“Shut up!” Tara yelled, venting some of her worry and frustration on the GPS which had been politely asking her to return to the road for the last half hour or so. When the gadget didn’t oblige, Tara brought the rental car to a jarring halt and slammed the gearshift into park.
She tried to find the power button on the GPS but couldn’t see well enough through the spinning silver dots that clouded her vision. She gave the thing a couple of good hard smacks but the cool female voice continued its damnable request.
With a muttered curse, Tara sunk back in her seat and stared through the windshield into the false twilight created by the thick forest that scrabbled and screeched against the vehicle’s sides. She put her fingers to her temples and rubbed though the pain she knew was coming hadn’t arrived quite yet. She thought again of the Imitrex in her bag in the trunk, but—no, she wouldn’t risk it, couldn’t risk it.
Tara massaged her head for awhile then mumbled, “Alright, get it together. This is going to be okay. You followed the directions. You’ve got to be close.”
She drew a deep breath, dropped her hands, sat up in her seat. As she did so a flash of something white penetrated the haze of reds and blacks and silvers that strobed across her vision.
Tara turned toward the spot of brightness and, squinting, made out a sign. Its bold black letters glistened against the sparkling white background, the whole thing looking as though it had been painted only hours before. The track that curved away in the direction of the sign’s arrow was in much better condition than the one Tara was on.
“Thank God,” Tara said and steered the car out of ruts and onto gravel. She knew the road wouldn’t take her to the ranch but it might take her to someone who knew how to get to the ranch.
After traveling only a quarter of a mile or so Tara’s surroundings transitioned from forest to clearing with startling suddenness. Her eyes teared in the unexpected brightness. She had to stop the car again while she blinked the moisture away.
When her vision was as clear as it was going to get she surveyed her surroundings. She saw she was parked on the lip of a small valley and in its ell squatted a small pale green clapboard house. It was fronted by a several hundred yards of garden. The garden was surrounded by a white picket fence with a latticed archway at its center. Some sort of flowering creeper had entwined itself through the latticework. Its heavy blooms were a vivid purple against the white of the fence.
Tara glanced upward. As far as she could see there were no wires running to the house, no sign that this habitation was on the grid. Hoping this particular throwback to the pioneer era didn’t eschew, along with all modern conveniences and comforts, over-the-counter medications or unexpected guests, Tara drove the remaining distance to the house and parked at the fence.
As she was about to get out of the car, her cell binged. She knew who the incoming text was from and approximately what it would say but she picked it up anyway. She had to hold the phone close to read the small characters.
I know you’re still mad but could you at least let me know you got there alright.
A growl issuing from her throat, Tara slid her keyboard out, began thumbing the letters. Of course I’m still mad. You ditched me at the last second. Now I have to face my whole crazy fucking clan alone. And no, I didn’t get there alright. I’m lost in the middle of the damn Hoback. I should have been at the ranch an hour ago. Neither of my parents are answering their phones. I’m getting a migraine and I can’t take an Imitrex because I’m --.
Tara stopped typing.
This wasn’t something to spew in a rush of anger, this secret she’d held so close for three months. She wanted to be face to face when she told him, have him swing her off her feet in a mad dance of jubilation, celebrate together that they would hold in their arms in six short months the thing they’d been told was impossible.
Tara read again what she’d typed, realized it would be a mistake to send any part of the message. It wasn’t Rob’s fault he wasn’t with her. It was his asshole boss’s. That’s who she should be sending pissy texts to.
She cleared out the message, began again. My flight got in alright, but I
A loud thwack broke the silence of the summer evening. Tara jerked her head up, startled, and saw a dark-haired woman in a long black dress partially covered by an apron standing on the porch of the house. Tara couldn’t see the woman’s face as it was in the shadow of the hand she’d put to her eyes but, due to the almost too perfect appearance of the cottage, the remote location and, last but not least, the large homemade broom in the woman’s hand, Tara’s imagination supplied the woman with a hooked nose, warty chin and burning eyes.
“And here I am without my Hansel,” Tara muttered then realized there were no buzzing colors obscuring her vision. This meant she had about five minutes before the pain dragged its heft into her head and settled down with coffee and a book.
Tara got out of the car, called hello and, when the woman helloed back, began walking toward the cottage.
Upon reaching the archway in the fence Tara came to an abrupt halt. The thought of the fleshy petals of those abundant purple blooms brushing the top of her head, her face, her arms sent a small shudder through her. She tried to force herself forward but her feet were disobedient soldiers, unwilling to march on.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked as Tara stood there shifting from foot to foot and feeling like an idiot.
Tara pulled her gaze away from the flowers, yanked her smile out, forced it to stay put. “I hope so. I’m in a bit of a bad spot. You see I . . . .” She got no further. The pain felled her. Her vision went dark. She felt herself tilting forward, heard the woman cry out, was unconscious before she hit the ground.
When Tara came to the woman’s face floated before her like the moon on a clear winter’s night. She must have turned Tara to her back while she was unconscious.
“Are you well?” the woman asked.
Tara moved her mouth, was grateful to find she still had command of her tongue though it was difficult to formulate what she needed to say. She finally managed to piece all the words she needed together and get them out of her mouth. “Migraine. I need to sleep. I’m trying to reach the Bar S Ranch. Is it close or is there a hotel nearby where I could stay?”
The woman leaned back a bit, shook her head. “I’ve not heard of the Bar S Ranch and there’s no hotel near.”
Tara began to struggle up, trying to push aside the pain in her head so she could think clearly but she might as well have been Atlas attempting to roll the weight of the world from his shoulders.
The woman put an arm around Tara’s back, helped her into a sitting position. She looked toward the cottage then back at Tara. “I—if you’re not opposed to sleeping under a stranger’s roof, I’ve a bed but this—you’ve come to a house of mourning. My daughter passed yesterday.”
Wondering at the woman’s composure, Tara’s eyes flitted over her taking in her long slightly curling black hair, her slender body and unlined decidedly unwitchy face. She couldn’t be more than twenty-five, at least five years younger than Tara.
Tara’s womb twinged. She put a hand to it as though to reassure the pea-sized, bean shaped thing inside that she would protect it from the fate of this woman’s child. “I appreciate that, but, under the circumstances, I couldn’t impose. I’m sure the ranch must be close. I’ll just . . . .”
Tara gathered her legs under her, pushed herself to her feet. Silver fizzed across her vision and her head seemed to expand with the enormity of the pain. She staggered and the woman caught her.
“It seems you’ve no choice but to impose,” the woman said.
Tara thought she heard a smile in the words, though she couldn’t be sure as her vision was still clouded by black and silver fireworks. “So it seems.”
“If you’re to sleep in my home I’d at least know your name.”
With the pain sapping her patience as well as her energy, Tara wanted to snap at the woman to quit with the Shakespeare thing but instead she just said, “I’m Tara.”
“I’m Alice. Come. Let’s go inside where you can lie down.”
Her vision clearing, Tara eyed the huge purple blossoms hanging from the archway. Her feet still wouldn’t carry her forward.
The insistent pressure of Alice’s hand on Tara’s back finally provided Tara the impetus she needed and they walked under the archway together. Tara tried to make herself as small as possible but with the two of them crowding into the narrow space between the lattices it was impossible to keep the flowers from touching her. Her skin puckered in goosebumps and Tara wanted to slap away the petals but was afraid how that would appear to Alice.
When they emerged from under the archway Tara was liberally dusted with pollen. She couldn’t contain her revulsion and began frantically swatting at her hair, her shirt, her jeans to rid herself of the stuff. It rose in a great cloud around her making her cough and sneeze which rattled her head and she had to grit her teeth on the pain.
While Tara was still trying to brush away the pollen, Alice took her arm and began to walk toward the cottage leaving Tara no choice but to go with her. As they walked, Tara took in her surroundings in little sips of sight, trying not to upset the equilibrium of pain in her head.
In the garden perennials mixed with produce in a haphazard way. There were huge flowers, head high corn, plump gourds, strawberry plants drooping with berries the size of golf balls, runner beans racing up their wooden stakes. Tara wasn’t sure but she thought some of the plants were producing out of season and the abundant fertility seemed somehow indecent. It all made her as uneasy as the lurid blossoms hanging from the archway.
Before she could give this any more thought, Tara’s toe encountered something hard. Hands outflung, eyes wide, she stumbled up the front stairs of the cottage. Alice righted her before she nosedived onto the smooth wood of the porch.
The abrupt movements caused the ache in Tara’s head to swell like the final movement in a symphony. As she stood, breathing deep and trying to get on top of the pain it felt like she was on the deck of a ship in a storm rather than a stationary porch.
Alice moved around Tara and pulled open the creaking wooden screen door. With a hand on the cottage wall to steady herself, Tara stepped into blessed coolness, dimness. As the door thwacked shut behind her, the deep black pain in her head eased a bit and she was able to fully open her tearing eyes and look around.
Sunlight flooded the room to the left of the narrow hall in which Tara was standing. She flinched away from it, looked to her right. That room was dim but it wasn’t so dark that Tara couldn’t make out the shape of the wooden oblong that rested across the seats of some chairs. In its interior she caught a glimpse of pale skin, pale lace, pale hair.
“Oh, my God,” Tara said. The headache and her own shock robbed her of all social niceties. “She’s still here.”
“How do you know that?” Alice almost snapped, for the first time appearing less than in total command of herself. That it was anger rather than sorrow that had broken through her calm surprised Tara.
Tara pointed at the coffin. “Isn’t that her?”
Like a pond after a breeze passes over the surface, Alice’s face settled again into its serene expression. “Her body, yes. Where else would it be?”
“In a . . . ,” Tara trailed off, remembering the remote location, the miles of rutted dirt track that had brought her here. She turned, moved toward the door, stammering, “I’m sorry. I can’t – I shouldn’t – I’m going to go.”
Alice’s hand closed on her wrist. “Where?”
Tara stopped. Her pain bloated head thumped in time with her heartbeat. Her stomach churned and bile clambered halfway up her throat. She was still dizzy and at some point fatigue had crept in making her limbs feel heavy and uncoordinated.
Tara had come to expect pain, nausea, the inability to control her own tongue, sometimes even blindness or numbness on one side of her body or the other, but the vertigo and fatigue were new additions to the plethora of migraine symptoms.
With or without the new symptoms, however, Tara knew if she pushed herself much further she would be dancing with blindness, flirting perhaps with partial paralysis. She thought of the falling dark, the way the forest seemed to want to devour the narrow track she’d have to traverse to get back to 191. She imagined being stuck in that black tunnel of trees all alone unable to speak, unable to see, unable to move.
“Do you have any Tylenol?” she asked, perfectly aware she was grasping at the thinnest of straws.
Alice shook her head. “I’ve a tincture I could prepare that will ease your pain some.”
Tara put a hand on her lower abdomen. “No. No, thank you.”
“Will you stay then?”
Keeping her eyes averted from the thing in the parlor, Tara nodded and allowed Alice to lead her down the hall toward the back of the house.
They walked through a small kitchen to a narrow staircase on the far side of it.
As she mounted the staircase, the house seemed to rock in time with Tara’s steps. Her lids felt weighted and she wanted nothing more than to sink down where she stood and sleep. She found herself grasping at the wall as she walked to keep herself upright.
Alice turned into a room off the hallway at the top of the stairs. Tara followed but paused on the threshold, peered around. Long white curtains hung limp at either side of the tall narrow window. A cradle made of some colorless wood stood in the corner. The rest of the furniture was all white wicker. Cross-stitch done in peaches, creams, pale pinks, and yellows were hung in frames on the walls and covered the pillows and bedspreads. It was a room devoid of vibrancy, of vivacity, of life.
“Is this . . . ?”
“It’s my daughter’s room.” Anne’s lips curved upward in an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I have nowhere else.”
“Did she die --?”
Alice cut Tara off with a brisk shake of her head. “In the garden.”
A vision of those vociferious purple blooms flashed into Tara’s mind. She shuddered it away.
The woman gestured to the bed. “Please.”
Tara looked at the plump white pillow. It seemed like letting her head sink into that cool cotton covered mound wasn’t just a thing she could do, but the only thing she should do.
Alice moved to the bed, turned down the covers, stepped back.
Knowing this course of action was perhaps not the smartest, but unable, in her addled state, to come up with another, Tara walked into the room,
As she was about to lower herself onto the mattress, Tara recalled Rob’s unanswered text, her parents’ expectation that she be at the ranch over an hour ago. Tara realized then she had left her phone and purse in the unlocked rental. She hadn’t been expecting to leave the car for long, just to get out, get directions and go.
