Monstrous Femme

The stench hit her first. Her nostrils flared and her nose twitched pointlessly as hot, rancid decay burned through her nasal cavities and settled in her nasopharynx. Her stomach threatened to mutiny in disgust, and she dropped to the ground clutching her sides. 

Next, the hair-raising chorus of hoarse voices crowded her mind with their inverse hymns, building upon each other until it had all grown as loud and chaotic as a sudden fracture in the earth. Her body trembled helplessly as the panic reached its crescendo, causing her blood to thunder through her veins, her head to spin, and her skin to glisten with a sweaty sheen. 

An abrupt, sickening shrieksounding like only a vague approximation of humanstabbed at her eardrums, and she felt the claws descend. They shredded her clothing, ripped and tore her skin, attempted to pluck out her eyes. It seemed they would not stop until she lay in gruesome tatters on the cold, stone floor of the church.       

Mary flung up in her bed with a tortured scream.

Her body shook. Her thin summer nightgown was soaked through with sweat, and her brain felt like an open wound. Carefully, she crept out of bed and turned on the light as quickly as possible. She glanced at the clock on the wall- nearly one in the morning. She absently turned to her window—left ajar to keep the air fresh—and as if on cue, the distant tolling of bells sounded in her ears: The parish church bells, calling the faithful to come celebrate the birth of their savior. Or so she had thought, once upon a time, when she suddenly found herself awake in the wee hours of Christmas Day.

“If only I’d not gone,” she mumbled. She clapped her hands to her ears, and dropped down to the floor, chin on her knees, and back rigid up against the wall. “If only I’d even thought to check the time.” The bells rang louder in her head, and she slammed her eyes shut. “I’d have climbed right back into bed and gone back to sleep, and in the morning, it would’ve seemed a dream.”

Hot, desperate tears followed the contours of her face as they made their way down to flavor the corners of her mouth with their saltiness. Her whole body felt fuzzy, as if the tolling of the iron bells reverberated against her skull. Just as she felt her eardrums might explode, and her stomach just might empty itself all over her bedroom floor, Mary let out an anguished cry and silence at last graced her weary mind.

It was still quite some time before Mary made a move. Once the horror subsided, leaving her only with a marrow-deep exhaustion, she stood and shuffled slowly across the room and out the door. What she needed most just then was a soothing soak in the tub.

As the tub filled, she perched on the cushioned stool between the tub and the sink and allowed herself to think. That night, that one ill-fated Christmas morning, had changed her life forever. Of course, she could never set foot in Church again. That much had been clear when she’d seen the tattered remains of her best coat in Father Dunne’s hands. That wasn’t the only problem, nor was it the most pressing one. People had changed after that. Their perceptions had contorted into something dark and utterly hateful. People who had once called her Friend now branded her Witch.

Like every other time memory forced itself into her dreams, made her remember those dreadful, clutching claws, Mary thought of leaving. Moving to a new town, starting a new life. It was such a tempting, glorious thought. It filled Mary’s heart with so much hope, but every time, her very next thought would crush the feeling into oblivion.

Where would I go? How would I get there? What’s an old lady like me to really do? 

Mary screamed again, this time in despondent frustration. She closed her eyes and dropped her face to rest in her upturned palms. Loathe as she was to admit it, Mary was trapped. She had no-one. No-one who would welcome her with open arms in a new place. The only family she had, her husband and daughter, were both long buried in the parish graveyard.

An intrusive thought pounced on her then, one that had become startlingly familiar to her in recent months. As she felt the warmth of the hot water radiate out from the tub, she gave the thought some real consideration.

What if I attended the Midnight Mass again?

Her mind had wandered into this grisly, seemingly inevitable scenario only so far when she felt the air thicken around her. Prickles of unease pimpled her skin and her muscles tensed with vigilance. Too frightened to see whatever ghastly phantom was surely materializing, she squeezed her eyes shut even tighter—until deep creases formed in her forehead and along the bridge of her nose, and crow’s feet fanned out from the corners of her eyes. Her hearing sharpened until the steady pour of water into her tub more closely resembled a rushing waterfall and her mind forced upon her the sensation of her own body dashed to pieces on the cluster of sharp, jagged rocks below.

Clutching at her throat, Mary sucked in a deep breath and forced herself to hold it for a count of ten. By the time she breathed back out again, she had reassured herself that the thundering current in her head had actually been the anxious beating of her heart. As her breath evened, the sound calmed down to a soft, soothing shhhhhhh, and she opened her eyes, blinking a few times to sharpen her focus.

“Stop,” she blurted. “Why do I keep thinking this way?” A prickling sense of awareness made the fine hairs along the nape of her neck and up her arms rise, despite the growing warmth of the room. “It’s not right. I did nothing to deserve all this spite.” Her eyes welled with tears as she recalled her dearest friend, Helen. It had been Helen’s ghost who had delivered a live-saving warning that night Mary attended the wrong Mass. It had been a breathtaking shock to turn around and find herself staring into a face that she’d instantly recognized, despite its sallow, sunken appearance; but not so much as to keep Helen’s urgent whisper from galvanizing her into action: “Leave now, before the hymn ends, and be quick, or you’re dead.” Mary sprung up from her seat, standing tall and defiant. “Helen would be disgusted to see me treated this way.” She nodded and chewed thoughtfully on the corner of her lower lip as she turned her attention back to the bath, which had filled up to her liking. If only there was some way to fight back. If only Helen was here, she would have all sorts of ideas. Coming up alongside the tub, Mary reached out to turn off the tap. A steaming hot bath is the best that can be done for now. It should help me sleep, at the least. Just as she bunched up the front of her nightgown to pull it up over her head, Mary spotted an odd sparkle under the water, right on the porcelain.

