By Lina Rather
Your mother taught you three things, up in the great white wilderness, before she went and shot that man:
- How to kill an animal quickly and mercifully.
- How to kill the veiled things that prowl in the shadows at the edge of your vision. These are harder and faster beasts, but they all fall like deer in the end, and that’s the best advice your mother could have given you.
- How to sew and mend the veil of the world so the secret things cannot escape. Truthfully, this was your grandmother’s teaching, but your mother would have taken credit for the sun, had God not claimed it first.
After your mother went to prison, you stayed with your grandmother, and after she died in her sleep, you went to the city. Odd girls on their own in the city come to bad ends, but you come from a long line of people who made their livings fixing and killing, and that sort of work never goes out of style. These days you have work that suits you better, in a tattoo shop in the low-rent part of the city where you spend most of your days doing flash and sweethearts’ names.
Sometimes you take the kind of job your mother and grandmother did. You never wanted a legacy — the second sight, or the power in your blood — but they might as well go to good use, so long as you don’t make a habit of it. Your mother fought monsters under a hundred skies, and look where it got her. You’ve seen ghosts and you’ve seen demons, and you’ve killed a thousand monsters, but unlike your mother, you don’t make a life out of it, or so you tell yourself.
Hell, you’ve even got yourself a girlfriend these days who makes you dinner and tells you you’ve got pretty eyes, which is more than your bastard, runaway father ever gave your mother. You met her when you tattooed her from the cut of her pelvis to her collarbone, from scapula all the way around to breastbone. As it turns out, six 6-hour sessions is a lot of time to get to know each other. It’s your best work, and you say this because it’s true, not because it’s on your girlfriend. The tattoo covers up a mess of other work — another girl’s name (one you’ve never asked about); a vinyl record drawn by someone with a nervous tic; the band name of a no-hit wonder. She’s got your picture on her keychain, between a bottle opener and pepper spray.
Maybe you love her and maybe you don’t, but you think it doesn’t matter yet.
So when the red-haired woman comes, you’ve got something to lose. It isn’t like when you were alone and ready to tear open the throat of any monster that crossed your path. You got sick of sleeping on other people’s couches by twenty-two; now there’s a lease, and groceries. Monster hunting and exorcisms don’t pay the bills (and look at where that got your mother).
The red-haired woman is beautiful. You know the instant she comes through the door that she isn’t here for a tattoo or another set of earrings. She wears a petitioner’s grimace, determined and sick, and she knows which tattooist you are without having to ask.
“I’m here for help,” she says, and out of her breast pocket comes one of your mother’s cards. If she’s got one of those cards, she must be older than she looks. But people aren’t what they seem, and time is rarely anything but an illusion.
“I don’t honor old bargains,” you tell her, though you’ve never turned anyone away. There’s a stack of your mother’s cards tucked away under lacy bras you never wear, and another in the urn that your girlfriend thinks holds your grandmother’s ashes. The jobs were mostly small, ridding houses of wailing ghosts or putting curses to rest. Killing small beasts, with words or blades, whatever fits the task. Your mother handed out cards to anyone who accidentally pierced the veil. Magic, she told you, spreads like a disease, with one impossible thing breeding another. Best to call in professional eradication, which, these days, comes down to just you. You suppose there must be others out there — there were monsters up in Juneau, and there are monsters down here below the 49th, so it stands to reason that they’re everywhere else too — but you’ve never met one.
The woman smiles. “I never struck a bargain. I was told to ask for help if I needed it.”
“I only take cash.” You intend it as a joke, but she takes a stack of twenties from her purse and sets it on the table between you. It’s thick as your thumb, and that’s got to be a month’s rent, at least. Of every strange thing you’ve ever seen in your lifetime, this might just top them, and the weight of it feels more like a bribe than a payment for services rendered. She smiles as though reassuring a child before an unpleasant procedure.
“I have no one else to turn to,” she says.
