The Love of Monsters

As Halloween approaches, everyone is getting prepared in the fairly typical ways. We’re all fine-tuning our costumes, decorating our houses, and, if you’re anything like me, watching a lot of horror or monster movies.

Personally speaking, I’ve always been drawn to horror movies – or, really anything with a monster in it. And, more than that, I’ve always been drawn to the monsters themselves. I didn’t just love vampires and witches and shape-shifters – growing up, I wanted to be one. My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with these stock characters of film and literature, but it’s only really been recently that I’ve found myself questioning – why? What is it about these characters that draws me – or, more generally, that draws us to them? I mean, there must be something, considering we have a whole day (or, for some, a whole month) dedicated to them.

The stock-answer that many have come up with is simply that we as a species enjoy being scared. Being scared produces adrenaline, which leaves us with a nice “whew-I-totally-escaped-that-killer-even-though-there-was-no-actual-danger” feeling afterwards. But, truth be told, in my case at least, I don’t think that fully grasps where my obsession with these characters comes from. I mean, sure, if I actually met up with a vampire in real life, I’d probably be crumbling to my knees and begging for my life (seriously, it wouldn’t be very pretty), but I’m well aware that the chances of that actually happening are pretty slim. And yet, that doesn’t stop me from turning on Lost Boys or Interview With The Vampire – and not just in October either. I’m talking about a year-round obsession here. A year-round obsession with something that, supposedly, is intended to scare me, but by my 111th-viewing of Lost Boys, it’s sort of lost its initial edge.

So why do we keep going back to these figures?

Well, the next answer that I could think of for this would be that monsters often symbolize for us the forbidden, but I’d even take that a step further – monsters symbolize transgression.

Ever since childhood, the monsters were the only characters that I saw on screen that were allowed to transgress.

Witches, for example, are often represented, not only as strong women, but as unashamedly strong women. Women who keep only female company (interpret that how you will), and who don’t worship the Christian God, and who forego the act of having children. Women who are learned and down-to-earth and free with their bodies and their sexuality. There’s a reason why many feminists identify strongly with witches.

Vampires are often associated with sexuality, due to that whole penetration-exchange-of-fluids thing. Sometimes, such as in Bram Stocker’s Dracula, this sexuality is merely supposed to be interpreted as deviant-outside-of-wedlock-not-for-the-purposes-of-conception-sexuality. Sometimes, such as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, this sexuality is supposed to be interpreted as same-sex-sexuality. Either way, vampires are usually allowed to operate under rules that society restricts humans from, and these rules are often sexual in nature, or at the very least carefree and fun, rarely producing any serious consequences (unless you count getting staked through the heart as a serious consequence).

And even for the monsters that are a little bit less fun to imagine yourself as, they still force us to operate by rules that society restricts us from. Stories of possession force the possessed to reveal sides of themselves they never would have. Zombie stories quite literally force us to imagine what we would do if there was no society to restrict us. And good, old-fashioned werewolf stories are, as we all know, supposed to explore the more animalistic side of humanity.

Growing up and watching these movies, the heroes were all pretty much one-note: strong, tough, fearless, quick-witted, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men or emotional, nurturing, white, heterosexual, able-bodied women. They weren’t really allowed to stray much in their character from story-to-story. The monster, however, could be anything. And now that I’m older, I know that the reason why the monster could be anything is because the monster is supposed to be disgusting and terrifying, and through their transgression, they have earned their punishment. But nonetheless, along my journey into becoming an unashamedly feminist, bisexual woman with mental illness, I had these monster movies to identify with.

And, I mean, yes, it’s a shame that Nancy gets hospitalized at the end of The Craft, but isn’t she just so badass before she does?

And, yes, it’s always sad to read about Carmilla being murdered at the end of Carmilla, but until then, she’s fucking awesome!

And truth be told, I think this touches on the reason why many of us enjoy monsters stories: because many of us relate to the monster. Even if it’s just some small part of us, no one feels like they completely fit in, and no one feels universally beloved and valued. Therefore, when we see a character that is literally hunted down for who they are, we can relate. Because many of us have at least felt as though we are expected to shave off parts of ourselves to fit into society’s mould.

Therefore, we take one of two approaches to the monster: we are saddened by their ultimate downfall, or we take comfort from the knowledge that they had to be destroyed for society’s own good, just like those parts of ourselves that we rejected.

But, for me, these monsters will always hold a special place in my heart because of that sense of identity, that shared feeling of being hunted down and hated by society. And I mean, sure, I understand that they went a little too far when they went to the lengths of murder, and I understand that they earn their punishments because of that, but still, it’s all a fantasy, right? It’s still fun to pretend, just for a little bit, that you do exist in the media.

