Unnatural, Wicked

By Marcelle Thiébaux

was four and my parents’ only child, when we piled into Daddy’s Ford coupé and drove to a New Jersey lakeside resort for a week of canoeing and swimming. The place was called Brown’s Mills. The lake water was muddy brown, so shadowed I couldn’t see to the bottom. Splashing, wading, I felt underwater weeds tangle their rubbery fingers around my legs.

The resort kept riding stables for the guests, but my parents knew nothing of horses and their ways. One afternoon I strayed in the path of a muscular, mounted animal. I tumbled under the horse and remember to this day his fiercely galloping legs as he dashed over my head in a clatter of hooves. My father and my screaming mother raced to grab me, but I wasn’t hurt.

That seemed the end of it until I got to an age where I was reading too many books, so many they gave me dreams. One night it was a black stallion trotting up to me. He tossed his head and neighed a greeting. I knew I was in the grip of a dream. I’d never ridden a horse in my life, but I mounted without effort. He struck off at a canter, then galloped away with me clinging to his silver bridle and his long black mane.

We rode into a forest of gnarled trunks and branches. His flashing hooves barely touched the ground. Hoot owls called out mournful warnings, crows beat their greasy wings and swooped to peck out my eyes. Nothing could touch or hurt me. My hair flapped behind me like a honey-colored banner. We soared at a powerful gallop through the trackless wood, always hovering a little above the earth as my horse spread his strong pinions.

He alighted in a grove of oaks bearded with hanging mosses. I slid off his back, curling my bare toes in the velvety leaves. I patted my horse’s flank and threw my arms around his neck. I felt myself enfolded in his broad, black, feathered wings. Sensations of muddled warmth spread through my body as if I were consumed. I knew nothing like it.

To my surprise the horse spoke. I wasn’t expecting what he had to say. “Dorian, listen. Your mother will be seriously sick. She’ll die within months unless you’re willing to suffer a hardship to save her. An ordeal. You can grant her a few more years.” I was sodden with sleep. I mumbled, “Yes, anything, I’ll do anything to save her.” Again we rode until the dream faded into nothingness and I woke up. I thought about it all that day and the next. Gradually I forgot about it.

Shortly afterwards, my mother fell ill with a rare cancer. Untreatable, her doctors said, and gave her no hope. I cried for her. I went to see her every day in the hospice bringing her books and music and flowers but she lay listless. I raked through the Internet, reading about her disease on Web MD but found no consolation.

Off and on I thought about my dream. When I missed two of my periods, then a third, I saw this meant trouble but I couldn’t imagine such a thing happening to me. I didn’t even have a boyfriend except for boys I danced with in Mrs. Mallory’s dancing classes at the Tennis Club. If she saw any kids dancing too close, she blew the police whistle she carried in her pocket, and rushed over to pull them apart. The only boys I went out with, I met with my girlfriends at parties and the Rialto movie theater. But I kept thinking I’d been happy when the black horse had taken me under his wings. I had even felt love for him. All I felt now was fear.

I looked for information on Web MD to learn how it was possible for a girl to get pregnant by a wild non-human creature, but I found no mention of such a thing. I only read in Wikipedia about a queen who wished to take a bull as her consort. She had the palace engineer build her a wooden cow with an opening in the right place so she could sit inside. The brute mounted the fake cow without knowing the difference. The outcome was a disaster. The story had nothing to do with me.

I told my mother I’d missed a couple of periods. She was stunned. Weak as she was, she raised herself up on her thin elbow. With her failing strength, she cried, “Dorian, how could you humiliate us like that? I’m dying, and you do this to me.”

“Mom, I didn’t do it to you. It happened to me.”

“I know what you did. Thank God I won’t live to see this shame you’ve brought on yourself and us.” But she did live to see it, for she soon got better. Cured, she left the hospice, astonishing her doctors. She told my father about me. He was furious. He slapped my face. “Who is the boy? I’ll kill him.

“There’s no boy,” I said, truthfully. He shoved me into my room and locked me in. My belly got bigger while my mother’s health dramatically improved. Her friends marveled, saying she looked years younger, as if she’d spent time in a Florida beauty spa, while I grew pale and stolidly awaited my baby.

I couldn’t help dwelling on the heedless promise I’d made in my sleep. Was this my ordeal? At first I didn’t dare tell my parents about the horse dream. They’d certainly think I was crazy. At last I talked to my mother, explaining her recovery.

“You expect us to believe that?” Abruptly she changed her tone, speaking carefully. “We are going to consult a specialist about you, Dorian.” My father arranged for therapy sessions with a psychiatrist at Willowbend, a clinic for disturbed and delinquent girls.

