Porcelain Tales: the Cracked Doll

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.

 

“Oh, this is creepy.”

I glanced in Autumn’s direction, to find her holding a porcelain doll by the waist. It was a pale doll, with long, dark ringlets, but probably its most striking feature was the thin, spidery crack that ran along the length of its Cherub-like face.

“Oh, that’s Mary-Ann,” I said. “She was here when we moved in.”

“And you just kept her? Creepy!” Autumn said, but the smile that she tossed in my direction was filled with nothing but thrill.

“I probably shouldn’t have, but it was difficult to give her up.”

“She’s probably haunted, you know.”

“She might be. But in the eight years that I’ve had her, nothing supernatural has happened.”

“Oh, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Spirits can lay dormant for a long time – years, even. Maybe you just haven’t woken her up yet.”

“And if there is a spirit in there, I’d rather leave her fast asleep.”

“Oh, come on, where’s your sense of fun?” Autumn asked with another thrilled grin in my direction.

“Fun? Have you seen Poltergeist? Tell me that if I let you play around with this doll, my house isn’t going to get sucked into some weird hell-dimension.”

“Ah-ha! So you do think this doll is haunted!”

I decided not to say any more, simply allowing Autumn to turn the doll over in her hands, taking in the detail of her sweet, Victorian dress, smoothing out her ringlets, following with her thumb the black line drawn by the crack in her glass skin. She really liked that doll, I thought with only mild annoyance.

“We could try talking to her,” Autumn suggested.

“I really doubt she’ll talk back.”

Autumn rolled her eyes at me, as though she thought that I was making a bad joke. “Not like that, silly. With a ouija board.”

My blood ran cold at the final two words. “I don’t have a ouija board,” I said quickly.

“They’re easy to make. I used to do it all the time with my cousins, down at my grandma’s cottage. Just a bit of cardboard, a marker, a kindergartener’s understanding of the alphabet, and you’re good to go.”

“And, besides, I told you that I don’t want to wake up whatever spirit is in that doll.”

“Oh, come on, it’s a doll. If it is haunted, it’s probably just a little girl or something like that. How scary are little girls?”

“Have you ever seen the Exorcist? Or the Ring?”

“Those are movies. Not real life. Ghosts can’t hurt you in real life.”

“And you’re the expert on what ghosts can do in real life, are you?”

“Come on, Maggie, please? It’ll be fun!”

Once again, I decided not to say anything, because there simply wasn’t much I could say from that point forward that wouldn’t strike Autumn was strange. All that I could do was cross my fingers and hope for the best as Autumn began scrounging about my bedroom for the tools she’d need. Before long, she had fashioned a rough ouija board from the torn-off flap on a cardboard box, and for the planchette, she grabbed a shot glass from Daddy’s cabinet. She set it all up on the floor between me and her, and at the board’s side, she set Mary-Ann with a little giggle.

“To make sure it’s her ghost we summon,” she said. “We don’t want to end up talking to just any ghost, do we?”

Autumn and I each placed a finger on the shot glass’s smooth bottom, it’s mouth open on the ouija board beneath it. Then, in a loud, clear voice, Autumn addressed the room.

“Spirits of the beyond,” she said in a mockery of a TV fortune teller’s voice, “if you are here, give us a sign!”

My heart ached tightly as I waited for something to happen. Yet, nothing did.

“If you are here,” Autumn said, “tell us your name!”

Again, nothing – for so long that I doubted anything would happen at all. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief, scolding myself for getting so worked up in the first place, when suddenly, the shot glass gave a small start and slid across the board, swallowing whole six letters written in thick, black marker.

M

A

G

G

I

E

“Maggie?” Autumn whispered in confusion, before sudden understanding lit up her eyes, and she took her hand off the shot glass to smack me hard across the arm. “Not funny, Maggie!”

Should I tell her that it wasn’t me, I wondered as I watched Autumn laugh off her nerves with good humour. Or should I let it end now, before things got too out of hand?

I didn’t have much time to wonder, however, before the shot glass began to move again. Autumn seemed not to notice it at first, but once she did, a mixture of thrill and confusion filled her eyes again, as she struggled to follow where it went.

“What did it say?” Autumn asked when the shot glass had stopped moving.

