Bethany used to read stories every night.
Long stories, short stories, novels, verses, fables, folk tales, all. She played the characters, too. Sea captains spoke with surly speech and courtly ladies had lovely little lilts in their voices. Every evening she came to the attic where I stayed and every evening she brought a different book. Father allowed it, but our uncle certainly had some objections. He called it a slippery slope. He felt that if I knew how to read, I would learn how to write, and if I knew how to write, I would learn how to leave pieces of myself for the world to see. This would cause people to ask questions. “The wrong sort of questions,” he would say. The sort of questions that angry mobs tend to only answer with pitchforks and fire.
But some problems like that cannot be avoided. Some problems must be dealt with no matter how inconvenient or unwanted. In my family’s case, the problem was me.
See, I was the problem they couldn’t run from. They sought spiritual guidance and found none. The village priest wanted to burn me alive. He thought fire would cleanse me of my impurities. Someone else urged Father to toss me down a well. Luckily neither of those plans came to fruition. For better or worse, I only lived because another had died. Life for death, death for life. It was a fair deal as far as the Gods were concerned. Still, there was a general acceptance that as long as I was allowed to live, the family would be cursed.
Monstrous, I was called. Hideous. Vile. Deformed. Malison. Wretched. I was my mother’s murderer. I was an abomination. I was the cruel jest of some wicked spirit. I was poison.
My uncle said the ritual was mishandled. The lamb they sacrificed didn’t have enough blood, he thought. Or perhaps someone said the words wrong. Maybe one of the candles blew out before the ritual was over. I don’t know. I wasn’t even born yet. I just know that I was to be discarded, and it was my sister’s protests that kept me from such a fate.
Little Bethany with the blue eyes. My father could never say no to them. They looked like gleaming sapphires. She begged and pleaded and cried until he agreed to spare me. Her eyes were her weapon, and she knew how to wield them. But these eyes were not used to hurt anyone, no. Bethany was my protector, my guardian, my shield against the horrors of the outside world.
She did not fear me as others would. There were no hints of hatred or sadness. I was not a monster to her. I was not some living aberration. To her, I was just a baby. The pale skin and dilated eyes did not stop her from wanting to care for me. Father helped, of course, but only for brief moments, and only when Bethany asked. It was difficult taking care of someone with my… Condition. That’s how he worded it. My condition was not contagious, so no one had to worry about catching it. We were not allowed to say that I was cursed because then all sorts of accusations would arise. The family could not risk such accusations, especially then. Between territorial disputes and peasant uprisings, the last thing my father wanted was for us to be accused of practicing witchcraft. I can’t say what arts my father may or may not have committed to, but I know that I was the end result of them. As far as everyone in the village knew, I was just inflicted with a rare malady from across the sea. They could not know that I was the failed spawn of some black magic ritual. Father thought it best to keep me in the attic. It was cold and dark there, but I was fine. Demons thrive in the dark.
At night I would sneak out of my small prison and roam around. In the beginning I had only confined myself to the hallways. In my eyes, it was better to drink in this new world one sip at a time. So I crept up and down the same narrow passages each night, feeling every nook and cranny in the floorboards. The candles on the walls cast shadows that grew larger step-by-step. I must have been the stuff of nightmares. No one seemed to notice that the animal had left its cage. One day I had hoped to leave our house and see our village for myself. Maybe I would go further than that. The windswept shores of the sea, the red mountains clawing to a sky of endless blue… Their siren song called to me, though I never answered. The hallways would suffice.
A few doors were open further in, but I was wary of entering. Whatever was in those rooms was probably not meant for me. Yet eventually childlike curiosity took hold, as it often does. Disappointment, too. In truth it was all rather boring. These rooms were not for children. They were stuffy and boring. One had a painting of a lake under the night sky; narrow beams of moonlight broke through the clouds and fireflies lingered above the lily pads. Bethany later told me that our father liked that one the most. He said that our souls turned into fireflies when we died and they would all go to some faraway land. Our mother was there and he said when we all died, they would finally be together. They would be together. Not we. I could not go there because I did not have a soul. My ventures outside the attic were met with less enthusiasm afterwards.
But my sorrows almost came to an end when I found my way into the kitchen. That glorious kitchen, a realm where food seemed to come about as if by magic. Every night after was spent searching the pantries and drinking milk. I made the foolish mistake of thinking that the kitchen stores replenished themselves… Uncle soon caught on that something was eating all the bread and drinking all the milk. He had actually come into the attic one day to ask. This was especially alarming since he openly despised me and took every effort to avoid me. He began to shout and scream and demand I tell the truth. My father had been through enough, he said. And my mother would feel terrible if she were alive to see her child stealing from the family.
