(Fiction) Sisters of the strange

I’m not sure I could impress upon you the effect this nameless boy had on me. After being flung by tragedy from all that I had known, from high nobility and a life without care, I saw in his daily contentment the truth that there is a place for each of us, and that solidified my growing conviction that I could not keep moving from manor to manor forever, and that if I were to find my place, wherever it was, I would have to go looking for it. I suppose that is a way of saying it was in Austria where I became a woman in full.

But change comes slow. Despite my revelation, I had not the immediate courage to leave, nor the funds. Besides, I cared deeply for my two young wards, who were just at the age where a parting would have wounded them permanently, and my lord was a decent if somewhat feckless man. It wasn’t until he died and his male heirs were called into the army that my choice was made for me. War, like politics, is always local. The campaigns of Napoleon never touched me directly. It was the smaller wars, the ones between princes so often overlooked by history, that set me on my path. I became a soldier—quite unexpectedly—when the fighting fell upon the town where I had taken refuge, and I took up arms to defend it. I killed an Italian mercenary and was killed in return by his comrade—stabbed with a bayonet. I awoke in a shallow grave amid a tangle of arms and legs, many of which were no longer attached to their owners. I panicked but was immediately calmed by the tiniest voice, like the song of a bird. I was coaxed from the ditch by the most delicate hands. We had to hurry, she told me, for they would return soon to burn the bodies.

She was such a frail thing. Not short, mind you. And not graceful. Merely fragile, like a China cup made too thin and so discarded, simple and unadorned. She was also very shy and completely, utterly filthy. Her dark, greasy hair hung in strings past her shoulders. She said her name was Anna, and on our flight, after I asked of her history, she said only that she had been exiled from her home. I admitted the same, and, sensing more to her story, told her of my curse. In return she hesitantly but excitedly admitted she was a medium and that she had sensed rather than seen me—sensed someone living among the tangle of corpses and had come to free them before the whole lot was incinerated. At my gentle urgings, she explained that she had been expelled from her home by her father because of the visions that plagued her, which were assumed to come from the devil, visions that she neither asked for nor wanted. In that way, we found each other kindred spirits and decided to travel west together as “sisters of the strange” in the hopes of escaping the fighting.

It was several weeks before I realized she was pregnant. She never said it, but I was certain she had been raped by one of the soldiers. Which side hardly mattered. War was reason enough for any of them. The following week, I found her prone on her back, blood both between her legs and covering the hay on the ground. She had tried to end the pregnancy with a farming implement, which still protruded from her, and I had to nurse her back to health, which kept us from our dreams of reaching Paris. It took her another seven months before she could get out of bed, for she was weak and sickly and, as it happened, had failed in her aim. The metal was sharp and moved through her easily. Knowing nothing of her own anatomy, she had thrust to far to the back. Of course, her subsequent ill health precluded another try, and at the end of her term, she gave birth to an undersized baby boy, whom she named Jakub.

Whether due to his mother’s botched attempt, to her subsequent illness, or to other factors entirely, Jakub was born with a defect: one of his legs was significantly atrophied and remained weak his entire life. Otherwise, he was a bright, able boy, if a little melancholy. But then, by his intelligence, I’m sure he appreciated how his difficulties were magnified compared to the other boys his age. Anna remained in poor health—all the poorer for childbirth—and her visions became rare. But they did not stop. Each time, she was struck with apoplexy, and I would tend her. Most of them were completely strange, like a window into someone else’s dreams, full of portent but devoid of meaning. A few of them became clear to me only in retrospect. Although she would never know it, Anna predicted the use of the atomic bomb on Japan more than a century before it happened. That haunted her for months, for she saw its effects as if strolling through the streets of Hiroshima in the moments before the attack. She described a flash, as if the sun itself had exploded. Children, the lucky ones, turned to dust before her. The rest, covered in burns and sores, destined to die of painful cancers, wailed amid the fallen bodies of their parents and siblings.

Anna saw also that men would land on the moon—as well as distant worlds as-yet unnamed. But of her visions, there was only one—again, lost on me at the time—that is worth mentioning. I did not witness it. It must have happened some time I was away. She was scrubbing a pot at the drain in the floor, for we had no sink. She dipped a rag in a tub of water and scraped bits of food free and glanced at me once, then twice.

“What?” I asked.

She shook her head. It took several minutes of gentle coaxing before she explained. Anna never wanted her gift and didn’t enjoy the conversation it invited.

“You must go with him,” she said meekly and without meeting eyes. She was so shy. “You won’t want to,” she said. “Because you’re stubborn. You’ll want to go home. To your garden. But you must.”

“My garden?” I scoffed. “You must be confused, my darling. I have never tended the earth in my life and shouldn’t want to start.”

She shook her head slowly as she went on scrubbing. “You have to,” she said. “Promise me. Please.”

I was annoyed. I didn’t like the suggestion that unseen powers had sway over me. That was for other people. Lesser people. I was in those days still very much the aristocrat I was born. And I particularly didn’t like the suggestion that I would become the kind of lady who kept a garden—partly because working the land was indelibly associated with peasantry in my mind, but mostly because it suggested a frailty of character that I, someone who would never do such a thing, could be so inconstant as to change my habits entirely. Since leaving home, I’d had so little to grasp. Just then it seemed Anna wanted to take away even that.

It took only a moment for me to realize how my rejection had hurt her. She had opened up to me—me, who knew what a difficulty it was. And I had treated her the same as all the others.

“Who am I to go with?” I asked finally.

When she didn’t answer, I sat near her and spoke softly. “I’m sorry, my darling. I truly am. Please tell me. Who must I accompany?”

She hesitated. Then she looked to me as if to make sure I was in a mood listen.

“The man with no hair,” she explained. She looked away then as if there were more to say but she couldn’t find the words. “He’ll change everything,” she said in a whisper.

Anna died the next morning. I think she knew it was coming. That’s why she told me, finally. She couldn’t put it off any longer.

Jakub was seven, and I faced a choice: leave the child with the church, where he would eventually be taken to an orphanage—a work house; basically, a prison—or else raise him on my own. It would be romantic to say the choice was easy. In truth, I left the boy at the nearest church. I consoled myself that I was a poor substitute for a mother and in no position to provide, and that some meals were better than the none that would flow from me. And anyway, we all had to find our place in the world. He would have to find his, just as I was eager to find mine, now that I was finally free to do so.

I returned to the church in the spring, by which time Jakub had been taken away. They’d kept and fed him for many days, or so they said, but when no one came to claim him, sent him to a work house, just as I’d predicted. I had to purchase him from the fat crone who managed it. I bought a child as if he were livestock. He was eager to see me, but he was not the same. Whatever had happened to him during my absence had amplified his melancholy, which he drug behind him the rest of his life, just like his leg.

We went to Paris, which only seemed fitting since it was his mother’s dream. There, we lived as auntie and nephew. I had been a governess, so I took it upon myself to give the boy an education. In this, I was both assisted and stymied by none other than Anna, who appeared to me at odd times looking every bit as real as when she was alive.

It is not easy to be a surrogate mother. Doubly so when you are being haunted by the real thing.

For his part, Jakub couldn’t accept that I could see his mother where he could not. It was easier for him to believe I was lying to him. At first, I think he believed it was a misguided attempt on my part to ease his loss, but by adolescence, that changed. One day, while walking home, Jakub was pushed to the street by some local boys who shouted insults as they ran by. Jakub was helped to his feet by the elderly priest of the local church, whom we had met before. The priest told Jakub not to worry, that Christ loved him, limp and all, and after discovering that the boy could read, which was not common, gave him a Bible. Our lives, which had slipped into an awkward but familiar routine, were never the same. Jakub found solace in its pages, which promised a great reckoning whereby the wicked would be punished and the meek rewarded. Religion was not my medicine and never had been. I was deeply suspicious of it, in fact. But it seemed cruel to discourage it, to take away the salve of faith. Or perhaps it was just my guilt over abandoning him. Either way, I should have acted on the warnings of my heart. But I didn’t. It was a cruel lesson.

When Jakub was 16, he began to notice certain facts about my appearance. What I had told him of Anna, of her visions and afterlife, always left him deeply suspicious. He knew I was harboring secrets—such as why I spoke Russian in my sleep. On top of that, he suspected that I raised him out of obligation rather than love, even though I was by then very fond of him, and the seed of his fears, planted in the soil of his perpetual melancholy and watered by the natural rebellion of the teenager, blossomed in full after I contracted consumption—tuberculosis, as we call it now. Jakub was scared at first. Scared to lose another mother, even such as I was. As I lay dying, he fled to the church, where he found exactly what he needed in the Holy Virgin, a mother who would never—who could never die.

But I did. I made him swear not to bury me, not for three days, and he assented. When I rose on the third, Jakub consulted the priest, first out of joy. God had granted him a miracle, he said, dragging the elderly father to see. The old man of course had a different interpretation, and very quickly Jakub’s awe turned to disgust, and from disgust to hate, and I found myself accused of witchcraft by the very boy I had sacrificed everything to raise. There was, I think, some measure of self-loathing in it for him, for in my delirium before death, I had told him of his mother and her visions, and of his paternity. He was old enough, I thought, to carry the burden of truth. For truth is a burden, always. But it proved too much for him. By my words, he lost a father as well. He had always imagined his to be a nobleman—a brother of mine, perhaps, which would have made us exactly the aunt and nephew we pretended to be. In his mind, his father had loved his mother, but due to the requirements of his station was unable to marry her. Or perhaps he was a brave soldier who died in the battle that brought his mother and I together. By my words, his father became a coward and a rapist.

I was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for the first time. I was given a series of tests—devised by The Masters, I would discover later—to determine whether the accusations were true. I failed and was hung in accordance with the law. (In truth, very few witches were burned.) For Jakub, this was an act of mercy. He believed, as the righteous always do, that pain is cleansing, and that by releasing me from the Devil’s hold, he was saving my everlasting soul. All the while, the Holy Virgin, his new mother, smiled serenely down at him from her perch over the pulpit and told him what he was doing was right and good.

I never saw him again. His mother, however, continues to haunt me.

My body was recovered, along with two others, by a young mizzen—nominally, a practitioner of “street magic,” by definition, bits of illusion and conjuring mixed with hexes and holistic alchemy. In truth, mizzenry was as much pickpocketing, sleight-of-hand, opportunistic theft, and con artistry as much as anything magical. But despite their reputations, the mizzen had the honor of thieves and the nobility of the poor, and they took it upon themselves to collect and bury the bodies of witches and sages that were hung by the authorities, rescuing them from the unsanctified communal plots where they were discarded. I would come to learn that had at least as much to do with scavenging as honor. The recently dead have value—the eyes, the pineal gland, and the foreskin were all meagerly valuable in trade with gypsies and night maidens. But the bodies were buried properly after they were raided, and always with the proper rites.

It was at this time that I slipped through the cracks of society…

from the opening of Bright Black, the fifth and final installment of my full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.

You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.

cover image by Anna Dittman