Very Short Stories
My Woman – A story written for International Women’s Day
One midsummer’s day, after the seasons had become muddled, I walked in hail to our local park and found a woman huddled underneath an old oak tree. She didn’t have language, but when beckoned she followed me back to my home where I fed her hot soup and told her I would provide for her as long as she attended to my needs.
Over the days that followed, she grew in understanding if not words. Though her own body reeked due to a lack of self-care and her darting, frenzied pupils revealed an anchorless mind, my floors sparkled and my belly grew round from succulent delights prepared by her hand. The woman asked for little. She slept on the kitchen floor, and ate only what remained after I dined. She relieved herself in the garden as an animal might, burying her waste for shame.
When friends visited, they would say how lucky I was to have my woman, and how kind I’d been to open up my home to her. I never told them how the woman howled at night, and how I pretended not to hear. Even when my friends began looking in the park for their own women to bring home, I didn’t tell them how my woman sometimes listened at doors and I was afraid of her.
One afternoon I returned to an empty house. I looked in every nook and cranny for my woman, but she had gone. The depth of my anger shook me. I never considered what might have befallen her. I hadn’t locked the woman in, but hadn’t our bargain been good enough for her to stay? I felt cheated. She hadn’t even said goodbye.
The house was never the same. When she left, the ghost of her presence remained.
Years later, I thought I recognised her on a hot, cloudless day in the park. Her face had grown older, and her eyes were no longer vacant, but I knew it was her by the flutter of my pulse at my throat. She sang, and the sound captivated me. When she had learned to speak? How had she learned to soar? I wanted answers but when I pushed through the crowd, she turned her back.
She was my woman, once.
The Gilded Mirror
The air around me feels heavy with expectation as I trample leaves underfoot on my way to the gleaming white house in the middle of the woodland. I try unsuccessfully to still my imagination as my mind conjures up ghouls and unrepentant hellsmen that lurk in the shadows, just at the periphery of my vision. Every six years on All Hallows’ Eve, one of our family is chosen to walk this path towards the great gilded mirror in the upstairs bedroom of our ancestral home. Tonight, it is my turn.
I hold my breath as I catch sight of a silver-tinged owl watching me, her dull eyes tracing every movement of my march into the mouth of hell. The recent rain has muddied the ground, leaving splatters on my gown. My newly washed hair is fanned across my shoulders, its scent overpowered by the fertile moonlit landscape underfoot. There are no humans for miles around, yet the woods feel alive. As I approach the dilapidated building with its half-formed turrets, I can make out moss-covered gargoyles peering at me with knowing eyes. My heart pummels my rib cage as I squeeze past monstrous gates into a courtyard. I know the way as if by instinct. This journey is in my blood, an ancient ritual borne of a centuries old feud. Yet hope has not deserted me. It has been foretold that one day a girl-child will return from the depths of the woods. Perhaps that girl is me.
The house creaks its welcome as I enter. Fanged bats swarm past me and escape into the darkness. I hold my offering close to me with fingers that are blue with cold and begin my ascent up the circular staircase, my footsteps muffled by carpet thick with dust. With each step I draw on my memory bank to say goodbye to my loved ones: my father chasing me through the corn-fields; my mother the year before she was taken, playing the harmonica with butter smeared in her hair; my siblings pleading with me to tell them a story. Those who may live because I die.
Almost there. It is as if the connection between my brain and my feet is severed. They are no longer doing my bidding, and hurry towards a door at the top of the stairs. It swings open and I enter, my breath coming in rasps as I take in the heavy velvets adorning a bed, and in the corner, the gilded mirror standing tall, its smooth surface marred by a single, long crack. And then I am face to face with my mirror image except the eyes aren’t mine and there is not a mark on the gown.
‘So you come at last, Evangeline,’ my reflection says to me. ‘I have been waiting a lifetime to meet you.’
I am transfixed by what I see. Bile rises in my throat and I force my fingers to loosen their grip on the prize. I must keep my wits. ‘This vial is for you. It contains the last of the essence of Christ. It is yours.’
My image raises a sleek eyebrow. ‘What need do I have of forgiveness?’ it says, showing a tongue that slithers forth like a serpent’s. ‘My only wish is the eternal damnation of your line. Tell me, how many of you now?’
‘Three,’ I stutter. ‘My father, my sister Emmeline. And me.’
‘Queer. I can smell your fear, but something else too – hope?’
‘One of us shall escape and it will be the end of your reign. Perhaps it is me.’ I close my eyes. ‘Will you not accept the prize?’
‘You are the prize,’ my reflection says to me, pushing a hand through the glass that emerges as greening bone and shrivelled flesh.
It pulls me into the mirror and the vial shatters on the floor. As I fall into the void, joy bubbles up inside me, even as I long for the things I can now never have. My blood has bought my remaining siblings more time. Not one, but three strong girl-children, one of whom will break the curse. My mother’s spirit wraps itself around me as I tumble and twist, already unrecognisable from my worldly form, and then there is quiet. And I am nothing.
To the inhabitants of Maudsley the girl was as familiar a sight as the village church, though they averted their eyes when she passed. She was a sickly child with spidery veins pressing through her taut skin. She walked with pondering steps through that backwater town, tracing the river bed, circling back time and again, always accompanied by a mangy hound with yellow eyes, a fixed snarl and fur so matted it was unlikely he had ever known the warmth of a fire.
Then one day they disappeared. The villagers mourned her absence, the girl nobody had wanted to mother. Weeks passed and suddenly, after the night of the blood-red moon, there she was again in the village square with her black brute, dressed in rags of azure blue. She called herself Mary and the hound Lucifer, and he bared his fangs while she waltzed barefoot outside the church hall with madness in her gait.
Not long after the crows fled the steeple and the howling began. It was mournful and triumphant all at once, and lasted until the early hours when the villagers woke with rumpled faces and complaints about their poor sleep. They found the girl underneath the railway bridge with eyes startled wide, her neck twisted, her stomach torn. Lucifer was standing over her, yellow eyes glinting in the dawning light, gore dripping from his muzzle. Afterwards they said the hound probably took her straight to hell. I reckon she was there already.
Life is Good
My husband died last week. It was my doing. I’d planned it meticulously. I began bolstering his ego a few months ago with little scraps of attention until he was sure I’d fallen in love with him again. Then I loosened the railings on our balcony.
Our anniversary is in fall, and we have quite a view from up there of the trees turning gold and bare. It’s the fifth storey, you see. I handed him a flute of champagne and told him to enjoy the view while I went to change into something I had bought especially for him. He couldn’t believe his luck. At least he was happy when he smashed his head in.
You know, for someone who was vocal in the bedroom, he died remarkably quietly. Still, I was equally happy when I returned in my gloriously expensive mourning outfit and saw him lying there, splashes of red all around. A girl has to celebrate. I allowed myself a triumphant smile before I slipped my widow’s mask on.
Oh, I excel in this role. It’s the happiest I’ve been…such a natural fit. I think widowhood is quite becoming actually. There’s an elegance to it that is lacking in a mere mother or wife.
Now I stand here with my elegant up-do, a silken shroud of black accentuating my assets. My lips have been painted in nude and there is a hint of mascara on my lashes. Waterproof, of course, in case tears are required. Subtle glamour is the look I am going for. Too much make-up on a widow is unseemly, crass even, and I have a flawless reputation to uphold.
I am awaiting the reading of the will. Money I know is going to me, not his mistress. I t’s the most fun I’ve ever had. I wonder what I should splash out on first? Life is good.