I am picking soft tomatoes from the vine when I see the old woman for the first time. Our house squats stubbornly among cornfields that stretch far and flat to the horizon. A long, straight road of hard packed dirt parts the rows of rustling maize like a bullet’s path to our doorstep and along this road she shambles towards us under the weight of a large pack. Her form is bulky and misshapen under a sky growing black with thunderclouds. The wind, rushing across the plains, smells of the coming rain. I call out to Silas, who is mucking out the chicken shed, and she stalks out covered in shit and straw.
When I see the old woman up close she is badly hunchbacked and bundled in so many layers of animal skins she has the appearance of a boulder balanced atop two gnarled stick legs. I can’t take my eyes off her hiking boots: huge and crusted with dried mud, stuck all over with grass seeds, wildflowers and jacks, they look like they’ve taken a piece from every path they’ve travelled. A black beetle rides on the toe of her left boot, jaunty and twitching. Her grin, when she catches me staring, is only half full of teeth, like a broken picket fence, and when I see her eyes I shiver. They make me think of the lake close to town when it’s frozen in winter: white on the surface, hiding darkness below. When she holds out a fist and unfurls her bony fingers, I flinch. She shows her traveller’s mark and I look at Silas.
‘Come in then,’ Silas says through tight, reluctant lips, showing the woman up the stairs to our home. A hard knot forms in my belly. It’s not the usual season for travellers and it is a blue moon in three nights’ time. Just to be safe I pluck out one of my hairs by the root, tie it in three knots, and send it into the wind. I follow Silas and the crone into the house.
‘Where are your parents?’ she asks, sitting across from Silas. We are in the kitchen.
‘Gone south, to family in need,’ says Silas. ‘We’re in charge.’ She tips back her chair, her short hair tucked behind her ears and one hand on her hat which sits on the table in front of her. Her chin is raised in that way Mama used to say makes her look ‘insolent’ but which I think makes her look handsome and daring. Mama also says Silas was born with a chip on her shoulder and a mouth as quick as her stockwhip, and I think she is right in saying that either Silas’ tongue or her temper will get the best of her one day. But I also think people underestimate the power of a girl who is handy with a whip.
‘Three sisters running a farm.’ The woman eyes each of us one by one as she speaks. ‘One yeller-haired, one dark, and one red like leaves in fall. You are sisters, aren’t you?’
‘Maybe we are.’ Silas narrows her eyes. ‘Maybe it’s none of your business.’
‘My, you sure have spirit in you, don’t you, young lady? Good for you.’ She chuckles and it sounds like stones thrown in a well, clattering all the way down. ‘I once had sisters, two of them, like you girls. I suppose they are around, although I haven’t seen them for a long time.’
Kait’s skirts swish and her ginger braid flings about like a tail as she bustles ‘round the kitchen. She shoots Silas a looksharp as a dart and hands the woman a cup of water. ‘You’ll have your three nights of us, of course, and you’re welcome to take them indoors,’ she says. Then, with pride, ‘We have an empty room.’
‘That’s awful kind,’ she says, ‘but if you’ve got a patch in your yard you don’t mind me to occupy, I’ll be happy to pitch my tent.’
‘We could always put you in with the chickens.’ Silas leans in close, a mean grin on her lips. But the woman is calm and stony.
‘I don’t need a lot, is all I’m sayin’.’
Outside, I hear a rumble of thunder and the first fat splats of rain on the roof starting up.
‘Silas, don’t be surly.’ Kait turns to speak to the woman, ‘You can have the old nursery. There’s no bed, but we can fill some potato sacks with straw. You won’t want to be out there tonight.’
‘Thank you. You’re terribly generous.’ The old woman folds her hands in her lap, the shade of a smile teasing at the corners of her mouth. It’s like she is playing a game with us, I think, only I don’t know the rules. ‘A nursery, you say? You all look a little young to be bearin’ chillun’.’
‘Of course,’ Kait exhales in a breathy giggle; she doesn’t look the woman in the face. ‘Long time since this house seen a baby. I’m the youngest and almost fourteen now, would you believe it?’
The old woman says nothing but just clucks her tongue in a strange manner.
Silas shifts in her seat. ‘What’s your gift to us, old woman?’
‘Silas!’ Kait’s cheeks flush at our sister’s impertinence. Silas grins.
‘I don’t have much, an old woman like me travelling alone, but I can help with the animals. And I make remedies, if you’re in need of any medicines.’
I tap my toe three times on the threshold and make a wish for Silas to intervene and send the woman away. But even if custom didn’t require it, hospitality is little Kait’s pride. Where some might begrudge a traveller their three nights, Kait takes her duty as an honour. She is like a prize filly at the town show eager to win a ribbon. And though she is the youngest, she has ways, now, of making us comply. She hands me a stack of potato sacks and their scratchy fibres rasp the soft skin on my forearms. I pinch Silas on the arm so she will come with me out to the barn.
‘She’ll stink up our house,’ says Silas once we’re outside. ‘Didn’t you smell her?’
I know I shouldn’t but I grin and whisper back, ‘Did you see her wild boots?’
‘I think I spotted a bug crawling in her hair!’ We snicker and shove straw into the sacks. The wind batters the barn, making it shake and clatter. There’s a tightness in my chest and though I often have trouble finding words, it is easier with Silas than with anyone else. So I say to her, ‘Silas. I don’t want her to stay here. I got a bad feelin’.’
‘Me too, Flo.’ Silas grits her jaw. ‘Three nights, ‘s all she’s entitled to. And soon as we hear old Abe cock-a-doodle-dooing on that last morning I’ll chase her outta here with my whip if I have to.’
I grin. Silas grins too. I know she likes to make me happy. She goes to the workbench in the corner and rustles in a drawer. When she finds what she is looking for she takes the sack from me. ‘Maybe this will help to send her away sooner.’ She holds the object up for me to see. It’s an old boot spur, barbed and rusty. She buries it inside the sack full of straw, and smiles meanly. ‘Get away with you old woman. Git, GIT.’
We eat dinner that night in silence. I am sitting next to the old woman and I can’t eat because the smell of her makes me sick. She reeks of earth damp, sheep’s wool, and meat that is old and rotten. She soaks chunks of bread in the stew Kait has prepared and pushes them soggy and soft into her mouth.
After dinner Silas pours herself some whisky and we sit by the fire for warmth while the storm outside worsens. Through the rain and the wind, I think I can hear a child howling. I listen real hard, try to make out the screams from the wailing wind and the rushes of hail on tin. I think maybe it is the baby from last night. I thought I had been dreaming when I opened my eyes and heard him. The wails were relentless, like the caws of panicked crows, and I wondered if maybe a tramp had left a child on our doorstep. Mama once told me a story of a child left to the mercy of strangers in that fashion. So I slipped from the covers and crept into the hallway. My eyes adjusted to the light and I saw Mama and Papa’s door, closed. As it has been since Christmas. And then I knew where the noise was coming from, even if I didn’t know what made it. The room at the end of the hall, the old nursery. As babes, my sisters and I had each slept in the crib in the corner of that room. But we are grown, now, ripe and juicy like summer fruit, Papa says. There’s no baby in this house, not anymore. But as I stood in the hallway, my hand on the door knob, I heard the child’s cries plain as day. I pushed the door open and the noise stopped. Moonlight cut shapes from the darkness but there was no one inside. No one but me.
I feel a sharp pain in my scalp as Kait yanks a strand of my hair.
‘Wake up, Flo.’ She hisses, and she hands me a cup of warm milk. She goes to her chair. None of the others appears to have heard the crying just now, but it is there, mixed in to the rain and wind sounds and sounds of the fire.
‘How long have your parents been away?’ the old woman asks. I catch a keen flash in her eye.
Kait looks to Silas who takes a swig of her whisky and in answer says, ‘Left just before Christmas.’
‘And when do you expect them to return?’
‘Not certain. Our aunt is with child and she’s sick.’ Silas watches the woman through slitted eyes. ‘You got a lot questions about our Ma and Papa.’
The woman turns to Silas in her bundle of skins, and smiles. ‘Just unusual is all, to find three fine ladies so young out here alone. Unsavoury types ride in packs across these plains — I know, I run into some awful dangerous men on my travels. I believe it would be a hazard to you if word was to get out that you three lovely, young girls is up here settin’ on a wealth a’ land, and stock too, all by your selves.’ She cocks her head. ‘Is all I’m sayin’.’
Silas’s cheeks flush. ‘Thank you for your concern Ma’am, but we aren’t so helpless as you might think.’ She sways on her feet as she rises then slinks up the stairs leaving Kait and me to sit in silence with the old woman between us.
