalises formed from the host ’s dead cells. An embryo is gathered by infected hosts and then implanted into a new host ’s spine for fusion as the embryo matures to adulthood. Using the host, the adult repeats the cycle by infesting new hosts with its larvae, primarily through ingestion. The complexity of this life cycle offers hope that we may curtail the colonization by such a pernicious species before it can grow pervasive.
Due to the nature of the parasitic insect, the patient died during the procedure, as have all of the patients I have attempted to treat with surgery. The inextricable nature of the creature makes it impossible to remove without a terminal outcome, so intricately bonded is its body with the host ’s spine. For the sake of the safety of the remaining servants and the master of the estate, I have advised that they leave the household while a thorough investigation is carried out by the local authorities. I have been told that there will be no total extermination due to the importance of the specimen. My experience with the specimen will also be required in future examinations, for the British Armed Forces are interested in the specimen and its potential implementation as a weapon to protect Great Britain from future foreign hostilities. I hope to prove myself invaluable in such an ambition.
The two boys squatted at the edge of the pond, sticks in hand, playing in water and mud; splashing it around like it was a cauldron in need of churning.
“Your daddy is wastin’ his time,” said the dark-haired boy. “Putting that fence up won’t help him save his livestock. Not when that giant goes walkin’ ‘round again.”
The other boy shook his blonde head and scowled. “There ain’t no such things as giants, you liar. Daddy knows what it is. It’s that disease takin’ his herd, one by one. He just needs some money for the medicine.”
In the distance the inky lands sloped upward to the crests of the hills beyond the farmhouse and the barn, and the echoes of a man’s hammer. The sun sank into the ash heap of the world, the embers slowly dying out on another dying Autumn day.
“Sure them giants are real,” the dark-haired boy said. “They’re in the Bible. They’re called the Nilfeeum, I think. All you gotta’ do is read it. God’s truth given in God’s words.”
“I thought God’s words were supposed to be Jewish,” the other boy said.
“Whatever it is, it’s what it says,” the dark-haired boy said. “Giants. You better be watchin’ for ‘em because they’ll shake your barn down and they’ll take your livestock. They’ll take each head of cattle. It don’t matter if you’re a Godfearing man, if you got Jesus on your side and in your blood. That makes him hanker for you all the more.”
The blonde boy paused in his stirring, gazing into the reeds on the other side of the pond. They swayed and whispered their secrets. He tossed his head dismissively to one side.
“My daddy can take care of any giant anyway. He’s got his gun.”
“Guns don’t do nothin’ to giants,” the other boy argued, smacking the water with his stick. “No more than whinin’ about taxes do to the County. Them giants are comin’ for you and yours. Mark my word. They’re comin’ for everybody. That’s why my daddy’s movin’ us out soon. Goin’ somewhere else. Ain’t nothin’ here but what ‘em giants will swallow whole. Nothin’ worth stayin’ for here. It’s pointless, daddy says. You might as well piss on the ground and expect flowers to grow. Ain’t no good seedin’ anyway. Whatever grows, well, them giants will be eatin’ it all.”
The blonde boy sighed. Absently he stirred the stick around the cluster of tadpole eggs, scattering them to drift in the dark brown murk of the pond; unthinking, simply churning with a compulsion that had been given spark by other thoughts a stick could not dissolve or fend off or scatter unto a similarly languid death.
After a while, the two boys sought higher ground from the valley’s shadows. They hiked the nearest hill, sitting down beneath a large oak. The sun sank to a flaming ruin among the Kentucky hills. Down below—drowned in the shadow of those hills, and dwarfed by those hills—was an old tumbledown barn that was so eaten by Time and weather that it was more straw than timber. The two boys stared at the soundless breast of the horizon as the evening waned. The sun smouldered and the valley below gave over to cool shadow. Dusk flared defiantly; hopelessly.
“A bit chilly,” the blonde haired boy said.
“Oh, don’t be such a nancy,” the dark-haired boy said. “You’re worse than a girl.”
The blonde boy sulked in resentful silence, his knees up to his mouth. His denim jeans were stained with grass and mud and pig’s blood. He didn’t wear a shirt and his face and arms had been baked brown by a Summer’s worth of sun. After a silent minute, he sighed. Leaves shivered in a cool breeze.
“I should be headin’ home,” he said. “Gotta’ go to church in the mornin’.”
The dark-haired boy frowned as if he caught a whiff of a rotten egg. His face and arms were also baked brown. His dark hair was cropped across his brow, but long in the back. A white scar split one eyebrow, like the mark of Cain.
“What do you mean, ‘What for?’” the blonde boy said. “Cuz you’re supposed to.”
The dark-haired boy shrugged. He sat with his legs laxly split in front of him. Both boys wore no shoes and their bare feet were riddled with red bug bites. Above their heads, the oak tree spread its sprawling cover, occasionally dropping an acorn.
“I don’t see how it is you’re ‘supposed to’,” the dark-haired boy said. “Jesus is everywhere anyhow, so it don’t matter.”
The blonde boy just shrugged. “All the same, daddy and momma will want me to go. And if they want me to do it, I oughta’ do it. You’re supposed to honor your parents.”
“Boy, you really don’t know nothin’,” the dark-haired boy remarked, shaking his head. His hand searched the yellowing grass unmindfully, fondling an acorn. The dirty fingers clutched it loosely. Squinting his eye against the squinting glare of the sun, he threw the acorn down the hill—as if aiming for the collapsible barn. “Yeah, I don’t see how goin’ to church honors anybody. I mean, you oughtta’ be workin’ on the farm. Or your family’ll lose it.”
“Prayer helps, too,” the blonde boy said. “Momma says so. And daddy agrees.”
“Christ,” the dark-haired boy said. “Your folks don’t know nothin’.”
“They do so,” the blonde boy growled. “He teaches me stuff all the time. He knows things.”
“Your daddy don’t teach you nothin’ cuz he don’t know nothin’,” the dark-haired boy said, rallying. “That’s why ya’ll are losin’ the farm.”
