Northern England, 1798
Somewhere far below, deep in the belly of the manor, my mother was screaming.
Even huddled on my bed, with the heavy curtains of the canopy drawn tight, and the door to my room firmly closed, I couldn’t escape her terror. These were not the stifled groans I remembered from when she had delivered my younger sister, Amelia, into the world. These were the ungodly howls of the damned. They were insidious. Seditious. And the longer they persisted, the more pervasive they became.
Soon I struggled to differentiate between my mother’s pain and my own. With every tortured wail that echoed up the stone hallway I felt another stratum of my psyche stripped away, another layer of flesh flayed from my bones.
Shivers racked my body as I clamped my hands over my ears in an effort to stifle the screaming. If anything, the absence of other sounds only amplified my mother’s agony, and I immediately pulled them away again.
I had been with her when the birthing pains first began. She and I had been sitting in our drawing room when a small gasp had slipped from her lips. I had looked up to see the most beatific smile split her face.
“The baby’s coming. Go fetch Mrs. Norris,” she had told me.
I had torn from the room in a frenzy of flying limbs, tripping over my skirts as I shouted down the halls in search of our housekeeper.
“It’s just a baby. No need to panic,” the aging woman had scolded when I found her.
I wondered if I should be panicking now. How long must this go on? How much torment could someone endure before succumbing to the abyss?
The door to my room crashed open, startling me so violently that I nearly toppled from my mattress.
“Kit?” came the frantic call of my twin brother, Marcus.
I crawled to the edge of my bed and wrenched the curtains open, nearly blinding myself. I hadn’t expected the sun to be shining. I had expected the gloom of night, for, locked in the prison of my mother’s pain, I had lost all sense of time and reason.
Marcus stood just inside the doorway as another shriek rent the air, his fiery locks obscuring his face as he hunched over and clutched his spindly arms around his middle as if to shield himself from the sound. In that moment, he looked much younger than fourteen.
The scream died away, and slowly, he raised his head. His face was drained of color. The green eyes that met mine were haunted. “She’s dying, isn’t she?”
His words mirrored my thoughts from a moment before, and I felt my own fear increase tenfold because of them. I barely managed to choke out a strangled, “No,” as I slid from the bed and went to him. She couldn’t be dying. She wouldn’t do that to us.
“Amelia’s crying,” Marcus said when I reached him.
I had been so focused on drowning out our mother’s pain that I had failed to detect the softer cries answering hers. I heard them now, echoing down from our sister’s nursery on the top floor. They were as tortured as our mother’s, as though some part of her infant mind understood what was happening.
Unable to meet my brother’s gaze for fear of what I would find there, I took up his hand and led him from the room. Another ragged screech bubbled up from the depths the moment we passed through the threshold.
We broke into a run and fled from it, but it chased us down the hallway and up a flight of stairs with sinister disregard. By the time we reached the nursery we were both out of breath.
I pushed the door open without knocking, focusing my fear into anger at the nursemaid for her inability to sooth Amelia. Our sister stood facing us in her crib, her small hands gripping the railing as she sobbed. Her cherubic visage was twisted into a travesty of itself: skin red and splotchy; tears streaming from swollen eyes; snot dripping from her nose. Her nurse was nowhere to be seen.
My blood ran cold. How dire were our mother’s straits that even her infant daughter had been abandoned?
Amelia’s wailing gained a frantic edge as she released the railing to palm the air, signaling her desire to be picked up. I forced myself to move forward and wipe her face off as best I could before lifting her from the crib. She immediately began to quiet.
“The closet,” Marcus said as he shut the door to the nursery.
I glanced toward the opposite side of the room, where another, smaller door was half-concealed by a footstool. It led to a rectangular crawlspace that served as a makeshift linen closet. Marcus and I had played within its confines when we were young enough to share this room, and I still remembered how quiet it had been inside.
I followed him toward it and then waited as he shoved aside the stool and pulled the door open. Below us, our mother screamed again.
Marcus shot a terrified look toward the noise and then ducked inside.
I extricated Amelia’s arms from around my neck and handed her to him before I followed, pulling the door shut behind us. We were immediately dropped into darkness, and in the closed space the only sound I could hear was that of our movements as we settled ourselves on the floor.
