The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
by Scarlett R. Algee
Three minutes after midnight Nassa thrashes in the bed and wakes herself coughing, painfully pushing her thin frame upright to fumble at the rusty sludge oozing from the corner of her mouth, and Phenia knows it’s time.
On her way to the kitchen she plucks the tiny ornate clock from the mantel. It had been Nassa’s gift to her for their wedding fifty years ago: crafted across the sea, the dark strange-grained wood ornamented with scrollwork and carved roses. Priceless, precious, unfailingly accurate even now.
Phenia puts the kettle on to boil and holds the little clock between her hands, watching the second hand tick round, whispering over the gurgle of roiling water the words of the enchantment she’d laid on it at sunrise, hoping it will be enough.
When the kettle shrills, she tucks the clock into a pocket of her skirt and reaches far back into the cupboard, drawing out the jar of black powder she’s so carefully hidden from Nassa, even though her wife hasn’t left her bed in days. Hasn’t done anything but cough and sleep and twist fitfully as the cancer eats away at her.
They have not discussed this plan, because Phenia has been terrified that Nassa would say no.
Phenia empties the jar into a large cup and adds the boiling water, stirring carefully and wincing as the odor of sweet rot reaches her nostrils. The ingredients had been surprisingly easy to obtain: gravedust; henbane; powdered bone. Two petals from the bouquet of never-die roses she’d given Nassa on their first anniversary, still as vibrantly pink and glossy as they’d been five decades earlier. Only the corpse-tongue had proven difficult—not the small black flower that clusters around new graves, but the literal object, and that less than three days old—but last night a dose of laudanum had made Nassa sleep soundly enough for Phenia to have a midnight prowl and find a drunken vagrant, and that, thanks to a particularly sharp boning knife, had been that.
This sleep will be more profound, though what happens after is less certain. Nassa coughs again, and Phenia lifts the cup and starts up the stairs.
There is blood on the coverlet. Nassa has fallen back on her pillows, dull-eyed and panting, but she still scrabbles fruitlessly at the stain.
“It’s all right.” Phenia sets the steaming cup on the bedside table and sits on the edge of the bed, catching her wife’s hand in both of her own and gently squeezing the thin, hard-edged fingers. Nassa had been a scribe when they’d married, and she’d had such beautiful hands. “Do you think you can sit up again? I brewed something for your cough.”
“Try.” Nassa’s voice is all but gone, but with a huge effort and Phenia’s arm around her shoulders, she gets upright. “So tired.”
“I know, love.” Phenia takes the cup and guides it to Nassa’s lips. “Drink this and you can sleep again.”
After the first mouthful, throat eased by heat and moisture, Nassa draws back in reproach. “Everything you brew is unaccountably vile.”
“I know.” Phenia dips her head in apology; the little clock is still a weight in her pocket, its ticks palpable against her thigh. “But it works.”
“Vain thing.” Nassa laughs hoarsely and drinks again, drinks until she’s breathless. She lies back, breathing hard. “Enough.”
Phenia draws the cup away and inspects the contents. Enough indeed, she agrees silently, and sets it down, running her fingers through the patchy remnants of her wife’s iron-grey hair until Nassa’s breathing deepens and slows. Then a hitch, a final cough, and it ceases altogether.
For a long moment, in what feels like solidarity, Phenia holds her breath. Touches Nassa’s mouth and nostrils and throat, assures the presence of neither breath nor pulse. Then she pulls the miniature clock free and sets it on the table.
Half past midnight. The hands have gone still.
But, as Phenia watches, wondering if the enchantment took, wondering if there’s space within the teeth of the nesting gears for her spouse and lover’s soul, the ivory numbers inset in the dial begin to glow, one by one: green, like Nassa’s eyes. The golden hands jerk forward once, then backward, and the entire device wobbles uneasily; then it stills, and the hands tick forward again, and time goes on.
Phenia lets out her breath. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, speaking not to her wife’s still, pallid face, but to the clock’s dial. “I’m sorry. I know you’re probably angry right now, but you would have said no if I’d asked, and I can’t be without you. Not yet. Not after so long. So I didn’t ask.”
She stops, staring at the numbers, which are still luminescent. The tick-tock has gone hollow.
“I didn’t ask,” she repeats, and reaches for the cup. Perhaps it will be enough. Perhaps where there’s room for one soul, there will be room for two, ground together in the mechanism, tick by tick.
Phenia drains the cup and watches the clock.
Fiction © Copyright Scarlett R. Algee
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
More from author Scarlett R. Algee:
The Lift: Nine Stories of Transformation, Volume One
The hall is dark and the overhead light flickers. Sounds echo, and there’s a creaking and clanging that gets louder as you stand in the semi-dark. The elevator opens and you’re offered a ride. Step inside and ride it to the story chosen for your transformation. Don’t be afraid, for Victoria, the mysterious girl who operates The Lift, waits to guide you. Set in the same world as the award nominated audio drama, The Lift’s first written anthology features nine all new stories by fan favorite writers and special bonus content by creators Daniel Foytik and Cynthia Lowman. The collection is brought to life with beautiful illustrations by Jeanette Andromeda for each story.