I swallowed hard. “It said, mine.”

“Mine?” Autumn repeated, placing her finger again upon the shot glass. “Mine what?”

Once again, the shot glass spelled out the same word.

M

I

N

E

“Are you the spirit in the doll?” Autumn asked.

The shot glass flew to the sprawling yes written in the top left corner of the board.

“How did you die?”

I

D

I

D

N

T

“You had to have died,” Autumn said. “Otherwise, how could you be haunting the doll?”

I

D

I

D

N

T

“Okay, then how long have you been in the doll for?”

E

I

G

H

T

“Eight years? Or since you were eight?”

E

I

G

H

T

“Maybe both?” I suggested.

“Huh,” Autumn said. “If that’s true, then she’d be the same age as us now. Tell me, Mary-Ann, how did you get into the doll?”

N

O

T

M

A

R

Y

A

N

N

“I thought you said you were the spirit haunting the doll?”

N

O

T

M

A

R

Y

A

N

N

“Okay, then who are you?”

M

A

G

G

I

E

Once again, Autumn lifted her eyes to me, but there was less understanding in them this time and more fear. “Maggie,” she said, swallowing hard, “are you sure you aren’t doing this?”

“We should stop,” I said. “This isn’t fun – it’s just frightening you now. Let’s do something else.”

“No,” Autumn said resolutely. “No, we contacted an actual spirit, and I’m going to see this through.”

“We can watch Spongebob to calm us down.”

No,” Autumn repeated. “I’m going to see this through.”

I wanted to snap at her then – to grab hold of her and rip her away from that ouija board, but I couldn’t. So instead, I just tore my hand away from the shot glass and crossed my arms tight, resolving to let her finish this all on her own if that was the way she was going to be.

With a deep breath and another hard swallow, Autumn asked again, “how did you get into the doll?”

S

H

E

P

U

T

M

E

H

E

R

E

“She put you here?” Autumn repeated. “Who’s she?”

M

A

R

Y

A

N

N

“Mary-Ann? But I thought you said-”

The shot glass became wild then, spelling out so many things that I could only piece out a few of them. She put me here, it said, and, she took it from me, and then again and again, over and over like a mantra, mine, mine, mine.

“Maggie-” Autumn mumbled in fear, jerking her hands away from the wild, darting shot glass. I didn’t let her ask anything more, though. Instead, I grabbed hold of the lamp on the table and I struck her hard across the head, so hard that it left a small dent in her skull that I noticed only after she fell against my bedroom floor, unconscious. A part of me felt bad for it, sure, but what other choice did I have? What other choice had Maggie left me? I wasn’t going back in that doll, not after eight years of freedom. Not after eight years of living her life, of being the only daughter to her loving parents, of making such great friends at her school. I had missed my chance to be a child the first time around, when my drunk whore of a mother smothered me in my bed to give me to God, and as much as it was a shame that I could only live if Maggie took my place, it was what I had to do. I needed her life. I deserved her life. After all, I was only a little girl.

the-cracked-doll

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Porcelain Tales: the Clown

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.

 

“Oh, wasn’t that little clown a riot with her juggling act? A scream for boys and girls of all ages, really! But now, folks, it’s time to welcome our final performance for the evening! This beauty will stop your heart and marvel your senses! She’ll make you fellas feel things you never knew possible, and you girlies will be aching to be her for sure, but whatever you do, do not try this at home. It is a very dangerous act, no matter how talented you are. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the mistress of the tightrope, our very own Simone! Oh, look at her up there, folks! A rare Aphrodite in her element! A swan, soaring above the rest! Watch how graceful she moves, how – oh! Just a slip of the foot there, ladies and gentlemen, nothing to be concerned about. This happens all the time, I assure y- Oh! Oh my god! Oh my god, no! Everyone, get back! Get back! Give her some room! Oh, this is terrible, this is just terrible! Is she still breathing? Oh god… Oh god…”

* * *

Even after all this time, I still made sure to sit with Simone while Dr. Engel worked on her. I don’t think she even knew I was there anymore, but still, I sat with her, clutching her thin and pale hand between my own. She was always so cold now that, really, there was no difference between when she was dead and when she wasn’t.

Dr. Engel snapped the broken bones in Simone’s neck back in place. He straightened out her limbs to make sure that they remained unharmed. There had been a couple times where he neglected that step and her legs had healed all wrong, so that she walked sort of crooked now. It wasn’t noticeable from the audience, but I couldn’t help but see it.

Then, with a few words in German or Latin or whatever language it was Dr. Engel spoke, he brought Simone back to life for the twenty-third time.

The first time, Simone hadn’t meant to fall. She was a talented tight-rope walker – had been learning pretty much from the day we joined the Circus. She had been a young and beautiful girl of twelve then, so full of life and energy that everybody gravitated toward her, and the people that she wanted to get closest to were the ones with talent. The ones who could teach her how to be a star.

I hadn’t felt such an inclination. I was just fine with sinking into the crowd, into being enveloped by the small community of clowns that the Circus harboured. While Simone was learning how to soar above the crowd, I was taught how to paint my face and juggle – but I was satisfied with that. I didn’t need to be special, not like Simone did.

And she did look beautiful on that tight-rope. She always looked beautiful, with her tight, dark ringlets that framed her pale, sweet face, but on the tight-rope, she looked at ease. Comfortable. She was where she belonged, above everyone else while they cheered and applauded her.

I was there when she fell. I was the first one to run to her side, screaming and half-crazed with horror. I took her shattered body into my arms and I rocked her back and forth, smearing white paint across her empty face. I couldn’t lose her. She was everything I had.

Simone and I had left home together when we were eight years old. We were twins, her and I, and we did everything together – everything. So when Simone told me that she was running away to join the Circus, of course I joined her. What else could I do? Stay there with papa, who drank too much, and mama, who made it very clear that she didn’t want us there anyway? No, if she left without me, then she’d be leaving me alone.

And that’s exactly what I thought she was doing that night, when she fell for the first time.

That was, until I met Dr. Engel.

The crowd produced him just as they were filing out the door, everyone with their low gazes filled with guilt and sadness, but Dr. Engel was different. He was smiling, so calm that he couldn’t possibly have realized what had happened, pleasantly requesting to talk to the man in charge.

“Great performance, old chap, great performance!” Dr. Engel greeted Mr. Sauer with a strong handshake. “Truly, I’ve never seen its like in all my days!”

“Sir,” Mr. Sauer spoke in hushed tones with a glance in my direction, as though he worried about what might happen if I overheard them. “I hardly think this is appropriate. We lost a performer tonight.”

“Yes, yes, yes, that was my favourite part!”

“Sir-“

“It was everyone else’s too, I swear! That’s the part that they’ll all be talking about tomorrow, just you wait! I’ll bet you’ll even make a bit more money tonight than usual, all those bleeding hearts wanting to help out!”

“Bastard,” I hissed out between my numb teeth. “She was my sister!”

Is your sister, my dear girl!” Dr. Engel said, turning his attention to me and Simone for the first time since he had made his presence known. “Oh, she’s dead right now, sure, but she doesn’t have to be! I can bring her back if you want!”

Dr. Engel explained everything to us then. Most of it I didn’t understand at the time – I picked up on it later, when my mind was a bit clearer. Apparently, Dr. Engel was famous in whatever country he came from for performing experiments on people. And through these experiments, he had discovered how to bring someone back from the dead, no matter how injured they had been beforehand. He could do it to Simone, he promised, but at a price – and I was willing to pay it, no matter what it was. I couldn’t be without her, after all. I couldn’t be alone.

So he brought her back to life, and the first time, she was just fine. I watched as the blood filled her cheeks once again, and she sucked in a deep breath of air. She laughed when she realized what had happened, making a joke out of her own clumsiness. She was her same old self – no differences at all. I figured that everything would just return to normal after that, and the terrible nightmare of my sister falling from the tightrope would just fade into the background like it had never happened at all.

But Dr. Engel didn’t leave the Circus after that. And the following morning, Mr. Sauer ordered us all to pack up and prepare to leave town. We still had performances scheduled for the next couple of days, but he made no mention of them – we were to leave immediately.

I tried to ignore the oddity. I spent more time with Simone than I ever had before, clinging to her so tight that it made her laugh.

“Really,” she’d say, “I’m alright. Nothing’s going to happen to me. It was all just… a bad dream, or something.”

When we arrived in the new town, everything ran as smoothly as ever. We scheduled performances, strung up posters, prepared for the show. I practiced my juggling act, and Simone walked gingerly across beams kept low to the ground. She claimed otherwise, but I think tightrope walking made her nervous after that first fall, and really, who could blame her? She had actually died. It must have been a truly terrifying experience.

Our first performance was relatively uneventful as well – until Simone’s act, that is. As always, she was the final act, and as always, she stepped out onto that tightrope dressed in her tight-fitting, pink dress. She looked like a dream, like a fairy from a children’s story – one that very quickly became a terror when she fell from the tightrope again.

I couldn’t believe it – not again. I didn’t even run to her side this time. I just stood back and watched in cold, numb horror as the crowd swelled around her, screaming, as Mr. Sauer announced his shock and grief for all to hear, as Simone became limp and empty from where she lay, crooked and broken, several feet below the tightrope. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.

And then, once Mr. Sauer had ushered out every last member of the audience, all of them so eager to offer a bit of extra money as compensation for his loss (his loss), I watched as Dr. Engel swept my sister up in his greedy arms, put her back together, and then brought her back to life.

It was a very simple system, Mr. Sauer told me, one that Dr. Engel had explained quite thoroughly to him the first time he had brought my sister back. People came to watch tightrope walking not because they wanted to see success, but because they wanted to be reminded of the danger. Whether they admitted it or not, they watched Simone in the hopes that she would fall, because there was more thrill in that. And whether I agreed with that or not, I couldn’t possibly deny that we at least made more money when Simone fell from the tightrope. And as long as we had Dr. Engel, she was in no real danger anyway. She could die night after night, and he could bring her back each time. The only thing we needed to be wary of was moving from town-to-town on a regular basis, so that nobody could notice the pattern in our performances.

“And what if Simone refuses to do it?” I asked. “What if she doesn’t fall off your stupid rope?”

“Simone has no choice in the matter,” Mr. Sauer said. “Dr. Engel brought her back to life, so she has to do everything he says. I don’t know how it works for sure, his voodoo or whatever he uses, but it seemed to work tonight, didn’t it?”

I didn’t agree with any of it, but it didn’t matter. Mr. Sauer was right – we did make more money out of those bleeding hearts than we ever got out of wondering eyes, and that was all that mattered to him. He owned us all. He could control our very lives, and so if he decided that our deaths were more profitable to him, then he would take full advantage of it. And all the while, there was Dr. Engel, whispering in his ear and telling him that he was doing right, that none of this hurt Simone in the least.

But it did, and I knew it. As early as the second time he brought her back, I knew that something was wrong with Simone.

It started out subtle – she just became a little bit more absent-minded, a little bit more distant. I knew it was wrong, when Simone had always been so full of life, but Dr. Engel told everyone that it was to be expected. Death put a strain on her mind – it was a lot to come to terms with. Everyone accepted this answer with a nod and a smile, pleased to know that they didn’t have to be concerned about her, but I didn’t believe it for a second. Something was wrong with Simone, and Dr. Engel was only making it worse.

Each time he brought her back, she only got worse. She grew more and more distant, until she no longer spoke to anyone at all, until I didn’t think that it could possibly get any worse, and then it did. Her eyes became vacant and empty, unchanged between when she was dead and when she wasn’t. Her movements became slow and rare, until all she would do was walk the tightrope and fall night after night. She wouldn’t even get up to eat anymore – I had to bring her bowls of soup and feed her myself.

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Dr. Engel told me once when he caught me feeding her. “She doesn’t need to eat anymore.”

I still wanted to do it though. I didn’t trust Dr. Engel enough to know for sure, and if Simone no longer spoke for herself, then who could say that she wasn’t secretly starving, constantly plagued by an intense pain that she couldn’t be rid of without my help? No, I would be there for her. If I couldn’t save her from Dr. Engel, at least I could save her from that.