And that isn’t to say that representation isn’t improving in the media. It is, especially as we continue talking about it. And hopefully, in the future, young, feminist, bisexual girls with budding mental illness will be able to see themselves in the media without that exact character being punished for who they are. Hopefully, we will reach a place in society where the hero is allowed to transgress just as much as the monster is.

But until then, the approach of Halloween gives me an excuse to settle down with a good book or turn on the TV, and catch up with my old friends.

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Porcelain Tales: the Feral Child

In my house, there is a collection of porcelain dolls that have been painted to appear grotesque, terrifying, or simply creepy. The following stories are inspired by each of these dolls.

 

Alice was always such a good girl. Ask anyone, and they’d tell you. She was the light of her mother’s life – from the very moment that she slithered from her womb, her mother had decided that Alice was the most beautiful, sweet, intelligent girl that there ever was.

“Have you ever seen a child so perfect?” Her mother would ask as she adjusted Alice’s little, white bonnet, pinching her chubby, pink cheeks.

“Never, my dear. Never,” Alice’s father would say, and he truly did agree completely. She was a wonderful child in his eyes – so quiet and obedient and respectful, just the way that a young girl should be. He liked so much to talk about Alice with his friends – all of whom had sons, yes, but they didn’t have Alice.

“Alice will make herself a fine wife someday,” he’d say proudly whenever the topic of children came up. “You’ve never seen a girl so beautiful – she could marry anyone she wants. She’ll be a rich man’s wife, I’m telling you. Never have to work a day in her life.”

And for the first fourteen years of Alice’s life, she never did. She played with the other kids (never too roughly, of course), she learned her sewing and her catechisms from her governess with nothing but quiet respect, and she did all of this without getting her stockings dirty or her hands darkened. She was such a lovely, well-spoken, beautiful child. Just ask anyone.

Ask Auntie May who lived down the street. She wasn’t really Alice’s aunt, of course, but you’d never know that from the way that Alice spoke to her. She always had a kind word and a wave to pay to her as she passed, and when Auntie May went away, from the age of eight, Alice was already offering to watch over her cats for her.

Ask the boys who played with Alice. Not all of them were as nice or well-behaved as Alice was. Some of them would try to steal a kiss or peek up her skirts, but Alice would always politely and respectfully ask them not to, holding her skirts tight around her legs like the good little girl that she was. Good little girls don’t let boys get away with that. Good little girls always save themselves for marriage.

Ask anyone at all, really, but whatever you do, don’t ask the boy down the dark alley in the back of the carnival, and don’t ask the people who were there that night. They don’t know. That wasn’t Alice.

Because, you see, there was one night when Alice went to the carnival all alone. Nobody really knows why – perhaps her mother and father were busy that evening, and perhaps her friends were all gone too. Or perhaps, at fourteen years old, she just figured that she was old enough to handle herself – young girls are often stupid like that. It was very uncharacteristic of Alice anyway, for she knew that good little girls don’t go anywhere alone at night. Only bad girls do that, girls who put their very life in their hands, and who know what to expect if the wolves catch them alone.

And that’s exactly what happened to Alice that night – walking through the carnival in her bright, scarlet hood, she was caught by a wolf in a dark alley.

“Hello, little girl,” the wolf said, giving her a smile so wide that it nearly split his face in two. His teeth were so sharp, and his eyes were so wild, and Alice must have known that this wasn’t someone she could speak to, but, polite little girl as she was, she smiled back anyway.

“Hello,” she said in her small, sweet, singsong voice.

“You look lonesome,” the wolf said, “here at the carnival all alone.”

“Not really. I often find my own company very rewarding,” Alice said.

“Well, I suppose it is better than the company of others. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Alice said nothing. She did agree, but like a good little girl, she would never speak ill of the people closest to her.

“Other people can be so tiring,” the wolf continued. “All of their ideas. All of their expectations. It gets exhausting trying to live up to them, doesn’t it? Trying to be what they want you to be, rather than what you truly are.”

“I don’t try to be anything,” Alice said, which was true. Alice was a good little girl. That was simply what she was, heart, body, and soul.

The wolf, however, laughed at Alice’s truth, his cruel, sharp fangs glistening bright in the moonlight. They looked like diamonds, Alice thought, and for a brief moment, she wanted them like diamonds. She wanted their beauty, their shine, their life. But then Alice remembered who she was, and she stopped wanting them immediately.

“Why don’t you come here for a moment, little girl?” the wolf asked, shuffling aside to make room for her in the shadows.

“No, thank you,” Alice said.

“And why not?”

Because I don’t want to, is what Alice should have said, but for whatever reason, she didn’t. Maybe she figured it would be impolite. Maybe – and I shudder even to say it – maybe she knew that it would be a lie. Either way, she remained silent, standing there transfixed by the wolf.

“I won’t hurt you, little girl, I promise. I’ll be good,” said the wolf. “Just… just come in here, just for a moment. Just this one time, do what you want to do – not what you should.”

Now this is the part of the story where Alice stops being Alice, because try as I might, I can’t give you a reason for what she did next. It was so unlike her, so wrong, but as true as the moon is large, Alice stepped into the shadows with the wolf, hesitating only a moment before she joined him.

“You see?” the wolf said with a pleased little growl in his throat. “It isn’t so bad here, is it?”

The wolf loomed large over Alice, the poor, trembling creature caught in his presence and his stench. But she didn’t try to fight him as he sunk those shining fangs deep into her neck, and for whatever reason, she allowed her blood to fill his mouth. The wolf lifted his arm next, and with one sharp, ugly, crooked claw, he opened a vein, and then it was Alice’s turn to loom over him, pressing her sweet, pink lips to his skin and drinking deep. It was a messy business, all of it, and by the time that it was through, Alice’s nice, white dress had been stained for the very first time.

This was a sad, cruel day, my friends, and I wish that I could say that it ended there. After all, the wolf was pleased – he had gotten all he wanted, and nothing more needed to happen from them on. It was Alice, sweet, good, pure Alice, who was dissatisfied. She continued to drink from the wolf’s arm until he started to protest, until he tried to pry her off of him, until he grew weak and could no longer bear to move. She was still trying to lap blood from his veins, even after he was already dead.

Then Mr. Tory – poor, curious Mr. Tory – recognized the shine of Alice’s scarlet hood in the shadows, and just as any kind-hearted, concerned man might do, he decided to investigate. He shined his lamp-light on the shadows, and there Alice was, curled over the wolf’s body, her white face turned red with his blood, and at the sight of Mr. Tory, she snarled at him. He had not even the chance to scream before Alice was on him, sinking her new shining, diamond-hard fangs into any patch of flesh she could find until blood came squirting into her mouth.

There was a panic then – people running and screaming, trying to shield their good, innocent children from the horror before them, trying to pry Alice off of him but to no avail. When she grew tired of Mr. Tory, she turned upon the next person who was just trying to help, biting into his throat with such vigour that she nearly tore it right out.

Nobody could stop Alice. Her hunger was insatiable, and as small and slight as she was, she was stronger than any brave man who tried to stop her. She lunged from victim to victim, hunting them out when warm blood grew sparse, snarling and spiting and biting like a rabid dog – not like a child. Not like good, sweet Alice.

The terror only ended when the sun emerged from the horizon, and Alice burned away to nothing more than thin, black ash, scattered by the soft breeze. It was a horrible sight to behold, and people would speak about it long afterward in whispered tones, only half-believing what they said themselves. When they spoke about it, nobody used Alice’s name, maybe because nobody truly believed that it was Alice. Maybe it was too difficult to reconcile the image of the sweet, innocent girl with that of the monster who had killed so many that night. And that was what they called her too – the monster. The beast who gobbled down life like wine.

“Do you know what the worst part is?” some would say, whispering it only in private, only in the light of the white moon, only when they were far from church and all of its teachings. “When the sun rose, in the brief moment before she caught fire, I don’t think she regretted any of it. In fact, I saw her there, looking not at her own death, but at the deaths she had caused, and she didn’t cry or moan. No, when the sun rose, she laughed.”

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Porcelain Tales: the Bride

In my house, there is a collection of porcelain dolls that have been painted to appear grotesque, terrifying, or simply creepy. The following stories are inspired by each of these dolls.

 

You are invited to the wedding

Joining the lives of

Miss. Lisa Jackson

and

Mr. John Woodhouse

Wednesday, April 6 1966

Reception to follow

Aren’t they lovely? I made them myself. Spent the better part of the day on them, too. I asked John if he wanted to help, but he said that women enjoy this sort of thing more than men do, and I’m sure he’s right. John knows all sorts of things like that. He’s very intelligent, you see.

The invitations are a crucial part of the wedding, of course. They’re the first things your guest sees, so they have to be perfect. Beautiful enough to be eye-catching, but never gaudy. Sweet enough to be endearing, but simple too. There’s a line, you see, and it’s important never to cross it. Once you cross the line, then that’s it – you’re a laughing stock, and the whole thing goes down the drain!

And that’s not going to happen. Not today. Because today is my wedding day, and everything is going to go precisely as planned.

Really, I can’t believe it’s here already! All my life, I’ve been planning this day, ever since I was a little girl. A lot of these women nowadays, they talk about getting an education and a job and all sorts of things, but I knew what I wanted to be right from the beginning. I wanted to be a good wife to a great man, and I wanted to raise his wonderful kids to go out and change the world. That’s all I ever wanted. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for, really.

I do understand why some might think it’s a lofty dream for me. What do I know about being a good wife and mother, really, when I didn’t have any good role models for it growing up? I don’t want to dwell on it long – John brings it up more than enough already – but I can’t deny that Daddy was a mean, mean man, and Mommy wasn’t around long enough for me to know her. Sometimes, John asks me why I even want a family, knowing what my own was like, but I do. I want a family, just like the ones on the television, or the ones that I’d see in the malls. The pretty families, where the wife has her hair curled just so, and the husband is strong and kind and protective, and no matter what trouble the kids get into, they can figure it all out together. I want that. Not the train wreck I grew up in – I want a family all my own. I will have a family all my own.

From the moment that I met John, I knew that he was the kind of husband I had been looking for. He was strong from the very beginning, but kind too – and tragically, tragically handsome. He reminded me a bit of James Stewart – that same good charm, that same kind soul. He did all those things for me that girls only dream about – picked me up from my house with roses, complimented me so often that I couldn’t help but believe him, dropped me off afterward not a minute later than he promised. Everyone agreed that he was a good man, and that he and I were perfect for each other.

Within three months, he proposed, and I didn’t even think of saying no!

We agreed on a long engagement, because I wanted to savour every minute of preparation. Nothing can be rushed, I told him. Everything needs to be perfect. I could tell that he wasn’t as interested in wedding planning as I was, but I didn’t expect him to be. I could handle it all by myself. After all, this was what I was born to do.

I suppose that I underestimated just how much he wasn’t interested in wedding planning, though. And perhaps it was my fault, pestering him night and day the way I did, but before long, he started to snap back at me whenever I brought up the wedding, occasionally being somewhat rude about it too.

“Why is it that the only thing you want to talk about is that stupid wedding?” he asked me once, to which my reply was prompt and prepared.

“It’s our wedding, dear,” I said, “and it’s coming up sooner than you think.”

“I’d hardly call two years ‘sooner than you think’,” he grumbled under his breath.

Before long, the snapping back and the rude comments turned into blatant insults – both at me and at our wedding. It was my fault, of course. I should have known how uncomfortable it made him, should have stopped talking about it, but I couldn’t. I was a woman possessed, seeing nothing but cakes and dresses and flower girls when I closed my eyes. And as much as it hurt me whenever John called me a ‘stupid girl’, or told me that I didn’t even know what I was talking about, I still couldn’t seem to shut my mouth.

Now, I know, it sounds like I was being a bad woman to John, and you might start to hate me for it, but I swear I wasn’t. In every other respect, I was perfect. I cleaned house for him while he was at work. Dinner was always on the table promptly when he got home. I never cried in front of him, and I never nagged or whined. I did everything exactly as I was supposed to. That is, until he crossed that line.

I noticed first that he was staying at work later and later all the time. He’d come home, and he’d brush right passed me, heading straight for the shower, but it didn’t matter. I could still smell the perfume on him as he passed by.

I didn’t ask him outright at first – I didn’t want to seem paranoid, after all. But I did give subtle hints – asking him why work was keeping him so late now, if he had any new projects that kept him so busy, stuff like that. But my questions brought me nothing more than half-answers, so I did the next most reasonable thing: I got out the car, parked across the street from his office, and watched him. I watched him leave at his regular time. I watched him meet up with that red-haired tramp from the hair dressers next door, watched him greet her with a kiss. He couldn’t have been more obvious if he had torn her clothes off right then and there – and in public, too, when everyone knew that he was my husband!

I didn’t do anything then. I waited until he got home, and as he walked through the door, I slapped him good across the face.

I’ll spare you the details of the argument that followed. Suffice it to say that it was ugly, and I’m not proud of it. Some words were said that can’t be taken back – things like “I never wanted to marry you” (from John, of course), and “I only proposed to you because you made me feel like I had no other choice” (John again). I think I was the one who grabbed the kitchen knife first, but at some point, John got it from me. He snatched it from my hand, and he opened my throat with it.

But, of course, John didn’t mean it. He loves me. It was just a bad argument – all couples have those, even the pretty ones. So when I woke up, I just knew he’d be relieved to see me again. He hadn’t meant to kill me. He didn’t really want me to leave.

I woke up in my grave – and that was an unpleasant experience as well, let me tell you! It was terribly dark in there, and though I couldn’t see them, I could feel the worms wriggling around me, the bugs crawling over me, the maggots hatching in my newly rotting flesh. But whatever brought me back also seemed to make me stronger than before, and it was nothing at all to dig my way through the loose soil and back onto solid ground. And after that, there was only one thing left to do: I had to get back to John. I just had to marry him.

I found him at home, as I knew I would at that hour of night. He was sitting in front of the television with a beer in his hand, looking so cute and tired after his long day’s work. I didn’t allow myself to wonder if he had seen her – the red-haired tramp – today. There was no point in welcoming such ugly thoughts. Instead, I moved quickly to the door, tearing it open with expectations of nothing but joy and relief from the man who loved me and wanted nothing more than to see me again.

That isn’t what I got, however. One look at me, and John began screaming. I tried to talk to him, to reason with him, but he was beyond all reason. When I reached for him, he dodged my hand. No one should have to see a loved one do such a thing.

Eventually, John barricaded himself in the bathroom, locking the door so I couldn’t get in. I could, of course. I could punch straight through the wood as though it were nothing but water, but I didn’t tell him that. The poor dear was over-excited already.

“I really don’t know why you’re making such a fuss, dear,” I yelled to him through the wood. “It’s me. It’s Lisa. I know that we had a bit of a fight before, but that’s all behind us now. Isn’t it?”

“No!” John yelled back, and his voice was high and frightened – not at all the picture of manliness that I had come to expect from him. “You’re dead! You’re dead, Lisa, and this… whatever this is… this isn’t natural!”

“This is love, John. I came back because I love you. Because I want us to be together.”

“That’s a lie! You don’t love me! You love marriage! You love the idea of me!”

Now how could he say such a thing? He wasn’t thinking clearly – was obviously confused. Though why he would be confused was completely beyond me. He wasn’t the one who had the most important person in the world cut his throat. He wasn’t the one who had woken in a fresh grave!

“So just go back, Lisa,” John continued, his voice growing steadier, calmer, a bit more confident. “Go back to wherever you were, and stay there. There’s nothing for you here anymore.”

“There’s you,” I mumbled, hurt. “There’s our wedding.”

“There can’t be a wedding anymore, Lisa! You’re dead.”

He was right, I realized then with a sudden cold, penetrating horror. I was dead, and marriage, though a beautiful, wonderful thing, though the source of all of my potential happiness, was conditional. It only lasted so long. Till death do us part, the vows said, and in his hurt and anger, John had made sure that death would part them forever.

I stepped back from the door, disgusted at last by the man who had done this to me. In that moment, I hated him for taking my dreams away. The only thing I had ever wanted, the meagre goal that I had set for myself, all gone because of his stupidity. I wanted to break through that door and hurt him, to pull him apart limb-from-limb while he lay screaming, so that he could know how it felt to lose something important to him!

But perhaps I was being too harsh. Perhaps this wasn’t as irreparable as it seemed. After all, the vows referred only to one death, to the loss of one party, separating them inevitably between heaven and earth. But if both parties were dead… If there was no need for death to separate them…

Laughter bubbled up within me, erupting from my mouth in a high-pitched sudden shriek. That was it, I realized, retreating from the bathroom door to get the cleaver from the kitchen. That was how I could still get everything I want.

So I grabbed the cleaver, headed straight to the bathroom, knocked down the door with one blow, and severed John’s head from his body. He screamed at first, but he’s much more silent now. He won’t tell me as much, but I think that he’s happy. Really, I think this is what he wanted all along. Without a body, he has no excuse to run to that red-haired tramp of his, after all. He’s free to devote himself only to me, like he always wanted to.

And just to be safe, I carved out his heart before disposing of the body. I’ll be eating that in place of cake during the reception, to make sure it always belongs to me only.

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Porcelain Tales: the Countess

In my house, there is a collection of porcelain dolls that have been painted to appear grotesque, terrifying, or simply creepy. The following stories are inspired by each of these dolls.

 

I should have been grateful to be in the Countess’ employment. I wanted to be grateful. But the truth was, I’d never been more terrified about anything in all my life.

Mother, of course, thought I was being silly.

“When I was a girl, it was a rare privilege to be servant to a Countess, you know, and it’s a good job, by all accounts. You get some decent money to send back home. You maintain a bit of your dignity, unlike those godless whores selling themselves on the street. Really, you should be grateful, my girl.”

“But how can it be a rare privilege,” I returned timidly, “if the Countess already employs half the maidens in the village?”

Mother didn’t have an answer to that. She just muttered something about me being ungrateful and then made it clear that I didn’t have a choice in the matter. I was going, and there was to be no further discussion.

And maybe I wouldn’t be so concerned, if it wasn’t for the rumours that I heard in the village. I didn’t mean to hear them, of course – Mother said that they were a dirty thing to hear. Lies, all of them, all meant to slander a woman who had been nothing but good to us. But, of course, one can’t help but hear things when they’re said so often.

“Young Miss. Emilie was in the Countess’ employment,” said one girl in the market, as I was simply passing through to buy some cloth, “and she hasn’t been heard from since she left!”

“I’m sure she’s just busy with her duties,” said the perfectly reasonable woman to whom she was talking. “The Countess is a busy woman, and I’m sure she keeps her servants just the same.”

“Then why hasn’t she so much as written to her family? Why is their every inquiry about her met with silence and evasion?”

“Well, they’re still being paid for her service, aren’t they?”

“Last I heard, they were.”

“Then I’m sure that everything’s fine. Like I said, the Countess is a busy woman.”

Miss. Emilie wasn’t the only girl to leave for the Countess’ service and never come back though. It had become something of a cliche in our village, to the point that some referred to the invitation for service as “the kiss of death”. Mother didn’t believe any of that though. When I received my invitation, Mother was ecstatic.

And so when the Countess’ carriage came for me, I was all ready to go. My best gowns were packed away (“you need to make a good impression on the Countess,” Mother said), and I hesitated only long enough to kiss Mother and Father and young Robert goodbye. My hands trembled all the while, though, and I hoped beyond anything that I saw them again.

The carriage was driven by an old gentleman with a rather kindly face, who recognized my fear with a reassuring smile. He didn’t say much, but he took me to the secluded mansion of the Countess without trouble, driving through hills and forests to reach it. Once we arrived, I was greeted by a woman with a stern, hard face – Mrs. MacDonald, she called herself, and I was to report to her for my duties until I was told otherwise. I didn’t really mind that arrangement, to be honest. As much as Mrs. MacDonald was unfamiliar and her voice joyless and strict, at least she wasn’t the Countess. At least, from her, I had nothing to fear.

My first few weeks in the mansion passed surprisingly uneventfully. I was put up in a room with three other girls – all of them young and agreeable. I received more letters from Mother than I had expected, and I was diligent in writing back to her as often as possible. My duties were simple, but time-consuming enough that I didn’t really have a chance to think about how strange everything was, or about how much I missed everyone back home. I might even have described myself as ‘happy’ during those first few weeks – and not once did I so much as see the Countess.

The Countess was a very busy woman, I quickly discovered – she worked all through the day, locked away in her room where no one was ever to disturb her. And then at night, she had herself dressed nicely by a few select servants (among them was Mrs. MacDonald), and then she went out, and she did not return until just before sunrise. At first, I was relieved by her schedule, because it meant that at no point would our paths cross, but after a while, I began to wonder about it. On one occasion, I even grew curious enough to ask Mrs. MacDonald what the Countess was like.

“Like no one you’ve ever met before, or will ever meet again,” Mrs. MacDonald admitted (that was the first time I had ever heard her praise anyone, and it caught by a bit off guard). “She’s a beautiful woman, and if you ever lay eyes on her, you can count yourself among God’s most fortunate creatures.”

I doubted that very much, but still, I couldn’t deny that there was something intriguing about the Countess. Just not intriguing enough to actually seek her out.

Then, a good six weeks into my service, Mrs. MacDonald charged me with a new task: I was to help the Countess get dressed for her evening.

I protested at first, but like Mother, Mrs. MacDonald made it very clear that I had no choice in the matter. Still, she seemed just as nervous to send me into the Countess’ chamber as I was to go in, and she went over every rule that I was to follow as though preparing me for battle.

“The Countess probably won’t notice you there,” Mrs. MacDonald said hurriedly. “Do not take offence to that – she has a lot of servants, and you’re only one. Chances are, you’ll be tasked with brushing out her hair. It sounds like an easy enough job, but it’s not. You need to do so with extreme caution. Do not run the brush through too fast, but do not go so slow that you bore her either. Do not make a big fuss out of matts or tangles, lest you cause offence. And most importantly of all, do not pull her hair. She gets most upset if you pull her hair.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’ll she do?”

Mrs. MacDonald gave me no answer to that.

By the time that I made it into the Countess’ chamber, I found that I was again trembling with nerves. I didn’t want to see her – I knew that now. I had been perfectly satisfied with wondering. Yet, there she was, seated on a plush stool before a large, golden vanity, already being attended by a small crowd of servants. The Countess of whom I had heard so much about.

