By JP Relph
Walk-in Clinic, Crow Hills – March 1994
A tired place for the dispossessed and undocumented. Doctors with grubby scrubs and morphine-shaky hands. Nurses with battered clipboards, hopelessness dulling their faces. The girl bellows in pain; a tsunami of blood washing the infant into gloved hands. Her face pallid, fading-brown eyes in plum sockets, a broken smile when she hears the sharp cry.
She dies staring into the deadly flash of her child’s blue eyes. A horrified nurse pulling a savaged umbilical cord from the baby’s mouth, blood spilling viscous down its chin. She dies with two badly-healed scars on her neck and bruises covering her bony frame. She dies whispering I’m sorry.
Three Months Earlier
Highway 8, Fifty Miles Beyond Smoke City
Sweat stings his eyes. His heart a ball bearing smashing around his chest. He knows what this betrayal will cost. Valen – a darkly private man, ugly rich - doesn’t tolerate dissent of any kind. And he never simply lets people go.
The girl in a narcotic slumber on the back seat of his truck, curls around the neat bulge of her belly. Her eyes writhe beneath bruised lids, seeing nightmares. He’s seen a few himself. Like when he walked in on Valen and the girl – she a screaming rag doll in the huge man’s arms, his mouth wide on her neck, blood spattering his bone-white face. Seeing Warlow at the door, Valen had smiled, blood like bad lipstick, then dropped the girl on the floor.
Warlow was meant to be getting rid of her. Dumping her, drugged and weighted down with rocks, in Smoke Lake. Hiding the horrible truth of his boss’ nature. The girl reminded him of his sister. It was that simple. So, he was driving too fast, too hard, from the sight of bloodied fangs and brutalised girls. He knew of a place in Crow Hills. A shelter for the beaten and desperate. He’d take her there – they didn’t ask questions, didn’t need names – then keep driving. Even though he feared he could make it to the other side of the world, find Valen waiting; dead white and red grinning.
The girl stirs in fitful sleep. The gauze on her neck browning. Her face is shiny, the bruises like glossy ink stains. There’s a flush spreading up her neck, angry like nettle-rash. He wonders if she’s sick. He pushes the car harder. The night approaches, a gravid grey sky promising snow. A white shroud to cover his passage, or bury him.
Blessed Sisters Convent, Crow Hills - March, 1994
There’s nothing unusual about that morning. Nothing portentous to herald events to follow: a storm for example, or a strange murmuration of birds. It’s unseasonably cold. Sudden-frost peaceful. The kitchen windows are gauzy, the terracotta tiles seeping chill through my slippers as I set the kettle on the stove.
Outside, the henhouse looms beyond an ocean of silvered lawn. I unearth a down-filled coat from the crammed cloakroom, pull on wool socks and my snow-boots. When I open the kitchen door, misguided Spring air careens into the relatively warm space like bats whirling out of a cave. I grab the egg basket, take a determined frigid breath and slip into silver silence.
Before I step onto the crackling lawn, something catches my eye. Unnaturally bright against the shingle separating building from grass. I drop the egg basket, gasp a lungful of frost. A saffron-yellow sleeping bag wraps a bundle of plaid blankets wraps a muslin swaddling cloth patterned with green giraffes.
Wraps a baby in a rose-print romper, pink socks, crocheted cap. Her serene face the same icicle-blue as her eyes - which are wide open with frost-limned lashes. I place my hand on the tiny chest, sorrow tearing through my thick layers.
Then the baby blinks, lashes crackling, and smiles up at me.
Blessed Sisters Convent, Crow Hills – February 2006
Sister Mary Eleanor
She squats in mud, and worse, gunsmoke hair veiling her face, hands glimmering black in the moonlight. A pig leaches its last, throat gaping red. She looks up with eyes like artic waters, moon-washed fangs withdrawing; even from the fence, I hear them click home. My arrival is her warning that Dawn is coming, the cosset of night unfurling. She comes to me across the mud, the sweetest smile on her bloodied face. She calls me Melly – a leftover from when she was struggling with all our double names – reaches for me.
Back in the cottage we share on Convent grounds, I tuck her bedcovers, feel the developing musculature beneath. I also know the fragility within. She feels rejection as any other child, the Sisters’ enduring fear torments her at times, and she often queries her place in the world. I have little to offer but pigs and unflinching love.