‘Don’t mind Silas, she’s quick to temper. Papa always said it shoulda bin her born with the fiery hair.’ Kait smiles but her face is taut and her eyes flash in the firelight like a nervous mare’s.
‘Says,’ I correct her.
Kait lets out a whinnying laugh. ‘Isn’t that what I said? Of course, that’s what I meant. Papa says Silas’ should have been the redhead.’
‘Your sister’s temper doesn’t offend me,’ the woman says, ‘but you girls… You girls best be careful who you let in your house.’ She turns to me. ‘And what about you? Do you miss your Ma and Papa?’
I nod my head.
‘Don’t say much, do you?’
Kait smiles. ‘Flo’s just shy, aren’t you Flo? We don’t get much company up here. But it’s exciting to have someone to visit, isn’t it Flo? And tomorrow,’ she leans her head toward the old woman, ‘you must tell me what news you have.’
The woman says nothing but slurps the last of her hot milk and sets the cup on the floor. I look into the fire for a long time, listening to the storm until I cannot hear the crying child anymore.
When the old woman has gone up to bed Kait looks at me and says, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘She knows somethin’,’ I say.
Kait swats her hand in the air. ‘She’s just an old woman.’
We finish tidying the kitchen and put out the candles, snuffing them with our fingers so their black wicks send ghostly strings of smoke straight up into the air. In the red light of the fire I look at the crumbs of dirt and grass scattered at the foot of the chair where the old woman was. I get the brush and shovel and toss them into the fire and the fire hisses and spits like a demon.
I wake in the night. The wind outside is like wolves and the rain is beating devilry down upon the roof. I listen for the crying. Nothing. I sit up in bed.
There is a creak from the hallway. Right away I know it is the woman. I look over to Kait’s bed but she lies still and soundless, asleep, like always. I remember the time before and how sometimes, when I would look over at her, I’d wonder how she never woke up. And one time, I’m sure, I saw the shine of her open eye — just one eye, wide open — but when I had looked again it was shut tight. I hear the noise again from the hallway.
I push my covers aside and go to the door, press my ear up close to it and listen.
The creak comes again and it is right outside. My breath seizes in my throat.
A hurried whisper speaks: ‘Three girls, three bodies, three crimes. Under the corn, under the corn. Three girls. Under the corn.’
I grasp the handle and pull open the door. The windows rattle in their panes and my heartbeat hammers in my ears but the hallway is empty, dark and still. I look down and notice something on the floor. I crouch on the threshold. It is a scattering of dried earth, a crumpled strand of harvest lice, the tiny yellow flowers crumpled. I kick it away and shut the door, but I lie awake again listening for the whisper or the creak or the cry and though none of them come I lie bolt awake until finally it is light.
The next day when I come down to the kitchen Kait and the old woman are sitting closely together, talking of news from town. Kate’s face opens like a sunflower as she soaks in the gossip. She looks greedy, I think to myself, and if she is a sunflower, she is one the birds have picked all the seeds from, leaving its face full of black holes. Silas drinks coffee at the sink, sending low and poorly disguised looks their way. I walk into the kitchen and pour myself a cup of coffee. The hot, black liquid smells sharp and smoky and it burns my tongue. Silas clears her throat.
‘I’m riding out to the western border to check the fences. I’ll be back mid-afternoon.’
A fluttering starts in my chest and I want to ask her to please stay here today but before I can make the words come, Silas is out the door and the door is shut behind her. Kait turns back to the old woman who I realise has been watching me.
‘And what news of the O’Shaughnessys? Is their eldest married yet?’
I don’t hear the woman’s reply over the rush of panic in my ears, but I see her horrid mouth moving and I cannot look any more.
All day I feel watched, like I am not alone, even when there is no one else in the room. In the afternoon when Kait is busy in the house the old woman corners me in the chicken pen.
‘You have such a slow way of talkin’,’ she says, ‘like you’re thinkin’ real hard about each word comes outta your mouth.’ She pauses. ‘So are you stupid or just careful?’
I feel heat rush my cheeks and I look down at the basket of eggs I have collected. I hate when people call me stupid, although they have done all my life. She chuckles and shuffles close to me so I can smell her even over the chicken shit and see the yellowed whites of her eyes. The hens are becoming unsettled, their chatty clucking sounds turning high and anxious, drawn out long like creaky doors swinging open. The woman chooses an egg from the basket and cups it in her palm.
‘Sometimes it is right for a creature to die. And sometimes it is unnatural.’ She looks at me so hard with her frosty eyes I think she must be able to see right into me.