“There must be someone else.”
You shrug. Probably someone just as lonely and silent as your life in Juneau, when it was you and your mother and your grandmother in a trailer out at the edge of what could still charitably be called the city. The heater in the trailer wasn’t enough to beat back the frost, and when you went to elementary school you realized that your bedtime stories were not the same as everyone else’s. You’ve a hard time imagining an extrovert doing this job. One month’s rent. Either she’s desperate or she’s got an ulterior motive, but her money’s good either way.
When you tell your girlfriend you’re leaving, she’s standing in front of your bathroom mirror, twisting her hair into box braids. Packs of extensions sit at her elbow and she’s only just begun, so it’ll be hours before she’s finished. Her left eye twitches as her fingers work through a section of hair she can’t quite see over the crown of her skull.
This is unfair of you. This is what she does when her dissertation isn’t going well or when the jackass at her lab has been making snide jokes about women in biology again. For a woman who rails against new-age bullshit in all its iterations, this is a kind of meditation. Her attention isn’t on you. This is how you get away with it.
“Is there a convention I forgot about?” she asks. “You’re supposed to come with me to dinner. That guy I told you about — he’ll be there. The one from Yale.”
The man from Yale. The golden ticket. Groundbreaking work on eurypterids. Your girlfriend’s specialty is extinct Mesothelae, but apparently the two are related. You wouldn’t know a Mesothelae from a Mesopotamian, had you not inked one on her arm in honor of her thesis defense. The dinner is important, especially in this job market, but you’ve never known how to make a good impression on purpose, and the only extinctions you can speak on are the ones you brought about yourself.
“You’ll still be here when I get back?” you ask when you’ve packed.
She laughs. “This won’t take me that long, I hope. If I don’t answer the phone tonight, send help.”
You don’t explain what you actually meant.
These are the stories your mother told you about why she shot that man, some in letters, and some in person, and some you put together yourself:
- She was losing her sight. She thought he was a wolf. (She hit a ten-point buck from a hundred paces the day before, right between the ribs. Your grandmother made a stew from the offal.)
- He was stalking her, and it was self-defense. (You had never seen him before, nor heard his name, and when you looked up the city he was from it was one your mother never mentioned visiting).
- He was possessed, a monster and not a man, and her job was to kill such things. (The autopsy showed no sign he was a monster, and ghosts don’t move through blood and bone without leaving evidence of their passage. There was neither scarring in the stomach, nor the image of a hand clenched around the heart.)
- It was an accident. She was half-drunk and fired the rifle just for fun. She didn’t know there was anything but birds in the woods. It was private property; he shouldn’t have been there. (For all her faults, she never would have been so stupid.)
The truth, probably: this life made her paranoid, and when she saw movement out in the woods she thought of all the biting, scarring, killing things it could have been, picked up the rifle and pulled the trigger before she saw it was a hiker and nothing more. (She told you this through gritted teeth, and only in pieces. No truth like this is easy. This, you can bring yourself to believe, only because it hurt her to tell it.)
Juneau is much like you remember. It’s a good thing the red-haired woman didn’t mention where she lived before you agreed to go because you might have refused out of spite. You fly in at four a.m. but it’s already light out and the blinding, sleepless summers of your childhood all come back to you at once. You’re still blinking stupidly at the anachronistic sun when the red-haired woman appears in a Land Rover.
She’s a storyteller, which wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t punch-drunk tired with your knees aching from the airplane seats.
“Your mother saved me once,” she says, while she drives you down once-familiar roads. There were days you wandered this town in a pack of equally dispossessed children, all odd and outcast, causing trouble with cheap vodka and matches. Now the capitol building shocks you, appearing on a street you didn’t expect, like a phantom. “I was fourteen. Lonely. Though everyone here is lonely in December. You’ve noticed that, right? Everyone in Alaska is sad in winter. Without the sun.”
