Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Fevering Child

  Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
            Once, a rich man and his wife had three beautiful daughters.  The eldest was a noble and proud woman, Adriana.  The middle was caring but thoughtless, Chana.  The youngest was sweet, but the wildest thing you ever met, Elise.  When their father gave a command, he heard three answers, “Yes, papa,” “Yes … father,” and the whistling wind that said his youngest had run off on some venture again.
            When it came time for the daughters to wed, they did not want for suitors, and that was the problem.  The eldest was easiest, courting a duke’s son by persuading him to court her, and the middle was too caring to choose any one man and break another’s heart.  Young Elise seemed happy to choose one man, and another, and another.  Her father held a party to attract suitors, but it was Elise who made the men blush and gather.  Her loveliness drew the men in a crowd so thick that soon she could not be seen.  Wine, dancing and music passed through the crowd as the party came and went, and when the dawn peeked at the field of revelry before the family’s home, it seemed Elise went with it.  They searched for hours, her parents, sisters, and the hopeful young men, none of whom knew where she’d gone, or whom she might have gone with.
            After a day and a night, Elise was found sitting in the hollow of an enormous tree, sleeping soundly as if she were lying in her own bed.  Everyone felt too relieved to be angry, and the family fussed and at first planned another party for the suitors.  Then Elise’s belly began to swell.
            The mother noticed first, as mothers do, and said nothing while quietly changing the plans.  Adriana noticed second, and she remained silent to keep her sister’s honor.  Chana noticed third, and said gracious things to Elise, but nothing to anyone else.  Then the suitors began to notice, their visiting ebbed, and the last person to notice was the rich father of the girls.
            “How are we to marry you now, to a decent man?” he asked.  He would’ve expected to have a bastard grandchild running around at some point if he’d been cursed with three sons, but he thought himself lucky once—he’d have only trueborn children from his good girls.  Still, he was not a bad man, making no ill choices yet, and he did not throw Elise from the house or cast her aside.
            Then the fever began.  As her belly grew, so did her temperature rise, until her body spread blisters to the skin of all who touched her.  Her clothes came off sweat-soaked, and the sweat boiled into mist.  A cruder family might have tried frying an egg on her forehead, and while this family did not, an egg certainly would have cooked.
            “It’s the creature within,” her father said.  “This unnamed father must be half-dragon.”
            Elise could not for the life of her remember bedding any man, not a face, not a name and not a sweet moment between sheets.  Whispers began to spread, and they soon reached her father’s ears—devil child.  The rich man would have none of this and quickly called a priest to quell the rumors.  When the black-garbed holy man touched the girl, his fingertips burned red like the fingers of anyone else who’d laid a hand on the girl, and when he laid a wooden cross to her belly, it came away singed.
            “It is a demon seed, as I feared,” the priest told the family.  “On tomorrow’s dusk, her belly must be washed in holy water, and then the seed cut from her flesh.  Both mother and child will die, but this must be done to save her soul.”
            Her father reluctantly agreed despite the protests of his wife and daughters, for what was her body to her soul?  Elise was locked in her upstairs bedroom, left to cry tears of steam while her belly continued to grow.  At dawn, she wished to give her life for the baby that she knew in her heart was no devil, for she’d never have slept with a demon, even if wine filled her head.
            A knock at the door sent her heart racing, and at the lock’s unlatching, she swore it was too soon.  When the door opened, her sister Adriana entered, for the girls had a plan.  Chana latched the door behind her two sisters and made her way to the grounds outside the house.  “I will wait here, so they believe you are inside, and you’ll have time to escape,” Adriana said.  She hugged her little sister, suffering blisters across her arms, and kissed her forehead, suffering blisters on her lips.  Then she took the sheets from the bed and lowered Elise through the window where Chana waited below.
            “I will take you to the next town, so they will not find you, and will not kill you or the babe within,” Chana said after Elise was lowered.  She hugged her little sister, suffering blisters across her arms, and kissed her forehead, suffering blisters on her lips.  Then she led Elise along a dirt road through the woods on the way to the next town.
            After a time, Elise grew thirsty, and so they stopped by a stream to drink.  Each handful of water Elise brought to her lips hissed into steam, and her throat remained dry.  Soon Elise grew hungry for fruit, and they picked a few berries, yet each berry that Elise laid on her tongue popped and shriveled until she tasted only leaves.  Not long after, Elise grew hungry for the dried meat Chana had brought for their journey.  Each mouthful Elise brought between her teeth charred and only ash poured into her belly.
            “This fevering child will be my death,” Elise said.  “I cannot go on.”  She sat then in the hollow of a great tree, the very same tree where she had been found months before.  Neither sister knew it, but the tree was special, a tree that spread the atmosphere of a sweet and passionate mood.  Chana waited faithfully beside her resting sister, who swiftly fell asleep.
            One hour passed, and a man came wandering up the road in the mid-afternoon.  His eyes were yellow, his throat fat, and his skin dry and cracked.  “Good afternoon,” he said merrily.  “I see your dear sister is cursed with a magical whelp.  If you’ll allow me, beneath this mating tree, I may help the young lady.  My nature is Serpent, eater of eggs, and so I will swallow the babe whole.  Her belly will empty and mine will fill.”
            Chana agreed without pause, for she wanted nothing but her sister’s well-being, and the Serpent man’s jaws widened to the breadth of Elise’s torso.  Yet when his lips touched her skin, he cried out in pain as blisters erupted over his face.
            “She burns!” he hissed.  “Keep your egg—there is nothing I can do here.  I wish you both well beneath the sun.”  The man walked off, nursing his lips, while Elise slept on and Chana waited again.
            Another hour passed, and a man came wandering up the road in the late afternoon.  His eyes were golden, his hair scraggly, and a coyote’s scalp sat atop his head, its eyes and teeth shining as if alive.  “Good afternoon,” he said with a smirk.  “I see your dear sister is cursed with a magical whelp.  If you’ll allow me, beneath this mating tree, I may help the young lady.  My nature is Coyote, maker of bitch’s children, and so my seed will enter toothily, devouring the babe and growing in its place.  The fever will break and her belly will fill with new children.”
            Chana agreed, for she reasoned her sister wouldn’t prize one babe over several, especially when the one was a demon.  The Coyote man lifted Elise’s dress.  Yet when he tried to cross her threshold, he shrank back with a whining pup’s yelp and blisters spread below his waist.
            “She burns!” he howled.  “Keep your womb—there is nothing I can do.  I wish you both well in the twilight.”  The man limped off, nursing the place between his legs, while Elise slept and Chana waited, her patience waning.
            A third hour passed, and a man wandered up the road in the dusk, the night following close behind him like a loyal dog.  His eyes shined a pale green, his nails as long as knives and black as tar, and raven’s feathers burst from his hair in a crude crown above his forehead and behind his ears.  “Good evening,” he rasped.  “I see your dear sister is cursed with a magical whelp.  If you’ll allow me, beneath this mating tree, I may help myself to this young lady.  My nature is Nameless, father to the twin of the burning seed within her, and my seed will ink and douse his fire.  She will birth my child, dark brother to what she has carried, and she will survive his entry into the world.”
            Chana agreed, for she was desperate now, even though she did not like the Nameless man’s looks.
            “I require a paste of cool mud and leaves, a jug of warm goat’s milk, and an absorbent cloth with which to soak it.”
            Chana had a jug of milk with her for the journey, and she warmed it on her sleeping sister’s skin.  The cloth she tore from her own dress, wishing only the best for Elise.  The mud and leaves were abundant if one looked hard enough in the woods, and while Elise would have found such materials more quickly, Chana returned within minutes carrying a mixture of crushed leaves and mud in her hands.
            The Nameless man put the jug and cloth aside, and then spread the paste across his hands and beneath his waist.  He bedded Elise briefly with a touch and laid his hand on her belly, leaving a black palm print.  A cloud of mist arose from her body, sending tremors through the leaves of the hollowed tree, and soon the infant emerged from beneath Elise’s dress, crawling onto the ground.  Steam coiled from his limbs and raven feathers quivered on his head.  His nails were black as the Nameless man’s, as he seemed to carry the dusk with him, a shadow covering his body even when he entered the vanishing sunlight that remained at the end of the day.
            “Thank you and bless you,” Chana said, kindly as ever.  “I will tell my sister of the good you’ve done us, and that I might know your name.”
            “You will not know my name and you will tell your sister nothing, for my child must feed on milk tainted with family blood, and you are flesh of his mother’s flesh.”  Before Chana could utter a sound, the Nameless man’s black nails cut her throat, and every drop of her lifeblood poured into the jug, mixing with the milk.  He then took the boy in his arms, nodded to sleeping Elise, and with a quick turn, he marched up the road, nursing the shadowy child by dipping the cloth in bloodied goat’s milk, all the while whistling a soft lullaby.
            Elise awoke shortly after, when the sky was red in the deepest park of dusk, and she felt neither fever nor child within.  When she spotted her sister on the ground, red-splattered and pale, she knew the demon must have come forth.  In her dying breath, Chana told Elise all that had happened in her sleep, of the strange men and the savage child.  Soon, Elise was alone in the forest, cradling her lifeless sister.
            Just then, another man came wandering up the road at a quick pace.  His eyes shined orange, purple and red like the setting sun at the horizon, his features were sharp as stone, and golden feathers blossomed from his hair in a crown.  He stopped before Elise, observing the tree, and said, “Here I expected the birth of my child.  Where is my boy, son of the nature of Phoenix?”
            “I have no boy, and only one sister remains,” Elise told the man, and repeated what Chana had told her.
            “Then my child is no more,” the Phoenix man said gravely.  “Young mother, take these three feathers and be blessed, for you will need the luck if the inked boy should come seeking flesh of his flesh.  I will not visit this land again, for I have no wish to be devoured.”  And as the sun vanished beneath the horizon, so too did the Phoenix man, fading into the west, toward golden dunes and sandy kingdoms.  Elise was left in darkness but for the glimmer of golden feathers in her hand.
            A wild girl could not be sent home sulking with black ink between her legs and a dead sister left in the woods.  Instead she followed the road, searching for her unseen babe in the black of night.  Soon no road remained, but she had a wild heart to will her through the pathless woods of twisting trees, and a wild nose to catch the scent of blood in the air, leading her into the forest’s unknown depths.
            Hours of running came and went before Elise happened upon a small wooden cottage nestled in a clearing, where wild dogs lapped at puddles of bloodied milk outside the front door.  Elise knocked and the Nameless man answered, looking none too happy about her visit.  The young girl said she’d come for her child, pleading with the Nameless man to set the boy free.
            “Fool woman,” he said.  “He will hunger for flesh of his flesh, such as you.  He will remain here.”
            “If you will not let the child away, then take me as your wife so that I may see him,” Elise said.
            The Nameless man toyed with a golden key hanging from a lace at his neck, and did Elise no favor, or so he thought.  “You will not see the child, but I shall take a wife.  I have never had one before.  I will wed at no altar of heaven or the wilds, and you shall be no Elise, but simply my nameless wife.  Now, see to your wifely duties of cookery and the bed.”
            Elise agreed, hoping to please him and perhaps win his trust.  The Nameless man led her to a kitchen where a great iron lock latched the door shut from outside.  He showed her a rickety oven with a burnt-up stovetop and on the counter sat a lonesome egg.  “Cook me a feast of egg and roast, and prepare it for my supper, which I take at dawn, or else I’ll feed you to your boy, flesh of his flesh.”  The door slammed shut and the great lock was locked, and Elise sat by the window, feigning to wail, for she was wild, but not without her wits.
            An hour passed, and a man came strolling down the road.  His eyes were yellow, his throat fat, and his skin dry and cracked.  “Good heavens,” he said, noticing Elise.  “You’re the young lady whose egg I wished to lift at the mating tree, only my lips were blistered then and I am of little use to you now.”
            “You’re of plenty use to me, if you’d know my needs.”  Elise reached through the window and embraced the Serpent man tight, squeezing and squeezing until out from his throat popped three monstrous eggs.  Taking the first of the Phoenix man’s feathers, she rubbed each egg until the feather burst into fiery dust and the eggs boiled hard where they lay.  She bid the man farewell as she sat by the window again, feigning a wail once more.
             A second hour passed, and another man came waddling up the road.  His eyes were golden, his hair scraggly, and a coyote’s scalp sat atop his head, its eyes and teeth shining as if alive.  “Good heavens,” he said, noticing Elise.  “You’re the young lady I wished to bed at the mating tree, only my manhood was burnt then and I am of little use to any woman now.”
            “You’re of plenty use to me, if you’d know my needs.”  Elise reached through the window and embraced the Coyote man, squeezing and squeezing until his back snapped.  Taking the second of the Phoenix man’s feathers, she rubbed it over his body until the feather burst into fiery dust and the man was cooked to a charred roast.  She then bid the Nameless man return to the kitchen, where his meal rested on the table.
            The Nameless man sat and supped, his green eyes judging harshly and his mouth judging even worse.  “These eggs taste of ostrich and the roast tastes of man.  May your body make better food for the baby than your hands make food for me.”
            “Allow me to attend one other wifely duty,” Elise said.  “You must have me in bed while I’m awake, for I am wild as they come, and you’ll wish to perfect our marriage in the truest way.”
            The Nameless man did not argue with this, beckoning her to enter his bedroom, but she begged for a moment to make herself ready.  He did no such readying, no paste of mud and leaves this time, only lying restlessly on the bed, impatient for Elise to attend her final wifely duty.
            Taking the last of the Phoenix man’s feathers, she rubbed every inch of her skin until she glowed red as hot coals.  When she came to the Nameless man’s bed, she reached out and embraced him, squeezing and squeezing until blisters covered his body and his flesh became charred.  The embrace ended in fiery dust, and all that remained in the bed was a golden key.
            Elise took the key to the baby’s bedroom, and certainly he was a poor thing to behold, but she loved him just the same, cuddling him to her breast.  The heat of her red skin tempered his hunger for her flesh, warming him like the fevered womb he so loved.
            And so there in the cottage they lived, hidden away in the forest where few venture, a burning mother and her savage son.  Some whisper of a witch in these woods, casting spells and curses, but it is only hot-skinned Elise, her false wailing drawing travelers to her door.  Some folk say you can still hear her baby wailing with her, hungry for family flesh, but this is nothing beyond a silly rumor.  He is full-grown by now, lurking farther from his mother each day, and he’s not nearly so fussy about whom he eats.

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