J. P. Relph
‘Do you see?’
Her voice is cheese wire, slicing my fear into bitesize cubes that I’m forced to swallow and swallow, my throat clogging. Then I do see. I see it all. Uncoiling and undulating in the time-smoked glass, dripping red and viscous and the fear spills from my mouth, smashes on the floor.
From an early age, local kids are instructed to avoid the vine-wrapped bungalow on Lavender Street – the one with the door like ageing skin and windows cast in shadows. What lived inside was made increasingly monstrous in the sharing – as is the way of vicarious kids, and of parents dissuading them from staying out after full dark. Our Mama spoke of a witch, in league with Lucifer, spellcasting in a house full of poisons and sacrificial animals. Mama never noticed that, as my sister’s eyes grew huge and her thumb wetter, as my brother’s eyes rolled above his beer bottle, mine glittered with a nipping curiosity.
I run fast, the night reaching into my chest, dragging breath from my squealing lungs. Working against me. What I’d seen in the glass, like a hazy dream, comes back in vile snatches. I ignore the horror, blink it away, focus on the mantle clock – before it was sprayed red – the position of the delicate gold hands. I have time.
She caught me climbing the wall, walked me past a garden disappointingly devoid of deadly flora into a kitchen honeyed by midsummer sunshine, heady with peach and hot apple. A vase of blousy chrysanthemums adding green perfume. I was pressed into a chair, handed a glass of juice sour-sharp with redcurrants. A slinky cat, eyes sungold as the flowers’ hearts, brushed grey and white hairs onto my sweat-sticky leg, chirruped.
‘That’s Monkfish,’ She growled, ‘and he’s not for sacrificing.’
I drank fast, grimaced. Rashly asked ‘Are you a witch?’.
She turned from the fragrant pie she was slicing, licked red fruit from her thumb. Her face golden-brown as the pastry crust, cheeks plumped by a generous smile, eyes the dark-green of avocado skin.
‘No child.’ A slice of pie placed in front of me, bleeding. ‘I’m something else.’ She leaned close, sandalwood and bitter coffee. ‘Monkfish tells me you are too.’
The night air seems full of soot. I wheeze. My legs burn, wobbling me into a blackthorn hedge that grabs and stabs and when I tear free, I leave slivers of me behind. Tiny wafers of translucent skin that flap in impaled distress. Blood pulses from a hundred scratches, is flung from my hands as they pull at the night ahead. Seeking purchase. My mind fills with crimson spatter on pretty wallpaper, the grave face of a clock. Fills with the urgent tick, tick, tick.
I worked meticulously on the tough, green flesh of the pumpkin, carving a feline face that would later grin or grimace depending on the mood of the candlelight. I’d learned not to rush Shona’s lessons: her mood flickered just as deftly. She was feeding pigeons through the window; their feathers loosed and skipping around the kitchen like manic moths. Monkfish glowered, swatted them onwards with his serpentine tail. His immaculate white paws rested gently on the handle of the mirror; protecting, preventing.
“It’s time” Shona announced, shooing the chattering birds. I put down the sticky knife, my heart bobbing like a shy pigeon.
Sitting opposite me, Shona laid a bunch of glaucous sage leaves on a saucer, flamed their edges with a match. Monkfish’s purring was so deep, I felt the reverberations through the oak tabletop – my hands tingled. Shona’s eyes peeled me open, sought the very pit of me, then she picked up the mirror and I was lost to the purr and the smoke
The house is dark, hulking. The purple maple by the door a wall of bruised hands begging me to stop. I push past, into the hallway where the dark is corporeal, punching into my mouth, pulsing with prescience. My ears full of my heartbeats, I still hear the mantle clock chime, a broken bird, and something else making my heart jerk like a marionette – my sister sobbing, soft as cat paws on grass. I turn towards the front room. A cold shadow peels from the cloying black, closes on me. I seek my voice, hope it doesn’t betray my fear.
‘All I see is glass, Shona. Slivers of me.’
My bleating hardened her face. Monkfish stopped his languorous washing to further berate me. Shona sipped tea, rosehip steam curling into flared nostrils. I watched her brown hands blanch as she gripped the mug.
‘Then stop trying to see, idiot child.’ Her hand over my eyes then, rasping my eyelids, carrying the musk of foraged fungi. ‘And just see.’
The burn of her hand on my skin like a mask, I stared into the mirror. I concentrated on breathing the smoke that feathered the foxed glass, filled my head. Monkfish rumbled on the edge of my focus, chrysanthemum-heart eyes blinking slowly, slowly. I felt myself sliced open like a pumpkin; eyes carved with a sticky knife. And finally, I did see.
Somehow finding its own light, the knife glints in the dark when he raises it.
‘Why, brother?’ My voice sage smoke.
‘You shouldn’t be here, sister. He’s no need of you.’ His eyes charred bullet holes in the blade’s reflection. Truly lost to me.
I wrap around the pain of loss, draw on Shona’s strength and wisdom, some of Monkfish’s insolence, to step into my brother’s crushing dark space. Between us, the knife smiles silver, hungering for hot blood across it’s cold flanks. I smile back,
‘Surely you mean he’s afraid of me?’ I push against my brother’s broad chest, my hands subsumed by something unnaturally cold –
I see myself finding safety there on storm-dark nights, his heart a gentle thunder; I see my baby sister held firm against that impenetrable strength when my father raged; I feel my arms straining to enwrap when we raced farm ponies, my legs locked round his waist –
– he pushes back, a growl deep in the muscle. I stretch up so my words stab into his ear, a warning to whatever crouches in his mind.
‘You should be afraid of me.’
I grab his hand, twist hard and fast, the knife plunges deep, forcing our fists together. Blood dances out, excitedly kissing my cheek. Dripping red and viscous. We crumple together as lamps shudder to life through the house, bathe the hall in stewed-apple light. I lay my head on his ruined chest, see his eyes turn pie-crust-brown again, feel the gentle thunder of his heart slow, slow…
He whispers, “Thank you.”
I close my eyes, tears rinsing blood from my face. I summon his gentle smile from every other memory but this, until it’s all I see.
J. P. Relph is a working-class writer from the north west of England. She is mostly hindered by four cats and aided by copious tea. J. P. also volunteers in a charity shop where they let her dress mannequins and have first dibs on haunted objects. A forensic science degree and passion for microbes, insects and botany often influence her words. Recently found in New Flash Fiction Review, Noctivagant Press, and Molotov Cocktail.