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 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 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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