Shoot the Messengers; Burn the Witch
by Christine Makepeace
Format: Short Story | Genre: Fantasy
Sylvie pressed her palms flat against her thighs. She pinned the gauzy floral fabric down and examined the shapes peeking between her spread fingers.
She was older today than yesterday.
She was quite possibly the only age that mattered, yet suddenly the counting of years felt painfully abstract – a proclamation made by man.
Her hair fell across her forehead and she swatted it away, as you would shoo a fly with a thousand eyes searching for the truth. The locks of her little girl hair – bangs and curls and strawberry-scented shampoo – swung back like a curtain, getting tangled in her lashes and obscuring her vision. She pressed the dark strands behind her ear and pretended not to notice their immediate escape.
Seated on the edge of her bed, she returned her gaze to the dress scattered with pink and purple flowers. Sylvie stared down at her lap, watching the buds bleed into one, twist in on themselves, and drift apart to form a new landscape. Her hands held the skirt in place, nervous fingers twitching as the fabric beneath vibrated in anticipation. Between her slightly crooked fingers she saw tigers, snakes, jaguars – all with gleaming teeth. All with heartbeats that matched her own. They writhed, tickled her flesh, made her gasp, and laugh in one breath. Familiar leaves lost their shape and instead of gardens, Sylvie suddenly faced a jungle.
She closed her eyes, shook her head, and when she reopened them, the flowers had returned: innocent blooms with intoxicating scents to match.
Her new age brought with it power and Sylvie could feel it vibrate in her marrow. She knew she was no longer just a girl draped in flowers. But who was she to be if not a sweet-smelling blossom with a clear expiration date?
She rose from the bed in a single graceful motion. She floated down the stairs and reached soundlessly for the front door.
“Where are you going, little girl?” she heard a voice echoing from the kitchen.
“I’m going outside, Mama,” she almost whispered.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Sylvie could hear pans rattling, utensils being dropped into bowls, “What for?” her mother asked from around the corner.
Sylvie’s back rounded in anticipated defeat. “Mama, I just wanted to go for a walk.”
“Today of all days? Today of all days!” she proclaimed at the ceiling. Her mother wiped at the front of her long apron, endlessly cleaning her perfectly kept hands.
“I thought I might be allowed today. It is my birthday.”
“That right there is the perfect reason not to,” she spat.
“Mama, I’m eighteen–”
“Yes. Yes, you certainly are. And you just made my point. You can’t just walk out of here all willy-nilly.”
“Do you hear yourself?”
“Why, I certainly do. I sound like a cautious, reasonable, experienced person.”
“You sound like a prison warden.”
Her mother’s face momentarily pinched together, feeling the sting of the words. “Well, then I’m a warden. But at least my girl’s safe.”
Sylvie unconsciously turned her body back toward the stairs. “Safe and sound and locked away …”
“What would you have me do?” her mother hissed.
“They know where we live!” Sylvie spat back, unfolding and stretching her newfound tongue. Her mother recoiled as if struck. “They could come and get me whenever they want! For the last eighteen years, I’ve been here, waiting, wondering if today was the day they’d finally come for me. Well, you know what? I’m sick of waiting. I can take care of myself, and if they want to come, let them!” Sylvie’s skirt rippled and tickled her calves.
“You’re just a baby,” her mother cooed, reaching out to pet her daughter’s soft cheek. “You have no idea how to protect yourself.”
“I know what I can do.”
“How could you? How can you know the depth of who you are – what’s inside of you?”
“I can feel it, Mama! I can feel it like a coiled snake against my spine.” She gripped the fabric of her dress and felt the animals shift against her skin. The vibration rolled through her body, stiffened her limbs, and smoothed her face into a tranquil pool.
Her mother’s chin dipped to her chest, shallow breaths rising and falling like the tides. “You’re right.”
“They’ve always known where to find me. And one day I won’t have you to keep me safe.”
“My sweet little girl. You are right. And I, I am sorry. But …”
“Today is a day like any other, Mama. But it’s also new. I’m born today, and I’m different. There is a fire in my eye that scorches. And there is acid in my belly. And you have to trust that I can use it.” Sylvie ground out every word, every syllable, and she felt the true weight of what she wore.
Her mother nodded. “I just hope we’re not tempting fate.”
“Our whole existence tempts fate, Mama.”
“Go,” she waved her daughter out the door, “Go for your walk, and see with your fresh eyes. I know what’s inside you. I know who you are.”
Without another word, Sylvie yanked the door wide open. She glanced back at her mother and pretended not to notice the despair seeping from her pores. With a resolute nod, the door was closed behind her.
Sylvie dangled her foot over the first stair.
The sky was dry and still, and disinterested leaves floated by as if suspended by strings. Sylvie let her leg fall, shoe echoing on the old wooden step, and cringed at how loud she suddenly felt. It made her nervous and self-conscious. She looked around to find she was surrounded by the same stillness that held the trees in limbo. A sharp breath, a whispered prayer, and she barreled down the stairs and pressed her feet into the lush summer grass blanketing the ground. The air smelled sweet – blackberries dragged down thorny vines. It was the same as it had always been, yet she was so different she worried she’d lose her way. Her nerve was retreating like the ocean, threatening to scuttle back out to sea, extinguishing whatever burned in her chest on its way.
However, hesitation was no match for the strength in her bones. Something deep within her core chased away the sparrows of self-defeat, and she walked on.
Time slipped by with every step as Sylvie maneuvered deftly through the underbrush. The forest that surrounded their home was lush and rarely traveled, but any fear of getting lost melted into the dewy air as she moved. She felt connected to the vast web that blanketed the woods and enveloped her. An internal pull, something magnetic, was guiding her through the shadows and tall trees. Her steps made little noise, soles cradled by moss, but she could hear the steps behind her. They matched her own.
She stopped to greet a patch of wild flowers, and heard the body behind her slow. She bent at the waist and reached her hand forward to stroke the soft purple petals. They bowed to her touch; silk dragged across her skin. As she rose, Sylvie gave a silent ‘thank you’ and stole a glance over her shoulder. From behind a tree, she saw a pants leg.
A thick smile spread across her face as she extended her arms to the sky, muscles gloriously tight and aware. She made a show of it, flattening her body to stretch as far as her skin allowed. Sylvie felt ten feet tall.
When she started walking again, so did the person behind her. Instead of fear, she felt rage. It was so pure that it verged on joy, and she held back a giggle.
She wondered if it was one of the townspeople from that day – the first day she saw them. When Sylvie had been very small, they had come for her. She’d stood at the upstairs window and watched as the farmers and shopkeepers had surrounded the house.
“Send your abomination out, you whore!” one of them had said.
“You protect the Devil’s daughter!” another woman had shrieked.
Sylvie had been terrified, more for her mother than for herself. She’d looked down at her hands and felt shame for how they’d shaken – bleached knuckles clinging to the windowsill, tears plunging the scene underwater.
She had seen her mother on the front steps, white-hot and electric. More people had come pouring out from behind the trees, rushing at their house with raised voices and fists. Like ants they’d covered the ground, and Sylvie had gazed down on them, suddenly aware of the pity building behind her panic.
They’re all going to die, she’d thought, struck by the simplicity of it all. Mama’s going to kill you all.
The strangers didn’t belong in their woods, on their doorstep, bringing with them fear and violence. It had been an attack, and her mother was going to protect the family – the land – as she always had.
Sylvie had woken up later in the closet, face cold and wet, snot dripping from her nose. Her mother had cradled her, gently rocking her tiny body as she hummed.
“They’re gone, sweet girl.”
Sylvie had known the words were true, but they’d both also known that eventually more would come in their place.
As Sylvie picked her way through the dense forest, she realized it felt fitting that they would come on the anniversary of her birth. She began to hum softly, the same tune her mother had soothed her with as a child. She walked as though she hadn’t a care in the world. The body behind her stumbled, snapped a twig, exhaled loudly, but the game was in full swing for Sylvie, and she stayed on her path, unflinching. Sunlight danced through the thick canopy above her, so she tilted her head back to breathe it in. Her connection to every living thing in the forest was palpable. A grave urgency kept her tethered, holding her firmly in place as a simple understanding thrummed violently in her blood. Distantly, she observed how the leaves laid across each other, shadows teasing their curves while the sun warmed their bellies. She felt it again – pity – because she was certain the man at her back was blind to this world.
“Blind and stupid,” she muttered.
The percussive steps behind her faltered, and she grinned with gleaming teeth.
“I know you’re there,” she said louder, to be sure he could hear. Heavy silence was all that answered, but even without looking, she could feel the atmosphere being displaced by this trespasser. She already knew his form.
“Would you like to show yourself?” Sylvie turned, her eyes silver in the low light. “Would you like to step out from behind that tree?”
Awkward and feeble, the man ambled out from behind a tall oak. He held his hands out in front of him, but Sylvie saw the rope tucked into the back of his pants. She smiled again, suddenly gleeful, arms playfully swinging at her sides.
She twisted her waist, skirt fluttering, the fabric dancing across her bare arms. “Do you know why you follow me?” she asked, stepping forward.
In answer, the man stepped back.
“You don’t want to speak to me? You follow me, hunt me, attack my house, but you can’t speak?”
“I– I– I didn’t mean to startle you, young lady,” he mumbled, still backing away.
“Oh, you didn’t startle me! I heard you ages ago. Strange for them to send such a clunky fellow.”
“I– I don’t think I know what you–”
“You certainly do know,” Sylvie exclaimed, anger replacing any hesitation she had left. “You certainly know who I am, and I certainly know why you’re stalking me through the woods.”
“You do?” He tilted his head forward and Sylvie saw how old he was. Wrinkles crept around his eyes, while blood vessels blossomed across his rounded nose.
“Why, yes. You’ve come for the Devil’s daughter. Well, you’ve found her. Now what?”
The man staggered back, heel catching on a tree root. He hit the ground hard, landing with a little bounce. Sylvie found it funny.
“Are there more?” she asked, turning her head dramatically from left to right. “Are there others?”
“You heard me. Others. Or did they send you alone?”
His head hung heavy with shame. Sylvie wanted him to get up, to run, but he just sat in the weeds, hands gripping the uneven roots of the tree under which he cowered.
“I just– they said–”, he stopped, gasping behind a quivering lip.
“Spit it out!” Sylvie felt the words bubble up from a place she’d never been able to reach, a place hidden and overgrown. A place within her chest, behind her heart. Sylvie felt herself break in half, spilling molten lava from her lips and from her breast. Sylvie felt herself catch fire.
The man on the ground whimpered. He stared up at Sylvie and she seemed to stretch all the way to heaven. “We all come out looking. For a girl. For you. I just– The others are out, too–” He lifted the rope up in front of him, like an offering. “Please, if you’ll just come into town with me.”
She laughed in earnest at his paltry attempt. “You’re not nearly as menacing without your mob, are you? And I bet I’m a lot less fun than the terrified little girl you remember.” She didn’t wait for an answer. There was no need. Her mother’s warnings had been right, but so had Sylvie’s instincts.
The weather turned without notice. The leaves fluttered, slapping like monstrous wings, becoming louder and louder until there was peace behind the torrent. But the man before Sylvie found none. He covered his ears, face contorting, his hair lifting in the wind. Dirt, debris, moss, everything the forest floor had to offer was thrown into the air, twirling, dancing.
Sylvie laughed at the sight before her. She laughed without end, from the place that had opened within her chest.
Finally, the man attempted to stand, to run from the swirling cacophony – and Sylvie roared.
It wasn’t the sound of pain, or horror, or even anger. The noise that was torn from her body – that cut across the forest – was an explosion. A pop. With the sound, Sylvie’s dress began to float on the wind that had previously left her untouched. Her skirt lifted, revealing lean muscle, knobby knees, strong thighs.
The man watched as the dress rose, as it swelled – he watched Sylvie’s body ripple. He watched the wrong thing. The dress exploded and from its fibers spilled a jungle full of creatures. Snakes, tigers, monkeys, birds, they all rushed forward with savage force. Their footfalls shook the trees and displaced the earth. They threatened to spin the world off its axis. But as soon as they had arrived, they were gone. And so was the man.
Sylvie stood on the forest floor, her breath ragged but otherwise serene. She smoothed the dress with tiny purple and pink flowers over her belly, letting her hands linger. She smiled. Her mother would be proud.
Sylvie tucked her hair behind her ear and paid it no mind when it slipped back over her eye.
Christine Makepeace is part of the New Voices Workshop. She was mentored by NVW Fiction Editors Tommi Sopenperä, Amanda-Marie Kale and Nicole Caratas, as well as Sonali Misra, Co-founder and Head of Fiction at The Selkie. A special thanks to Kat Herron, Fiction Editor, for her initial inputs in this piece.