By Gratia Serpento
My steps echo down the slippery stairway, tapping the growing moss and mold. I need to come back down and clean, get on my hands and knees and scrub the wood with soap and water, but I hate coming down here. I hate it. Terrible conditions but I won’t make it better if it makes me worse.
The bowl burns my hands, the painful heat a sharp contrast to the soft frost of the stairs. Beans and pork in a chicken broth. The scent lingers and dances over my nerves, adding to them but healing my soul.
Stomach fluttering, I balance the bowl in one hand and gently unlatch the door with the other. Through the dark, I hear chains move and the shallow breath of one barely felt. I flip the switch on the overhead light, but the bulb flickers and glows a shallow yellow.
I clear my throat. “Narine? It’s me, I brought you dinner.”
“Ciara?” Her voice is hollow and thin. Scratchy like an old sweater. “Is that you?”
“It’s always me. You know that.” I strain my eyes, glancing at her figure. Thin blond hair that hangs in yanked-out chunks falls just above her shoulders. Her bones are tight and gaunt against her skin, a spider web of veins tattooed in blue. Her eyes, once light and filled with curiosity, now are heavy and a hollow brown. She looks awful.
She pulls against the metal cuffs that stick her to the wall. “Where is Mother? She hasn’t come to see me since–”
“Narine, I don’t have time to answer you,” I say, setting the bowl three feet in front of her. I quickly take five steps back. “Mother is expecting guests. I must leave and help prepare dinner.”
She crawls against the floor, her legs a mutated mess of bones and scars and shatters. Her gnarled fingers dive down deep into the bowl. “It’s so cold down here.”
“Winter tends to be.”
“Ciara, there’s a draft, frost decorates the walls.” Her voice is frantic but small. “I don’t think I will last much longer if I don’t have–”
“Narine,” I say sharply. “Please hurry. You know I must go.”
“You’re afraid.” She gives a brittle laugh. “You’re afraid but I don’t know of what.”
“Eat, you must be starving.”
“Of course I am.” She giggles. “I’m always hungry. Hungry for food, hungry for freedom, hungry for life. But I smell your fear. It makes me long for so much more. Tell me, sister, are you afraid of me?”
“I am not afraid of you,” I grimace, rubbing my arms.
“But you are. You are afraid of what I will do to you. What I could do to you. Ciara, Ciara, Ciara, have faith. I won’t hurt you if you’re a good girl. What does Mother always say?” She raises her brow expectantly, spooning soup into her mouth. “Say it, sister. Say it.”
“Don’t be afraid of what slumps in the shadows, but rather what sings in the sun, for which what sings knows no death except the ones she felled,” I say softly, the words causing the lump in my throat to expand.
“I always felt like it was missing a piece. Fear the sun singer and bury the gloom, but beware the knife for she waits until the time to slit the canary’s throat and eat the darkness whole. Poetic, isn’t it?” Narine laughs, soup slipping down her chin. “Tell me, who is singing, and who is the shadow? Me, Mother, or you? Don’t be afraid of just me, or the sun-singer, for there is always a knife waiting to bleed.”
I wipe my palms against my skirts. “Curiosity killed the cat, Narine, I won’t go down the same path as you.”
“Curiosity killed the cat but knowledge brought it back. Mother never let you hear the full story because she knew–”
“Knew what?” I hiss, rubbing my arms against a shiver. “I was never the cat, and I won’t be the knife. There is too much at stake for me to become you.”
“Because I am such an insult.”
“You are a cripple.”
“And Mother dearest was the one who did this to me.” Her eyes flare with a familiar brightness. “And Mother dearest will do it to you.”
“Only if I step out of line.”
“And you trust her not to move the line?”
I don’t answer, hating how right she is.
“Ciara, there’s time for you to shine,” Narine softens her voice. “Just find what she is hiding beneath her smiles and jewels.”
“You tried and lost your freedom.”
“But you are not me. You are Ciara Viotto, the dagger under the cloak.” She gives me a thin smile. “
“I don’t want to be a dagger, or a cat, or whatever else you claim,” I hiss. “I want to be a daughter.” I watch her lick the bowl. “It’s time for me to go.”
“Give me the bowl.” My voice is hard and sharp, full of warning.