The blonde boy opened his mouth, but the words died in the cold breeze. His angrily knitted eyebrows broke for a moment, and he seemed ready to cry, drawing his knees farther up to his nose. His blue eyes sought the old barn—it was small and slanted in among the ocean of shadows between the yellowing hills. The fields sprawling around it were black with shadows and blight.
“We’ve been prayin’,” the blonde boy said.
“Banks don’t give a damn about prayers,” the dark-haired boy said, snorting. “You can’t pay a note with prayers. Hell, lies would get you further.”
“It’s not even a big note, really,” the blonde boy said, his voice tremulous. “They might forgive it.”
“Forgive it?” the dark-haired boy exclaimed, throwing another acorn. “They ain’t in the business of forgivin’. They ain’t priests. They don’t care if it’s a hundred dollars or a single penny. If it’s owed to them, it’s owed to them, and they collect. Don’t matter how big or small, they will get it out of you, even if it has to be bled out. They want ‘em numbers to match.”
“But it’s so little to them,” the blonde boy said quietly, hopelessly. “Daddy says so.” He bowed his forehead against his knees. His fluffy straw-colored hair was full of debris from the day: twigs and leaves and mud and pig’s blood. “Why can’t they just leave us alone? We make food for ‘em. We feed ‘em. Ain’t that more important than numbers on a note?”
The dark-haired boy snorted again. “They’d take those pants off of you if they could,” he said. “And not even because they’d need ‘em. Just so they could. They’d filch the skin off your back, too. Use it for a wallet for all that money they’ve got and you don’t.”
“It ain’t fair,” the blonde boy said. “It ain’t our fault it was a dry Summer.”
“They don’t care about that, neither,” the dark-haired boy said. “They grow their own crops, fed on blood.”
The boys fell silent for a while, watching the sun sink deeper, burying itself in the horizon. Shadows rose like floodwaters until the hills floated in the chilly murk of twilight. A fog came creeping in. The echoes of the hammer had died long ago.
The dark-haired boy groaned as he stood, stretching. “It is a bit chilly now,” he said. “Guess I’ll be headin’ home.”
He started walking away. He called back over his shoulder.
“Don’t stay out after dark too long or the giants will take you!”
The blonde boy remained sitting, staring into the ashes of the day as they darkened to night. The distant hills were completely black, becoming nothing more than an outline of featureless mounds beneath the dreaming fog and the wheeling stars. He stared unblinking for a moment, and fancied he saw the hill tremble. He stood up.
“Ain’t no such thing as giants,” he said.
Down the hill the boy walked alone. He looked back once, seeing how high the hill was that he had sat upon, wondering if it might rumble to life, there emerging from its slope a primordial being beyond measure or mercy. The hills dwarfed the small house that he approached, and yet the house dwarfed the boy. His foot scattered an ant hill as he passed it, and if the ants bit him he did not notice. He was lost in those shadows that lay all around.
Within that deep, deluge of shadow an image betook the boy: an image of long, loping legs and great swaying fists like the pendulums of a giant clock that struck him again and again, incessantly, like his father sometimes did when in his drink. One, two, three. Strike, strike, strike. The barn flying sideways, splintering, cracking, showering the earth. House exploding. Mother and sister broken among the debris like little frogs skewered on toothpicks for the easy appetite of the giant overhead.
We stood together, arrayed in a circle—much like the standing stones around us—and in the center of our circle was the dead horse, its head still bleeding from the gaping bullet hole that cratered the center of its long forehead. Its tongue hung slack and pale between its twisted teeth.
“Ready the blade, Matthew,” the master said.
I did as I was bidden, sharpening the ax on the whetstone and discerning the fine gleam of the blade by moonlight as the strokes spit sparks. The sibilance of stone on steel unnerved me, but I knew better than to disobey the master, especially now, when the lich moon was rising toward its zenith and hour of the Worm wheeled Cerberus above the standing stones.
“Make ready the saddle!” the master commanded.
Two servants hurried to lay the saddle upon the dead beast’s back. The master upended his bottle of brandy, meanwhile, downing the rest of its burning amber courage to help him see the ritual to completion. The bottle dry, he sighed angrily, breathlessly, and hurled it against a standing stone, shattering the glass as his chest heaved with mad resolve and contrary fear; desperate rage and mortal terror. He turned to me like a man invoking his daimon.
“Enough!” he said. He staggered toward me, falling on his knees, his brow profuse with sweat. “It will cleave true with keenness of blade or keenness of damnation, one or the other.”
The master extended his hand upon the stone altar, his fist closed except for the ringfinger, the latter apart from the others and still encircled with the silver token of his marriage. He had not taken it off for two years, nor ever would. Whether widower or bridegroom yet again, he would not doff the silver wedding ring that bound him to his beloved wife, Filianore, now lost in the shades of the realm beyond.
“Strike quickly!” he commanded. “Strike true!”
I put aside the whetstone and readied the ax in my hand with a tight grip, a careful aim, and a long hesitation.
“Damn you, Matthew!” the master shouted. “Be done with it!”
I brought the crescent blade down upon the master’s ringfinger. The blade made a rather satisfactory butcher’s sound, as should be heard in a shop when a butcher dresses a pig. The finger split from the hand, parting a hair’s width from the silver ring itself. Master cried out, but it seemed more a cry of exultation than pain or regret. He then took up the bleeding ringfinger, and the ring, and hurried to the dead horse. Kneeling down, the master spoke a few words which I did not understand. It was a different language. He spoke softly, urgently, then pressed the severed finger into the horse’s mouth, as one would a bit for a bridle. At first, nought seemed to happen. The servants and I watched with abated breath, horror as wild in each face as hope was in the master’s. Quite suddenly the beast’s slack mouth tightened its teeth, clamping blindly upon the finger and the ring. The lax tongue lolled to life, spiraling like a searching slug until it had found the bloody end of the dismembered finger. It proceeded to lap at the bloody digit. The horse shuddered, then whinnied, and rose most unnaturally from its puddle of blood and filth, standing at attention on its four hooves. We backed away as one; all except the master who exulted.
