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The man can hear the keening, coughing noises from the bottom of the dusty track. The track leads to a small stone cottage nestled between a group of scrubby trees and an uninspiring North Yorkshire shallow hill. He is exhausted from a hard day’s graft; the heat of the summer day has drained his energy. He is anxious to be home for his tea, but he stops, shoulders slumped, head down, before moving heavily forwards.
He pushes the heavy wooden door to, and steps into the marginally cooler darkness of his home. His wife is working hard, sweating in her exertions, vigorously pummelling dough. She wipes a hand across her forehead, temporarily smoothing out the lines of worry, dusting them with flour. Their daughter is around the back of the house, in the yard wailing and bawling. If he cranes his neck he can see her through the back window; a tall girl, in her teenage years now, sitting curled up on the dusty floor of their yard, hugging her knees and intermittently wiping her streaming eyes with the hem of her skirt.
“What the hell is going on wi’ tha lass now?” He can’t hide his frustration. He never has been able to, not since she was a tiny child. The abnormality of her scares him.
“She’s badly, today.” The mother speaks monotonously, concentrating only on her bread-making, weary of her daily rituals.
“I’ll bray her if she doesn’t stop her wailing.” Sullenly he sits at the hearth, pulling off heavy boots, and throwing them in the direction of the door. They lie where they land, askew in a dirty unruly heap. His wife looks at them momentarily, but goes back to her dough.
“She’s daft as a brush, that one.” He spits out the words, no affection in the colloquialism. The mother doesn’t turn, but hardens her back against him, despising his lack of compassion for their only child.
They’d had her late in life, each coming to the conclusion that children were not in God’s plan for them, after years of unfruitful marriage. She had resented him for making them keep ‘trying’, even though each was convinced that nothing would come of it. She couldn’t understand the insistent male urge to keep repeating the whole sordid business. But, as so often happens, when hope had been completely abandoned she found herself sickening, hunger and nausea overtaking her by turns. She nearly passed out in the kitchen, the heat from the stove bringing her out in a drenching sweat, only to find herself just minutes later cramming handfuls of freshly baked bread into her mouth. She had, at last, and most inconveniently, fallen pregnant. She no longer wanted it, was too old at thirty-seven, and sat in a daze at the pitted wooden kitchen table, a cold stream of horror cooling her hot veins.
“You poor little flower,” the midwife says, stroking the bald head of the unmoving baby. She was still alive though, despite everything, and they all knew that this was the worst thing of all. A thin mewing, like a tiny kitten, starts up from the bundle in the nurse’s arms. She looks up, catching the eye of the father and silently, grimly, sets herself to work, mechanically working through the motions of her midwifely duties.
There was no real explanation for what had happened. The villagers speculated that it was because the mother was too old; but it had been a long and difficult birth, the midwife had been delayed, and the baby had been stuck in the birth canal and had suffered from oxygen deprivation. Whatever the reason, the baby was ‘touched’. She was prone to temper tantrums, frustrated screaming and inexplicable behaviour. The superstitious and the gossips implied that there was some kind of demon in her. As she grew older the girl would spend hour after hour sitting alone, a lost soul in her own little world, watched by a mother who had no idea what to do with her, and therefore did little.
“She says she’s swallowed a moth,” the mother said. “The daft lass thinks it’s stuck in her throat, says she can feel its little wings beating.” She raises an eyebrow as she speaks, suddenly struck by the ridiculousness of the situation, feeling a rare giggle wriggling in her own throat. But she does not let it surface, because her husband’s face is darkening with bad humour. He stands, swears, and kicks the chair nearest to him, sending it skittering woodenly across the floor, like a malformed dwarf’s skeleton. The spindles between the legs come loose and rattle on the tiled kitchen floor. The man snatches his boots back from the door, pulls them roughly on, and leaves the house. She knows he has gone out to down as many ales as he can. He will come home drunk later, when the girl has long been in her bed. She’s glad that he has gone.
The girl in the yard is stroking her neck anxiously, eyes wide as she looks up at the sky in order to expose as much of her throat as possible. She shakes her head from side to side, then abruptly hawks up a great gob of spit onto the floor. A string of it hangs from her lower lip, stretching down like the thin, shining strand of a spider’s web. She looks to the floor, hoping to see the mangled remains of the moth, but sees nothing apart from the glistening patch of her spittle. She moans in helpless frustration. In her mind it is in there, she can feel its wings beating against the delicate membranes of her throat. She can feel it burrowing into the soft tissues, making a home for itself, laying its eggs in the lovely warm, moist, pliable lining of her gullet. The pathetic sight of her poor face, mouth stretched in a downturned rictus of clownish sadness, rolling eyes overflowing with hot tears, suddenly touches her watching mother. She is gripped with unexpected compassion, throws her dough to one side, and rushes out to kneel next to her daughter, embracing her, crooning to her, and imploring her to come inside. She feels tears rising in her own throat, but also relief that she still has the capacity to love this poor creature, that her motherly instincts are still there.
The girl’s distress lasts for a few more days, until the father has had enough. They have always been reluctant to call anyone to the house, due to their embarrassment, but the village doctor was an exception to this rule. He was not a particularly kind or patient man in the normal course of his duties, but he felt a strange affection for this girl, had done since her birth, and had willingly come out many times when she was an infant. He had not been called to the house for many years now though, as, despite her mental difficulties, she was in fine physical health and had had few accidents, none requiring serious medical attention.
The doctor is welcomed in by the mother, who ushers him through the small front room into the even smaller back bedroom that the girl occupies. She is not alarmed to see him; she does not associate him with pain or discomfort, and she’s happy to let him approach and examine her. The father is moving further and further away from them; he watches from the doorway as the doctor uses his light to peer down her throat. Her eyes are visible over the top of his instrument, rolling and suddenly anxious as she is reminded anew of her distress. She puts the father in mind of a cow about to be branded. The doctor can’t see anything lodged in her throat, and tells her calmly and sweetly that there is nothing more to worry about. He pats her head, stroking her as if calming a nervy animal. She nods, and seems to relax a little, but just as the doctor goes to leave she catches sight of a large moth battering around one of the oil lamps. She emits a high pitched squeal, clamps her hand to her mouth and rushes from the room. The father has watched it all from the shadows. His shoulders are slumped, but his mouth is set in a hard, straight line of determination. He has made a silent decision. They pay the doctor for his time, thank him, and herd the girl back into her room, before silently going about their own night-time rituals.
The father takes a very long time to get ready for bed, moving slowly and deliberately, and when he is ready to retire his wife and daughter have long been asleep. He locks the front door and then stands perfectly still for what feels like an age. He listens hard to the uneasy silence of the house, punctuated by the occasional muffled creaks and taps from the structure of the building. He walks noiselessly to his daughter’s room, stopping briefly along the way to listen at his wife’s door. He hears nothing, and resumes his slow journey to the next door along. He very carefully turns the old brass handle, muffling its quiet squeak with the palm of his hand. He pauses whilst his eyes adjust to the room’s particular darkness. He looks at the girl, hunched strangely under her coverings, a vague impression of her outline visible in the subtle light emanating from the night sky. He breathes in and out, shaky breaths, and steps into the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
Later that night, the house appears to sleep, but the silent shifting of shadows suggests that this is not true. A thick silence sits heavily on the chest of the man in his bed. He is wide awake, staring up at the ceiling, lying absolutely still so as not to disturb the sleeping figure of his wife beside him. The moon has moved a long way across the night sky, telling him that many hours have passed as he has lain immobile, waiting for morning. There are perhaps only a couple more hours of true darkness left. Relief engulfs him as he at last feels the heaviness of sleep settling on his brain, but seconds later the stealthy clank of the front door latch, the small screech of metal on metal, causes him to snap upright. Before he knows what he is doing, he has crossed over to the window, pulled the curtains aside and is looking out onto the front garden.
She is standing there, his daughter, and a shiver of adrenaline and fear courses through his body, throbbing up his neck and into his head. She sees him at once, and waves almost sweetly at his startled face. He stares at her, into the shining pools of her eyes, which have taken on a curiously knowing edge. She looks directly at him, into him. He is transfixed, and they stand locked in each other’s gaze for some time, until she stirs herself to give him a parting gift. She puts her hand to her mouth and, with a sly grin, she seems to wrack her whole body and disgorge something into the cup of her palm. With a devious, almost proud little smile, she lifts her clenched fist to face level, and pushes it outwards for her father to see.
In the bright light of the moon he watches as spindly black legs and searching antennae poke through the gaps in her fingers. She opens her hand, and on her outstretched palm she reveals a large grey moth, damp furred body and scaled wings unfurling with a silvery gleam. The creature looks mockingly at him through the false eyes inscribed on its wingspan, then hovers briefly, a small indecisive soul, before floating away with haphazard purpose into the night sky.
The man and girl watch it go. He stands frozen in place for a long time, his eyes staring, trained onto the spot where his daughter last stood, before taking off herself, to follow her own path into the darkness.
Rosalind Kent is a freelance writer and has had a number of consumer advice and current affairs articles published in newspapers and online media. She has a law degree from Cardiff University and has worked as a paralegal and case officer in London and Sydney. She enjoys reading, travelling, writing, and running, and aspires to enter the London Marathon (if she can ever get a place!) Since having a baby and moving to the countryside, she has had more time to concentrate on writing. This is her first published work of fiction. She blogs at rosalindkent.wordpress.com.