Narine clenches the bowl in her twig fingers and takes four steps back; her eyes alight with challenge despite the chains on her wrists and ankles. “Come and get your precious bowl, sister.”
I grind my teeth. “You’re not supposed to keep it.”
“And I wasn’t supposed to find Mother’s secret either. Life often extends olive branches when we’re looking for lemons.”
“Mutated legs are hardly an olive branch,” I say, refusing to step closer. I don’t know what she would and could do to me, if I was closer and she could grab me. Perhaps use me as a bargaining chip for her freedom.
Which would be useless. Mother wouldn’t trade anything for me. I know I am a pawn in her drawn-out chess game–why would she sacrifice the queen for a stupid solider?
“It’s all a matter of perspective.” She growls, eyes growing hollow. She’s disappointed in me. Disappointed I won’t take her bait, won’t follow her footsteps. “Mama’s blouse drawer has a secret compartment.”
“And you know what’s in it?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t be down here. No, it’s for you to figure out.” She tosses the bowl at me. It clatters, spinning, before tumbling to a stop at my feet. “Give Mother my warmest regards. And ask–”
“Have a good evening, Narine.” I grip the soup-slimed bowl in tight fingers, turning on my heel and exiting the room.
I lock the door behind me, hearing her chains creak sadly. I have always found it unfair, how she cannot walk and yet we chain her to the door like an animal. But I would never voice that aloud, for Mother might hear me.
Up the stairs I go, the air gradually growing warmer. Not a comfortable warm, like that of a Father’s embrace, but that of a stifling silence. After crossing the threshold, I work my way across the labyrinth of hallways, finally finding the kitchen.
Mother stands, her back towards me, watching a pie bake in the oven. My feet move softly, quietly, against the hardwood floors, bringing me to the sink. I wash out Narine’s bowl, fingers stinging under the hot water and soap.
“It took longer.” Mother’s voice is sweet and soft like that of the finest rose silk. A little husky, a little rough, but perfectly smooth.
I swallow, setting the bowl in the dishwasher. “She wanted to talk.”
Her back stiffens, and she takes a step closer to me. “Did she now?”
“I tried very hard not to engage her,” I say, bowing my head.
She nods, her perfectly porcelain face smoothing out. She is the most beautiful woman I have ever met, with her heart shaped face, long blond curls, red pouty lips, and green eyes. So stunning. So cold. Narine and I look nothing like her. Yes, we have the skin tone and the hair color, but our hair is usually more like straw rather than stardust.
“I’ll have to have a talk with her later tonight,” she nods, patting my shoulder. I flinch, and her eyes tighten. “For now, get the table set. I will be in my room.”
Dinner goes like it always does. A big, elaborate show that has clients falling at her feet. She spins a web and like fruit flies they follow, throwing money and signing whatever contract her prints.
While she does her job, I do mine. I am a sweet, obedient daughter, who laughs at my cues and cleans up everyone’s plates. When the guests leave, it’s eleven thirty at night. Mother kisses my forehead, leaving a red lip stick print behind.
“Good, Ciara, good,” she whispers. “You did well tonight. I’ll give you your reward tomorrow. For tonight, I am going to have a talk with your sister. Sleep well.” She pats my shoulder, whisking away like an autumn breeze.
I fold my hands, eyeing the staircase. If I go up and to the left, I shall be in my bedroom, safe and sound and a good girl. If I go up and to the right, I shall be in Mother’s bedroom, being bad and wicked but knowing.
There’s only one answer.
I creep up the stairs, hurried but cautious not to make the floorboards creak. Her room is left unlocked, and I push it open with hesitation. It’s too easy, it’s too easy. Her wardrobe is five steps away. Four. Three. Two. I open the top drawer, finding silken blouses and polos. I run my finger across the base, then the sides. A small divot, far in the back, catches my attention, and I scoot her shirts away to see it.
A small, secret compartment, just as Narine described.
I flick it open, and find a little folded up chunk of papers. Potential Candidates. A list of names follow single file down the page, with a scribbled X written next to them. Hecate X, Loralie X, Dabria X, Tanda X, Adrienne X, Valdis X, Morrigan X, Lilith X,the list goes on and on and–
My jaw clenches as my brow furrows. What could this mean? And Narine’s X ink is still fresh. The ink is still fresh. The ink is still fresh.
I slide the papers back in, and quickly move her blouses back in order. I slide back to my room, my breaths hollow and shallow. Quickly, I burrow under the covers and wait for my quickening breath. I must be imagining things. I don’t know what the candidates list is, and I don’t know why I am listed on there. Without a X.
And Narine. What does the X mean? Does it mean that she failed as a candidate? Why haven’t I heard anything about these other girls?
I hear cluttering in the kitchen. Bowls click against each other. The fan flicks on. I hear the oven preheat, hear Mother’s steps go back and forth and back and forth.
An hour goes by. Then another. After my heart can no longer bear it, I slide out of my bed and walk down the stairs, my breath thin and wane.
I stand in the kitchen hallway, anxious. Taking a deep breath, I step over the threshold. “Mother? What are you doing in here?
She whips around, a red stain on her pale pink dress shirt. The kitchen is torn a part, red grease staining everything. Her eyes blaze with an anger.
“I’m baking a pie.”
“We still have some apple pie from earlier. We don’t need another pie.
“It’s pot pie.” She curls her lip against a laugh. “Biped pot pie.”
“It’s late, Mother, why are you making a pie at this hour?”
“Why are you awake at this hour?” She softens her face. “Ciara, don’t ruin things for yourself. You’ve been good, don’t throw it all away for answers to questions you don’t even have the power to ask.”
I bite my lip. “Did you speak to Narine?”
“Is she . . . is she okay?”
“She succumbed to the cold,” Mother shrugs as my eyes sting with unshed tears. “Yes, it’s sad. But you won’t need to go down there anymore. Go to bed, it’s late.”
“You killed her,” I whisper.
“What did you say?”
“YOU KILLED HER!” I slam my hand against the counter. “You killed Narine, my sister.”
“What does that–”
The timer rings, cutting off my reply. Mother leans forward and switches it off, before putting on a pair of oven mitts on and pulling the pie out. She is the picture of calm–a soft smile on her face, a whimsical look in her eyes.
She does not look like someone who murdered her own daughter.
“Biped is one of the hardest pies to make,” she says and she cuts out a slice. Meat, peas, carrots and gravy swirl. “It’s hard to get the ingredients.”
“Have a bite,” she presses a fork and knife into my hands. “Blow on it, it’s not to hot.”
Fear shakes me to my core, but I do as she says. I cut a tiny, small piece, blow on it, and show it in my mouth. It’s too hot to taste anything, burning away my tastebuds.
“What is a biped?”
I choke, hurling the pie chunk from my mouth. The red. The red. The red. It’s blood. It’s real, human blood. It’s not just blood, it’s–
“You killed Narine and baked her into a pie?!”
“And I’ll kill you if you aren’t silent.”
My fingers clench around the utensils. My nose flares. It feels like my soul leaves my body, leaving me numb, numb, numbs so achingly numb. I can’t feel my body, it’s like I am a ghost, like I’m Narine, like all the girls before us. I–
I watch as my hand jerks up, plunging the knife into Mother’s throat. She gurgles, blood wine red and liquid, grasping at her throat. She slips, banging her head against the counter as she falls. I watch her, not feeling anything. Not feeling a damn thing.
I pick up my pie plate, and tilt it, watching the pie slide onto her head in a mush. Oh, Mother. The murderous canary. Oh, Narine. The troubled shadow.
Oh, me. The knife.
I stare at the knife in my hand, watch the blood drip off the blade and onto the handle, onto my hand. I don’t even flinch.
I step over Mother’s body, over to the telephone in the corner. I dial and press the receiver to my face.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“I’d like to report a murder. Two, in fact.”
Click. The line goes dead.
Giggling, I place the phone back onto the counter. Oh, dear Mother, you found your perfect candidate. Your only mistake was killing her sister.
Bio: Gratia Serpento is an Oregonian poet/journalist/writer with a passion for food. She’s had works published in Wingless Dreamer, Ishvara Wellness, Poor Yorick, Pile Press, Crystal Crush Magazine, not a type Magazine, The Scriblerus, The Graveyard Zine, among others. Check out her Instagram (@poet_serpento) to see past/upcoming publications, news/events, pictures of her puppy, and random reels.