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This selection is paired with Chapter 1 of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Get NonBinary Review #15 at Zoetic Press.
It was a Tuesday, and I would have to go to town.
I was in abnormally high spirits about the prospect of going into the village that day. I put it off without thought. Bundled in my warm blanket, and with Jonas at my side, I slept away the morning in my hiding place in the woods, the frost beginning to melt and birds chirping and chattering away around me. I woke to find a spiderweb, glistening and silver, stretched across the entrance.
I knew that the web was a very strong protective omen, but I would have to knock it down if I were to get out. “I am very late to go into town, Jonas,” I said. Jonas blinked at me. I reached out to knock it away, but couldn’t bring myself to. “The magic will all be spent if I do it,” I told the cat. He flicked his tail, then stood, walking deliberately through the web.
I went inside and washed my face before starting on my way, as Constance had told me I must, and took the library books off their shelf, carrying them in a bundle at my side.
“Be very careful, my Merricat,” Constance said, her voice like a song. “And don’t take too long.”
“I won’t. I love you, Constance.”
“I love you too, Merricat.”
The library is the first space on the game board of the village. It lies just beyond the black rock and the gate that protects the Blackwood property from the encroaching rot and villainy of the villagers. I climbed the marble steps, went through the door, and lay the old books on the counter, then went about choosing three new ones. A mystery or criminal study for Uncle Julian, of course. Constance preferred romance, or cookbooks. I turned the corner behind a tall shelf, and stopped.
A woman stood before me, with long, auburn hair and a stylish emerald green frock. She was not one of the villagers. She was not ugly and grey and full of rot. She was beautiful, red and brown and green, like the forest. She looked at me, and smiled. I looked away, thinking perhaps she had mistaken me for someone else.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is Shelley. Shelley Banks.”
I nodded politely. “Are you new to the village?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I had never seen her before. It was a very small, very dull village.
Shelley took a book from the shelf, examined it for a moment, then put it back. “I live in the city, actually.”
I let out my breath in relief. Somehow I wanted very much not to hate her as I hated the villagers. Shelley Banks continued. “I’m coming on to teach school here, starting in a week.”
She smiled, and so I smiled back politely, but in my mind, I cursed the devilish brats who would, no doubt, be terrible and wicked to their lovely teacher. It was sad to think of her surrounded by their ugliness, a pretty jewel among the muck.
“I’m terribly indecisive about books,” she said. “Have you any recommendations?”
“Oh,” I said, surprised that she continued to converse with me even in my stunned silence. I looked around. We stood in the “B’s”, and I spotted Wuthering Heights within reaching distance. I plucked it off the shelf and handed it to her.
“I’m very fond of Catherine,” I said. “The first Catherine, that is. There are two.”
“Oh, how confusing,” Shelley Banks said. “Well if you say it is good, I have no doubt I’ll like it, too.” Her cheeks were round and rosy and her face was very pleasant. I felt very warm, as though I were at home in the kitchen and Constance was baking a pie.
I was suddenly aware of the passage of time, and I quickly picked a third book at random from behind me, in the “H” section. “I must be off,” I said, “But it was very nice to meet you.” I was surprised that I actually meant it.
“You never told me your name,” said Shelley Banks, as I turned to hurry off.
I thought very quickly. If I told her that I was Mary Katherine Blackwood, no doubt she would hear all about me from the townsfolk in no time, and I would lose her favor forever. I very much wanted to avoid this, although I did not quite know why. I paused for a moment before answering, “Mary.”
“Good to meet you, Mary,” Shelley Banks said, and smiled at me again, all pink and red and brown and green. My stomach felt something close to queasiness, but not as unpleasant. I hurried to check out my books.
When I left the library again, I felt as though I had left my shimmering house upon the moon and stepped into a squalid swamp. The grey village loomed before me, and I set off, walking deliberately, space by space. I was a metal game piece, and nothing could perturb me. Past the post office, with its windows hiding watchful eyes. The Rochester house, toward which I avoided looking. Across the highway – lose a turn, as there was traffic. I would not stop at Stella’s after buying our groceries today. I had been far too long already.
Finally, the black rock and the gate. End. The wretched game board would remain unplayed again until Friday’s grocery run.