“By Judas’s coin, it worked!” he shouted triumphantly. Then, in a lower voice, he said, “Strap the saddle tightly upon the beast’s flanks.”
No one moved forth to do as bidden. We exchanged glances as war-time compatriots might when one unwittingly spoke the name of a savage battle none were meant to speak of again.
“Secure the saddle!” the master shouted.
We would not.
“Craven and callow, the lot of you!” he shouted, then secured the straps himself, his four-fingered hand fumbling with leather and blood in slippery disunity.
The horse meanwhile stood silently, tonguing the master’s severed finger, but otherwise it did nothing. The hole in its forehead revealed the cooled mush of its oozing brains. To look upon it was to look upon the frailties and treacheries of flesh, and to marvel at the abominations rendered unto it by the despair of the soul.
The saddle secure now, the master pulled himself up onto the undead beast’s back. There were no reins, nor was there need for them.
“To Filianore, you diabolical creature!” the master cried. “Bring me to my beloved on the Plutonian shore!”
The horse hobbled at first, its limbs trembling with reawakened life, then hastened into an unnatural gallop, the motion of its legs graceless and mechanical, like a puppet worked by inept hands and slackened strings. But by strides, and by infernal powers not meant for the scope of Man, the pale horse rose from the earth and treaded the nocturnal air, rising and rising into that blasphemous sky with its lich moon and baleful stars, rising into the air like a wandering wraith and carrying the master to lands unknown to all but the most damned of men.
We waited for hours. It was yet not dawn and we sat in the ring of standing stones, not knowing whether we wished the master to return or not. The sun’s warmth remained as a sullen orange glow beyond the trees. The chill of night lingered, alongside the dew, and a fog tumbled groggily with the nightmare phantoms of what had been dreamt that night before.
We saw the silhouettes through that ghostly fog; gray shadows half-glimpsed by eyes and half-dismissed by reason. The horse emerged first, its head yet cratered with the fury of the shell. Then the figure emerged beside the horse, stumbling as if a drunkard fresh from the tavern. It was the master, though now his dark hair was whiter than the fog itself; his face gaunt and wrinkled too much for a man even of three decades henceforth. Yet, the gleam of mad triumph illuminated his sunken eyes.
And then there was Filianore. She swayed with the lethargic amble of the horse, tilting slowly left and then right, left and then right, near enough to falling off on either side, yet she did not fall. She yet wore the white dress in which she had been buried, only now the veil was sallow, the dress stained with filth and rot and the ruin of the grave. But it was her eyes that transfixed all upon whom they gazed. For there were no eyes in her head: only empty black sockets in which worms writhed in cloyed stupefaction.
And upon a pale horse she came. Upon a pale horse she came for us all.
Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of his mom’s black-and-white television, eating a cup of Frosted Flakes as he watched Saturday morning cartoons. Tyrone liked Frosted Flakes. He liked Tony the Tiger because his name was similar to his own, and he liked to think they could go on adventures in their own cartoon together: The Tony and Tyrone Show. Tyrone wished he could play with Tony like the kids did in the commercials, and he wished he could eat a bowl of cereal just like the kids in the commercial did. But Tyrone always had to eat his Frosted Flakes without a spoon.
Most of the time Tyrone sat on the floor, in front of the tv—so he could hear only the tv and not the noises coming from his mom’s bedroom—and he ate his cereal in a cup, the milk and the flakes crashing against his mouth in a mixture of sugary crunch and somewhat spoiled creaminess. Sometimes he ate Frosted Flakes without any milk at all. Sometimes he ate nothing all day but Frosted Flakes, and sometimes he ate nothing. Regardless how he ate, Tyrone never ate with a spoon.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on. Tyrone liked Mr. Rogers. He was a nice White man. He wasn’t like the landlord who was always threatening Tyrone’s mom for rent and calling her a “useless nigger”. Tyrone wished Mr. Rogers owned this apartment building. Things would have been different if he had. And Tyrone liked Officer Clemmons. Tyrone sometimes liked to think that Officer Clemmons was his dad and that he would come home any day now.
Every neighborhood, Tyrone thought, should be like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There was never a single crack to be seen. Tyrone hated the cracks that he saw around his neighborhood. Each one scared him. They glowed with a white phosphorescence in their jagged fissures, and things writhed within them, like wet snakes or homeless men rummaging through dumpsters, and Tyrone’s mom moaned when the crack in her bedroom writhed. It was not a moan of pain or pleasure, but both, like she was dying, but was too happy to care about it.
There were cracks all around the apartment building. Tyrone saw the first crack in a man’s face. It was a year ago, late at night, while his mom was asleep. Tyrone had his window open and he heard a man singing as he came down the street. Singing like he was drunk. Singing, “Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care” as loud as he could. Tyrone had gone to his window and saw a man stumbling down the street, his clothes disheveled.
“Jimmy cracked corn…!”
The man had glanced up at Tyrone, his black face split with a glowing white crack that did not bleed.
“What you lookin’ at?” the man shouted. “First spooks jump me and now I got a nosy little nigger starin’ at me.” He snorted, and started laughing. “Hey! Don’t you go hidin’ from me, boy! They’ll fix you up right!”
Tyrone had crouched beneath his window, trembling and praying that the man would go away.
“Stupid brat,” the man said.
The man left, but the crack he carried with him remained. Later Tyrone saw some pale men in black suits standing on the street corner. They were not like Mr. Rogers. They wore black hats and black shades, hiding most of their fish-belly white faces. Where they stood, a crack opened and grew larger, like a spider’s web ensnaring the whole neighborhood. Soon Tyrone saw it spread in the walls between the apartment buildings, near the alleyways where the burn-outs slept, and along the cars and the streets, from the barbershop to the grocery store, ruining everything. It crept into the apartment hallway, and the stairwell. It was on people’s doors, splitting their windows and, soon, it was on every other face, their heads split down the center, or their chests, and so their hearts, and everywhere the crack spread Tyrone heard the tentacles writhing. At night, as he lay awake in bed, he heard the tenants moaning like his mom. Their moans reminded him of church hymns— back when his mom used to take him to church—only the words were all wrong, and weird, and frightening. The gibberish roared in his ears sometimes. His mom had stopped going to work, and, after a while, she did nothing but stay in her bedroom. Sometimes a stranger would join her, and the moaning would be louder than before, and then the stranger left, but all the while Tyrone sat so close to the television that his eyes burned and overflowed with tears as Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons smiled on, pitiless in their perfect neighborhood.
