ONE FOR SORROW
by HAYLEY WALLACE
hen Désirée squeezed through the tangled barbed wire fence, she nicked her palm. A thin white crescent on soft skin – she watched it, waiting for blood to well up. It didn’t. Just a nick. Nothing deep. Still, a phantom pain set her nerves aflame. The tears budding in her eyes swelled and spilled.
Pearl, the gray barn cat, sat on the other side of the barbed wire, mewing inquisitively. The cat’s eyes glittered, emerald with shards of gold illuminated in the sunlight. She cried and even rubbed her cheek against the wire, but would not cross it. Her sister, Opal, white and timid, had wandered out into the fields, only to be torn apart and have her bones picked clean by something, months ago. Désirée suspected coyotes. There were packs of them that constantly filled the nights with wailing and shrill laughter.
“Go away,” Désirée told the cat. Her voice trembled. “Don’t follow me. Go away.”
She turned from the cat and continued on through empty pasture. The sun branded heat into the back of her neck. The chill wind stung her cheeks. Désirée dug one hand into her left jacket pocket and felt what was there.
Farther. Much farther.
She might drown it in a pond. The lake. Seal it inside a rotting log. Surrender it to the narrow, crumbling tunnel of a mole. Toss it into the massive bramble of wood where rabbits made their warrens. No, she told herself, again and again. No. Not here. Not here.
She walked until she found a copse of trees. It was easy to squeeze in between dry bush and thin tree trunks. The tops of the trees offered relief from the zealous January sun and also served as a shield from the wind. In the copse, it was dark. In the copse, it was quiet.
Désirée paused for a moment, then took a few steps forward. Tree roots curled up underneath her feet. She expected the thicket to end, but instead it continued to stretch on and on. The path grew narrow. The surrounding brush grew thicker. Sunlight from overhead grew sparse. She could no longer hear the whistling of the wind.
The path lead her to a small, circular clearing. Long branches stretched over the sky and left crisscross shadows in the form of frayed X’s over the soil.
Désirée’s chest tightened. She knelt down where the shadows fell and began to dig. Cold earth crumbled into jagged pieces between her hands. Dirt crawled underneath her uneven fingernails.
A crow alighted above her, gave a curious caw. While she hollowed out the ground, another fluttered down and joined in the chorus.
Désirée ignored them.
When the hole seemed more than deep enough, she reached into her pocket and drew from it a small, silver locket. There was a single ring of red rust on the locket’s chain. This, she touched lightly between her thumb and index finger, as she always did.
Goodbye, she thought.
The thought was not strong enough. More crows landed on the branches above her. Her heart throbbed.
“Goodbye,” she said aloud.
The cawing of the crows had become deafening. She looked up to see at least six of them beating their black wings and twisting their heads up and down.
Désirée slammed the locket down into the hole. Her shoulders trembled, her hands shook. She had scooped up the first fistful of dirt to cover it up with, when a voice whispered over the din of the crows.
“Why are you crying?”
The voice was like tiny bones rattling inside a wooden box.
Désirée fell back in shock, brought one hand up to cover her own scream, gagged at the bitter tasting dirt inside her mouth instead. Her hip banged against a thick tree root and the scream twisted into a cry of pain.
A man with long black hair stood between the trees. His skin was pale and sickly; his eyes even paler, a faded, empty blue. Pupils like two tiny beads, permanently contracted, bore into her. No eyebrows. No expression. Where fingers should have flesh, his had only bone.
“Why are you crying?” His thin, cracked lips hardly moved when he spoke.
The man moved forward. His steps were silent. He looked down into the hole she had dug and the tiny pupils in his eyes quivered.
Désirée opened her mouth. The words rippled out, frantic and uncontrollable. “P –please don’t hu – hurt puh – puh – lease – I –”
“This is hallowed ground. You are trespassing.”
The crows jeered and beat their wings.
“I didn’t mean to… I was just…” She took a deep, rattling breath. “It wasn’t my intention to truh – trespass. I just wuh – wanted someplace to bury it away.”
A crow dove down from above their heads and jutted its sharp beak into the hole. It then flapped up to perch on the man’s shoulder. The locket swung from its beak like a pendulum.