You nod and try to remember which road leads to your grandmother’s grave.
“Fourteen and lonely,” she says. “I went to the ocean at night without my dog. I don’t know what I was doing. No — I was looking for trouble, and I think I would’ve found it even without him.” She swallows, coughs. Truths hurt the throat. “He was waiting for me in the waves. He looked like a boy I liked at school, but his brown eyes were even more beautiful. Like river rocks. Like sandstone. It was only when I saw his claws that I realized the truth, and there was no getting away then. I was already ankle-deep. But your mother came out of the trees and ran down the sand and slit his throat before I could even scream. He turned back into an otter when he hit the water. I still see things I shouldn’t, even though he didn’t drown me to make me one of them. Ghosts, sometimes. Other creatures if I watch. On blue moons I dream futures. He touched my soul, your mother said, and no one comes back from that the same.”
“Kushtaka.” After all these years, you still remember what people fear, up here in the white. You close your eyes and imagine the girl on the pebbled beach with the freezing water soaking her tennis shoes, the thing that wasn’t a boy beckoning her in.
After you’ve slept nearly all day, she takes you to the window and points down the road, towards West Juneau and Mt. Troy. She lives above downtown, in a little house painted teal that perches on the fat feet of Mt. Roberts. When you and your girlfriend went to San Francisco last summer, the Painted Ladies reminded you of this hill, all these brightly colored houses standing out like lighthouses in the snow. Your girlfriend laughed at this and said that the Painted Ladies were happy things, not the only sparks of color in an unforgiving wilderness. You suppose this is true, but seeing Juneau again makes you remember watching these houses glow in a midnight summer sunset.
The red-haired woman points again, and now you see him standing in a copse of old pines just beyond the turn in the road. He’s got a man’s body and he wears a nondescript suit. Even his eyes are human, until you see that they never are the same eyes twice. His mouth gives him away entirely — it’s sewn shut with twine, weeping blood down his chin and neck. He doesn’t act like he’s in pain, but pain means little to things that are not men.
“I see him everywhere.” The red-haired woman whispers, as though she thinks he can hear. “In the supermarket. Following me down the street. Outside my bedroom window.”
“That’s what they do.” You speak more curtly than you intended, but right now you are imagining all the ways this not-a-man can hurt you when you try to kill it.
“What is it?” She’s gripping the windowsill now.
You lean into the glass and the thing’s eyes flick to you for an instant before they return to the red-haired woman. You are not what it wants. “It’s a guilt-eater. It licks your soul until you kill yourself.” Some lost familiar of Anubis maybe, adapted to the New World. That was your grandmother’s story, but you have no way to know if her theories are true.
You noticed the fresh cuts on the red-haired woman’s inner arms on the drive up the mountain and the way her hands shook. Like the others, the haunting has hollowed her out.
“This is an old house. Could it be mistaking me for someone else?”
Guilt-eaters don’t work that way, but you leave it. “It doesn’t matter. I can kill it.”
You’ve brought your mother’s weapons and your grandmother’s tools. The grimoire and cup, the needle and sinew, the silver bullets and the familiar revolver, and the short sword. The sword weighs oddly at your hip and unsteadies your gait. You haven’t worn it since you were eighteen, on your own and alone, catching myths in the darkness for money. You don’t know why you brought it, except that it’s been a long time and you wanted to be prepared. You could’ve bought a hunting knife once you arrived instead of checking your luggage, but the sword feels right in your hand.
You keep it all in a box shaped like a trumpet case. There’s a rose burned into the oak shell. Your grandmother said that in Latin, sub rosa symbolizes secrecy. Monks and politicians met under rose murals to swear each other to silence, and now half your life is spent under the rose. You stuff the case back into your suitcase.