I suppose it would be expected of me to say that she didn’t live up to expectation. Considering how everyone spoke of her, she should have been too short, or too fat, or her nose should have been sort of funny. She should have been flawed, somehow, in a way that nobody thought to mention. But she wasn’t. In fact, not only did she live up to expectation – she exceeded it entirely. Truly, she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, or will ever see again, with hair of bright, blood red tumbling all the way down to her waist, and skin so pale that it honestly reminded me of snow. There was a slight haughtiness in her face, perhaps, but she had earned the right to wear it. The very sight of her made me forget what I had come there to do, and it wasn’t until another of the servants placed a brush in my hand did I remember.

My every movement was clumsy – I tripped on my way to the Countess’ side, my hands got in the way of the other girls attending her, my brush strokes were a bit too hard, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t look away from the vanity, where the Countess’ image was reflected in the glass like a work of art. She was so beautiful, so perfect. How had I known what happiness was before her? How had I found the strength to rise out of bed, to continue with my life, without the promise of seeing her face?

Every once in a while, the Countess barked orders at the other girls, but not at me. Me, she ignored – at first, anyway. Truth be told, I was satisfied with being ignored, because if the mere image of her was enough to reduce me to such a clumsy fool, then what would speaking to her do? And then I noticed the dark eyes reflected in the mirror dart quickly in my direction, and even before the butterflies in my stomach had time to settle, she spoke in a slow, deep drawl.

“You’re new,” she said, speaking with an accent that I had never heard before and could not place (not that I knew much about foreign lands, anyway). “What’s your name?”

I obediently told her, stuttering awkwardly over it as though it were my first time speaking it.

“Pretty name,” she said with a small, oddly knowing smile, her dark eye running the full length of my image reflected in the mirror. “Pretty name for a pretty girl.”

She didn’t say anything more to me after that, but I was invited again to help her dress the following night, and every night after that, too. I gathered from Mrs. MacDonald that that was a rare privilege – most of the girls who dressed her did not do so regularly, but were invited up every once in a while as a treat.

At first, the Countess acknowledged me no more than anyone else, commenting only on how ‘pretty’ I was when her eye did fall on me. After a while, she then started to ask me questions about myself – simple things, like who Father was and what he did, what family I had back at home, if I was enjoying my work in the mansion. I answered them all eagerly, my voice trembling more than I’d care to admit, but she never laughed at my nerves. If anything, she seemed to find them endearing, smiling so sweetly at me while I spoke.

It took me a long time to get comfortable enough to ask her questions, but I wanted to. More than anything, I wanted to get to know her, to speak to her as an equal, to understand her the way that no other servant did. And so once day, although the butterflies in my stomach raged so desperately that I thought they might tear me open, I decided that I would.

“Where do you come from?” I asked her, my voice small and timid.

The Countess’ dark eyes shot in my direction almost cruelly, and I would have shrunk back if I could. She didn’t seem to want to answer my question, and I was prepared to accept silence, when suddenly she said, “a long way from here, pretty girl.”

“Do you ever miss it?” I asked.

Another servant was brushing the Countess’ hair on the other side. She was a new girl, and I could tell she wasn’t doing a very good job – tugging a bit too tightly, because the Countess kept squirming. With a brief glare in the new girl’s direction, the Countess answered me: “desperately.”

“Why don’t you go ba-”

“Stupid girl!” the Countess screamed suddenly, erupting to her feet. At first, I thought she was talking to me, and I fell backward against the ground in my fear. Yet, it was to the new girl that the Countess directed her cruel, cold glare. “You nearly pulled my hair clean out!”

The girl was frightened: she couldn’t have been older than fourteen, standing there small and trembling beneath the Countess’ shadow. “I-I-I’m sorry, mistress,” she squeaked out, staring up at her with eyes so wide that they might have rolled right out of her skull. “It w-won’t happen again, I prom-”

Out!” the Countess screamed. “Everybody out!”

I didn’t move at first, frozen against the floor with my eyes on the Countess – the beautiful, perfect, kind Countess who had so suddenly become so terrible. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t accept it.

“You too, pretty girl,” the Countess said in a low growl, and it was then that I realized that I was the last remaining servant in the room – with the exception, of course, of the new girl, standing there trembling, whimpering, awaiting my leave so that she could receive her due punishment. I was struck with an urge to remain, to help that poor girl however I could, but I couldn’t deny the Countess. I rose to my shaky feet and left the room, closing the door behind me – slowly, so that I could keep my eye on the new girl as long as possible.

I didn’t see her again after that.

I tried to ask around, to find out what happened to her. The new girls didn’t know, though, and the older servants only shrugged me off, mumbling the same spiel, each and every one of them: “the same thing that happens to all of them.” They wouldn’t elaborate on what that was, though, and for the first time since I had laid eyes on the Countess, I found myself reminded of the rumours I had heard before coming here, of the girls who simply went missing. Had the same thing happened to her? What had the Countess done to her?