No one else in the Circus asked about her anymore. We had never been all too successful before Dr. Engel showed up – we were fairly nondescript, lacking even a distinctive name to catch anyone’s attention. Our freaks were fairly standard and run-of-the-mill, our burlesque dancers were getting older and stiff, and nothing that we had done in the past helped us to stand out. But this – this dying act that Simone did, this was big. This may not have gotten our names out there (Mr. Sauer made sure of that), but it did put money in their pockets, money that filled their nights with all sorts of pleasures. And the only thing they needed to do to keep it going was ignore Simone’s pain. That was made easy enough when she didn’t talk much either.

Sometimes the others made their guilty consciences obvious, asking me to take Simone to my caravan so they didn’t have to see her, but I refused to. If they were going to profit off of her death, then the least they could do was know the price they were paying for it.

“Simone was only twenty-three years old,” I told Dr. Engel after he brought her back for the twenty-third time.

“She’s still twenty-three, my dear girl,” he said.

“Peaches were her favourite food. Her and the aerial artist had a flirtation going for many months. She told me all about how they were going to elope someday and settle on a pig farm in Spain.”

Dr. Engel had no condescending word to bid me then. He just fixed a glare in my direction, before slipping out from the caravan.

There was an awful, bitter taste in my mouth as I watched the empty corpse of my sister pull herself upright, sitting on the end of the hard, bare table that Dr. Engel always placed her on. She didn’t look at anything. She hardly even seemed aware of anything. She just sat there, hunched over and glassy-eyed. She looked nothing like Simone.

I got to my feet, slowly making my way toward the spot on the wall where a small, silver hatchet hung from a hook. Am I really doing this, I thought as I took the hatchet into my hand. Am I sure this is what she wants?

I wasn’t, I realized as I turned upon the space where my sister sat, but that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? I didn’t know anything about her anymore. I didn’t even know if she was still somewhere in there, watching her life through dead eyes, screaming for escape but never able to burst through the frozen surface. I didn’t know if she was already long gone, leaving nothing more than the empty shell I saw before me. But either way, this was no way for her to live. And if I left her to it, then Dr. Engel would never let her go. He would only continue to make things worse, to make her suffer more and more every day. She deserved better than that. She deserved her freedom.

I had never struck a person with a hatchet before. I imagined it would be difficult – all of that bone and muscle and tissue to get through. I raised the weapon high over my head, hoping to gain the benefit of momentum, but even though Simone didn’t even raise her eyes to me, I still found myself frozen in place. I stared down at her, at the only person who had always been there for me, and I couldn’t do it. I fell to my knees before her instead and I started to sob.

Simone…” I breathed out. “I’m so sorry, Simone…”

Never had I been quite so surprised as I was when I felt a cold, dead hand on my cheek, weakly trying to raise my gaze. I complied without hesitation, looking to Simone with new-found hope. What did this mean? I wondered. Was she starting to break out of it?

She had moved, most certainly, and she had even interacted with me, but one look at her was all I needed to know that she wasn’t better. Her eyes were as glassy as ever, her face not even raised to me. Yet, I watched as her gaze rolled laboriously in the direction of the hatchet that I still held in my hand, and slowly, she gave a single, stiff nod as she looked at it.

And so I did it. I gave my sister one last kiss on the forehead, one that I doubt she even felt, and then I chopped her up into pieces so small that not even Dr. Engel could put her back together.

When Mr. Sauer and the doctor found me, I was laughing and crying all at once, covered in my sister’s blood and still chopping at pieces of her, still trying to keep her from their grasp. They had to physically pull me from the caravan, screaming things in my ear, like, “stupid girl! Do you know what you’ve done?”

“I know, I know,” I managed to spit out through maniacal giggles. “I freed her!”

* * *

Nobody alerted the authorities to what I had done. I knew they wouldn’t – Dr. Engel would have done anything to keep them as far away from this as possible, due to the ‘experiments’ that he was famous for in his own country. And, besides, the Circus didn’t need that kind of attention – especially not when so many people had already seen Simone die many times over.

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t punished. The rest of the performers hated me for what I had done, robbing them of their star act. How would they make money now? How could they pay for their whores and their booze and their midnight gambling, if they didn’t have my sister to torture anymore? They spoke to me only to insult me, acknowledging me only to spit on my shoes. Really, I was almost surprised when Mr. Sauer came to my caravan, not to beat me or throw me out of the circus, but to talk to me about my act. The show would go on, he said, but without Simone, I would have to close out with my juggling act – which I agreed to do just fine. As awful as it was to know that she was really, truly gone this time, I was actually kind of relieved too. She wasn’t suffering anymore. No matter where she was, at least it was somewhere where Dr. Engel couldn’t get his hands on her anymore.