I said no. I showed no signs of guilt or remorse. I even pretended to be appalled that such an accusation could be made against me. I had told my first lie, and he believed me. I later learned an important lesson from that exchange: Lying, like any other practice, gets easier with age. In time we begin to believe our own lies, and that’s when the trouble really begins.
In any case, I knew I had to be careful from that point on. My new rules were quite simple: Avoid the kitchen at all costs, leave no trails, and find a new place to explore. Later that night, when the sun went down and the moon went full, I ran into a familiar shadow at the end of the hallway. Bethany stood still, smiling as the candlelight reflected off the still pools in her eyes.
“Follow me,” she said. “There’s something I want to show you.” So I followed. She had turned the corner and tip-toed her way down a narrow staircase. She turned another corner and opened one of the locked doors. Inside were walls covered top-to-bottom with books. Volumes upon volumes of texts and manuscripts lined the shelves written in different pens by different authors. It truly was a thing to behold.
Bethany made me promise not to tell anyone. But who would I tell? Not Father, and certainly not Uncle. This was an easy promise to keep since I rarely spoke to them anyway. She began teaching me how to read and write for myself every evening. How I longed for those nights! Most of my days amounted to waiting for the sun to go down so Bethany and I could read about noble warriors and frightening beasts. I once asked if I was like the monsters in the stories. I wanted to know if a brave hero would one day come and rescue Bethany from my clutches. She just laughed at me and said that if I was a monster, then she wanted to be one too.
This was not the only time we shared together. I would be lying if I said Bethany and I only talked during our unofficial story sessions. There was a time when my father allowed me to have dinner with everyone. If we were hosting for a guest, I was to be prepped and groomed and made presentable… Or at least as presentable as I could be. Father even cut his own fingers and dabbed droplets of blood on my cheeks so that I would look like I had some sort of complexion. It made no difference for me in the end.
If wasn’t all so bad, to be honest. There were lots of perfumes and powders, and the whole house smelled of sweets and spices. Casks of imported ale were carried up from the cellar, though I hated the stuff. But I suppose it would be rude to offer visiting dignitaries a glass of milk when barrels of fine liquor sat before them. These guests were usually members of wealthy families from all over who were looking to draw up marriage arrangements. I was a part of these proposals for a very short time, but Father decided that I would not be a suitable match for any of the noble families. I don’t quite blame him.
Regardless of my marriage qualifications, or lack thereof, I was to remain quiet during these dinners. Keep the head down and the mouth shut, eat with a fork, no burping, and especially no farting. Easy. So I only spoke when asked to speak and I was graceful with my fork and my knife and I did not burp or fart at the dinner table like a good little cherub. When we had visitors I was as courteous as could be, and while they did not openly display their revulsion, I could see it in their eyes. A few showed pity rather than disgust, however. There was one man, a self-proclaimed noble, who even gave me a hug. It felt strange. The only person to ever hug me was Bethany.
This nobleman became a sort of recurring guest. I learned that his name was Ivan and he was apparently very close friends with the Countess. He discussed state affairs and the trouble brewing outside outside our country’s borders with my father, but more than that he boasted of his connections with the ruling family. There was a lot of money to be made from allying with them, he said.
Ivan was interested in children—especially young girls. Every time he stayed he would talk, rather crudely, about Bethany’s appearance. She had bright blue gemstones for eyes and hair the color of honey; she was a budding flower and the Countess would love to meet her.
Ivan spoke of me as well when dinners were concluded and he thought I was out of earshot. The conversations he had with my father regarding me were spoken in hushed whispers. My talent for lurking in the shadows helped me listen without letting anyone know I was near, yet I could only grasp bits and pieces of their conversations. There were a few key words I had picked up on, however. Rumors, guilt, forgiveness, payment, male heir… Either my father was in trouble, or he was heading there, and I had something to do with that.
Bethany did not like Ivan very much. She turned sullen each time he came, which was growing more and more frequent as the weeks went by. Ivan always wore different outfits, bright and gold and heavy with jewels that swayed with the movement of his bulbous gut. Rolls of fat enveloped the ruby rings on his fingers like plump sausages. When Bethany spared him a courtesy and complimented his finery, he merely quipped that they were gifts from the Countess. I didn’t know much about this Countess, save for the fact that she was from a wealthy family and she was generous to her friends. Ivan told us how she was always looking for new children to play with, too. She lived in a giant castle on a hill that had all the tea and cookies and dresses and diamonds a girl could dream of. Bethany would love it there, he said. A girl like her deserved more than our village could give.
