Aislinn crawls under her covers, which feel cold against her skin, like her mother’s lips on wintry mornings when she kisses her goodbye for school. Goosebumps prickle her arms but she is not uncomfortable; she is in bed, the place of dreams and sleep and snug familiarity, and there is no discomfort in these things. Besides, the bed will grow warm quickly. It does so every night. At least, it has done every night beforehand.
Small fingers in the darkness find her bedcovers. Dragging the cotton sheets up her body to beneath her chin, she glances one last time across her room. This is her bedroom. Her private place, where she can host tea parties, entertain her dolls and read eagerly from glossy teen magazines, secreted beneath her mattress, without fear of being judged or, worse, disarmed.
The curtains flutter. Her rocking-horse creaks. From across the room, her Gameboy console flickers briefly into life. For one moment its blue light illuminates her shelf of smiling dolls – she sees Molly, Blossom, Lady Honeypaw, clutching tight the jar of her namesake – then it cuts out again. The room falls still.
She is half-asleep now. Her eyes are closing and she is drifting off. Her legs slip either side of her bedcovers, relishing the feel of them, the coolness against her skin, and in this half-sleep state she wishes for a bedtime story. Her thumb finds her mouth, as it always does when she is in bed and it is dark. Her thumb precludes dreams and sleep and a snug familiarity.
She wishes for a bedtime story. She wishes so very hard.
Her mother hasn’t read to her this evening. She can hear her some nights, through the floor, laughing with her father; the sounds of glasses clinking, of shrieks and the murmur of the television. Her mother reads less and less of late. Aislinn isn’t sure why. She sucks harder on her thumb, coats the digit in a glistening layer of saliva, and wishes her mother would read to her again, like she used to, like before.
The flutter of the curtains. The creak of the rocking horse. And another sound, like a crying dog, from somewhere nearby. She leans forward, peers over her crumpled covers, searching for its source. Her eyes scan her bedroom: the wardrobe, the night stand, the shelf where her dolls sit, glassy eyed, their lips stitched into beatific smiles. She knows those smiles. They are ‘supposed-to’ smiles. She wears them often enough.
And then she sees them. Three figures, no taller than Aislinn herself, standing quite still next to her mirror, beside the chest of drawers. She isn’t sure how long they have been standing there, hidden in plain sight by the dark. She doesn’t suppose it matters. Clutching her covers, her heart begins to race inside her chest.
Stepping through the darkness, they approach her silently. Perhaps they have come from the mirror, she thinks, or birthed from the shadows, or the fluffy insides of the dolls. The shadows cling to them like veils. Shrouded in blackness, they seem inscrutable, except for their whimpers, like Toby when he would trap his tail in the kitchen door. They smell like Toby too; wet fur, hot breath, rotten scents ill-fitting with their spirited movements.
They all three sweep towards her, limping across the bedroom floor, and she shrinks hurriedly into her covers, warmer now, infused with that sleepy smell. She takes a deep breath and, for one moment, the figures are forgotten for that smell.
Then they are around her bed.
They lean over the sheets, their chipped nails dragging delicately across the covers. Swathes of lace – or it might be lank hair – hang from their pencil-thin arms, and it is only when the first leans down, into Aislinn’s face, that she notices they wear veils, like those princesses from the animated films she loves to watch on Saturday mornings. Except they are like no princesses she has ever seen, and certainly no prince would ever march to save them, or slay a writhing serpent in their honour. She is a tight ball of trembling limbs beneath the covers.
Something thick and bulbous presses against the veil of the first; a tongue, long and swollen like a pale leech, and she wonders if these three are not the serpents themselves, in wicked disguise, come to claim her with their scaly claws. Her mouth opens, to shout, to cry, except no sound escapes her lips –
The curtains flutter, the rocking horse creaks and the three crones shudder to a stop. For a moment they seem to stare at each other through the murkiness of their veils. Then they spin slowly on their heels.
Something is happening to the rocking horse. It sways forwards and backwards, forwards and backwards, steadily at first but with increasing pace, just like it does when she mounts it. The dolls are twitching too, their legs swinging, button eyes blinking. Then, with deliberate slowness, the horse’s broad, white neck curves round. It whinnies, snorts a steamy breath, and its pearly black eyes fix themselves onto the Harridans.
They all three whine in unison. A long, twisting horn winds its way from out of the rocking-horse’s forehead, and then it is no longer a rocking-horse but a proud stallion, thickly-muscled and fierce. His solitary horn shines silvery and hard in the moonlight and even from across the room she can count the age-rings, smooth and marbled, on its surface.
He paws her bedroom carpet, strikes the fabric with his hooves, and snorts steamily again until he has the crones’ attention. He is her defender, she realises, wiping away the tears from her eyes. Even though she has not ridden him for a long time now, he remembers her hands on his neck. He remembers her weight on his back, her legs pressed tight to his sides, and he will fight for her.
The crones stagger with horrid purpose towards him. Shadows bleed from beneath their arms and the long strips of lace that hang there, and with every step closer to the horse their lamenting wails intensify.
Aislinn shrinks further beneath her covers as, with a dreadful lurch, the first crone reaches the stallion. He whinnies and rears up as she draws near, shining hooves pedalling beside the toy-box. The crone cowers on the floor before him and for a moment it looks as though the stallion might triumph, his eyes two glistening marbles in the dark.
Then the other two reach his sides. Their lamenting cries made all the more horrible for what they are about to do, they claw him, their fingers shearing long, thin rashers from his flanks. Cackling and weeping they bury their fingers deeper into his pale coat, drawing blackness from within, only this blackness is wet and drips from their hands to stain the carpet below. He throws back his head, his eyes rolling. Giddy sounds erupt from his throat.
One by one her dolls drop from the shelf. The room fills with soft sounds as they hit the carpet, then the patter of their boots as they rush across the floor. Reaching up they tug at the crones, grasping the strands of lace and hair, pulling them back from the horse with Lilliputian might. She sees Molly and Blossom, their stitched lips pursed tight, and feels hope again.
With a voiceless heave, they bring one crone to the ground. She screams as she topples into the sea of smiling faces, her grey dress floating around her. They grab the dress and pin her down, Lady Honeypaw climbing triumphant onto her chest. She upends her pot of honey over the veiled face.
The last crone scatters her assailants. She snatches them up, tears them in two and tosses them away. Stuffing spills from their broken bodies, buttons plink across the room, then she returns her hands to the steed.
He stumbles. Aislinn feels him fall and she trembles. Screams judder from his throat and he sinks down to his knees, the toy-box shattering beneath his bulk. Its contents scatter across the carpet. Sheared flesh covers the broken dolls, blood splashes their button eyes and then the stallion’s mane darkens, until it might have been one of the scouring pads her mother uses to scratch out dirt from the sink. The stallion lies still amid her toys.
The crones regroup and turn, together, to her bed. She trembles harder beneath her sheets. Her eyes brim with tears again, although she is otherwise motionless, frozen by a mixture of fear and something else, something strange, a feeling of familiarity. Downstairs, all is silent. Her mother and father must have gone to bed. She has no brothers or sisters. Toby is long gone now, ‘to be with the angels in the sky,’ though she knows he really occupies a shallow hole in the back garden, behind the roses. She remembers dank soil, his short fur and cold flesh.
As she drags her covers over her, so that only her eyes are visible, she realises she knows these crones. They are her long-dead dog, her slain steed, every bedtime without stories; fears made half-physical in the dark and the night. She sees something of herself in the crones’ withered forms; and her mother and her grandmother, and realises they are not just crones but brides, manifestations of age and motherhood, come to claim her at last, as they must claim all growing girls –
The three rise up once more around her bed. They lean in close, and even through her covers, their salty breaths catching in her throat. It seems like everything warm, everything nice, everything she knows is good and right, is swallowed up by the black void of their veils. Their fingers rise to their veils, clasping them even as their other hands brush Aislinn’s covers. For a moment their hands hover there. Then, with one quick motion, they tear the delicate net cloth from their faces.
A scream fills Aislinn’s mouth. It fills her bedroom too, piercing even the blackest shadows as she looks upon the faces of the brides. Then the brides are gone and she is sitting up in the darkness, her mother rushing to her side, concern and sleep in equal measures in her eyes.
Slowly Aislinn calms down. Her mother switches on lights and reads to her. After a while, her breathing steadies. Her eyes regain a languid glaze. Guided by her mother’s words, she sinks back into her bed; that place of dreams and sleep and snug familiarity, except not so familiar any more.
Unable to place what has changed, in a room that has not, she drifts uncertainly back to sleep and dreams of riding down the aisle atop a snorting stallion, delicate lace trailing after her, a thin net veil before her face.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2015 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved