HORLA FICTION (March 2019)

 

LITTLE CLAWS

by Holly Tinsley

 

 

MAVIS was the eldest of the three by eleven minutes. Maud had come next and was the heaviest of the siblings by a considerable margin. The youngest one, Rose, had taken a full five hours longer to arrive then her siblings. The midwife had all but given up on her arriving at all. By the time they had pulled her out, her mother was delirious.

The nurses had spirited Rose away, wrapped up in a cotton blanket. Many years later, when they recounted the story to others, the two elder triplets would tell people of how small and deformed she was at birth. They reported that she was so squashed that the nurses had gagged at the sight of her. They told their friends that Rose had looked like a crushed plum, with the skin split.

Not one of them was particularly attractive, neither as babies nor as young girls. Their mother wasn’t much to look at, so it came as no surprise to anyone. They had a father, but they never saw him. Now and again they would ask their mother about him. Each time the story would differ slightly.

They had met in a club, they had met in a park, once they had even met on an early morning train to Leeds and had shared a toasted sandwich. The story depended very much on their mother’s frame of mind. Once she had claimed that he was an officer in the Navy.

She kept a medal wrapped up in tissue paper beneath the bed. Sometimes, she would take it out and show it to the girls. Running one finger lovingly over the ribbon, she would smile and sigh in a way that suggested fond memories. A few days later she claimed that he had been a homeless drifter who had forced himself upon her in a back alley while she screamed for help that never came.

As the girls got older, their friends became more concerned with all the things that concern adolescent girls so greatly. They curled their hair, lengthened their eyes lashes and liberally applied makeup stolen from their mothers. Mavis and Maud did what they could. It is always easier to create beauty from beauty. There were limits to the effects of powder, blush, and lipstick.

Rose had no such interest. If anything, she was glad of her unattractiveness. Tales of her monstrous appearance might have been severely exaggerated by her sisters, but they were not completely unfounded. She had large black eyes that never seemed to focus on anything. Nobody seemed to be able to look at Rose for long.

Her hair was terribly thin in places, so much so that patches of scalp would show if she brushed it the wrong way. Their mother would spend hours arranging it so that the skin was covered. On days when that didn’t work, Rose would wear a hat.

It was not so much that Rose was deformed; she simply looked like she had been put together incorrectly. It was as though she was a jigsaw puzzle, and some of the pieces had been forced into place. She had a long spine and flat feet. When Rose walked, she waddled like a duck. Mavis often theorised that Maud must have crushed her legs together in the womb.

Once, Rose had lain curled up on mother’s bed. It was early in the morning and the birds had just begun to sing the dawn chorus. Their mother often worked late nights, so the girls were asleep in bed by the time she came home. Rose had watched the shadows on the wall. Mother had stroked her hair and exhaled slowly.

“Was I really born a monster?”

Mother squeezed Rose closer, breathing in the smell of her youngest child.

“Yes my darling, a terrible monster.”

“But why do I have to be the monster, why aren’t I just a girl like the others?”

“You don’t want to be like them, girls are stupid and vain.”

“Did you know, before I was born?”

Half asleep, Mother smiled in a strange sort of way and murmured her answer.

“Oh yes my dear, I knew straight away, from the moment I first felt your little claws.”

For reasons that she did not understand, the answer made Rose feel a little better about the world. As Mother slept, Rose had watched the rise and fall of her lungs. She listened to the beat of her heart and swore that every now and again, it would shudder in her chest.

They did not have a particularly unhappy childhood. Their house was large and pleasant, belonging once to grandparents that they had never met. Mother, for the most part, was just a fleeting figure that was either in or out of the house. She was never neglectful, merely disinterested. The triplets were left to their own devices and made their own entertainment.

When they turned twelve years old the old man who lived over the road knocked on the door on the morning of their birthday. They often saw him in the garden, tending to the rose bushes that lined the path. He kept rabbits in a cage. The girls were delighted to be gifted with a young doe.

Mavis and Maud had taken it in turns to hold the tiny creature, stroking its ears and laughing at the tiny black nose twitching. Rose had wanted to hold it, but Mavis pushed her aside.

“You’ll scare it.”

“No I won’t, let me hold it.”

Rose watched, rejected, as her two older siblings spirited the animal away into the house. They took carrots from the pantry and locked themselves in one of the bedrooms. Sitting on the rug in the hallway, Rose spent the day listening to the sounds of their gleeful chatter.

