4500 Words

Australian Shadow Award nominee—Best Short Story

They gave her a name when she was born, but it broke, along with all her other things. Into the dark hearth she smashed the toy wagon I gave her. Its splinters found their way into her feet when she crouched in the ancient soot. I learnt not to give her presents.

I gave her a dress my mother sewed, when I moved in to the Morrisons’ as a boarder, because it cut my heart to see her naked in the cold. The maid, Kate, shot me a doleful glare, then tried to thread the child’s spindly arms into the shift. The girl fought her off, and tore the white fabric into three.

Strands of hair fell around Kate’s face, red and damp with sweat. She pursed her lips and shook her head. “I’ll mend it. Take it to the workhouse, where some poor child wants it.”

Kate’s pained expression gauged if I had yet begun to understand.

The girl destroys curtains and has twice broken her windowpane: once with a chair and once with her fists. Glass showered the heads of passers-by on the street, and they came bleeding to the door demanding recompense.

Her father boarded the window up once, but she broke that wood and the skin of her hands as she did it. After that he almost bricked it in.

“But that would have been cruel,” Mrs. Morrison tells me. “One of her two pleasures in life is staring out that window at the sky and street.” Even as winter sleet drifts in. I wonder how the girl’s hands never freeze to the bars at nighttime.

“We barred it up to stop her climbing down the drainpipe and running away,” Mrs Morrison says, as cool as a portrait of herself.

§

I need a name for the girl. I can’t think of her as the girl. In my head, I call her Rochelle: the little rock.

Sometimes, if we are alone, I sing Rochelle a song, repeating her secret name, hoping that she will learn it. She might appear to be listening, but then she’ll shout at the wall, instead. Do I hear syllables in her babbling? It’s hard to know.

When Kate brings her food, she ignores it as often as not.

I believed she had no understanding of language at all until this night:

All the household is sleeping, and I find her awake with her door open, which it never is at night in case she runs away or sets the house on fire.

I pass her room and glance in, to find it awash with moonlight. Her arms embrace her knees. Her toes and short hair shimmer with silver moon-glow.

She’s looking out at the sky, but she says my name. I hear it, though she faces the moon, not me. She turns her head and her dark eyes affix me. Straggles of hair curve around her thin face like claws.

“Good Wife Henny is fair of face but her heart is festerin’ black.” Her voice is sweet and her tongue inexplicably eloquent. “She swaps babies for ill spirits, and sucks the goodness from the soul, to the innocent’s destruction.”

Her gaze is intense but her face is expressionless.

A burst of laughter erupts from my lips and I slam her door closed. It’s the sort of laugh you use as self-defence, then once having shown your teeth, you flee.

My hand twitches on the handle and I try to catch my breath. It has to be a dream so I stumble back to bed.

§

The next morning an elderly woman pauses her long bicycle and cart by our front door. Her black raincoat is several metres long and crinkles as she heaves her load forward. I’ve never seen the like of it before: it’s a cross between a jacket and a tarpaulin.

Rain trickles into pools behind her pointed boots, and she squints against drops spitting in her eyes.

“I have Alfred’s special milk!” she calls up.

Alfred, six months old, must be ready for weaning. He doesn’t think so, as babies seldom do.

Rochelle runs to the window and screeches, loud enough to drown out the clock tower. She scratches her shoulders, drawing blood. Every one of us in the household helps to drag her back from the window, still screaming and writhing as she goes.

She beats upon the floor, and then bangs her head on the boards, too, enough to draw blood. It takes three of us to hold her down—one of them on each leg, and me with her arms pinned above her head.

That is all of us, but for the baby. There’s the sobbing Mrs. Morrison, Kate the capable maid, and me. The father is away on business across the seas, so I have use of the spare room and his study.

Rochelle fights and shouts until the woman gives up ringing and knocking, and rides her bicycle away.

From the window I watch her go. Her long raincoat crinkles and drags along the ground.

The girl lies quietly on the floor, staring at the ceiling without seeing. Her knees have fallen to one side. She has every right to be exhausted.

“Who might that have been?” I ask.

The maid huffs over like a ruffled chook. She pins back loose strands of hair as best she can, though it will need a thorough redoing to be neat. She leans next to me and peers through the bars, down the street. “That was Good Wife Henny.”

“Who is she?”

“A widower … moved here some years ago. Loves babies so. They say she lost her own.”

I squint after her, observing her slow pedal and strange long coat creasing and stretching as she turns.

“Why didn’t she leave the milk on the doorstep?”

The maid laughs. “Henny would never leave her precious delivery on the steps! Every baby takes one draught of her special milk. It keeps them well all the winter.”

