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Fiction

An Arrangement of Moss and Dirt

I have spent a lifetime in front of this window, mortality seeping out in waves of nausea and lost weight. There she is, just beyond the grime-cornered glass, in the yard, playing like all children should. I almost tap to get her attention, to give a weak wave of longing and vanished time, but I only watch her move through the grass and tree trunks, hair blown by the breeze. From the moment Nari was born, she fit into the mold of my arm, the nook that I had unwittingly grown for her, a fleshy cradle of her very own. As is the way of motherhood.

She is laughing, playing some game with a neighbor. I too want to play, but my limbs are heavy and I am drowning, huddling into the spools of veins and nerve endings of my existence. She flies, my Nari, like a hawk. I want to tell her all these things.

To tell her that I am sorry that I am sick. More importantly, that she is free, that she is the color of life for me.

But the door creaks open and the window is black. Someone brings me thin soup and tea. Always hot liquids to be ingested by the weak. I am dutiful in consuming these things with a pang of hope, that somehow I will stop ingesting myself.

The world winks and spins. I moan in my dreamless dreams.

“Mommy,” her little voice calls. Thin and high.

• • • •

Someone props me up in the chair, piling pillows around me like blubber. It is day. So bright, the sun, that I have to squint to look out. The trees shiver. Were they not just sweltering? Ready for raw kisses and insect burrows? Secrets crinkle in their bark, breathing. It rains like sapped energy, and I lean back on the softness of excess. There she is, Nari, dressed in a bathing suit, drinking from a hose. “Put on a coat,” I shout. Who has let her go out into the cold like that? She will get sick. “Get a coat,” I rail at my daughter, angry. Startled, she looks through the window, stopping in mid smile. Someone throws a blanket over me and the window disappears into plaid and wool and I am fighting to get out. Threaded coats of long dead sheep try to slither down my throat, quilting over my brain, straightening the gray crinkles of everything I know.

• • • •

Canned soup, escaping the aluminum air.

• • • •

Nari comes to see me, tiptoeing into my room, her worry held out before her like an offering. “Come now girl, you can’t fret me better.”

The flowers of her love droop and I hate myself for saying that. Nari, I meant for you to live and stop thinking of me. I meant for you to hunt and soar. Feathers are power, not jewelry.

“Don’t worry,” I say. But the void can’t be filled.

She pats my hand, small fingers like baby spiders tapping out the first moments outside the jelly of their sacs. “I have a plan. Don’t worry,” she says back at me.

She’s gone before I can wonder what those words could mean.

• • • •

The two trees stick out of the ground like a pair of legs, edging the yard, blocking a beyond-world. They know they are the edge of my existence, and those trees waggle themselves, bragging at how their needles grow even in the cold. I haven’t seen the neighbor out playing, but Nari is there, walking toward the pines, a stick in hand. She shouts, holding the deadwood up high. What game is she playing? Her eyes are fixed on the obscene opening between the trees. Her eyes are wide and she seems so utterly alone. That’s what illness does, it leaves the sick and their loved ones on unreachable islands. They who are suffering at the sight of another’s pain, padding quietly from the room, promising to let their dear one rest—yet they never really leave the room. A part of them stays there, a pulling worry. Nari shouldn’t have to live this, she shouldn’t have to have a mother who can only sleep, rising only to stare at her forlornly through this window. Yet here we are. A little girl all alone, forever locked in a sick room.

She’s out there in the yard and she is afraid.

• • • •

The snip of scissors too close to my ear makes me stir, but my eyelids won’t cooperate, won’t open to see what is happening. The shafts are snapping between the cruelty of the blades of metal, closing on each other, severing the threads. Nari smells like pine needles and candy. I want to hold her close, but my limbs won’t listen any more than my eyelids. She emits a soft sniffle and I can see without seeing, how she draws up her sleeve to wipe her nose.

Sigtun mulvik, hamal shaldish,” her little girl voice says.

I murmur, trying to form the words of a question. Nari continues, her voice a jumble of consonants clanging against open vowels. She doesn’t notice, or chooses not to respond to my own nonsense, continuing with hers.

Rubber soles smack against the wood floor as she runs into the hallway, like a child ready for a game. Nausea cripples me and I retch, my body stretching to pull whatever poison that sickens it up from my feet. The only thing it achieves is a dribble of soup, rancid with stomach acid.

• • • •

An animal shrieks outside my window in the darkness. Some poor creature caught by the hunt of another, and by the sound, it is not a quick death, but hard and sharp, the kind of death that erases the way the thing may have lived. Soon I’m begging along with it for the end to come because the sounds are the same thing gurgling in my own throat. The soup that I regurgitated has stiffened on the blanket, a rough smelly patch of my humanity. I want to add to the collection, but there is nothing left for me to throw up. Even my tears are dry.

• • • •

The wind slashes through the trees. The tops of them try to bend, making big shows of deference, but that wind wants more. I wonder what they did to deserve being punished so. Those pines at the end of the yard are arrogant still, they aren’t bending much, acting as if nothing could topple them. Something slithers up a trunk, white, almost translucent and slime-like. It has hands but I can’t tell where those begin on its body, or legs, or how it manages to contort and inch like a gastropod upwards. Wide eyes are fixed within it, pretty gem-like things set into the mess, they are staring back at me through the window, and when they blink, it seems as if the world darkens. A heavy rain drops from the black clouds. Leaves and small branches from other trees fall like ants. And the thing shimmies up the tree, or into it, I can’t really tell. It seems like my eyes are playing tricks, or my mind.

Then I notice Nari. I did not see her before, the slight form in a blue raincoat. She hasn’t put up the hood, and the rain soaks her hair until it sticks to her face. She’s holding something up to the tree, strands in a child’s fist.

So quick, a blur of white against the air, a clawed hand snatches the offering. Nari doesn’t move. She watches the thing disappear once again up the trunk. When my girl turns, I gasp. A long cut has slashed her cheek, the wound open as if it has something to say, a red angry mouth railing against the fabric of reality.

• • • •

That woman has returned, trying to force soup into my mouth. It tastes of the ocean and dead chickens. Why won’t she let me alone at the window? I need to track that creature, the pale thing in the tree. I must see it again and understand what it is. All that I own are questions and a ball of fear tight in my chest. Someone needs to know about the creature, how it hurt Nari. Could it do worse? Where is my daughter?

I groan and manage to swing my head away from the spoon. “Come on, eat a little.” I gag and spit. In defeat the spoon clanks against the bowl. “Fine, have it your way.”

It isn’t my way. None of this is my way.

• • • •

The nightly scratching at the window is enough to drive me to insanity, like a branch begging for entrance. Go away, I want to yell. Let a sick woman lie in peace. But there will be no peace because it will start again tonight and the night after that and the night after that. I know.

I am lifted and diapered like an infant. Tucked in again. The room flashes like a sundial and I know the time, just looking at the illumination and shadow. When the sunlight turns crimson gold and falls upon the hutch in the corner, darkness soon falls.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

A squirrel scrounging for food. Chalk sliding over a chalkboard.

Owl-like eyes through the window. Pale and lewd it its nudity, the creature shimmies across the window like a gecko. She stops to stare back at me, her lips two fine petals of a rose. Fingers topped with long curved claws flex and stretch, making soft taps against the glass. She holds a clump of long hair that flutters in the wind. I want to feel at the place where scissors met my hair, to verify missing locks. The creature scratches against the window and leaps into the darkness beyond.

• • • •

I am dreaming of gossamer wings fluttering along the breeze. Flowers soak the air with sweet calls to their pollen. Sometimes when I wake up, I cannot open my eyes.

• • • •

“Mom,” she says to me, the voice still childlike. It stirs a memory that I cannot grasp. How can the voice of my daughter come from this woman? This grown person with sad eyes? “I love you,” she continues, “and I’m so sorry for all of this.”

I try to speak, but only odd moans flutter in my throat.

The woman tucks a hair behind an ear, just like Nari does, a scar crinkles over a cheek. The red mouth long quieted. “She told me that if I gave her what she wanted, you wouldn’t die. She promised that you’d never cry in pain or speak in anguish. She promised.” Her eyes shine with crushed glass and tacks.

“Who?” I want to scream, a question that pierces the dark. While I know it is the pale thing who claws at my window, I must hear Nari say it. My voice buzzes against bone and tongue, wishing for any escape.

It does not come. It never does.

She takes a long shuddering breath, tears welling, and she reaches for me, putting a tender hand on my cheek. Her trembling vibrates into the center of my mind. “I learned my lesson. I lost you that day forever.”

The memory of screams in the night floats about me, thickening the air, and I gulp at the oxygen like a fish. A little girl holding hair. Where is the neighbor child? Where are the scissors? Where has my little Nari gone?

“You lived. Yes. She kept that part of the bargain. But I’ve learned. Never make deals with the faeries. No amount of fresh milk can fix this.”

My mind screams, trying desperately to speak, to ask one thing. What, dear sweet daughter, did you trade? What did you give her in exchange for this hell?

Nari puts her face in her hands and weeps, and I cannot comfort her. My body does not belong to me. She slides the chair and gets up to leave, rushing toward the door in bitterness. I can only watch and long.

As the door clicks shut behind her, I can no longer remember what had gone through it. So I shift my eyes back out the window and hope Nari will be outside soon, playing with her friends. It is good for children to play.

• • • •

I have lain here long enough to watch black decay creep up to the rafters. Rats scatter their droppings around me, even as they gnaw on my bits and pieces. Today the roof has finally given way and the sunlight shines yellow through the damp, rotting wood. No one comes to prop me up anymore. Long enough I’ve lain here that I can no longer remember the taste of soup or tea.

I am still alive because I can feel my chest rise and fall. The pain of the rats, the aches of a moldering body. No whimpers escape my lips. I can only cry within my skull and try to remember to shut my eyes tight, because that is the only thing I have left, and God help me if the rats take those.

K.P. Kulski

K.P. Kulski is the author of the novel Fairest Flesh, a gothic horror from Strangehouse Books. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications including Unnerving Magazine, the HWA’s Poetry Showcase, and Not All Monsters. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii to a Korean mother and American-military father, she spent her youth wandering and living in many places both inside and outside the United States. Now she resides in the woods of Northeast Ohio where she teaches college history. Check out her website, www.garnetonwinter.com or follow her on Twitter @garnetonwinter.