By the time Mother arrived home from work at ten o’clock, Rose had been sitting on the rug for thirteen hours. Mother had to lift her up by the arms because her legs had locked in place. They heard the cracking of bone as they straightened.

Mavis and Maud were heartily chastised. Mother told them that there would be no birthday cake for either of them and that they should treat their sister better. Maud frowned, her small eyes creasing up.

“We don’t like her, she’ll frighten Miss Velvet.”

Mother looked down at the two girls, Rose still held stiffly in her arms.

“If you are not good to your sister, she will remember.”

Her voice lowered, almost to a guttural tone. It was not a voice the girls had ever heard before.

“She will remember everything.”

That night, Rose waited until the house was quiet. Mother and the other girls were asleep in bed. Opening the door of her room, Rose crept barefoot down the corridor to the kitchen. Miss Velvet was in the hutch at the end of the garden.

The grass was wet beneath Rose’s feet, droplets of rain taking hold on the hem of her nightdress. Miss Velvet looked out across the dark landscape with inquisitive eyes. Her nose twitched. She knew the smell of a predator approaching.

A high pitched squealing filled the air, the rabbit throwing itself desperately from one side of the cage to another. Rose bent at the waist, peering into the darkness of the little wooden box. Miss Velvet wailed, her small body crashing into the walls of the cage.

“I only want to hold you.”

Faster and faster, the little rabbit jerked and twisted. Rose felt the creature’s heart racing quicker, gathering speed until it seemed it would explode from her soft chest. Miss Velvet threw herself so violently from side to side that cage rocked, splashing against the muddy ground.

With one last squeal, the rabbit hit the side of the hutch with such force that there was a loud snapping. Rose waited for a moment. Slipping the latch upwards, she opened the door and took out the limp pile of fur with one hand. Miss Velvet’s head drooped, yellow teeth showing through an open mouth.

“Silly creature…”

Rose held the dead animal as though it were a baby, stroking the fur on its stomach. When she was done holding it, she placed the body back and shut the cage door. The next morning Maud would find Miss Velvet, the flies already buzzing at her eyes.

Mother made a rule that day. There would be no more rabbits. The girls had protested, arguing that surely it was better to have a lovely soft rabbit in the house then it was to have Rose.

“We should send her away.”

“We hate the little monster.”

Mavis folded her arms as if to emphasise her point. Rose snarled, swiping at her sister with an outstretched arm. Mother tried to stop it, but she was too late. Mavis howled, clasping one hand to her red cheek. Little claw marks burnt across the skin. They rose up, great red welts stinging.

Rose had spent the rest of the morning sitting on the step outside the front door. Mavis and Maud shut themselves up in their room, plotting, and planning. They were no doubt thinking up ways to seek retribution, both for Miss Velvet and Mavis’ swollen cheek. She had not been there long when the old man from across the road walked by.

“Good morning Rose.”

She did not answer him.

“How did you like the rabbit?”

“I liked it better than it liked me.”

“And why would that be?”

Rose lifted her head, her black eyes meeting his.

“I think she knew what I am. I think she could smell it.”

Rose did not know the old man well. They saw each other often but did not speak much. There was very little that they had to say to one another. Mother would sometimes stop and pass the time of day with him. He had no wife, no family. Sometimes the girls would buy an extra bottle of milk if they were sent to the shop and leave it on his doorstep.

“You should come one day to see my other rabbits; I think you would like them too.”

Nobody had ever invited Rose anywhere. Mavis and Maud were invited to parties and days out with their friends quite often. Rose had always wondered what it might be like to have a friend.

Mother had no work that evening, so they all had their dinner together at the table in the kitchen. There was a strong wind howling outside. Maud was always scared of the wind, though she was far too self-important to admit it. Rose felt her tense every time the windows rattled.

From her seat at the table, Rose could see the empty cage sitting at the end of the garden. She imagined Miss Velvet hopping around the lawn, broken neck bent at an awkward angle. Biting the metal fork, she mashed the roast beef in her mouth.

Later they watched a film on the television together, Maud and Mavis cross-legged on the floor. Rose sat beneath a blanket with their mother, idly running her little hand up and down Mother’s arm. She said nothing, but once the film was done and it was time for bed, she noticed the red lines down Mother’s skin. Rose touched them gently.

“Did I hurt you?”

Mother held her tightly.

“That is just what monsters do.”

As the night darkened, Rose lay beneath the covers in bed. It was cold, so she tucked them right up to her chin, blowing out clouds of warm breath. Something wriggled and squirmed beneath the blanket. Lifting it slightly, she grinned as Miss Velvet looked up at her, nose twitching. The rabbit gnashed its sharp teeth together, nipping at the sheet.

