Hezzie wouldn’t have looked in the mailbox at all, expect that she thought she might have left her thumbscrews in it about a hundred and fifty-seven years ago, give or take. She knew she had hidden them somewhere good, somewhere that her sister would never look. But every few hundred years, she tended to lose track of what was where, especially something as small as thumbscrews. She squinted into the depths of the rusted box. No thumbscrews. All she could see was the letter.
Letters could, Hez recalled, be more dangerous than thumbscrews. But she shoved the moldering envelope into her pocket anyway and scurried back into the cool dark of the cottage. Wouldn’t Esme be surprised? Wouldn’t she be sick with envy that Hez had gotten there first? Wouldn’t she just die?
The sisters weren’t accustomed to receiving much mail, not now or ever. They’d never been popular and, if truth be told, they’d never been good at keeping up what little correspondence came their way anyway. They didn’t have a telephone in the cottage. Certainly they’d didn’t have any of the other more modern styles of two-way communication. The only modern device they owned, and utterly worshipped, if you got down to it, was the television that had been left by a beau so long past that neither of them remembered which sister he’d been there to woo…or which sister had killed him. And that box, of course, lent itself only to one-way conversations, at least for the people actually on the television. The sisters often talked back to the people in the box. Secretly, Hezzie couldn’t sleep unless she could hear the dulcet monotone of the woman who sold handbags late at night. Hezzie liked to dream about her and considered her a friend. She didn’t tell Esme though, who would consider it a sign of weakness, who would laugh, and probably do something violent again to Hezzie. Back when they were at school, a girl had sadly smiled at Hezzie during class after the other kids laughed at her for audibly passing flatulence. She and the girl never actually spoke. But Hezzie didn’t need much to go on so she went home and told Esme she’d made a real friend. That night, Esme set Hezzie’s hair on fire. It had been hundreds of years but Hezzie still had to wear itchy wigs if she wanted to look presentable. And now that she was maturing, some of her snake stumps weren’t growing in properly at all.
No, if anyone wanted to get a hold of them, they could very well come up the overgrown path and knock on the door. It had an enormous brass knocker on it just for that purpose. Though, neither sister knew what it would sound like if anyone ever lifted it to knock.
Hez and Esme were accustomed to a solitary life.
A letter. Hezzie drank in the possibilities. It could be news of a war, or a famine, or a terrible natural disaster in some part of the world that she’d never even dreamed of. The thought of such mindless carnage made her weak in the knees, made her worry at the letter in her pocket until the wax seal and the green-cheese mold on the flap gummed under her thumbnail. It was the closest to happy she had been in centuries and it would be even better when she could find Esme and taunt her with it.
Esme was skinning a scrawny rabbit in front of the fire pit in the center of the one-room cottage. Next to her, their pointed tips glowing red on the coals, were three long spikes.
“Guess what you haven’t got that I have, sister dear?” Hezzie’s bent frame was bobbing back and forth with excitement.
Esme gave her a snaggletoothed sneer, “A moment of peace? A man on my puss? All my toes?”
“None such thing, you louse-poxed bitch, it’s a finer thing than all that! Far finer indeed, but not meant for the likes of you.”
Only from uncounted years of practice did Hezzie manage to dodge the hot poker that Esme sent flying like an arrow toward her head. It embedded itself into the wall behind her. Esme had fantastic aim, even with only the one eye.
“It’s a letter, you filthy creature. And it’s for my eyes only, because I’m the one who did find it first.” Hezzie drew the letter from her pocket and watched her sister’s hungry look with pleasure. It had been so long since anyone had tried to communicate with either of them, out here with nothing but their own wretched company in the hinterlands.
“Let me see that you dung-stink of a hag,” Esme squinted at the letter Hezzie was waving around. “I see both our names on there, don’t I?”
Hezzie screeched and smashed the letter up against her bosom. “I ought to be the one to read it, since I went to the trouble of checking the post and all.”
“If you don’t read it aloud I will kill you next you sleep, bitch devil,” Esme said quietly as she continued skinning the rabbit. Hezzie rubbed her stubby head and knew this was not an idle threat.
Hez kept the two remaining pokers within her sights but she did uncrumple the letter.
The envelope, gummy from the damp and dotted with holes, did indeed bear the names of both sisters on the front. There was no return address. The flap lifted easily and Hez withdrew what must once have been a very fine invitation on heavy paper.
Holding the letter close to her bulging eyes, she began to read.
“It is the great pleasure of His Regal Self,” Hez screamed and in the pantry, the few remaining glasses they had left shattered, peppering the air with puffs of glass and dust.
Esme shrieked, “Get on with it, Harpy, or I’ll tear your eyes out and use them to read it myself.”
