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My sister had always had eyes for Sorrow. She’d been aware of him for years, seen him sauntering around the village, chasing a football around the field while we launched ourselves from the swings in the park, or buying chocolate bars in the corner shop, hood shrugged up.
I think she’d always been taken by the cut of his jaw, the moss-green of his skin, the length of his tail, but it wasn’t until we turned 14 that she really got to know him.
They’d moved the school bus stop from outside the florist to a point further along the road and around the corner, just outside the old sweet shop. We were waiting there on the first morning when Sorrow and his younger brother wandered past, scuffing their heels, oversized school bags hanging at the bases of their spines. The younger brother, who shared none of Sorrow’s reptilian affectations, shot us a nervous smile as they shuffled past, but Sorrow didn’t seem to notice us, keeping his eyes cast down, thick tail dragging along behind him.
They must walk this way to school! My sister’s voice was high, fluting.
Why do you care so much? I asked her.
She smoothed the hem of her skirt, cleared her throat. I don’t.
The next day she asked, Have you ever noticed how great Sorrow’s teeth are?
After about a week, he looked at us as he walked past, sending my sister into a tailspin. A few days later, he raised his eyebrows in fleeting acknowledgment. My sister smiled, hesitant, leaning back against the wall, bag draped over one shoulder, until they were out of sight. Then she turned to me, cheeks flushed pink, and squealed.
She began doodling crocodiles all over her schoolbooks, underlining everything in green, staring out of windows during lessons.
What school do you two go to then? Sorrow asked us one morning as he sauntered past. It was the first thing he’d ever said to us.
We told him, and I pointed to the badges we had emblazoned on our cardigans.
Sorrow nodded, jutting his chin upwards. Cool.
Within a month, they were meeting every day after school, my sister sloping off to find Sorrow waiting at the park gates, cigarette in hand, laces undone. See you at home, she’d call over her shoulder.
One evening, she came back stinking of vodka, tottering into our bedroom giggling, kicking off her trainers with a thud. She pressed her hand to her lips when I shushed her. I got her a glass of water and handed her a clean pair of pyjamas.
You better get into bed before Mam sees you like this.
Yes. Bed. She sung the words, splaying herself across the mattress, arms stretched out wide. Red gashes lined her upper arms. I grabbed her by the elbows.
What’s happened? You’re hurt.
She shook her head, laughing. No, not hurt.
What happened to your arm? I kept my voice steady, quiet, hoping she would do the same.
She tugged her arm out from my grip, let it hang over the side of the bed. I had to feed Sorrow.
He was hungry. Her eyes were closed as she talked, her voice tapering off. I groaned, kissed her on the forehead and pulled the duvet up and over her.
That night, I was restless, waking every few hours to the sound of my sister whimpering in her sleep.
She brought Sorrow to our 14th birthday party. Despite the heat, he kept his oversized black hoody on, shrugging the hood up every now and then. My sister stayed close to him, draping her legs over his lap, nuzzling into his gravely shoulder. He kept a muscular arm around her, even while she opened presents and greeted relatives. He didn’t sing Happy Birthday.
She only picked at her slice of birthday cake, mashing frosting under her fork and moving it around the plate, dragging crumbs over the pattern. Every now and then, she fed a forkful to Sorrow, planting small kisses on the tip of his snout.
Bedroom, I said to her, keeping my voice low.
She rolled her eyes before unpeeling herself from Sorrow and following me inside. Her movements were slow, trudging. I shut the door behind her once we reached our bedroom, then spun around to face her, standing ballerina-like in her dress.
Well? She raised her eyebrows.
What’s going on? I asked her.
She sighed. What d’you mean?
You’ve been skulking around all day. What is it?
She looked down, hugging one arm over her chest. She looked so small in that moment, her shoulders angular, elbows pointed.
She sighed again. I honestly don’t know what you mean.
I took a step forward, almost expecting her to step back. She twirled a ribbon of hair around her finger and stared at the worn carpet.
I’m just worried about you.
She shrugged. Is that it?
I took a deep breath, let the words gush out. Do you think maybe you’re spending too much time with Sorrow?
There it is.
There what is?
You know exactly what. That’s what this has all been about hasn’t it? It’s not me that’s been different, it’s you, ever since Sorrow came on the scene.
That’s not true. My voice was small.
She stared at me, defiant.
I’m happy for you and Sorrow, I said. I’m just —
Unbelievable. You wouldn’t be saying that if —
If? I interjected when she left her words hanging.
You know what.
I squeezed my eyes shut, rubbed my temples. That’s got nothing to do with it.
She practically snarled at me then. Get out of my way.
I didn’t want to argue with her, so I kept quiet over the next few weeks, even while I watched her waning right in front of me, her cheekbones rising, eyes bulging. Even her hair started thinning, coming out in clumps when she brushed it before bed, scattering fine brown threads over the carpet.
She changed her profile picture to one of her and Sorrow, started posting song lyrics and lines of poetry as her statuses. In school, she became even more withdrawn, still sitting with us at lunch but not really engaging, waiting until the bell rang to take a single hurried bite of one sandwich, throwing the rest away.
She thinks she’s too good for us now she’s got a boyfriend, one of the girls said one afternoon.
Even though Daisy in our Maths class gave that guy from drama head behind the cowshed last summer, another chimed. And they weren’t even exclusive.
I don’t think it’s that. I’m worried about her, I told them.
The girls rolled their eyes, shrugging backpacks over shoulders, linking arms to walk away.
She’d grown more secretive at home too, sloping off from the bedroom to undress in the bathroom instead of changing in front of me like she used to.
One afternoon, in the changing room before P.E, I caught sight of a thick bandage around her thigh, red and oozing at the centre. She saw me looking, widened her eyes, silently begging me to keep quiet. No one else seemed to notice her slight limp, the small drag of her left leg as we played netball.
When I cornered her in the kitchen after school, she told me Sorrow had been craving flesh, that she was the only way for him to feel satiated.
She gave herself to him completely, coming home one evening with a missing finger. She wore gloves, despite the warming weather, the press of the sun through low clouds. Our parents assumed it was a fashion statement. By the time summer had bloomed, I was unsure how many fingers she had left.
One weekend, she came home from seeing him with her arm in a makeshift sling, bundled up in one of Sorrow’s black t-shirts.
What’s happened now?
Her eyes blazed as I stepped towards her, then her shoulders sagged and she let her knees give way, slumping onto the bed. She was so white I could almost see the sinews through her skin, pulled taut over her cheekbones, the bridge of her nose, her chin.
Don’t be angry, she said. Human food isn’t good for him.
I took a deep breath. Show me.
Under the t-shirt, her arm was a bloodied stump.
He’s taken half your arm?
She looked down as she spoke. He needs flesh.
So send him to the butcher. My voice was flat, although I was shaking. I could feel my ribs jutting against my chest, quivering.
She flicked her gaze towards me, twisting her lips.
In a quiet voice, she said, I’m sorry I accused you of being jealous, before falling back and nestling under the covers. Mouth open, the snores came billowing from her within seconds.
She slunk out early the next morning before our parents were awake.
I’m going to meet Sorrow, she whispered as she left. He’s taking me to the forest.
I bolted upright in bed, but before I could say anything she’d already shut the bedroom door behind her.
The curtains were heavy as I shifted them to one side to watch my sister’s narrow form pick her way along the drive, past the redbrick houses, and out of our street. The shape of her grew smaller and smaller until she was only a speck at the edge of the road, a tiny figure under the paling morning moon, disappearing into the dense shade of trees.
About Mari Dunning
Mari Ellis Dunning’s debut poetry collection, Salacia, was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2019. She has since placed second in both the Lucent Dreaming Short Story Competition and the Sylvia Plath Poetry Prize. Mari is a PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University, where she is writing a historic novel set in 16th-century Wales, exploring the relationship between accusations of witchcraft, the female body and reproduction/fertility. Mari's second full-length collection, Pearl and Bone, launches with Parthian in October 2022 and is available to preorder now. Mari lives on the west coast of Wales, with her husband, their two sons, and their very adorable poochon.
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