She turned partially away from the bed, the slight movement making the room sway. She had to put a hand on the bedstead to steady herself. “I need to call my family. They’ll be worried. I left my phone in the car.”
“Please lay down. I’ll fetch it for you.”
Tara hesitated, thought of trekking back through the house, the garden, under that awful archway to her car and then back again, the shackles of fatigue and pain clanking along with her the whole way.
“That’d be great. Thank you.” Tara turned back to the bed and, sighing with anticipated relief, kicked off her shoes and slid between the cool sunshine smelling sheets.
At first, as she’d known it would, laying her head on the pillow caused the pain to worsen. She began to count slowly to a thousand knowing by the time she got there, her headache wouldn’t be quite so bad, might have eased enough that she could imagine sleeping sometime in the not too distant future. However, she was barely to a hundred when her breathing began to even out and her eyes slid shut.
She barely heard Alice’s murmured, “I’ll return momentarily.”
Sometime later Tara jerked awake at a loud pop and creak. Trying not to move her throbbing head, she looked around for the source of the noise. She saw Alice had returned and settled herself in the rocker at the side of the bed.
Tara wanted to ask the woman to give her her phone and go away but before her mouth could form the words she slipped back into sleep.
Some time later she woke again. The oblong of the window was night dark and the room lit only with the flame of a single lantern. Tara looked around wondering what had woken her and saw Alice at the door speaking in whispers to two women.
The next few hours passed in this way, sleeping in fit and starts, waking to one more or two more women at the door or crossing the wooden floor on cat’s feet or settling themselves in a chair or window seat or standing in a corner. Tara wanted to ask them what they were doing here, tell them to leave her alone but fatigue overtook her each time before she could.
When Tara woke next she was grateful to find the pain in her head had reduced itself to a throbbing prinprick in her right temple. The dizziness and fatigue remained, though they were somewhat less than they had been.
Tara rolled from her side to her back, pushed herself to sitting and gave a muffled exclamation at the sight of the room crowded with women; every one of them staring at her with bright acquisitive eyes, like a murder of crows flocked around a bit of carrion.
Even though she was fully clothed she clutched the covers to her chest as her gaze ran over the women’s faces, cataloging them, counting them. There were eleven.
“What are you all doing here?” When no one replied, she turned to Alice who still sat in the rocker at the side of the bed. “What are they all doing here?”
“They’re friends. They’ve come to help?”
“Help with what?” Tara asked.
When Alice didn’t respond Tara looked again at the women hoping one of them might supply the reason for their presence.
A short blonde woman with pale blue eyes and splotchy red cheeks looked familiar. Tara’s attention kept returning to her. As she studied the woman, Tara recalled where she’d seen the blonde. Her picture had been all over the news three years ago. She, her husband and their three children had gone camping in the Redwoods. The woman had woken before her family and left a note saying she’d gone for a run. Two weeks of searching by local authorities and volunteers had yielded nothing but a single size 7 women’s running shoe in some bushes off the side of the trail.
“You’re Stacia Martin,” Tara said.
The woman glanced at her companions on either side of her as though unsure if Tara was addressing her. Finally, she put a hand to her chest. “I?”
“Yes. You disappeared from Humboldt campground in the Redwoods three years ago.” At the confusion in the woman’s face, Tara began to doubt her memory. “Didn’t you?”
The women kept her hand on her chest. “My name is Margaret. You may call me Mary if you like.”
Tara stared at each of the woman’s features in turn; the downturned close set blue eyes, the thin blade of her nose, her wide pale forehead, her almost invisible brows and lashes. Stacia Martin had been pretty in the same generic unremarkable way. And it had been two or three years since Tara had last seen her photo.
The woman turned away from Tara’s scrutiny. It was then Tara saw the discolored skin on the woman’s neck. She could hear the newsanchor’s grave voice in her head. “large birthmark on the left side of her neck shaped like Winnie-the-Pooh.”
“You are Stacia Martin.”
The woman looked back at Tara, shook her head.
Tara released the covers, leaned forward, staring hard at her. “Yes, you are. You have three kids. Your baby was only a year when you – what – took off to find yourself, screw an old boyfriend, join a commune?”
Tara was surprised at the depth and heat of her anger, but she knew what lay at its heart. While this woman had been busy deserting her children, Tara had just begun her desperate journey to conceive. Looking at Stacia, Tara found it all too easy to recall the prayers she had murmured while hunched on the toiletseat staring at countless slim white sticks whose oval windows were always blank, the tears she’d shed onto Rob’s broad shoulder, the doctors she’d visited, the operations to make her uterus a place a baby would want to stay, the hundreds of pills she’d swallowed and needles she’d stuck in her belly, the migraines she’d suffered through as the result of all the hormones only to be told it was all useless. Her body simply wouldn’t hold a baby.
Tara put a hand to her abdomen. Three months safe. This one was three months safe. It wouldn’t slip away.
“So easy for you,” Tara continued but with far less heat. “And you just walked out of their lives.”
Keeping her eyes down, Stacia huddled against the woman at her side as though hoping to be absorbed into her neighbor’s bulk.
There was a loud thump from Tara’s right. Tara jerked and looked away from Stacia to see what caused the noise. Alice stood in front of her chair which was still rocking wildly. It thudded against the wall on each backswing. She was staring at something and Tara followed the direction of her gaze to a slim blonde girl standing in the doorway.
A wave of rustling and whisperings went through the room as the other women became aware of the girl’s presence. Though the girl looked like she had purchased her first training bra only a few days before, it was apparent she was a bird of prey among the carrion seekers.
“Will she do? For Jane?” Alice asked.
The girl flicked a glance in Alice’s direction, then, without responding, turned her attention to Tara and moved toward the bed.
When she reached the bedside Tara looked up into eyes that were the pale rheumy blue of an old woman. They looked useless and yet they seemed to pierce Tara’s skin, skewer her soul.
Tara held the girl’s blind gaze, forced herself not to cringe away.
“Strong spirit,” the girl murmured as she lifted her hands. She put them on Tara’s head, passed them over her face, her limbs, her body, held them for a time over Tara’s lower abdomen then lifted them and stepped back. “I’ll give her a tincture to expel the babe. We’ll have to wait until it’s gone but I believe she’ll suit as Jane’s vessel.”
“Expel the . . . ? Tara lunged up off the bed. “No.”
“Hold her,” the girl cried.
The room erupted into movement and when it settled again Tara was flat on her back on the bed with iron hard hands gripping all of her extremities. Her heart slammed against her ribcage as though it meant to batter its way through. Tara’s eyes zipped from one implacable face to the next, hoping for a flicker of mercy. She found none.
“Fetch my satchel,” the girl commanded. “The tincture is in it.”
“No!” Tara screamed again, bucking and twisting, struggling against the hands that held her, striking out each time she got a fist or foot free. The restraining hands fell away amid grunts of pain and panicked shouts but there was always another pair to replace them until one impossible moment when no one and nothing held her.
Tara rolled off the bed to the floor, and half-staggering, half running clambered to her feet. She dashed down the hallway, pounded down the stairs. She could hear shouts, thudding feet, harried voices behind her.
As she came off the staircase into the kitchen she saw a door in what she thought was the back wall of the house. Hoping it led to the outside, she grasped the handle, turned, pushed, yanked. It didn’t budge. She fumbled at the knob but it was smooth under her fingers. With a yell of frustration she spun away from it, fled down the hall to the front door. When she reached it she gripped its knob, turned, pulled. It too was locked. She slapped at the doorframe with both hands searching for a thumbturn or some other mechanism that would set her free. She found it at last, high above her head.
She yanked open the door, slammed the wooden framed screen out of her way and stumbled down the stairs into the garden. She could see the rental car just beyond the fence, the full moon reflected in the paint on its hood. It was so close she could almost feel the cool silky metal of its doorhandle under her hand.
She was halfway across the garden when she heard the soft high voice of the blonde girl. “Stop her.”
The earth gave a sudden heave. Tara was thrown forward. She landed on her hands and knees, cried out, tried to rise but the ground humped once more, flinging her to her stomach.
Tara pushed herself up on all fours, continued to crawl forward though the world beneath her was a wild beast attempting to fling her from its back. She kept her eyes fixed on the moon’s light trapped in the car’s paint as a hodge podge of curses and the Lord’s Prayer and various half remembered catechisms poured from her mouth.
She reached the end of the gravel path under the archway. The rental car was only a few feet away. Her mumbled pleas turned into muttered thanks as she stood.
Something cool and sinuous and slightly furry snaked around her ankle. Tara tried to pull herself free but succeeded only in tightening the thing’s hold. She looked down and saw it was a vine from the blossoming creeper on the lattice. With a cry of revulsion she tried again to free herself. As she struggled with it other vines wrapped around both wrists, her waist, her neck, her hair, dragged her backward until she was tight against the latticework.
One of the blossoms hung at about eye level. It did something Tara could only characterize as sniffing. Then its tightly closed bloom opened slightly and a tongue protruded from its center. It was pink, moist, stippled with minute tastebuds. The flower drew closer, took the tear that trembled in the corner of Tara’s eye on the tiny rounded tip of its tongue, drew the shining, shivering drop into its center then shuddered in what looked to be orgasmic ecstasy.
Other blossoms opened. Little tongues touched and tasted her cheeks, forehead, ears, neck, arms. Some of the spots where the tongues had been licking the longest began to burn. Tara screamed and writhed and wept as their merciless caresses continued.
At the sound of the girl’s command, the flowers hissed with varying degrees of displeasure but drew their tongues away from Tara’s skin, pulled back, closed their petals.
Tara turned away from the blossoms, looked toward the house. The women stood bunched on the flagstone path with the exception of the girl. She was within touching distance of Tara.
“Shall we take her back inside, Mother?” Alice asked.
The girl stroked her forefinger down the divot in the center of her top lip a few times then tapped her bottom lip. “She’s best where she is. Let his venom do its work. We’ll have no trouble getting my tincture down her then.”
Alice took a step away from the huddle of women. “Do we have to cast it out? Couldn’t Jane bear it, raise it?”
The old woman turned her sightless eyes on Alice. “Thirteen to summon, thirteen to bind, thirteen to hold him fast. We’ve no need for a new soul and no soul to suit a body so new. You know this, Alice. I’ve told you each time we collect a bearing vessel. I weary of the need to remind you.”
“But none of those were meant for Jane. This would be my grandchild.”
“And whose soul would we pour into it?” the girl asked. “Would you be trapped in the puling vessel of an infant while it learned to walk, talk, move its bowels in the privy rather than in its own smallclothes? And what if it’s a man child?”
One of the woman cried out, a high pitched yelp, bitten off before it was completely formed. The rest of them shuddered.
The girl looked at them then turned back to Alice. “You see how it must be.”
Alice nodded. Tara cried out in protest. She wanted to struggle but was terrified that would prompt a reemergence of the tongues.
Alice and the girl both looked at her.
“Stay with the vessel,” the girl commanded. “We’ll do what must be done for Jane.”
“But she’s my child. I should --.”
The girl silenced Alice with a curt gesture.
Alice seemed to sink into herself. Shoulders hunched, she stepped toward Tara as the rest of the women walked back into the house.
“Please,” Tara begged when Alice stopped only a few feet from her. Tara’s voice, broken from screaming, emerged only as a hoarse whisper. “Let me go.”
Alice looked away from Tara back toward the house.
Alice didn’t respond, only continued staring at the cottage. Tara looked at the little building as well. She could hear, very low, the sound of women’s voices joined in a chant. The sound made icy sweat prickle in her armpits and dampen her upper lip.
Tara began to look around for some way to escape. It was then she realized blood was welling from a dozen long shallow indentations on her arms. She recalled the girl’s remark about venom.
“Oh, God,” Tara whimpered.
“I’m not without sympathy.” Alice said, startling Tara. She looked up.
The woman continued, “Indeed, I--I lost seven. Of my babes. Some were dead before they left my womb. Others lived only a few short days or hours.” She paused. “Only Jane, my Jane survived to be comfort and companion to me.”
Alice stopped speaking and when she began again her voice was so quiet Tara had to strain to hear her. “It’s why I – did what I did. Why we all did, except perhaps The Mother. So tired, so afraid of death and loss and pain and change. We thought to escape it. Yet it carries its own burden. This life that goes on and on.” Alice turned back to Tara, took a few steps forward and brushed her fingers over Tara’s abdomen. “And its own price.
Tara cried out, torqued away from the woman’s touch.
