When I was young, I had an evil stepmother.
This is not an exaggeration.
She was a demon, who dared to take on the name of “mother” to infiltrate our family, after the mother who birthed us supposedly died in a terrible accident. My sisters and brothers and I defeated her, after we were rescued by one of my dearest friends in the whole world. She started off as my tutor. Then she restored my family and my life to me, and I could not but swear my eternal allegiance of love and loyalty to her.
My mother, who had not died then, is not dead now. But she is gone. When asked, my sisters usually tell people that it’s a long story. But it’s actually quite a short story. My mother is a fairy, and she had to return to her home country. As to why she had to leave us and father, well, I suppose that’s the part of the story that is long. Suffice it to say that she could not take us with her. We were older, but still children. Mother told the eldest children to look after father. She told the youngest to have heart. And she told me, “Show yourself. Do not hide in the middle.”
I did not know what she meant until I began to develop a keen attraction to the arcane.
“Make sure the meat is rotting,” I told the farmhand who stood beside me, looking out upon the field of fluffy white wool. The sight would have been charming if it wasn’t for the fact that the wool was still attached to the sheep, who were all lying dead.
Or so it appeared.
“They’re not dead,” I told the farmhand. “They are merely in a deathly stupor.”
“How can you tell the difference?”
“What these eyes cannot see,” I said, pointing two fingers toward my two natural eyes, “this one may discern.” I brought my two fingers together and placed them in the center of my forehead.
“You have a third eye?” the farmhand whispered.
I turned to him and smiled. “Sometimes.”
But he was looking out at the sheep that he was responsible for, and his face was nearly as pale as the wool on their backs.
But even before we came out to survey his sleeping flock, I had an inkling of what might be going on. The farmhand was honest in my interview with him…after a bit of coaxing with a vial of a liqueur that I distilled myself. It was the color of candy-apple. And it tasted like a lover’s kiss. What better way to loosen lips?
He spoke of a game that he and his friends had played three nights past—or what they thought was a game. The night he spoke of was the night of the new moon. And the so-called game was in truth a correctly recited spell and a correctly completed ritual, one that would have failed if the moon had been watching. But the new moon was a sleeping moon. And without her eye open even a sliver, the devilish hounds that were summoned by the hapless farmhand’s spell slipped into the world. And that very same night they found a flock of sheep.
The hounds could not manifest in flesh until they consumed flesh. So they must have scared the sheep to death, intending to wait until the corpses rotted, and then feast on them. But the corpses had not rotted. The sheep had foiled the hounds. In their terror, the sheep had fled their own bodies and gone into hiding somewhere that the hounds could not sniff out. In the same way that prey animals had natural defenses against natural predators, they typically had unnatural defenses against unnatural predators.
So there was still a chance that most, if not all of the sheep would wake, if I could perform the delicate ritual of finding and walking their incorporeal aspects—the sheep equivalent of a spirit—back into their bodies, past the devilish hounds.
It was necessary to keep the hounds distracted by feeding them rotted meat, and to let the sheep see that the hounds were being dealt with, so they would willingly return to their bodies.
I had given the farmhand a potion to lace the meat with. It would weaken the hounds once they became corporeal. From there, I told the farmhand, he could handle his own affairs. For the hounds would become flesh-and-blood mortal creatures.
“How will I be able to tell,” the farmhand asked, “if it’s a devil-hound or just some regular mutt trying to sneak a free meal?”
I recited a few lines from an old nursery rhyme. “’They might be any color. They might be any size. But you will know a hound from hell by its three pairs of eyes.’”
I turned to the sleeping flock of sheep, and braced myself to begin the spell.
“Paulisper, sumus in hic mundo,” I said under my breath.
“Is that a prayer?” the farmhand asked me.
“It’s a reminder.”
It was also my family motto.
Paulisper sumus in hic mundo.
For a little while, we are in this world.
Except, sometimes my brothers and sisters and I wondered if we would have a longer while, given our bloodline. I didn’t worry about it too much, not being settled down. But the rest of them had families, and they had to be wondering how much longer than their spouses they would be living, and would they live longer than their children, whose fairy blood would be diluted all the more. All of my siblings had married humans. Of course they had. They—and I—were raised human.
But neither they—nor I—have ever denied our dual heritage.
People say that Audrey got our mother’s cinnamon brown hair. Jane got mother’s gentle eyes. Both boys got mother’s nose. And I…people say I got her smile. A smile expressing both mischief and generosity. I don’t see it myself. My mother had a luminous smile that brightened not just her own face, but the faces of anyone standing in the light of her gaze.
What I got from my mother was her hands.
I am the only one among my brothers and sisters who can do real magic. It took study and struggle, true. I’m only half-fairy after all. I am also the only one because my brothers and sisters chose other paths. Paths less littered with singed parchment, bearing symbols written in the faded sepia of dried blood. Paths less meandering into the mouths of bat-filled caverns. Paths less soaked in potions made of dogs’ breath and widows’ tears.
After collecting my payment and the sincere thanks of the farmhand and a flock of woozy, but living, sheep, I was back on the highway leading home.
The very next day, I drove that highway again, heading toward my next case.
“Stepmother,” the woman at the doorway said.
I had just asked if she was the mother of the three children who were playing in the front yard of the modest yellow house at the end of a quiet street.
“Their mother passed in childbirth,” the woman said in a lower voice as she glanced at the children.
I too turned to look at them. The youngest was maybe four years old. As we watched, the girl leapt up and ran to her stepmother, wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist, and looked up at her. The girl’s brown eyes gleamed, and her whole face beamed.
“Pardon my manners,” the woman said. I had introduced myself. She now gave me her name. Stella.
“It means ‘star,’” the little girl said, still hanging on to her mother’s waist.
I smiled. “It certainly does.”
Stella invited me into her home. Her husband was on his way out, even passing directly by me, with only a nod.
Stella sighed. “He doesn’t see it,” she said.
She led me down the hallway, past a door that led into a cheerful kitchen where light from the window bounced against the butter-yellow tiles on the opposite wall. And another door that led into a neatly kept living room—save for evidence of the children by way of scattered toys on the floor.
I began to smell it as we approached the end of the hallway, like smelling smoke the closer one gets to a fire, long before seeing the smoke, longer still before seeing the blaze.
Stella let me into a room, a small den. Windows let light into the room, but this light was cold and pale. Before the window sat a great leather chair, and in the chair sat an elderly woman. Stella introduced the woman as her husband’s mother, Charlotte.
“Good morning, Charlotte,” I said. “My name is Wilshire Winsome—most people call me Wil.”
Charlotte was gazing out of the window. She did not acknowledge my presence by speaking or even turning to me. Her hands and arms lay on the armrest. The index finger of her left hand scratched absently at the armrest. Otherwise, she made no movements. A light blanket in green and red plaid lay over her lap and reached her ankles.
“Something is wrong,” Stella said, reaching out toward the woman to brush back a few stray white hairs. “Something that the doctors cannot diagnose. Something that happened suddenly. Something my husband and my children don’t see.”
Upon my interview with Stella, I learned that her mother-in-law had not eaten or drunk anything in fifteen days. Nor had she slept, or if she had, she had found some way to sleep only when Stella slept, and wake right before Stella woke and checked on her. That was unlikely, unless the older woman was playing an elaborate prank. She was the sort to play jokes, according to Stella.
Charlotte had difficulty walking, but no difficulty in hiding the children’s toys where they couldn’t find them. She took Stella’s side in most disagreements between Stella and her husband. She told mesmerizing stories to the family most evenings in the living room. But for the past fifteen days, she had done nothing at all. But when Stella mentioned it to her husband and her children, they acted as if Stella were the one playing a prank, whose purpose and humor they could not understand.
What compelled Stella to reach out for help—first to two doctors, then to a cleric, and finally to me—was that she came into the den one day to find her youngest daughter in her mother-in-law’s lap. Charlotte was holding a kitchen knife in one hand. Her knife-wielding arm was wrapped around the child.
Stella was horrified, thinking her daughter had taken the knife and brought it to her grandmother. But the girl had insisted, had sworn, that she had not taken any knives, that she was not allowed to take them, and she had not taken any. And Stella believed her. She begged her mother-in-law to speak that day, but the older woman said nothing.
I too could not discern anything unusual just by looking at the older woman. I thought that sense of smelling smoke would grow stronger as we approached, but it didn’t. It dimmed and faded. The woman looked distracted and distant. But she did not appear to be haunted, either by natural causes such as memories or unnatural causes, such as ghosts. But a few details presented the potential for a case. Stella’s husband returned from a trip the night before his mother fell into the strange silence. Stella’s youngest daughter fell sick for a few days, but recovered. And there was the scratching.
“Is your mother-in-law left-handed?” I asked, sitting in the kitchen with a cup of tea.
“Do you think she might be trying to scratch its name?” Stella asked, setting down a plate of sandwiches.
I quirked a brow. “Its name?”
“The name of the presence that’s possessing her. Maybe she’s trying to tell us its name.” Stella chewed at her lip. “Isn’t that how we can command it? That’s what I’ve heard in…childhood stories.”
“What makes you believe that she is possessed by a presence? Have you remembered something else? Some other detail?”
Stella shook her head.
“Is that why you put out that weaving near her?”
Stella nodded. “I also remember that from the stories. To keep the evil thing occupied with some manual task.”
Childhood stories were full of wisdom. But Stella was only partly right. The methods she described would work—but only for specific spirits. I did carry a few different traps for various commonly encountered entities—ghosts, demons, were-creatures. I was still not convinced that there was a presence in the house. Charlotte’s condition, a decline from the lively woman she had been, could have just been a natural consequence of her age. But I was not inclined to so easily dismiss the concerns of Stella, who on first impression, seemed a reasonable person.
“Do you by any chance smell something?” I asked.
Stella frowned, but cocked her head. “Smell, no. But…something. I do sense something like a foul odor. But I’m not smelling it with my nose. It’s as if my nose is sensing it through…my mind?”
“What does it smell like?”
Stella thought a moment, and then unexpectedly, she smiled a little. “Like someone passed gas,” she said, “but a hundred years ago, and it’s been trapped and lingering all that time.”
“That’s what she smells like to you?”
Stella shook her head. “Not her. But places around the house, different places.”
I finished my tea in a last gulp. “Do you by a chance have a mirror in the house? Half my height?”
“May I use it?”
She glanced down at my attire. “Well, I’d say you don’t need it, Miss Winsome. But you’re welcome to use it.”
She directed me to the mirror and watched as I pulled out a few trinkets from my inner coat pocket.
“Buttons?” she asked.
I smiled. I liked this part. I held up the brown horn button that was half the width of my thumb.
“It’s from a favorite jacket of my brother’s,” I said. “I have one from each of my family, so that I can reach them if they are inclined to be reached. It will cause a particular ringing in their ear, and they will know to come to a mirror.” I pressed the button to the bottom right corner of the mirror.
I chanted the words and watched a ripple pass through the mirror. The message was sent, and I only hoped that it would be received and answered before I left for the day.
He answered momentarily, almost right away. Barney was my twin. My shadow and my light. And he was also the one who most often agreed to look after my books when I was gone.
Stella marveled at the sight of his image flickering in her mirror.
Barney and I could not talk to each other. The mirror did not conduct sound—or at least, I had not yet mastered the skill of sending sound through mirrors.
So we communicated with gestures and written messages.
I asked Barney to look up a few things in my references. The names of things that might be possessing Stella’s mother-in-law, or might just be giving the impression that it is.
I spent almost two hours having poor Barney fetch different books, a scroll, and even a flat stone on which was written the description of a demon from a prehistoric proto-religion. But nothing struck me, and I at last decided that I needed to spend more time examining Stella’s mother-in-law.
