In the Presence of Mine Enemies|
LadyStarlight - September 14, 2003
A/N: Much thanks and smoochies to my wonderful betas: Anneth, Dead Soul, Wisewoman, and VampRiley. Many anachronistic mistakes, extraneous spaces and flagrant misuses of punctuation and grammar were avoided, thanks to their help. Any that remain, are mine and mine alone.
The dark-haired man is staring at me; which Mama says is quite rude, proper gentlemen never stare. I can feel his eyes on the back of my neck and I can't help glancing back just for a second. When I do, the dark street disappears. He stands in a lake of blood. Tiny wavelets lap gently at his legs, each wave darkening his trousers a little more. He trails his hands in gentle circles through the crests. He is smiling, even as blood trickles out of his mouth, spotting the snowy frills beneath his neck with crimson droplets. He raises one hand towards me and I can hear the soft Irish voice whispering in my ears - "Soon..." and all the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand up in horror.
I blink quickly and turn back to Elizabeth and Lucy, clutching their arms against the dizziness that threatens to overwhelm me. They are chattering about the pantomime we are about to see and I pretend to join in their delight. It is tinged with sadness as this is the last night we will spend together as sisters. They are boarding the ship for India tomorrow and when I see them again, they will be the wives of soldiers. Mama and Uncle had thought to send me too, but decided that three fares were too much of an expense to be borne. I was not displeased with this, as I did not want Annie to be the only sister left at home.
Poor Annie has cried so hard about Peggy that she has made herself sick. I hope that a glass of milk will settle her for the night. As I creep down the back stairs, I can hear Mama talking with someone in the kitchen. At first I can't make out the words, so I slip down the stairs until I am almost at the kitchen door.
"We were so sorry to hear about little Peggy. She always worked hard and did her best."
"Aye. Peg was a good worker, she was."
Who can Mama be talking to?
"You must convey our sympathies to your mother."
Mama doesn't sound very sympathetic. She sounds like she wants him to leave.
"Sure, and I will at that."
"I've put together anything Peggy left here for you to take home."
"Thank you, ma'am. That's terribly kind of you."
The door shuts behind whoever that person was. Heavy footsteps on the floor and I hear Uncle's voice.
"Damn decent of him to save his mother the trip over."
Him? Who could he be? Peggy's mother died years ago, she told me so. I try to remember if I ever told Mama this, if she ever asked about Peggy's family.
Mama only sniffs disdainfully. "Oh, the Irish are all alike. He probably wanted a chance to steal anything pawnable before giving the rest to their mother. Irishmen are all terrible for the drinking."
I can't listen to any more of this. Annie needs me, poor thing.
Annie has a new pet. Her previous kitten ran off one night shortly after Peggy died. We did our best to keep the truth from Annie, that the poor thing had most likely run afoul of a delivery wagon. But she is thrilled with this new one and exclaims anew over each feature; its dainty paws, soft orange fur and wide green eyes.
Mama and I are having quite the debate over whether she should be allowed to keep it as Mama thinks that Peggy's brother dropped it off for Annie, judging by the (as she said) "crudely scrawled" tag with Annie's name on it attached to the basket we found on the doorstep. I am charmed by the gesture as Peggy and Annie were quite close, closer than Mama knew.
Before Mama can quite pronounce that the kitten must be set loose, I gasp and put my hands to my head. Mama stands, tapping her foot on the floor until I can look at her again.
"Well, child? What is it this time? Fire, flood, a plague of locusts, perhaps? I know you won't rest until you tell me."
I shake my head. "No, Mama. I only saw a horse tangled in its harness."
Mama looks relieved, even though she would never admit it. "Perhaps we should tell your uncle to drive carefully for the next few weeks."
I smile weakly. "Yes, Mama."
Mama turns away and busies herself with the day's baking. I let myself feel relief, as I know that Mama will allow Annie to keep her kitten.
Mama has taken to her bed with grief, leaving me to deal with Uncle's solicitor, Mr. Hardesty. He is a kind man, and I do not mind having to sit with him in the parlour for hours as he patiently goes through the papers with me. He does not get impatient when I need things explained over and over to me. I finally understand that we will not be forced out of our home; that Uncle had prepared for this sad day.
Mr. Hardesty also offers to cope with the detectives who ask such impertinent questions. Did Uncle often drive out at night by himself? Did I know if Uncle was having relations with the wealthy-looking blonde woman a witness had seen climbing out of the carriage and fleeing after Uncle's carriage turned over?
I am weary of saying "I don't know,". I do not understand how this could have happened, Uncle was an excellent driver. He was a cavalry officer in the Crimean and would often tell me stories about the horses he rode and the times he had to drive the ambulance wagons, even though he wasn't supposed to.
When we hear the knock on the front door, Mr. Hardesty gallantly offers to answer it so I may attend to Mama. Perhaps the good news that we are not penniless will lift her spirits. Annie will be thrilled as well; she loves our garden and would be pained to leave it. She spends so much time out there, weather permitting, that Mama frets about her skin colouring from the sunshine.
I can hear Annie chattering away to Mama in the kitchen as I dust the parlour. Annie has done so much to lift Mama's spirits in the past month.
"Look, Mama, look at Stripey! Isn't she funny?"
"Yes, child, she is."
"Why can cats leap so high and run so fast, do you think?"
"Because they need to be able to capture the vermin they eat."
Mama's voice is grudging now.
"I will admit, she is very good at catching mice. I had no idea that the cellar housed so many."
Annie's laughter ripples through the kitchen.
"Look, Mama, she's chasing her tail now!"
Mama chuckles at that.
"Mama, guess who I saw the other day while I was bringing in the milk and eggs?"
"Peggy's brother. He nodded and tipped his hat to me very respectfully. I thought you said that all Irishmen had no manners."
I do not listen to Mama's response to this, as the mention of Peggy's brother sends chills all through me and I have to sit down for a moment.
Screaming wakes me up. I think it is my dream at first until I realize that it is Mama who is screaming.
I fling on a dressing gown and run down the stairs into the back garden. I see a large doll, with red paint splashed all around and over it.
Mama swings around and looks at me. She has red paint smeared all over her pretty dressing gown. Her eyes are wild and staring as she clutches my shoulders.
"You!" she screams. She pulls me towards the doll and shoves me onto my knees. I do not want to look at the doll but Mama makes me. All the breath leaves my body when I realize that it is not a doll, not really, but Annie.
Sweet, loving Annie with red blood all over her little body. Her sightless eyes are looking right at me. I look down and see her hands streaked with blood. Stripey is curled between them, green eyes fixed and staring.
Mama jerks my head around and looks deep into my eyes. Her fingers tighten on my jaw, almost as if she means to choke the breath from my throat.
"Where were your accursed visions? The visions that tell of mine disasters and ships sinking? You can see disasters for useless strangers, for labourers in coal mines, for Irish immigrants on their foetid ships! Where were they for your sister?"
I cannot breathe, I am sobbing so hard. Poor Annie, poor Annie. Mama pushes me away and I fall to the ground beside Annie. I see a scrap of paper tucked into Annie's tiny hand so I tug it out, even though it means I must put my fingers in her blood. There is one word on it: Soon. I feel eyes on the back of my neck again, and a shudder of horror runs through me before I slump to one side and the world goes black.
I wake to silence. Mama does not sing in the mornings any more because Annie's no longer here to chatter about her dolls or talk to her kitten. Only the birds still sing outside my window. They sang on Annie's funeral day, too, even though I threw things at them from my window to make them go away.
I cannot smell breakfast cooking so I decide to bring Mama a tray in bed as a treat. I wash quickly at the basin in my room, shivering a little from the chilly water from the pitcher.
I am still winding my hair into a braid when I come down the stairs into the kitchen. Mama is sitting at the table with her back to me. She does not answer my greeting. I open the kitchen door and pick up the eggs to make an omelette for her. I have to fumble a bit before my hand finds the basket handle in the darkness. My hand closes over the familiar handle and I swing the basket through the door, turning to shut it behind me. I start to tell Mama that the milkman has not forgotten the butter after all, when I lift my head to look at her. My hand opens by itself and I hear the basket crash to the floor at my feet.
Mama's dress is rucked up over her waist, her eyes are staring blankly at me and I can see two punctures in her neck. A thin trickle of blood is still running out of one of them, it will stain her dress if I don't stop it soon. There is blood daubed on her forehead. The blood forms a word that hangs in front of my eyes until I run out of the house. My foot slips on the broken eggs and I fall over the doorsill before collapsing on the front steps. My shrieks bring the neighbours and finally, the bobbies.
If I listen very hard, I can hear the Abbess and Mr. Hardesty talking. I must look a fright, cowering in the one chair with its back to the wall, eyes wide and forever searching for the devil who pursues me.
The Abbess does not want to accept me as a novice, but Mr. Hardesty tells her over and over again that I have nowhere else to go. No family left, no way to make my way in the world without descending into poverty and lewd behavior. He is showing her the telegram he received yesterday about Elizabeth and Lucy succumbing to an Indian fever soon after marrying, and the brutal way I lost the rest of my family - Mummy, little Annie and Uncle, and I can hear the Abbess softening slightly. They turn their backs to me and I can faintly hear him speaking about the money that will be transferred to the convent.
I pray very hard that I will be allowed to stay here. This is God's house on Earth, surely no harm can come to me here. The stone walls feel like the wings of an angel, sheltering me from all harm.
I have been here for half a year now. I am outwardly at peace. The grey habits make the nuns and other novices look like ghosts wandering the earth, while the gentle shushing of their cloth sandals recalls the one time we went to the sea and I listened to the waves on the sand.
It is a hard life here, we work and pray and offer our work up to God as penance. When I scrub the floors, with each stroke I murmur the names of my dead under my breath. Annie, Mummy, Uncle, Elizabeth, Lucy, Annie, Mummy, Uncle, Elizabeth, Lucy, Annie, Mummy, Uncle, Elizabeth, Lucy. It helps, and the Abbess says that in time, my grief will fade and I will be able to fully devote my life to God.
I have not had a vision since I came here. I truly believe that God has finally taken them from me - that all my prayers have finally been answered. The silence of the convent is broken only by the chanting of the Divine Office and the singing of the Psalms. When I am with the others, chanting and singing God's words, I feel grace closing around my soul.
I press my back against the altar, wishing desperately there was some way to crawl inside. Surely I would be safe there?
The two fiends are lying too close to me for escape. He is caressing her with rough hands and I think she desires him as much as he lusts after her. She starts to tear at his clothes, laughing softly in her throat. He shoves her until her head is pressing against my leg. The lake of blood again fills my vision, but this time she is swimming in it. Her white body flashes through the crimson pool and I can hear laughter, this time high and mocking.
I turn my head away from them and moan quietly. I try to pray but the sounds they make turn prayer into blasphemy. Visions of blood and pain flicker through my head so quickly that I cannot see them properly, but somehow I know the two rutting beasts are involved.
A cold hand pushes my shift up. I flinch away from it, wanting everything to stop, to go back to the peace of the convent.
His voice comes to me as if through water, wavery and terribly far-off.
"Ah, ah, my child. This will only hurt your body for a second."
I have to look, to see what is going to happen to me. He drops his head to my leg and I feel cold lips upon my skin. My eyes flutter closed, I cannot bear to see the devil touch me. His touch is not fiery, as one would expect, yet tiny sparks skitter over my skin.
"Hurry, Angelus, this floor is most uncomfortable and I'm much too close to a cross for my liking."
I open my eyes in shock. I had almost forgotten about her. He looks down at her petulant face for a second, then back at me. I scream in horror as his devilish face reveals itself, yellow eyes staring into mine.
He lowers his fanged mouth to my leg again, saying, "Oh, I love it when they scream."
I feel his fangs sliding through my flesh. Pain lashes through me and something breaks inside my mind.
I am standing in a stone hallway. I look to one side and I can see the convent and hear the wails and prayers of the dying. I look to the other side and see a door. I walk slowly towards it; dreading what I might find, but anything is better than the carnage behind me. I reach out and take the crystal doorknob in my trembling hand. The gentle edges press against my palm as I turn it, push the door open and step through, shutting it behind me.
I blink the sun-dazzle from my eyes. I cannot make out any images until a dark shape appears in front of me. I cringe away, feeling the door strong and sure against my back. The shape stops and I can make out its features. Mummy reaches out her hand to me. Balanced on her palm, rocking slightly, is a lemon.
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