Alice pulled her hand away, looked at her fingers as though searching from some residue on them. “If you’re to blame anyone for the death of your babe it should be those who accused us.” She shook her head, looked back toward the house. The chanting had gotten louder. The cottage seemed to pulse in time with the voices spilling from it.
Tara began to twist and squirm against her living bonds. They tightened, squeezing the breath from her.
Alice put a hand one on of the blossoms. “Patience. Your time will come.”
The vines loosened and Tara dragged in air.
Alice turned her attention to Tara, continued speaking as though they’d been having a conversation which had been interrupted by a misbehaving child. “We weren’t what they said we were. Not then. None except, perhaps, the Mother. Yet our innocence was no protection against the crime they charged us with. Not put before a jury of men as we were.”
Alice cocked her head. “They think we’re all witches, you know, even the man that put that babe in your belly. They have since Adam first looked on Mother Eve in the Garden and desired her. They upbraid us, beat us, burn us, when the creature they truly want to control is the one dangling between their legs.” Her lips turned in a humorless smile. “When its sightless eyes fix themselves on something it desires, none can gainsay it, least of all the one to whom it belongs. For that they condemn us to ignorance, robe us, veil us, subjugate us, lock us away. For that they hate us.”
The dizziness and fatigue which had never quite left Tara surged suddenly and had she not been held fast to the lattice by the vines she would have fallen to the ground.
“Not Rob,” she mumbled.
Alice gave her a pitying smile.
Tara’s head lolled forward on her chest. She jerked it upright. She had to stay alert, stay aware in case some opportunity for escape presented itself.
Alice stepped closer to Tara, stroked her cheek with one finger. “We’ve had so much living while your child has had none and you so little. But Jane . . . .” Alice trailed off, sighed audibly, shook her head. “I never know what’s right to do. Not today. Perhaps not then, but Jane was so young. The thought of her death, of that death in particular, to have to watch it or to know she watched me go to mine in that manner—I couldn’t bear it. No mother could. And there were thirteen of us in that cold stone cell and The Mother saying it was God’s way of telling us to save ourselves. But God couldn’t be in that. And he’s assuredly not in this, not in what we do here.”
“What do you do here? What are you going to do to me?” Tara felt as though she had taken a heavy duty narcotic. She could barely wrap her lips around the words.
Alice’s eyes were once again fixed on the cottage. Tara was vaguely aware that the chanting had reached a frenetic pitch. She knew she should be panicking but she couldn’t muster up anything except an overwhelming desire to close her eyes. Her head drooped forward again, but when a sudden ringing silence replaced the maelstrom of voices in the night air, Tara jerked her head up, looked wildly around.
The earth at the foot of the porch stairs humped, writhed, shifted and slowly a creature emerged from it. From what she could see of it as it drew itself upright, it appeared to be human, but its skin was gray, stretched so tightly over its emaciated form that Tara could see every bone, muscle and tendon. It had sores on it shoulders and on the backs of its legs and arms. They wept pus.
When the thing had risen to it full height Tara saw that its back was somehow malformed. The muscles twitched and spasmed. Then it gave a convulsive movement and pair of wings unfurled from its shoulderblades with an audible snap, shaking the dirt free from the thin membranes.
Tara stifled a scream, but she must have made some sound because the creature settled it wings and slowly turned its head. Small black horns protruded from its brow. Dagger sharp teeth were visible between the creature’s slightly parted lips. The one ear Tara could see was long and pointed. Its yellow eyes fixed on her and they burned with a deep long unsatisfied hunger. The thing swung around, took a step toward her.
Tara pressed back against the lattice, began to fight the vines.
From inside the house, the girl’s voiced rapped out a single worded command. The creature stopped. The flame in its eyes was doused by weariness and resignation. Head drooping, shoulders bowed, it turned back to the cottage, placed its hoof on the first stair, dragged the other one up to join its mate.
As the thing’s foot left the ground, the whole garden wilted a bit and the vines fell away from Tara. She looked at them, uncomprehending, for the time it took her to blink. Then she lifted her foot to spring into a run and fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.
Alice squatted at her side. “You’ll be more amenable to the Mother’s tincture now.” She took Tara’s arm, slung it over her shoulder, put her other arm around Tara’s waist and hauled them both upright. “I am sorry for what we do but it’s for my Jane. Surely you understand that. Anything for a child.”