As the red-haired woman watches, you strip down to a sports bra and shorts that cling to the long-unused muscles in your legs. Your mother wore a flak jacket, but you’ve always preferred freer movement to cumbersome armor. The tattoos that ring your arms from wrist to collarbone shine in the darkness, supplications to a hundred gods written on your skin. You don’t believe in gods, not really, but you believe in precautions and in beauty, and these are both. Magic is about intent and effort anyway, and you’ve poured years of pain and exertion into these spells. The red-haired woman averts her eyes, like you’re something profane.
Fog shrouds the guilt-eater. The pack swings heavy on your back. You drop the revolver and the bullets to shed some weight and take up your sword. The guilt-eater bends its knees to fight.
It snarls and hits you with a wave of all the bad things you have ever done, from stealing an extra cookie after bedtime when you were six, to kissing that woman with the lovely hands at a party two months ago while your girlfriend was in Asia digging up sea scorpions. The guilt-eater shows you yourself, shiftless girl, adrift for a decade, going nowhere fast. It shows you those hungry times you don’t talk about, even to yourself. It shows you the years of letters from your mother that you stopped opening.
You crouch low to the ground and howl at it, and it runs.
It’s fast, the way that liminal things are, skipping between the bits of reality that slow you down. Your legs burn, your ankle twists on a slick rock. You skin your hand on a tree when the guilt-eater turns faster than you ever could. It’s leading you up the mountain, away from the trail. There was a time when you ran track and could catch a rabbit with your hands, but now you take public transportation and buy meat from butcher shops.
The guilt-eater crashes through the underbrush, its unstable form shifting from step to step, and blink to blink. It stretches and shrinks, clawing its way through the clinging mountain plants. Its blood hisses on the cold earth from nettle scratches. Halfway up the mountain, your endorphins take over and you move. One long jump and you’re nearly upon it.
You laugh a laugh ripped from your chest and you leap after it. The smell of it sings in your bones. Your marrow knows magic, the way blood knows kin. You don’t need a dog to follow it. Every movement it makes echoes in you.
You drop the book by a stunted pine, your last sight of the road. You shed the chalice soon after. You’ll find them later. They will find their way home.
As you crash through the trees, the sunlight fails. Your body no longer remembers these short nights. Your mind tricked you and told you it was evening, but this is the witching hour. The guilt-eater shrieks like a murder of crows. Shapes shiver beneath the bushes and in the darkness beyond the trees. A branch, or a claw, takes a chunk out of your leg. You bite your lip and taste your own blood.
The guilt-eater screeches again. Its voice recites your sins. Were you a different sort of woman, you would fall to your knees and weep, but you smile a hunting dog’s smile and your feet drive into the ground. You’re gaining on it. The guilt-eater smells like long-decomposed regrets and the unfinished quests of dead men.
You didn’t go to the funeral. Your grandmother was the only person to stay and you didn’t even see her off.
You gain ground.
You will never stop wandering.
You gain ground.
You leave, like she left. You have inherited a restless heart that will seek and never be satisfied. Doesn’t the truth of it taste like nails in your throat?
You gain ground.
It fails to strike you down.
This body is all you are, condensed, beyond your past and your sins real or imagined. You loved this fight once, and love it still, despite yourself. The blood pounds through your ears like cocaine in the veins. The guilt-eater is the whole world now that you’ve scented its blood. You are a wolf, a woman, a weapon, a witch. You are Diana of the hunt, falling upon your prey with the force of a hundred flaming arrows. You are only your sword and your sword hand. You are teeth that ache for the monster’s acidic flesh.
The guilt-eater stumbles and throws its hands out like the man it might once have been, but it’s too late. It tumbles down the slope, limbs flailing awkwardly, inhumanly, a broken-jointed doll.
Your blade glints in the moonlight like a new star. One flick of your wrist and you’ve slit through the twine fastening its lips. Blood spurts. If it screams, you don’t hear, or don’t care. The blood is brown, made of dead things, but you don’t mind that it splatters on your shoes. The only way to kill this thing is to open its mouth and make it speak all the secrets keeping it alive.