Désirée swallowed down another chunk of her fear. When she spoke, she found her terror replaced with what was even stronger in her heart – a tight, strangled register of grief.
“The one who gave it to me… they… they left it,” her voice tightened, strengthened – her teeth bared in a snarl, “to me. They left it all to ME.”
“Why bury it, then? Why not break it. Burn it.” The locket swayed, punctuating his words. “Why not end it.”
Désirée’s eyes followed the rotation of the locket. “I wanted to. I want to. But I…”
But I couldn’t bear to.
“But you couldn’t bear to.”
She nodded, ashamed, and burst into sobs once more.
The crows had crowded onto the lower branches. Their eyes – gray and amber, gold and green, glinted like polished stones in the shadows of the copse. Slowly but surely, she began to hear their voices, their jeers, and gibes, their threats, everything that had been drowned out under the cawing and shrieking.
Trespasser. Intruder. Coward. Weak and craven woman. Spare us your feeble and ugly heart. Spare us your hollow, rotting words and the worms inside them. Give us your eyes. Give us your tongue. Give us your EYES.
The terror flooded back. “Please!” She covered her ears with her palms, clogged them with dry earth, squeezed her eyes shut – there was nothing she could do to drown the crow’s chorus. “Please, I won’t… I didn’t…”
“You have trespassed,” the man said again. “Would you pay their price or mine?”
“I don’t… I…”
“They will gouge your eyes out. They will tear off your flesh, strip by strip. There are bones…” His voice deepened and softened, painting her a picture. “Bones, here. White teeth and white ribs, marrows and horns. They will eat you alive.”
One of them alighted upon her suddenly. Désirée screamed and shook it away. Two more took its place, beaks snapping at her hair, talons digging through into her back through cloth.
“PLEASE!” Tears blurred everything now. “PLEASE…”
The man shrugged, disinterested. “You brought your sorrow. You sought to bury it away in hallowed ground. You must pay a price.”
A crow snapped down on her ear. Blood ran down her neck. Désirée curled into a ball, sobbing.
“Please… I’m begging you… please…”
The crows went silent, but it was a long time before the man said anything. Finally, she heard him over her own weeping.
“Would you pay their price or mine, then?”
One by one, the crows let go of her body, flew up into the treetops once more. Désirée raised her head. She forced herself to wipe away the tears, to meet the pair of horrible eyes.
“Please, anything… don’t hurt me… please, don’t let them hurt me anymore…”
The crow on the man’s shoulder dropped the locket into his palm. His skeleton fingers splayed and twitched, one by one, then clamped shut, quick and vicious. Désirée heard something crack.
The man stepped over the hole. The cracked lips split into a grin. His mouth was full of jagged gray teeth. The crows screamed and screamed. Black feathers and dead leaves rained down from shivering branches.
The man’s face was hanging before her own. Désirée closed her eyes. Something cold, something frigid, spread throughout her chest.
The sun had set. The coyotes howled. Désirée heard them, but she did not fear them. The sky was dark. The moon was thin. She traced her way home slowly.
Upon arriving at the barbed wire fence, Pearl the cat came dashing down from the roof, tail upright with enthusiasm. Désirée stopped on her side of the fence and the cat drew to a halt as well.
The animal sniffed the air, and then a horrible sound erupted from her throat. A mewl and a growl, ripping each other into a panicked warning. Her ears flattened. Her back arched. The cat stood like that, for a few moments, then ran off into the night.
This time when Désirée climbed over the barbed wire fence, she snagged her sleeve. The tangled barb cut deep into the back of her elbow. Blood snaked down in thin ribbons from torn flesh, but Désirée felt no pain. She smiled to herself as she made her way to the house.
No pain at all.
Hayley Wallace is a writer, translator, and poet. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, her passion for writing was kindled at a very young age, although most early stories consisted mainly of velociraptors. After graduating from university, she spent four years living abroad in Japan, teaching English at over twelve Japanese secondary schools. Achieving fluency in Japanese, she eventually became an official lecturer and children's book translator for Tokyo Red Cross. She now resides in East Texas and is working on several full-length novels. Her English poetry and prose have been published in the Tyler Laurel, and her story 'The Tenth Time' was featured as best work in its short story category.
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