Hopping out from the darkness, Miss Velvet paused for a moment to scratch the back of her head with one large foot. Clumps of fur and skin tore from her neck and fell onto the pillows. Rose reached out and fondled her long ears, feeling the patches of dead, blackened skin.

The rabbit jumped to the floor, bottom bobbing up and down. Rose opened the door and followed her into the hallway. Miss Velvet led the girl down the corridor, floorboards creaking beneath their feet, white tail flashing in the shadows.

Mavis and Maud slept in the same room; twin beds positioned either side of the window. The room was partially lit by the light of the moon. Their skin looked blue beneath it. Miss Velvet kicked out her back legs, landing without a sound at the end of Maud’s mattress.

The rabbit moved without making so much as a sound, until she sat on Maud’s chest, rising and falling with each breath. She chattered her jaw, the bone grinding together. Rose thought how funny Miss Velvet looked, sitting on the bed with her head bent sideways. She was much better now than she had been before.

A little while later Mother became aware of something pressing down on the mattress beside her. Opening her eyes, she saw Rose lying peacefully beside her. Rose looked up, eyes dark and cold like a shark.

“Are you going to hurt me?”

Rose looked surprised at the suggestion.

“No, why would I hurt you?”

“Because you’re not right, you’re so very, very wrong.”

Rose reached out and touched one finger to the end of her mother’s nose.

“I promise not to hurt you, Mother.”

“And your sisters…?”

“I snapped their necks like twigs, my little claws dug into their flesh.”

A tear formed in Mother’s eye and rolled down her cheek. It landed on the pillow between them. Rose leaned in and pressed her cold lips to her mother’s face. They felt like nothing at all.

“Goodbye Mother, I’ll wave to you when you pass by the window.”

Outside the house, there were few stars in the sky. There were some scattered clouds that seemed to roll by at tremendous pace. The old man did not seem at all surprised to find Rose knocking on his door in the middle of the night. Stepping aside, he gestured towards the inside of the house.

“Come in out of the night, before you catch your death.”

Rose felt the thick, plush carpet beneath the bare soles of her feet. She squeezed her toes together, basking in the light of the fire that crackled in the hearth. It was a nice living room. There were red curtains and a clock on the mantelpiece. A little glass bowl filled with sweets sat upon a round table next to the armchair. She did not need to ask to know that she could have as many of them as she wanted.

“What should I call you?”

The old man placed a wrinkled hand on her shoulder and squeezed it gently.

“You may call me Grandpa.”

Rose took a sweet from the bowl and removed the paper. It made a lovely crinkling sound. She put it in her mouth and sucked on it thoughtfully. Behind the bowl was a picture frame, ornate patterns of silver filigree along the edges. It was immaculately clean and shiny.

An image of a man looked back at her, dark hair and black eyes staring blankly at nothing.

“Is this my father?”

“Yes my dear, wasn’t he quite something?”

Rose looked up at him.

“What was he, Grandpa?”

The old man smiled.

“Something bad, something very bad indeed.”

There was the sound of thumping and scratching from behind a painted white door. Rose turned her head, ears pricking at the sound. Grandpa seemed pleased to see her react so. She had sharp senses, a predatory mind. It was better than he could have hoped. The child would do great and terrible things.

Rose felt the beating of hundreds of tiny hearts thudding together in unison. Walking over to the white door, Grandpa curled his fingers around the handle.

“Would you like to see them?”

She nodded, reaching out and taking his hand.

The door creaked as it opened, swinging wide to reveal a large room. The walls were stacked from floor to ceiling with hutches, one on top of the other. Rows and rows of them; each filled with a tiny lump of brown fur slapping at the floor with its feet.

Grandpa felt Rose’s hand in his and glanced down.

She looked at the rabbits, little claws scratching at his fingers.

Outside the wind blew hard, Rose smiled and the cages shook from side to side.

HOLLY TINSLEY is a blogger and fiction writer from Shropshire, England. She mainly writes fantasy, dark and Gothic fiction. She’s the author of a series of flash fiction children’s stories scheduled for publication early in 2019. Holly is co-creator of the blog The Day We Built The Fort which she says ‘details her experiences of taking on and completing a number of strange, ridiculous and life affirming challenges’. She is currently working on a debut dystopian fantasy novel. 

Her joint blog can be found here: The Day We Built The Fort