“Isn’t that strange? What could be in it?”

Kate laughs and pats me on the shoulder.

I turn to Rochelle, who won’t meet my eye. She rolls around on the floor, pulling back her fingers so far that it must hurt.

I shake my head. “Why do you do that?”

She stands and twirls away, then jumps over to the corner and jumps and jumps. You or I would tire. Rochelle does not.

“I’ll sit with her awhile,” I tell the maid.

Mrs. Morrison hunches in the corner sobbing.

“You need a cuppa, Ma’am,” Kate says, sliding her arm around her back. Mrs. Morrison nods, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. The baby begins to howl in his nursery.

When they’re gone and Rochelle finishes jumping, I lean forward, my elbows on my knees. My fingertips form a steeple.

“Is that true, what you said yesterday, about Good Wife Henny? And that was her, the old lady with the long raincoat that covers her cart.”

She sings a short repetitive tune and lies on her bed, staring at the ceiling, flicking her feet from left to right. I wait a long time for a flash of lucidity like last night’s. Eventually she returns to the window and releases a string of short screams.

Frustration rising and ebbing, I drink the tea the maid brought me, gone cold on the mantelpiece. Eventually, I retire to my room.

§

Rochelle likes to stand over the bassinet by the fire, but Kate seldom lets her. She shoos her away or swats her with a cooking spoon or the flick of a towel. I frown at her, when I see this. The maid blushes and scurries away.

Mrs. Morrison is more giving. She’ll let the girl watch little Alfred, as he sucks his fingers and whimpers small cries, even if she’s rocking him to sleep.

Rochelle never picks him up. If we pick him up, she darts away. She’s afraid of him, I think; his bursts of noise and movement, and the occasional spurt of fluid. Yet she loves him very much.

§

“Sad, sad news,” the maid says, stirring a steaming pot on the stove. “Another baby has died—just when he should be taking his first steps.”

“Died of what?” I ask.

“A sudden fitful fever.”

“So sad.”

Kate nods. “The mother refuses to eat or drink. She will not leave the house. Her other children would starve if not for the kindness of their neighbours and Good Wife Henny.” The maid smiles. “She’s bringing them whatever leftover milk she has. Warm soul.”

“Had the baby drunk the special milk?” I ask.

She laughs. “Of course. Months ago.”

Something about Henny and her milk always makes Kate laugh, even in dire circumstances. I catch a movement in the corner of my eye and glance over to the stairwell.

Rochelle grips the banister with white knuckles and her eyes are wide, her face hostile. I gasp. She’s not allowed outside her room without some supervision, but sometimes her door is open, to my surprise.

Like the night she spoke to me, if that truly happened.

“Never mind her,” Kate says. “She don’t understand a thing.”

§

Rochelle is quiet, rocking in her room, saving herself. Henny appears at the corner, once again attempting our door. Her long raincoat creaks, covering her cart and its contents, full of milk, of course.

That’s a lot of milk she delivers, if it’s milk under her raincoat. Too much milk. But what else could be in there?

The girl threads her arms and legs through her window, like snakes. She’s a spectacle, naked up there, and screaming every profane word she should never have heard. She would hear them, living above the street. But how does she pick them as the foulest?

A crowd stops to listen, mouths wide, grins on some faces. The girl knows words I’ve heard in the roughest of public houses—enough to make me lower my gaze in shame.

We try to pull her away, but she’s as strong as steel. She clamps to the bars like a wicked wrench, bolted and rusted closed.

Below, Good Wife Henny looks up at us, her grey hair bound in neat coils. On her pale cheeks there’s no hint of judgment or embarrassment. Her chin is raised with strict determination.

§

I glance at the slip of paper Mrs. Morrison has given me and check the number on the blue door, then rap with my knuckles.

There’s no answer so I duck and lift the postal flap, and peer down the hall. Through the webbed corners of the slot, beyond the corridor with a faded rug, is a kitchen in glaze-tinted light.

Good Wife Henny lifts a milk bottle to her lips and drinks. She tips her head back and takes a long draught. My view’s obscured by distance, but the bottle appears empty except of rainbows—like those on an oil slick.

I stand up, knock again and wait. Eventually come footsteps, the creak of a raincoat and the trundle of small wheels. She cracks open the door and peers at me from a kindly face.

“Yes?”

Her cheeks are pink, her eyes are blue, and her nose is a modest button.

“May I come in?”

“Who are you?”

“A boarder at the Morrisons’ house. I’ve come to collect the special milk that has proven undeliverable.”

“Oh!” She clasps her hands. “How wonderful. What a good one you are. Come in! Follow me, but not into the kitchen. I’m preparing my milk and the process is delicate.”

“Of course!” I find myself giggling—just like Kate.

She slides backward and opens the door, but she can’t turn in such a narrow hallway. She wouldn’t need her cart with her to pull the milk, so why does she wear her raincoat, three metres long?

I swallow a giggle, which results in a hiccup.

Good Wife Henny returns to the kitchen by walking through the lounge room because she cannot turn in the hall, dress creaking as she waddles.

I squint at the hem and catch a glimpse of a wheel flicking up the coat, and catch the scent of sewing machine oil.

No person could have a rear as long as that. It reminds me of a wasp—or some other insect abdomen full of eggs. Hic. I swallow and refuse to shiver, because I’m not a child at the whim of fanciful imaginings. It was probably the style to wear enormous long skirts when she grew up.

She beams at me and I raise my gaze to meet hers.

“I’ll fetch you a bottle from the cellar. Please sit on the lounge—warm yourself by the fire.”

“Thank you. Hic.” I force a grin and remove my hat, then make to sit on the lounge as she glances back and rounds the corner out of the kitchen and down to the cellar.

I move silently to the table with two-dozen empty bottles (less one). I clamp a hand over my mouth to silence my hiccups.

The bottles are empty, but their lids are fastened on and they contain that rainbow shimmer. Do they really—or is it a trick of the light?

The missing bottle must be the one that she drank … there it is, in the sink. Is a baby dying somewhere, just as Rochelle said, because Henny consumed its soul?

Other bottles with dregs of milk languish in a bucket, giving off a cheesy odour which mingles with the perfume of dried flowers and herbs—jasmine, sage, and lavender, hanging from the windowsill.

Hic.

When she rounds the corner, with the special mixture, I’m seated on the lounge.

She pauses and sniffs, near the table where I’d stood. I’m glad I didn’t touch anything. Yet, she knows I’ve been there, doesn’t she, as though there’s a trace of my scent on the air, or echoes of my stifled hiccups.

But her bottles are still there, and she has no reason to be suspicious, and her face is hospitality and love as she hands me Alfred’s special milk, wraps my palms around it, and covers my hands with hers.

“I hope to serve your son, one day. Fine lad he’ll be!” Her blue eyes shine, and I know she is pure benevolence, nothing other.

“How wonderful.” My smile blooms in response to hers.

“Do you promise?” Her grip tightens. A sliver of her fingernail slices a crease in my knuckle. Blood drips from my finger onto the carpet, splashing micro-droplets upward then soaking in.

Eyes locked on hers as I laugh and back away, cradling the milk and bowing.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“Bring me the bottle, when he’s done.”

“Of course.” I tip my hat.

§

Rochelle meets me at the lower steps, when I return home. She hisses, then darts away. I recoil from this unusual aggression, and head for the kitchen where I almost collide with Kate.

“Ah, good,” she says, relieving me of the bottle and affixing a teat. “Mrs. Morrison is out visiting another poor bereaved mother, and I have dusting to do on the upper floors. Alfred is late for his breakfast, napping. I’ll put this in a bowl to warm. If he wakes, could you give him his bottle?”

Another baby has died? And yet, Henny, so kind, could not be the culprit.

Rochelle is watching me. I glance back at her, then nod.

Kate bustles away and I sit at the kitchen table, staring at the milk and glancing at Rochelle. Perhaps I should tip it down the sink.

She creeps nearer, pausing by the table, staring at the milk like it’s a snake. Suddenly, she crosses the room and snatches it from its saucepan.

“Hey!” I cry.

She bolts up the stairs, taking several at once with her small dirty feet. I chase her up to find her sitting on the bed, arms wrapped around the bottle, rocking.

“Give it to me.”

She holds it up and sucks it all down.

I try to stop her, but words catch in my throat. I reach out to snatch it but she strikes me so hard I recoil, cradling my arm to my chest. I wince at the blush on my wrist, awaiting a bruise.

Rochelle finishes the bottle and raises it over her head to cast it from the window. Her arm extends through the bars.

“Stop! I have to return the bottle.”

She doesn’t seem to hear. My arms are longer than hers and I reach over before it flies, snatching it from her hand. My fingers slide over the wet glass and the bottle spins upward, over and over. I catch it by the teat and bring it back into the room.

The girl bounces up and down on her bed, laughing. She throws her head around then slams her whole body into the wall.

Violence is normal, but laughter is unusual.

A dreadful suspicion settles over me.

“Did you just want the milk for yourself?”

I walk to the door and pause, momentarily dizzy. I rub my temples with finger and thumb.

“Thank you,” a sweet voice says.

I spin around and see only her back and hair. She’s straddled the windowsill, one leg through the bars.

