By Jay D. Hellis
It had been days since I last slept on account of the bleeding walls and the headless crows. It wasn’t necessarily the sight that disturbed my nights – more the congealed drips smacking the floorboards of my room over and over again. The crows would knock my old toys to the floor if I didn’t pay attention to them, their fluttering more an annoyance than anything else. I wanted to go to my lake, the one where the Others Ones can’t get me, but at this time of the night it would likely be frozen over. There’s no point going there if I can’t submerge myself to escape their stares.
“But how do I get rid of them,” I asked.
“Oh Andie, you don’t get rid of them. You need them. They’re as much a part of you as the hearts and minds are for those of us without the lord’s gifts,” Sister Summers said.
My parents were there. Mum was crying silent tears, her smile crooked in that lazy way when people fight back hysteria. She wanted to laugh, I could tell. Dad was picking at the side of his mouth, his eyebrows crossed a little, like he was confused about how the world worked when really it’s just a glorified wheel, but when Mum squeezed his hand he looked at her and smiled broadly. Mum barked out a laugh – short, sharp and full of spit.
“They don’t do good,” I said back to Sister Summers. What I didn’t say was how murderous I believed them to be. I didn’t have the strength for the argument again, even if I didn’t believe angels could have black eyes. Instead I just settled for saying, “How can you say they do good?”
“Andie, look at me because what I’m going to tell you is important,” Sister Summers said. As far as I was concerned, the dragonfly out the window was more interesting. When she sighed I thought she wasn’t going to continue but she did and I barely listened; “While some in this town don’t believe in Old Man Jesus’ work, or what the great and kind Magdalena did when she cleansed his soul, we believe for a fact that it was her cleansing which released the magic into the world.”
The dragonfly kept my mind from the hulking, cancerous mass in the corner of the room that reached out to Sister Summers. I don’t know how a mass of tumours could grow an arm, nor give me the thought that she was going to die soon, but there it was, a stinking, writhing mass of loose skin and bone. A prone eyeball searching the sky for answers and finding nothing but its elongated fingers stroking the back of Sister Summers’ neck like they were lovers. It’s better than seeing the thing’s prick.
She shivered, and when she saw I was looking at her she brightened, ignorant to what I saw. I pulled my eyes away and back out the window, looking for my dragonfly. I found nothing but the setting sun against the rain beyond the stained glass panels which seemed just as confused as myself. The cancerous lump was sliming its way over the walls, leaving pools of blackness where small, charred hands reached up. I couldn’t tell whether they were trying to claw their way out or trying to drag the cancerous lump down with them.
“That magic though is something I feel we all can agree on – it’s here for the better. What you see – your visions – they provide us with an insight to what lies between the worlds. Don’t you see? We are to you what the blind are to us.”
“Do what the Sister says, Andie,” Dad said. I wasn’t sure what she had said, or what instructions she had given. I was more concerned about the growling that came from beneath the floorboards, though I yawned outwardly trying to mask any reaction. This was something I had learned long ago – it’s always better to ignore them whenever possible. People tend to treat me a little more normal when I don’t scream or flinch away.
We got up and left. I watched as Sister Summers sat on her chair, looking out the window while the gelatinous monster crept up behind her and started licking her with a purple tongue again. I could have told her but I hated her for making me live with this, so I hoped that deep down the cancer would spread slowly. Either way I knew she would die and that brought me a sense of closure, even if I couldn’t bring it on for myself.
I don’t remember a time when the Other Ones weren’t around. They’re not angels. They’re not monsters, either. Monsters usually imply some kind of disturbed being that has one thought in mind, one terrible focus. The Other Ones always seem to have a hidden agenda, like they’re only doing the actions they’re thinking about as they pass on by. Like the cancerous thing – its pale yet sickly skin said death, but its one lolling eye said lust.
Dad said he was going to go out and work the crops. He’d been doing that a lot lately. He was usually between me and my lake and I’d have to be careful he wouldn’t see me if I ventured out that way after my chores. Often he would just sit and stare at the Glass Sea that sat on the horizon like a frozen storm, smoking some kind of hash he had found deep in the forest. No one really knew about my lake and part of me wonders whether it’s real. All those eyes that stare at me while I submerge my body into the lake’s water certainly feel real.