I took back the story about the dream. “I just made it up,” I insisted as if I were a normal person.

My parents abandoned the psychiatrist idea. They sent me to stay with an aunt to hide my disgrace while waiting out my pregnancy. The creature I gave birth at my aunt’s house, painlessly and without a doctor, was a spindly foal. This was the last straw.

On receiving the news, my mother suffered a daylong bilious attack, after which she emerged resolute. Together, she and my father came to see me at my aunt’s house. Their faces were ashen with loathing. “What you’ve done is unnatural, wicked. The act of a deviant,” said my mother. “You are worse than we imagined.” She and my father got on the phone with the Willowbend psychiatrist.

Eavesdropping behind the door, I heard my father’s rich, honest voice. “She’ll have to be committed. That thing she gave birth to, we’ll take it out somewhere and burn it.”

I couldn’t let this happen. I’d borne the creature, however bizarre it seemed. Behind my aunt’s flower gardens an overgrown path led through the woods to a stockaded wildlife preserve, run by the State. I never ventured into it because of the hordes of deer ticks, tiny as pepper grains and impossible to detect. A neighbor had been bitten and died of Lyme disease. Pulling on a sweatshirt and cargo pants with thick boots, I tied a scarf over my face like a bandit’s and sprayed on insect repellent.

In my arms I carried my foal. He was small and light. I ran stumbling over thorns and thickets, brushing away swarms of gnats from my eyes until I reached a wide, sunny clearing. I laid my foal in the grass and wrapped him in leaves. I fed him with a milk bottle I’d brought with me in my blue Muggles baby knapsack until he slept. He was winsome, really adorable, but he smelled horsey like a barnyard. I wanted to let him go.

If ever I needed a friend, it was now. I could think of only one. I had to summon the horse demon who had done this to me, even though I’d agreed, all unwitting. Feeling helpless, I burst into tears. After I blew my nose and dried my eyes, I noticed the woods at the clearing’s edge were the same as in my haunted dream.

I called aloud, “You’d better come to me now, wherever you are. This is your doing, and this is your brat. Take him, take care of him for me.” I waited while nothing happened.

I heard a snorting, and felt a pawing of the earth. Here was the black steed galloping out of the woods, his satin flanks dappled with white foam as if he had come a long way. His tail and his long mane streamed like a stormcloud. The flaring nostrils breathed red sparks. He stopped before me.

“I’ll take him, Dorian, but I have to ask a favor.”

“I don’t see why. I kept my promise. Look at the price I paid to save my mother. She and my father disowned me and they want to lock me up.”

“You fulfilled your end of the bargain. All the same there’s more I have to beseech of you.”

I looked away. “What is it?”

“I need you to come for me, and live with me as my loving spouse and companion. My wife.”

“You must be out of your mind,” I cried. “I never want to see you again. Just take the child. I’ll say I gave him to a zoo or a horse farm.”

“I’m under a powerful spell that only you can break. We could make a life, Dorian.”

This was so absurd, I had no answer. A long moment went by, before he turned from me and made for the wood. The foal, who had scrambled up on his ungainly legs to frisk in the sunny clearing, doing pirouettes, cropping the daisies and paying no attention to us, spun around and trotted after his sire. Both vanished into the trees.

Glad to be rid of these two who had ruined my life, I gave no thought to the fresh burden the strong-willed stallion tried to lay on me. Nothing could force me. I was free. There was no going back to my parents, who’d given me up as a pervert. Home was now my aunt’s house, where I’d stayed until the birth of my foal.

Hers was a neat shingled bungalow, gray with white trim. When I reached her street, thirsty and footsore, I saw some of the shingles had loosened. The unmowed lawn was scruffy with dandelions, and the hedges, usually clipped, had sprung up high. Had I been gone so long? I banged the front door knocker. The door swung open, I pushed it and ran into the kitchen. My aunt wore her old turquoise robe, now soiled with age. Her hair had grown long and gray. She didn’t stop stirring a big pot on the stove. The sluggish brew smelled rank as the weeds in the Browns Mills lake.

“So, you gave the baby back to its horse father,” she said as if this were an everyday business. I began to think this aunt was a psychic or a witch. At the foal’s birth she alone hadn’t condemned me. She’d greeted my scandalous newborn without batting an eye. At the time I was too distracted to grasp this fully.

“I saw him,” I admitted. “I never talked with him before, except in a dream. I didn’t believe such a thing was possible, but it happened. Can I stay with you now?”

“You can’t live here,” said my aunt without rancor. “You left your human hearth.”

“I ran off with the foal to protect him. That was only right. My father would’ve killed him.”

“You made a choice and will have to go.”

I protested. “But none of this was my fault.”

“You’ll have to beg your way in the world until you find your husband.”

“Husband! He can’t possibly be my husband. And I don’t want a husband.” How did my aunt know he had asked me to marry him? She acted as if she knew a lot more than I did.

“Go on, find him.” Her laugh was bright and cruel. “Save him. I doubt you have the nerve.”

“I don’t need to save him.” I hated the way she talked about the mess I was in. I was better off leaving. I packed a few things. At the door she gave me a little embroidered purse on a chain. “If you run into trouble, use this.” I unsnapped it and saw it was full of money. I hung it around my neck.

It was still spring when I Ieft her house. I took a bus to a nearby industrial town called Railway Junction where I’d seen homeless people camping out on the sidewalks. They sat on blankets and cardboard boxes with signs like “Hungry. Please Help.” Vagrants marked their spots, so I threw my blanket roll in front of Victoria’s Secret. When the police came to shoo us off to the shelters, which I heard were dangerous, I left the town. By summer’s end I walked out beyond the train tracks into fields of goldenrod, sumac and Queen Anne’s Lace. Wild blueberry bushes grew beside a running brook.

Nights I moved deeper into the trees. I hunted for edible mushrooms I’d studied in school, hens-of-the wood, pink oysters, and morels. Pinched with hunger, I ate them raw, whether they tasted like walnuts or garlic or gulps of woodland air. I drank the stream water and ate sour blueberries. I wrapped myself in newspapers and my street blanket, sleeping in some animal’s burrow, breathing in his fusty, fecal, dried-prune smell.

The maples brightened blood red, the weather grew bitter cold and I took shelter against a concrete pillar under the train trestle. Now I didn’t see how I could keep going. My boots were worn to paper thinness, my clothes and blanket threadbare. Ragged men tramped along the railroad tracks. I hid, frightened of being beaten, raped or knifed. My head got so dizzy I couldn’t make out the time on my watch any more. I couldn’t read the headlines on the old newspapers I slept on. Words ran together in a jumble.

Hallucinations crowded my mind with giant sun-drenched blooms in crayola and day-glo colors, fragments of a flower show I’d once gone to at the Botanical Gardens. I was sick and filthy, without friends. I was hungry. I’d spent the money in the embroidered purse and couldn’t see much hope ahead.

I opened the purse one last time. In it I found a beautiful comb I hadn’t seen before, crusted with gems and inscribed in gold. How had I missed it? I thought I’d tug the snarls out of my dirty hair, but I stopped to read the inscription. My clouded eyes cleared and I read, “Easeful Death.” There was dire magic in the comb, my aunt’s final gift to me. Was it possible that my destiny had been laid before me by this witch? Full of self-pity, tempted by the alluring comb, I thought I might as well use it. The inscription faded. Now it read, Let me comb your pretty hair, Dorian. I continued to read the comb, whose words kept changing. There’s nothing more, it read.

I threw the comb as far from me as I had strength to, watching it become a scuttling lizard. I leaned against the concrete pillar, closing my eyes in relief at my escape.

When I opened them, a metal glint caught my attention. Beside the tracks a low-slung, rusted-out vehicle had parked, a golf cart or a child’s toy automobile. Dragging my blanket, I climbed into the mildewed seat. I flipped a switch. The car’s engine coughed, stuttering to life. As there was no road I didn’t know where I was going, but the car pretty much drove itself, rattling and jolting over rocky ground. Light snow drifted in my hair, feathered my lashes.

I drove into an abandoned amusement park. An earthquake, a hurricane, or time had struck this fairground and left it a ghostly rubble. My vehicle, which turned out to be a carnival bumper-car, jerked to a stop, stalling beside a fleet of wrecked, overturned bumper rides. Steering wheels were pulled from their sockets like crippled arms.

I leaped out, and trudged toward the wrecks of funhouses scrawled with graffiti. Haunted grottoes hung with skeletons. Here and there lay the twisted girders of dead thrill-rides, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel looming against a vacant sky.

Beyond a cracked swan-boat, I stopped at the ruin of a carousel. Vines grew up strangling the decayed bodies of wooden horses, some headless, others with fractured knees. Unburied bones littered the ground. Over the carousel was nailed a horse’s skull.

Then I saw them just rounding the bend of the devastation, the black horse with the colt, both of them racing across the windswept field, snorting clouds of steam. It was winter. Their iron hooves rang on the stony ground. The two bounded up to me, neighing and nickering. The colt kicked up his back legs in a capriole as if I were an old friend.

“You’ve come back for us,” said the black horse.

“How long have I been gone?”

“He’s been asking for you,” said the horse with a toss of his head at the colt, who clearly had grown.

“I didn’t come for you. I didn’t know you were here.”

“Whether you meant it or not, you got here,” the horse said. “You’ve come to this place where the spell can be broken if you’ll do it.”

“I don’t know if I’m up to it.” I wavered. “Out of curiosity, what did you have in mind? I’m only asking.”

“Go to the fortune-teller’s booth and take the rusty knife stuck in her turban. You will have to cut our throats. Catch the blood on my silver bridle. Then flay off our hides.”

“Never!” I loved these two. How could I kill them? “I won’t carry out such a bloodthirsty deed.”

“Then we can never leave,” said the horse in sorrow, “and you can’t leave without us. Our doomed home is here, this fairy hamlet by the dead carousel. The three of us, we have to live here always in the shadow of the horse’s skull.”

“I’ve seen the skull. Where is the fairy hamlet?” I looked past the shattered wooden horses, to a cluster of low, thatched, dwarfish cottages with crooked chimneys. Windows grinned out at picket fences lined with hollyhocks and ladybugs. The little hovels had a distorted infant charm. They were pictures that had looked out at me long ago from my book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. They were magical, but I knew I didn’t want to live here frozen in childhood.

I went for the rusty blade, yanking it from the fortune teller’s turban. First I looped my arm around the neck of the young colt, and pressed my face against his flank. Then I knew I could never do this. “No, no, no,” I cried out.

“You had better begin with me,” said the stallion. I choked back my panic and touched the knife point most delicately to my beloved horse’s neck and in terrified remorse saw a drop of  bright blood bubble from his skin, clinging like a baby ruby. Sobbing with horror, I flung the knife away and kissed the tiny wound I had inflicted, reddening with his blood.

To my astonishment he fell. At the same time the colt weakened and collapsed to his knees without a peep as one drop of his blood, too, appeared like a jewel against his neck. I looked at what I had apparently done and threw myself sobbing to the ground with them both.

“Take the bridle as a crown,” said the big horse in a strange voice near my ear. “Our enchanted blood has power in it.”

I caught drops of his blood on the silver bridle, and saw the bridle turn into a slim jeweled circlet. I set it on my head. My hair fell shining down my back. I hadn’t bathed for months but my body became fresh and clean. There was more I had to do, the horse explained to me. All at once I understood that this was how potent spells had to be broken. I had dreamed about such acts of violent magic.

Salt tears ran into my mouth and I swallowed them, tasting blood. I took the colt’s skin and it sheared away easily as a cloak, becoming a gown of red velvet. I put on the gown, which fitted my body perfectly. It felt rich, warm and soft. Heartened, I seized the black horse’s hide, which turned into a canoe with its paddles.

Before my eyes the two horses rose up to take on human shapes, one a young man like a prince with a black mane, the other a boy of three or four, who was fair like me. Our child stared at me, wide-eyed. The man stood fit and sturdy from his years in the body of a horse. He filled me with joy, since I knew at once that he was kind and always would be. He spoke in the human voice I was used to. “Our bitter enchantment is over, Dorian.”

“It was my aunt, wasn’t it? She set it up.”

“She didn’t like us. I angered her because I refused her daughter’s love, for you. She tried to destroy you, then me.”

“So now I’ve become a kind of witch?”

“Only because you outmaneuvered her in the end.”

Our little boy never took his eyes off me. I picked him up, and he clasped his hands around my neck.

The drops of blood ebbed, then darkened, rose and swelled in floods that turned before my eyes into the brown lake waters of Browns Mills. The amusement park melted with the snow, giving way to the familiar tall pines, whose cones and spiky-scented needles strewed the beach sand. Reeds sprang at the water’s edge, along with the savage purple cups of the pitcher plants. It was summer again.

“We can navigate to wherever home is.” I stepped in at the prow and seized a paddle. The old murky waters cleared so I could read straight to the bottom of the brown lake, where I saw my mother and father and aunt pacing the lake’s floor in a stately company. They walked away from us, empty-eyed and unsmiling, their watery garments trailing.

My husband took our child from me and lifted him into the canoe. We three gazed at one another with new recognition and pleasure. He got in at the stern where he could paddle and keep an eye on our child, who sat between us, clutching the sides of the canoe the way I’d done at his age. His gray eyes were large and solemn and had not lost any of their look of wonder.

 

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Marcelle Thiébaux has published short stories in Delmarva Review (with radio play), Dogzplot, Grand Central Noir Anthology, Home Planet News, The Griffin, Keeping the Edge, Literal Latté, The Penmen Review, and KY Urban Fantasy. Her books on medieval themes include The Stag of Love, and The Writings of Medieval Women. For her fiction, she received a Pen & Brush Club Award and a Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition Award, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


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