It can’t have been her who spoke, yet there’s no one else in the room.

In the kitchen, I reaffix the lid, and search for a shimmer in the bottle. I change my mind and wash out the dregs, then fasten the lid again. The shimmer is more obvious now. Maybe oil is mixed into the glass for aesthetics or preservative properties.

On impulse, I lick the inside of the teat. Normal milk, so far as I can tell.

Kate pokes her head in.

“Did he wake?”

I make a quick decision—for ill or worse.

“He woke, drank, and slept again.”

“Thank you.” She smiles. “The drapes are almost done. I’ll start to prepare your lunch.”

§

I watch from across the street as Good Wife Henny collects the bottle, which I have dutifully returned, from her doorstep.

At home, Rochelle appears unchanged. She doesn’t sicken or die. Months pass and I wonder if what we did was right or terrible.

Her birthday comes and goes. She’s uncommonly quiet that day with just a few screams, and less thrashing and yelling than usual. The day goes unmarked by cake or candles. Kate says it’s not worthy of celebration.

“It means nothing to the girl,” she says. “It only brings Mrs. Morrison pain, as she fails to grow toward the young lady we wish she’d be.”

I only discover it’s her birthday by looking in the family bible, and there I find her name is Rachel Elizabeth Morrison. How close I was! But my guess at her age was wide of field. She is eight, while I would have said six, at most.

I smuggle in a cupcake from the patisserie, light a candle on it and sing happy birthday to Rochelle.

She has no interest in eating it, but grinds it into crumbs and rolls them through her fingers with pleasure.

Baby Alfred’s birthday comes, too, and he is bonnier than ever. He eats birthday cake and cream. He smiles, coos, and shows no sign of taking ill with the dreaded sickness that’s stricken so many of his peers.

Rochelle, though, is eerily quiet that day. She cannot be coaxed to taste the cream. As night descends her condition worsens. She writhes in her bed, moaning with fever. She refuses to take even a sip of water.

“This is a first,” Kate says, with too little compassion. “She’s usually as healthy as a horse.”

“You must call the doctor.”

“He refuses to come.”

Mrs. Morrison is quiet and prayerful, watching her child’s fever worsen, applying wet cloths to her forehead and rinsing them in a pail. The fire roars in the hearth, tempering the open window’s chill.

I wonder what Mrs. Morrison prays for. A flare from the fire illuminates her squinted glare. I draw back, horrified she might be praying her child will die.

Near midnight, the moon passes behind a cloud. Rochelle’s energy returns, fueled by demonic possession. She sweats and thrashes, rises and throws her blanket into the fire. The gust blows burning coals out onto the floor.

I douse the flames with water from the bucket. The blanket burns with a sickening smell. Kate fishes it out, into the bucket, and the fire dwindles.

Rochelle screams.

“Could a priest help her?” I ask.

“He can’t get near her,” her mother says.

Rochelle appears to quieten down, then suddenly she’s up again. She attacks Mrs. Morrison, who pushes her away and backs out of the room.

“Out, everyone!” Mrs. Morrison cries, and we join her in the hall.

Rochelle collapses on the floor, still. Her mother closes and bolts the door. “Nothing can be done for her.”

My heart aches for Rochelle.

“I’ll sit with her,” I offer. “If she’s not long for this world, she shouldn’t die alone on the floor.”

Mrs. Morrison crosses her arms.

“Someone should be with her. And I have no relationship to her—not like you. It brings me less pain.”

She nods and returns to her room.

I open the door. I lift Rochelle’s still body and place her in her bed, then sit in the corner and wait.

At intervals, all night, she fights invisible monsters. It’s like something is trying to devour her soul. Anything weaker would lose this fight, but not her, not the little rock.

Her nails claw; her teeth gnash. Curse words tear from her lips, as though her spirit is fighting for survival and damning itself in the bargain.

§

Dawn’s rays wake me. To my surprise, Rochelle’s chest rises and falls. Her colour is good and her cheeks firm. The shadows beneath her eyes have lightened. Could I wake her if I tried? I shake her. She doesn’t stir. It could be a heavy sleep. I resolve to leave her be.

I hope to never endure another night like that for as long as I live. I descend the stairs, seeking coffee.

The maid’s eyes are red and swollen. She dabs at her wet cheeks with a handkerchief. Mrs. Morrison sits at the table, staring into space, as though she’s heard one tragedy too many.

“Don’t cry,” I say. “She seems to be on the mend.”

The maid silences me with a finger to her lips, then takes my shoulders and leads me into the sitting room. I obey, tired and confused.

“You should sit down.” She gestures to the chair by the hearth.

I sit.

“Good Wife Henny has been grievously murdered.” Anguish creases Kate’s forehead. “The neighbour said it was like something had gouged its way out from her womb; scratched free from inside her belly.”

She puts her hand to her chin and shakes her head. “Must have been some lunatic. Savaged her and tore her apart. They found her innards hanging all down her skirt. Can you imagine?”

This news is too much for me.

I stand and run from the room, startling Mrs. Morrison in the kitchen. I shove open the front door, stumble down the steps and stand in the garden, coughing in the chill air.

When I reach the street, I begin to run.

Like something had gouged its way out from inside her.

Something she was trying to digest?

The cold stings my cheeks and burns my lungs.

Her innards hung down her skirt.

Which skirt? The long one? And … what was inside it?

My heart races. Blood pounds in my ears.

I’m almost there. I turn left and then turn right. People clear out of my way. I have a purpose or a madness with which they’d best not interfere.

There is Good Wife Henny’s front door.

I look both ways. The street is quiet.

I take the path to the door. When I touch it, it swings open. It’s dimmer than the last time I was there, and the musty smell has been subsumed by death’s stench. Her body’s been removed from the puddle of dark blood. No one has yet cleaned the floor.

I make my way down the hall, tripping on the rumpled rug. Picture frames are broken, shards litter the floor, and drawers have been upended, but the bottles in the kitchen are untouched. I nudge them off their chair, with a spin, and they smash.

I round the corner and peer down to the cellar, then light a candle before I descend. Creaking step by creaking step, I enter the darkness.

There, propped up against a wall, is what I hoped to find: the long raincoat and whatever is within. Henny must have removed it in the night, during her fight.

I need to know what’s inside, though my heart hammers in my chest and I dread what I’ll find.

I squat alongside and carefully peel back the leather.

A pale and hairless skull stares at me, dead eyes unseeing. Tiny hands clench in a frozen memory of pain. A litter of others like this fill the cart: sick, deformed babies, all different sizes and stages of development. Some sucked milk from tubes, others’ bellies show umbilical cords which wind away toward the front of the cart.

The children are curled up within a structure of cane and tubing. She must have connected those pipes to her breasts and … other parts.

I shake my head in horror and cover my nose against the smell. I bite down on my scream but stumble sideways, into a puddle of ooze. “Aurgh.”

The children aren’t alive, but nor are they long dead. They must have lost their lives when Henny lost hers.

Then the bigger child shifts and I notice her. She’s older and too big for a baby’s cage, but she isn’t fully formed. There’s only her slack skin, grey eyes and a slowly pulsing heart. No bones, no muscle, for she was not properly stolen. Her soul fought its way free.

Her head rocks back and she seizes, limbs twitching within her wicker restraints. I reach out for her, touch her cool shoulder. She falls still. The heart which protruded from her skin has stopped. No pulse. No breath.

Will this set the real Rochelle free, or leave her dead, too?

I turn and bolt up the stairs, through the hall and down the steps. I take the path and turn onto the street. A man in a uniform slams into me, his happy whistling disrupted. “Oi! Watch where you’re going!” It’s with good humour, though. He shines a friendly smile.

“Sorry!” I push him away.

“Hey, it’s my lucky day.” He passes me a letter. “This one’s for you.”

Shaken, I glance at the name.

“You’re a postman?” I say. “Thank you.”

I turn and run, my heels pounding the footpath all the way home. I burst in the door, drawing shrieks and glares from Kate and Mrs. Morrison.

I bolt up the stairs and find Rochelle lying in her bed, deathly still, covers on. I dash across and jab her chest, too hard. Her eyes snap open and she rolls away, babbling.

“You’re alright,” I whisper. “Thank God. I thought you’d be dead.”

Her babbling continues towards the wall, until she pauses for breath. And then, quietly:

“Postman Christie lures lonely hearts to the moors with false admirers. He farewells bludgeoned corpses on the ebbing tide.”

“Postman …”

I turn over the letter in my hands, from an unknown JR Christie.

I toss the letter into the fire.

Helen Stubbs writes stories that are dark with pointy edges published in anthologies and magazines including The Never Never Land, Midnight Echo, and Winds of Change. She interviews for Galactic Chat and the Australian SF Snapshot. In 2010 she won the Worldcon short story competition and in 2015 she won a Ditmar Award for Best New Talent in Australian SF.

She’s a keen obstacle course racer (think Tough Mudder and Spartan) and loves zip-lining and hiking. Sometimes she climbs things she shouldn’t! Check out her blog or say ‘hi’ on Twitter to @superleni.

1 Comment

  1. Awesome story – dark!

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