It struck me suddenly just how little I knew about my beloved Countess. She was beautiful, yes, but that did not mean that she wasn’t capable of causing harm. Maybe she hurt these girls. Maybe she did something inexcusable, simply because she could – because these girls had been placed in her care, and she could do with them as she wished. Of course, I didn’t know any of that for sure, but no amount of logic could make those thoughts leave my mind.

That night, I asked Mrs. MacDonald to tell the Countess that I was too ill to dress her, and Mrs. MacDonald returned with the Countess’ request to see me personally. The news struck me hard, like a physical blow to the gut. This was most unusual, I knew – the Countess never asked to see servants alone. If she was asking it, then I must have done something terrible to upset her. She was going to kill me, I knew that now. Without a doubt, I would soon be among the missing girls.

I should have run away, of course, but where would I go? If the Countess knew that I had guessed her secret, then who knew what she would do to silence me? She might hunt me down to the ends of the earth – or, worse, go after my family! I considered writing a letter to Mother instead, explaining the situation – but, no. That would be just as fruitless. Who would believe me? And even if they did, what could they do? No, it would be best for me to face my fate all on my own. Face it, and be done with it.

When I came to the Countess’ chamber, I found her seated, as always, at her vanity, but the room felt eerily large and barren with only her and I in it. The door fell shut with an echoing bang, and the Countess’ eyes met my image in the mirror.

“Pretty girl,” she greeted me with a friendly smile. “Why are you so nervous, pretty girl?”

“I’m not nervous,” I said, and she gave a polite laugh in response. Of course she did – my every movement betrayed my feelings. My inability to draw too far from the door, to approach her as I usually did, it all gave me away quite clearly.

“I can hear your heart from here, pretty girl. I know you’re nervous,” the Countess said.

“Hear my-”

“Do I frighten you?”

I shook my head immediately, but I don’t think she believed that either.

“You can tell me the truth, pretty girl. We’re all alone here. Away from everything in this world – away from expectations and titles, away from humanity and its rules. It’s just you and me, and you can be honest with me. So tell me, and be as frank as you need: do I frighten you?”

Honesty did not come naturally to me, especially not with the Countess. My every instinct told me to shake my head again, but for fear of angering her, I nodded instead.

“Why?” the Countess asked. “Is it because of how I yelled at that girl?”

“Where is she?” I asked, and then, because my voice came out much too small the first time, “what did you do to her?”

“I killed her, of course,” the Countess said, so calmly and so casually that I didn’t understand at first. “I cut open her neck and I drank down her life’s blood. I wish it hadn’t had to happen, but if it hadn’t been her, then it would have been somebody else. Perhaps somebody less deserving.”

I didn’t know what to say. She had said it so quickly, so easily, that it almost didn’t seem to be important. The loss of a young girl’s life wasn’t important. That young girl, that child with a mother, father, siblings most likely, a family to provide for, wasn’t important.

“Her family will continue receiving payment from me, of course,” the Countess said then, as though she had read my mind. “I find that it’s the easiest way to keep them from asking questions. So long as they keep getting money, they assume everything’s just fine.”

“But it’s not,” I said, almost numbly. “You killed her…”

The Countess’ reflection adopted that oddly knowing smile of hers, just before she rose to her feet. She was so tall, I noticed then. I had never realized she was so tall before…

“Does that frighten you, pretty girl?” the Countess asked again, closing the distance between me and her, coming so close that I could smell her sweet perfumes and feel the absence of heat that came off of her.

“No,” I said, and I was startled to realize that that was the truth. “Unless… unless you plan to kill me too, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t,” the Countess said, taking my hair in her slender, pale hand as she walked around me, sweeping it back over my shoulder. “Not you. You’re too pretty to kill – it would be a waste.”

“Was Mrs. MacDonald too pretty to kill?” I asked. “Were the rest of the servants who have been serving you all these years too pretty to kill?”

“Are you jealous?” the Countess asked, and there was a laugh in her voice. She was mocking me, and for whatever reason, the thought of that thrilled me.

“If it helps,” the Countess added, sidling up so close against me that I could feel her pressing against my back, “you’re prettier even than them. Too pretty to kill. Too pretty to age. Too pretty to let live.”

“What options does that leave me then, mistress?” I asked.

“Only one, my pretty little companion.”

I felt her teeth slide into my throat then, felt the intense cold that overcame my limbs as my blood filled her mouth, and I let it all happen. In all of this, I at last had a choice, and I chose her.

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