When I passed him, my Dad was surrounded by a black wind that made me suspicious of his motives, his deepest desires. I sometimes believe I can hear what he is thinking but not even I know whether my so called abilities extend that far. Plus I can’t accept that my father has such dark thoughts, even if he is so set on this being a blessing and not a curse.
I had asked Mum if she could take me a few towns over where they have a witch and not the sisters. Mum was brushing my hair, long brown strands falling over my face with each stroke. When I asked, her brushing became more vigorous, but she was still silent. I pressed the question a little more, and only stopped when it felt like my scalp would tear itself from the top of my head. Soon enough she slammed the brush down on the table.
“You were my terminal illness,” she said. “The doctors there told me I would die but they got it wrong, it was my dog who died and instead I got you. They said, ‘Amber – you’re going to die,’ and I didn’t believe them. Yet here you are, complaining about the gifts you’re given when everything I loved at that time was taken away form me.”
She stormed off, leaving piss-coloured puddles of ooze that boiled like soup when she walked away. I didn’t know what that meant but took it as a sign of something better than Dad’s aura or whatever the fuck it is that follows him when he’s off on his own. I had looked to the knives in the kitchen. I’ve tried attacking the Other Ones before but nothing I use ever leaves a mark.
I thought about it then, since Mum usually kept the sharps away in a locked drawer. The scars that run up and down my arms are a reminder to us all, though I remember little of that day. Only that I blacked out as the Other Ones crept over me, holding me upright and over their heads, drinking the blood that pooled on the ground and ran down my pale arms. I woke up, dizzy and cold but otherwise alive. There was blood everywhere but it was as though a dog had drunk it up – we hadn’t seen a dog in these parts for a long time. Just woolaroos and the occasional jumbuck.
That’s when I discovered my lake, days later and still recovering. The cold water was good on my skin, and hid everything below my waist when I walked in. The reflection that looked back at me was something very strange. I slapped it away, heard sniggering I looked around. The lake was lined with the Other Ones but they were all back at the tree line. Their laughter was the kind that children give off when they’re making fun of you but don’t know if they’re pushing you too far.
“Fuck off,” I shouted at them. They slunk away as I splashed the water at them, even if it landed metres and metres away from the nearest one who tried to claw its way to me. I had snagged my arm on a branch when I took off my sweater, the blood already congealing. I picked at it because the pain was as nice as the water was cold. The clawing beast with wicked wings and black eyes tried to come forward, its long tongue dragging on the ground, pulling leaves and sticks and mud with it as its movements became frantic.
It was as if the others were pulling on its massive scaled tail. Its face was full of anguish – a face that looked human, except for the horns protruding from its skill curled around like a ram. I would say it was a she, but she had no breasts much like myself, its crutch concealed beneath matted fur that rolled down to goat-like legs. Its slender hands grabbed at the ground below it, and as it inched closer the skin burst like cooking eggs. The skin of its face flaking away until finally it screeched and flew backwards, crashing into the woods. Eventually they all went away – though that could have just been the cold. My fingers were blue and my lungs felt heavy.
School had been over for a while now. My parents were always worried that the Jarl’s men would come and take us away since they usually come every two generations but for some reason they didn’t come this time. Every other kid in my class had been assigned a job – either weaver or cutter or a jack. All except me. I was told I should work with the Sisters of the Sun given my gift. My teacher had set me down she had a same look on her face that my Dad had when we saw Sister Summers.
“Andie, are you happy with this?” Abigail asked me.
“No,” I replied. It was short and sharp like my Mum’s barking laugh.
“I see,” she said. Abigail nodded her head and seemed to wrestle with her thoughts as tar-painted fairies danced around her head like flies to rotting meat.
“I know you believe you’ve done bad things – “
“I predict death. I predict decay. How can I be considered one to do good if that’s what I have become?” I asked. The fairies swam in the tears that threatened to roll down my cheeks and giggled to themselves. I flicked at them but Abigail likely thought I was just frustrated at crying in front of her. She produced a tissue and wiped at my face.
“Exactly – you predict. It’s not you that does this, Andie. You have to believe that.”
“And I’m not to have a lover, a husband or a wife? Someone I can share this world with? Living with hairy-bush nuns that think sex is as disgusting as three-day old shit?”
Abigail sat back as though I’d slapped her. The fairies snapped at each other, tearing the tar-soaked clothes with needle like teeth. Their tiny breasts were impossibly small, as were the bite marks once they latched on to each other with their mouths. It looked as sexual as it did murderous. I had never really thought of marriage. Some of the kids in my class had already set themselves up with their potential life-spouse. One girl, Delilah, had fallen pregnant, but she lost the baby, then lost her man who ran off with another boy a few towns over – the town with the witch. I’m glad I wasn’t close to Delilah – I can only imagine the horrors that would be surrounding her and her dead foetus.
Two days later there was a knock on the door. Mum answered it, and sure enough it was the sisters who wanted to speak with me alone. I refused, so they all came in and sat around the table where we normally eat and I make my silent prayers that the Other Ones will leave me. Dad was out probably drowning in hash and dark thoughts.
“We know that Andie has made a decision, but we feel this is the best opportunity to turn the situation around into the blessing it truly is,” Sister York said.
“Where’s Sister Summers?” I asked.
“She’s fallen ill, I’m afraid. She’s due to return to the earth shortly and from there she will rest happily.”
I smiled my forgotten smile. The feeling was strange and quickly replaced by my blank stare when I heard what the Sisters of the Sun had planned for me next.
“You’re to come with us. We’re going to anoint you.”
“If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for the community, Andie.”
“Your gift will be for the good of everyone.”
“Oh the joys you’ll feel, Andie. The joys of giving to everyone your visions.”
“Praise be to Old Man Jesus and the blessed Magdalena for giving you to us.”
“Think of what you will bring to your family for taking on such a responsibility.”
I ran, my feet knowing where they would take me before my mind caught up to them. I made such quick time that it wasn’t until I stopped that the visions rolled into the back of my head and reminded me of what just happened. The back door slamming. My mother’s shouts pulling at the ferns as I ran. My father’s blank stare. The Glass Sea and her ghosts. The claws. The teeth. The blood. The rain as it fell around me. The mud that turned slick under foot. My boots peeling away the layers of the world. A brief glance over my shoulder to see the horrors bounding after me. The hoofs. The beat of feathered wings.
I made it to the lake out of breath. I figured this was good since a last resort had become my first instinct. I didn’t bother taking my clothes off, the weight of the fabric and shoes pulling me into the water with every step. My reflection was gone as the rain disturbed the surface tension in a myriad of drops. A dragonfly made its way around my body as I submerged myself. My breathing had become erratic, both out of exhaustion and from the cold.
I tripped and fell, my boot snagging on some mysterious root. My face went under water and I came up sputtering. I wasn’t deep enough yet, but gave me time to look over my shoulder. I expected my mother. Maybe the dark tendrils of my father’s bad aura. I expected the winged beasts and the blood and the discord that my so called gift gave off. Instead there was nothing. Even silence was missing, replaced with the gentle tapping of the rain waiting impatiently for my next move.
Somewhere deep in the forest was a shout which kicked my legs into action. I tried to swim, my hands becoming stubborn as the cold made its way through to my bones. I couldn’t think straight, believing that the lake was naked space, the rain was the stars as they fell around me. After a while I couldn’t swim anymore, and my breathing hurt my chest, so I just lay there, gasping. Breathing. Drinking the water which was impossibly cold and hot at the same time.
When my head first went under, I coughed and pulled it back up, but the weight of the stars as they fell and the cold in my mind told me it was the wrong way around so I put my head back under water. Next I remember the lights going down. The sun setting at a quarter-past one in the afternoon. Silence wasn’t under the water, either. Just this rushing, pounding sound as if I was back running through the woods.
I coughed, inhaled a lung full of water and coughed again. My eyes found the silence in a still picture of blackness. I coughed again and heard nothing. The pounding was gone. The rushing subsided – replaced with a hissing, strained sound that could have been coming from within, as if all thoughts were clambering for innocence.
The hissing grew louder. A feeling beyond burning met with my shoulders like a lover’s massage gone wrong. The darkness was replaced with a howl. The water in my mouth replaced with space once again. The rain had stopped. The reflection below me, as I dripped the water from everywhere, showed the black-eyed angel smiling down at me.