The performance began absolutely, marvellously mundane. The crowd was mildly surprised by the fake-bearded lady, and they applauded politely for the kind-of-strongman. I watched it all from the sidelines, delighted by their mild amusement. This was how it should have been all along, I thought. This felt right.

Then, shortly before I was to perform, Mr. Sauer approached me with a wooden chest cradled in his arms.

“It’s sort of last minute, I know,” Mr. Sauer said, “but I wanted to make a small change to your performance. I know you usually juggle balls, and that’s just fine, but now you’re the closing act, and since we don’t have Simone anymore… well, we’re going to have to make it more exciting for the audience, aren’t we? So, instead, I thought you could juggle these.”

He opened the chest for me, and lying on a sheet of red velvet were three shining, recently-polished silver hatchets, just like the one I had used to chop my sister up only last night.

This is a joke, I initially thought, staring into Mr. Sauer’s face to try and gauge how serious he was. He knew that I had never juggled weapons before – he was only doing this to taunt me, to try and make me feel guilty. Well, it wouldn’t work, I told myself resolutely as I took the first hatchet into my hand. I had done the right thing, as awful as I knew it looked, and no matter how hard he tried, Mr. Sauer would never see me regret it. I would perform my act, and it would be my best one yet. Nothing he could possibly do would stop me.

When I stepped out before the crowd, they greeted me with the same polite applause they had given everyone, but their attitude most certainly shifted when they saw the silver hatchets in my hands. This was a different act, they realized then. This was a dangerous one.

I began my performance as I always did – delivering the same jokes, arriving at the same punchlines. I received more groans than I did laughter. But then, one at a time, I started to throw the hatchets into the air, and everyone perked up in their seats, training their eyes on me like they never had before. It was really sort of fun, I realized, being watched by so many people, being enjoyed on such a deep level. I really got into it – my jokes became funnier as I juggled, my pace became quicker.

I got so into it, that I only had time to notice my hand slipping in the briefest of terms before the hatchet came down on my head.

* * *

I was dead. I knew I was dead – that hatchet had gone right through my brain, there was no way I was anything else. So then why was I waking up? How was that even possible?

My newly running blood became cold when my answer came to me in the form of a strangely accented voice: “Hello, my dear girl.”

And there was Dr. Engel, standing over me with a cruel, self-satisfied smile on his greasy face.

the-clown

Porcelain Tales: the Lady

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 met my beloved only three years before the huntings began.

His name was Nikolas, and I knew he was extraordinary from the moment I first laid eyes on him. He was a poor man – a beggar, really, dressed in rags and dirt, thin from hunger ragged from misuse, but even still, he was beautiful. I watched him from afar for many nights before I approached him, wanting to understand him better but afraid of what he would think if he saw me. He was a good man, after all, a godly man, and I was little more than a creature, my true nature hidden beneath dresses and servants and extravagance. We were one in the same, really: both of us false surfaces, concealing something underneath.

I didn’t want to approach him, didn’t want him to see me for what I was, but there was one night where I had little choice. He was on the streets later than usual that night, begging for anything the men on the street could spare, and three men staggering back from the pubs could spare nothing save for a sneer and a cruel word in his direction. They dragged him back into a dark alley then and began to beat him. I tried to ignore it, tried to tell myself that this was the way of humans, and that it was not my place to intervene. But I just couldn’t convince myself of that, not when the beautiful face that I had become so accustomed to watching was being disfigured by their blows.

The men laughed at me when they saw me approach, just as I knew they would. Men love to laugh at any woman who thinks she can compare to them. But one look at my true face, and they ran off, crossing themselves and crying out, “demon! Demon!” as they went. I could have killed them. Many in my situation would have. But I wouldn’t, not then. I was a godly woman, after all, and more than anything, I feared proving those men right.

Nikolas was hardly conscious when he first saw me. He was babbling, raving, muttering something about a “beautiful angel” who had “saved him”. I knew, from the look of his injuries and the sound of his heart, that he was close to a mortal death. I tried to convince myself that that was alright, natural even. It was God’s will, and my very existence already spat in His face – I should not dishonour Him anymore by interfering now. But he was my Nikolas. I had only ever seen him from afar, and already, he was mine, and I couldn’t lose him. And so, as gently as I could, I lifted his broken, beaten body off the ground, whispered soothing promises of relief in his ear, and then I sank my fangs in the soft flesh of his neck and drank down what was left of his blood.

I wouldn’t let the humans bury Nikolas, as they had done to me all those years ago. Instead, I took him back to my manor, and I had my servants prepare for him a coffin of glass and gold. He laid there for seven days, growing in beauty and strength, until he woke from death at last. He was shocked, of course – as much by me as he was by his new life, but all considered, he took to it rather well. Later, he would joke that that was because he was much richer in death than he ever had been in life – and, most certainly, I did take care of him. Anything he wanted, I was keen to provide. Any clothes he asked for, I got him. Any food, any sport, any desire, I fulfilled to the greatest of my ability. There was only one line that I would never permit him to cross, and he abided by it well: never, not once, would he be permitted to kill a human. He could drink from any of the animals in my keep, he could hunt at night in the woods like a beast if it pleased him to do so, but so much as we could not help being creatures, at least we could preserve what little was left of our souls.

It did not take long for Nikolas to fall in love with me as I loved him. At first, it was nothing more than a flirtation, something that made my heart beg for more but made my mind fearful to hope. Over luxurious tables of the finest china, he would call me his “dearest angel”, and I would have blushed if there was blood left in my cheeks, but even still, a small part of me worried that it was not me that he loved, but my riches. It would have been so easy to confuse the two: we both had come into his life at the same time. It was not until the huntings began that he proved otherwise.

The hunters did not come for me immediately. I caught word of them from a visitor, a creature in the shape of a small child who came running through my door and screaming of human terrors, of men who had come into her home at night and had plunged stakes into the hearts of her loved ones. She begged me to take leave of the manor immediately, and I did not take her warning lightly. After all, she was right: I was too public here. When the hunters came near, they would know to go to me immediately. I would need to flee in the night, to go into hiding. I could take none of my riches with me, and none of my faithful servants either. I could take only a horse, what money would fit in my purse, and the outfit that would draw the least attention to myself.

When my mind was made, I took special care to tell Nikolas that he did not need to come with me. He could remain in the manor so long as he knew the risks. I would leave everything to him, and he could live out the remainder of his new life in luxury. Nikolas was quick in his response.

“To hell with luxury!” he said. “I lived a penniless existence alone – I’d be more than happy to do it with you. I’m going with you, my dearest angel, and nothing you can say will stop me.”

Needless to say, I was overjoyed. I threw my arms tight around him, and despite all our fear of what lay ahead, we found solace at least in our first kiss.

We headed out into the world together, me and him, scrounging low to escape the hunters. These things came in waves, I knew, and so Nikolas and I only needed to survive long enough for them to die out or get bored – either would happen soon enough. As it turned out, however, this wave was the longest one yet. For nearly a century, Nikolas and I remained hidden, poor but desperately in love with each other. We eventually caught word of who the leader of this wave of hunters was – a young man who eventually grew old, as humans tend to, and so he passed the legacy down to his son, a strapping boy by the name of Augustine. His men, too, were exchanged throughout the years, the only requirement for the job being an intense hatred of our kind and a desire to do God’s work. That latter fact made me desperately angry, and I cried bitterly to Nikolas about it often.

“They want us dead because they think we’re demons. Monsters. But ever since I awoke in my grave, I have done nothing but strive to keep my soul as pure as possible. Why can’t they see that? Why do they still want us to fear them?”

“Because,” Nikolas said sternly, taking me into his gentle embrace, “they’ve already decided who we are. The truth doesn’t matter when compared to their hatred.”

Still, as poor as we were, as pathetic and fearful as our lives had become, they were still the happiest years of my life, because I had Nikolas. Nothing else mattered when he was by my side. I could overcome any obstacle, heal any hurt done to my heart, because he kept me strong.

We had taken to sleeping in crypts while we were in hiding, sharing the inside of a coffin with a fellow corpse until the setting sun freed us again. I thought we were safe in there, for who would think to disturb the dead? Only a monster would be capable of such a thing.

But, of course, what else would you call a hunter?

I was woken suddenly from my sleep, the coffin’s lid ripped away and my vision filled with men. So many men, standing thickly together, concealing anything else from my view. They grabbed at me with their filthy, hot hands, tried to hold me in place. But from somewhere beyond my reach, I could hear Nikolas screaming, and nothing mattered more than that to me. I fought the men off, holding back only enough to make sure I didn’t kill them. That didn’t stop me from breaking bones, however, and I broke many on my way out of the coffin. On my way to Nikolas.

By the time I laid eyes on him, however, it was already too late.

The stake protruding from his chest looked wrong to me. Not terrifying or life-threatening or anything like that, just wrong, like something that wasn’t supposed to be there. I recognized his screams and I knew he was in pain, but it took me a long time to make the connection that that, the wooden stake, held still by one of the men standing over him, was the cause of it. It wasn’t until my beloved fell limp, and his blank eyes landed finally on me, did I understand what they were doing.

I followed my beloved’s suite. I, too, became limp, falling hard to my knees on the stone floor. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t feel. I could barely even hear, with the exception of the much-too-loud din of the men laughing – the hunters, I knew then. And the one standing before me, the one jerking the wooden stake unceremoniously from my beloved’s chest, that was Augustine. That was the man who had sent us into hiding, who thought of me only as a demon.

“What’s wrong with you?” one of the hunters was yelling at the men who I had maimed on my way out of the coffin. “Kill the bitch already! We got this one, and he was twice her size!”

“You know the strength of these demons has nothing to do with their size – it’s all to do with age. She must be an ancient one, because she hit something fierce!”

“Is that true, you little bitch? Are you an old crone in a maid’s body?”

“This one’s no maid – hasn’t been for some time now, I imagine. Look at her. Wouldn’t leave someone who looked like her virginal for long, would you?”

Augustine was turning toward me, a smile on his cold, hard lips. He had enjoyed it. Sick as he was, he had actually enjoyed putting a stake through my beloved’s heart and ending his life. He had taken pleasure out of making himself more of a monster than Nikolas ever was. Nikolas had never killed anyone. Yes, at least I could find solace in that: Nikolas had died as pure as we creatures could be.

“She doesn’t look all that strong to me,” Augustine said, his voice a deep, self-satisfied growl. “Why, I’d bet she’d let me just walk up and stake her, just like that.”

I watched as he approached me, tossing that stake carelessly between his hands. He moved slowly, languidly, as though he wanted to squeeze every last moment of pleasure out of this act, and I let him. I wanted him to enjoy it. Because that made it all the more satisfying when I shot to my feet and twisted his head clean off his shoulders like a dandelion.

The other hunters screamed. Many of them tried to race for the door where the sunlight would keep them safe, but they were right about me: my years had made me quick and strong, and so I stopped them in their tracks. Not one of them escaped. I tore out their throats with my nails, crashed their heads against the stone walls, ripped into their chest so that I could tear out their hearts and make them feel what I had. It wasn’t long before there was no one left, and I stood in the centre of the bloodbath, heaving in deep breaths that I was only in the habit of taking.

And it was done. It hadn’t made me feel any better, not in the aftermath anyway, but it was done. I felt as though I stood there for a long time, taking in the sight of the carnage around me with something disturbingly similar to indifference. I wish I could say that they didn’t deserve it. I wish that I regretted it. But Nikolas was gone, and there was nothing I could do to bring him back this time.

When I finally did break out of my cold trance, it was to walk to Nikolas’ side. He had been taken out of his coffin, and now lay crumpled against the floor. There was something oddly empty about him now, something that just didn’t feel right.

But of course, I thought as I knelt beside him, bowing low over his corpse so that I could press one last kiss to his cold cheek. It’s his soul; that has left and gone to heaven, I’m sure of it. He was pure. He’s in a better place.

I only wished that I could see him again, but I knew it wouldn’t be so. Even as I pulled myself upright once again, even as I opened the heavy, creaking door of the crypt, even as I stepped out into the burning, life-taking sunlight, I knew that I wasn’t going to the same place as Nikolas.

the-lady

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.

img_2379

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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