Bathed and no longer sullied, her skin shines like oyster-shell lining. Her hair washed and brushed is the violet-grey of wood pigeons, smells of blueberries. I finger curl it as I read to her – a story of plucky girls and ponies that I know she’s bored of, still she presses her white fingers to the colourful drawings. Lingering on the jolly yellow sun, the tanned faces of grinning girls. The bright colours aren’t reflected in her winter-sky eyes.
Soon I hear birds waking, Dawn gilding the sky beyond the window – the merest sliver of tangerine light edges the shutters. Her bed, in the far corner of the room, is cloaked in darkness when I extinguish the candles. I kiss her cold forehead. Seraphina. My child. God-given I believed, to swell my deflated heart – a lost infant son having drained it of meat and blood. An unbearable pain that led me to the service of God. I had given myself over then, yet years in the Convent still left me unfulfilled. Until that frosty morning had revealed my purpose, wrapped in green giraffes.
In the kitchen, I look out on the sun-washed garden, remember the day we learned what she was. She’d been sick for five days, repelling all the formula we gave her in violent heaves. The doctor was on his way from Crow Hills. She was floppy in my arms, crying with hunger, her skin clammy, almost translucent. I swaddled her in the pram, thinking I’d take her through the garden, maybe the warmth, the brightness of the air, would soothe her. Maybe encourage some colour on to her strange skin.
Then the terrible squalling when the pram passed from the shade of the house to midday sunlight. A sound of rage that was impossible to fully express as an infant, scattered the hens, started the pigs squealing. Her skin had reddened and blistered; her bare toes charring before I’d dragged the pram back into the house, yelling in panic. The other Sisters wheeled and screeched like beachside gulls, backed away from the pram as if it were toxic. As if a monster lay wriggling in a daisy-print dress.
I leaned close, pulled aside the blankets, watched mesmerised as burned skin healed – briefly turning the peach-pink of a normal baby, before returning to white. Two tiny needle-teeth burst from her gums, snapped on my wrist, drawing scarlet beads. She sucked at them urgently, her sharp blue eyes spilling tears. I heard her swallow. I ignored the stinging pain, the fearful chatter of the Sisters behind me, let the baby suckle. In that moment, connected by teeth and flesh, I knew what was required of me. I’d spend my life protecting her. Whatever she was.
We cancelled the doctor’s visit, treated my wounds, placed an order with the butcher. The baby slept in shadowed peace. She hasn’t known hunger since.
Blessed Sisters Convent, Crow Hills – November, 2010
Sister Mary Eleanor
I make my way stiffly to the kitchen window, blanket worn like a cloak, heavy mug warming my hands. Night came fast today, brought an ice-filled wind to rattle the old cottage. Seraphina had stoked the fire, added logs; flames enlivening her eyes to ocean jade. I’d seen worry pulling at those eyes, carving lines beside her mouth. She didn’t want to leave me on such a night. She had to.
I sip my tea, longing for its warmth to wrap my bones, soothe the ragged pain, the wretched contortions. She comes to stand beside me, winter pouring from her skin. Taller than me now, as I bend to the will of my skeleton, she’s taut and lean as a predator, her hair in a long plait that reaches her waistband.
She gives me a gentle squeeze, kisses me on the forehead as I did every night of her childhood. I can feel her heart, crashing inside her like a chained beast – the night is calling her. The forest, emerald-dark and filled with blood, is calling her. I press my tea-warmed hand to her cheek, smile, nod. Then she’s through the door, the garden, the darkness. Gone like Autumn. Leaving feathers of frost to melt on the tiles. I imagine I hear the scream of rabbits, of a deer. I imagine I hear my child feeding. Surviving.
I crumple then, drop onto a hard kitchen chair. Cry out at more than just the pain. Have I been wrong to isolate her? So that survival is all she knows? Every mother wants their child to thrive. To live and love. Yet my child is of the night, with the longest night yet to come. When she’ll find herself alone. She needs to be ready for a world beyond the Convent grounds. I have so much to teach her, and, as winter gnaws my crumbling bones, I fear not much time.