Sins pour from its open lips into the dirt. Your secrets, and the red-haired woman’s, and the secrets of everyone the creature has ever laid eyes on. Its body deflates. The litany of other people’s confessions sounds like weeping.
You’ve still got the needle and sinew, stuck into the seam of your pants.
“Hush,” you tell it. It’s perfunctory mercy; your mind is as a predator’s, shaking at the meaty scent of a dying animal. You sew up the ragged cuts in its lips, the slash of destruction across its face merely a mouth again. The sword is for breaking and the sinew for fixing, but some situations require both. The thing’s jaw falls open and it leaks secrets into the night until there is nothing left of its body but scraps of a suit and bones that don’t make up a full skeleton. It tells you the red-haired woman stood on the edge of the rocky beach with someone’s lost cat in her arms, a year after your mother saved her from the kushtaka. She slit the cat’s throat and let it bled into the sea, but the kushtaka didn’t come, didn’t give the red-haired woman another heady glimpse through the veil, and your pulse beats hard.
It tells you everything, but it dies all the same.
Sweat streaks between your shoulder blades. Your legs are trembling and you sit down against a tree. The guilt-eater’s bones turn to dust while you watch. The chill night air shreds your heaving lungs.
Another thing you’ve forgotten: how very long the shadows get when the sun finally deigns to leave. When the branch breaks behind you, it sounds like a gunshot, and you’re up with the sword at her throat before she can shout.
The red-haired woman freezes. You lift the blade and she’s forced to lift her chin. She picked a bad time to follow you; your logical mind barely keeps you from slitting her throat, and you can’t puzzle out who she is until manages to open her mouth. “I just wanted to make sure it was dead.” It’s a plea.
The sword wobbles in your hand. She closes her eyes and breathes out so slowly, like her breath alone might set you off. You’ve seen many things die and they all go still when they know that death is standing next to them.
It takes too many heartbeats, but you put down the blade and point to the last scraps of the thing’s clothing. She picks up a shirt cuff and it falls apart in her fingers. She watches you the entire time, not unlike she watched the guilt-eater. I understand, you want to say, but the words cannot work themselves out of your animal throat.
When you finally get ahold of yourself, you start back to the road before you have the chance to do anything more regrettable.
Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, unlike Juneau, is exactly as you remember it. The last time you entered its halls, you were sixteen and didn’t have much choice. Maybe you still don’t. Life leads you by the hand sometimes. Your grandmother claimed she had seen a vision of her entire life when she was five, right up to the moment of her death. You don’t know if you believe that, but your grandmother did guess her death to the minute. You’ve never had any such vision, but you’re smart enough to understand a sign when you’re smacked in the face with one.
Your mother is old. That shouldn’t be surprising, but it nearly knocks you off your feet. In your mind, she’s thirty years old, kneeling beside your ten-year-old self with one arm around you while you try to pull a bowstring without your arm trembling. Her hair was dark brown, like yours, but now it’s mousy grey, her skin pale from being trapped inside.
Her mouth goes flat and straight when you sit across from her at the metal table, like she’s stuck between crying that you’re finally here and screaming at you for staying away so long. You bite the inside of your cheek to keep from saying anything you shouldn’t.
You buried the sword and the revolver and the chalice in the courtyard behind your apartment building, right after your return six months ago. No one goes out there except the landlady’s senile aunt, so they should be safe, even from you. You kept the book because it has a family tree in it that you’ve never looked at, and you kept the needle because you think you might like to try your hand at fixing things.
“I heard you went back home,” she says, as if either of you can call Juneau home anymore. “Did you miss it?”
Of course she’s heard about it. The woman has a spy network out of an eighties Bond film, built out of all the people whose lives she’s saved, or ruined, or some of both. “One of your contacts approached me. I killed a guilt-eater.”
She beams. “You’re not going to lie and say you hated it, are you?”