“It’s from him. It’s from Gordon.”
For a moment, the only sound in the entire woods was the long dreamy sigh of the two sisters. Gordon, after all these centuries was coming calling for one of them! They’d never dared hope. But there it was, in the mailbox. A letter. Gordon was coming, and it was finally time for him to take a bride.
Courtship and gentleman callers had always been a volatile subject for the sisters. Hez was older and had the most teeth, which she had always been vain about. But Esme was wilier and as slippery as an eel when it came to scheming. They had fought over suitors in their distant youth, when they merely had to look at a young man to render him senseless as a scarecrow. But whole lifetimes had passed since then. It had been nearly four hundred years since either sister had even seen a man.
The last time Hezzie had a beau, Esme had turned him to stone with a look and shattered his fine flesh into pebbles by tapping him with a ball-peen hammer. In retaliation, Hezzie had bashed her sister over the head with a log and split her tongue in two like the lying snake she was.
Prior to that, even more centuries ago, Hezzie had ensnared another young man to come calling. She had made a dress of fine silk and frippery, in shades of blue that would suit a queen. There had been an even older sister then, by almost a week, who had shredded the dress the night before Hezzie was to have stepped out on the town. When the man arrived, Hezzie was inconsolable. Not even tearing the confused man’s head from his body had calmed her very much. That night, Esme had thoughtlessly killed their older sister over something else entirely unrelated to the man or the fancy dress. Hezzie never forgave Esme for usurping her revenge. The scar running down Esme’s ample left side was memory enough of that ugly discussion.
Esme had similar experiences of heartache and bloodshed, though her proclivities ran toward men of their own kind…which meant it had been even longer since she’d had any real disappointments, men of their kind being scarce and pretty much all dead at this point.
Gordon was of their kind. He was of the highest order and quite possibly the last one standing of their generation. Their men took a while to mature. So if he was coming to call, then it was time for a new generation to be born. Every thousand years, Gordon took a bride. In their culture, it was every young girl’s dream to be crowned queen, to win the hand of Gordon, and to aid him in the great cull. The sisters were no longer young by any stretch of the imagination, but they still had their girlish fancies.
Hez couldn’t remember how long it had been since the last bride had been claimed, but she reckoned a thousand years sounded about right. Which meant that the queen’s crown was overdue to rest on Hezzie’s own crooked brow. Hezzie imagined the crown would be crusted in gold and emeralds. It would be beautiful. It would distract attention away from all the burns.
“Gordon.” Esme rasped the name over her fire like an incantation, which it nearly was.
“He’ll be coming to fetch me any day now, you know, riding up on a horse and all that, bringing buckets of gold for my bride price and trunks of fine things for me to own!” Hez was dizzy with the thought of it, careening noisily around the filthy cottage in her hobnail boots. “And I’ll murder you faster than lickety-split so you can’t steal none of it, not like you stole the gold right out of our little brother’s teeth after he croaked.”
“Ain’t huh, you lazy shitflap. It ain’t you, not when all’s always said I’m the one favored in the looks department.” Esme spat phlegm at her sister. “And he only croaked cause you sat on him while he slept with your rancid shitstained arse.”
Hezzie cackled so loudly that a flock of birds was startled off their perch on the cottage’s straw roof. Grabbing a chipped vase filled with long-dead wildflowers from the counterpane, she swung it roundly toward the back of Esme’s head. It shattered against Esme’s left ear, rattling her brain just enough to make her angry.
“I’ll be damned if you ever take what’s mine again! Never did see the dancing slippers again, or the accordion, or the yellow kitten with the striped tail! Buried all three out in the woods, I’ll wager. You’re a creepy, nasty old thing Esme, and I wouldn’t mind killing you one bit.”
“Killing me would take something smarter than your old carcass,” Esme retorted, rubbing her bleeding ear with the back of her hand. “You always were jealous of my fine looks and youth.”
“Minutes,” screamed Hezzie. “You are only younger by minutes! And that only means that you lay in our whore of a mother longer so you’re more damaged than I could ever be. How many hundreds of us passed through that gaping canal before you? I’m surprised your egg didn’t crack when it fell out!”
Esme threw down the bleeding rabbit and raised her clawed, gnarled hands above her head and wailed like a banshee right back, “This from the woman who killed not one but two of our brothers and another sister when we were mere children?”
“It’s our way!” Hezzie shouted back. “And I didn’t mean to kill them all, just Norbert! He was so irritating and stupid. He deserved to be impaled on a spike at the bottom of a hole! So I dug one. Like children do! The other three just fell in later. And who cares anyway, you snotcuss.”
“We needed each other alive to survive, you oozing sore of a woman! It’s not our place to cull. It is Gordon’s! If anything, he’s coming to kill you for overstepping your place with our sisters and brothers!”
Hezzie didn’t know when she’d picked up the large stone but she was glad she had. She hurled it at her sister, hearing a satisfying crack as it hit Esme in her old bony sternum. “We got by just fine without them didn’t we?!”
“Look at us! We’re all alone. We lost touch with our kind because we didn’t have anyone but each other! How is that fine? No one even knows we are here!” Esme was holding the knife she was using to skin the rabbit on the blade end so tightly that one of her fingers fell off.
“GORDON KNOWS WE ARE HERE!” Hezzie shrieked.
The table that the sisters shared their meals at was covered with a shabby lace cloth, crusted with years of spilled slop and wine. Esme swept it up and wrapped it around her shoulders like a shawl, patting her patchy hair in the fragment of mirror that hung over the washbasin in the corner. The blood from her head wound ran freely.
“Gordon is the sort of man who can appreciate maturity in a woman, you see, not swayed by fickle looks like yours,” Hezzie shouted at her younger sister, inching toward the fire. “And I’ll be off to fulfill my potential in the world, doing grand things as will befit my station!”
The hot pokers were within Hez’s reach and she lunged, grasping the poker too close to its glowing tip, but savoring the burn. Esme wouldn’t stop her this time. She wouldn’t allow her to stomp all over this dream like she had all the others.
As Hezzie lunged toward her sister with the poker, she saw the empty patch of wall above the washbasin only seconds before feeling the peculiar sting of a shard of mirror embedding in her chest. The two had always been well matched.
If anyone had been near enough to the sisters’ hut that night, they would have heard voices neither human nor entirely female, screeching to wake the dead as the sisters fought tooth and nail for a chance at a life neither knew what to do with. Several bells after midnight, the raging battle ceased to have anything to do with Gordon and became something purer and deadlier – the result of three thousand years of missed chances and wounded pride left to mature into boiling, blood-bound hatred.
Everyone knows that no one fights fiercer than sisters.
At sunrise, the woods was peaceful again and filled with a watery early morning light. The birds had returned, but found nowhere to perch where the roof had once been. The big black drafthorse, whose name was Kismet, and its passenger arrived quietly with the dawn.
Whatever lies the sisters had told themselves through the disgusting years, there was one story that was turning out to be true.
Gordon was actually standing at the door to their cottage this very moment.
He had come.
The cottage door had been thrown thirty feet into the woods outside. The frame around it was steaming with smoke and some other sticky substance. Gordon’s hand, rings on every thick finger, gingerly touched the smoking wood of the cracked frame and quickly fell back at his side. The scent of charred hair and sulfur and gamey meat lingered in the hovel. Gordon entered the sisters’ house unannounced.
There were two blacked outlines of vaguely female shapes burnt into the wooden floor, with a rotten-smelling heap of cinders still smoldering at the center of each. Gordon poked the ash pile nearest to him with the toe of his boot and shrugged his massive shoulders. He had traveled far when he had heard of these two sisters in the woods. They shouldn’t have been there. The way was to dispatch all females once each generation’s Gordon chose his bride. Chaos and madness only ensued when those of their kind were allowed to age past the acceptable time.
This Gordon didn’t know if it had been his father or his father’s father who had fallen down on the duty of ridding the world of these two. But someone along the way had gotten lax. Thousands of years had passed and these creatures just sat and stewed in their own poison as they began the change.
It was never completely clear how the change would manifest. After a few thousand years, some grew snakes out of their skulls, as was happening to Hezzie, and some would turn into a full-fledged serpent creature, as those poor ladies up in Scotland seemed genetically inclined toward doing. There had been one forgotten male Gordon back in the old days who, after his change into a sea beast, ruled over an entire town for centuries, making the people bring him a virgin every once in a while for no reason in particular, till some human finally put a stop to that. Whatever the change, their kind were the things that nightmares and myths. And the Gordon had the responsibility to keep those things to a minimum.
Thankfully, most of their kind killed each other off by the time they reached adulthood anyway. Still, occasionally, one or two would get lost in the shuffle and change.
This Gordon had taken a bride almost 800 years ago. The next generation was already in full bloom. In a few years, a newly mature Gordon son would kill this Gordon and all of the remaining brothers he could find. Then he would take a bride, spawn, and kill the unchosen. But no one would have to kill these two who had been unchosen for so long.
They had done the job themselves.
Joel Enos has published stories in Flapperhouse and A Café in Space. He’s also edited comics, books and tons of manga, including the best-selling Godchild series.
Angela Enos is a Chicago-based costume designer, artist and performer who has published fiction in Flapperhouse and A Café in Space. Her theatre work has been seen from Georgia to California to Detroit.