The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
by Michelle Joy Gallagher
His breath became more labored as the hours passed. His lungs drowning as his heart gave out. Mikael was too young to be afflicted this way, but since he was born, he had a weakness. Coughing spells, exhaustion: He couldn’t play or tend the fields like the other boys. The villagers blamed his mother for It, making wild accusations of loose morals and possible witchcraft. She kept to herself on the outskirts of town and tried to protect him as best she could. His father had gotten drunk and fell off of the bridge on the way to the outer territories when Mikael was 2. The wildest rumor the villagers had made about Mikael’s mother Sasha was that she had sacrificed her husband in order to keep her infirm son alive. They said she kept his soul in a lantern in her window that she kept lit regardless of the time of day and she would sacrifice other resources in dire seasons in order to ensure she had enough candles to do so. There was a soul alive in the flames, they said. Imprisoned in perpetuity. It was 1 am and they’d kept the vigil now for hours as Sasha begged him not to give in to his body’s tendency toward early mortality.
Mikael began to drift in and out of consciousness. It was worsening. When he was awake, he spoke in incoherent sentences about things Sasha could not see. She feared his soul was already on the other side of the veil. She sat beside him mumbling prayers and blotting his forehead with a cool cloth, watching the lamplight flicker and grow dim. She had feared this moment for 13 years. She understood what was now required of her, but was paralyzed by the thought of executing it. No matter how she tended to the lantern or how well trimmed the candle was she used, the flame was stubborn and begged to go out. The spell was supposed to last longer. She had faithfully given of their food stores and of her own blood all these years, and had procured enough livestock with what little she had to make the appropriate sacrifices. She still hadn’t been given what was promised. It was time for her to take more drastic actions.
Sasha was loathe to leave Mikael’s side, but struck off toward the village with the majority of her earthly riches. What little coin she had, and also some jewelry that had been left to her when her own beloved mother died would have to be enough. She would not be turned aside.
She apprehensively approached the butcher’s stall and inquired about the purchase of a lamb. The butcher Aran laughed at the baubles in her hand.
“You bring me this paste as payment?” he spat.
“Please sir, I’m afraid my son is already on the other side of the veil, and I want to ensure he is fed the very best.”
Aran softened a little but was still wholly disappointed with what she offered.
“I will work here at the stall for you until you are satisfied my work has been a sufficient payment.”
She stared down at her feet, unable to meet his eyes. Her offer was for more than her labor, and he caught that, though just barely.
“Ok, now. That’s enough. The lamb is yours. How would you like it butchered?”
“I would like to butcher it myself please. I have more business to attend to here. Will you please send Barth with it to mine this evening?”
Barth was Aran’s son. He worked hard for his father at the butchery, and he also had his father’s giving nature. Out of all of the boys, it had to be Barth.
She made another stop, slipping 3 long wicked candles into her sack while the candlemaker was otherwise engaged. Sasha had nothing she could offer him, and hoped her ancestors would be gentle about it when her time arrived to part the veil.
She walked the path back to her humble home and her dying son and the magic that betrayed them. She mouthed the words of the old prayers, ones older than their village, ones she suspected were older than the woods that surrounded it, in hopes that this new magic would not leave them wanting.
When she arrived, she checked on Mikael and the weakening flame, then set about preparing for the slaughter.
Their property housed a tiny farm and a stable that had been empty since Mikael’s father died. She carried a length of rope to an old hitching bar and then scrubbed a metal bucket and set it beneath. She also gathered a cord of wood and lay it beside the hitch, as well as a wooden stool and started to sharpen an old scythe with a well-worn piece of whetstone.
Barth rounded the side of the house leading the lamb Sasha had procured, catching her off guard. She hadn’t expected him til later, but she should have known he would have done as his father bid him with efficiency and the kind of immediacy young boys always had gnawing away inside of them.
“Hello Mamaw, I have your lamb.” He said, with an edge of fear in his voice. She was holding a scythe after all. And though he worked for his butcher father, the preparations for a slaughter always turned his stomach.
“Hello, Barth. And so you do. Will you help me tie him here please?”
Barth set about leading the lamb to the hitch, bending to grab the rope on the ground beside.
Sasha mumbled the ritual, stuttering over the lines. A broken liturgy. She grasped the handle of the scythe tight and steeled herself. The sight of blood made her feel faint, but this was life or death. Indeed a death for a life.
Barth spun to inform Sasha the lamb was secured to the hitch when with one flick of her wrist Sasha slashed Barth’s neck with the newly sharpened scythe, sketching a precise line of blood across the length of his neck until the pressure of his heartbeat forced the gash open wide, allowing a steady and life draining stream of blood free from his arteries. She forced him over the hitch while the lamb bleated in alarm, and placed the bucket beneath where his blood left him to gather all she could. He made no sound, just gradually became more limp against the wooden bar until finally he was gone.
Sasha ran the bucket of Barth’s blood into the house where Mikael was being slowly drowned by his still failing heart. She took clean cloth rags from the side table and soaked them entirely in the still warm blood in the bucket and set about blotting Mikael’s body with it, and finally shoving a rag soaked with it into his mouth.
Mikael groaned and flailed even in his unconscious state.
Sasha stumbled over the ancient words. Trying to restrain Mikael took what was left of her strength. She was wrecked after what she had to do to Barth, but felt she had no choice.
Mikael sat up screaming, somehow sensing the wrongness inside of the magic she wielded now. His eyes never opened. He shoved his mother as hard as he could away from him. Sasha hit her dresser at the opposite end of the room.
The ever present lantern, its flame almost nil, was knocked over and suddenly flared up, the flames engulfing the whole of the lantern and overtaking Sasha’s hand darned lace drapes. She cried out in helplessness and pain, and Mikael fell backward onto the pillow once again unconscious.
Their home was small. 2 rooms and a hearth. It was overtaken by flames in short order. Sasha fought as hard as she could but could not keep up with the swift moving flames as it chewed through their old wooden furniture and meager possessions. Finally, in helpless anguish, she draped her body over that of her beloved son’s and sobbed relentlessly, until the smoke choked the breath from her lungs. Mikael and Sasha both reduced to ash in the name of love and desperation.
Fiction © Copyright Michelle Joy Gallagher
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
More about Michelle Joy Gallagher:
Michelle Joy Gallagher is a poet from Sacramento, CA. She enjoys mixing poetry with other artistic mediums, and pushing her own artistic comfort zones in the process. Using visceral imagery, and playing with the elasticity of language is where she finds herself happiest. She is the author of poetry chapbooks, A New Mourning and S=K log W, her poetry also makes appearances in The Rejected Volume 1 and The Rejected Volume 2 By Stan Konopka, and her story, The Red Woman, will appear in the soon to be released Café Macabre (Leah Lederman and Source Point Press).