Born to It by Tara Calaby [fantasy]

Imprint - Fantasy Imprint Logo 200wBorn to It by Tara Calaby

It is said among our people that a third daughter of a third daughter will possess the power of the devil’s sight. Anne was pointed of face and timid of character, unlike her older sisters Mary and Katerina, who delighted their schoolmates so much with their fair looks and easy humour that it was easy to forget their humble status. There were other siblings—two boys and a girl, if I remember correctly—but they did not take classes with us, as even the oldest was not long weaned. Their mother was a pale and inconsequential creature, who wafted about our town as though she were not entirely connected to the world she inhabited.

Anne was the plain child of the family, an affliction that was not made any easier by the peculiarity of her nature. She was certainly talented at her lessons, often coming fourth or even third in our year, but in conversation her words were stilted, almost as though she had little knowledge of her mother tongue. We were wary of her long before we had cause to be. It may have been something in her eyes, or possibly just the dated cut of her well-patched dress.

Without the benevolence of Mr. Wrottesley, Anne would not have entered our world at all. It was a fact that his daughter, Isadora, was well aware of. As our schoolgirl leader, Isadora guided our opinions, and her resentment of what she considered her father’s lavish spending of her inheritance on the unworthy offspring of his mine workers had ensured Anne’s unpopularity long before her actions led us to fear her.

In fact, she spent five terms under Miss Patridge’s care before her true nature was exposed. On Thursdays, the wealthier members of our class took riding lessons. For those of us whose fathers were not capable of maintaining the cost of feeding and stalling a horse used only for frivolous pursuits, it was a cause of great envy. Although my father was only a merchant, I was favoured by Isadora for my quick brain, and I remember well the occasions when she would call me from the circle of watching girls and allow me to ride her chestnut mare for a few wonderful minutes. Anne, however, was not so blessed. She was a favourite of no one, and usually sat alone while we watched the horses and riders go through their paces.

On the day in question, however, she paced at the edge of our group, wringing her hands and pulling fingers through her dark hair until it was wild and loose around her face. Finally, Elsa—who was always as quick-tempered as she was inquisitive—stilled her with a hand that clutched a little too tightly, confirmed by the crimson mark it left on Anne’s pale arm.

“Did you sit upon an ants’ nest?”

A few of the other girls laughed, but Anne’s eyes remained dull, almost as though she had been blinded. “She is lost,” was her only reply. “She is lost, lost, lost.”

I shivered at her words, but Elsa was not so moved. “Who is lost, you peculiar girl? We’re all here; can’t you see?”

“Lost,” Anne repeated in that strange, dark voice. “Constance is lost.” She gasped, as though choking on her own breath, and reached a hand towards the riding ring before crumpling to the ground.

So eerie did she look, and so grey and lifeless, that we clustered around her with little thought to our usual aversion. Emily patted Anne’s hand, Elsa shook her roughly, and even I pressed my palm to her clammy forehead, as though it might somehow help. Such was our surprise and confusion that we barely noticed a shriek from one of the riders, dismissing the ensuing clamour of voices as mere reaction to Anne’s collapse. She lay there as though dead, her chest barely rising with each breath. Her stillness frightened me and I couldn’t help but rise and break through the crowd of my schoolmates in order to fan my face and drink deeply of the autumn air.

In the ring, the horses shuffled nervously, abandoned by their riders. Isadora was bent over a dusty form, the other girls linked in an arc around them. Lydia’s face was buried in the lace of Clara’s dress, while Clara herself pressed a handkerchief to her mouth.

“She’s dead,” Isadora announced, and I felt a hand upon my waist as Emily moved to my side.

There was silence, save for the bird calls, until a soft moan from Anne shattered our stupor. We turned and, as Anne opened her eyes, Emily pointed to her and spoke, her voice shaking but defiant.

“Witch.”

***

It is in our nature to be afraid of the things that we do not understand. Perhaps it is also our greatest failing. We are superstitious as a people, reared upon whispered tales of the devil while we are bounced upon our mother’s knees. We are born to fear, and often governed by it.

I, too, fell under its spell.

After the funeral, Anne became more of a shadow than ever before. Where she previously had been merely avoided, she now became actively ostracised. The bolder girls called her names to her face, while the rest of us gossiped about her in tones that were not quite hushed enough to escape her notice. Her lack of reaction encouraged, rather than dissuaded, us. It seemed akin to an admission that she was everything we accused her of being.

Under the bombardment of our words, Anne grew smaller and sharper. The greys of her darkened and transformed, giving her skin a sickly, even greenish, hue. Her dark hair, always dishevelled, was loosed from the customary pins and ribbons, and she began to wear it hung in snake-like waves about her face. We shrank from her gaze, in terror of what those sunken eyes might see.

All was calm, however, for a time. The leaves browned, then fell, and snow enfolded the schoolhouse in its icy embrace. Spring was late that year, but when the warmth came, the trees sprouted their greenery with rare vigour. In the sunlight, our fears were muted, yet our hatred had become a habit that clung to our skin. And always we waited, waited for it to happen again.

The hill that divided our town from the next was circled by a slate-covered path. Miss Patridge often led us on rambles to the peak, hunting rare wild-flowers for our presses and drawing our attention to the birds that nested in the overhanging trees. Isadora, despite her frail appearance, was a strong athlete, and she usually led our ragged line.

The sun was hot on our faces that afternoon, as we wove past slate outcrops and dodged the twisting roots that veined the path. Clara’s light soprano accompanied our footsteps, and laughter echoed from the stone face of the cliffs above. I remember Isadora’s face as she turned to call back to a friend—the way the light caught the angles of her face and lit her golden hair. And then there was a scream, and a rush of footsteps, and I was pushed roughly to the ground.

“No!” Anne shouted, twisting a hand in the folds of Isadora’s skirt.

I picked slate and dirt from my bleeding palms, while Isadora regarded Anne with scornful eyes. “This dress is worth more than your father earns in a year. I advise you not to tear it.”

“No further.” Anne clung tighter still, restraining Isadora when she attempted to pull away. “Please.”

As Isadora bent to physically loosen Anne’s grasp, there was a loud crack from above, as though a storm was splitting the cloudless sky. We looked towards the heavens, but it was from the rock face ahead of us that the rain appeared, a brief shower of stone followed by the dull thunderclap of a boulder striking the ground.

Isadora stood straight-shouldered above the folded body of Anne, whose gasping breaths punctuated the silence while dust filled the air. Slowly, Lydia walked towards them, ignoring Anne as she wrapped arms around Isadora’s waist. I remember the cry of a willowbird and dull pain in my hands and knees. The whispers ceased. Anne rose and we looked away.

***

Although Isadora’s survival marked the end of our open accusations and mockery, Anne was not to linger long in Miss Patridge’s class. A flood in the mine carried off her father, along with six other boys and men. The town was appropriate in its sympathies, sending food and flowers to the grieving families, but such gestures do not last long and Anne’s mother was fit little for parenthood and not at all for employment. Mary and Katerina remained in school, protected by the likelihood that they would more easily find worthy husbands if they had the letters and sums to manage a house. Anne, however, would not marry. Even if there had been a boy left in the town who was not wary of her powers, no priest would have allowed her in his church. And so it was that she was seen gathering her meagre possessions into a worn bag one Sunday afternoon, destined for a new life earning food for her family in whatever manner she might find.

Isadora and I were painting landscapes in the garden when Anne closed the school gate for the final time. We had never spoken of that day, at Isadora’s request, but Anne’s quiet departure loosened my tongue.

“Will you do anything for her?”

She added a light streak of vermilion to the sky on her canvas, then stood back to survey her work before replying. “A witch has the devil’s assistance.”

“But if she is not?”

“She is not my responsibility.”

The paint—too thin—ran, streaking her painting with dripping blood. Isadora wrenched the canvas from her easel and tossed it to the ground as she walked away.

***

Months passed before I saw Anne again.

In late summer, Isadora invited me to her family’s grand house on the edge of our town. We ate strawberries in the garden, dipping them in cream that tasted of lavender and rose. She showed me their private stream, and the way that the fish that lived within it would rise to the surface to be tickled by a gentle touch. I watched as her dogs flushed blackbirds from the trees and we laughed together as though girls of only six or seven springs.

When the shadows stretched across the grass, we retired inside. In the parlour, Isadora rang a silver bell and we were brought tea sweeter and more complex of flavour than any my father had ever sold. At first, I did not notice the maid who stood, with dark head bowed, waiting for us to finish. It was only when her hand brushed against mine as she bent to tidy the china that I registered her presence. Her skin was cold and yet somehow felt feverish at the same time. I gasped and our eyes met. I knew her.

Isadora spoke as soon as we were alone, anticipating the question that I had dared not ask. “There’s a shortage of properly trained servants these days,” she said, her eyes fixed on the wall behind me. “My previous maid was called away and, for wont of anyone with the appropriate background, I suggested to my father that Anne might do.”

My thoughts were a tangle but I remembered my place. “And does she?”

“You would think that she’d been born to it.”

As Isadora walked me to the door, I felt Anne’s gaze follow us from the gloom beneath the stairs. I cannot say whether it was a witch who watched us, or just a lonely girl, but I was glad to feel the last warmth of the setting sun upon my face as I climbed into the Wrottesleys’ carriage. I had looked into Anne’s eyes and seen a darkness there that I could not explain—and cannot, even now, forget.

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