Woodland 200 miles Northwest of Crow Hills - June, 2013
The night is sticky but beneath the interlocked branches, there is shadowed respite. My eyes reveal the endless shades of green, the owls and rabbits and scattering bugs, the bright campion and sorrel. I have fed, stripped the last from small bones, filled a bottle from a stream. I recover my backpack from a gnarled wound in the trunk of a sessile oak. Wetting a worn flannel, I clean the day’s filth from my skin, scrub hard at my face. I brush my teeth, comb out my hair.
I miss Melly’s fingers separating the strands, tutting at the entangled leaves and bits of moss, her tortoiseshell comb tugging. I miss her warm, whiskey-mint breath on the back of my neck. I miss the certainty of her. My mother is dead.
Both my mothers are dead.
My birth took the first. That’s all we ever knew. Age took the second. Melly promised I was ready as her breath faltered, ended on my cheek. I’d held her arthritic hands until she was as cold as me, then wrapped her in blankets, left her for the Sisters to find: swaddled on the shingle as I had been. I’d killed with a new brutality that night, screaming into blood-filled holes, pulverising bone with my fists. I am ready. Just not for what Melly envisaged for me.
Alone now, away from the sanctuary of my childhood, I search for my place in the world, and my maker. A creature that ruined my mother, created a twisted thing in her womb. Destroyed her. I want to know who she was, before him, who my father was. I want to know if there are others like me – neither one thing nor another. More than anything, I want to know what it feels like to kill something other than pigs and rabbits – I want his blood in my mouth. For her.
I travel miles under nightfall’s protection, feed on the forest and back alleys, sleep in shadows. I have a scent of him, getting stronger, and a driving rage.
Smoke City – July, 2013
Dawn triggers the shutters; heavy metal sheets descend over all the windows, keeping the house firmly in the night. It took almost ten years to find Warlow, but time was nothing to his kind, and he was particularly relentless. By then, the shelter in Crow Hills had been long abandoned, no records remained. A small stone in a Potter’s Field all that marked the end of the trail. Nothing to speak of her growing secret, unknown to him when he arranged her disposal. A secret that had consumed him since Warlow spluttered it from his ruined mouth.
His investigator had finally found a trace of that secret. A delivery driver dropping groceries at the Convent believed he’d seen evidence of a child: clothing hanging on a washing line, a nun hastily unpegging, hiding it under bedsheets. It was hardly compelling. A recent visit to the Convent, a thorough search as the Sisters huddled in the kitchen, cowed by men and weapons, revealed little more. Even guns can’t compete with God – the Sisters resolutely silent.
Still, Valen smiled when his investigator reported back, promising to continue the search. Smiled because he knew the search would soon be over. He could smell her, a novel scent increasing with intensity; acrid with rage and crushing purpose. The child was coming. His child in blood delivered, was coming. She was an anomaly, unprecedented. The mystery of her made him feel something he hadn’t had even a hint of in over a hundred years. It spider-crawled across his cold flesh, made his fangs shiver in his jaws. Fear.
Derelict House on the Outskirts of Smoke City - July, 2013
The cellar is rank with mould, musty with old animal carcasses – and black as pitch; not a thread of morning light penetrating. My maker’s stink is more prevalent now, a corrupted ruby stain on the breeze, it roils the rat blood and marrow in my stomach.
I take one of Melly’s cardigans from my backpack; egg-yellow as the sun in storybooks, it enwraps me in her lingering scent. I close my eyes, cover my nose with the rough wool - honeysuckle lotion and liniment, woodsmoke, a whisper of dried blood on the cuffs. For a moment, I’m back in the cottage, snow on the window-ledges, blueberry shampoo frothing, her laughter making everything warm. Her love making everything safe. Without her, I have no protector. For me.
For everyone else.
I have only my strange, abhorrent ancestry and a burning agony inside. To find. To bite.
Morning sings and buzzes beyond the cellar doors. I drift to sleep imagining warm lips on my forehead. When my hunt is over, my vengeance done, I’ll do what Melly wanted me to do, from the moment she lifted me from frost-spackled shingle, her tears diamonds in the winter light.
JP Relph is a working-class writer embracing the bleak cold of North West England. Her writing journey began in 2021 with Writers HQ and is mostly hindered by four cats and aided by copious tea. She loves murder programmes, zombies and Marvel. A forensic science degree and a passion for microbes, insects and botany often motivate her words, which can be found in The Fantastic Other, Molotov Cocktail, Ram Eye Press and others.
She can be found on Twitter.