* * *
The pad of stockinged feet on wood. The sound of cloth shifting against skin. A light clink. The young woman opened her eyes. A woman with long dark hair was just settling a cloth over the top of the shallow washbasin that stood on the table at the side of the bed.
The woman turned to look at her, smiled. “Good morning, Jane.”
Jane smiled back.
Mother picked up the basin, straightened. “It’s time to rise. The day grows late and there’s much to be done.”
After Mother left the room, Jane swung her legs out from under the covers, put her feet on the floor, surveyed their lean tanned length where they poked out at the bottom of her long nightgown. She wiggled the toes, laughed and stood. No sooner had she straightened than she winced and dropped immediately back onto the bed. She put a hand to her cramping belly. After a moment she stood again but remained bent at the waist, curled over the pain. She’d have to get Mother to make her some of her moontime tea.
Jane dressed as quickly as the low ache in her stomach would allow. When she tried to plait her hair, she was dismayed to find it was too short to braid. Well, time would remedy that and time was one thing of which she wasn’t in short supply. Drawing a brush through what little hair she had she wished for a moment she could see what her new vessel looked like but Mother discouraged mirrors, said it was best to think of themselves as they always had.
After clattering down the stairs, Jane plucked a biscuit from the pan of them atop the stove, slathered it with fruit preserves and, chomping delightedly, walked toward the front of the house. When she reached the screen door she saw Mother outside at the gate conversing with a man. Moving carefully so as not to draw attention to herself, she eased back into the shadow of the hall.
From her spot in the shadows, she surveyed the man. He was tall, broadshouldered. His shirt and pants were a uniform dark green. She was disappointed that the brim of his wide hat hid his face from her. She wanted to know if this one’s visage was a reflection of his monstrous soul.
Catching movement out of the corner of her eye, Jane turned her attention to it. One of the wisteria blossoms hanging from the arch shot toward Mother’s hand. Mother winced, slapped the bloom down.
“Are you alright?” the man asked.
“Biting fly,” Mother replied then cleared her throat. “As I was saying she stopped here to ask for directions to the Bar S Ranch yesterday evening about seven-thirty. I supplied her with the information she sought. Didn’t she reach her destination?”
“No, ma’am, I’m afraid she didn’t and her husband and her folks haven’t been able to get her on her cell phone. That’s why we’re out asking about her.”
At this Jane retreated further into the house. It wouldn’t do at all for this man to catch sight of her. She ducked into the parlor on her right and saw her old vessel still lay in its pine box. She crossed to it, looked down on the parchment like skin, the thin white hair, the gnarled hands clasped over the flattened breast. A shudder moved over her as she recalled what the last few months in that withered, weathered home had been like.
The screen door slammed. Jane turned toward the parlor entrance, called quietly to her mother.
Mother peered into the dimness for a moment then said, “Oh, it’s you. You gave me a start.”
Mother crossed the parlor, put her arm around Jane’s shoulders, squeezed. Jane leaned against Mother, breathing in her familiar scent of flour and herbs.
“Is the man gone?”
Mother released Jane, said, “He is.”
Jane reached for her mother’s hand, lifted it, inspected the bleeding depression. “Shall I get the salve?”
Mother released her, pulled her hand away. “Later. He’s restive. Your vessel’s old soul merely whetted his appetite. It’s blood and meat he wants. We’ll take that,” Mother jerked her head in the direction of the coffin, “out to him later.”
Mother moved to the sideboard, picked up the cloth covered basin she’d removed from Jane’s room earlier. “This should appease him for now. Will you take it out to the garden?
Jane began to remove the cloth but Mother slapped her hand away. “Leave it.”
Jane nodded and took the basin from Mother. She walked out of the house, across the porch and onto the flagstone path. The breeze which had earlier carried the sound of Mother and the man’s voices to her now teased her nose with the coppery scent of blood.
The leaves on every plant in the garden began to rustle and the wisteria turned their curved petals in her direction. Jane walked to the end of the flagstone path, set the shallow vessel under the archway. Keeping her eyes from the container she whisked the cloth away so the blossoms nosing around the edges of the basin could get to the contents. Then she turned and went to rejoin her mother.