On Wednesday, after I had checked the fences, and mended a few wires which had rusted or become bent out of shape, I got to thinking about the library. Normally I would not go back until the next Tuesday, but something told me the schoolmistress would be there again. I had to come up with a device which would make her warm to me, stop her from being infected by the townspeople and their hatred.
“What would you suggest, Jonas?” Jonas leapt after a grasshopper, catching it in his mouth, then turned and blinked slowly.
“I suppose a book would do nicely,” I said. “She is a teacher, after all.”
I went back to the house, leaving a wild flower near Uncle Julian’s chair by the window and greeting Constance warmly.
“We are having vegetable soup for lunch today,” Constance said, her face flushed from stirring the pot.
I felt a little badly for Constance, keeping something from her as important as my acquaintance with the schoolteacher. I resolved to help her more in the kitchen. I wondered if Constance would get along with Shelley Banks, or whether she would be too frightened to allow her over for tea, even if she wasn’t from the village. I decided that I wouldn’t ask Constance about it until I was sure my new safeguard would work.
After lunch, I took a little leather-bound notebook out of a drawer in my room. I hadn’t used it in quite some time, but when I had, it was used to mark down the names of the villagers who had treated me the worst. Nearly every villager known to me had long since been added to the list. I carefully tore out the pages in the front where the names were written, and set the book on the windowsill. It would be best if the book could sit in the moonlight for three nights; since it was Wednesday and I was going back to the library on Friday, two nights would have to do. It helped that one of the nights was Thursday. Thursdays were my most powerful day, and therefore my most powerful night.
I took the loose pages outside and buried them. The villagers would surely face consequences sooner this way, anyhow, I thought.
Friday came, and although I was nervous about speaking to Shelley Banks again, my thoughts were filled with magic and shining things. We had not yet finished reading the books I had checked out on Tuesday, and so I brought only the notebook with me. The grey-haired librarian looked at me coldly as I passed her desk without returning any books, but I ignored her, as I always did.
Shelley Banks was standing, still in literature, but this time among the “M’s”. She flipped through a volume of Anne Shirley tales, looking amused. I cleared my throat softly, and she looked up, smiling again. The brightest smile, which made her face round and her cheeks sparkle, and my knees ache.
“Mary!” she exclaimed. I was pleased. She did not appear brimming with questions and suspicions just yet. I approached her, holding out the notebook. “What’s this?” she asked.
“I would like you to have it,” I responded, not sure what the protocol was for giving gifts to near-strangers. “It’s for writing in,” I clarified weakly, my head suddenly spinning.
“Oh, lovely,” said Shelley Banks. “What should I write in it?” she asked, turning it over in her hands. “What would you write, Mary?”
“I would write about my life on the moon, and about riding on my winged horse,” I said, not really thinking. She blinked her deep brown eyes at me, and I continued, “And I would write down all the stories my cat, Jonas, tells me.”
Shelley Banks giggled, and for a moment my stomach dropped and her dress lost a bit of color, but then she took my hand and said, “That is truly wonderful, Mary.” My face grew hot as she said, “I will try to write something half as good as that.”
I left the library feeling lighter than air. I am living on the moon, I thought. I am bouncing along the spaces of this imaginary game board of a town. Nothing can get to me when I am so high up.
Constance was ready with a savory egg tart when I got home, and I ate each bite with a twinge of guilt. I had thought of her so little these past few days, my thoughts wholly consumed by the strange—what was it? friendship?—I had struck up with the schoolmistress. Worse, I didn’t feel I could tell Constance about it, not yet. Anyway, I worried I might frighten her if I brought it up too soon. Now was the time to wait.
Constance had begun to suspect something, I gathered, because that night she asked me, “Merricat, did something happen in the village today?”
I was chilled. “No, dear Constance, why would you think so?” I asked, keeping my voice steady.
“Never mind,” Constance said. “It was only a feeling.”
“Silly Constance,” I said.
“Silly Merricat,” said Constance.
* * *
Perhaps it was time to think of another safeguard.