The exposed stone wall behind me was cool to the touch. I shifted so that I could lean my forehead against it to soothe my fevered skin. Beside me, Marcus began to make cooing noises at Amelia. I closed my eyes and pressed the heels of my palms to my lids as I listened, willing myself not to cry. Sunbursts erupted from the pressure, and in them I saw visions of our mother, of her red hair flying out around her as she twirled with me beneath the boughs of an apple tree. Of her teasing smile as she tickled Amelia until she squealed with delight. Of her and Marcus swinging sticks at each other as they waged a mock-war on the back lawn.
My brother’s disembodied whisper pulled me from my memories. “I can still hear her.”
I pulled my hands away and listened. Oh, God. I could too.
“Please sing something, Kit. I can’t bear this,” he said.
I immediately obliged, choosing one of the nursery rhymes our mother had lulled us to sleep with when we were little.
“Dance a baby diddy; what can mammy do wid’e?
Sit in her lap, give it some pap, and dance a baby diddy.
Smile, my baby bonnie; what will time bring on ‘e?
Sorrow and care, frowns and gray hair; so smile, my baby bonnie.
Laugh my baby beauty; what will time do to ye?
Furrow your cheek, wrinkle your neck; so laugh, my baby beauty.
Dance, my baby dearie; Mother will never be weary.
Frolic and play, now while you may; so dance, my baby deary.”
I ended with a strangled sob, clamping a hand over my mouth to keep in my pitiful mewling. What a stupid song to have chosen. A soft sniffle came from beside me as my brother’s fingers twined through my own. A moment later, another dampened wail reached my ears, and I began to sing again, this time a more uplifting tune. When it was over, I sang another. And another.
I sang until our eyes adjusted to the darkness. I sang as Marcus made a bed of blankets for Amelia to nestle in. I sang until her eyes closed and her breathing deepened. I sang as Marcus lied down beside her and placed his head on my thigh. I sang as I petted his hair. I sang until he, too, fell asleep.
I sang until my voice went hoarse.
I sang until the screaming stopped.
I sang until our father came to tell us our mother was dead, and the baby along with her.
“I don’t believe you!” Marcus screamed, kicking at Father’s shins.
Having slept through our mother’s death, he was struggling to come to terms with what had happened.
“Do you think I’m lying, boy?” Father demanded, grabbing Marcus by the shoulders and giving him a savage shake.
Amelia howled in my arms.
“Marcus, stop,” I croaked, my voice nearly gone.
Where Mother had been kind and caring, our father was indifferent and callous toward his children. Marcus knew better than to provoke his temper. We had all learned what came of it. But my twin was mad with grief and deaf to my warning.
“Yes! You’re lying! You always lie!” Marcus raged.
Father went deathly quiet, his hands still gripping my brother’s shoulders. I stood a few feet away, off to the side of them, and because of this, only his profile was visible to me. Strands of his dark blonde hair had come loose from the leather thong that usually held it back, further obscuring my view. Whatever expression he wore, it was enough to scare Marcus into silence.
“Fine,” Father said, as if coming to some decision. “You’ll see for yourself then.”
He grabbed Marcus by the arm and began hauling him toward the door.
I should have known better than to stand within striking distance of Father when he was in a rage. I should have stepped back. I should have moved out of their path. Any other day I would have. But today I didn’t, and so there was no escaping him when he reached out his free hand and latched onto my arm, wrenching it away from Amelia. I nearly dropped her. Only my vicelike grip with my other hand and Amelia’s desperate clutching at my neck kept her from hitting the floor.
“Father, stop this. Amelia,” I was forced to yell over her terrified wails.
My plea fell on uncaring ears.
Father dragged us bodily from the room and out into the hallway. Marcus continued to fight him, hurling insults and spitting like a cornered cat. I let my arm relax in Father’s grip, my entire concentration on my sister.
“Let me just put her down, Father, please,” I said, my voice laced with panic.
He was heading toward the stairs.
“Father, please. I can’t hold her like this. She could fall.”
“One less mouth to feed,” he snarled, looking over his shoulder at me. “One less dowry to pay for.”
My mind went numb at his words. I had known he was apathetic toward us. I had known he could be cruel when in a rage. But I had never known the depth of his depravity extended this far.
Marcus was likewise struck silent, ceasing his protestations to stare at me with eyes gone wide with shock.
Down the stairs we went.
I put my whole focus toward holding onto Amelia. She did her own part to stay in my arms, wrapping her little legs around me in a vicelike grip. At one point Father jerked us around the bend of a landing, and Amelia slipped a fraction in my arms. Marcus darted forward as if to catch her, but Amelia scrabbled back up me like a monkey and held on tighter still, her tiny fingernails digging into my skin so hard that I knew from the sting she was drawing blood.
Two more flights later and we were on the first floor. My arm began to shake with exertion.
The butler met us at the base of the stairs, his eyes flashing round in what might have been surprise before his face settled back into its usual emotionless expression. He had never been kind, but distant, formal, and unflinchingly loyal to Father, tattling on Marcus and I at nearly every turn. I had always despised him.
“Mr. Hawkins,” I said to him. “Please.”
Without a word, he sprung forward and scooped Amelia up just as my grip on her began to slip.
I didn’t even have a chance to thank him, for Father never paused.
Not even when he came to a group of maids gathered around an open doorway. They scattered like hens running from a fox when they saw him. He swept us into the room, shoving us forward.
“Still think I’m lying?” he said, his voice dangerously low.
The human mind is capable of incredible things. It can conjure all sorts of images. It can create whole worlds out of dreams. It can even try to save you from yourself. I had learned this the hard way just last summer. Marcus had been home from Eton, and he had helped me to escape the watchful eye of my governess so we could go traipsing through the forest that surrounded the manor. I had stumbled upon a small baby fox sleeping in a spill of sunlight.
The smell should have warned me that not all was as it seemed, but I had been so excited to find a fox that I ignored it. I had recently read about a long dead queen who had kept them for pets, and had desperately wanted one myself. Here was my chance.
Gently, I went to pick it up by the back of the neck. Half of the pelt came away in my hand, exposing the rotting meat beneath, teeming with maggots. It had taken nearly a solid minute for what I was seeing to dawn on me, and in the end, Marcus had to pry my fingers open and force me to release the skin before tugging me away from the scene.
Something similar happened now. I stood, transfixed, staring into the center of the room, my mind refusing to fit the shapes and objects together into a coherent sight.
“My Lord, what are you doing?” someone shrieked. “The children shouldn’t be here!”
But it was too late. I saw then. I understood. And I would never be the same again.
Mother’s corpse was sprawled on top of the bed, her thin linen shift bunched up around her waist so that the ruin of her lower body was fully visible. There was blood everywhere. Rags and rags full of it were strewn around the floor. Mother’s stomach was still big like she hadn’t given birth, but there, coiled over her leg was a blue-black cord, attached to a small, unmoving, gore-splattered thing that must have been a baby.
Beside me, Marcus began to gag.
A gentle hand took hold of my bruised arm and led me away.
Outside, the hallway seemed to tunnel and then collapse on itself. My vision went dark, and I knew no more.
The funeral was a few days later. Father had refused to write to Mother’s many friends and relatives about her death. He didn’t want to pay to feed them all. His mother, our grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Dunhill, had agreed with this decision, counseling him to inform them after we had buried Mother. She had also been the one to ban us from the ceremony, on the grounds that children like Marcus and I couldn’t be trusted not to make a scene and besmirch the family’s reputation.
Marcus had raged at this, but I had remained quiet. I hadn’t spoken since seeing mother sprawled out on that bed. What a terrible thing, to be a woman, I realized. To be sold off to a man like Father as if one were a belonging and not a person. To die, horribly, struggling to bring his heirs into the world.
I decided then that I would never grow into a woman. That I would never marry. That I would never have children. That I would run away to Eton with Marcus and pretend to be a boy. Or to the gypsies, whose bright caravans had always drawn my eye and sparked my imagination.
None of this was to be, of course.
They buried Mother that rainy afternoon, and we had no choice but to watch from one of the upper windows of the manor. From that distance the scant, black-clad attendees looked like carrion eaters descending for a feast.
Marcus went back to Eton a few weeks later, without me, even though it broke both of our hearts. He left Amelia and I with our spiteful, neglectful father, and our grandmother, who had decided to remain in the house and see to our upbringing in our mother’s absence.
It wasn’t long until we learned how father had become the creature he was. Creatures aren’t born. They’re created. By monsters.