I’m planting tulips when I hear them. Voices, drifting smoke-like through the trees. Standing, I listen, staring at the bare earth. Thinking of the tulips that, come spring, will press through the dirt to spread white petals for the sun. They’re Swan Wings. Agatha’s favourite.
The voices are louder now, their owners wandering closer. A young man and woman, heavy packs on their backs. Hikers. Friends perhaps, or siblings. Maybe a couple.
I stop myself.
I know how it goes.
Even now the pale day is turning gold with evening. The rush of falling night will surprise them, and Autumn’s blushing trees—for all their show of fire—can’t hide the touch of ice in the air. They’ll see our cabin. Windows glowing, her log walls stout against the chill. They might debate a little. How far can be left? The cold, the dark. Can they ask to stay? Such an imposition, and on strangers, but the cabin only looks warmer as darkness closes their road home. They’ll surrender. They’ll ask for help.
Before the tulips bloom, they’ll rot to bones. White as swan wings.
“You collect them?” the young man asks, as visitors do. He runs a knuckle through the brass wind chime above his head, setting the tubes singing against the clapper. His shy, grateful smile turns my guts to lead. Until Agatha comes to the door. I see the dumb, animal slack in the young man’s jaw. The sharp, animal flick of the girl’s eyes.
“Bram makes them for me,” Agatha says, gesturing to me. “They’ve beautiful voices.” She trails the tip of her forefinger along the edge of a fan-shaped one beside the lintel. It sighs under her touch and she closes her eyes to listen, catching her lower lip between her teeth. I watch, helpless with the sight of her.
“Please,” she says, returning to the moment, “come in.”
Willingly, which is important, our guests cross the threshold.
By the time they see the casket, it’s too late. It’s the work of my own hands, and rests in the entrance hall at the heart of our cabin. Beneath its pink stained glass Agatha might be sleeping, though long years of her death lie like fields of ashes underfoot.
At first, they see without seeing. Agatha, seeming alive and smiling. The figure in the casket, still as carved marble. But doubt ripens to horror as they lose ground against the truth beating at their eyes.
The front door slams, a starting gun that turns them on their heel. Until they remember the danger lies behind them. Wheeling back, the girl flinches away at finding Agatha too close. Wearing her true, spectre’s face.
I cage the boy in my arms, holding on as he writhes. His pleas fall like pattering rain about my shoulders.
I watch my beloved.
Her skin is pallid, glistening like damp clay and in places has worn away over the bone in wet, ragged sores. Blackened blood seeps between her grinning teeth, oozes from her nose, and rolls in fat teardrops from her clouded eyes. The sweet reek of rot and dark soil fills the air, choking the girl. Wreathed in scraps of white grave clothes the skin of Agatha’s throat is translucent, a nibbling churn of maggots visible beneath. The girl retches, her hand at her own throat.
“Why?” the boy’s question is bright, ringing pain that cuts through the false deafness of my ears. “Why are you doing this?”
I’ve heard it before, they all ask, but for some shapeless reason I answer.
“This way she never— She’s here.” I feel his gaze, his head craned back to seek out my eyes. I do not look.
“She’s…” I know his eyes graze the casket, the body resting inside, “dead.”
The girl tries to break free as Agatha takes her wrists. There’s an echoing crack as my wife’s grip tightens, and the girl shrieks. I sense the boy fall inward and look away. Smell the shame coming off him like a stink.
Rot spreads from Agatha’s touch. The skin cracks, the greenish sheen of decay expanding like ripples over a deep lake. Up, up the girl’s throat. Down into her guts. She thrashes. Her screams gutter and rise, break, and redouble. Agatha drinks the howling terror, swallowing up the life with it. The boy’s fear, when Agatha draws it out, is not the screaming, banshee kind. It’s silent and gasping, quenched in salted rivers of tears.
How did we all come to think of fear as cold? Chill down the spine. Flood of ice in the veins. Fear isn’t cold. Fear is the hot stench of a predator’s breath. The acid burn of loosening guts and the warm, acrid slick of your sweat. It’s the fire of adrenaline in every nerve and the rush of blood to your muscles as you try to run. Fear isn’t cold. That’s why Agatha needs it. She’s no heat left. She needs the damp warmth of screams to breathe, the heat of a thundering pulse to pink her skin.
And I need her.
She feasts on the boy’s fear, and a wind rises to pluck at the chimes on the porch. They don’t ring like brass now. They scream, they beg and cry and wail, and two new voices have joined their chorus.
Agatha turns, sightless eyes and scenting nose questing. Hungry. She lets the boy’s husk fall. I open my arms, and wait.
She’s before me, close enough I can see the beat of her quick, low breaths. She caresses the air beside my cheek.
“I’m here, my love.” I turn my head, cover her hand with mine and bring her wrist to my lips. “I’m not afraid.”
When I look again, she’s whole. Her skin is firm and unbroken, flushed. Her eyes are bright, her lips plump and painted dusty rose. She laces her fingers with mine as we listen to the wind chimes.
“I’m here, dear heart,” she says.
About the Creator
Writer. Chronic sickie. Part-time gorgon. Probably thinking about cyborgs right now.