You shake your head.
“That’s how you know you’re my daughter.” She leans back in her seat like she’s expecting a fight. But you’re beyond hating her. You’ve spent too long dreading the fact of her, as if destinies are encoded in your genes like eye color and left-handedness. Your grandmother, bless her, believed in destiny and thus saw your mother in you. The first time you brought home a rabbit you killed, she stared at your rust-colored hands with such sad eyes. It wasn’t until later that you realized what your grandmother saw was your mother at eight years old, still a child and yet already on her way to this small room.
You roll up your sleeve to let your mother see what you’ve done. The sword and cup and bullets curl from your hand to your elbow. Above them you’ve tattooed a red rose, so that it is all sub rosa, and yet, right there for all the world to see. A reminder for yourself, and penance maybe. You’re done listening to monsters repeat your own unpleasant truths. “I know why you killed him now.”
“Oh?” She sounds amused. Never once in all the letters you read did she ask forgiveness, for shooting him, or for leaving you.
“You were scared,” you say. “That part was true. It’s not the whole truth, though. Maybe you don’t even know what the whole truth is.”
“If I wanted to be analyzed, I’d talk to the psychologist.” She crosses her arms but stays.
“I almost killed that woman, the one you saved when she was a girl.” At the word killed, a corrections officer glances at you, and you lower your voice. “After I finished the guilt-eater, she came up behind me, and all I could hear was her blood. When I looked at her face, all I could see was a monster. I had her by the throat. Do you know how easy it would have been? And I didn’t have a gun.”
She laughs, as one does when handed something unexpected.
You lean over the table. You get so close to her that the guard glares at you. “I only do this when people ask for help. You were at it for so long that I think it scratched away your soul. You stopped being able to tell what was a monster and what wasn’t. I bet you looked at that man, on our land, and you couldn’t begin to tell what he was.”
You lean back. The silence stretches.
“Maybe it was mercy,” she says, working the words over in her mouth. “They said he was human, but he could have been a monster. Look at you. Look at me. Think of all the things we’ve done. Who’s to say that we’re good anymore, that we’re human? Maybe I shouldn’t have shot him but he shouldn’t have been where he wasn’t supposed to be. I took precautions.”
This is the truth you expected, not the one you wanted. Neither of you offers a hug when the officer calls an end to visiting hours, but that’s okay. Some things are what they are, and it’s time to stop fighting old fights.
You go home, for good this time. The sword and the gun stay buried, though you trace the lines of your tattoos sometimes and ache for their weight in your hands. You knew how to feel powerful while killing things, and it’s hard to learn other ways of being strong.
Your girlfriend has cut her hair down to an inch, so that it crowns her head in tight coils. The man from Yale has hinted that there might be a position for her after she defends. In your absence, she has become someone, or maybe she’s just found the woman she was always trying to be. It seems you might be leaving for New Haven soon. You’ve spent your entire life in view of the Pacific but you don’t think you’ll miss it much. There’s a whole other ocean to see. You can learn the rhythms of a New England winter, and how to cook crab, and what a mountainless horizon looks like. You still don’t know if this is love, but you’ll follow her wherever she goes.
Some nights, you dream about monsters, and death, and evil things knocking on your door. You wake up at the sound of the wind howling, or at the sound of too much silence, and for an instant your heart clutches. On these nights it takes a long time to fall back asleep, but you learn to whisper a bedtime prayer of guilt you no longer wish to carry, and the prayer keeps you from digging up the sword again.
About the Author
Lina Rather is a speculative fiction author from Michigan, now living in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Shimmer, Flash Fiction Online, and Lightspeed. When she isn’t writing, she likes to cook, go hiking, and collect terrible 90s comic books. She wishes she could say she has a dog, but alas, she lives under the tyranny of landlords. You can find more about her and her other stories on her website. She also spends altogether too much time on Twitter as @LinaRather.