And so Tyrone watched cartoons, and ate Frosted Flakes without using a spoon, and waited until the day his mom would emerge from her bedroom, transformed, head full of burning white cracks, and reaching down to kiss him as her face split open to swallow him forever.
(The above was one of four stories I wrote to submit to The Root’s short story competition in relation to Lovecraft Country. Unfortunately this story 1) was too long by about 80 words, 2) had references to drugs (allusively to the 80’s crack epidemic in the US) and 3) was written by me, a White boy (insomuch as Melungeons are considered White). So, knowing I have been disqualified on three fronts, I decided to put it up here to rot.
There was an old swamp that smouldered with miasmas and shadows, rotting like a dead thing gone to sludge on the edge of the woods. No frogs chirped in its silent expanse, nor did predators stalk there, nor birds dare to fly over. The swamp kept stagnant its secrets and its solitude, festering solitary and without unwelcome intrusion. And no living thing, man or animal, ventured there to gaze upon its silence, nor did lantern burn there, nor Fool ’s Fire transpire to breathe up from amidst the miasma, but an inky blackness dominated there such that would contend with the abyssal sea. And yet the swamp was blacker than the sea, for while the sea was a darkness for lack of light, the swamp was the very essence of shadow and darkness and death.
Some believed the Nephilim had died there long ago, smote by God. Some said a god died there long ago. Some said —in whispered voices so as to not provoke the anger of the village preacher —that something yet more ancient than gods had died there. Whatever its origins, it was shunned by the villagers of Clear Brook, for it was said to be cursed with foul spirits. And the people of Clear Brook wished to possess clear souls that flowed airily to Heaven upon Death ’s release. It was what they strived for beneath the preacher ’s watchful eye. It was what they all wanted more than anything.
That was, all except for Tilda.
Tilda was the preacher ’s daughter. She disliked the village, and she disliked the villagers. She especially disliked being the preacher ’s daughter. Her eleven Springs had been spent tilling the land and milking the cows. Her eleven Summers had been spent tending the fields and cultivating the garden. Her eleven Autumns had been spent harvesting the crops and mending the clothes. Her eleven Winters had been spent cooped up in side the house and the church, listening to her father preach on and on and on against Sin. Her eleven years had been spent giving and receiving Confessions.
She hated Confessions most of all.
Her father ’s sermons were dreary things. For all his fire-and-brimstone, Tilda ofttimes found herself bored. Adam and Eve, Original Sin, Jesus, the Resurrection, and such. Tilda disliked these sermons, for they came from her father ’s mouth. She only liked the sermons that involved specific persons —such as the Witch of Endor, the Queen of Sheba, Lilith, and Judith. She liked how her father ’s disgust at such women twisted his fitful lip as he read of these powerful figures whom he loathed. She liked that he hated them so much, and hoped he would hate her as much someday. Of all the Biblical passages she liked —few though they were —she particularly liked reading about Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. That was her favorite, also, and she often read the Book of Judith again and again after Confessions, in the silence that visited her every night.
There was a witch that lived at the Borderlands between the woods and the swamp. No one in Clear Brook spoke her name, nor had they seen her in many, many years, and those who had seen her entertained conflicting accounts of who she was and what she looked like. They never spoke of her but with whispers, and always either with fear or loathing and a quick glance over their shoulders, lest she be standing there, summoned up by their idle talk. The more fearful the villagers were of the witch, the more curious Tilda became. After eleven years of feeding a strong curiosity, that curiosity was a beast unto itself, and she let it lead her as it would by its leash. She was now determined to meet the witch. She knew it was her destiny.
And so one night Tilda crept away from her father ’s house, sneaking out under cover of a starless sky. The woods were a haunted place, full of bats and toads and foxes other things that were better not named. Tilda had learned to follow the moss on the trees to find a swamp witch. It was common knowledge. Thus, she followed the green glow until she came to the ramshackle hut in the woods, just on the edge of the silent expanse of the swamp. A candle illuminated the hut ’s window, and through the cracks of the door Tilda saw the glow of the witch ’s fireplace.
“Come in, my little fawn, ” a voice cackled from within. “I have been expecting you. ”
Ever intrepid, Tilda pulled the creaky door open and walked into the hut. It was a small hut, and the witch was withered and small also. She was an old crone — as witches often were —and she was swathed in a damp, grayish-white cloak. Her face was not ugly, and may have been pretty once upon a time, but it had been furrowed badly by Time ’s plowshare, cultivating the face with a sly wisdom and cunning which Tilda envied as a thing which must have inhabited the faces of all her heroines.
“You will make me a witch, ” Tilda said. She did not cower from the witch ’s scowl, but was emboldened by it. “You will teach me to transform into hares and cats and to become a shadow to stalk and haunt the guilty, and to make horses of unfaithful men that must run all night until their feet become as hoofed stumps. ”
“Do I know such things? ” the witch pondered dubiously. She scratched at her chin, which was no hairier than any other woman ’s of the same-seeming age. “I do think that your fancies have gotten the better of you, my little fawn. ”
“I am no fawn, ” Tilda said defiantly. “I am crowned like the sickle moon and I will be treated as such. I am the daughter of Woman alone, of Lilith, and will grow my antlers with or without your help. ”
The witch smiled within her shadowy hood.
“Dear me, you are a presumptuous one, ” she said. She looked the preacher ’s daughter up and down —from her wooden shoes to her plain gray dress, and up to her brown hair which her father forcibly cut every month lest Vanity overtake her soul. “You have the will for the Craft, but have you the talent? ”
Glaring with green eyes, Tilda went to the fireplace and reached into its burning belly. She withdrew three burnt twigs, her hand unharmed.