I sat in the den, only interrupted on occasion when Stella came to check on me and on Charlotte. I ate dinner in the den and watched Charlotte. In particular, I examined the movement of her index finger. She was not spelling words in any language I was familiar with. She was not scratching symbols or signs that I recognized. But after watching long enough, I discerned a pattern. A definite pattern, which meant the scratching had meaning.
I just did not know what the meaning was.
“Hang on, Charlotte,” I said.
It was late in the night. The family had gone to sleep, but Stella had allowed me to stay, putting out blankets in the living room, as they had no guest room, and her husband had obliged.
I knew I should not try to wake Barney so late.
But after failing to find any worthwhile clues all day, I was eager to look up the pattern that Charlotte was scratching into her armchair.
I went to the mirror with Barney’s button, and stood before it, debating whether I should wake my brother, absently moving my fingers in the same patterns so I could remember them.
I watched my hand in the mirror, and epiphany struck.
I rushed back to the den only to find that Charlotte was not alone.
Her youngest granddaughter was approaching her. And Charlotte, who had spent all day, all the time I had been with her, staring out of the window, even after Stella drew the curtains, now turned her head, slowly, toward her granddaughter.
I heard movement on the stairs that led up to the bedrooms. I turned and looked down the hallway, and saw Stella at the foot of the stairs. She called to her daughter.
I glanced away from Stella and toward Charlotte, who began to open her mouth.
“No!” I cried.
I rushed into the den, and swept the child up in my arms, and turned away just as something struck me. Hard and thorny and reeking of sulfur. It snagged the sleeve of my jacket. Stella was before me now, gaping behind me at whatever lay in the den. I handed off her daughter.
“Run,” I said. “Out of the house.”
Stella lifted her daughter and ran toward the front door, calling out to her husband and other children.
Footsteps banged down the stairs.
And I turned toward the den.
And now I saw it.
At the edge of my perception. Something shaped like a person, vibrating in the shadows of the dim room. Something with no face, no features.
It was coming out of Charlotte’s mouth.
Its trembling hands reached out.
Stella’s husband tried to push past me. I shoved him against the wall as those hands tried to grab him.
“Charlotte!” I called.
The hands stretched and strained toward Stella’s husband.
I threw myself in front of him. Over the years, I had collected dozens of spells and charms of protection. I bore most of them with me always. They were the reason the shaking demon had been unable to grasp me. But only one reason. The other was that I was not a member of the household that the demon sought to feed on.
It lay its hands on me, on my shoulder. I felt its searing grip. I cried out and my knees buckled. I crumpled to the floor, and saw that shivering shadow pass me with a rasping moan. It’s trembling hands grasped its prey. It started to drag Stella’s struggling husband back, back towards Charlotte.
“Charlotte!” I called again. “It’s got your son. Pull it back. Now, Charlotte!”
I tried to rise, but my legs felt like jelly. The demon had not just burned me. It had weakened me, through all the protections.
I turned back to glance down the hall, fearing I would see Stella and the children there. But they were gone. Stella had saved her children, for the time being.
I glanced helplessly back toward Charlotte.
I couldn’t raise either arm. But with my right hand, with my index finger, I began to write that pattern in the air that Charlotte had been writing without stopping for fifteen days.
Nothing seemed to happen.
And then, the demon released a rasping wail. It was sucked into Charlotte’s mouth. She closed her mouth and turned her head toward the window.
Her son lay on the floor at her feet. He scrambled away from her, and I saw that his shirt was torn and soaked in blood. My limbs suddenly seemed to solidify, and I was able to rise. My shoulder throbbed, but we both managed to run out of the house.
Stella and the children were waiting outside, as were the closest neighbors, who had heard the commotion.
“You’re right,” I said to Stella. “Charlotte is possessed. But this whole time that we have been trying to help her, she has been helping us—she’s been protecting her family.” I shook my head. “I can’t believe how strong she is.”
Stella held two of her children close as her neighbors tended to deep cuts that her husband had suffered from the demon. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Charlotte has been holding that demon at bay for fifteen days.”
The pattern that Charlotte had been making on the surface of her armchair had been a spell, but one that she was writing backwards, even drawing each character in reverse. It was a clever trick. The spell was for expelling demons. In reverse, Charlotte was using it to trap in her own body. The demon had come from her throat. It was keeping her from speaking the spell, but she had find a way to utter it anyway.
“She’s serving as a living vessel,” I said.
“Can you get it out of her?”
I nodded. “But it will struggle. Look what it did to your husband, and to me.” I showed her the blistering burn on my shoulder. “It will do this to Charlotte’s insides. She hasn’t been eating or drinking. She won’t survive.”
A tear dripped down Stella’s cheek. She wiped it as another appeared. She looked down at her children, and then she looked straight ahead at her house. “What if the demon was inside someone stronger? Would they be able to survive?”
“If they were covered in protective spells and charms, I believe they could.” I nodded. “It was my thought too—or would have been if we weren’t just attacked—that I could be the vessel. I can teach you how to—“
“No, you can’t be possessed. You need to cast the spell or work the device, or do whatever it is you must do to get that thing out of my mother.” Stella drew up her shoulders. “I must be the vessel.”
I felt a sinking in my stomach. I had to do this sometimes. I had to decide to hurt someone in order to help someone else.
“We must act quickly,” I said. “I fear Charlotte is weakening. If that demon gets loose, it will hunt down and devour your family.”
Stella left her children with her neighbors. Her husband was dazed, having lost much blood, but he was alive.
I began to remove my protective charms and adorn Stella with them. I could not make tattoos on her skin. But I could paint it with protective shapes. With alchemical ink, I marked her arms and legs. I drew concentric circles around her neck and mouth.
We moved toward the den, where Charlotte sat in her chair, staring out of the window.
I watched her index finger forming words. In between the pattern of the spell that kept the demon trapped within her, she tapped out a message for her daughter-in-law. She pleaded with Stella not to sacrifice herself. She did not want her grandchildren to lose another mother. She begged me to take her away, lock her someplace—demon and all—where she could not harm her family.
But she knew as well as I knew there was no such place.
This demon would find her family wherever they went on the earth.
I reached out and stilled Charlotte’s left hand from moving, stopping the spell of containment. Charlotte turned her head right away and opened her mouth. She heaved, and the demon emerged, spilling like vomit across her lap. The demon took on a form again, the form of a person with no face, no features.
It rushed toward Stella. I saw her take a bracing breath and then it struck her. It poured into her mouth and nostrils.
I began to recite the spell that would immediately remove the demon from Stella, and place it inside the demon trap scroll that I always carried with me. The scroll was the size of my pinkie finger. Written along its length was a labyrinth spell to capture any kind of incorporeal beings.
The spell was agonizing both for me and for Stella. My chanting faltered. And while Stella kept the demon from running away, she suffered for it. She had started bleeding from the corners of her mouth and from her ears. Thin cuts sliced her skin. Her limbs had gone stiff.
She was being battered from the inside.
Till dawn I chanted, and noticed that another voice had joined mine. Charlotte’s voice was a whisper, but it added strength to mine. Her scratching index finger added force to my gestures.
As dawn broke, so did the demon. It shattered as it left Stella’s mouth. But its shards were drawn into the scroll, which I wrapped up and placed in a small cylinder that had been soaked in sacred waters and blessed by no less than seven holy personages.
That morning, it was Charlotte, not Stella, who I spoke to regarding my payment.
Stella was lying in her bed asleep. She appeared unharmed from the outside. But inside, she had been sliced and bruised and battered by the demon. I was no healer. I couldn’t see the wounds. But Charlotte claimed that she could. And that she would heal her daughter. She welcomed me to call on her if ever I was inclined to learn and know what she knew.
She offered me a button from her favorite dress.
Much as I would have liked to say goodbye to Stella, to let her know that she had quite reversed my opinion on stepmothers, I had to be off.
I had to rest. My own wounds would not take long to heal. But I had already received a new case, a new complaint.
The next job would be tedious. I was looking forward to it.
Someone in the next county over had complained of seeing small, mouse-sized people looting her vegetable garden.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel