Short Story Contest Finalist: From the Mouths of Babes
Written by Kat Lewis
1588 – Roanoke Island
Fire and pitchforks followed me into the woods. The winter wind carried the sounds of angry feet stamping through snow. The cold nipped at my hands as I ran, holding up the skirt of my dress. My fingers bent backwards, stretching their skin white with pain. A tree root snagged my foot but I caught my fall on its trunk. As my contorting hand scratched at the tree’s bark, I watched the bones of my fingers break and rearranged themselves. Each time a bone moved, the skin squirmed and undulated in throbbing waves.
Horse hooves clopped against the ground behind me and my head jerked towards the sound. A mare neighed at its rider that pulled her to a stop. The man on the horse cast his torch’s light upon me just as my shoulder dropped from its socket like a rock in water.
“Clara?” the rider said, his voice stained with worry. The light rippled over him and highlighted the panic scribbled on his familiar face.
Silas, I thought, sighing in relief the best I could with my lungs choking under a cracking ribcage. It had to have been the fourteenth time Silas had seen me turn but no human eyes could get use to such an unhuman sight. My arm wrenched backwards and wrapped itself around my waist in an aberrant hug. Silas glanced at the sky, an excuse to look away. My eyes followed his. It was dark with the very last remnants of the sunset purpling the horizon. “Why aren’t you locked up?”
Fighting my twisting bones, I replied in between gasps. “The Mayor insisted that I’d dine with him and his family. I think he’s suspicious of me.”
Silas grimaced as claws shot out from my nail beds. “I can’t imagine why.”
Earlier that day, the villagers had flocked to the scaffold in the town square for the Mayor’s monthly speech. My little sister and I made our way to the front of the stage. Hattie stood next to me with the red hood I made her pulled over her dirty blond hair. A smile crossed her face as she played with her well-worn but well-loved straw doll. While Hattie made the doll dance around, my eyes rose to the Mayor. He was a short, chubby man who loved that stage more than he loved his wife. He barely came up to most people’s shoulders, myself included. The lot of us looked down at him. That platform provided the only occasion for him to look down on us as his subjects, his servants, his plebs.
The Mayor cleared his throat. He did so in vain as the clamor of the crowd continued to hang in the dry, frosty air. “People of Roanoke Island!” His voice boomed surprisingly loud for man of his stature. The throng’s roar slowly settled to sporadic murmurs and Hattie’s doll stopped dancing. “Tonight’s the night we put an end to the beast that has plagued our village with the blood of our brothers. Before our beloved governor, John White, left we told him we would take care of what he was leaving behind. And take care of it we shall!” The crowd cheered, the men thrusting their fists and tools in the air while the women meekly stood behind them. “This world is no longer the New World. This is Our World and there is no room for that monster in Our World.” As enthused shouts emitted from the crowd, a young boy pushed past me. He was one of the farmer’s sons, barely fourteen with wide eyes eager to see his hands wet with blood.
“Mister Mayor!” the boy shouted. “Mister Mayor!” The colony’s voices quieted and the Mayor’s gaze cascaded down to the farmer’s son. “Will you be joining us tonight in the hunt?”
The Mayor hesitated, his eyes batting about as he raced for the most diplomatic answer. “My prayers will be with you brave men. I unfortunately have colony business to attend to tonight.”
The Mayor shared a few more words of encouragement before the crowd dispersed to resumed their daily activities of farming, smithing or drinking. I watched the Mayor lumbered down the steps of the stage. Silas waited for him at the bottom of the stairs, his Deerhound puppy wagging its shaggy tail beside him. I could only imagine the ludicrous smithing project the buffoon commissioned Silas and his father to do.
“The Mayor’s a scaredy cat,” Hattie said. “It’s not fair everyone else has to fight.”
“Scaredy cat or not, he’s a smart man. If you saw the beast, you’d be running the other way too.”
I started towards the market, although it could hardly be called such. It consisted of lopsided carts with missing wheels and the faint smell of the herbs and spices we’d run out of still infused in their eroded wood. Hattie strolled along side me, picking at the straw of her doll. “Have you ever seen the beast?”
My stomach dropped. How do you explain to a child that you have not only seen the beast but have seen through its eyes? How do you explain that there comes a time when your favorite color is the blood of your victims and you live for the thrill of the hunt, the glory of the kill and the feeling of fresh blood draught from jugulars between your fingers? Most of all, how do you explain to that rosy-cheeked six year old that in the coming years she will also meet the monster within herself?
I opened my mouth before my mind could churn up a response. Luckily, the Mayor’s wife saved me.
“Clara!” she said with feigned excitement. “You’re exactly the person I wanted to see.” Hattie and I replied with a curtsy. “The Mayor and I are dying to have you over for dinner tonight.”
I inwardly groaned at the fact that she called her own husband “The Mayor.” “But tonight’s the beast’s night.”
“We’ll dine early. Say, five o’clock? Unless that’s a problem.” Her voice was light but she laid a disparaging gaze on me. Her severe eyes picked apart every facet of my expression. In that instant, one of my fears came true. She had an agenda. A list of persons. And she wasn’t going to stop until she had raked every single person across the hot coals of her judgment. While the blood of a powerful beast ran through my veins, I couldn’t tap into the power whenever I pleased. Most days, I was just as fragile and as humans as anyone else. Up until now, I’d took solace in that.
A smile slipped onto my lips. “Dinner sound lovely. I’ll see you then.” Mrs. Mayor answered with a smile that didn’t touch her eyes before curtsying and walking away.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Hattie groaned. “I don’t want to go to that lady’s house. Can’t I stay home?” She looked up at me, her blue eyes glazed over with endearing hope. I loved that about Hattie. She always saw the brightest things in the darkest times.
A reluctant sigh left my lips. “I suppose one hour alone couldn’t hurt.” A smile broke onto her face as she cheered. “But, I’m going to have Silas check on you.”
Hattie spun around, her red cloak and dark dress twirling about her waist. “Thank you!” she said before glancing down the street. A Lumbee boy that Hattie was friends with squatted on the side of the road. He drew pictures in the ground with a stick while his mother bartered fresh animal pelts for cooking tools. “Can I go say hi?” I nodded and watched her skip down the road to the boy.
While Hattie played, I walked to Mr. Nicholes’ fruit and vegetable stall. I reached into my basket to pull out the new dress I’d sewn for his wife. “I hope it’s to Mrs. Nicholes’ liking.”
“I’m sure she’ll love it,” he said, handing me an assortment of vegetables and bread. “I’m sorry it’s not much.”
Shaking my head, I put the food into my basket. “It’s plenty. I know things have been hard.”
Mr. Nicholes nodded. “But Governor White will be back any day now and I’ll have more crops than I can plant.”
I smiled at his optimism before turning back to Hattie and her friend. The two of them scratched pictures into the muddy snow, the boy drawing with his stick and Hattie with the toe of her shoe. I could see the bright smiles dancing on their faces and hear their laughter faintly singing under the bustle of the square. Their grins and giggles dropped to the ground when his mother walked over. She was young woman with a strange, faraway stare. It was the type of gaze you’d expect from an old woman. An ancient sight of wisdom. Disgust etched its way onto her face as she said something to Hattie. The woman held Hattie’s gaze a moment before spitting on the ground and dragging her son away.
My sister returned to my side with a swirl of confusion and bruised feelings on her face. “What’s with Samoset’s mother?”
“She said ah-dem-mah. You know their language. What does it mean?”
After spending the last year on the island, I picked up some of the natives’ language. Only enough to trade and on occasion converse. “Ah-them-wah,” I corrected her pronunciation.
“Well, what does it mean?”
“Dog,” I said, my eyes watching Samoset and his mother disappear into the woods that led to their village.
Hattie didn’t seem to realize she had been insulted. “Oh, I love dogs. Is it okay if I give Silas’ puppy a snack?”
My gaze moved to the bread in my basket. “You can give him a small piece.”
“But he doesn’t like bread.”
“How do you know that? He’s a dog. He’ll eat anything.”
“He told me so.”
I laughed. “Just like your doll tells you she doesn’t like the dresses I make her.”
“No, really. He did.”
That was a typical thing for growing up like us. One or two lucid conversations with another beast, a growl slipping out when you’re upset, a territorial instinct to protect toys. Those were the kind of things that happened to us when we’re children. I turned to Hattie and pinched her cheek. Her face wrinkled up in discontent. “Your imagination is adorable.”
An hour before sunset, I sat at the Mayor’s dining table, nursing a glass of wine in an awkward silence. At the head of the table, the Mayor gobbled down his plate while his wife neatly patted crumbs away from her mouth with a napkin. I couldn’t stand the squishy smack of the Mayor’s chewing. “So, when do you figure Governor White will make his return?” I asked. “I’m sure Mrs. Dare and Virginia would love to see him.”
Mrs. Mayor looked at her husband expectant. “He sure is taking his time. I mean it’s been a year.”
“He’s doing the best he can. Times are hard,” the Mayor replied.
“It’s 1588 for heaven’s sake. It only took us three months the first time around.” She took a sip from her glass. “What is this, Ancient Rome?” Her scrutinizing gaze shifted from her husband to me. “Where’s the rest of your family, Clara?”
“My sister’s at the house. She can be pretty impatient with these types of things.”
“And your parents?”
“My mother died giving birth to Hattie. Our father passed away on the boat ride over here.”
A frown creased Mrs. Mayor’s brow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
I smiled and shook my head and dinner went on just like that. Mrs. Mayor would ask a prying question and then apologize. I would accept her apology and she would ask another question. It was a vicious cycle but nothing was as vicious as her last question.
“What do you make of the beast situation, Clara?” She kept using my name after every question as if she knew me like a friend or family. For some reason, she thought a facade of familiarity would give me cause to lower my guard and say something to support a witch-hunt against myself.
“What is there to say? It’s a terrible situation and I hope the best for the men going out tonight.”
“Well, I say we leave and don’t look back. I hear Croatoan Island is nice and the natives are friendly enough to the English.”
The Mayor sighed. “You know we can’t do that. Governor White will be back soon with supplies.”
“He did say to leave our destination on a tree if we chose to leave.”
As they bickered back and forth about the future of the colony, I speared the last bite of my dinner. I nearly chewed through the inside of my mouth. One of my molars was twice its normal size and growing. “Dinner was lovely. I really need to get back to Hattie before the moon’s up.” I kept my voice leveled although my stomach churned with worry. I was turning earlier than normal. After saying my goodbyes, I hurried out of the house. The sun had hardly set and the mob had already congregated in the streets. I couldn’t hear my own unnerved thoughts over the sharpening of steel and the hiss of fire on torches.
Silas reached for the handkerchief in his pocket. It was a gift I gave him last Christmas. I had embroidered an anvil in one corner and in another I sewed To Silas From Clara. That year he gave me silver chains. Chains that I should have been locked down with by now. He melted down his mother’s silverware to make them. It was a present I never wanted to accept but I had to. For the sake of him and everyone else. As Silas wiped his face, I let my eyes linger on the black thread of the handkerchief. Tokens of memory always slowed the process. Or at least that was what I liked to think.
“I– I was on my way to check on Hattie,” he stuttered. “Why are you turning so early?”
“I don’t know. Something’s wro–” My lower jaw jutted out, its bones singing as they cracked. I glared at Silas. “Get out of here.” My voice sunk in pitch. The words fell from my tongue raspy as if my vocal cords were made of sandpaper. I could feel my nose and mouth scrunching together and my lips peeling back to bare a pair of lustrous fangs. Silas hesitated a moment, looking so small in my eyes as he sat on that horse with fear tearing through his countenance. “Now!” He kicked his horse, stirring up dirt and snow as he galloped away. I ran on.
So desperately, I needed to turn slower. I thought about all the things that made me happy. All the things that made me human. I thought about my love for Hattie’s laugh and Silas’ smile when I gave him that handkerchief. Despite my efforts, my body kept bending and breaking. As I skidded down a hill, my shoes popped, bursting at the seams with tufts of hair. My house came into view and I could see little Hattie’s candle waving to me from our bedroom window. Until suddenly, it went out.
The angry feet grew louder and I saw the flames and tridents cresting the hill behind me. My head yanked back against my will. A howl ripped up my throat and everything went black as pitch.
Sunshine nudged me awake. I lay in the snow dazed and bare. Ears ringing, I touched a knot pulsing on the back of my head. Someone must have knocked me out. I couldn’t remember a thing after turning. My eyes rolled about, taking in the thatched-roofed buildings around me. I could see the creaky sign of Silas’ forge swinging in the breeze. There was nothing to be heard but the wind that whistled through the streets and a Flag of England flapping in its wake. Not once in the last thirteen months I spent in that village had I ever heard so much silence. I snatched the flag hanging by a shop’s entrance and wrapped myself in it. Through the street I walked, glancing into windows. I saw no one, just unfinished tasks, like dirty dishes on dining tables and open-closed signs strewn across shop floors. Frantic footprints were scattered through the snow. Among the chaos engraved in the snow were countless animal tracks. They looked much like a dog’s but were six times the size of a Great Dane’s foot. Even a bear’s print would only fill the bottom half of the beast’s mark. The prints curved around a corner. I followed them, my eyes skipping from step to step. Flakes of red sprayed across the white ground in bursts like fireworks. The sanguine blotches grew bigger and bigger before crowning at a body. Some blots led to another corpse and other splotches to a third. I quickly lost count and licked my mouth, surprised that the usual iron taste of blood was missing from my lips. My stomach pitted with realization. I looked at the constellation of bodies connected by blood and found my sister. Amid severed limbs and torn out throats sat little Hattie, naked and crying with her gore-splattered hands open like something was stripped from her grip. This wasn’t right. I didn’t turn until last year when I was eighteen. Samoset’s mother must have been giving Hattie a warning. The natives had a sixth sense for things like me. Things like us. They were probably long gone by now.
Blood dribbled from Hattie’s quivering maw as she spoke. “I can still hear them screaming.” They say from the mouths of babes comes truth and wisdom. But as I watched Hattie’s crimson canines shrink back into her gums, I knew she could bring no candor or acumen to this world. Only pain.
I took the six year old up in my arms and stroked her hair. “Shh. . .” I whispered. The first phase was always the hardest. “Let’s find Silas.” He always knew where to hide. He always knew when it was safe to come out. He would know what to do. He would know where we should go. As I stepped over our neighbors and friends, something black in the snow caught my eye. My gaze fell to a red hand clutching a stitched anvil.
I froze, the shock causing me to squeeze Hattie too tight. She sobbed into my shoulder. “What do we do?”
“But what will happen when Governor White comes back? Where will he think everyone went?”
I left Hattie in Silas’ shop and stole a dagger from his workbench. At a post in the palisade surrounding the colony, I slashed into the wood. I felt like I was hacking for days to scythe my message clean and bold into the cold stake. I carved the final touch and I stood before that post, catching my breath. Tossing the knife to the side, I stared at the jagged word notched into the wood: