The traps in the root cellar yielded two small rats. Susannah gathered them both, tearing off and discarding the mostly-severed heads. She dropped them into her apron along with a shriveled, bitter winter melon, and climbed back up the ladder to the kitchen.
She skinned the rats, chopping off the tails and cracking apart the rib cages so they were spread like two red, misshapen butterflies. She dropped them into the soup pot over the fire, grateful that there was at least some meat today. While the thin broth simmered, she sliced the melon.
Little Eve saw the green fruit and scrambled over. She crawled to Susanna’s feet and pulled herself up by the hem of her mother’s apron, grasping in the air with one hand.
Susannah cast a glance across the room. The twins, Judith and Naomi, and their oldest sister, Rebekah, were supposed to be keeping the baby occupied and out from underfoot. But they seemed lost in their own private world of play, giggling and whispering from under a blanket they’d strewn between the small table and chair.
Susannah skimmed a piece of rind and gave it to Eve. The toddler plopped on her bottom, jamming the rubbery rind into her mouth, teething.
Micah and Jerome burst through the door, breathless and red-faced.
“Momma,” Jerome said, hefting a fish in his hand and beaming, “Look what we caught!”
“For God’s sake!” Susanna’s heart hammered.
From underneath the blanket fort, the twins and Rebekah poked their heads out, alarmed at the sudden noise. Rebekah hurried across the room, scooping Eve up from the floor and carrying her out of the way.
Susannah bristled, brushing a lock of hair from Micah’s forehead and peering at the flush across his face. “Have you been running?”
Micah ignored the question. “We were by the river, and Jerome thought we should try—”
“Sit! Both of you!”
The boys hushed. Micah sat on the stool by the hearth. Jerome dropped to the floor, tucking his long legs. They waited, sharing a nervous glance.
Susannah watched their faces, warily eyeing the ruddy color from the sun and exertion. They were only excited, she told herself. It would pass. Sure enough, as they sat quietly, their complexions slowly reverted back to pale and healthy. Jerome’s pallor cleared within moments; Micah’s cheeks remained the barest shade of pink. But he always had red in the freckles across his face.
“What were you thinking, carrying on like that?” Susannah tried to be stern, but couldn’t keep the relief from her voice. “What if someone had seen you? They’d think you were ill.”
“Sorry, Momma,” Micah said. “But the fish—”
“Isn’t it a good one?” Jerome hefted the catch. It wasn’t large, but it was silver and healthy.
“It’s lovely. But you know better than to exert yourselves. You’re not supposed to trek to the river.” She eyed them. “Did you leave your chores?”
“Only for a little while,” Jerome admitted.
“But we walked slow,” Micah said. “And when we got there, Jerome just sat quiet and used a reed on the surface to lure it close. He didn’t even move except to snatch it, and that was just for a second.”
“When I dragged it up I sat on it,” Jerome said. “So we didn’t have to wrestle to keep it from flopping and going back in the water. We were careful.”
He fidgeted, and Susannah couldn’t help but sympathize with why he’d taken such a risk. He was trying so hard to be the man of the house, to help provide for his mother and his siblings. To make sure they had something to eat. And as she held his gaze, his skin and eyes remained clear. He seemed all right. She couldn’t fault him.
She gave him a quick kiss on the forehead. “No harm done. Wash up, all of you.”
The tension drained from the room. The boys grinned and jumped from their seats, and the girls moved to join them.
“Slowly, please,” Susannah reminded. When Micah rolled his eyes, she caught him with a stern glare. Despite their fortune of avoiding illness, there were still commandments to follow. “You’ve already run like devils today. Don’t add disobedience to your trespasses.”
The children made their way to the outside water pump while Susannah hung the fish on a hook over the hearth. Properly dried and salted, it could last them a few days.
Through the front door echoed the sound of gentle splashing and quiet giggles. The twins, playing in the water. So long as they didn’t get too energetic, she couldn’t begrudge them a little fun.
Susannah spooned broth into tin cups. She set out a slice of melon for each child, and one split in tiny chunks for Eve.
The children trickled back into the house. Rebeka settled Eve on her lap, and the twins shared their bench. Jerome and Micah jostled only briefly for the head of the table, and when they were finally seated, Susannah led the prayer. The moment her words ended, Jerome stretched for his fruit. His sleeve slid back, uncovering a scrape.
The skin stippled, red and puffy, smudged with dirt, as though he’d taken a tumble. Tiny dots puckered where blood might have welled up and scabbed.
Susanna jolted to her feet, grabbing his elbow, shoving his sleeve fully away. He yelped as she twisted his arm back and forth, gaping. “You cut yourself!”
Fear swelled in his voice. “No, it didn’t bleed, I swear!”
His skin grew white beneath her fingers, but she didn’t release her grip. All the children sat still as death in their seats.
“You didn’t just go to the river and catch a fish, did you?” Susannah said. “You ran, and you played.”
“No illness got in, Momma,” Jerome whispered. “I’m not sick. I didn’t get anyone else sick.”
Susannah cast her eye slowly on each child. “Cleansing. Now.”
Eve fussed when Rebeka pulled her away from the melon she’d been chewing, but she was the only one. The rest of the children obeyed solemnly.
Susannah snatched the medicine jug from the high shelf above the fireplace before herding them all back outdoors to the water pump. She filled the shallow trough half full, then plucked the stopper loose from the jug’s throat. The scent of fermented herbs permeated the air, sharp and foul. She gestured for Jerome.
He shuffled forward, though he wouldn’t meet her eyes. She scooped a dollop of the medicinal mixture with her hands. It tingled on her fingertips. Reaching for Jerome’s arm, she rubbed it vigorously into the cut.
He winced, and Susannah could see him biting his tongue. She felt a pang of guilt. She remembered how much the medicine had burned before she turned old enough to be immune. But it was right to make Jerome cleanse. A little pain now saved them all heartache later.
The wound and the skin around it flushed pink from the mixture. Then, slowly, it began to fade.
Susannah breathed easier. She scrubbed ointment at Jerome’s cheeks, drawing a sacred symbol quickly, just to be certain. Once again, after a quick flush of pink, the color drained.
She guided his hands to the water and let him rinse it all away.
“I told you,” he said, bitterly.
“I know,” Susannah said. “Beka, come next.”
Rebeka made no protest and bore the cleansing as well as Jerome. Susannah watched the medicinal flush drain from her daughter’s cheeks. She would be grateful when the two oldest were well past their coming of age, and no cleansings were necessary anymore.
Micah dragged his feet. She tugged his arm, drawing him close, and swiped the mixture across his forehead.
The moment it touched his skin, Micah turned.
Venomous red heat from the demon-fever raced across his face. It flushed his skin from head to toe and set his eyes bloodshot and ablaze. His skin steamed where the medicine touched it, and he shrieked in pain.
It was the fastest Susannah had ever seen any child succumb. He was so fully possessed, she was shocked that he could have hidden it so well moments before. She tried to hold him, but he wrenched free of her grasp. He bolted towards his vulnerable brothers and sisters, howling like an enraged animal. He lunged, catching one of the twins, Judith.
She screamed as he clawed her, raking gouges across her arms with his fingernails. Her skin sizzled and blistered where he opened wounds. Sickly red pallor spread rapidly from the points of infection.
Susannah wrenched Micah away, falling atop him with all her weight to keep him pinned. He thrashed, spitting, screaming obscenities. He worked a hand free and clawed for her face. His fingernails dug scratches across her cheeks, but they didn’t fester like Judith’s.
“Beka! The hatchet!”
Rebeka dashed for the wood stacks by the side of the house. She grasped the small axe, sunk solidly in the chopping stump, and wrested it loose.
Micah tore his head from side to side, striking Susanna’s nose with his forehead. The soft cartilage popped. Her eyes watered and she tasted blood as it flowed to her upper lip. Ignoring it all, she stroked Micah’s hair, hushing him gently as though he were a newborn. He didn’t mean to hurt her. “‘Blessed are the calm in spirit,’” she recited, “‘For they will inherit full lives.’”
He didn’t hear, didn’t respond. He only struggled more.
Rebeka stood over them with the hatchet. She stared down at her brother, eyes terrified.
“Give it to me,” Susannah said. “Don’t watch.”
They’d always been so careful, so fortunate. None of the children had ever needed to witness firsthand what had to happen once the demon fever took root. Their father had only needed to do it once, to a newborn they’d christened Miriam. Jerome and Rebeka hadn’t been old enough to remember.
Micah gnashed his teeth, biting his own tongue. He spit blood in Susannah’s face.
She swung the hatchet down.
When he was still, Susannah turned. Judith knelt on the ground, swiping forlornly at the bloody scratches Micah had inflicted on her, tears streaming down her face. Jerome clutched Eve, bouncing her desperately, turning away so the baby couldn’t see. Naomi inched forward, arms outstretched to her twin. Rebeka caught the collar of her dress and pulled her back.
Susannah crouched beside Judith. She couldn’t imagine how painful the wounds must be. But the look on Judith’s face, the pleading in her eyes, was more painful still.
“Please, momma,” she whispered, “I won’t turn demon, I promise. I’ll pray every day and fight it off, I promise, I promise…”
Susannah almost wished the fever had settled immediately, like Micah. “You won’t be able to help it, love.”
“No, I’ll be good! I’ll bathe it in the medicine, even if it stings, it’ll heal then, won’t it? I’ll sit quiet and never fluster, I’ll never get another cut.” Even as she pleaded, the words came faster and more desperate. The color on her cheeks rose, her skin reddening by the moment. “Let me try, momma, please, please!”
The last words were nearly a shriek, and her face already contorted with anger. Susannah wrapped her in her arms, hugging tight.
“‘Love is cautious, love is strict,’” she recited, quietly. The verses felt dead on her tongue, all their familiar comfort gone. “‘It does not infect others, keeps no company of illness, but rejoices with health.’”
Judith screamed, thrashing as Micah had done. She twisted against Susannah’s embrace, clawing at the ground as if to drag herself towards her siblings. Her eyes simmered red. “I hate you! I hope you all die! I hope you all—”
The hatchet silenced her.
Susannah scrubbed the bloodied blade across her apron. She looked to Jerome. “Who else went with you to the river today?”
His eyes flickered to the axe. “It was just me and Micah.”
“Lying is a sin, Jerome.”
Still, he hesitated, and she couldn’t wrong him for it. In another circumstance, it might have been noble. But not now. Protecting his friends wasn’t kindness.
She waited. In the silence, Naomi sobbed.
“The boys from the smithy,” he finally answered. He rushed on. “Momma, they weren’t even there with us the whole time. It was so hot and we all just wanted to go down to the pond to swim.”
Susannah said nothing.
“It was only for a little while. I barely got a scrape, I didn’t think the fever would get in. Micah never said…” Jerome’s voice broke for only a moment. “…he never said he got hurt at all.”
In his voice, she could hear the plea for forgiveness. He wanted to know it wasn’t his fault, that he’d done nothing wrong, that she didn’t blame him. But Susannah looked down at her two children, their bodies split apart, vibrant red against the grass, and she couldn’t muster up sympathy for her oldest. Not right now.
She slid the wooden axe handle into the belt across her apron and strode briskly towards town, where the smithy would be closing for the evening. The sooner she got there, the better.
Though by this time, they might already know.
Autumn Riley’s work appears in Frost Meadow Review, as well as forthcoming from the online magazine Penultimate Peanut and Stardust Reivew. She lives on the seacoast of New England and works as a music teacher and performer, specializing in violin, viola, and cello.