The witch did not smile, nor did she frown, nor had she any emotion easily legible upon her wizened face. “And how did you manage that pretty feat, my little fawn? ”
“By reaching between the fire and the heat, ” Tilda said proudly. “Between the smoke and the kindling, where the Betwixt resides. ”
“You speak rightly enough, ” the witch said. “And you manage a magic…of a crude sort. But what of your soul, my little fawn? What can you manage of it? ”
Tilda scowled. “You are squandering time, beldam. The cock will crow soon and then I must leave with nothing to show for a sleepless night. ”
The witch ’s face did not twist with frightful wrath, nor did it smile, pleased with itself. For a moment — just a moment — the beldame ’s face lost all emotion and became as a hollow mask, the spark of presence in her dark eyes suddenly vacant as holes in a dead tree. This passed at a wink, and wry humor resumed the face.
“Petulance is an overeager frog leaping into the cauldron, ” she remarked. She stood up from her stool —or perhaps seemed to rise, or had grown larger within that small hut. Perhaps both. At length, she settled down, or shrank. Her voice was low; calm and quiet.
“Know you lemongrass, my little fawn? ”
Tilda could only nod, for there was a disquieted frog in her throat where the petulance had once resided.
“And what of belladonna? ”
Again Tilda nodded.
“And hemlock? Wolfsbane? Yarrow root? ”
Tilda nodded to all three in succession.
The witch smiled wryly. “Then fetch some for the nightfall to come and bring them to me. I will fetch that which requires a more adept hand. Baby ’s breath. A good man ’s guilt. A double heart. And so on. Now leave me. ”
Tilda remained but a moment longer, swaying in indecision. She wished to be a powerful witch, too, and yet the vacancy she had seen in the witch ’s face had unnerved her. A glint in the witch ’s eye sent her to the door and back home. It was such a glint as a cat ’s eye had upon spotting a mouse.
Laurie Swead found her baby dead at sunrise. She was inconsolable, despite the best efforts of the village womenfolk. Her husband, Michael, blamed himself for the baby ’s death, for he had left the window open and had forgotten to close it during the chilly night. Laurie had glimpsed a shadow leaving through the window, which she tearfully avowed to bear a resemblance to a swarm of black gnats. Thereafter, people spoke of witchcraft, but none dared to enter the woods and confront the witch.
Tilda ’s father was summoned. He counseled the aggrieved parents. He did not console, Laurie or Michael, for that was not his way. Later that evening, however, Laurie was discovered consoling in secret with her neighbor, Brandon Blackwell, who took the death of her child as if one of his own. When pressed by Tilda ’s father and Michael Swead, Laurie revealed certain sordid transgressions which muddied the names of the clandestine mourners. Before nightfall the whole of Clear Brook had heard of the filth of their secret endeavors, as well as the true parentage of the dead baby.
Meanwhile Tilda gathered the ingredients requested of her by the witch in the misty woods. While upon her errand she saw many a strange thing. The woods were a haunted place, after all. Whereas the swamps were silent, the woods were alive and teeming. Through the mist voices called to one another, incorporeal. Trees shifted and shuffled elsewhere. Hills fell to lounging and vales rose like cats with their backs up in anger. The silhouettes of wolves wheeled in the misty distance, walking on hind-legs as men do. They paused in a glade, looked at Tilda, and then passed by.
Undeterred and single-minded, Tilda gathered into a wicker basket all such that she required. Then she returned home to await nightfall, sleeping in the meantime. Unfortunately, her father was in a foul mood after the sordid revelations of the day. When he saw the basket of flowers and roots he became enraged. Shaking her awake, he grabbed Tilda by the wrist and yanked her up to her feet roughly, dragging her out to the yard.
“You are playing with devilish mischief! ” he roared, indicating the basket. He had Tilda hold her hands up whereupon he lashed her palms many a time with a switch, each smack chastising the hands that performed the sin. “When next you think to dabble with the Devil, think on these lashes and let the pain guide you in a purer direction!”
He was in no mood for Confessions, for which Tilda was relieved. Her hands stung and were bruised. She returned to her bedroom. She did not sulk. She did not brood or bemoan her aches as children often do when punished more than their due. She only thought of what she usually thought of when alone and unto her own thoughts. She thought of power. She thought of revenge.
And so, at the darkest hour of night —when her father exulted in his own righteous dreams of witch-burnings and book bonfires — Tilda crept out of her father ’s house and went to find her willow basket. It had belonged to her mother and was one of the few things she had left of her mother, other than her drab dresses.
Her father had burned all of her ingredients, and the wicker basket. Tilda wept but a moment, then drew herself up. A witch had to be stronger than this, she thought.
Though empty-handed, Tilda ventured out into the woods nonetheless, following the glowing green moss and once again arriving at the witch ’s hut. When Tilda entered the hut she found the witch standing over a black cauldron which had not been there the night before. Beneath the cauldron was a fire pit, which had also not been there the night before. The hut seemed larger, too, but the witch wore the same damp grayish-white cloak as before.
“Hello, my little kitten, ” the witch said as she stirred the cauldron. Her voice was different. It was lower, older. “She said you would bring what was needed. ”
Tilda approached the witch with empty hands. “I had gathered them, ” she said, trying not to cry, “but my father took them away. The yarrow root and the wolfsbane and… ”
She fell silent as she realized that this witch was not the same witch as before. She had a long nose, a shovel chin, and had never been pretty, even when young.
“Those never mattered, my little kitten, ” the different witch said. “What matters is the trouble of gettin ’ them. The willingness. The sacrifice. Especially the punishment for gettin ’ them. ”
The witch gestured Tilda toward the cauldron.
“Come, my kitten. Hold your hands in the steam. It won ’t hurt you a bit. I promise. In fact, it will take the hurt away, clean as rainwater through cheesecloth. ”
Truth be told, Tilda was afraid to go near the cauldron. Part of the child within her screamed that the witch would pluck her up and drop her headfirst into the boiling liquid. But the louder, angrier part of Tilda thought of power, and of revenge. The hatred of her father drove her as a slave-master.
Thus driven, Tilda stepped toward the cauldron, raising her bruised hands up and holding them over the lip of the fat-bellied pot. The steam lifted around her hands, and lifting away from her went the throbbing pain in her palms. The pain unwound from every nerve and muscle and bone, evaporating like pure water spilled on a hot Summer ’s day.
“There we have it, my kitten, ” the witch said. She shook one sleeve over the cauldron, and powdery mist showered the soup from that cavernous sleeve. “Now you must drink it. Drink it all, my kitten, and you will possess the power you seek
Tilda crinkled her nose at the foul liquid. She baulked at the idea that she should even smell it, for it stank of fungus and mildew and rot and stagnation. Her repulsion stayed her.
“Do you desire power or not, my kitten?! ” the witch screeched.
The memories of Confession returned to Tilda, in a sickly wave, and it overpowered with its nausea any nausea she might feel from drinking the most rancid blackwater. Taking the ladle, Tilda drank the cauldron dry, scoop by scoop. It was not so terrible as she feared. Rather, the soup tasted earthy, familiar, comforting. The more she drank, the more she craved of it. She never stopped to wonder how she could drink so much without bursting like a sheep ’s gut stuffed overfull. Nor did she grow heavy with the cauldron ’s yield. Conversely, she grew lighter. So very light. Almost as if she were floating in the air, buoyant and scattered in her thoughts, yet collected, too, in her intentions. She was as a swarm of wasps rallying against an intruder within the hive. Dizzied with power, her thoughts spiraled around one notion.
“Now is the time, my little kitten, ” the witch said approvingly. Only, the witch seemed insubstantial, like the steam of the cauldron, or the smoke off the fire pit. The whole hut grew thin, illusory, like a ghost in moonlight, or a dream soon to vanish at waking. “Now is the time to use the power as becomes you, my little kitten. Do as you will, and do much. ”
As a dream Tilda went wandering. Out the window of the hut she went, and through the woods, untouchable by any spider or serpent or beast. The night was yet dark and she floated through it as lightsome as a cloud. Coming to the village, she sensed magic all around her. She was its source, and it was beyond her also, floating from afar the witch ’s hut on the Borderlands.
Tilda just so happened upon a man near the brook for which Clear Brook claimed its name. He was making night soil, his trousers round his ankles as he squatted over the brook, holding himself up awkwardly, his fist clenched around a hapless sapling. He was not supposed to defecate in the brook —no one was —but he did so anyway. His name was Wallace Eckridge. He was a drunk most days. He liked to eye Mrs. Abbott when she washed her linen in the brook. She liked to give him an eyeful for his trouble, too, with all her bending and moaning as she toiled. Her husband was a carpenter and lame in a way that carpentry could never aid him. Everyone in Clear Brook knew such things.
Wallace was someone Tilda thought good to test her newfound powers on. She waited until he had finished making night soil, and had fixed his trousers, and then she approached him, floating in the air. He blinked at her in confusion.
“Wallace Eckridge, ” she said. “You will come with me. ”
Wallace was drunk, as usual, but he seemed to obey her at once, following her as she floated away from Clear Brook.
Tilda could not say why she wanted to take him to the witch ’s hut. She did not think too much on it, but rather was intoxicated with her power over him. She knew where she needed to go, and so she went, leading him behind her with an invisible lure. The creatures in the woods did not bother him. Rather, they went fleeing from him as if he was a thing diseased. A leper, perhaps, or Pestilence himself. Even the wolves that walked as men shunned him, fleeing on all fours as if they had lost their minds.
To the hut they came at last. The witch thanked Tilda for the offering. Tilda did not see where Wallace Eckridge disappeared. She was too concerned with listening to the witch tell her the secrets Tilda had earned.
“It is true what they say, ” the witch said, her face now fat and round and swollen with jowls. “True power does not die, nor does it rot away. It may stagnate, but that merely strengthens it. ” Her voice was articulate and precise, like a highborn lady. “Like yeast transforming barley and water into beer, so too do the old gods still hold power here, growing stronger in the festering morass. My little gosling, their power has found other forms whereby to manifest, even as they lay dead in their own filth. They grow stronger. ”
“What are they? ” Tilda asked.
“What is earth? ” the witch countered. “What is the sky? What is hate? What is hunger? What is the meaning of things? So many questions lead to the same place, my little gosling, and no nearer to the truth of things. ”
“Are the gods of the swamp the enemies of the Christian god? ” she asked.
“How can one have an enemy of something that does not exist? ” the witch said, her pudgy face rounded in enigmatic pleasure. “We exist, do we not, little lamb? And that is all that matters. ”
Tilda listened to the witch until dawn, then returned home. The power had gone from her at daybreak. She no longer felt as if she were floating along eddies of air. She no longer felt as if she could puppeteer the world ’s men with a word. She felt naked, and she felt bereft, and she craved more of the power that she had so fleetingly possessed.
Her father awaited her in her bedroom. But before he could beat her for being out of doors before sunrise — or worse, make Confession of her —he was summoned away. Wallace Eckridge ’s wife discovered that her drunken husband was missing, and the village feared further witchcraft. At first Mrs. Eckridge assumed Mrs. Abbott had finally accepted Wallace ’s lecherous advances. Consequently, the two women got into an altercation forthwith such as two wildcats with their tails tied together. They were pulled apart, with some effort, by the villagers. Even so, Mr. Abbott looked at his wife askew, and beat her for the suspected infidelity.
But soon it became apparent that Mrs. Abbott did not, in fact, center into the mystery of Wallace ’s disappearance. She had stayed up with her youngest daughter all last night, the latter suffering terribly from colic. Her eldest daughter bore witness to this, having also stayed up most of the night with her mother and youngest sister. This only cast suspicion upon other women in the village. Wallace was known to have a wandering eye and a wayward heart. Much ado was made of it before the day was done.
Before nightfall Tilda ’s father returned. He locked the doors to their house and then commanded Confession of his daughter. Afterwards, he left her bedroom and Tilda anticipated the long drawing of shadows into night. Her tears were her sole company as she waited. Finally, when she knew by the sonorous sound of snoring that her father had fallen asleep, Tilda opened her window and slumped out into the night, limping into the woods and heading hurriedly to the hut to retake her power once again. She wept as she walked, each step painful. Yet, the pain only intensified her resolve.
The witch that met her in her the hut wore a grayish white cloak like the other three, but her face was a leathery brown such as a tanner would think too frayed with use.
“Hello, my little lamb, ” the witch said softly.
Tilda did not want the witch to see her tears, and so stood with her back to her, staring into the fireplace.
“My little lamb, ” the witch said, her voice a dry wispy grass in the wind. “My poor, dear little lamb. Come and take of the power which this world owes you in all your woe. Let it console you. Let it invigorate and strengthen you. ”
Tilda resented the witch speaking of her pain —for there seemed a mocking edge to her overly tender tone —but even so, Tilda did drink of the cauldron once again. To her great joy she became at once airy and lightsome as a swarm of insects, her former pains and sorrows forgotten. Aloft now, the world seemed all beneath her; as insubstantial as the dreams of a dog, kicking in its sleep. Thus conveyed, Tilda left the hut — which was more a house now than before —and went floating through the woods.
Tilda had her mind set on one person, and so she floated unseen through the village of Clear Brook. At length she came to the cabin of Mr and Mrs Abbott. Mrs. Abbott slept alone in the bed, for she refused to let her husband sleep near her. Tilda went in through the open window, and through the cracks in between the cabin ’s logs, and through the holes in the thatch roof, coming upon Mr. Abbott on a rug in the kitchen.
“You have been naughty, Mr. Abbott, ” Tilda said, “for you do not believe the innocence of your wife. Now you will come away with me, you wicked man.”
Tilda ’s newfound powers swirled around the man, and into him. She led the man out to the witches ’ hut and, as soon as they entered, Mr. Abbott disappeared. Alongside him disappeared Tilda ’s powers once more. Her exultation was short-lived, and it pained her almost as much as Confession had.
“My dear little pup, ” the witch said, gladdened by Tilda ’s return; and altogether undisturbed by Mr. Abbott ’s sudden evanescence. Her age-mottled face wrinkled with a smile, a birthmark like a bloodstain flaring upon one eye. “You have done so well. And you will continue doing well, my dear little pup. For you are strong in the ways of us witches. ”
The witch laughed, and Tilda smiled, ignoring the pest of a suspicion that the witch was, in fact, mocking the young woman.
“What do you do with the men I bring to you? ” she asked.
The witch ’s laughter ebbed away into a slyly knowing smile. “My pup, it is but a matter of conference. We have discourse with them, and bid them be quiet. In time, they welcome the Silence. ”
This all meant nothing to Tilda. She could not understand the witch ’s real meaning.
“They are dead? ” she ventured.
“No more than the gods, ” the witch said. “My little pup. ”
Powerless once again, Tilda returned home at the crack of dawn. Her father was not there. He was busy blessing the water from the brook. He scooped it up in a bucket and sanctified it to make holy water for Mass later that evening. He also used it for Baptisms. He refused to use any other water because he said the free-flowing water of the brook was purer, cleaner, godlier than any other wellspring or lake, for it never sat still in idleness, but industriously worked itself immaculate, shedding its wickedness with tireless effort. As a man must, he claimed.
“We should aspire to be as this brook, ” he often admonished his flock. “For the way to purity is through rigors of ceaseless devotion and conviction. We must always flow, shedding our impurities though the white-water rocks should seek to detain us and shred us with their strife. ”
Tilda hated this lecture most of all, for he always took her home afterward for Confession, and she always felt terrible after Confession.
No one in the village knew what came of Mr. Abbott. Some suspected that he went hunting for Wallace Eckridge, aspiring for revenge. Others whispered that they were both of them Sodomites and had left together to live elsewhere in sin. Whichever was the worse sin was what the villagers of Clear Brook believed.
Tilda returned to the witch that night, after Mass and Confession. A new witch welcomed her and bid her drink of the cauldron. Tilda then went floating away through the woods once again, reborn within her swarming power.
Tilda happened upon Mrs. Eckridge near the edge of the woods. The vexed woman was searching for her faithless husband, cussing him and calling for him in turns. When she saw Tilda riding the currents of air, she gawped idiotically. For her part, Tilda felt a compulsion to fetch the woman back to the hut.
“Come away with me, Mrs. Eckridge, ” Tilda demanded. “I will take you to your husband and put your heart at rest. ”
The woman ’s face went slack and she followed Tilda deeper into the woods. Like Mr. Abbott and Mr. Eckridge, Mrs. Eckridge walked with her eyes open, yet the look in them was faraway, as if the woman was dreaming. They came to the house-sized hut and entered. Mrs. Eckridge disappeared as soon as Tilda passed the threshold. The witch —who had a smooth face as dark as rich soil —told her more arcane secrets.
“Primordial gods do not fade. They merely sleep, and their dreams become reality itself. We are all but the miasmic dreams of the elder gods who lay beneath the stagnant waters of the swamp. All our lives we owe to those undying gods and their endless dreams upon the Borderlands. ”
The next day Tilda ’s father was in a foul mood. Mrs. Eckridge was missing now, too, and no one had seen what had become of her. Her neighbor, Mrs. Westerly, said she had heard Mrs. Eckridge calling for her husband near the woods, and now everyone was certain the poor woman had lost her senses in those woods, and her life. Perhaps even her soul. The village turned to their preacher, and their preacher turned to the Old Testament.
“It is God ’s wrath, ” he proclaimed, “and He has forsaken those among His flock that have gone awry in their piety. We must, thus, pray and embrace His love with renewed faith. We must be vigilant against the powers of Evil. We must armor ourselves in our belief or fall into everlasting Hellfire. ”
Tilda ’s father was so angry that he was particularly rough during Confession that night. After he went to sleep, Tilda limped her way to the woods where the witch dwelled. The witch greeted Tilda in the same drab gray robe, but her face was pale and sunless as snow in the darkest winter.
“My dear little fledgling, ” the witch said. “Whatever is the matter with your legs? ”
She offered Tilda a soft, ladderback chair that had not been there upon any previous night. Tilda was too sore to sit in it, however. She muttered through her
“I want to complete my transformation, ” she said. “I want to be a master witch with all of my powers at beck and call. Not just borrowed powers. I want to be a master adept, like all of you! ”
“Oh, my little fledgling, ” the witch sighed. “That is such a momentous change. Are you sure you should not like to remain as you are now? Limited, but perfectly adequate to ensorcel most people? Surely it is enough, isn ’t it? It is not as if you wish to enchant your own blood…do you? ” The witch smiled furtively.
“I am ready, ” Tilda vowed, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I wish to be untethered. I wish to be a conduit unimpeded by flesh or blood or family ties! ”
“If you wish it, ” the witch said, “then your wish shall be granted. ”
The witch motioned toward the black cauldron in the center of the vast house. A row of steps appeared in front of it, and Tilda ascended these quickly. But when she came face to face with the immaculate blackness of the cauldron she hesitated. Looking down into that steaming blackness brought to her a great fear, and an excitement, but above all that reigned the rage and the thirst for revenge. Whatever the cost, she thought, it was not so terrible as Confession. The thought of one more Confession trembled her and galvanized her resolve to gain power, no matter the cost to anyone, including herself. She looked at the witch, and recalled all of the other witches. Each witch seemed the perfect figure of power, a natural matriarch ready and capable of toppling the putrescent patriarchs that dominated village life in Clear Brook, and village life all around the world. They were not debased. They were exultant. They knew more power in their deathly silences than was ever evidenced in a fire-and-brimstone sermon from atop the dais.
The steam was not hot. It was cool, like mist. It reminded her of a heady miasma. She extended her right foot over the shadowy soup. Slowly she lowered her toes into the liquid. It did not burn. It did not scald her. Trusting the power more now, Tilda stepped off the top of the stairs and plunged down into the cauldron, her head spinning with thoughts of freedom at long last.
What did she feel? She felt herself sinking…sinking…sinking. Her body was dragged down beneath its unwanted weight and its fleshy weakness. All grew dark and still within the cauldron. Deathly. Soon, however, she felt life stir within her. It bloomed upward, rising defiant against the rot. The blooming elation was as dough rising in an oven, nurtured by the heat of a fire; only it was a clammy silence that nurtured and nourished the power within her. It reminded her of something blooming from rot, but she could not remember what. At its culminating expanse she felt herself burst free from the swollen form she used to know, lifting freely into the air; liberated from the weakness of her earthly shell; freed from the prison that confined her and restrained her from this ubiquitous power that existed long before even the swamp existed; long before Mankind existed.
With her newfound power amassed around her like a cloud, Tilda floated homeward, light and airy and yet possessed of a power that could topple gilded empires into the stagnant swamp and its dead gods. She floated freely now, more freely than ever before, and she went with her unfathomable power to Clear Brook. To the brook itself and its baptismal waters, and to her hypocritical father.
She found him abed, a cross clutched in his hands as if to fend off demons that might, at any moment, drag him off to Hell. Tilda floated above him for a time. Then she entered him through his empty spaces — as he so often did her while in Confession —and she awoke him, though he remained enthralled to her. Taking her time, she led him through the woods. The witches, one and all, awaited them in their hut. The hut was much larger than before, and they all cackled as the preacher entered. Their laughter seemed faraway to Tilda, and insubstantial as a faint breeze along swamp grasses. Before she let her father disappear, however, she bid him speak his own Confession for all the witches to hear.
He spoke as a man in a daze, his eyelids half-closed.
“I have made abomination with my daughter, ” the preacher said. “I have rutted upon her as I would my wife, now dead these eleven years. I have sullied her, and made ruin of her. I have preached with forked tongue in two different directions, the twain clutching at Sin betwixt. I am a Liar, and a Sodomite, and the Hypocrite. I have blasphemed of Confession, making of it what it should not be. I have exchanged the Spiritual for the Carnal, and at the expense of Innocence. God does not forgive me, and I am destined to Hell. ”
“No, ” the witches said as one. “Not Hell. To something…purer. To something Holier. To the Silence. ”
Tilda ’s father vanished into the Silence.
Drifting with the fog, and the miasma, and neither being intentional or willful, but accomplishing what she wanted regardless, the entity that was Tilda emptied the village of all of its people in time, giving them to the witches in the hut at the edge of the swamp. As in dreams did Tilda do this, floating in cycles of birth and death and birth again, neither state truly distinguished from the preceding, as if a sleeper waking unto deeper dreams than before. The witches did not show themselves to her after a time, nor did she choose when she left or returned with an ensorceled villager. She had to wander far to find people to bring back to the hut, in time, after Clear Brook had run dry of people.
Only sometimes it seemed that the hut became as immaterial as she sometimes felt —she saw through it, then, and all of it switches and furnishings —and then she saw nothing but the swamp itself, stagnant and endless. Among its miasmic expanse were trees and logs half-sunken in the black water, and riddled with strange mushrooms. And sometimes these rotten trees did not look like trees and logs, but instead like the bones of gigantic things that had died and festered long ago. And there were smaller bones, and skulls, and bodies that had not rotted completely to mush, even as they sprouted the mushrooms that burst open to release the airy spores that floated away, phantomlike, with the four winds to seek out living creatures. One corpse was small, but riddled with mushrooms, its brown hair oily and tangled over its clammy forehead, its drab gray dress soiled by inky waters; one eye hollowed out and the other staring blankly, its green iris a fairy ring of tiny mushrooms that bloomed amidst the stagnant Silence.