She closes her palm over the egg and I hear the crunch of the shell. She opens her hand and in it lies the aborted mess of a half-formed bird foetus, the mucous streaked bloody as it runs through her fingers. I am horrified but she smiles. The teeth she has left are brown and her breath smells of sulphur and rot.
‘Excuse me,’ I say. I try to push her aside but she’s strong, much stronger than she looks, and does not move. She grips my arm.
‘Do you know how they settle injustices where I’m from, girl?’
‘Let go of me, please,’ I stammer.
‘An eye for an eye,’ she says, still grinning.
I shake my arm free and two eggs fall to the ground as I turn and flee. I hear them break, but I keep running until I reach the house, the old woman’s cackle chasing me across the yard like a ghoul.
I run breathless into the house and find Kait in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Her head snaps up but when she sees it is me her shoulders sag.
‘Should be back by now. Sun’s going down.’ She turns back to the knife in her hand and as she slices, little orange wheels of carrot roll about on the chopping board.
‘Kait, there’s something. About the traveller.’
Kait frowns, ‘Flo, I’m busy.
‘She means us harm, Kait.’
Kait’s nostrils flare and she quickens her pace with the knife which rings out as it bites through the fingers of carrot and strikes the wooden board.
‘Enough, Flo!’ she barks, the blade tearing through the vegetables now. ‘I won’t hear you speaking ill of a traveller, especially one so helpless and frail. Keep your wicked superstitions to yourself. Oh shoot!’ Kait sucks her thumb where she has nicked it with the knife. ‘Fetch me some potatoes from the store room, will you?’
‘Are you alright, Kait?’ I move to help her, but she shoes me away.
‘I’m fine,’ she snaps, ‘get me those dang potatoes.’ Her cheeks flush and her mouth is a thin line.
The familiar earthy smell of old wood and root vegetables folds around me and in the spare light of the store room. I press my back against the shelves and hold in my breath and tap my toe three times on the ground. I do this again and again and when I feel calm I reach into the potato sack and find four good-sized potatoes. One of them is awful large, the size of an infant’s skull and about the same shape. Perhaps it is too big. But I like potatoes fried in a pan the way Kait does them, with melted butter and salt. I can always eat more. And so I take it.
When I go back inside I don’t know why but instead of walking straight into the kitchen I hover in the mud room, hidden by shadows. I hear the woman’s voice.
‘Tell me, child, how did you learn to cook so fine?’
‘I don’t know my cooking’s all that good, really. You flatter me.’ Kait gives a modest, gasping little laugh.
‘I don’t. I’ve travelled far and eaten from many a pot, but yours is something special. I’ll tell you that for nothing.’
Kait sounds embarrassed and pleased, too. ‘Oh, no,’ she says, but I think she wants to believe the woman. I hear the knife on the chopping block, and can smell the sulphurous burn of raw onions. The woman presses on.
‘Forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn but from what I’ve seen I think perhaps your sisters don’t appreciate all you do for them around here. Am I right?’
‘Goodness, I don’t need praise. Honestly, I just do my bit, like we all do.’
‘Of course, of course, my dear. But goodness should be rewarded as evil is punished, and your food deserves to be admired. It your Mama taught you how to cook?’
‘Yes, I suppose she did. Or, she tried. Maybe she taught me what not to do,’ Kait says, ‘if that makes any sense.’
‘I believe it does.’ The woman chuckles and I shiver. She grows quiet, waiting for Kait to fill the silence up with words.
‘She did make good corn bread,’ Kait says. ‘And sweets. She made lovely sweets.’ A sniffle breaks the hush that has fallen.
‘There, there. What’s the matter little one?’ The woman’s whisper is cold and hungry and though I must strain to hear it from where I am hiding I can feel its searching fingers waiting to close like a trap. I want to intervene but I am too scared to move. ‘If you tell me what’s bothering you, maybe I can help.’
Everything is still. My breath feels too large for my chest as I listen for Kait’s answer.
‘It’s nothing. Just these damn onions, is all.’ Kait offers a laugh but it is wet and sad.
‘Child, now, come. There’s something on your mind. Something you’d like to unburden yourself of. You can help yourself if you only tell me…’
I wait for Kait to speak. But right then the too-big potato topples from my arms with a thud and rolls out into the light of the kitchen lamp. I have no choice but to follow it. I can’t meet their eyes, so instead I dump the potatoes into the tub and begin to scrub them clean. The woman shuffles back to her chair and Kait throws the onions, hissing, into the pan on the stove. I hear scuffling and smell rotten breath and she huddles right beside me forcing the skull-shaped potato into my hands.
‘Don’t forget this one.’
I try not to shudder. ‘Thank you, ma’am.’ I hear the tremor in my voice and I know she hears it, too.
‘We’ll see about that.’ She hobbles back to the fire.
My hands shake as I scrub violently, my fear and my impotence and my fury bubbling up and out onto the helpless vegetables, stripped bare under the bristles of my brush. When I am done dirt has worked its way deep under my nails but the potatoes shine as clean as bone.
And that is when I hear Silas’s cries.
She is slumped in her saddle and her leg is a bloody horror. We have run out onto the porch and even from here we see it is bad. I run over, gather the reigns and steady the horse. Her face is a pale moon floating in the night, beaded with droplets of sweat and her mouth gapes like a crater. When we get her down from the horse, I see Silas has used her undershirt to wrap the wound.
Kait is shrill and shaking. ‘What happened? Silas! What happened?’
Her voice is hoarse. ‘Trap.’
I try to keep breathing as I picture the metal teeth and the jaws snapping closed over bone and flesh. As we take Silas from her horse I remember Papa laughing, booting the shrunken carcass of a coyote, a shower of maggots falling out with each kick, the animal’s hind quarter destroyed in the steely clasp. Papa’s traps are unnatural things, homemade using rusted, sharpened spikes and giant springs loaded to jump at a feather’s touch. He never cared what they caught, nor what damage they did to the animals who would be left to either starve or bleed to death. They are instruments of pain and cruelty, his traps.
We get Silas inside by the fire and Kait has a jug filled with water which she tips into Silas’s mouth. I fetch Mama’s brandy and give her that, instead. The smell of burned onions fills the room. I know we need to remove the bandage but I don’t want to see what waits under the reddened cloth. Instead, I put water on the stove to boil. We will need a needle and thread to close the wound. Do I need to get the hand saw? is a question I think of and make myself forget. I am good at forgetting.
All this time, I don’t know where the woman is, yet I feel her watching eyes and occasionally catch the waft of her skins, so I know she is somewhere close but unseen. If the needle and thread are not enough, I know how to cauterise open wounds using a knife with a wide blade. I shove the knife into the coals to heat and then while Kait sterilises the needle, I lift Silas’s head and slip a pillow beneath it. I tuck her damp hair behind her ears, and take her hand as if I am about to tell her a bedtime story. Her eyes dart wildly, and with a desperate grip on my sleeve she pulls me down so she can whisper in my ear.
‘I saw them, Flo. They’re out there in the corn. She’s been talking to them.’
I am about to ask her if she’s heard the baby, too, but she bellows with pain and I start back to see Kait unwrapping the rag. It is as awful as it can be and so I don’t have to think about how perfect Silas’s ankles are when she lies barefoot in the hammock drinking whisky at sundown, I tap my toe three times on the ground while I hold my breath. I can’t help but wonder, again, at how easily our human skin is split open.
Kait’s little mouth is set and we get to work. We clean and stich and wrap and splint, and I give Silas a rag to bite down on, and she is strong but she slips away into a pale, restless sleep amid her groans, and Kait and me don’t say anything to each other as we soak the rags and together scrub with wet cloths the red trail leading from the fireside, over the floorboards and out through the front door, over the threshold, and down the steps. I see the blood in the dirt and this is where we stop.
‘She wasn’t wearing spurs. You saw.’
Kait’s brow furrows and annoyance passes over her face. She is exhausted. ‘How did it get in there? By magic I suppose.’
I can’t find the words to put it all together so instead I say, ‘I think we should ask that old woman to leave.’
‘Flo, not this again. She has two more nights from us. And you heard her, she knows medicines. Maybe she can make something for Silas.’
‘She made it happen: Silas’s leg, the trap.’
‘That’s impossible. She spent all afternoon with the chickens and in the garden helping me. She’s got no reason to hurt Silas, nor the strength. The spur was probably in Papa’s trap, you know what monsters those things are.’
I feel like a spool of thread, unravelling. I grasp Kait’s sleeve, ‘She saw them in the corn, Kait. Silas told me she saw them.’
Kait’s face is stony. ‘I don’t know what you have against her, but I’ve had enough of your nonsense. I’m tired, it’s been an awful day and I just want to get to bed now. You go get cleaned up, I’ll fix us bread and honey, and we can get some rest. I’ll stay down with Silas tonight.’ She gathers the cloth and the bucket and disappears into the house.
My insides twist into a bundle of knots. The calls of cicadas screech into the night and the wind rushes through the fields. I cock my head. There he is, almost faint enough to miss, my screaming child. But this time I hear another voice, too. A woman, I think. Sobbing. The knots in me tighten. I reach into my pocket and take out the small, spiked metal wheel. We found it lodged deep in the disaster of Silas’s wound. A rusty spur, hidden in her flesh.
I turn back to the house and behind the screen see the woman in the shadowed doorway. She cocks her head and pushes open the door. She is holding something with both hands. She shuffles towards me and I tense as she presses it — a cup — into my grasp.
‘Drink. This will help with the shock.’
I try not to retch as she breathes in my face. I don’t want to drink from the cup but I am frozen, just like in the night all those times when I could not move or think and my body became slack and pliable. With her bony grip she lifts the cup in my hands to my parted lips and forces the liquid — hot, rancid — down into the open hole of my throat. My eyes are wide with terror and I can’t look away from her face. In the half light, her irises gleam with ice and the lines of her face are etched deep and black as if with a knife. I start to choke and she releases me. The cup falls with a clatter and horrible liquid soaks my shirt.
The knots inside me turn sharp and a pain strikes deep, down in the parts of my body that make me a woman. The pain is bad, but I have survived worse. Sweat beads on my skin and I struggle to focus my vision. I think the woman is smiling as she backs into the mouth of the hallway and is swallowed by shadows. I fall to my knees and clutch my stomach. Before I pass into the darkness coming down on me I see his little face, contorted, screaming like a demon, slick with the matter of new birth. The hand gripping his hairless skull is calloused and it’s holding him too tightly. I want to yell, to reach out and snatch him away, but I cannot move for the pain, and the hands are tightening, closing around his soft body, his feeble neck. Then down comes the darkness and I slide into it.
When I wake up I feel icy spits on my face and see that the sky is pale with first light. A stab of pain twists inside me and I feel warmth spreading between my legs. I try getting to my feet and find I can walk.
Inside, the fire flickers low and Kait dabs at Silas’s face with a cloth. I go to the kitchen and take a strip of the gauze we left out on the table among the potato skins and the empty glasses, and I push it into the soft hole between my legs. It is not yet time for me to bleed, and I try not to think of what might have been in that drink. I take up a short ribbon of potato peel and with the blood that coats my fingers I make three marks on it and eat it in three bites. The skin crunches between my teeth and there is a bitter taste and a rich, metallic one.
I pull a chair up next to Silas, who whimpers in her sleep like Papa’s dog, Fang, used to. Above me I hear rapid shuffling and loud, irregular knocking sounds. Kait and I glance at one another. It must be the woman, but what is she doing up there? Pains twist deep in my belly.
‘Silas won’t wake,’ Kait says, her voice low. She looks worried now.
‘She gave me something to drink, Kait. And now I’m bleeding, but it’s not my time.’
A shadow passes over her face. The pain is snaking through me, twisting and slithering in there. It has teeth. ‘We have to make her leave, the traveller.’
Suddenly there comes a sound like horses’ hooves racing through the rooms above us and I notice movement at the foot of the stairs.
‘Now, what are you girls whispering about?’ the woman says.
Kait brushes down her skirts and goes to the woman. ‘We can’t wake Silas, ma’am. We’re worried for our sister. Do you have anything to help her?’
My mouth hardens and I bite my tongue to keep from speaking. Outside, I can hear the chickens creaking and crowing. The woman raises her eyebrows.
‘I just might.’
The birds are getting louder and when we hear the barking of dogs Kait and I both jump like crickets.
‘The chickens,’ she says. I think she, too, must be thinking of the bloody mess left by wild dogs that got into the coop two summers ago. They tore the hens to bits while we slept and didn’t even eat what they had killed. I race out the door not knowing what I’ll find outside or how I’ll stop the dogs, but when I get to the coop there are no dogs in sight, only the strong, cold wind that makes the corn rustle like a field of whispers.
I go to the hens and inside the coop they are flapping and squawking in panic, feathers floating loose. My hand shakes as I undo the latch and as I do, a hen barrels at the wire before my face and hits it with a thunk. I cry out in fright and fall onto my backside in the dirt. Another bird attacks the coop’s door which flies open and before I know it a river of feathers, claws and noise rushes over top of me and I cover my face with my arms while the pain inside me sinks its teeth into my belly. When the hens are gone, I stand, shaking and see the flock whirling its way to the house, possessed.
Running into the wind, I fly to the back door and I lock it behind me. I call Kait’s name but hear no reply.
‘Kait? Shut the windows, Kait!’
I turn the key in the front door and check the latches on the windows. From outside, a hen launches itself at my face and it thuds against the glass. I hear the scrape of its claws and see the red smear it leaves. I back away from the window and I touch Silas’ hand, it is limp and clammy.
If Mama were here standing beside me, in charge, now, what would she tell me to do? I try to think of things she has told me in the past and as I begin to remember, I hear her voice in my ear like she is right there with me, her words coming fast and all on top of one another. If you spill salt, throw a pinch over your shoulder to blind the devil. Always use cold water — not warm — to wash out blood. No, Florence, the fork goes on the left. Tie three knots and bury them if you want to wish for love; if you dig them up after three nights and one has come loose, you’ll be a maid forever. You’re old enough, now, don’t be so timid — lather the cream and drag the razor across the skin. Go on now, your father won’t bite. If your eye falls upon a blood moon, bless the four corners. Slide the knife in and if it comes out clean the cake is done. Don’t be silly Florence, you must have been dreaming, just a bad dream that’s all, not another word on it. No dessert for you, you’re getting fat. Florence? Oh, Florence, what have you done? What have you done you evil girl.
I am trembling, gripping Silas’s hand, and I can feel Mama by my side, her breath on my neck, but I cannot turn my head.
‘Flo. What happened to you?’ Kate is halfway down the stairs.
‘The chickens,’ I say.
‘You look like you been away in the mountains for a week and forgot your hairbrush. Filthy! What about the chickens?’
I point to the window. She looks out and starts. ‘Lord! How’d they get out? Flo!’ she pauses and now her voice is uncertain. ‘They’re all just settin’ there on the porch.’
I creep to the window and see the hens clumped in bunches along the railing, up the steps and on the boards. One is sat on the rocking chair, which creaks back and forth, and I see its empty blue eyes on me. I back away and tap my finger and thumb three times together. Kait moves closer to the glass and I hold her back.
‘Don’t. They’re unsettled.’
‘Don’t be silly. I want to see.’ She cranes her neck to look, reaching for the latch.
‘Kait, no!’ I yell but it is too late. She throws the window open. There is a beat of time in which I see the breeze lift a lock of her red hair away from her milky cheek and before it can fall back into place in pour the hens like a tornado, descending on her with their claws and beaks. She screams. I take up the poker and I beat at the birds, trying to block out the horrible shrieks Kait is making. Feathers rain around me and I feel the poker sink thickly into the meat of the birds. I can’t see the old woman but her smell is everywhere. And as fast as they descended, they are gone.
The window hangs open and Kait’s cries become whimpers. Her face is scarlet with scratches, and there is a pulpy mess where her eye was. I shut the window and bolt it and out in the yard I see her, a hunched shape, which appears to be watching the house, perfectly still.
My mouth tastes of dust as I take Kait to the kitchen. I wash the wound with water and bandage it, but the eye is ruined. Patches of raw, weepy scalp show where her hair has been pulled from its roots. I give her the bottle of brandy and make her sip. After a while she stops shaking and slumps in her chair.
‘Why is this happening?’ Kait croaks. I say nothing. Her shoulders shake with silent sobs. She covers her face with her hands.
‘She can’t get in, the doors are bolted.’
‘It’s all your fault,’ she cries. ‘If you just kept quiet…’ Kait’s nostrils flare and she lifts her chin against me, tears streaming from her good eye, her lip curled up and baring her teeth. Cold shame floods my body, settling raw and heavy in the pit of my stomach.
We both turn and see Silas lifting herself up onto her elbows. She shifts her body forward, her jaw is clenched hard. She must be in a lot of pain. I take the brandy to her.
‘Silas,’ I say. I gesture to her bandaged stump. ‘We did the best we could, but it was mangled, Silas. I’m sorry.’
Silas considers the new shortness of her limb for a time and appears to come to a steely decision about it. ‘No matter. I seen what you can do, walk with a wooden boot on a stick. You know, like that fella Jameson, who were in the war. He gets along just fine.’ She takes a very long sip of brandy and grimaces, and through gritted teeth concedes, ‘Sure does hurt some.’
Kait sniffles from her seat.
‘What she do to you, Kait? Your face.’
‘It wasn’t her, it was Flo! She bewitched the chickens and they’ve tore my eye out. She’s just like Mama with her spells and chants.’ She looks at me like I am a stranger then, someone she couldn’t know or like. ‘Witch,’ she spits.
‘Settle,’ Silas holds up her hands and swings her legs over the side of the bench with difficulty. ‘Listen. I seen them, out there in the fields, right before I stepped in that damn trap. Mama and Papa, or shades of them.’
Kait holds her hand over her mouth.
‘Did you see the baby, too?’ I ask. Silas’s eyes turn sad and soft on me and she shakes her head. The fire crackles and a cold wind shimmies down the chimney.
‘Don’t tell lies.’ Kait’s mouth is set tight but her voice shivers as she talks.
Silas continues, ‘I can’t help but think this all makes a kind of strange sense. I got caught by the trap, and I was the one who set Papa’s trap at the bottom of the stairs. The one that…’
‘Mama,’ Kait says in a small voice thick with mourning.
‘It’s like, I don’t know, she came here to bring me to justice or some.’ Silas takes a last slug of brandy and pushes the stopper home.
‘All of us, maybe.’ Kait touches her finger to the bandage over her eye and winces.
‘I was just trying to stop her.’ Silas looks like someone has pushed all the air out of her. I reach out a hand and touch her shoulder. ‘She would have made them take you away, Flo.’
I nod. That’s what Mama said. When she found Papa and he wouldn’t move or wake, even when she shook him. From above, there comes a rustling noise, and our eyes shoot to the ceiling.
‘She’s in the house,’ Silas whispers. The crying starts up from the nursery and the same shiver seems to go through each of us and I know this time they both can hear it, too.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Kait’s voice shakes like she’s been swimming too late in the season and the cold has crept into her bones.
I help Silas up and Kait slips to her other side. With one arm around me and the other around Kate, Silas stands and hops along between us. We reach the door. I hear rustling behind me and my stomach turns as I smell her. When I turn she is hunched at the bottom of the staircase, grinning.
‘Where y’all off to without me? Where is your sense of hospitality, girls?’
‘Run!’ Silas yells. We stumble over the threshold as the old woman’s cackles boom around us as if she is in the clouds, the wind, the rain, and we make for the cornfields as though we might lose her in them but when we push through the tall, green and golden stalks, she is everywhere at once.
‘This way!’ Silas lurches and we stagger forward, a girl beast with five legs and three heads, crashing through our father’s fields.
The raspy leaves seem to pull at my hair, lash my face as they draw us deeper into the field. I look up into the darkening sky and see crows diving and twirling above us. The storm clouds are fierce and black, and we are close now to the spot where Mama dug the little hole in the ground. Just big enough to cradle the bundle she pried from my arms, Now let go Florence, that’s a girl, and she sang a strange song as she covered the bundle up with earth. And here it is now at our feet; the spot where nothing will grow.
I look at Silas and her face is ashen. Although I can’t see her, the woman’s whispers are all around us in the rush of corn leaves and her smell is inescapable.
Kait begins to cry. ‘I didn’t do anything! It was them, not me.’
‘Your sister needed you,’ the old woman’s teeth clack together as she speaks, and I look around for her but see nothing. The handful of stones in her cackle have become an avalanche and as it rushes around us I feel my limbs freeze with fear but I want to fight it. My body holds the strength to kill a man.
Next to me I feel Silas give way and slump beside Kait.
‘Are you Papa’s girl, Flo? Are you Papa’s favourite girl?’ It is as if the woman is whispering the words right in my ear. I am scared but instead of tapping my toes or holding my breath I draw in as much air as I can and I open my mouth to the sky. The scream that charges from me is the sound of an animal backed into a corner, full of fight and fear. It is a wound torn open and poison rushing out. I hear it but it does not sound like me.
And when it stops, I feel an open space unfold inside me and I can breathe all the way into it.
Emma Maguire is a writer and researcher working on Bindal and Wulgurukaba land in Townsville, and Kuarna land in Adelaide. She researches young women’s digital autobiography by day, and by night she writes weird stories about intimacy, female relationships, and creepy landscapes. Her fiction, essays, and criticism have been published in Kill Your Darlings, The Conversation, Scum Mag, and more. You can find out more about Emma on her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.