Bewilderment had her transfixed as she watched the speck expand into a gleaming length of gold that continued to stretch and morph, until she found herself watching an elegant serpent rise along the side of the tub and poke its triangular head out of the water. A forked pink ribbon of a tongue darted out of its mouth, collecting information from the air.

A demented sob of laughter escaped as she realized not even the abrupt appearance of an impossible snake in her tub could truly faze her—not after what she had experienced and relived over and over again in her nightmares. Pulling together her thoughts, she noticed a subtle hiss slinking through the back of her mind. The snake almost seemed to smile as Mary snapped her jaw shut, cocked her head, and narrowed her eyes questioningly. She took the nearly imperceptible bow of its head as confirmation that it had infiltrated her very thoughts.

Dearessst, allow me to lead the way.

Mary staggered back instinctively. “Who?” She shook her head. “What are you?” A gasp leapt from her mouth as the only other place she had ever come across speaking serpents struck her. “The Devil!” She took a step back and crossed herself.

Light, lyrical laughter filled the room as the serpent disappeared, leaving in its place a fair skinned, silver haired woman stretched out comfortably in the bath. Their hooded eyes shone lilac and the same golden serpent that had only just vanished coiled elegantly all the way up their left arm, the tip of its tail flirting with the life line in their palm and its jaw dropped, head ready to strike at their shapely collarbone. “Call me Malik.” They offered her a soft, close-lipped smile that turned the shrewdness of their face seductive. “I am something much older than all those lies.”

Mary blinked rapidly and shook her head, stunned. “L- ” She squinted at her unexpected guest, still lounging in the water as if she’d drawn the bath for them, and pushed out her question in a demanding tone. “Lies?”

“There is no such thing as the Devil.” Malik stood and climbed out of the tub, small puddles forming at their feet as they took a moment to pull their long strands together and wring the water out from the tips.

Mary watched them carefully, her wary mind cataloging details: smooth skin, light colored moles of various sizes spread out over their pear shaped body, a rounded belly that protruded slightly, a thick triangle of damp, coarse hairs at their groin, and fine hairs just a bit too long to be stubble running up from their ankles to mid-thigh that would be practically invisible if not wet from the bath. Of course, the Devil would say such a thing, she reasoned with herself, and I know the Devil may take a pleasing shape, but. . . her eyes traveled back up and caught on their full breasts—which had just begun to sag with age—move as Malik breathed. Their noticeable unevenness stirred an inexplicable sense of kinship deep in Mary’s core. Surely, this is no devil. Just another woman, just like me. She pulled her gaze further up to see Malik watching her with a discerning expression and took a step back, momentarily startled by their intensity.       

They approached Mary with a teasing curl to their plump lips, stopping close enough to make Mary have to fight her urge to take some steps back. Being only inches apart from each other in height made it impossible for Mary not to stare directly into their bright eyes. It was a feeling akin to being hypnotized and it kept her from realizing Malik had reached out until the touch of their long, slender finger dragged up from the hollow of her throat to the tip of her chin. She couldn’t stop the shiver of unexpected pleasure that trailed up her spine in tandem with the faint scratch of their fingernail. Malik continued; their voice dropped down to a sultry purr.

“The Devil’s merely a fantasy that’s been spoon fed to you by generations of men in stiff white collars terrified of their own desires.”

Mary’s pulse picked up and she unconsciously swept the tip of her tongue across her lips.

“And why are you here?” The subtle sting of her nails digging into the palms of her hands as she curled her fingers inward kept her calm enough to continue boldly. “What would you have from me?”

Mischief broke out across Malik’s face, the lilac of their pupils seeming to glow. “What exactly would you believe,” they asked in a playful tone that betrayed just how little they truly cared.

“I suppose it doesn’t really matter, does it?” Mary shifted, bringing her arms up to cross them over her chest. She began to worry at her lip again as she regarded Malik curiously.

They gave the slightest nod, agreeing with her assessment. “As far as this village is concerned, you’re already damned.” The impression of a sympathetic smile flashed across their face when Mary sucked in a breath and looked away.

“As far as you are concerned, it seems you already have your heart set on the grave.” They abruptly grasped Mary by the shoulders, surprising her into locking gazes once again. They managed to hold back their laughter when they felt her muscles tense in surprise, then relax. “So why not entertain me? Together, we can sow a little chaos.” A sweet, imploring smile spread across their face as they moved in closer and brought their hands up from her shoulders to lovingly cup their face. “I’ll make it worth your while, Dearest. I can provide you with vengeance.” They moved closer still, now wrapping Mary up in a comforting hug that she easily fell into and reciprocated. Her nightgown dampened slightly as it pressed against Malik’s still wet skin, and she shivered. Goosebumps rose on her skin next when they brushed their lips along her cheek on their way to whisper into her ear. They made sure to soften their tone to a delicate murmur. “Surely, Sister, that would be more pleasurable than to die in brutal agony as you watch the dead rend you apart.”

Mary shivered, part in revulsion at the gruesome image that jumped to mind and in part due to having gone so long without any form of positive touch. It elicited within her a strange mixture of comfort, trust, and arousal. She hugged Malik tighter, pressing her fingers into the bare, cool flesh of their back and letting her eyes fall shut. She let out a happy moan when she felt their fingers move through her hair.

“Yes,” she sighed. Mary’s lips curved up into a shape she had convinced herself they no longer knew how to make, turning her face into a map of fine lines and creases. Slowly, feeling as if she were in a dream, she pulled away just far enough to see Malik’s face. As they peered into each other’s eyes, a vindictive glee crept across Mary’s face. “Help me, and I’ll gladly be this town’s witch.”