I decided that it would be too strange, and too much of a change if Shelley Banks were to come over for tea. I didn’t think poor Constance would like it, and resolved that it was a reckless idea. I went to the cellar, where many generations of Blackwood women’s china sets were kept. I chose a rather ugly beige cup, one from a low shelf, that I was sure Constance would not miss, and I smashed it on the floor. I picked up the pieces carefully and wrapped them up in my dress. I hurried outside with them, and left them in a long trail along the driveway. Now I would not think again of asking Shelley to tea.
Tuesday came again, and in the morning I asked Constance to make a coffee cake. When we finished our breakfast, I broke off an extra piece and wrapped it in parchment paper. I tucked it in the middle of the three books from the previous week (the “H” book I had grabbed by mistake—The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall —I had devoured on Saturday, finding it strange and amusing) and made off toward town.
I am on my winged horse, I thought, I am collecting cinnamon and honey, and deep, dark, topaz, brown and sparkling, and I am bringing them to Shelley Banks in the library.
The grey-haired librarian did not look at me as I returned my books, and I was grateful. Her stare would not have perturbed me much, I imagined, not today. Shelley Banks was in the “W” section, looking at some book with a dull red cover. My heart raced as I approached her, but when she looked at me, everything stopped.
Her face was different, her smile tinged with pity. Her green dress and brown eyes and red hair began to blend together into a featureless grey.
“Hello, Mary,” she said. “May I ask you something?”
I was aware of the air around me, pressing up on my face and hands, pushing me down against the earth. Shelley Banks continued, “Is your name Mary Katherine Blackwood?”
There was a sudden ringing in my ears. I nodded. Though I wanted to cry and scream and run, I did not. I will not run away, I thought, I cannot run away.
“I only ask because, well—the children, they sing this song…” She looked embarrassed. She stopped. “I’m terribly sorry. Children say such awful things sometimes.”
I clung to the piece of coffee cake wrapped in parchment. I wished that I had put death inside of it.
“Mary, please don’t be cross with me,” said Shelley. “Only I’m just so curious.” Her eyes were dull and colorless and I wondered if she had ever had a soul in them at all. “Did she really do it?”
“You shall never be invited for tea,” I said coldly, and spun around, walking quickly (I must not run away) out the door.
I rushed past the post office and the Rochester house. I wanted to smash the coffee cake on the ground and stomp on it. I wanted to stomp on Shelley Banks’s feet, pull at her hair, watch her cry and scream on the ground. I hoped that when she wrote in the leather notebook her long, thin fingers would shrivel up into knots and her hand would fall off. I smiled, picturing her crying over her stump of an arm, no longer able to write on the chalkboard during lectures.
I did the shopping with a sort of dull roar in my ears. The rotten villagers and their watchful eyes and their little whispers followed me until I reached the black rock and the gate. I set down my shopping bag to undo the lock and dropped the package of coffee cake on the ground. I smashed it with my foot, thinking of Shelley’s long, white fingers beneath my mother’s brown shoe.
“Hello Merricat!” Constance sang. She had been waiting for me at the edge of the garden, and I felt the little knot inside my stomach loosen a bit. Constance, her yellow hair and blue eyes and lovely pink dress, her warm smile and musical voice, was the only color I needed in the world. Jonas ran up to me, rubbing his cheek against my ankle.
“Hello, Constance. The village is dreadful, and I’m so happy to be home.”
“Let’s go inside, Merricat,” Constance said with a little laugh.
I waited until Thursday, then dug up the pages which I had torn from the little leather book. I wiped as much dirt from the last page as I could, then wrote another name at the bottom. I would bury them in a different place, this time. I pictured Shelley Banks and her stump of an arm again, and smiled, scooping dirt over the paper with relish.
I heard Constance calling from the back of the house, and wiped my hands together in a futile attempt to rid myself of dirt. Constance would tell me to wash up before we could eat. I thought of Constance, and of Uncle Julian, and our beautiful, lovely house, and Jonas. I was silly to think of bringing someone else, an interloper, into our world. Now, I thought, I will never think of anyone more than I think of Constance; I shall never love anyone as much. We are so, so happy.
Meghan Elaine Bell is a northern California transplant and avid horror lover living in Portland, Oregon, with her girlfriend, Carly, and her cat, Midnight Monster. Her work can be found in the current issue of RFD Magazine.