She was cursed with a fairness that strangled her. Expectations woven into her dark hair, an openness and roundness to her eyes that filled her with horror. They were too pale, too pure, too winsome to protect her. Terrors poured in while tears poured out. Hate and bile ran through her veins, but when her white skin tore prettily, nothing oozed out but healthy scarlet.
“What is your name?” they asked. Townspeople. Sweet old women. Starry-eyed men, lads whose bones were made of milk and oatmeal.
Pestilence. Famine. Hatred. Murder, she answered, but the words changed inside of her mouth, left her soft, dewy lips like starlight.
“My name is Orva. It means ‘golden one’,” she said aloud, and blushed demurely.
She grew up with a boy name Jorge. His last name meant ‘meadow’, and he was just like a meadow himself, with soft and gentle hands. He caught animals in his traps, whispering sweetly in their ears as he twisted their necks or slit their throats. He skinned them, his beautiful hands slick and red, and this is how he helped feed their village.
“This is for you,” he told her once, as tender as new teens, and handed her a stole of rabbit fur. He wrapped it carefully around her shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said, and smiled charmingly, then tried to slash her wrists on the knife at his belt. Her eyes merely flicked toward it, instead.
“I’m sorry that I have to use such a thing,” Jorge said. “I hope it doesn’t disgust you.”
She looked him in the eyes and took his hand. For the first and last time in her life, her lips said exactly what was in her heart.
“Jorge, some things need to be. And you’re so tender with them while you do it. I’ve never seen such kindness.”
She saw the light in his eyes, and knew what it meant. Over the years, she never saw it go out.
Orva tried to shriek for help, to scream in rage, but her voice was so dulcet. So small. It tinkled like bells. Charming. Merry. She ran to the elder in town. Told him what she thought of him, of the oppressive ideals and the spin-and-twirl roll that she played. She told him that his mother was a hag and he himself a goat, and she wished he was dead. That they’d die. That the entire village would burn and be pillaged and everybody, including herself, raped and murdered and scattered about in pieces.
The words escaped her cupid bow lips and turned to honey. She heard herself laughing with pure joy. Praising his robe. Musing about the darling shape of the clouds. He patted her cheek and told her to go gather wildflowers in her skirt. To plait them in her hair, like the good girl her Mama had always wished for.
“Wishes sometimes come true,” the elder said knowingly, and something passed across his eyes like clouds. Stardust and magic.
Orva obediently skipped off, and cried the entire way.
Her tears were pearls, and made the town rich. They were sewn into bridal veils and fine dresses that she refused to wear, except that her sweet mouth could make no such refusal.
So fine. So good, the townspeople said as they dressed her. Isn’t she the most magnificent thing? Thoughtful and cheerful and full of beauty.
The flowers made an exquisite crown for an exquisite beauty. She tried to pierce her eyes with the thorns so she wouldn’t see how people looked through her, but she merely fluttered her lashes instead. She took her tender wrist to her mouth, touched it with strong, straight teeth, imaging how it would feel to cut through to the vein, to release herself and let people see what she really looked like inside. Perhaps they could love her for her own kind of beautiful. Perhaps she could be enough.
Her teeth didn’t tear into her skin. She kissed her own wrist, over and over and over. She screamed, and the sound of her joyful singing echoed over the valley.
Starlight. Moonshine. She had girlish love in her eyes, color in her cheeks. Jorge was no longer a boy. He stole soft kisses from her, breathless, far too in love, dangerous. No, Jorge, she said. I don’t want this. You don’t even know who I am. Take that knife on your belt and use it. Place it to my throat. Let me go.
He reached for something at his waist, and her heart filled. Shone. He raised his hands, ran them over her shoulders. Upward. She closed her eyes, white teeth biting at her lips.
“I have something for you,” he said. Slim fingers on her pale neck. Something cold.
She hoped the pain would be swift. She prayed it would be sure.
A necklace. Made of precious stones and metal and time and desire. He fastened it around her neck, nervously. Tears ran down her cheeks, wetting his fingers.
“I’ll take care of you,” he said. “Love you always. I’ll feed you on milk and pray to always see the moon shine in your eyes. Will you have me? Will you love me?”
No, no, I don’t know how to love. I’ll poison you with my kisses. Kill our children in my womb with bitterness. It will be despair, and you deserve so much better.
“I love you,” she whispered, and fingered the necklace she wore. Kissed his lips shyly. Buried her face in his shoulder. He held her so close that she couldn’t breathe.
She glowed. Smiled. Inside, she turned her face to the wall and died.
∼ Mercedes M. Yardley
© Copyright Mercedes M. Yardley. All Rights Reserved.
Always the warm orange glow against the bars. That one cage, when all the rest remain dark. But I don’t get too curious or linger, just dump the slop into the feeding troughs. I don’t know what this place used to be, but these days it’s when the Company keeps the dregs.
They used to be human. I know that, but now… Scaly deformed fingers grab at their food, oozing tentacles, and rotting bits I don’t even want to think about. Only the glowing cage seems, well, normal. As normal as those things get, I suppose. Whatever’s in there whispers when I feed it, says thank you, real polite like.
But I’m not fooled. I know what it did to the last guy. He got too curious. First day on the job I put what was left of his remains in the trough. That was warning enough. I’m not ending up as food for the animals.
Mechanism of Question
Lee Andrew Forman
Bare skin and fragile bones—a futile effort at remaining human. The coming flame warms the flesh but not the soul. Dry, cracked layers burn away, allowing soft, pink, infantile cells to feel every degree. The orange glow travels a path of rust and steel, the conductor of its radiant journey. It leads to the blackened seat on which my body rests. Not dead, not alive, but waiting between. Tired eyes roll, reflect the end in their widened centers. The scent of liquified remains speaks for those before me, their agony carried by its rotten, smoldering, odor. It begins against my back. Perhaps my legs as well, but I lost feeling in them long ago. No pain at first, only the restoration of normal body temperature, a euphoric moment of internal balance, a slight release of suffering. That moment flees the rise in energy, replaced by a boiling gut and viscous epidermis running down my rear side. As by body expels its last contents I know the torment will soon be done. Whatever waits, if anything at all, can’t be worse than cruel mortality. Or can it?
Scarlett R. Algee
The thump had come from the basement, and so does the heat. You’re sweltering by the time you reach the bottom of the steps, but the vents are all cold except the one in the far corner, the one by the body. It’s the third one this month.
You look up first, to the beam overhead and the snapped cord, then down to bent ligatured neck and shock-splayed limbs. A tiny gash along the jawline draws your attention, making your face sting with recognition. You kneel and grasp the chin–sweat-slick, too warm, slipping in your fingers and making your skin crawl—and turn the head, looking into your own glazed eyes. The corner vent has begun to glow dull red, and the hair, your hair, is starting to singe.
Maybe you should let it. Three times this month, and you keep finding yourself like this. Maybe you should let it burn; maybe that will give you answers. You unbutton your damp collar and run a hand over your razor-nicked face, breathing the acrid stench of crisping hair, and watch your corpse’s fingers twitch and curl.
Not looking at the cages doesn’t mean I can’t hear the screams from within, the horrid sound echoes daily amongst the husk of the building they’ve made our home. I’ve never been this close. Death in three cages; slowly eliminating us as our usefulness wanes. One a roaring fire searing the flesh from you, another where the flame laps at you bubbling your skin, the final one a flameless heat made of soot and remains that slowly cooks you. Those sobbing wails are the worst, they’ve haunted my dreams from my first day here.
I don’t need to worry about that anymore. I look at the men watching my comrades in their final moments, their faces pure delight, a reward for a job well done. The butt of the rifle pushes me forward. My last few steps an uncertain certainty.
It aint so bad, sleepin’ under that dang metal roof. Worst part, I hate hearin’ them critters skitter and scratch as they run its length. Pa says it aint nothin’ but ‘coons an squirrels; I ain’t never seen a masked-bandit that big, nor no tree-rat that heavy. Would be less unsettlin’ if they would chitter or growl, but they fight silent in the dark. I woke to heavy scrappin’ that night only to see the side wall pieced by a ragged claw; it was peeling the far side of the roof like a sardine can. Pa said it was my magination, and that I better get my ass back in bed ‘fore I catch a whoopin’ when I ran to him. I’d rather face the monster squirrels than Pa when he’s in one’a his booze moods. So I climbed back inta bed, that’s when I saw the light leaking in further than b’fore. I know I shoulda been good an’ gone to sleep, but for the life a me, I couldn’t shake the feelin’ something was comin’. When I saw that muddy eye lookin’ through the tear, I knew they was here, and no amount a hiddin’ was gonna help.
I lay on the ground, the slats above blurring and jittering as he strikes repeatedly. Fists hammering, elbows slamming; a brief glimpse of light appears. He’s relentless. The beating brutal; as brutal as they’ve all been. A crack to the side of the head; I feel wetness. The light glows brighter, warmer, more embracing. I nearly black out, I would black out if it wasn’t for the lines my mind is riding. I count them: one – my jaw crunches under his forearm; two – I realize he isn’t going to stop this time; three – I let myself drift on waves of pain; four – I focus on the glow; five – is someone coming to welcome me home, or are my neurons misfiring from the assault on my skull? Either way, my suffering ends.
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