Uncle did not care for Ivan, either. Perhaps that might have been the only thing we had in common. He said Ivan was a churl, some leech who only wanted to milk decent folk like us dry. Greedy men will never get enough. They are always hungry for something; our land, our food, our coin… There are people out there who will squeeze you until their knuckles get raw and bloody, then they will scold you because their fingers hurt. Ivan was one of those people.
I had asked Bethany why Ivan was always here. She said she didn’t know, but I think she at least had an idea. She just didn’t want to tell me because it would make me unhappy. Funny how we spare our loved ones the pain of a harsh truth by masking it with lies. Bethany was a poor liar, though. It wasn’t her fault. She never had to lie about things like stealing food and drinking milk.
But the truth has a nasty habit of creeping up on you when your guard is down. It was during our last night together. By then I was the one reading stories to her. I may not have done the voices or played the characters, but I understood the words well enough. The book I chose had a knight on the cover. It was supposed to be a children’s tale about a hero from long ago.
The story was about a knight and his family. One day the king declared war and he called for his bannermen to march on and fight. The knight left his wife and daughter at home in their village while he rode off towards the capital. While he was there, the knight proved himself to be a fearless warrior. He defeated many men and quickly rose through the ranks of his king’s army. Fireflies danced along the battlefields as the bodies of his foes were sent back to their families. When the war came to an end, the knight returned to his village with the hope of seeing his family.
Sadly, their village was struck by plague while he was away. The knight learned that his wife and daughter fell ill and died a few days before his arrival. That moment, just as he was about to bury them, a rider came through with a letter from the king. A dragon had been attacking farmers and the king needed a hero brave enough to fight the beast. Any man who brought back its head would be rewarded with whatever his heart desired. While the king himself could not bring back the knight’s wife and daughter, the knight hoped that he would know someone who can. Many did not trust sorcery and magic, but the knight was willing to try anything.
He mounted his horse and raced off to slay the dragon. Once the dragon was killed, he brought the head to the king’s royal palace and asked for his reward. The king offered enough gold and wine and women to last him a lifetime. But the knight only wanted his family back, so the king ordered his court sorcerer to resurrect them if he knew how. Of course, this was dangerous magic. The sorcerer explained that the Gods of Life and Death are not easily fooled and he would only be able to bring one of them back to life. It was up to the knight to decide whether to save his wife or his daughter.
He could not choose. After all, he cared for both of them. He loved his wife and she was faithful to him for years, but his daughter was simply too young to have her life taken by disease. The knight then came up with another idea: He could sacrifice himself and let the sorcerer use his blood to bring both of them back. The sorcerer agreed that this was the only way to save them, however it meant the knight would have to die. The king was moved by this and promised the knight that his family would be taken care of. They would have their own lands and their own castle, and his daughter could even become princess if she wanted to marry the king’s son.
The story went unfinished. I’d like to assume the knight went through with this ritual, but I can’t be too sure. Bethany asked me to stop reading it because it made her sad. I asked why and she only told me that I would understand someday. She was right, of course. She was always right. Before she went to bed, she gave me a leatherbound book. The writing inside was sloppy and the pages were yellowed with age, but I recognized the print. It was my father’s writing. This was his journal. It was his own little piece of himself. All his fears, his doubts, his thoughts, rested in the palms of my hands.
I never asked about myself. I never asked what exactly was wrong with me. It was clear that I wasn’t like everyone else in terms of appearance. My skin was alabaster and my eyes were large splotches of crimson. My veins were visible in the sun and my hair was as white as a crone’s. Unlike Bethany who had fair skin and a warm smile, I was just… Me. Some ugly little creature. And that was fine. I never got angry with the situation I was born to.
Though maybe I deserve to be angry. Maybe I deserve to blame others for my misfortune. Is there something wrong with that? It feels like there is. Now that I know the whole story, I think I am right to be this way. Father’s journal told me everything I needed to know. There were a lot of pages torn out, but I am not a fool. The earliest entries were about his life with my mother. Their marriage was unusual in that it was not arranged for political or economic reasons. They were together purely out of love. Though things were not as happy as they seemed. My mother was not exactly fertile, nor was she healthy. In fact, she had been sick her whole life. Actually sick, not cursed like me. Normal activities were taxing and her frail body could barely handle the pain of childbirth. Still, she tried. Her first child died in the womb. Her second was Bethany.
Bethany nearly killed her. It took weeks for her to recover from it, but she smiled the whole time. If Father’s entries are to be believed, which they very well should be, he was brought to tears. Sadly, this joy came with a price. The ruling family began taking noble children when they came of age to prevent their families from vying for power. They called them wards, but they were really hostages. Rival families were not so quick to plot rebellion when they had an heir living with their enemies. Those who did not offer a child to the Count or Countess were taxed until they could no longer afford to keep their lands, at which point their possessions would be confiscated and their children would become property of the state anyway.
Father loved Bethany too much to let her go. She was brilliant at reading and writing and adding sums. She could paint and sing, too. He had hoped to arrange a marriage before the Countess learned of Bethany. Father’s journal suggests that they even planned to pass Bethany off as a bastard child born to another woman. This would not be believed, however. If my parents had married out of love, why would Father sleep with anyone else? As for my uncle, well, he was the younger brother and had no real claim to any lands or titles, therefore he was quickly passed over when it came to arranged marriages. So they were forced to acknowledge that Bethany was their own and she would be a ward to the Countess at an appropriate time.
They stalled for as long as they could, yet they simply didn’t have the means to pay the exorbitant taxes. Uncle used funds to buy a small herd of cattle with the hope of setting up a dairy farm. It helped ease the burden for a time, though it was inevitable that Father would have to give up Bethany or face financial ruin. It was out of desperation that my mother suggested giving birth again. They were unwilling to part with their blue-eyed angel, so perhaps another could be born and given instead. It was a stupid plan.
It should come as a surprise to no one that my mother would be unable to birth a healthy child due to her weakened state. Priests prayed and pellars prepared herbs to dull the pain but none of them worked. Uncle then brought a man from some far off island. Father couldn’t spell it. He crossed off six different names before conceding that he had no clue who this man was and where he came from. The man didn’t even have a name. Father described him as scrawny, half his body was burned and his hand was black with rot. Though beggars can’t be choosers and my mother trusted him to help.
His ritual was supposed to make the birthing easier. He set up a circle of black candles and spoke in some strange foreign tongue. All who were present were to chant his words exactly as they sounded. He also required a great deal of lamb’s blood since lambs were supposed to be symbolic of purity where he lived. Of course, something went wrong and someone did not follow the man’s instructions to the letter. In the end it did not seem to matter if I was stillborn or not, my mother was too fragile to bear the pain and was she was likely to die anyway. Fireflies surrounded her deathbed the next morning.
And then she passed. Then I crawled out. Then Father dismissed the burned man and told him never to return. Then Bethany took care of me. Then they told the royal family that they had a child to give as a ward. Then Ivan came and refused me. Then Father realized that he could no longer afford to pay his taxes. Then Ivan returned and threatened to take Bethany away. Father’s last entry ended there. Such is the tale of my family, I suppose.
I want to bring the journal to Father and tell him I read it. I want to tell him I’m sorry for what is happening. It’s not my fault, but I do feel bad. I’d like to help in some way. Maybe the safest thing for me is to leave? He is downstairs now, I can hear him arguing with Uncle. They’re trying to find a place to hide Bethany. There is someone banging on the door outside, too. It’s Ivan. He is demanding that they allow him and his men to enter. No one needs to be harmed, he says. Probably another lie.
Father stays quiet. I can’t see what’s going on and I’m too scared to move. If I go down there it will only make things worse. I have a nasty habit of making things worse, it seems. Someone kicks down the door and there is a booming crash. One man hits the floor, then another. CROSSBOWS! Ivan roars to the men. A few more screams follow, then silence. Heavy footsteps and parade around the rest of the house. I can sort of figure out where they are. Some search upstairs, some search the kitchens, some even search the basement.
“Any sign of the girl?” Ivan asks. His soldiers report nothing. Bethany was not in any of the bedrooms, nor the kitchens, nor the basement. She was nowhere to be found. “Very well then,” he says. “Search the forest, perhaps she ran off there. The freak might be with her, too. As for this place… Burn it down. I want it to be a pile of ashes before the night is over.”
The men are all leaving now. The footsteps grow quieter until no one is left inside. It’s safe enough to come out of the attic. I can smell wood burning. I can tell the fire is spreading quickly. If I want to leave, it has to be now. But then where would I go? What would I do? No one will take me in. No one will give me shelter. I can’t survive on my own, not when Bethany has taken care of me my whole life. I wish I could find her now. I wish I could tell her how important she is to me. I wish I could share one more story with her in the library.
The library! That’s where she is. It has to be. The smoke is surrounding me now. It’s difficult to see and the heat is making it hard to breathe. I’m dripping with sweat. My legs are aching. The library door is unlocked but it’s shut tight and I’m pushing it open with all my strength. She has to be here, I tell myself. The flare of the fire and the black fog of burning books is blinding. Flames are flickering off the walls like a viper’s tongue, striking back and forth, scorching my skin with every touch.
Through the swirling smoke I can see little lights dancing together in the darkness. These lights are all I have left now… And I can’t tell if they’re embers or fireflies.